Nearly three thousand immigrant prisoners are being transferred to undisclosed federal facilities after a two-day demonstration against indecent living conditions and medical care left the Willacy County Regional Detention Facility in need of repairs.
Willacy is a private prison operated by the Management and Training Corporation (MTC), where thousands of inmates are housed in khaki-colored Kevlar domes. Located less than an hour north of the Mexico border in the town of Raymondville, Texas, the tent-city prison has been given the nickname Ritmo for its oppressive conditions and resemblance to Guantanamo Bay. It is one of thirteen private Criminal Alien Requirement facilities in the country receiving millions in taxpayer dollars to incarcerate immigrant offenders on behalf of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
The demonstration began on Friday morning when prisoners refused to leave their housing units for breakfast, telling guards they would not work or do their chores. “After speaking with the inmates, we learned some were unhappy with the medical services and were demonstrating to make their concerns known. The warden and other facility leaders met with the offenders to attempt to resolve their concerns and provide a resolution,” an MTC spokesperson later told reporters.
At 12:15pm, prison officials ordered the facility be put on lock-down. At 1:40pm, inmates were breaking out of their housing units and into the recreation yard. Small fires were set inside 3 of those units soon after. Thousands of prisoners were in the yard in the span of 20 minutes.
By this point, according to the Valley Morning Star, around 40 law enforcement vehicles had parked on the other side of the fence. Guards were firing tear gas into the yard. A helicopter hovered overhead carrying an officer brandishing an assault rifle.
Concerned families of Willacy prisoners gathered outside seeking more information. They watched as medical and law enforcement vehicles rushed past them towards the facility.
Around 3:30pm, five officers with shotguns took to a rooftop. By 5:00pm, a mass-casualty ambulance and armored vehicles were spotted on the scene. Despite all of this, local law enforcement officials were unable to retake control of the facility on their own.
On Saturday, the FBI arrived to take command of the situation. They were able to regain control by Sunday. Exactly how the demonstration came to an end once the FBI got involved is unknown, but officials report that prisoners have been cooperative ever since.
MTC has said that at no time during the demonstration did an inmate attempt to breach the perimeter and escape the facility. Between 3 to 6 inmates and one guard did suffer minor injuries, although it is unclear how those injuries were sustained.
“What people communicated to me during the interviews was a sense of near universal despair,” [said Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project].
“They described living in overcrowded Kevlar tents, with 200 bunks packed only a few feet apart from each other. They described insects that crawled through the walls of the tent and bit them at night. They described the toilets that constantly overflowed and how the stench of sewage permeated the tents each time these toilets overflowed.
“They also described being locked in isolation cells not because they had done anything wrong, but because there weren’t enough beds available in the overcrowded tents.”
Nonetheless, the BOP and MTC have decided they cannot keep prisoners at the facility in its current state.
By the time you read this, most-if-not-all of Willacy’s 2,800 prisoners will have been transferred to federal facilities in Texas “and elsewhere.” Those who weren’t put on the first buses out were given ‘extra blankets and clothing,’ presumably because the fires destroyed what little protection the Kevlar tent-domes provided from the elements.
BOP and MTC officials have declined to say where the prisoners are being taken, how long they’ll be gone, or if they will ever return to Willacy, citing “security concerns.” It is unclear if prisoners’ families or even the prisoners themselves know where they’re going, but the few who lived close enough to Willacy to visit will likely have to face even greater distances between them and their loved ones.
Prisoners and their families are not the only ones being punished in the wake of the demonstration, either. An auditor has announced that Willacy County is projecting to lose $2 million of the $2.8 million it was expecting to get as a result of MTC’s contract in Raymondville. The county is now facing some potentially severe budget shortcomings across multiple departments– money needed for things like road repair and local law enforcement.
Friday’s demonstration is not an isolated incident. It is the second to take place at Willacy in as many years. It’s also the second to take place at a private immigrant prison within the last year: in August, hundreds of Dominican inmates at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center (another CAR prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America) refused to leave the yard and return to their cells to protest abusive treatment and conditions at their facility.
There is no doubt that BOP and MTC officials moved with astonishing speed when it came to assembling a militarized and forceful response to the demonstration. They were able to arrange the transfer of thousands of prisoners to different facilities around the country in a matter of hours. Why has it taken so long to address the longstanding lack of medical care at Willacy and other CAR facilities?
According to KRGV News, some inmates will face criminal charges in connection to the demonstration. No word yet on whether the government will investigate the complaints that started it.
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