The Big Spring Correctional Facility is the fourth in a series of five criminal alien requirement (CAR) prisons featured in the ACLU's recent report, which covers abuses in such facilities. Big Spring is located in Big Spring, Texas and is operated by the GEO Group through a contract with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). 3,500 people are incarcerated there.
As with the other facilities covered in their report, the ACLU reports that Big Spring's medical care was insufficient. For example, Luis, who injured his knee when a Border Patrol agent pushed him off a ledge in 2010, only received painkillers at three other facilities before being transferred to Big Spring. When he was interviewed in 2011, he was on crutches and was in visible pain. Experiences like Luis's are common and due to lack of staff, prisoners report that there is only one doctor for the entire facility. Nurses who are over-worked typically provide medical care. Prisoners can wait weeks or months to receive medical care after a nurse's evaluation. Because "sick-call" lines are often long, prisoners sometimes must choose between eating and receiving medical care, which is problematic for prisoners with chronic illness, such as diabetes. Prisoners reported that they think medical personnel are trying their best to help them, but are not able to due to understaffing.
Prisoners with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, thyroid disease and others, reported that they do not receive testing or refills of medication for weeks at a time. Miguel, who has diabetes and high cholesterol, was told that he would not receive his medication until three months before his release, and would only receive Tylenol. Miguel submitted six requests to see a doctor, for which GEO charged him two dollars per submission.
The report also notes the over-use of solitary confinement. Prison staff often send prisoners to the solitary housing unit (SHU) for small infractions, or infractions that do not exist at all. One prisoner was sent to the SHU for a week because he went to the soda machine when he was not allowed to do so. Another man was sent to the SHU for 89 days while staff investigated whether or not he had a cell phone. The contract between GEO and the BOP states that ten percent of the prison's population be allocated to the SHU. Henry, who had been in isolation for five months at the time of his interview, claimed that he slept on dirty bedclothes and was fed rice, beans and meat three times a day on dirty dishes. The food portions are reportedly insufficient, because he claims to have lost a notable amount of weight. Men taken to the SHU are denied medical treatment as well. One man claimed that someone with suicidal thoughts or other mental health issues only had two options: to speak with a counselor through the tray slot in the door, or submit a written request to a guard to be reviewed by medical staff. "They don't take us seriously," the man said. "It's all money for them."
The Willacy County Detention Facility in Raymondville, Texas is the third criminal alien requirement (CAR) facility covered in the ACLU's recent report about abuses inside such facilities. The prison in Willacy County is operated by the Management and Training Corporation (MTC) as per the company's contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). This facility is also known at "Tent City" because detained people actually live in tents.
The ACLU found that the detained men lived in in extremely tight and unclean quarters which, along with the lack of educational or occupational activities, presents an environment that is not safe for incarcerated people or prison staff. Tensions can, and often do, arise quickly between the detained men, who are bored. Prisoners report that there are 200 beds packed into each Kevlar tent, with only three feet between each bed. There are only five toilets, which are exposed with no walls or curtains, and only eight televisions. Prisoners also reported that spiders and insects come in through holes in the tents and bite them. Uniforms are allegedly washed without detergent and are washed with mops and other cleaning supplies. The men attempt to keep their areas clean with the two ounces of solution allocated to each tent. One prisoner recounted, "They treat us like animals."
The stench from the five exposed toilets, which reportedly overflow and leave a putrid smell in the tents, provoked prisoners to strike in July 2013 when staff initially refused to repair them. The toilets were fixed later that day, but strike organizers were taken to solitary as punishment.
The report also alleges that solitary confinement is overused at Willacy. Prisoners report that, of the 3,000 men detained at there, 300 are held in the SHU at all times. Extreme isolation causes some men mental distress, which can manifest itself in screaming and kicking doors, suicide and self-harm. Showers in the SHU are only available on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Recreation, which is available for an hour each day, takes place in an enclosure with fencing on all sides and on top. New arrivals, as well as men who claimed that they had not done anything to merit being placed in the SHU, were sent there due to the lack of room in the tents. Such small requests as asking for new shoes and food could result in a prisoner being sent to the SHU.
