A Shocking Glimpse Inside America’s Privatized Detention Facilities For Immigrants


The opening of Maribel Zelaya’s letter was bleak.

“I cannot bear this punishment any longer,” she began. “I’m dying of desperation, of this injustice, of this cruelty. We are immigrants, not criminals. To treat us like this, it’s as if they must not have hearts, as if we weren’t human. They treat us like dogs.”

Zelaya was fed up. For more than six months, the 29-year-old asylum seeker had been locked inside the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, an immigrant detention facility in rural Texas. The building, formerly a medium security prison, is a bleak concrete complex surrounded by a wall of chain link fence. Zelaya found the conditions inside the center disturbing; her health began to deteriorate and she fell into a deep depression. At the end of October, she released a searing letter in Spanish describing life inside Hutto, the nation’s only all-women’s detention center.

Like so many of the women at Hutto, Zelaya — whose attorney asked that her full name not be used to protect her safety — was fleeing abuse and a city held hostage by gang violence. But she soon became disillusioned with the grim reality of detention, and decided to stop eating in protest. “I am glad to participate in this hunger strike,” she wrote. “It’s an insult, I came here to find shelter but what I got instead is punishment.”

An excerpt from Zelaya’s letter.
An excerpt from Zelaya’s letter.

Zelaya was joined by at least 26 women who also refused to eat until they were released from detention, according to Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit working closely with the women at Hutto. Their actions made headlines after the organization published handwritten letters from 18 of the women, describing their treatment in detention and reasons for striking. “I do not have the help of no one and I am asking as a favor if you can help me I would appreciate it so much because they do not want to lower my bail,” wrote a woman from Mexico protesting the facility’s “inadequate” medical care.


The issues many of the women identified aren’t unique to Hutto, however. They are the product of a sprawling immigration detention system increasingly reliant on partnerships with private prison companies. Those corporations have found a lucrative market in the growing detention of immigrants. Today, nine of the 10 largest detention centers in the country are run by private prison companies. Hutto, for example, is run by the nation’s largest for-profit prison corporation, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), through a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). When Zelaya arrived at Hutto, she found herself caught in this complex partnership. Her decision to go public arose from a deep sense of disappointment with her treatment in detention, especially after enduring trauma and violence in Honduras. The asylum seeker fled harrowing abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, who was rumored to be a sicario, or hitman, for a dangerous gang. “Everyday I discovered a [bad] secret about him; he was a monster disguised as a person,” she recalled in a detailed declaration to her attorney. “He would snort cocaine, and also he would invite his colleagues and friends to drink; they would go to the club and get women and when he was drugged, he would kill them.” Sometimes, he would lock Zelaya up and refuse to feed her.

Zelaya eventually left her husband and moved in with another man, but her situation didn’t improve. After she refused to carry drugs into the city jail for his gang, her home was broken into and she was brutally raped. A few days later, gang members stormed into her house with M16s and AK47s, warning her to leave or face death. Zelaya escaped Honduras, but was arrested by Customs and Border Protection and sent to Hutto after arriving in the U.S. She spent more than six months detained at the center before writing the letter and making her grievances publicly known.

ICE, for its part, quickly denied all reports of the strike. But the events raise questions about the agency’s oversight mechanisms and its response to protest, especially in privately run detention facilities. Although ICE outsources to CCA, the for-profit corporation is not subject to federal public records law, making it difficult to know what happens to detainees who enter centers like Hutto through ICE’s tangled bureaucracy. But Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) requests to ICE give us a peek behind the curtain of this secretive world.

As Immigrant Detention Spikes, Private Corporations Move In

The women at Hutto weren’t the only detainees protesting the conditions of lockup, however. The reported strike emerged as similar actions popped up at immigrant detention centers throughout the country. In October, more than 60 detainees reportedly launched hunger strikes at detention centers in El Paso, Texas, and LaSalle, Louisiana. A month later, hundreds of men began a hunger strike at a detention center in Adelanto, California, and more than 100 detainees launched a series of hunger strikes to protest conditions at detention centers in Alabama, Colorado, Texas, and more.


