News Violence

A Migrant Says She Was Assaulted at a Detention Center. Advocates Are Calling on Law Enforcement to Investigate. (Updated)

Tina Vasquez

Grassroots Leadership has created an online petition demanding an investigation into the alleged sexual assaults at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas.

UPDATE, November 10, 1:20 p.m.: Grassroots Leadership announced on Thursday afternoon that the woman at the center of this story has gone public with her name. The woman, Laura Monterrosa, provided the local sheriff’s office, ICE, and CoreCivic with the names of the guards identified as perpetrators and, according to Grassroots Leadership, they “are still employed.”

A woman held at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas, is alleging that a female guard repeatedly sexually assaulted her. She is not the only person alleging sexual abuse at the facility, according to immigrant rights organization Grassroots Leadership, which runs a visitation program inside Hutto that enables volunteers to visit with women detained in the facility.

On Monday, deputies with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office interviewed the woman, L.M., with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials present, according to Grassroots Leadership. Advocates are calling for the sheriff’s office to launch an official investigation into the allegations.

In a letter detailing her experience at Hutto, shared with Grassroots Leadership, L.M. explains that a woman she knew in Hutto was transferred to another facility after making her abuse known to officials.

According to advocates, L.M.’s own abuse began in June of this year.

“As for myself, a woman named [redacted], harassed me, telling me threatening words and forcing me to have unwanted relations with her, which I did not want, but I had to do what she wanted,” L.M.’s letter reads. “She began to tell me she liked me, and that whatever she liked belonged to her, and every time, her words became more absurd as she told me that she loved me and that she wasn’t going to let anyone humiliate her given that I didn’t want a relationship.”

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According to L.M., when she told the guard she was going to report her to her captain, the guard laughed and said, “Do you think he will believe you? Please, they never will.”

Sofia Casini, the immigration programs coordinator at Grassroots Leadership, told Rewire that L.M. did not initially tell anyone of her abuse, though it was witnessed by another guard who no longer works at the facility. It is unknown if the guard who witnessed the abuse was fired or if she quit. 

When the abuse began, L.M. had an open asylum case and was afraid that filing a complaint would have a negative impact on her immigration case. Casini also said L.M. was afraid of facing retaliation from guards, a common practice in detention facilities, according to advocates. L.M. had twice before been put in “medical confinement,” which is what advocates say ICE and private prison companies like CoreCivic use as a form of solitary confinement. CoreCivic, formerly named the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), contracts with ICE to run Hutto.

Rewire reached out to CoreCivic for comment regarding the current employment status of L.M.’s alleged abuser, but the company did not respond to request for comment.

When L.M. lost her asylum case, she confided in a Grassroots Leadership visitation volunteer that she was being abused. Casini told Rewire that before the volunteer could act on L.M.’s behalf, an internal complaint regarding the abuse was made anonymously. Grassroots Leadership suspects it was made by the guard who witnessed L.M.’s abuse and no longer works at the facility, though there is no way to confirm that.

Because of the internal complaint, Hutto launched an investigation into the allegations and asked L.M. to make a written statement regarding the abuse. She was not provided with legal counsel by either ICE or CoreCivic, according to Casini, and was even asked by detention officers if she “needed time in medical solitary to think about what she wanted to say.” Weeks prior, L.M. says she was held in medical solitary for 24 hours and, fearing similar treatment, she opted to provide a written description without the presence of an attorney.

Grassroots Leaderships is now working in a greater capacity with L.M., providing her with access to legal counsel to re-open her asylum case or perhaps apply for a U visa, given her cooperation with law enforcement to investigate her allegations of sexual assault. Even with the presence of an attorney, Casini said Monday’s interview with officials left L.M. shaken.

“We debriefed with the attorney [who] was present with L.M., who shared that there were a lot of concerns about how the interview was conducted,” Casini said. “L.M. was asked about why she allowed the abuse to go on for so long, why she didn’t report it sooner, whether or not it was consensual—just classic victim blaming across the board. The attorney said it felt really antagonistic and officials gave no indication if they were even going to open an official investigation or interview the guard who witnessed the abuse.”

