UPDATE, December 1, 2:12 p.m.: In a press release responding to the news that ICE has ended its inquiry into the sexual assault allegations filed by an El Salvadoran woman at Hutto, Grassroots Leadership is demanding a response from the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office. Grassroots Leadership stated that Laura Monterrosa has not received justice and is facing “increased retaliation” at the facility. At a December 4 press conference, advocates will ask that Monterrosa be released and that the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office conduct a “fair, transparent, and just investigation” of her claims. ICE declined to provide additional information to Rewire about the investigation the federal agency conducted.
UPDATE, November 22, 9:38 p.m.: In a Wednesday evening “updated response” to Rewire‘s request for a comment on these allegations of abuse, an ICE spokesperson explained that the “ICE Office of Professional and Responsibility (OPR) with the assistance of the Williamson County [Sheriff’s Department] found the allegations made by a woman from El Salvador who is currently detained at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center to be unsubstantiated.” We are requesting clarification on this matter and will continue reporting on this story after the holiday weekend.
More women have made public allegations of sexual abuse at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas, after Laura Monterrosa came forward earlier this month with claims that a guard at the facility had sexually abused her over several months. Monterrosa continues to be detained at Hutto and says the guard is still employed at the facility.
In a Rewire interview conducted Friday through an interpreter, Monterrosa claimed that she had seen her abuser just moments prior. “When was the last time you saw her,” the interpreter asked Monterrosa in Spanish. “Now, just about 20 minutes ago,” Monterrosa responded.
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Monterrosa also shared that abuse of this nature is “very widespread” at Hutto. “It is a big problem in this place,” Monterrosa said.
Sofia Casini, the immigration programs coordinator at Grassroots Leadership, told Rewire what is happening inside of Hutto is an example of “ongoing, persistent abuse of power.” “You have to keep in mind that all of the women in Hutto are asylum seekers and many have experienced sexual assault. Not only is detention already inherently traumatizing, but now you have sexual assault survivors experiencing more abuse and being re-traumatized. These guards wield so much power over these women. It silences them, and it impacts their day-to-day emotional and psychological well-being,” Casini said.
This is not the first time allegations of sexual abuse have emerged from Hutto. Notably, in 2007, a CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) guard was accused of sexually assaulting a woman detained at Hutto “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 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that does not allow male guards to transfer women detainees.
As more women who have been detained in Hutto come forward with allegations of sexual abuse, advocates are demanding that the women be released from detention “to heal,” and that they are granted an investigation into their claims, with the possibility of obtaining U visas for their participation in the investigation.
In a letter obtained and published by the Austin, Texas-based immigrant rights organization Grassroots Leadership, Monterrosa first came forward about the abuse she says she experienced at Hutto. In her letter, she also references a woman she was familiar with at Hutto who was transferred to the Laredo Detention Center after filing a formal complaint regarding sexual harassment she was experiencing. That woman, Ana, a pseudonym, has since come forward and given Grassroots Leadership permission to share the details of her story in a statement released Tuesday.
“I was sexually harassed for months by a guard who worked in the recreation area at Hutto. The guard asked me about my sexuality in various occasions and inappropriately stared at me when I was in her area. She also told me that we were going to be together one day. I was harassed every time I was around her, but I was scared of saying anything for fear that doing so may negatively impact my case,” Ana said in a statement to Grassroots Leadership. “After after other guards noticed the harassment, they encouraged me to file a report, but nothing happened to the guard and I was transferred in retaliation. I know this happened to at least another woman who was deported shortly after I arrived there. CoreCivic [the private prison company that operates Hutto] and ICE do everything in their power to cover these types of situations and make sure everything stays internally; they think they are untouchable.”
In a statement to Rewire, an ICE spokesperson said the federal agency “does not comment on pending investigations. However, the agency is committed to ensuring all individuals in our custody are treated in a safe, secure and humane manner.” The spokesperson added, “Accusations of alleged unlawful conduct are investigated thoroughly and appropriate action is taken to ensure the safety and security of those involved and the others in ICE custody.”
Casini told Rewire that another woman named Esmeralda also has come forward with sexual harassment allegations against the same guard as Ana.
“When I go out to recreation I feel the gaze over me of an official known as Miss [Redacted]. I do Zumba exercises and she’s always there close by, with her gazes over me that make me feel uncomfortable. She almost always tries to draw conversation out of me and I almost always ignore her,” Esmeralda said in a letter provided to Grassroots Leadership and published on Tuesday. “When she says something to me I answer with a yes or with a no, I do everything possible to get far away from her. I fear greatly for my safety, I don’t want the same thing to happen to me as has happened to other people in this place.”
A guard who saw Ana crying one day after an interaction with her alleged abuser urged her to file a formal complaint. According to Casini, both Ana and Monterrosa have independently named this guard as a witness to their assaults and Grassroots Leadership suspects this is the same guard who anonymously blew the whistle on Monterrosa’s abuse by filing an internal complaint leading CoreCivic to interview Monterrosa about her allegations. Casini said this guard no longer works at Hutto. It is unknown if she was fired, transferred, or if she quit.
