RAYMONDVILLE, RGV – The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas warned in a report about inadequate conditions at the Willacy County “tent city” prison run by Utah-based Management & Training Corp. on behalf of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
More than 900 inmates have been removed from the Willacy County Correctional Center following an uprising late last week. The remaining 1,674 inmates are in the process of being removed from the low-security level facility because the prison is now uninhabitable.
ACLU of Texas argues the prison was uninhabitable before. In a report published in June 2014 titled Warehoused and Forgotten, the group documented a multi-year investigation into five Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons run under contract with the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in Texas.
“Our investigation uncovered evidence that the immigrants held in these private prisons are subjected to shocking abuse and mistreatment and discriminated against by BOP policies that impede family contact and exclude them from rehabilitative programs. Meanwhile, these private prisons operate in the shadows, effectively free from public scrutiny,” ACLU stated, on the front page of the report.
The 104-page ACLU report received little attention from the media or members of Congress when it was first published – this despite the fact that ACLU Texas had conducted dozens of interviews with prisoners at the five CAR facilities.
“What we found was overwhelming despair. The men we interviewed felt warehoused and forgotten. The prisoners at Willacy described how they live: crammed into crowded and squalid Kevlar tents and given nothing to do to pass the time. Their frustration and despair is palpable. ‘It’s like walking through minefields. You never know when someone is going to explode, because everyone is frustrated,’ said one prisoner. ‘Sometimes you can feel the unrest and people start fighting, and they go to SHU. There isn’t enough space for everybody. We’re too crowded,’ another prisoner told ACLU of Texas.
Extracts from the report are posted at the end of this story.
Now, ACLU of Texas wants action. Terri Burke, executive director of ACLU Texas said: “Willacy County Correctional Center represents everything that is wrong with the criminalization of immigration and the federal Bureau of Prisons’ use of private companies to operate a shadow, for-profit prison system that warehouses thousands of immigrants for violations normally handled in the civil immigration system.
“Putting profit before people seems to touch every facet of life at CAR prisons like Willacy. For-profit prison companies can pocket more profits by cutting corners, and in the CAR facilities in Texas we heard many heartbreaking descriptions of gross lapses in medical care. Though not surprised, we are saddened by the events in Raymondville and hope they can be a catalyst for the changes we have demanded in our report on Texas’ five CAR prisons.”
Carl Takei, staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project, said: “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. In a report published last year, we documented that the private-prison company MTC crams the nearly 3,000 men detained at Willacy County Correctional Center—most convicted of immigration or nonviolent drug offenses—into 200-foot-long Kevlar tents.
“The prisoners’ overcrowded living quarters are infested by vermin, and they are given spoiled and inedible food. This is why we have called on the federal government to initiate wide-reaching reforms that will make the 13 CAR prisons in the United States more humane. The Bureau of Prisons must increase the transparency and oversight of these prisons, which today are exempt from many of the policies, rules, and regulations used in BOP-operated federal prisons.”
Here are extracts about the Willacy County facility from ACLU Texas’ report:
Based on our interviews, the cramped and unclean living conditions combined with the lack of educational, therapeutic, and rehabilitative programming create an environment unsafe for prisoners and staff. Many prisoners told us that the overcrowded conditions and lack of programming made them frustrated and uneasy. One man told us that fellow prisoners had threatened to burn the tents but rationalized, “What’s the point? They’d build them back up.” Prisoners are bored, listless, and frustrated by the conditions, and the atmosphere, they say, is tense and could escalate at any time.
Prisoners reported that 200 of them are packed into each Kevlar tent, with only about three feet of space between each bed. Each prisoner gets very little personal space. There is no privacy between beds, nor in the five bathrooms where toilets and showers are in the open with no partitions. There are eight televisions throughout the tent. Prisoners report that it gets very loud in the tents. “They treat us like animals,” one prisoner told us.
Predictably, the overcrowding leads to conditions the prisoners described as squalid, although many men told us that they do their best to keep their own living spaces clean with the two ounces of cleaning solution provided per tent. They told us about insects and spiders that crawl in through holes in the Kevlar and bite them. They reported that their clothes are washed without detergent and mixed in the same laundry loads as mops and other cleaning equipment. One prisoner said if they try to do their own laundry, they can get punished for hanging clothes to dry in the dormitory.
Many of the prisoners told us that the toilets are constantly overflowing, leaving a terrible smell in the tents. It got so bad one night in July 2013 that, when Willacy staff did not fix the overflowing toilets that were leaking sewage water throughout one tent, the prisoners held a strike out in the yard. “It was so unpleasant that a bunch of us mutinied. The inmates in [three dorms] stayed outside in the yard in protest, until the toilets were fixed,” said Mauricio. Maintenance repaired the toilets later that evening, but the leaders of the strike were reportedly taken to extreme isolation as punishment.
Other prisoners reported that overflowing toilets are a common occurrence. “The bathrooms are always a problem,” one man told us. “They get clogged all the time, and they have to clean the septic tank. But sometimes they overflow and it’s very dirty. They don’t even have ventilators inside to help with the foul smell. Everything smells bad.” Another prisoner said, “They have a problem here with overflowing sewage water, and it smells all the time. I even fear for my respiratory health.”
A federal investigation into the uprising and conditions at Willacy County Correctional Center is expected. The Rio Grande Guardian will post reaction from Management & Training Corp. as soon as it comes in.