“If We Can Do It in Texas…”

By Ruthie Epstein

So said Texas State Representative Jerry Madden, Republican Chairman of the Texas State Legislature House Corrections Committee, as he kicked off Human Rights First’s first-ever public Dialogues on Detention on September 12 with the story of how they got it done in Texas. The simple version – bipartisan cooperation. Chairman Madden and his counterpart in the State Senate, Democrat John Whitmire, have worked together for the past several years to create a plan to reform the criminal justice system in Texas. They convened experts from the right and the left to identify the best strategy forward. They worked through their differences of opinion to successfully stop building new prisons in Texas. They had to do it – because Texas could no longer afford the cost.

Chairman Madden joined Texas-based and national experts convened by Human Rights First at The University of Texas at Austin, LBJ School of Public Affairs, to discuss issues of common concern in immigration detention and criminal justice/corrections, as part of a series of Dialogues we’re holding across the country this fall. Check out the stellar lineup here.  Complete audio to be posted soon!

Some key takeaways:

  • Alternatives to detention work in the criminal justice system.
    The criminal justice system increasingly promotes pre-trial programs as a best practice that saves money by not detaining individuals who do not need to be detained, allowing them to continue to lead productive lives as they comply with their legal obligations. Carol Oeller, Director of the nationally respected Pretrial Services program in Harris County, Texas, emphasized the importance of using a validated risk assessment tool designed for the specific population to inform decisions about who to detain, who to release, and under what conditions. (The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation has advocated for expanded use of alternatives like pre-trial for years, citing cost savings.)
  • Community-based alternatives programs work for immigrants released from detention.
    Jennifer Long, Executive Director of Casa Marianella, a community-based emergency shelter in Austin originally run by the Catholic Diocese of Austin, noted that the social services provided to its residents – many of whom are asylum seekers recently released from ICE detention – ensure they are able to begin to build new lives in safety in the United States. Oren Root, who piloted the Appearance Assistance Program at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York in the late 90s, emphasized that a successful alternatives program requires a process that identifies the best candidates for supervised release and provides good referrals to social services in the community.
  • Oversight and accountability are critical.
    Michele Deitch, one of the nation’s experts on detention oversight, based at The University of Texas, pointed to the ABA’s “Key Requirements” for monitoring detention facilities. She stressed that an oversight body must be independent and external to the agency. It must have adequate resources to monitor conditions with “golden key” access, must report on its findings publicly, and the agency must have a duty to respond publicly to its reports. Several experts highlighted the importance of meaningful sanctions for noncompliance. Dr. Dora Schriro, who ran the prison systems in Missouri and Arizona and now serves as Commissioner of Correction in New York City, and Dr. Bobby Cohen, a board member of the body that oversees the NYC Department of Correction (and former director of health services at Rikers) discussed from their respective points of view the ways that sanctions and other accountability mechanisms can be most effective.
  • Access to quality legal counsel is a critical—and unmet—need in the immigration detention and the criminal justice systems.
    Austin attorney David González provided a fascinating overview of the day-to-day struggles of defense counsel and indigent defendants, including those who might face immigration consequences for a criminal conviction, in fast-paced criminal proceedings. Jonathan Ryan, Executive Director of RAICES in San Antonio, spoke of the overwhelming experience of visiting immigration detention facilities with one or two colleagues and facing a list of hundreds of individuals who had signed up to speak to them. ICE holds 24 percent of its detained population in Texas, and about 10 percent in remote Texas facilities. RAICES, American Gateways, the Immigration Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law, and other legal service providers are all over-stretched and unable to meet the overwhelming need.

We heard some tough conversation on immigration detention conditions. Steve J. Martin, former general counsel of the Texas prison system, said that even the most recent ICE detention standards do not provide for meaningfully distinct conditions of detention for low-custody individuals. He noted that existing facilities used by ICE, especially jails, which hold 50 percent of ICE detainees, are simply not designed to provide conditions that are appropriate for the civil immigration detention population, and that ICE would have to build new facilities in order to provide appropriate conditions. Senior ICE official Kevin Landy noted that ICE recently built such a facility in Karnes, Texas. He also highlighted the many challenges to building new facilities, including the community resistance that defeated two recently proposed facilities in Crete, Illinois, and Southwest Ranches, Florida. Even so, it’s clear that many of the conditions recommended by the ABA’s recent Civil Immigration Detention Standards (whose advisory task force included panelists Dora Schriro and Michele Deitch) could be provided in some existing ICE facilities – including expanded outdoor recreation, contact visits, and civilian clothing. Indeed, ICE is in the process of implementing new standards that recommend 4 hours per day of recreation and contact visits at existing facilities. But Dr. Schriro, Mr. Martin, and Barbara Hines, co-counsel in ground-breaking litigation challenging conditions at Hutto, an ICE facility in Taylor, Texas, suggested that “civil” conditions should go even further.

Finally, Hope and Nazry Mustakim drove down from Waco, Texas, to generously share their story. Their courage and the challenging experiences they’ve faced remind us all – advocates, attorneys, politicians, and government officials – of the real people whose lives are impacted by every single detention bed. The information shared during the dialogue made clear that it is possible to move forward with real solutions for reform that are grounded in best practices, cost savings, and human rights. On to California! (Follow us @HR1stRefugees and #HRFDetention.)


Published on September 21, 2012


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