AUSTIN (CN) – Sexual abuse of detainees is rampant at the immigration jail the Corrections Corporation of America runs for the federal government in Taylor, Texas, three women say in a federal class action. Their attorneys say it’s part of a pattern that has produced nearly 200 reports of sexual abuse inside immigration jails nationwide.
The three Doe plaintiffs say their sexual assaults inside the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor are “consistent with a pattern of deliberate indifference toward sexual assault in immigration detention and denying victims access to immigration relief and civil redress.”
They sued officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); Corrections Corporation of America – the nation’s largest private prison company; and Williamson County, Texas.
Citing widespread reports of sexual abuse inside immigration prisons, and ICE’s failure to police itself or its private contractors, the ACLU and others in June 2010 urged the Department of Homeland Security to establish external oversight of ICE’s detention system.
In the present class action, ACLU attorneys say that documents obtained through FOIA requests show nearly 200 allegations of sexual abuse of immigration detainees across the country since 2007.
The three lead plaintiffs tell similar stories of sexual assault at the hands of defendant Donald Dunn, an escort officer and resident supervisor at Hutto.
The women sued on their own behalf and for all female immigrants who were detained at Hutto between October 2009 and October this year, were transported from Hutto by the defendants and were sexually assaulted or abused by male officers.
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) operates the Hutto immigration jail on contract with ICE. Hutto became an all-women detention center in late 2009, after detained families were transferred to other facilities, due to growing concerns about treatment of children at Hutto.
The government pays CCA almost $3 million a month to house a minimum of 461 detainees per day, according to the complaint.
The complaint states: “Dunn sexually assaulted each of these women and is known to have assaulted at least six other female immigrants between Oct. 19, 2009, and May 7, 2010, when he transported them from the Hutto facility to either the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (the ‘airport’) or the Greyhound bus station after they were released from detention. Defendant Dunn had the opportunity to assault these women because, contrary to the contracts governing the administration and management of Hutto and relevant ICE policies and standards, he alone was transporting them to their respective destinations without any other attending officer, much less one of the same gender as the transported detainee.
“Indeed, under its Intergovernmental Service Contract (the ‘IGSA’) with Williamson County, the Texas county in which Hutto is located, ICE expressly required that ‘[d]uring all transportation activities, at least one (1) transportation officer shall be of the same sex as the resident being transported.’ The contract between Williamson County and the Corrections Corporation of America (‘CCA’), the private corporation in charge of managing the Hutto facility, expressly incorporated the terms of the IGSA. Nevertheless, defendants repeatedly violated this requirement by allowing male officers, such as Dunn, to transport female detainees without the presence of another officer, much less a female officer. Dunn took advantage of these repeated violations by sexually assaulting numerous female detainees under his control during the course of transport. The long history of rampant sexual abuse at ICE detention centers, coupled with the availability of the same opportunity Dunn exploited in the form of at least 22 documented failures of other male officers to comply with the same policy, supports a reasonable inference that other male escort officers at Hutto engaged in similar abuse.
“The victimized women, all of whom had fled their home countries to escape extreme violence, and who were agonized and vulnerable from their journeys and from the disgusting conditions they experienced in holding cells and detention centers in the United States, were of necessity severely traumatized by these assaults.”
Plaintiffs Sarah Doe, Kimberly Doe and Raquel Doe all say Dunn sexually assaulted them between March and May 2010, while he drove them to the Austin airport at night, without another officer present.
In similar accounts, the women say Dunn pulled over to the side of a dimly lit road, asked them under the guise of a “search,” to lift their arms and spread their legs, then groped them for an extended period of time, touched their breasts, crotch area and buttocks, and fondled himself.
Raquel Doe, 34, says Dunn followed her to the back of the van and “began pulling off his clothes, unzipping his pants and exposing his genitalia. He demanded that she remove her own clothing, but she refused. With his genitals in his hand, he began pulling off her pants himself. She cried and resisted. He became fiercely angry, but ultimately put his own clothes back in place and went back to the front of the van to resume the trip. Throughout the entire incident, Raquel believed that Dunn would rape and kill her.”
The women say Dunn’s abuse added to the trauma they suffered as victims of violent crimes in their home countries.
Sarah Doe, 24, says she fled Eritrea to escape abuse by a military commander who beat and raped her during mandatory military service. She traveled through seven countries until she finally crossed the border between Mexico and the United States in February 2010, seeking asylum.
Kimberly Doe and Raquel Doe, immigrants from Central and South America, endured similar abuse in their native countries and sought refuge in the United States.
After they faced degrading conditions in holding cells in Texas, the women say, immigration officials determined that they all had a credible fear of persecution if they returned to their home countries, and released them.
Ironically, the women say the release process exposed them to more abuse and trauma.
The complaint states: “The defendants, both individually and collectively, were directly responsible for the assaults and the resulting trauma in that they failed to implement and enforce the contracts, policies, and standards clearly and obviously designed to protect these women and others like them.”
The ACLU says the defendants’ deviation from the transportation policy is not ICE’s first breach of standards. ICE has “a well-documented history of failing to protect detainees in its custody from sexual assault,” which has resulted in several lawsuits, internal investigations and Department of Justice investigations.
