Last week, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly put President Donald Trump’s executive order aimed at boosting security along the border into motion. In a memo, Kelly directed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to “take all necessary action and allocate all available resources to expand their detention capabilities and capacities at or near the border with Mexico to the greatest extent practicable.” According to DHS’s website, ICE has already increased its detention capacity by more about 1,100 beds since the order was signed, and it is actively searching for more space.
It’s likely that private prisons will once again be contracted to help handle this expected surge in detainees, after the federal government began phasing out its agreements with such facilities under President Barack Obama’s administration last August. Among the facilities ICE has apparently set its sights on is a vacant detention center in Raymondville, in Willacy County, an infamous complex of tent-like structures that shuttered in 2015 following a long history of alleged abuse, neglect, and mismanagement. “ICE is actively looking for new beds throughout the United States and they have expressed interest in the Willacy facility,” Celeste McDonald, vice president for corporate communications at Management and Training Corp. (MTC), told the Valley Morning Star earlier this month. The possibility of ICE returning Willacy to its original purpose—an immigrant detention center managed by MTC—has advocates concerned that the facility may also return to its old ways.
When MTC erected the Kevlar-tented Willacy County Processing Center in 2006, it was the largest detention center in the country. But the facility consistently fell short of filling its 3,000 beds, and there were problems inside from the moment it opened. Within a year of Willacy’s opening, immigration advocates and attorneys were already calling Willacy “Tent City” or referring to it as “Ritmo,” a not-so-playful comparison to the notorious detention camp in Guantanamo Bay.
In July 2007, detainees and prison officials discovered maggots in the facility’s food supply. During a visit that same year, a delegation from the American Bar Associated said inmates complained of mold, flooded toilets, and infestations of insects and rodents. One detainee said inmates were issued dirty underwear and towels, and another said they were provided old sneakers and socks with holes in them. “Other detainees indicated that they had been instructed not to say anything negative to the delegation about the facility,” the ABA’s report says. According to a March 2009 audit of the facility conducted by a private third party, detainees filed 924 grievances in 2008, but the auditor gave the facility a recommended rating of “good.”
In June 2009, Kathleen Baldoni, a former nurse at Willacy, testified before Congress during a briefing organized by Human Rights Watch to shed light on insufficient medical care provided in detention facilities across the country. “The level of human suffering was just unbelievable,” Baldoni testified. “There was inadequate food and personal items—personal hygiene was a problem—as was access to medical care.” According to the Texas Tribune, a 2007 review of Willacy’s medical facilities revealed that twenty of the center’s 46 health care positions were vacant at the time of the review, and the facility was without a clinical director, dentist, pharmacist, or psychiatrist. Baldoni told the Tribune in 2009 that detainees with health problems would be lucky to receive medical attention within a week. “We didn’t delve into anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary,” Baldoni told the Tribune. “After a while, you stop thinking about the people. You force yourself not to care as much. Because how else do you get the job done?”
During a visit to Willacy in 2009, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also discovered scarce medical personnel at the facility, and interviewed detainees who complained about not being fed. According to the report, one former nurse told the commission that while she worked at Willacy, prisoners were often given antacids to combat their hunger pains. Of the six detention facilities the commission visited that year, the conditions at Willacy were “particularly disturbing,” according to the report.
In 2011, Willacy guard Edwin Rodriguez pleaded guilty to charges that he sexually abused a female inmate at the facility. The abuse occurred in 2008, but it was three years before Rodriguez was indicted by a grand jury. Shortly after Rodriguez was indicted, an explosive PBS Frontline documentary blew the lid off rampant allegations of abuse at Willacy. Former employees told Frontline that sexual and physical abuse was common at the facility, with female detainees being targeted in particular, and that management encouraged employees to cover up allegations and complaints.
ICE decided not to renew its contract with MTC in 2011, which may have been part of an effort by the Obama administration to implement a “truly civil detention system,” in response to criticism of the conditions in facilities like Willacy. But just one month after ICE pulled out, the Federal Bureau of Prisons awarded a contract to MTC and filled the tents with undocumented immigrants who had also been convicted of crimes (under ICE, Willacy held undocumented immigrants in “civil” detention, meaning detainees were only waiting for their immigration status cases to be heard or waiting to be deported).