Considering the numbers, resistance to the conditions of detention should hardly come as a surprise. The immigration detention system has exploded in recent years, nearly doubling its capacity over the past decade. The system’s expansion is partly due to a Congressional mandate known as the detention “bed quota,” which requires that the Department of Homeland Security make more than 30,000 beds available every night for immigrant detention. Thanks to the bed mandate, the total number of people in detention each year has risen dramatically, from 230,000 people in Fiscal Year 2005 to 440,600 in 2013.

The growth of the industry has also helped create a lucrative market for private prison companies, which have welcomed the immigration crackdown as an opportunity for profit. Now, 62 percent of all ICE immigration detention beds are operated by for-profit prison corporations, compared to 49 percent in 2009. The nation’s two largest private prison companies, CCA and GEO Group, have benefited from the surge in particular. Together, they run eight of the country’s 10 largest detention centers, and operate 72 percent of the private immigrant detention industry. Unsurprisingly, both companies reported surging profits in their quarterly earnings this summer and have more than doubled their revenues since 2005. In 2014, CCA earned $195,022,000 in net revenue, compared to $133,373,000 in 2007.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

Of course, this isn’t coincidental. The industry’s major players have a vested interest in the expansion of the detention system and have pushed hard to protect their bottom lines. Over the past decade, the nation’s three largest private prison companies have spent upwards of 45 million dollars on campaign contributions and lobbyists to push legislation at the state and federal level. Between 2008 and 2014, CCA alone spent $10,560,000 lobbying as it advocated on issues related to immigrant detention and immigration reform.

This cozy relationship may help illuminate legislation like Arizona’s controversial “show me your papers law,” which allows police officers to check the immigration status of undocumented immigrants and was projected to increase the number of people in detention centers. Of the bill’s 36 co-sponsors, 30 received campaign contributions from private prison lobbyists and companies, including CCA and GEO.

The industry’s growth has accompanied troubling revelations about the treatment of detainees, including human rights and due process violations. Well before Zelaya drafted her letter, Hutto was the subject of a 2007 landmark ACLU settlement addressing the “prison-like conditions” for children and families who were held there in detention. The center, which opened in 2006, was originally created to hold immigrant families. The lawsuit alleged that children were required to wear prison jumpsuits, held in small cells, and limited to an hour of outdoor playtime per day. The case sparked outrage and a whirlwind of negative press. After the settlement, conditions for detainees at Hutto reportedly improved, and the scorned family detention center was converted into an all-women’s detention center two years later.

Since then, ICE and CCA have made an effort to reform Hutto’s image and are particularly sensitive to negative reports about the facility, advocates say. According to Denise Gilman, the director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School, Hutto has better conditions than other detention centers, and is now seen as a “model facility” by ICE. “It’s the standard they lift up for why detention is not a bad place,” Bethany Carson, immigration policy researcher and organizer at Grassroots Leadership, said. “They tout their programs inside, and it’s the facility for asylum-seeking women. If there are reports that at that type of facility that there’s a hunger strike, that women are resisting eating, that would do a lot of damage to their image.”

Inside The Strike

It’s not easy to find out what happens inside the walls of ICE’s numerous detention centers. Critics complain of a persistent culture of secrecy within the agency, and details about the circumstances of hunger strikes can be sparse even on the occasion that ICE will acknowledge one. Rarely will the agency grant more than a yes or no confirmation.


But through a FOIA request to ICE, ThinkProgress obtained a document that provides some clarity: CCA’s emergency food strike plan. The disciplinary nature of the company’s policy (embedded below) stood out to Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project who specializes in immigration detention.

“The thrust of the policy is to squelch the protest rather to address any medical or health concerns,” Takei told ThinkProgress after reviewing its content. “It’s very different from ICE’s hunger strike policy, because ICE’s hunger strike policy is primarily about medical procedures and medical concerns. This policy is about security and control.“

For example, CCA’s plan states that supervisors are instructed to “secure the facility” if they determine that the strike threatens the center’s security.

“That’s a very long way of saying that the facility goes on lock-down,” Takei explained. “That means that everybody’s movements within the facility are going to be restricted. Since Hutto is set up with people in two-person cells, that probably means that they would be required to stay in their cells for a substantial portion of the day.”

Mary Small, policy director at the advocacy organization Detention Watch Network, said that the threat detection provision was “an absurd part of the policy. In what way does a food strike threaten the security of the facility?”

