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Crossing the Line in Texas

In an act of civil disobedience on Sunday marking the first anniversary of protests against the imprisonment of children at the T. Don Hutto immigrant prison in Taylor, Texas, 100 people carried holiday toys and wrapping paper into the prison lobby. The action at sundown was the first time this year that protesters carried their message onto prison property.

Jaime Martinez, National Treasurer of the League of United Latin American Citizens called for the toy march shortly after 5:30 p.m. Carrying a bullhorn, Martinez informed the protesters that prison officials had made a promise to come out and get the toys at 5 p.m.

When Martinez called for people to take the toys to the children, the crowd pressed forward across a yellow line painted on the driveway marking official prison property and walked up to the lobby of the prison. Accompanying the protesters was LULAC National President Rosa Rosales.

“Bring the toys!” called Martinez from the prison door as volunteers grabbed boxes and bags of toys along with rolls of wrapping paper and rushed to the prison door.

One of the volunteers, Georgetown resident Peter Dana, later described carrying a box of toys through a metal detector. He said he thought about his experience years ago helping to engineer a metal detector.

Inside the lobby, prison officials appeared to be accepting the toys for the imprisoned children. Previous reports from various sources say that the Hutto prison houses about 400 immigrants, half of them children.

On Friday, Georgetown activist Sherry Dana reported that Hutto prison held 142 people, more than half of them children: 13 men, 55 women, 31 boys (17 and under), and 43 girls (17 and under). The numbers can change on a daily basis.
The toy march was the high point of an active day that began with a longer march from downtown Taylor to the prison that lies upon a large, flat field at the outskirts of town, across the tracks.

Local LULAC Secretary Jose Orta began the day’s preparations by parking a rented trailer across the street from the prison. The trailer served as a stage for speakers during an afternoon rally.

“The children were out playing when we first marched here from town,” said Orta. “They saw us, but they were taken inside.”

“Of all the sick and perverted acts committed in this country in the name of the United States is the imprisonment of innocent children by the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff,” said Jay Johnson-Castro, Sr. in a pre-event email. “ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests innocent children and their mothers and turns them over to a private ‘for profit’ prison which, as of today, receives some $20,000 per child…per month…to keep an innocent child in an 8′ x 12′ prison cell.” Johnson-Castro joined the marchers on Sunday.

The Hutto prison is managed by Corrections Corporation of America which boasts itself as “founder of the private corrections industry and the nation’s largest provider of jail, detention and corrections services to governmental agencies.” CCA co-founder T. Don Hutto secured the first contract for private incarceration of immigrants in 1983 and spent New Year’s Eve of that year searching for a motel in Houston that would yield rooms to the venture.

At sundown Sunday, the final speaker of the day, Rev. Jim Rigby of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, asked the people to turn around and face the Hutto prison. By that time, most of the participants were holding lit candles as part of a sundown vigil.

Shortly after the crowd had turned around, Martinez began walking among the people with his bullhorn.

“Free the Children, Now!” chanted the crowd with Martinez. “Close Hutto Down!”

When marchers stepped toward the prison, they were accompanied by a banner that declared, “Schools not Prisons. Education not Incarceration. Texas Families of Incarcerated Youth.”

The Department of Homeland Security says the Hutto prison is dedicated to immigrant families with children. Organizers agreed that protests will continue until the prison is closed and child imprisonment is brought to an end.

After the toy march, filmmakers Matthew Gossage and Lily Keber transformed the chilly night darkness into a screening of their 16-minute film, “Hutto: America’s Family Prison” which can be viewed at: americasfamilyprison.com/Hutto.mov.

Keber was taping the day’s protest, including the toy march, so perhaps a sequel will be forthcoming.

Near the end of the screening, a few people made two more attempts to deliver more toys to the front door of the Hutto prison. The first attempt was rebuffed by a security guard, but the second attempt succeeded as a young man carrying a child took bags of toys past the guard to the front door. Inside the lobby, it appeared that people dressed in civilian clothes were processing the toys for delivery to the children inside.

Texans United for Families (TUFF) was lead organizer of the first protest in 2006 and co-sponsor of Sunday’s event. One of TUFF’s organizers, Bob Libal maintains a watchdog blog, Texas Prison Bid’ness. Over the past year, several blogs and web spaces have been dedicated to the protest against imprisonment at the Hutto prison.

During more than a dozen protests since Dec. 16, 2006 security guards have jealously guarded the perimeter of the prison to discourage protesters from walking on prison grounds. A few participants Sunday evening held themselves back from the toy march for fear of arrest.

GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net.