A member of the city council in Austin, Texas, was denied access to a private immigrant detention center, where he attempted to visit a woman who reported sexual assault by a guard.
Twenty three year-old Laura Monterrosa from El Salvador is detained at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, where she accused a guard of sexual harassment and assault in November 2017. She said authorities threatened to deport or transfer her to a facility far from her support network in retaliation for speaking out.
Monterrosa attempted suicide after staff threatened her with punishment for avoiding the dining hall, where she would often cross paths with her abuser, an unnamed female guard.
On February 20, CoreCivic, the private prison operator once known as Corrections Corporation of America, refused to let Austin City Council member Greg Casar (District 4) visit Monterrosa.
In a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) [PDF] written by Casar and council members Delia Garza (District 2) and Sabino “Pio” Renteria (District 3) recounting the incident, CoreCivic blamed “media attention on the matter,” even though “other members of the public are allowed to enter at their convenience.” Casar was ordered to complete extra procedures that could delay the visit by weeks.
The council members demand access to the facility and that Monterrosa be set free.
“To bar officials from entering a detention center because they represent the public, or because they may speak to the media about what they see, raises dire questions about freedom of speech and the transparency of these facilities,” they wrote.
“We understand that you have sent Council Member Casar paperwork to fill out and additional procedures in order to allow him entry: these procedures could bar him and other elected officials from visiting Ms. Monterrosa for weeks. We do not believe it is right for elected officials to face additional barriers, applied selectively to some members of the public and not others, to enter a federal facility on such an urgent matter.”
Additionally, Representatives Lloyd Doggett, Joaquin Castro, and 43 other members of Congress have written the Department of Homeland Security demanding an investigation into the sexual abuse allegations and an expedited audit to assess whether facilities are in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
Meanwhile, Monterrosa’s mental health is in rapid decline since her suicide attempt in January.
Following that incident, she was held in isolation and told she would remain there until she recanted her sexual assault allegations. ICE argues this was ‘medical observation,’ but her supporters say officials are not providing health care or protecting her from retaliation as required by PREA.
“If what ICE calls ‘medical care’ is 60 hours in solitary confinement in a tiny, freezing, smelly room in the booking area, that speaks for itself as to why Laura’s life is in danger as long as she remains detained,” said Bethany Carson, an immigration researcher and organizer at the immigrant rights group, Grassroots Leadership.
“To expect that a survivor of sexual abuse by a CoreCivic guard could trust psychologists and medical staff who wear the same uniform as her abuser is ludicrous, and their refusal of outside mental health care is a blatant violation of PREA. It’s clear that ICE will go to any extreme to cover up this abuse.”
According to Carson’s organization, Monterrosa’s health is at a “crisis level,” describing her as “frequently vomiting and unable to eat for several days.”
Grassroots Leadership staff called the police on February 18 after Monterrosa said she felt suicidal. The Taylor Police Department conducted a welfare check at the prison but told the group they have “no oversight over the care she receives” and “could not intercede to allow her to speak with an outside mental health professional.”
Community members testified before a meeting of the Commissioners Court in Williamson County on February 20. They requested an intervention on Monterrosa’s behalf, arguing Hutto is within their jurisdiction and, as a party to the facility’s contract with ICE and CoreCivic, liable for rights violations that occur there.
Claudia Muñoz, immigration programs director at Grassroots Leadership, said, “This case has crossed all lines. After Hutto’s history of endemic sexual abuse, it is beyond unacceptable that the facility has not undergone a single PREA audit to ensure compliance with the law and protection for women who speak up.” She said there has been “no meaningful oversight in Laura’s case from either federal or local authorities.”
“We fear for her life every day she remains detained,” Carson said. “In any other case, someone at this high of risk of suicide would have access to a mental health treatment facility where they could receive the care they need,” she said. “Laura is being denied this care and no longer believes that it’s possible to get away from the threats and abuse by ICE and CoreCivic officials in any other way.”
Two other immigrant women detained in Texas, identified only as “Ana” and “Esmeralda,” came forward with additional claims of sexual abuse by a guard after Monterrosa. The FBI is investigating the claims, having intervened after advocates criticized local police for stalling the inquiry.
Grassroots Leadership is holding rallies outside Hutto to show support with Monterrosa.