CCA Food Strike Policy by ThinkProgress

The policy explained that detainees significantly decreasing their food intake for at least three consecutive meals “may be protesting in a passive-aggressive manner.”

The policy also carved out punishments for food strikers, noting that participants would have their all of their commissary purchasing privileges suspended, and could have radio, visitation, and phone privileges removed if the center’s commander chose.

“I think it’s telling that it describes a food strike as a passive-aggressive form of protest,” Takei said. “I haven’t seen a detailed policy like this that lays out both the punitive attitude and the punitive procedures. Usually this is something that is done much more informally.”

But punishment for the October incident allegedly went beyond what was written into CCA’s policy. Grassroots Leadership claims ICE and/or CCA retaliated against strikers by placing them in solitary confinement and then sending them to other detention centers. In response to a FOIA request, ICE told ThinkProgress that Hutto does not use solitary confinement.

But Zelaya claims she was placed in isolation at the detention center and sent to a frigid room by herself. “When I participated in the hunger strike for my life and health I did it because I didn’t feel that they took good care of me… and for participating they punished me,” she said in a statement provided to ThinkProgress. “I was put in a room alone with so much cold, cold. I cried because my bones hurt from so much cold.”

Days later, she was transferred to a different facility, in Laredo, Texas.

Two Different Stories

Although ICE publicly denied the strike, emails obtained via FOIA indicate that ICE and Hutto employees were referencing the incident as the news broke. In an October 29 email with the subject line “hunger strike,” a Hutto employee sent out CCA’s emergency food strike plan, writing, “Currently, we are monitoring who returns to the housing unit too quickly which indicates the resident did not eat. We are monitoring how many residents come through the dining hall from each pod and do not take a tray.”

ICE press secretary Gillian M. Christensen reiterated the agency’s position on the strike in response to ThinkProgress’ inquiry about the email exchange: “While certain advocacy groups made allegations about a hunger strike at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in late October and early November, those allegations were and are false. There was no hunger strike at the facility, nor have there been any since the false allegations were initially raised. Any suggestion to the contrary is absolutely false.”

Christensen added that the agency monitors “cafeteria eating behaviors as a matter of due diligence to ensure appropriate oversight of any potential health issues. As a precautionary measure, any time advocacy groups announce or encourage hunger strikes in ICE detention facilities, medical professionals advise the individuals in our custody of the negative health effects that can occur with any prolonged refusal of nourishment.”

ThinkProgress reached out to CCA for comment on the incident and its policy, but were contacted by an ICE official and told the company’s official response is the same as the agency’s.

ICE’s position doesn’t surprise Grassroots Leadership’s Bethany Carson, but it does show a clear rift between the agency and advocates’ official take. “Everything [ICE] has done shows that they are very determined to cover up what shows what happened inside the detention center,” Carson pointed out. “In everything I’ve seen, ICE maintains that there was no hunger strike taking place at Hutto. And that was directly in contrast with what we were hearing.”

In fact, the source of disagreement between the two may come down to the agency’s precise definition of a hunger strike. According to ICE and CCA policies, a detainee must refrain from eating for more than 72 hours, as observed by staff, to be on a hunger strike. If not — for example, a detainee refuses meals for 48 hours or makes a commissary food purchase — the definition won’t apply.

CCA’s policy also differentiates between a hunger strike and a food strike, noting that the two terms should not be confused. According to its policy, a food strike can be defined by detainees decreasing food intake by more than 25 percent for three consecutive meals. Christensen, the ICE press secretary, told ThinkProgress that there was no food strike at Hutto during the time of the reported incident.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

But it doesn’t appear as though ICE even has a separate definition for a food strike. The agency’s National Detention Standards policy, which outlines the terms of a hunger strike, makes no mention of food strikes. When ThinkProgress asked ICE to explain the difference between hunger and food strikes, Christensen replied: “It’s the same thing” — even though CCA’s policy says otherwise.

It’s precisely these kind of semantic disputes that make it increasingly difficult to get a clear story from ICE. Moreover, the agency’s willingness to contract with private companies adds another layer of complexity, advocates say. “The more levels of contracting you introduce, the less transparency you have,” Mary Small of Detention Watch Network (DWN) pointed out. ICE, which is in charge of handling press for Hutto, has a different policy and definition for a food strike than the private company that operates the facility.

