A riot that broke out last week left a private prison in Texas "uninhabitable," forcing the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to begin relocating nearly 3,000 inmates held at the facility.
The rioting began during breakfast Friday morning at the Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, about 40 miles from the Mexican border. The inmates — mostly immigrants held for non-violent offenses — broke out into the recreation yard and set fire to three Kevlar tents that each housed about 200 men.
Hundreds of inmates have already been transferred to other facilities in Texas and across the country, according to the Management and Training Corporation (MTC), the private company that owns the facility and is contracted by the BOP.
"This process will continue through the next week until all of the inmates have been relocated," MTC said in a statement Sunday. "Investigators will then thoroughly assess the damage and begin repair work. Initial assessments indicate significant damage to the plumbing and heating and cooling systems."
Two officers and three inmates reportedly suffered minor injuries in the melee, which was still not fully contained by the end of the weekend.
A BOP representative told VICE News that "MTC staff are continuing to communicate with the inmate population in an effort to regain complete control of the facility," and that "we are making plans to move as many as 2,800 inmates to BOP institutions or other contract institutions, if needed."
According to an FBI spokesperson, the BOP will update their inmate locator site so families are able get information about their loved ones.
'This is a facility that for years has been plagued by physical and sexual abuse and neglect.'
MTC did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE News.
The riot is the latest in a string of recent uprisings at lucrative federally contracted private prison facilities known as Criminal Alien Requirement prisons (CARs), which mainly hold immigrants convicted of unauthorized entry or reentry into the United States. The Willacy County facility is one of 13 CARs in the US, and one of five in Texas.
Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the ACLU, told VICE News that riots are hardly surprising at these facilities.
"This uprising is a predictable consequence of the BOP turning a blind eye to abuse and mistreatment at these private prisons," Takei said. "It reflects persistent problems within the CAR prisons that stem from the relationship that the bureau has set up with these private prison companies."
According to a recent ACLU report, all five CARs in Texas designate 10 percent of their bed space for solitary confinement — double the rate of other BOP-managed facilities. Guards at one institution reportedly called inmates racial epithets and sent prisoners to isolation cells for failing to "speak English in America."
The report also noted that medical understaffing and cost cutting measures limit access to sufficient medical care for detainees. One prisoner told the ACLU researchers that when he woke up with a severe asthma attack, no doctor was on staff and the nurse who eventually treated him was unaware of the proper technique to use in such situations.
"These are all problems created by the fact that the priority of a for-profit prison company is to turn tax dollars into revenue," Takei, a coauthor of the report, told VICE News. "That fundamental problem is compounded by the way in which the BOP drafts these contracts and manages its relationships with these companies."
The Willacy facility has an especially sordid history. Aside from reports of dirty, overcrowded tents, and frequently overflowing toilets, Willacy has been racked with problems for years.
An immigration attorney once told the Washington Post the prison had earned the nickname "Ritmo" — as in the Gitmo of Raymondville — because detainees are often cut off from their families and attorneys, and because of the facility's large size.
In 2007, staff members were charged with smuggling immigrants across the boarder, and in 2011, detainees alleged that routine physical and sexual abuses were taking place. Following those allegations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which originally contracted the facility, removed its detainees. But about a month later, MTC announced a new contract with the BOP to operate Willacy as a CAR facility — a deal reportedly worth $532 million.
"It should of no surprise to anyone that this happened at Willacy," Bob Libel, executive director of the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, told VICE News. "This is a facility that for years has been plagued by physical and sexual abuse and neglect, and it's really a place where immigrants are incarcerated and warehoused by a private prison corporation that's making hundreds of millions of dollars off of their incarceration, and clearly investing very little of it for the people that are detained there."
According to Libel, there are 13 CAR facilities in the BOP and three in the last seven years have "erupted into complete prison uprisings." The Willacy riots follow inicdents in CAR facilities in Mississippi in 2012, and Texas in 2008. Both of those facilities were federally contracted out to private companies.
"These are not isolated incidences," Libel said.
In the past decade, prosecution of illegal entry and reentry — the crimes for which the vast majority of the immigrant inmates across the 13 CAR facilities are detained — has increased by a staggering 1,400 and 300 percent, respectively, according to Human Rights Watch. They are now the most commonly prosecuted federal crimes, costing US taxpayers about $1 billion in 2011.
"These prosecutions are really worrying from a human rights perspective," Clara Long, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. "They seem to be incarcerating huge numbers of people for the nonviolent crime of basically trying to be with your family."
Long noted that 15 percent of people caught crossing the border illegally have children who are US citizens.
"I've talked to so many people who've said 'I don't care if they put me in prison, I have to be back with my family,' [and] those people won't be deterred by criminal prosecution," Long said.
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