Georgetown, Texas ― In a crowded county courthouse filled with immigrant rights advocates, Williamson County commissioners on Tuesday voted to end the county’s contracts with the federal government and a for-profit prison company operating a notorious immigration detention facility.
The commissioners voted 4 to 1 to terminate the county’s contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas.
The terminations will go into effect on January 31, 2019.
The commissioners’ vote was met with spontaneous applause from activists gathered in the courtroom and met with a mixture of relief and skepticism from immigrant rights activists who have protested the detention facility for a decade.
Sofia Casini, immigration programs coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, told Rewire.News that she was concerned by the commissioners’ decision to not immediately terminate the contract. “The fact of the matter is, they made a choice to keep it open until January 31,” Casini said. “They have a 90 day notice, and they could end the contract any time. That’s an extra three months of keeping it open at their discretion. That’s suspect.”
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Hutto has been plagued for years by human rights abuses and sexual assault. The facility is emblematic of the criticisms made by immigrant rights activists of the use of private prisons to detain undocumented people.
Hundreds of women at Hutto went on hunger strike in 2015 after suffering abusive treatment by guards and enduring a lack of medical care. Most of the women detained at the for-profit prison are asylum seekers from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala escaping severe violence in their home countries. ICE, meanwhile, denied that there was ever a hunger strike at Hutto, despite evidence to the contrary.
A CoreCivic guard in 2007 was accused of sexually assaulting a woman detained at Hutto “while her son was sleeping in his crib inside the cell,” Courthouse News reported. Three years later, a CoreCivic guard was charged with sexually assaulting eight women whom he was tasked with transporting.
After Tuesday’s vote, the commissioners allowed five people to make public comments about the decision to end the contract. An advocate read aloud a letter from a woman detained at Hutto, and a member of the clergy spoke about people of faith’s moral responsibility to speak out.
Maria Rodriguez told the court through an interpreter that she had hoped the commissioners would make a decision that would “dignify us as human beings.” She described how she had visited undocumented women detained at Hutto who have been subjected to verbal and physical abuse by guards.
“Stepping on our rights, stepping on our values, and stepping on our human rights,” Rodriguez said. “There’s no justification to have these places, nothing justifies these places.”
In a statement, County Commissioner Terry Cook said the vote was a decision to end the county’s function as a “go-between” for the federal government and a private corporation profiting from the detention of immigrants.
“I have appreciated the passion from activists that has been expressed to me and this Court in regards to T. Don Hutto, and while this vote today does not solve the larger issue of immigration, the future of the women detained there, or the closing of the facility, I hope these activists do not celebrate this vote, but redouble their efforts in changing immigration policy at the federal level,” Cook said.