Grassroots Leadership is currently fielding more allegations of abuse from Hutto, though these are not the first allegations of sexual abuse to emerge from the facility. Notably, in 2007, a CoreCivic guard at Hutto was accused of sexually assaulting a woman detained there “while her son was sleeping in his crib inside the cell,” according to Courthouse News. In 2010, another CoreCivic guard was charged with sexually assaulting eight women whom he was tasked with transporting. According to Casini, CoreCivic experienced no ramifications for allowing male guards to transport women detained in Hutto, despite having a signed agreement with ICE that does not allow male guards to transfer women detainees. 

As Rewire reported, sexual abuse and harassment in detention centers often goes uninvestigated. In April, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on behalf of 27 people who were in immigration detention or had been released from detention and who say they experienced sexual abuse.

CIVIC analyzed data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request regarding sexual assault reports from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). That information showed that the OIG received at least 1,016 reports of sexual abuse, which were filed by people in detention, between May 2014 and July 2016. This means there was more than one complaint of sexual abuse made by people in detention each day. Of these 1,016 reports of sexual abuse, the OIG investigated only 24.

Conditions for people in detention are only expected to worsen under the Trump administration, which is expanding the detention system while reducing the standards of care within these deadly facilities. Trump has emboldened federal immigration agencies like ICE, which received preliminary approval for its request to begin destroying the records of detained people, including those related to in-custody deaths, sexual assault, and the use of solitary confinement.

In October 2016, Grassroots Leadership and Detention Watch Network conducted a monitoring tour at Hutto. In notes from the tour provided to Rewire from Casini, Janice Killian, CoreCivic’s facility administrator, told the organizations that it follows the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards. Grassroots Leadership was also informed that Hutto had a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) comprised of an official from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, medical and mental health providers on site, and officials with CoreCivic and Williamson County. According to Casini’s notes, she was told that those on the team received basic training on sexual assault response, but no one on the team was a specialist.

A woman Casini had personally been visiting for months at Hutto shared that she had participated in a sexual assault investigation against a Hutto guard. A full investigation was launched, which included the woman’s personal belongingsincluding lettersbeing confiscated. According to Casini, no SART team was mobilized and “the whole process was punitive against her and disgusting to witness.”

During last year’s tour, an ICE official named Jacob Castro told the groups that when there is criminal prosecution for sexual assault, Williamson County “will take over.”

The public information officer with Williamson County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to Rewire’s repeated requests for comment regarding whether or not an official investigation into L.M.’s sexual assault allegations has been launched, following the interview taking place on Monday.

According to Casini’s notes from last year, Castro also told the organizations that when a sexual assault allegation is made, they will separate the abuser and the victim and they “may transfer someone out.”

Being transferred from one detention center to another, often in a different state, is traumatic, according to advocates, and not just for victims of sexual assault. A transfer to another detention facility takes a person away from their support system, legal counsel, and any family they may have in the area. Casini’s notes show that when this was pointed out to Castro, as well as the concern that sexual assault victims may perceive a transfer to be a punishment, Castro told the organizations it would likely be the alleged perpetrator who is transferred out of the facility.

In an emailed statement to Rewire from ICE spokesperson Nina Pruneda, the federal immigration agency said it “does not comment on pending investigations” and that “accusations of alleged unlawful conduct are investigated thoroughly and appropriate action is taken to ensure the safety and security of those involved.”

Grassroots Leadership has created an online petition demanding an investigation into the sexual assaults at Hutto. Casini told Rewire that what she wants to see is any allegation of sexual assault taken seriously and immediately investigated by law enforcement.

“The fact that Williamson County is deliberating whether or not this should even be investigated is really concerning,” Casini said. “These private prison companies, and [CoreCivic] in particular, have a long history of abuse across the nation. This is not unique to Hutto, but we do have concerns about other victims of abuse in Hutto who may be afraid to come forward.”

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