A West Texas city is looking to get a boost from the humanitarian crisis of Central American children and families who have turned up at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Officials in the City of Littlefield are asking Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to send some of the families to their empty private prison, and hoping it will be the end of a years-long debacle that started when the for-profit private prison came to town.
The facility in question, the Bill Clayton Detention Center, has been trouble for the city and taxpayers from the start. It was was built in 2000 as a state prison for juveniles, but the Texas legislature decided to remove juveniles from the facility in 2003.
The GEO Group operated the facility until 2009, which was housing adults at the time. The facility shut its doors in 2009 after the company lost contracts in to hold prisons there from Idaho and Wyoming.
Littlefield City Manager Mike Arismendez told KCBD in Lubbock that a contract with ICE could mean having the facility up and running soon to detain the women and children seeking refuge at the border.
“It would actually be a revenue stream to be able to offset the debt we have on the facility,” Arismendez said.
The Bill Clayton Detention Center's troubled history has been extensively covered here.
Randal McCullough, 37, committed suicide at Bill Clayton after nearly year in solitary confinement and soon afterward, the Idaho Department of Corrections cancelled its contract with the GEO Group and removed its prisoners from the facility. Idaho's audit uncovered a routine falsifying of reports; guards claimed to be monitoring prisoners at regular intervals, but were often away from their assigned posts for hours on end.
When the GEO Group pulled out of the facility, it left Littlefield residents without revenue and responsible for an $11 million building project that is still a money pit. The town tried to auction the empty facility in 2011, but the only bidder pulled out.
The idea to house refugee families at Bill Clayton is a bipartisan issue for Littlefield, with the support of both U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, and his Democratic opponent in the November general election, Neal Marchbanks, who also supports detaining families at Bill Clayton also.
“It sounds bad to put [children] in a prison, but that’s about all we can do," Marchbanks said.
Rep. Neugebauer thinks Bill Clayton is worth a look for ICE. “The federal criteria is pretty high, but that’s a great facility," he told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal on July 8. "Certainly, if they are looking for additional facilities, we want to make sure they take a look at it.”
However, by July 13 Rep. Neugebauer told the paper he didn't support the proposal to detain families there because it only encouraged illegal immigration and that he actually supported immediate deportation of the children.
The proposal has stoked familiar fears in some Littlefield residents. "I’m afraid of what diseases might be brought into our school," local resident Cindy McNeese said. Detained asylum seekers are not allowed to leave federal custody at immigrant detention centers. Marchbanks did admit that children coming to the U.S. from countries with unstable governments “are almost requesting political asylum.”
Project leaders don’t plan to significantly renovate the facility — just make it livable. They’ll remove intimidating razor wire, for example, and paint gray doors a cheerier shade of blue or red.
A new coat of paint is unlikely to be enough to quell concerns over putting families into detention. The history of family detention in the U.S. is abysmal, with the example of the T. Don Hutto Detention Center still fresh in the minds of many. At Hutto, reports emerged that children as young as eight months old wore prison uniforms, lived in locked prison cells with open- toilets, subjected to highly restricted movement, and threatened with alarming disciplinary tactics, including threats of separation from their parents if they cried too much or played too loudly. Medical treatment was inadequate and children as young as one lost weight.
A town hall meeting regarding the plan is set for 6 p.m. today, Tuesday July 14, at Littlefield Junior High School.
The fifth and final criminal alien requirement (CAR) prison featured in the ACLU's recent report is Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility. The facility is located in Post, Texas and is operated by the Management and Training Corporation (MTC). Originally built in 1999 and suggested by Judge Giles Dalby, the prison was intended to spur economic growth in the surrounding community. Currently, 1,900 men are incarcerated there.
The first major finding is that prison staff harasses people incarcerated at Dalby. Emmanuel, a blind man, is regularly harassed by guards in the recreation yard and in the cafeteria line, where a guard shines a barcode scanner in his eyes and laughs. A man who could not walk notified a guard that he could not climb the stairs to his housing unit. As a result, the man was placed in solitary confinement.
The report alleges that racial slurs are also routinely uttered to prisoners. Guards have reportedly used slurs such as "wetback" and "Mexican nigger." Prisoners are also sent to the solitary housing unit (SHU) for not speaking English. Because guards give commands in English, many of the men are not able to follow orders and are punished. Other prisoners claim that they cannot communicate with guards. When the majority of guards need to speak to a Spanish-speaking prisoner, another prisoner is often asked to translate.
Guards also allegedly use homophobic slurs against all the men, and target openly gay men specifically by giving them tickets for "engaging in sexual acts." Prisoners also allege that guards threaten them with physical violence. Guards also reportedly threaten to send anyone who files complaints in light of such threats with the SHU.
Guards also appear to be insufficiently trained. The only mandatory training is 24 hours of "disciplinary hearings." Other training is available, but only at the expense of the contractor. According to the report, guards at private prison facilities have less training, a higher turnover rate, and are paid less than their public sector counterparts.
Like the other facilities featured in the report, medical care at Dalby is delayed and insufficient. Martin, an asthma sufferer, had an asthma attack, during which he had to wait 25 minutes for MTC staff to respond, and another 20 minutes to be escorted to the medical wing. Upon his arrival, there was no doctor and a nurse who did not how to properly intubate him. On a different occasion, a guard decided that an epileptic prisoner who was having a seizure was faking. On yet another occasion, a prisoner had a heart attack in the yard. Medical personnel did not reach him for 15 to 20 minutes, and it took MTC staff yet more time to clear away the witnessing prisoners. That man died as a result.
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.