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.
Emily Ramshaw at the newly-launched Texas Tribune has a series of three stories this week on the state of health care and mental health care in private immigrant detention centers in south Texas, including the GEO Group's South Texas Detention Center in Pearsall and MTC's Willacy County "Tent City" lock-up in Raymondville.
Ramshaw's first article ("Mental Hell," November 16) details the lack of mental health providers at the many large south Texas immigrant detention centers:
[GEO's] South Texas facility, one of several federally monitored Texas lock-ups for immigrants awaiting deportation hearings, is hardly the only one with mental health staffing problems. A Texas Tribune review of five of these facilities found just three had a staff psychiatrist, despite housing a combined 5,500 detainees.
In part two ("Health Scare," November 17), Ramshaw tackles health care and staffing problems at both GEO's South Texas facility in Pearsall and MTC's notorious Willacy "Tent City" prison in Raymondville, the country's largest immigrant detention centers.
A 2007 review of medical care at the Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville found medical staffing was “barely adequate,” and that the facility’s clinic was too small to care for its 1,800 detainees. Twenty of the facility’s 46 health care positions were vacant. The detention center had no clinical director, dentist, pharmacist or psychiatrist. Half of Willacy’s licensed vocational nurses hadn’t even completed new employee orientation.
In part three (Andre's Story, November 19), the Tribune lets a former detainee, Andre Osborne, tell his own story in the form of a video. Check it out:
Over all, this coverage is very promising from Ramshaw and the Texas Tribune. We'll keep you posted on developments.
More than one hundred organizers from across Texas held a vigil Friday for the 4,200 immigrants in detention in the Rio Grande Valley and called for the closure of the controversial Willacy County Detention Center in Raymondville (Protest at Willacy County detention center, Oct. 16, 2009). The 3,086-bed Willacy County Processing Center, a private prison operated by Utah-based Management and Training Corporation (MTC) and partially constructed of Kevlar tents, is the nation's largest immigrant detention center.
In announcing the vigil, organizers pointed to evidence that alternatives to immigrant detention exist which are more humane, more effective, and more fiscally responsible than immigrant detention.
A Vera Institute study from 2000 showed that 91% of immigrants on a supervised release program attended all of their immigration hearings, and the cost of the supervision program was $12 a day, compared with the more than $30 a day ICE pays MTC to detainee immigrants at Tent City.
The Vera Institute concluded:
"Using community supervision as a substitute for detention... will increase the efficiency of the expensive detention system, and it will allow those who win relief, mostly asylum seekers, to avoid the pains of detention altogether."
In calling for closure of the Willacy County Detention Center, organizers cited dismal conditions which have been reported by former detainees and local news outlets. The Director of the facility in 2007 admitted to NPR that prisoners at the facility were forced to eat meals with their hands, and Harlingen's KGBT-TV reported that internal documents showed numerous documented cases that the facility fed immigrant detainees rotten or contaminated food including food infested with maggots.
The vigil also drew attention to the plight of more than 1,800 detainees held at the Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC), located about forty miles southeast of the Willacy County Detention Center. The prison holds ICE detainees, with subcontracting services by Ahtna Technical Services Incorporated (ATSI). PIDC detainees have been on rolling hunger strike for several months protesting violations of their due process rights, inadequate medical attention, and physical and verbal abuse from ICE and ATSI officers.
Our own Bob Libal was interviewed by KGBT Channel 4's Ryan Wolf at the vigil. Check KGBT-TV's coverage out here.
The vigil was sponsored by the Southwest Workers Union, Grassroots Leadership, Coalition of Amigos in Solidarity & Action (CASA), La Union del Pueblo Entero, Proyecto Libertad, Texans United for Families, Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera, ACLU of Texas, American Friends Service Committee - Austin, Border Ambassadors, and Texas Indigenous Council.
Previous Tent City Coverage from TPB-
Are the Hurricane Dolly Evacuations Putting Tent City in Financial Trouble? (09/09/2008)
Raymondville MTC Guard Accused of Stealing from Detainees (04/13/2008)
Guards at MTC's "Tent City" Accused of Immigrant Smuggling (11/20/2007)
MTC Prison Populations Growing, Partially Off Texas Expansion (10/23/2007)
Protests to Private Detention Centers Continue to Grow (09/04/2007)
Willacy County Goes $50 Million More in Debt to Expand MTC’s Tent City (08/30/2007)
More Detention Nightmares: Maggots in the food at MTC's Raymondville Prison (08/04/2007)
1,000 More Beds for Raymondville (AKA Prisonville) Detention Center (07/17/2007)
Raymondville Private Prisons and Prison Scandals Have Long History (06/17/2007)