RAYMONDVILLE, RGV – In the wake of an uprising by inmates at an immigrant prison in his district, state Rep. Ryan Guillen says the general public has got to insist on higher standards by and greater accountability of prison operators.

Many Rio Grande Valley residents are asking if living standards in prisons housing undocumented immigrants are allowed to be set at a lower rate than those housing U.S. citizens. This follows an uprising at the Willacy County Correctional Center, otherwise known as the “Tent City” immigrant prison on the outskirts of Raymondville.

State Representative Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City.
State Representative Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City.

“What I believe to have happened at this facility in Raymondville is senseless and unacceptable,” Guillen said. “It looks like it has wiped out 300-some-odd jobs and possibly financially jeopardized the financial stability of Willacy County. Additionally, if what I have read is true, they managed to basically violate the basic human rights of hundreds if not thousands of inmates.”

Guillen, a Democrat from Rio Grande City, spoke about the recent uprising at “Tent City” while appearing on News Talk 710 KURV’s “The Valley’s Morning News” show on Tuesday.

The prison in Raymondville is known as “Tent City” because inmates are housed in Kevlar pods. The prison is run by private contractors Management & Training Corp., or MTC, of Utah. All 2,834 inmates have been removed following an uprising the week before last that left the facility uninhabitable. MTC is in the process of letting go 243 workers at the prison.  Texas Workforce Solutions, in conjunction with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, will hold a job fair at the Raymondville Rural Technical Center on March 14 to try to help those workers gain new employment.

The prison facilities are owned by Willacy County, with MTC running the prison for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas issued a report in June 2014 that claimed living conditions were unacceptable at “Tent City.”

Guillen told KURV that if he advocated for the end of private prisons and for all prisons to be fully government-run, “then tomorrow there would be riots at several state or federally-run prisons and claims from inmates and the ACLU for improper treatment and sub-standard facilities.”

KURV presenter Sergio Sanchez asked Guillen if it is right to allow a private prison operator to “shut down” on publicity and accountability in the wake of an uprising. Guillen responded by saying he does not think the issue is whether detention facilities are government- or privately-run.

“In fact, there are probably existing examples of both good and bad government- and privately-run facilities. The fact is this: whether it is private- or government-run facility you have got to have standards. You have got to have accountability for those standards. And you have got to have transparency in the process,” Guillen said.

“The problem is that those standards and the accountability of those standards come with a price tag and I think that is where the problem is at.”

Guillen said he had read that there were three full-time federal employees at the Raymondville facility and that they were there to make sure things were run right on a day to day basis. “If that is the case how can we point the finger at the private facility in this case? I don’t think we can. The fact is the government allowed it. The feds allowed it.”

Guillen said he fears for the day Texas has a similar situation at a state or state-contracted facility.

“Texas has 109 prisons, 16 of which are privately run. Every budget cycle the Legislature appropriates less and less to the prison system. In fact, Texas has closed three prisons in the last four years, two of which were privately run prisons. And that doesn’t mean that the money that was saved with these closures and was then redistributed among the rest of the system. It didn’t quite work out that way,” Guillen said.

“Quite frankly, in my humble opinion, what’s lacking here is the mandate from the public for increased standards, for the accountability of those standards and most importantly the mandate from the public to pay for it.”

Sanchez asked Guillen who oversees state-run prisons. Guillen said: “TDCJ, Texas Department of Criminal Justice is the one that oversees all of those prisons, including the contracted facilities. I believe that at each of those contracted facilities they’ve got somebody there full-time that works for the state, for TDCJ, and they are supposed to be making sure things are run right. But the problem comes when you have a situation like in Raymondville where you’ve got federal employees there and it still was allowed to happen. I fundamentally still believe here that the issue is probably funding. That is the best assessment I can give you. Obviously, things are being run on the cheap and these are the kinds of things that happen.”

Last summer, MTC announced plans to eventually replace the Kevlar pods. On KURV, presenter Tim Sullivan noted that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which used to run “Tent City,” vacated the facilities. “They wanted nothing to do with it. How is it (a private facility) better than a state or federally run prison?” Sullivan asked Guillen. “The motive for profit has taken over basic medical care, sanitary conditions, and they are not putting the proper funding into basic inmate care?” Guillen responded that the same thing conditions could be prevalent at state- or federally-run facilities.

Willacy County Correctional Center, otherwise known as Tent City, Raymondville. (Photo courtesy of AP/David Pike)
Willacy County Correctional Center, otherwise known as Tent City, Raymondville. (Photo courtesy of AP/David Pike)

KURV’s Sanchez asked Guillen if there is any chance of newer, tougher standards and oversight of privately run facilities. “This has triggered me to start looking into that,” Guillen responded. “I’ve got calls into to TDCJ asking them for details about the standards we have in place, the accountability of those standards and transparency. I think that is a big issue, whether it is privately-run or government-run. We need to have adequate transparency so that we can make sure that the public is engaged and knows what is going on.”

KURV’s Sanchez added that private prison operators need to remember that “they are not handling cattle, they are handling people.”