“ICE has long possessed information that the detainees in its custody are subject to high risk of sexual assault,” the complaint states. “As early of 1998, ICE’s predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Services (‘INS’), was defending lawsuits brought by immigration detention center residents alleging rampant sexual abuse … and was involved in investigations of employees accused of such abuse …”
The complaint cites a Department of Justice investigation from 2000, which revealed that 10 percent of female detainees at an INS jail in Miami, Fla. had reported sexual misconduct by INS officers.
In July 2006, the United Nations Committee Against Torture expressed concern about the U.S. government’s failure to prevent and investigate sexual abuse in immigration jails.
The complaint cites a May 2007 incident at Hutto, in which a guard was accused of sexually assaulting a woman while her son slept in a crib inside the cell.
The ACLU adds: “Not only did ICE have information about rampant occurrences of sexual assault by officers and employees on detainees at immigration detention centers in general, therefore, but ICE had information about such abuse at Hutto itself.”
After the numerous lawsuits and reports of sexual abuse, the ICE promised to implement reforms to prevent abuse in immigration prisons, especially those housing women, and to incorporate the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which was enacted to protect detainees against sexual assault.
But the ACLU says ICE failed to act on its promise.
“Despite this long history of rampant sexual abuse and perennial admonitions as to the necessity of change, there were at least 185 allegations of sexual abuse noted in ICE, DHS Office of Inspector General, and DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties documents for one recent four-year period,” according to the complaint. “Of these, at least 56 reports concerned detainees in Texas.”
The complaint adds: “Notwithstanding the chronic reports of sexual assault against detainees in ICE custody by staff at ICE immigration detention centers, the ever-increasing visibility of and publicity surrounding such assaults, and ICE promises to enforce contract terms aggressively, defendants failed to ensure compliance with the terms of the IGSA governing transports and sexual assault prevention at Hutto.”
The class claims that the defendants repeatedly violated ICE policies by allowing single male officers to transport female detainees.
“In sum, during the class period, at least 22 distinct male officers were involved in at least 77 transports in which a single male officer escorted female detainees without a female escorting officer present,” according to the complaint.
What’s more, the ACLU says, “escort officers were in such complete control of all aspects of the transport that they unquestionably had every opportunity to ‘express aggression and seek to dominate others through violent sexual behavior’ in the manner warned of in the applicable ICE standards referenced above.”
The ACLU says the plaintiffs and other victims who were dropped off at an airport or the bus station had “unique difficulties in reporting their assaults or seeking remedies,” including fear of deportation, language barriers and the fact that they were leaving the area and were unable to assist in any investigations.
The ACLU says Raquel Doe did report Dunn’s abuse to local police, which arrested Dunn in August 2010 and charged him with three counts of official oppression and two counts of unlawful restraint for attacks he had committed in Williamson County. Dunn pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 1 year in jail, followed by probation.
The federal government also charged Dunn with four counts of deprivation of civil rights, based on the attacks against Raquel Doe and three other women. Dunn pleaded guilty to two of the four federal charges and awaits sentencing, according to the complaint.
But even after Dunn’s abuse resurfaced, the ACLU says, “ICE officials shrugged off their responsibilities to the sexual assault victims.”
ICE failed to notify Dunn’s victims that he had been arrested, improperly disclosed the victims’ names during a press conference, and failed to tell them they had the right to apply for a U visa, which offers protection for victims of certain crimes. In several instances, the ICE administratively closed the plaintiffs’ and other class members’ cases or moved forward with deportation proceedings, according to the complaint.
More than a year after Dunn’s assaults on the plaintiffs, only one of the three named plaintiffs – Kimberly Doe – has obtained a U visa, the ACLU says.
It claims the defendants never advised the other victims of the availability of a U visa and failed to help them recover from sexual assault and find immigration counsel.
“ICE’s deliberate refusal to provide information about direct referral to immigration providers who offered their assistance to unrepresented Hutto victims such as Raquel, coupled with its failure to notify Hutto victims of the availability of U visas and its resistance to providing the necessary certification to represented Hutto victims even upon repeated request, is consistent with a pattern of deliberate indifference toward sexual assault in immigration detention and denying victims access to immigration relief and civil redress,” the complaint states.
The ACLU says Evelyn Hernandez, the CCA manager at Hutto, was put on administrative leave in May 2010 and eventually fired over transportation issues at Hutto. But the ACLU claims ICE never terminated its contract with CCA because of the sexual assaults, and that CCA failed to discipline any of the officers who violated ICE transportation policies.
The plaintiffs seek class certification and compensatory and punitive damages for constitutional violations, gross negligence, negligent supervision, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, sexual assault and false imprisonment.
Their lead counsel is Lisa Graybill with the ACLU of Texas.
Named as defendants are ICE officials Jerald Neveleff, George Robertson and Jorge Rosado, Williamson County, Williamson County monitor John Foster, Corrections Corporation of America, former CCA facility administrator Evelyn Hernandez and Donald Dunn.