Late last week, the Department of Justice formally charged a former Management and Training Corporation guard at the company's notorious "Tent City" detention center in Willacy County with sexual assault of a detained woman. Ending years of rumors about sexual assault at the facility, the DOJ issued a press release about the charges:
" The Justice Department today announced the unsealing of an indictment charging Contract Security Officer Edwin Rodriguez, 31, of Raymondville, Texas, with sexual abuse of a female Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainee who was under his supervision at the Willacy Detention Center, a federally contracted detention facility in Raymondville, Texas.
Rodriguez is charged in a one-count felony indictment returned by a Brownsville, Texas, grand jury under seal on June 21, 2011, with the felony offense of sexual abuse of a ward. The indictment was unsealed following Rodriguez’s arrest on June 22, 2011. According to allegations contained in the indictment, Rodriguez engaged sexual intercourse with a female detainee on or about Oct. 26, 2008, while she was being held in official detention pending deportation."
As we've reported, the "Tent City" detention center (so-named because of its construction out of a series of Kevlar pods) has been rocked by allegations of sexual assaults, immigrant smuggling, spoiled food, and protests for years.
The accusations may have finally caught up to the facility. Last month, ICE announced that it would be discontinuing its contract with the detention facility. However, as ICE left its contract with Willacy, the Bureau of Prisons has stepped in to provide a contract for the facility.
According to the KRGV report ("Change to Willacy County Detention Center Could Boost Coffers," June 21) , county officials believe the contract will be more lucrative for the county (and for MTC, who, according to a company press release (PDF) will make a $532 million over 10 years off the new contract):
"The Willacy County Detention Center is currently contracted to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It's functioning as place where illegals are held before deportation. That will change soon. The future changes come down to revenue. 'We are going to be making more money in the long run,”' says Willacy County Judge John F. Gonzales Jr.
The Willacy County Detention Center is a 3,000 bed facility. Gonzales says the building is making the county just less than $1 million a year right now. He says the money will more than double with a new business deal. In a few months, the Willacy County Detention Center will become a federal prison."
However, many questions remain unanswered. Will the facility continue to have major operational problems? Will a lawsuit come out of the sexual assault and conditions complaints from the facility? Will the BOP, which has had notoriously lax oversight of it's privately-contracted facilities, be able to ensure that basic standards are met at this facility?
Perhaps the most important question is who will fill these 3,000 beds? According to the MTC press release, Tent City will now incarcerate "federal, low-security, adult male, short term sentenced, criminal aliens." To me, that sounds a lot like folks who have been convicted of "illegal re-entry" under Operation Streamline. These folks are one of the quickest growing segments of the federal prison population, and were, prior to Streamline, usually processed through the civil immigration system. So, is this the same group of immigrants filling Tent City under a different contract?
Littlefield's troubled Bill Clayton Detention Center in west Texas, featured last month in an NPR expose about the problems with speculative private prison building, is now, literally, on the auction block.
According to a press release this morning on Business Wire ("Williams & Williams to Auction Medium Security Detention Center in Littlefield, TX On July 28th," June 7)
A unique opportunity to acquire a turn-key medium security detention center will be offered when Williams & Williams Marketing Services, Inc. auctions the Littlefield, TX-based Bill Clayton Detention Center on July 28th at 11 am CDT. Offered in cooperation with Coldwell Banker Commercial Rick Canup Realtors, the property will sell to the highest bidder above the opening bid of $5,000,000. Interested buyers can bid on site or live from anywhere via www.auctionnetwork.com.
However, buyers may be wary of such a purchase. Littlefield has been paying back loans it floated to build the prison facility before its closure in 2008. That year, the state of Idaho pulled its prisoners from the facility, then operated by GEO Group, after the suicide of Randall McCullough, who, according to news reports, had spent more than a year in solitary confinement. GEO was later hit with a massive lawsuit over in the McCullough case.
Since the facility's closure, Littlefield has had its bond ratings dropped and turned to two different private prison companies in an effort to fill the prison beds. One has to wonder why, given this history, a different owner would be more successful in turning this "turn-key detention center" into a financial success.
Following up on the state's continuing contract with the Dawson State Jail more details regarding the decisions of lawmakers to close state prisons is coming to light. Mike Ward at the Austin American Statesman reported earlier this week that:
Senate and House budget negotiators have agreed to close the 102-year-old Central Unit near Sugar Land to save $50 million, the first such closure of an entire maximum-security lockup in state history.
Our pal Scot Henson at Grits for Breakfast found news in the recent events to be disapointing:
Savings from prison closures should go to diversion programming, not private prisons. The goal should be to reduce incarceration levels, not to plan for failure.
The reality is that lawmakers do have different choices and even setting asside $15 million of limited state funding because of the anticipated need of private prison beds. State lawmakers have achieved some policy reform that has resulted in lowering the state's incarceration rate, reducing recidivism while not compromising public safety. And in some respect that spirit of reform has contributed to not only a culture change in Texas but nationally.
Yet the anticipation of lowered expectations continues to plague the Texas Legislature and results in a lack of investment in communities and people. This is disappointing. The questions as we move forward is will there ever be a moment when Texas lawmakers who commit to finding alternatives to incarceration also plan for the day when they might not need so many prison beds. Rather they make the choice to prioritize state resources on in ways that strengthen opportunity for all Texans.
In a front-page article in today's New York Times ("Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings," May 19th), reporter Richard Oppel lays out a fairly devastating case against the claims by the private prison industry that it offers states significant cost-savings. According to the article,
"The conviction that private prisons save money helped drive more than 30 states to turn to them for housing inmates. But Arizona shows that popular wisdom might be wrong: Data there suggest that privately operated prisons can cost more to operate than state-run prisons — even though they often steer clear of the sickest, costliest inmates. ...
Despite a state law stipulating that private prisons must create “cost savings,” the state’s own data indicate that inmates in private prisons can cost as much as $1,600 more per year, while many cost about the same as they do in state-run prisons.
The research, by the Arizona Department of Corrections, also reveals a murky aspect of private prisons that helps them appear less expensive: They often house only relatively healthy inmates."
This is pretty damning evidence in Arizona. The article goes on to say that results in other states have also not found much in the way of cost-savings.