“This guard has been suspiciously disappeared when they have been named in two separate cases of sexual assault and harassment,” Casini said.
After Ana filed her complaint against her abuser, she told Casini that she—rather than the guard—seemed to be under investigation. According to the programs coordinator, Ana reported that officials with the detention center interroggated her, repeatedly told her that she was a liar, and confiscated all of her items. Three days after making her abuse known, she was transferred to the Laredo Detention Center, where she remains.
“The way abuse allegations are handled at detention centers and in Hutto in particular is a punitive approach,” Casini said. Detention center officials “do an ‘internal investigation’ with pure impunity, cover up what happens, silence the witnesses, and get rid of the women making the allegations, who are often later deported and never given the chance to voice their abuse.”
Monterrosa witnessed firsthand what happened to Ana when she came forward with allegations, just weeks before an internal complaint would make CoreCivic aware of Monterrosa’s repeated sexual assaults. Casini said this served as a “warning bell” to women like Monterrosa, who were afraid of suffering similar repercussions for making their allegations public.
There have been repercussions for Monterrosa, who reports to Grassroots Leadership that her movements within Hutto have been restricted and that she has been denied access to email several times. Whether or not the guard who allegedly sexually assaulted Monterosa has suffered—or will suffer—repercussions, is unknown. It is also unknown if local law enforcement has officially launched an investigation into the sexual assault allegations emerging from Hutto.
As Rewire reported, Grassroots Leadership and Detention Watch Network conducted a monitoring tour at Hutto in October 2016. During the tour, an ICE official named Jacob Castro told the organizations that when there is criminal prosecution for sexual assault, Williamson County Sheriff’s Office “will take over.” But it appears as if there is some confusion between the Taylor Police Department and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office regarding whose jurisdiction Hutto falls under.
Casini told Rewire that Grassroots Leadership recently conduced a call-in campaign on Monterrosa’s behalf, urging the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office to launch an official investigation into her claims. An unknown official at the sheriff’s office informed a volunteer who called in that Taylor Police Department had jurisdiction over Hutto. Meanwhile, Casini says that Williamson County is reporting that it “cannot comment” on whether it has jurisdiction on the case.
On Tuesday, when Rewire reached out to Taylor Police Department for a comment regarding the case, Chief of Police Henry Fluck would only say that, “the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department conducted an investigation into the allegations of sexual assault to the victim that you are referring to at T. Don Hutto Residential Center,” leaving Monterrosa and the advocates working on her behalf confused as to why they were never told about the investigation, what it entailed, or what its findings were. Williamson County’s public information officer, Patricia Gutierrez, has not responded to repeated requests for comment from Rewire.
According to Monterrosa’s affidavit, she was initially interviewed by a CoreCivic officer on November 3 regarding the internal complaint made on her behalf. Monterrosa reported that the guard said that she believed Monterrosa’s account and informed Monterrosa that “outside investigators” would be conducting another interview.
On November 6, Monterrosa was interviewed by four men: two belonged to ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility and “Lt. Pena and Officer Watts” were with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department.
For the first ten minutes of the interview, Monterrosa says that she was denied access to her attorney.
“It was hard to be interrogated by four men and to talk about such embarrassing, shameful, and intimate personal matters,” Monterrosa said in her affidavit. “The questioning felt like an interrogation rather than an interview to understand what had happened to me. The interviewers acted as if I were lying or as if I had committed a crime, instead of treating me as victim of sexual assault and sexual harassment.”
Monterrosa also alleges in the affidavit that the investigator who served as an interpreter during the meeting had a “hard time” understanding her and that she could not understand him. Her attorney had to correct his interpretations several times, according to Monterosa’s affidavit.
“Not knowing whether I was being understood made it harder for me to open up to the officers about the trauma I went through,” Monterrosa wrote in her affadavit.
As Rewire reported, allegations of sexual abuse and harassment in detention centers often go 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.
On Friday, Monterrosa told Rewire through an interpreter that this has been a “very hard” experience for her.
“To come from my country and be the victim of sexual abuse, it was very traumatic for me. I have had to ask for help and assistance and even then they don’t believe us, and the guard continues to work in this place and they shouldn’t treat us the way they do and shouldn’t say the things that they say,” Monterrosa said.
Moving forward, Casini says that Grassroots Leadership and the attorneys working on behalf of the women who’ve come forward with allegations will be filing all of the information they have simultaneously with both the Taylor Police Department and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office to push for a fair, just, and transparent investigation.
“The way ICE and [CoreCivic] are handling these allegations of abuse is exactly why Hutto shouldn’t exist,” Casini said. “These are asylum seeking women who have experienced trauma and the disgusting way they are being treated for making their abuse known illustrates that detention centers aren’t equipped to properly care for this population of women.”