TAYLOR, Texas (AP) _ Pastel-colored walls adorned with cartoon characters, porcelain instead of metal toilets in cells and other upgrades have softened the inside of a former prison where dozens of immigrant children and their families are detained.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who conducted a media tour Tuesday at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center in Taylor say the facility has become more family friendly thanks to more than 100 modifications. The changes were required under a settlement reached in a lawsuit alleging children were held in prison-like conditions.
Children now receive night lights, sneakers and colorful T-shirts with Superman and other characters on them when they arrive at Hutto. A teleconference room for immigration hearings has a large mural of the Rugrats and the large brick walls leading into the sleeping area _ former prison pods _ are painted in muted tones and feature Tinkerbell.
The facility's health care staff has expanded to 35 and contracts outside when more specialized services are needed. The cafeteria now offers a main menu and a hot bar to provide more variety of foods. Children _ currently from 2 months old to teenagers _ now go on field trips. Past visits outside of Hutto have included a museum in Austin, the zoo and the Dairy Queen.
ICE officials say the changes would have been implemented even without the lawsuit, and added that they continue to discuss more improvements to the facility where families live in small cells furnished with bunkbeds, a toilet and sink.
"Everything that was included in that settlement was either done prior to the settlement, in progress during the settlement or contemplated prior to the settlement," said Gary Mead, ICE's acting director for detention and removal.
Advocates disagree and contend that public awareness, a report last year detailing conditions at Hutto and the lawsuit spurred ICE to action.
"It is true that some of the changes were made before the settlement … but they certainly were not in effect at the time we made our report," said Michelle Brane, director of the detention and asylum program at the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. "They were very clear that they thought it was an appropriate place to hold families."
When the facility first opened nearly two years ago, advocates say uniformed, handcuff-toting correctional officers called "counselors" threatened children with separation from their families. Children received only one hour of classroom instruction a day, lost weight and had limited access to health care, attorneys alleged.
ICE officials have denied that guards used threats or that healthcare was limited. The agency did say that the school day has been significantly expanded since Hutto opened.
A federal judge approved the lawsuit settlement in August. It called for changes including installation of privacy curtains around toilets in the cells, a full-time pediatrician and elimination of a counting system that required families to be in their cells for hours a day.
Those changes have been made, and a federal magistrate also continues to periodically review conditions at Hutto. During a previous visit, the magistrate asked for improvments to an area set aside for detainees to meet with their attorneys. The section now has a large play area in the middle. It's surrounded by meeting booths that have privacy curtains and noise control. Advocates had previously complained that asylum seekers detained at Hutto had little privacy and couldn't shield their children from hearing them describe details of past abuse, torture or other violence to their attorneys.
Immigration officials have described the nearly 500-bed Hutto as a residential environment that keeps families together while they seek asylum, await deportation or seek other outcomes to their immigration cases.
Officials say Hutto _ operated by Corrections Corporation of America under a contract with Williamson County _ is meant to end the "catch and release" practice that in the past permitted families in the U.S. illegally to remain free while awaiting a court hearing. Many never showed up in court; some borrowed other people's children and posed as families to avoid detention, ICE officials have said.
ICE is considering opening more facilities to detain families around the country, making Hutto a sort of prototype, Mead said. Currently, the Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pa., a former nursing home about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is the only other facility in the country that holds related adults and children.
"I think we will continue to have family residential centers," Mead said. "In terms of the treatment that people receive here, this is clearly a model."
On the Net:
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, http://www.ice.gov
The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, http://www.womenscommission.org
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.