The American Civil Liberties Union is petitioning the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate an uprising last month at a prison for immigrant detainees. The case has put a harsh spotlight on the rural Texas pen, which already was under scrutiny for allegations of poor conditions, and on the effects for-profit prison companies are having on mass incarceration centers for immigrants in the U.S.
The ACLU sent a letter to the department Monday to request an independent investigation into the Feb. 20 incident, in which more than 2,000 inmates at the Willacy County Correctional Facility in Raymondville launched a two-day riot over the quality of health services. They reportedly refused to eat breakfast or do chores, and set fire to three of the tents that were used as mass dormitories for inmates. The resulting damage made the Willacy center “uninhabitable,” according to Management and Training Corporation, the for-profit company that runs the facility.
MTC’s preliminary investigation found that a “small group of influential inmates” planned the riot over fear for their safety if deported back to Mexico, as a ploy to get transferred to a different facility, according to a statement emailed to IBTimes. Other prisoners were “instructed to claim they had received poor medical treatment as a pretext for the disturbance,” the company said.
The facility, for now, is closed for repairs and all the prisoners have been transferred to undisclosed prisons nearby. MTC also began mass layoffs of employees at Willacy last week. Full investigations by MTC and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which contracted MTC to run the facility, are pending.
But the ACLU’s letter to the Department of Justice said an independent investigation was “imperative,” and that the prisoners’ allegations of poor conditions were in line with the ACLU’s previous research on the facility. “Uprisings are a predictable consequence of the Bureau of Prisons turning a blind eye to the shocking mistreatment and abuse to which prisoners are subjected in its for-profit prison system for immigrants,” said Carl Takei, staff attorney for the ACLU National Prison Project, in a statement issued shortly after the incident.
Willacy is part of a 13-prison network under the Bureau of Prisons that is specifically for immigrants. The facilities are contracted out to for-profit prison corporations – MTC is the third-largest such company in the country, after the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group.
These facilities, known as Criminal Alien Requirement prisons, are different from the immigration detention centers where detainees await their deportation hearings. Many of those detention centers are also run by private prison companies, contracted through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The CAR prisons, contracted through BOP, are specifically for immigrants convicted of an offense – usually for unlawful entry into the U.S. or other immigration offenses – and awaiting deportation.
Last year, the ACLU published a lengthy report detailing conditions in CAR prisons, including Willacy, labeling that facility a “physical symbol of everything that is wrong with enriching the private prison industry and criminalizing immigration.”
According to the report, ICE had contracted MTC to run Willacy as a detention center until 2011, when allegations of sexual abuse (the subject of a 2011 episode of PBS’s “Frontline”) eventually pressured ICE to transfer the detainees elsewhere. MTC soon landed a new contract with BOP to run the facility as a CAR prison. Because the inmates were expected to be deported out of the U.S. in due time, BOP doesn’t require CAR prisons to provide any of the same programming, drug treatment or inmate jobs that are expected at other facilities.
The ACLU’s interviews with prisoners from 2012 to 2013 turned up descriptions of overcrowded spaces in the 200-person Kevlar tents used to house the inmates, as well as frequently overflowing toilets and few programming options to keep prisoners productive. The interviews also “revealed a widespread sense that corners are cut and basic medical concerns are often ignored or inadequately addressed by staff,” the report said.
Despite the allegations and complaints Willacy has faced over the years, the facility – in addition to two other privately run prisons in Raymondville – remains a crucial source of revenue not just for MTC, but for Willacy County, Texas. According to the San Antonio Express, the BOP pays $47.8 million a year to operate the Willacy center, and Willacy County’s share of the funds – about $2.50 a day per inmate – has made up about a quarter of its $8.1 million annual budget. Raymondville, meanwhile, has a 9 percent unemployment rate, a number that may tick up after MTC finalizes its planned layoffs of hundreds of workers at the facility. MTC’s contract with BOP for the Willacy facility remains in place, even as it is paring down its staffing there.
The Feb. 20 uprising isn’t the first such incident at a CAR prison. The Adams County Correctional Center, run by the Corrections Corporation of America, underwent a riot in 2012, an incident that resulted in the death of a corrections officer. In 2008, a similar incident happened in the Reeves County Detention Center in Pecos, Texas, run by the GEO Group. The Reeves County riot was sparked by the death of an inmate, which inmates said was due to prison staff’s neglect for medical needs.