Prisoners at a "criminal alien requirement" (CAR) prison in Willacy County recently protested conditions and medical care at the facility. The prisoners began protesting by refusing breakfast, but then escalated to setting fire to several of the kevlar tents that make up the housing units. Currently, the 2,900 prisoners have begun to be transferred to other Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities throughout the country.
Management and Training Corporation, the private corporation that runs the facility, has refused to comment on where the prisoners are being moved, citing safety and security as the main reason for the secrecy. The uprising was not surprising to many advocates of prison and immigration reform. An ACLU report released last year detailed squalid conditions, rampant abuse, and little to no medical care at the facility.
The Willacy County Local Government Corporation, which contracts with MTC to run the facility, has had its S&P rating downgraded to a BBB long-term rating because it relied on the facility as a primary source of income. The 400 people who worked at the facility are reportedly afraid of losing their jobs. The BOP has not commented on whether it plans on reopening the facility, and MTC has maintained that they will assess the damage once all of the prisoners have been evacuated.
Last week, up to 2,000 immigrant prisoners staged a two-day riot at a private prison in Raymondville, TX. According to a report by DemocracyNow!, the prisoners were protesting inadequate medical care when they refused to eat breakfast on February 20, seized control of part of the prison, and set fires.
The prison, Willacy County Correctional Center, is owned and operated by the private prison company Management & Training Corporation (MTC), and is known by critics as "Ritmo" — short for Raymondville’s Guantánamo prison. It is also referred to as “tent city” because the majority of the prisoners sleep in large, cramped kevlar tents.
The Raymondville prison is also one of 13 privately operated CAR or “Criminal Alien Requirement” prisons. Carl Takei, staff attorney with the ACLU’s national prison project explained:
"Willacy is one of 13 private prisons in the federal system. It’s sort of a shadow system within the Federal Bureau of Prisons system, that is run by private prison companies. These prisons house immigrants who have been convicted of drug offenses and immigrants who have been convicted of something called illegally re-entering the United States after deportation. The Bureau of Prisons has consigned immigrants to these prisons based on the assumption that they are all going to be deported after their sentences are up. And it can therefore treat them as second-class prisoners and hand them over to these for-profit companies that have a history of abusing and mistreating the people in their custody."
Takei also authored the report, Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System, which provides a closer look at CAR prisons and the inhumane conditions inside.
The Bureau of Prisons and Management and Training Corp. of Utah (MTC) recently announced a $532 million deal to convert “tent city” in Willacy County from a facility contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement into a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility. The first wave of new prisoners have begun to arrive ("New prisoners begin arriving at 'tent city'" McAllen Monitor, October 10). Under the new agreement, the Willacy facility will continue to be managed by MTC and will house immigrant prisoners convicted of federal crimes exclusively.
This is great news for MTC. As an MTC representative stated, “[t]he Bureau of Prisons has good contract system; they need beds, we need the stability” ("New jail contract described as a win-win deal for county, MTC," Raymondville Chronicle, June 22). Unfortunately, while this may be good news for MTC, Willacy County, that funded the construction of the facility through revenue bonds issued by a Public Facilities Corporation, continues to receive the short end of the stick.
Under the Willacy County’s first contract with MTC, the facility housed undocumented immigrants under an agreement with ICE and, according to Willacy County Judge John Gonzales, “the income the county had hoped to gain from the facility fell far short of expectations.” In fact, the facility never reached 50% capacity (Monitor, October 10). To add to the county’s loss, earlier this year MTC handed out pink slips to almost 20% of its local staff. Under the new plan to convert the facility into a BOP unit, MTC will reduce its local staff by more than 32% below the number of employees it had prior to handing out pink slips (Raymondville Chronicle, June 22).
Under the new agreement, the county will receive a minimum of $104,900 a month, much more than the $970,000 the county received from ICE over the past year. While this may seem like a lot of money, it will only put a small dent in the outstanding debt obligation of $75 million (after the most recent refinancing goes through) incurred by the county to finance the facility’s construction (Raymondville Chronicle, June 22).
Things must be really bad in Willacy if this deal can be reported as a win for the county.
Check out this excellent video of the January 9th vigil outside MTC's Willacy County Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas. The piece features a moving speech by Rev. Dr. Daisy Machado. The vigil was also covered by Nick Braune at the Texas Civil Rights Review ("Methodist Group and Others Protest at Raymondville," January 18).