On February 20, 2015, an uprising occurred at the Willacy County Correctional Center (WCCC), a private prison located in Raymondville, Texas that was operated by Utah-based Management and Training Corporation (MTC). The facility primarily housed criminal immigrant prisoners for the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The riot lasted two days, during which at least three of the ten Kevlar dome tents that comprised the prison suffered fire damage, resulting in the closure of the facility. It was one of the most significant prison riots in recent years.
WCCC was one of an archipelago of 13 privately-operated “Criminal Alien Requirement” (CAR) prisons scattered across the U.S. that hold non-citizens convicted of federal crimes such as illegal entry or re-entry into the country and, in some cases, drug offenses. [See this issue’s cover story.]
CAR prisons were built because “Operation Streamline,” a program designed to speed up the prosecution of undocumented immigrants, introduced by the federal government in the mid-2000s, resulted in over 90,000 immigration prosecutions in 2013 alone, overwhelming the BOP’s capacity. Approximately 24,000 prisoners are held in CAR facilities nationwide; the 2,834 who were housed at WCCC were so tightly packed in the Kevlar tents that their feet could touch the neighboring bunk when lying down.
WCCC, which opened in 2006, was built using $78 million in bonds issued by Willacy County. It originally held non-criminal immigrant detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); however, ICE did not renew its contract with MTC in 2011 after reports of physical and sexual abuse, medical neglect and conditions at the facility that were so bad the media began referring to it as “Ritmo” – short for “Raymondville’s Gitmo,” in reference to the infamous U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Conditions did not improve after the BOP contracted with MTC to house criminal immigrants at the prison, according to ACLU staff attorney Carl Takei, who co-authored a June 2014 report on WCCC and four other CAR prisons in Texas. The report noted investigators had encountered “disgusting living quarters,” with prisoners’ clothes being washed along with mops and cleaning equipment, raw sewage overflowing from toilets, insects and spiders in the tents, excessive use of solitary confinement and a lack of basic medical care. According to initial news reports it was inadequate medical care that sparked the riot at WCCC, which at the time was accredited by the American Correctional Association. [See: PLN, July 2016, p.1].
The uprising began peacefully with prisoners refusing to eat breakfast or report for work. By early afternoon, they had occupied the recreation yard and, soon thereafter, set fire to at least three of the Kevlar dome tents. Guards responded with tear gas, and local police drove armored vehicles into the prison. The FBI eventually took over negotiations which continued through the following night, and the prisoners surrendered control of the facility without further violence.
Willacy County still owed over $63 million on the bonds issued to build the prison. The damage caused by the riot resulted in Standard & Poor’s downgrading the county’s bond rating, and county officials had to dip into emergency cash reserves to the tune of $700,000 to avoid layoffs due to the loss of revenue from the private prison.
Willacy County had always intended WCCC to be a profit-making enterprise. MTC contracted with the federal government, receiving $47.8 million a year and paying the county $2.50 per prisoner per day to use the prison. This netted the county almost $3 million a year – a significant portion of its $8.12 million annual budget. The county lost that revenue stream after the riot while continuing to remain liable for its outstanding bonds. Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence said road maintenance may be collateral damage in the county’s search for funds to close the budget gap resulting from the uprising.
WCCC is not the only private prison built by Willacy County in an effort to make money. The facility is part of a three-prison cluster that includes the neighboring 500-bed Willacy County Regional Detention Center, operated by MTC under contract with the U.S. Marshals Service, and the 1,069-bed Willacy County State Jail, operated by Corrections Corporation of America under contract with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Following the February 2015 WCCC riot, MTC attempted to spin the story of what had caused unrest among the prisoners. According to the company, some prisoners feared for their safety if they were deported to Mexico from the Willacy prison, and allegedly staged the riot so they would be transferred to other CAR facilities and repatriated from different locations.
