GEORGETOWN - Officials in a central Texas county renewed a contract Tuesday for a private prison firm to operate a detention center that has been criticized by advocates for the immigrant families who are sent there.
Williamson County is home to the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, a 512-bed former prison in Taylor where immigrant families are held while awaiting deportation or other outcomes to their immigration cases.
In a 4-1 vote, commissioners approved continuing the county contract with Corrections Corporation of America to operate the facility for another two years, the Austin American-Statesman reported. The former prison houses children and families with no criminal records or violent histories for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"If I thought kids and adults were being mistreated, I'd run backwards from it," said Commissioner Ron Morrison, whose precinct includes the facility. "What I've seen is very humane treatment. As much as possible, they've converted it to a user-friendly facility."
Commissioner Lisa Birkman voted against the contract. Although the facility helps in enforcing immigration laws and created jobs, it is still a prison, she said.
"They've made some positive changes, but there are still children sleeping in cells," Birkman said.
CCA has a contract with ICE to house detainees, but it is up to the company to find a community willing to be home to a facility.
A federal judge approved a settlement agreement last year that called for changes at the Hutto facility, where families live in cells with bunk beds and a toilet. The changes included installing privacy curtains around toilets, adding a full-time pediatrician and eliminating a counting system that required families to be in their cells 12 hours a day.
ICE officials have always contended that residents at the facility are treated with dignity and respect. They describe Hutto as a residential, nonsecure environment that keeps families together while they seek asylum, await deportation or seek other outcomes to their immigration cases.
The facility is meant to end the "catch and release" practice that in the past permitted families in the U.S. illegally to remain free while awaiting a court hearing. Many never showed up in court; some borrowed other people's children and posed as families to avoid detention, ICE officials say.
Hutto is one of two facilities in the country where ICE detains families. The other facility, the Berks County Shelter Care Facility in Leesport, Pa., is a former nursing home about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia.