Panelists weigh in on prisoner and detainee rights

Marty McAndrews

One in every 100 Americans is serving time in prison, and the state of Texas alone has 150,000 people incarcerated, said Tiffany Dowling, a clinical instructor in the School of Law.

Five panelists weighed in on prisoner and detainee rights, nationally and in the state of Texas, with about 30 people in attendance at the Abriendo Brecha activist scholarship conference on Friday.

Dowling said UT’s Texas Center for Actual Innocence fields about 900 to 1,000 requests for assistance from prisoners hoping to appeal a wrongful conviction.

“Once these individuals are convicted, the burden shifts from the authorities proving that they’ve committed a crime to the inmates proving that they haven’t,” Dowling said.

The center pairs with the district attorney’s office and local law enforcement to better understand the cases and also to lobby for reforms so that wrongful convictions can be prevented, Dowling said.

Bob Libal and Rocío Villalobos of Austin-based Grassroots Leadership discussed the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, a former state prison reopened by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain undocumented immigrant families facing deportation. They also voiced concern about the fact that immigrants make up the fastest growing prison population.

At the detention center, the children in the prison wore prison uniforms and only received one hour of education each day, Libal said. He said people in immigration court do not have access to legal counsel.

However, Libal said Grassroots Leadership achieved a victory when, in August 2009, the Obama administration announced the end of family detention at Hutto.

“Hutto is an interesting case study in how different interest groups came together to push back against mass incarceration,” Libal said.

Villalobos spoke about the visitation program available through UT to the women of Hutto, mostly asylum-seekers from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Student volunteers monitor Hutto’s conduct and visit with the women of Hutto.

“The stories heard from the women are heartbreaking. The visitation program reminds the women that there is someone on the outside that cares,” Villalobos said.

The conference, sponsored by the UT Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, concluded Saturday evening.