“On the one hand you have CCA playing word games with hunger strike versus food strike, and then on top of that you have ICE playing word games about what really happened as well,” Small added. “So there’s sort of two levels you have to dig through to find out what really happened. I think this points to the larger problems of transparency for the department.”

Who Is In Charge?

CCA’s policy and its lack of uniformity with the ICE standards is not the only thing that concerns watchdogs and immigration advocates. They’re also troubled by the agency’s process for inspecting detention centers, including Hutto. A recent report by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and DWN found major flaws with ICE’s inspection process of detention centers, including a culture of secrecy within the organization, lack of independent oversight, and a failure to adequately capture the true conditions for people inside the centers. As NIJC’s director of policy Royce Bernstein Murray put it: “Inspections are not frequent enough, they’re not independent enough, and they’re not of sufficient quality.”

ICE’s inspection process can be difficult to navigate. The agency uses three main detention standards to inspect facilities against: the 2000 National Detention Standards, and the 2008 and 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards. A center’s contract with ICE determines which set of standards it will be held to. “Most of the big facilities are on the 2008 or 2011, but most of the small facilities are on still back on the 2000 which is significantly weaker,” said Detention Watch Network’s Mary Small.

Not only does ICE measure different facilities against different standards, it also conducts three different kinds of inspections in detention centers: Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) inspections, Office of Detention Oversight (ODO) inspections, and self-inspections. The ERO inspections, which determine whether or not a detention center will have its contract renewed, are conducted annually. They apply to detention centers that hold 50 people or more and essentially consist of a checklist of detention standards. The ODO inspections aren’t done with the same frequency, but they tend to be more thorough than the ERO. Finally, there are the self-assessments. These are for facilities that hold less than 50 detainees, or people for less than 72 hours overall.

Of ICE’s current 200-plus detention centers, Small estimates that about half are subject to this self-review process: “There’s basically no inspection process at all,” she said. “Given how much of a joke the actual [ODO and ERO] inspections are, I can’t imagine the self-inspections.”

ICE doesn’t make any of its inspections public, and it took NIJC years of litigation to obtain the reports. Moreover, the entities tasked with conducting the investigations are paid by ICE — either through contracts or as employees — and inspections are announced to facilities in advance. “Inspectors are not independent from the ICE hierarchy,” Small quipped. “One of our key recommendations is that the inspections become more independent or out of the ERO chain of command,” NIJC’s Murray said. “Inspection reports can be edited before they’re ultimately submitted to ICE, and those changes aren’t tracked. Finally, detention centers rarely fail ERO inspections. In 2010 and 2012, no detention centers failed ERO inspections, and only four failed in 2011. Since 2009, ICE has not failed any detention center twice in a row, the provision necessary to terminate a contract. Still, complaints of human rights and due process violations in the detention system persist. “In many cases, the poor conditions and mistreatment individuals suffer are explicitly prohibited under ICE detention standards,” the report concludes. “Instead of reporting on these violations, the inspectors focus on completing checklists and fail to engage with detained immigrants or follow up on issues raised in public reports. It is easy for facilities to pass inspections without actually upholding the standards’ intent.”

Stuck In Limbo

Zelaya was finally released on a $8,500 bond in February after spending more than a year in detention. Her health had seriously declined during that time, however. She struggled to manage her sickle cell anemia, developed stomach problems, and fell into a deep depression while at Hutto and Laredo. When her attorney visited her in November, she found that Zelaya had a swollen, irritated face, and couldn’t digest most of the food she was given.

Although she is no longer in detention, Zelaya’s saga is far from over. For now, it’s unclear what fate awaits her. She is still waiting on a decision in her asylum case and worries about her children, who remain in Honduras. “I want to take them out of Honduras before they get killed by the gang members or raped by their father, since he is a psychopath maniac he is capable of doing something,” she said in a statement. Zelaya’s partner, who she moved in with after leaving her ex-husband, tried to enter the U.S. but was deported and, she believes, was murdered back in Honduras.

As for what happened at Hutto, Zelaya feels she was gravely wronged.

“For being in a hunger strike for my health and my freedom, they punished me in a punishment cell of CCA Don Hutto,” she said. “Then they sent me punished to another detention center CCA LAREDO. I can’t take it, for God, public help me with my freedom and my life so I don’t get killed too.”