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Cruel conditions for asylum-seekers
Immigrant family wins release

By Cindy Beringer | February 16, 2007 | Page 16

A PALESTINIAN family was finally released from an immigration prison earlier this month in a case that has exposed awful conditions at the former high-security private jail.

The Ibrahim family was held for three months in the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a former prison run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in the small town of Taylor, Texas. According to the Austin American Statesman, approximately 75 families and 170 children representing about 29 nationalities, many of them asylum seekers, are held in the prison.

Activists say the facility's "prisoners" are kept in their cells for 22 hours a day. They receive an hour of English instruction and an hour of recreation, mostly indoors. Children have had their education interrupted and little medical care is available. Everyone wears prison uniforms bearing their names and numbers. "It was really bad," said 15-year-old Hamzeh Ibrahim following the family's release. "Terrible."

The Ibrahim family had sought asylum in the U.S. in October 2001, citing their fear of torture by Israeli officials and health complications from gas attacks in the Occupied Territories. Their request denied, the family knew they were to be deported, but didn't know where.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided the Ibrahim home after midnight on November 3, 2006, and arrested everyone inside. The father, who was released late last week, went to a prison in West Texas; one child, a U.S. citizen, stayed with an uncle; and the mother and four children went to Hutto.

The release and reunion of the family represents a victory for Texans United for Families, a local grassroots coalition, and other organizations that have staged vigils and other protests to bring attention to this jail for "non-criminal aliens," as ICE calls them. "We just didn't know about it," said Jane Van Praag, a resident of Williamson County, where the jail is located. "When we heard what was going on and did a little research, it turned out that what sounded pretty bad was really bad."

A week after the Ibrahims' release, CCA slapped some pictures on the wall, stuck in a couple potted plants, threw down some rugs and reluctantly opened its doors to the media for the first time. Determined not to lose the more than $2.8 million a month ICE pays them to run the jail and torture children, CCA sought to counter the negative attention forced on them by protesters.

But the media inside and the protesters outside didn't buy it. "It's almost like a Guantánamo in the middle of Texas that nobody knows about, and we don't know who's there or why they are there or how long they have been there," said Dallas attorney Domingo Garcia.

The Statesman described the tour as "hurried and controlled," pointing out that reporters were not allowed to talk to the prisoners. The New York Times noted the "thin slit windows"; the bare cells with a metal bed, a sink and a toilet; and the laser beam alert that lets guards know if anyone leaves the room after the strictly enforced bed times of 9 p.m. for children and 10 p.m. for adults. ACLU lawyer Lisa Graybill said she couldn't "describe how depressed people are in there."

Riad Hamad of the Austin branch of Palestinian Children's Welfare Fund worked tirelessly to secure the release of the Ibrahims and two other families. Hamad brought money to the jail every week to give to the families. Prisoners with money in Texas prisons can buy slightly better food in prison commissaries.

Hamad was able to visit with the families behind a glass partition. Hanan Ibrahim, who was pregnant, told him that she received little prenatal care, and that her children sobbed when she was taken away in shackles to go to medical appointments.

The last time Hamad visited the prison, he was threatened with a background check for asking too many questions. "I was told in no uncertain terms that I'm not welcome there anymore," Hamad said.

The fight to close down this jail and prevent new ones from opening will continue. ACLU attorney Vanita Gupta is investigating human rights abuses at Hutto, as well as reports of a recent hunger strike.

Jail officials boast that children now receive education for four hours a day. Texas law requires seven, and the Texas Civil Rights Project is threatening a lawsuit.

According to Greg Moses of the Texas Civil Rights Review, a coalition called Free the Children Now plans a nonviolent campaign against child prisons. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and civil rights activists Peter Johnson and Andrew Young are among its supporters.

Meanwhile, activist Jay Johnson-Castro, who organized several vigils in Taylor, is leading a caravan along the Mexican border, pointing out the ugliness of the border wall and the atrocities that have occurred at the hands of the border patrol.

He visited a mass grave near San Diego where border crossers are buried in the middle of the night by women contracted by the federal government. "These are totally anonymous people who died as a result of our pathetic immigration system," he says.

John Wheat Gibson, attorney for the Ibrahim family, thanked everyone who worked on this case of persecution of Palestinians. "This project will be over," he said, "when the U.S. government stops putting children in prison, stops torturing prisoners, and stops funding the murder of children abroad, so that no child has to flee his or her homeland."

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