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Oliva López, a social worker formerly employed at the Karnes County Residential Center, said what is happening at the family detention center is "tantamount to torture." (Photo: George Tuley/McClatchy)

Oliva López, a social worker formerly employed at the Karnes County Residential Center, said what is happening at the family detention center is "tantamount to torture." (Photo: George Tuley/McClatchy)

Whistleblower Exposes Torture and Child Abuse at For-Profit Prison

Social worker Oliva López, formerly employed at a family immigrant detention center in Texas, testifies that prison is plagued by mistreatment

Sarah Lazare

A social worker formerly employed at a for-profit family immigrant detention center in Texas blew the whistle this week on the prison's inhumane conditions—from solitary confinement to medical neglect—that she said amount to child abuse and torture.

The Karnes County Residential Center is operated by GEO Group—the second largest private prison company in the country that has faced numerous accusations of atrocities and civil rights violations. It is also the site of recent—and repeated—hunger strikes led by mothers incarcerated with their children, in protest of their conditions, detentions, and in many cases, their looming deportations.

Social worker Oliva López corroborated the accounts of people on the inside when she conducted an exclusive interview with McClatchy DC, published Monday, in which she countered federal and local authorities' narratives which cast the detention center as a safe and tolerable place for families to reside during asylum application processes. López said that, in fact, Karnes is a prison, and its atrocities include:

  • A five-year-old girl who survived sexual assault during her migration was falsely declared fit for discharge by a prison psychologist despite numerous warning signs, including the fact that she was suffering from nightmares, losing weight, and had reverted to wearing a diaper.
  • During hunger strikes earlier this year, the prison warden intentionally retaliated against leaders by placing them into solitary confinement. López's account verifies charges from protest leaders and their supporters that they were punished for their nonviolent protest.
  • When mothers are determined to be suicide risks, their children are separated from them and "placed in another room under the care of guards who, Lopez said, had no training or licenses as child care providers," writes McClatchy journalist Franco Ordoñez. "The children could be separated from their mothers for up to four days with only brief opportunities to see each other on the last two."

"What is happening there is tantamount to torture," declared López, who said she started in October 2015 and quit in April over ethical concerns.

People incarcerated at the facility have reported harrowing conditions beyond those López described, including being severely underpaid for their labor at $3 a day, forced to drink water contaminated by fracking waste, denial of their legal rights, and subjection of children to mentally and physical harm. Women have also alleged sexual abuse and assault from prison guards and staff, prompting community protests outside the facility.

President Barack Obama has overseen the explosion of family detention centers such as Karnes, which some call the "new internment camps," with the government currently incarcerating roughly 1,700 parents and children at three prisons in Texas and Pennsylvania, including Karnes. Most, but not all of them, are privately run.

Cristina Parker of Grassroots Leadership, a Texas-based organization that opposes prison profiteering, told Common Dreams that there are signs that the tide may be finally turning against these "wrong, immoral, and traumatizing" prisons.

A federal judge in California ruled Friday that the Obama administration's policy of mass incarcerating children with their mothers on alleged immigration violations breaches a previous court settlement and those detained should be swiftly released. The judge, moreover, said that family detention centers violate protections requiring that minors not be incarcerated in prisons unlicensed to take care of children. The government has until early August to appeal the decision.

"I am hoping this is the beginning of the end," said Parker, adding that the U.S. government's injustices against immigrants go beyond family detention centers: "These family detention centers have gotten more attention but still  still haven't gotten it right. Imagine the places not under a microscope, housing mostly adult single men. I can't imagine how terrible those places must be."


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