December 19, 2008

Williamson commissioners set to vote on immigrant detention operator

Critics have condemned holding families in former prison, but some officials lean toward renewing contract.
By David C. Doolittled


Williamson County commissioners are set to vote next week on renewing a contract with the company that operates a much-criticized immigrant detention center in Taylor.

Since 2006, the county has had a contract with Corrections Corp. of America and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to act as the intermediary between the two and disburse federal funds for the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, which holds immigrant families while they await decisions in their immigration cases.

That contract is set to expire Jan. 31, and commissioners will take up renewing the contract for another two-year term during Tuesday's meeting.

County Judge Dan A. Gattis and Commissioner Ron Morrison, whose precinct includes the detention facility, said they are leaning toward renewing the contract. Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman and Precinct 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey said they are undecided. Several calls to Commissioner Cynthia Long were not returned.

"I'm leaning to renew because I did the last time," Morrison said. Commissioners voted to renew the contract in January 2007.

"I based it on touring the facility and looking at the situation. I like the idea that families stay together, are fed, clothed and in a comfortable place — as comfortable as an ex-prison can be. You can't hide the fact that it was once a jail cell."

Morrison said he has visited the former medium-security prison three times and plans to tour it again Monday.

The county's contract with Corrections Corp. and Immigration and Customs Enforcement allows for any party to terminate the contract within 120 days.

Gattis said that because of the 120-day period and because he expects some changes to immigration policy when Barack Obama becomes president, he'd rather renew the contract and wait to see what the new administration might do.

"Unless something jumps up and bites me, I will vote to renew," Gattis said. "I think we're going to need time to assess what the administration wants to do, and we'll support what they want."

Birkman, who voted for renewing the contract in 2007 "with reservations," said she understands the reasons for the facility. "But on the other hand, I would feel more comfortable if they were not in a prison setting," she said.

Covey said a tour of the 512-bed facility on Monday will help her make a decision.

Critics have protested the detention of children and have pushed for alternatives such as electronic monitoring and intensive supervision.

"There is the taint of using taxpayer dollars to pay a private company to do something that can be done more humanely and just as effectively at a much smaller cost," former Georgetown Mayor MaryEllen Kersch said. "The for-profit prison industry has benefited greatly from the demonization of immigrants."

Federal officials have said they have an obligation to ensure that those accused of being in the U.S. illegally show up for their court hearings.

Steve Owen, a spokesman for Corrections Corp., said if the contract is not renewed, families could be split apart waiting for hearings. He said the company has worked to make the facility safe and humane. Several calls to immigration officials were not returned.; 246-0040

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