(AUSTIN, Texas) — Attorneys in Austin and Waco are sounding the alarm over the conditions at an immigrant detention center in Waco. They say the Jack Harwell Detention Center is not an appropriate place to house immigrants in detention and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have not done enough to fix serious problems at the facility.
“Our interest in the Harwell Detention Center stems from a history of concerns about the facility.” said Denise Gilman, a University of Texas-Austin law professor. “There were strong incentives for the county and the private facility management company to seek contracts with ICE whether or not the facility was appropriate for immigration detention.”
In fact, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards found multiple non-compliance issues at the facility in 2012. The facility is run by a private prison company who expected that the federal government would supply enough immigrant detainees to ensure that the facility was profitable.
“If any facility is unable to comply with the standards, ICE should ensure that immigrants are not detained there.” said Barbara Hines, also a University of Texas law professor. “It does not appear that ICE officials adequately considered the situation at the facility before sending immigration detainees there.”
According to ICE’s own proclamations, a penal environment is not appropriate for immigrant detainees — the majority of whom have recently crossed the border and have no criminal history at all. “It is very clearly a penal institution,” added Hines.
A recent visit to the Harwell Detention Center found several serious problems including a lack of access to an adequate law library and that what little legal materials are available are out-dated. People detained also report a lack of access to telephones to call legal service providers and inadequate visitation procedure for non-legal visits.
Under the National Detention standards, a facility holding immigration detainees "shall permit detainees access to alaw library, and provide legal materials, facilities, equipment and document copying privileges."
"None of the detainees whom we interviewed during our visit to the Harwell Detention Center knew that the legallibrary existed," said Susan Nelson, an immigration attorney in Waco, Texas. "Access to legal information is particularly crucial for people in immigration detention."
A lack of clean uniforms and little recreation options and time outdoors were also reported.
A troubling compliance inspection report, issued by the Office of Detention Oversight at the end of 2012, indicated that ICE management had not visited the facility in a year and that ICE did not keep proper records regarding communications with detainees housed there.
“Given the seriousness of the problems with the Harwell Detention Center, we have asked ICE to discontinue placement of immigration detainees at the facility,” said Stephanie Taylor, a staff attorney at American Gateways. “However, ICE has offered no response to our overarching concern that the facility is not appropriate for the detention of civil immigration detainees who do not present any security threat.”