Willacy staff also deny prisoners medical care. Zavier, 52, who was formerly incercerated at the Eden CAR prison, has been denied medical care for an infected vericose vein on his ankle, which has led to discoloration and swelling. He has also been denied dentures at Willacy after having his teeth removed because of an infection at Eden. Preventative dental care is not provided at Willacy in order to cut costs. The only method of treatment for infection or cavities is extraction. Zavier recounts that a guard once yelled, "Don't forget that you're a prisoner here! And that the medicines you get here are given to you for free!" Others who report medical problems are often given Tylenol and sent away. Santiago, 45, who was diagnosed with Hepatitis C while at Eden, had not yet received treatment at the time of his interview with the ACLU. He had waited two years.
Texas Prison Bidness writers have covered Tent City in the past. Check out our coverage of protests, the facility's transition from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility to one mangaged by the BOP, and guard misconduct at the facility.
The second detention center covered in the ACLU's report on criminal alien requirement (CAR) prisons is Eden Detention Center, located in Concho County, Texas, south of Abliene.
According to the report, overcrowding is a problem at Eden. Eden was built to house 950 prisoners and has been operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) since the early 1990s. But it currently house 1,550 people. Cubicles originally intended to accommodate four beds now hold six. Beds overflowing into the hallways are called the "freeway." Water often leaks from underneath toilets, leaving the freeway smelling like urine and feces. Showerheads and toilets often break and go unrepaired. Many showers also don't have hot water. In addition to poor ventilation, mice, scorpions and cockroaches inhabit the facility, and units often leak when it rains.
Other unsanitary conditions plague the prison as well. Prisoners reported that, upon their arrival at Eden, they were issued used clothing and underwear, which is thought to have contributed to a scabies outbreak. In 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found that Eden's drinking water contained excess levels of radioactive radium contamination than the acceptable levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA issued a notice via the city of Eden which stated that people who drink water with these levels of radium are at risk of developing cancer. The only alternate source of water is available through the commissary at 80 cents per bottle, a cost that many of the prisoners cannot undertake. One man claimed that he felt like he was "dying slowly" when he drank the contaminated water. Another man, who must drink a large amount of water each day due to a medical condition and asked for another water source, was denied by CCA officials. The city received a grant to remove contaminants from the water, though prisoners still suspect it may be contaminated. Prisoners still claim that showering in the water produces an itchy rash on the skin.
The report also says that Eden has a disturbing history of violence. In 1996, 400 prisoners staged a sit-in in the prison yard to protest conditions at the facility. CCA guards allegedly used pepper spray and shot prisoners with shotgun pellets in an attempt to cause prisoners to return to their bunks. Fourteen prisoners were injured, two of whom were hospitalized. Three guards also required medical attention, one of whom suffered a broken jaw. The other two suffered heat exhaustion. A similar incident occured in 2010. In reponse to prisoners' protest of conditions, guards used tear gas. One prisoner reported to the ACLU that, following this incident, a guard asked him, "Did you see me? I was the one with my foot on your head."
Guards also allegedly punish prisoners for filing grievances on their own behalf or for helping others file complaints. Two prisoners recounted that they were sent to the solitary housing unit (the SHU) for doing exactly that. Leonardo, a prisoner who repeatedly helped fellow prisoners and spent eight days in the SHU, was allegedly told by a CCA guard that he would "lock his ass up again" for aiding others.
CCA officals reportedly obstruct prisoners' access to confideltial visits and phone coversations with legal counsel. Prisoners have reported that guards open confidential legal mail. When one prisoner attempted to add his lawyer to his list of approved people to call, CCA denied him. Another prisoner said that CCA would not grant him access to unmonitored phone calls with his attorney until he filed a complaint with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). CCA also created problems for the ACLU as they conducted research for the report; in 2011,when attempting to interview prisoners, the warden at Eden would not allow ACLU representatives to speak with prisoners outside of visiting hours. There was allegedly no way to build relationships with prisoners based on confidentiality, as ACLU attorneys were only allowed to meet with prisoners in a crowded meeting room. One man who had initially agreed to speak with the ACLU declined because he did not want to discuss his legal business in a room full of crowded people. When the ACLU tried to schedule a visit for December 2013, the warden denied the ACLU visitation, and a complaint had to be filed with the BOP. It took two months of correspondence between the ACLU, the BOP and CCA for access to be granted. That warden has since been promoted to oversee all five of the BOP's contract facilities.