However, the prisoners involved in the uprising said it was in response to filthy living conditions, medical neglect and abuse. Another problem with MTC’s story was the fact that the WCCC riot was not an isolated incident. There have been three other major uprisings at CAR facilities in recent years – one at a CCA-operated prison in Adams County, Mississippi in 2012, which resulted in the death of a guard, and two at the Reeves County Detention Complex in Texas, run by The GEO Group, following the death of prisoner Jesus Manuel Galindo in 2008. [See: PLN, June 2014, p.48; Feb. 2010, p.22].
According to a heavily-redacted BOP “after-action” report obtained by the Investigative Fund through a public records request, the BOP found substantial deficiencies in medical care and staff training at WCCC, and in the reaction of MTC staff at the onset of the uprising.
Regarding the latter issue, BOP investigators wrote, “When interviewed, it appeared staff were unable to identify trends or respond accordingly due to the lack of basic training.... [t]here was ample time to prepare for a potential disturbance based on when intelligence was received.” The report concluded that the response by MTC staff “was slow, disorganized, and chaotic.”
Although heavily redacted, the report bore no evidence of MTC’s claim that the riot was caused by deportation-related issues. Rather, the BOP placed the blame on factors associated with MTC’s failings, as well as lax oversight by BOP monitors.
“After a review of all documentation pertaining to this incident, interviews with staff and inmates, and a review of applicable policies and procedures, the review team concluded the specific disturbance can be directly attributed to the perception of the inmate population regarding the delay of medical treatment,” the report stated. “The team found widespread belief among the inmate population that there were extended waiting times to receive appropriate medical treatment, and that they were being charged for medical services not rendered. This belief was also acknowledged by institution health services staff during interviews.”
Soon after the riot all of the prisoners at WCCC were transferred to other facilities and MTC laid off 341 employees, leaving about 50 at the prison. The BOP subsequently canceled its contract and MTC closed the facility completely, bringing the total job losses to around 400. Due to the impact of the closure on Willacy County’s budget, resulting in a $220,000 monthly shortfall, 16 county employees lost their jobs, too.
In February 2016, MTC told local news station CBS 4 that it hoped to obtain a new contract for WCCC. If such a contract materialized, the company said it would renovate the prison and begin hiring. Thus far that has not happened. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in August 2016 that it plans to phase out all CAR private prison contracts, based in part on a report by the Office of the Inspector General that found significant problems at four CAR facilities. The report also cited the WCCC riot. [See: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.22; Sept. 2016, p.28].
Willacy County has a long history of corruption and shady dealings associated with private prisons. In 1999, Texas state Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. introduced the county to Corplan Corrections, a consulting firm. Corplan helped to develop the $14.5 million Willacy County Regional Detention Center, and Lucio was employed as a paid consultant to MTC. He also represented Dallas-based Aguirre Construction, the company that designed and built the prison. [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.42].
In 2005, former Willacy County Commissioners Israel Tamez and Jose Jimenez were convicted of receiving over $10,000 in kickbacks on the prison construction project. They reportedly received the bribes “from particular corporate representatives who were selected in the competition” to build the Regional Detention Center. No company officials were prosecuted.
In March 2005, former Webb County Commissioner David Cortez was convicted of giving $39,000 in bribes to Tamez and Jimenez in exchange for hiring a consultant in connection with the prison-building project. Cortez admitted receiving money for the bribes from one of the companies involved in the project and using it to influence the Willacy County commissioners, yet the company was never prosecuted or named. [See: PLN, Nov. 2005, p.20].
Such is the legacy of private prisons in Willacy County, Texas – corruption, prisoner abuse, a major riot and fiscal disaster. What happened at WCCC should serve as a warning to local governments that seek to profit from mass incarceration and prison privatization, which may be the only good thing that ever resulted from “Ritmo.”
Sources: Valley Morning Star, www.themarshallproject.org, www.expressnews.com, www.bondbuyer.com, www.motherjones.com, www.grassrootsleadership.org, www.valleycentral.com, Associated Press, www.theinvestigativefund.org
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