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 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 Valley Morning Star reported last week that Willacy County Commissioners discussed the lawsuit pending against Houston-based Hale Mills Construction and took no action. The lawsuit first came to light and we wrote about it in our May 2 post.
Commissioner Eliberto Guerra claimed that the county will take Hale Mills to mediation the lawsuit, which accuses Hale Mills of of "poor workmanship." Management and Training Corporation (MTC), the private prison company that operates the $14.5 million Willacy County Jail and is contracted to house US Marhsals prisoners, is being sued alongside Hale Mills.