The SHU at Eden is always full, according to prisoners. Ten percent of Eden's contract beds are in the SHU, a rate that is higher than other BOP facilities. This percentage is allocated in CCA's contract with the BOP, thus incentivizing the use of solitary confinement. In January 2014, almost every prisoner reported that, upon their arrival at Eden, they spent anywhere between several days to a month in the SHU. As stated above, prisoners can be sent to the SHU for assiting other prisoners in writing grievances. Prisoners also claim that three to four prisoners are forced to sleep in a solitary cell at a time, when the cell was only designed to accomodate a maximum of two people. Conditions in the SHU are reportedly deporable with prisoners reporting only one hour of recreation each day, which is offered at 5:00 am; a tinted window that does not provide a view outside; a toilet per cell, but often no toilet paper; and showers offered at 1:00 am, which are often skipped due to the hour.
Medical care is also reportedly denied to prisoners. Many prisoners reported not receiving care or medication, and many ailments are treated only with ibuprofen. Prisoners who receive care at all must wait a week to see medical staff. Dental care is allegedly limited to tooth extractions. Medical staff also only speak English, limiting Spanish speakers' access to care. Medications are not refilled in a timely manner, leaving prisoners to wait for days for their medicine. Prisoners with hernias are denied surgery, and diabetics are given insulin and then forced to eat last.
The Reeves County Detention Center in Pecos, Texas is the first of the five "criminal alien requirement" (CAR) prisons in Texas covered in an ACLU report released this week that exposes abuses within such facilities.
The report's findings indicate that men detained at Reeves are denied medical care. The most notable example is the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo, who was placed in solitary confinement after suffering a grand mal seizure in December 2008. Galindo suffered more seizures in solitary and died as a result. A wrongful death suit was filed against Reeves County, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the GEO Group, which was settled in January 2013.
Prisoners at Reeves still report denial of medical services. One prisoner reported that diabetic prisoners must receive insulin treatment at mealtimes, thus forcing them to choose between eating and medical care.
Following Galindo's death, prisoners rioted and set fire to a recreation center at the prison. Riots are common at Reeves and, a month after Galindo's death, another riot broke out, resulting in two guards being taken hostage and $20 million in damage from a fire set my the detained men.
Reeves officials also overuse solitary confinement. Prisoners who participated in a petition to protest conditions at Reeves were placed in solitary confinement after being subjected to tear gas and being shot at with rubber bullets. Petition supporters and bystanders spent two days in the SHU (solitary housing unit). Samuel, a 38-year-old Jamaican immigrant, recounts the event:
“Once everyone was lying down [after the tear-gassing], they cuffed us and took us out and put water on us. I started speaking up, not talking of resistance, but I was saying it’s not fair to punish all...”
The men spent two days in the SHU with four people in two-person capacity cells without pillows or blankets, or soap to wash the tear gas from their bodies.
In fact, experiences like Samuel's are common at Reeves. Other prisoners have reported the overuse of solitary and, in fact, contracts between the GEO Group and Reeves state that ten percent of housing at Reeves be allocated to the SHU. This percentage is almost twice as large as in other BOP facilities. Prisoners have reported that, when the SHU is full, two men sleep on bunks and a third sleeps on the floor. Prisoners often spend months in the SHU without explanation, and one man recounted that "anything" he did could result in time in the SHU.
Dormitories are also overcrowded at Reeves. Prisoners have stated that, despite Reeves' status as a minimum security facility, they must spend fifty minutes of every hour in their bunks. Movement around the unit to the library or to the recreation room is only allowed in the ten minutes at the beginning of every hour. Guards search prisoners after movement between rooms. If prisoners miss the annoucement that movement is allowed, they must wait another hour. Overcrowding is apparently an incentive for profit. Maximum capacity in GEO's contract with the BOP is 90 percent, and there is a per-prisoner payment policy up to 115 percent capacity. As a result, recreation facilities have been converted into dormitories. Prisoners call these makeshift housing unites are called "chicken coops." The chicken coops contain 42 beds and reportedly smell like feces constantly because they are close to bathroom facilities.
Overcrowding spills over to the recreation yards as well. There is a large yard and smaller yard, with the small yard intended to accommodate forty people. It is often used by 400 people at a time. In addition, the Port-A-Potties in the yard have not been replaced in four years, and many prisoners report that the contents have "splashed up" on them.
This is not the first time Reeves has been on our radar. Reeves is mentioned in NPR's feature on for-profit incarceration and the ACLU's previous involvement in ligitgation regarding Reeves County's refusal to disclose documents regarding prisoner deaths, staffing and medical care.