Prison-reform advocates say they’re not at all surprised by an uprising at a Texas prison that has forced the relocation of some 2,800 detained immigrants.
Inmates at the Willacy County Correctional Center, about 200 miles south of San Antonio, started fires and had "kitchen knives and sharpened mops and brooms to be used as weapons," Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence told local news station KGBT. The prison is “now uninhabitable due to damage caused by the inmate population,” read a statement released by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
It took two days for county and federal police agencies to control the protests, with authorities even resorting to tear gas.
The inmates were reportedly protesting medical care at the facility, which is part of a little-known network of 13 prisons designated for immigrants, many of whom reentered the United States after being deported.
All are run by private companies, a fact advocates for immigration and prison reform say results in a second-class system with insufficient oversight.
“It’s a predictable consequence of the Bureau of Prisons turning a blind eye to the abuse at Criminal Alien Requirement prisons,” said Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the ACLU who visited the facility in 2013.
The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
“Willacy is aptly a symbol of everything that is wrong with the criminalization of immigration and BOP’s use of privatization,” Takei told Fusion.
And inmates have reportedly talked about attacking the facility for years.
“Sometimes [prisoners] become so frustrated that they even speak of burning down the tents,” an inmate named Dante told the ACLU more than a year ago.
Takei said when he visited Willacy inmates described “vermin and insects” crawling in and out of the tents, overflowing toilets, along with severe overcrowding.
Issa Arnita, a spokesperson for the company that runs the prison, Management and Training Corporation (MTC), said that they “believe offenders receive timely, quality health care,” noting that their health services have been accredited by two independent associations.
Referred to as “Tent City” by locals—most “dormitories” are Kevlar tents that house about 200 men in bunk beds that are reportedly spaced only a few feet apart—the facility is one of 13 prisons known as 13 Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons.
This is the third time inmates at Willacy protest in recent years.
During the summer in 2013, 30 inmates at the facility refused to leave the recreation yard after "officials ignored their complaints of toilets overflowing with raw sewage," according to a damning ACLU report on CAR facilities. In February 2014, it took 30 local sheriff’s officers to control an uprising that left multiple prisoners injured.
Tent City, along with the 12 other CAR prisons, is part of a lucrative business which has funneled billions of taxpayer dollars into the private prison industry in recent years.
A Fusion investigation published earlier this month found that without a single vote in Congress, officials across three administrations: created a new classification of federal prisons only for immigrants; decided that private companies would run the facilities; and filled them by changing immigration enforcement practices.
The Willacy County Correctional Center, like other Criminal Alien Requirement prisons, have been built in the past 10 years and transformed remote rural landscapes in the United States.
Willacy County Correctional Center, Raymondville, TX
“[Our families] don’t know that we suffer, that we’re not treated with respect, or that we sometimes lack food or blankets,” a former inmate named Vicente told the ACLU in a 2013 interview.
Read Fusion’s full investigation into the second-class prison system for immigrants at Fusion.net/shadow-prisons
Cristina is an Emmy-nominated reporter and producer. She recently won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for her documentary Death by Fentanyl. She attended Yale University and has reported for the New Haven Independent, ABC News, Univision, The Huffington Post, and Fusion.
Jorge Rivas is the national affairs correspondent at Fusion. He follows the national conversation through the lens of racial, sexual, and political identity.