The Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into allegations of detainee sexual abuse by guards at a for-profit immigrant detention center in Texas.
At a press conference on December 4, advocates with Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based immigrant rights organization, announced the FBI had taken over the investigation at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in the city of Taylor.
The detention center is operated by CoreCivic—a private prison company formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America—under a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office has faced mounting criticism for its handling of the investigation. Advocates claim the county denied it had jurisdiction over the matter; failed to communicate with victims, attorneys, and advocates; and deferred investigative duties to federal immigration officials.
Advocates are deeply frustrated and concerned that the county was made aware of these allegations weeks ago but has remained silent and uncooperative.
“The only time Williamson County reached out to us was this past Friday, after knowing about Laura’s complaint for over three weeks. In a phone conversation, they admitted they did not pursue the investigation,” said Claudia Muñoz, an organizer with Grassroots Leadership.
Muñoz was referring to Laura Monterrosa, a 23 year-old woman from El Salvador who is currently detained at Hutto. The guard who she said abused her still works at the facility.
Laura was the first woman to publicly allege abuse and is the only one of the three known victims, who did so with her real name. The women maintain there are many more who have not gone public because officials threatened that doing so could negatively impact their pending immigration cases.
ICE officials believe Monterrosa’s allegations are “unsubstantiated.” Yet after she told her story, two other women using the pseudonyms Ana and Esmeralda told Grassroots Leadership they were abused by one guard, who worked in the recreation area. Officials called Ana and Esmeralda liars and Ana was transferred to another detention facility in Laredo, four hours away from her lawyer and supporters.
Ana told Grassroots Leadership she spoke out and remains committed to pursuing justice because she is inspired by Monterrosa, like other women at Hutto.
Advocates call for accountability and for Monterrossa to be released. “I need justice,” Monterrosa said.
Grassroots Leadership also corresponded with a former guard-turned-whistleblower, who confirmed sexual abuse was prevalent at Hutto. Bethany Carson, immigration policy researcher and organizer for the group, said the whistleblower provided the names of more guards who have “abused their power and position to sexually assault or take advantage of vulnerable women.”
The organization is working to figure out how and to whom they should release the information and said the whistleblower told them of two “very specific cases.”
At the press conference outside the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, Claudia Muñoz said the county let immigration officials control the investigation. She said the sheriff’s office refused to communicate or make statements for two weeks, claiming the matter was within the jurisdiction of the Taylor Police Department—a claim the Taylor police denied.
After two weeks of back-and-forth over who had jurisdiction, ICE released a statement saying they had essentially investigated themselves with assistance from Williamson County and found no wrongdoing.
Muñoz said that when Williamson County officials found out about the press conference, they contacted Grassroots Leadership to say the FBI had taken over the investigation and the matter was out of their hands.
Advocates called this behavior reckless and evidence of a lack of accountability.
“Williamson County Sheriff’s Office renounced their local jurisdiction by collaborating with ICE,” Muñoz told the crowd. “We received confirmation that the FBI has stepped in and taken over this investigation so we are here today to say shame on you, Williamson County, for protecting ICE.”
“Most importantly, we are here in recognition that Laura should be released immediately because we know that ICE, CoreCivic, and Williamson County are working together against her. ICE has the power to release her today.”
“The only true protection they have is their voices, each other, and community that’s here to demand answers,” Muñoz continued.
After Monterrosa came forward, Grassroots Leadership received letters from other women at Hutto, who described sexual abuse by guards and threats of retaliation.
“These women are saying we’re tired. We’re tired of this abuse, and we’re not going to take this any longer, and we’re going to say something about this, even though we know what the consequences of this is,” Muñoz declared. “This shouldn’t be the case. These women should be protected and they should be treated as the victims that they are.”
She argued Monterrosa is a key witness to sexual harassment and abuse at the facility and should be released, not vilified and imprisoned under the supervision of her abuser.
Sulma Franco was detained at Hutto as a teenager. She spoke at the press conference while holding a sign that read, “What happened to the guards?”
“There was always that type of incident where there were women who were detained that were victims of sexual abuse,” Franco said in Spanish as Muñoz translated. “I remember many times when guards came to us women and asked us for favors that are just not okay to ask from an official. Many times, the guards will bring cookies and chocolate to try to influence the women.”
“When you’re detained there as a woman and you want to report an incident of sexual abuse, you are scared to do so. When you actually try to make a report about these incidents, what happens is you are transferred to another detention center or put in solitary confinement,” Franco said.
“Every time you make a report, whether its against a male or female guard, they treat you as though you are wrong, and they try to send you to see a psychologist. Sometimes you are forced to take medication unnecessarily because they don’t believe that this abuse happened.”
Franco added, “It is extremely sad and unfortunate that Laura is under this abuse and nobody is really paying attention and that the laws are not protecting a woman who is an immigrant. As a woman who has been formerly detained at Hutto at the detention center, I can say the abuse is not only physical. It is psychological.”
“That’s why we are lifting our voices today and asking that Laura Monterrosa is released because she needs to have her freedom. There’s many women who have been through this and been victims of this but haven’t said anything because they’re scared that it will have some sort of negative affect on their immigration cases. In instances where women want to speak out about this and the guards find out, the guards tell them that they’re going to have something negative in their file and that’s going to affect their immigration case,” she described.
“This is exactly why women don’t report inside the detention center. Sometimes they choose to continue to be victims of this because they have really no choice and because they believe this will affect negatively their immigration case. And that’s why we’re asking for justice for her as a woman, who is a victim of sexual abuse, and that more attention goes toward the officials and their behavior and the way they’re acting inside the detention center.”
Connie Roalson has lived in Williamson County for 35 years and has been visiting women at Hutto for last three years. She told those assembled at the press conference that she has heard the women’s stories and can see how traumatized they are after fleeing their home countries.
“It is unconscionable that they are continuing to be traumatized by abuse here,” Roalson said. “The taxes we pay provide the salaries for the persons who guard these women in detention. We have a right to expect that the employees of CoreCivic treat them fairly, justly, and humanely.”
“If a crime happens, our sheriff’s department should investigate thoroughly,” she continued. “But instead, Laura Monterrosa’s allegations seem to be dismissed. She, the victim, has been interrogated and blamed. And neither she nor her attorney have been provided any information of what’s going on or if real investigation is even taking place.”
“Laura has no power. CoreCivic and ICE have all the power. Our responsibility is to see that that power is used according to law, according to what is just and decent,” Roalson said, adding that she is “outraged that this is happening in my own back yard.”
Muñoz ended the conference by saying Monterrosa’s attorney has attempted to reach out to Williamson County for more information for two weeks. They are hoping that the increased public awareness and dialogue around sexual assault, and the influence of high profile women who are now speaking out on the subject, will encourage the county to let them know how they plan—or do not plan—to protect these women.