The Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas, is now empty. As of late May, a single security guard sat in a small car in the entrance to the parking lot. It has been like this since prisoners so ransacked the facilities in a February riot, cutting and burning holes in the Kevlar domes that held them, that the Federal Bureau of Prisons declared it “uninhabitable.” The agency moved the inmates to other prisons and declined to renew its contract with the private corrections company that ran the facility. Nearly all of the 400 employees were terminated.
Willacy’s operating company, Management & Training Corp., says the riot was plotted by inmates and was unavoidable; the SWAT team it deployed to control inmates, a measured response to prisoner unrest. This version of the story, which has circulated in the press since the days after the riot, is at best a partial truth, and one that obscures the company’s own aggression. A fuller account of the events at Willacy points to deep problems with the federal government’s management of a soaring population of immigrants it incarcerates for border crimes.
Until it was closed, Willacy was one of 13 low-security facilities in the federal system that held noncitizens serving the final months or years of their criminal sentences. The more than 25,000 men held in these facilities, called Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons, are later transferred to immigration authorities and deported.
The facilities are not immigration detention centers; they are criminal prisons. But they differ from other BOP facilities in key ways. They are all privately operated. They offer fewer programs, less permanent housing, and often have a smaller—and lower-paid—staff. The BOP has said that immigrants are an “appropriate group for housing in privately operated institutions where there are somewhat fewer programs,” because the inmates aren’t being reintegrated into US society.
Rights groups disagree. “They are segregated federal prisons where people are sent based on their national origin,” said Carl Takei, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who co-wrote a report last year detailing subpar conditions and lack of government oversight in five CAR prisons in Texas. “They’re not just separate, but they’re also unequal.”
One measure of that inequity is that riots keep breaking out. Willacy’s riot was the fourth at a CAR prison since 2008. The BOP’s other low-security prisons, by contrast, almost never experience such eruptions. The Justice Department Inspector General released a report in April that found that a CAR prison operated by the GEO Group in Pecos, Texas, where prisoners rioted in 2009, had for years had understaffed medical and correctional units and failed to address known inadequacies in security and healthcare.
MTC has said that a small group of prisoners at Willacy used medical-care complaints as a pretext to orchestrate the February riot. According to this version of events, the inmates feared for their safety at the border crossing through which they were to be deported. MTC says the inmates rioted so that they would be moved to a different prison and thus would be returned to Mexico through safer crossings.