When the bureau took over, it promptly changed the facility’s name to “Willacy County Correctional Center,” but the change in name and ownership didn’t seem to curtail Willacy’s problems. In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union published the results of a multi-year investigation into conditions at five privately-run immigration prison facilities, including Willacy. The report, which you can read in full here, characterized Willacy as “a physical symbol of everything that is wrong with enriching the private prison industry and criminalizing immigration.” Relying on interviews with inmates, the report detailed poor conditions at Willacy, including frequent sewage overflows and overcrowded tents (MTC disputed the allegations in the report).
According to the report, inmates would be packed into each tent so tightly that when inmates lay down in their bunk, their feet could touch the bunk next to them. Tensions ran high and fights were frequent. “It’s like walking through minefields,” one inmate told the ACLU. “You never know when someone is going to explode, because everyone is frustrated.”
“They have a lot of people in here,” another inmate told the ACLU. “Sometimes it smells. It’s too many people. Some people even talk about burning down this place. They just don’t have enough space for all of us here. Sometimes it makes me go crazy.”
Under those purported conditions, it was perhaps inevitable that the inmates would eventually revolt. One morning in February 2015, upset over what they felt was inadequate healthcare, some inmates refused to do their morning chores or eat breakfast. The disturbance morphed into a full-scale riot with about 2,000 inmates involved. Inmates set fire to three of the facility’s ten tents, and two officers suffered minor injuries while responding to the riot, which lasted for several days. A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons said the damage caused by the riots left Willacy “uninhabitable,” and all of the inmates were immediately transferred to other facilities, forcing MTC to layoff more than 300 employees. A month after the riot, the bureau cancelled its contract with MTC. Willacy has remained empty ever since.
Immigration advocates and critics of private prisons hailed the shuttering of Willacy as a victory. Carl Takei, an attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said in a statement after the contract was cancelled that it was a “welcome but long overdue move.” But now Willacy couple reopen, which has raised concerns among advocates.
“Tent City has been shuttered twice by the federal government after widespread reports of conditions that involved sexual and physical abuse, mismanagement, and medical neglect so prevalent that it led to a prisoner uprising that destroyed the facility,” Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based social justice group that opposes private prisons, said in a statement. “To reopen this troubled private prison would be a giant step backwards.”
We reached out to ICE in an attempt to confirm whether or not the agency is considering reopening Willacy, and if so, for a response to the concerns raised by immigrant advocates and critics of private prisons.“ICE remains committed to providing a safe environment for all those in its custody,” ICE Public Affairs Officer Nina Pruneda said in an email. She did not answer our questions about whether ICE was considering reopening Willacy, and instead directed us to an FAQ set up on the Homeland Security website after the executive order was signed.
“To support the further need for increased detention capacity, particularly along the Southwest Border, ICE is currently defining contracting requirements,” part of the FAQ says. “A list of potential detention locations is under review, which would supply additional beds.” When asked repeatedly whether the Willacy facility is on the list of potential locations the agency is reviewing, Pureda could not provide an answer, and instead kept referring Texas Monthly back to the FAQ.
In June 2016, MTC moved to tear down some of the tents at Willacy, hoping to make the prison more palatable to future clients, according to the Morning Star. If ICE does return to Willacy, it would put the town of Raymondville and Willacy County in a strange position. The prison was a pillar for the area’s modest economy, and according to the Los Angeles Times, the locals would mostly welcome back the influx of jobs with open arms. Some residents of the struggling town sounded unconcerned about the long history of alleged abuse and problems that plagued the facility. “Why would they complain?” Mia Vasquez, who lost her job in the facility’s pharmacy when the prison closed, told the Times. “Medical, dental, vision…they had it all. I wish I could get that care.”
Still, there was definitely some bad blood left behind by MTC’s rocky ten-year run. In December, Willacy County filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming MTC “turned a blind eye to the enormous problems that plagued the prison from its inception,” and alleging MTC’s “abysmal management” drove the prison into the ground. The county is seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages.
But with Willacy potentially reopening, the county appears willing to settle or dismiss the lawsuit. “We’re keeping all options on the table,” County Judge Aurelio Guerra told the Morning Star on Wednesday, after county commissioners met with an attorney to discuss dropping the case. “We’re all working toward the same objective and that is the opening of the facility.”