Texas Private Prison Closed After Rioting Over Poor Conditions

Last week, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced that it would terminate its contract with the privately run Texas prison where inmates rioted last month––setting part of the facility on fire––over substandard healthcare, among other abhorrent conditions there. 

A spokesperson for Management & Training Corp. (MTC), the private company that operated the Willacy County Correctional Center, said that the BOP ended the contract due to a diminished need for housing, citing a falling federal inmate population. "The BOP has reported that its inmate population nationwide is down and no longer has a need at this time for additional beds," Issa Arnita told ATTN: in an email.  

Willacy was one of 13 private facilities––and one of five in Texas––known as Criminal Alien Requirement prisons (CARs), which primarily hold immigrants convicted of illegal entry or reentry into the U.S. and generally hold lucrative contracts with federal agencies. Following last month's riot, all of the facility's nearly 3,000 inmates were transferred to other facilities across the country due to extensive damage.

The announcement came as an unofficial culmination of years of complaints at the facility. The Feb. 20 riot, which left the prison "uninhabitable" was the second uprising in two years, but even that statistic seems remarkably low given reported conditions at Willacy. Complaints from prisoners over the years included overflowing sewage in the crowded living quarters, routine physical and sexual abuse, and the prevalence of solitary confinement. One immigration attorney even told the Washington Post that the prison was sometimes known as "Ritmo" ––or, the Gitmo of Raymondville, Texas, where it is located.

As a result of the allegations and other complaints (staff members were charged in 2007 for smuggling immigrants across the border), Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), which held the original contract to house immigrants at Willacy, terminated its relationship in 2011. But soon after, the federal BOP announced a new contract with Willacy reportedly worth $532 million

"The Bureau of Prisons' decision to shut down the Willacy private prison is a welcome but long overdue move," Carl Takei, an attorney at the ACLU's National Prison Project said in a statement to ATTN:. "We hope the bureau will sustain momentum by ending the use of private prisons entirely."

But observers warn that while there has been an encouraging drop in the number of drug-related incarcerations, the specter of immigration incarceration remains a national priority.

"It's certainly true that there's been a drop in the number of people detained that are incarcerated for drug offenses because of some of the reforms that have been implemented by the Department of Justice," Bob Libal, executive director of the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, told ATTN:. "But what hasn't changed dramatically is a change in the incarceration of immigrants for migration crimes...particularly reentering the country after being deported, which is the second most prosecuted crime in the entire federal system."

"For us, the closure of Willacy is a good thing––the very first step in what we hope are reforms of the prison system that include shuttering all of these CAR contract facilities...continuing drug reforms, but also reforms to the prioritization of immigration prosecution," Libal said.

It's unclear what the future holds for the facility, but Willacy County is bracing for a blow to its economy. According to The Monitor, county officials were "stunned" by the announcement last Monday, believing that the prison could reopen with about 1,000 beds within six months. The prison employed some 400 workers in a county with one of the state's highest jobless rates and contributed around $2.7 million to its $8 million general and capital fund budgets in 2014. Officials said they are unsure how long MTC will work to secure a new contract, but would begin making budget cuts and considering hiring freezes in the meantime. "It's devastating," Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence told the paper. 

According to Arnita of MTC, the corporation "recognizes the negative impact the closure of this facility will have on the local economy and will work tirelessly with Willacy County to secure another contract to reopen the facility."

"It's pretty discouraging that we have a system that incentivizes putting people in prison so much that even when you have a completely destroyed prison, people are clamoring to find a place to put people into next," Bob Libal noted. 

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