Riot in Texas Leaves Big Questions About Private For-Profit Prisons

Almost 3,000 inmates, mostly undocumented immigrants, have been moved out of a private prison facility in Texas after a riot last month, and 90 percent of the prison staff have been laid off. The incident and it’s aftermath reveal big questions about the way for-profit companies run our nation’s prisons.

Complaints about the facility had been mounting for years, and when a call came in on Friday morning Feb. 20 from the warden at the Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas, that they needed backup, it became evident there was a big problem. Inmates were refusing to go to work and they wouldn’t go to breakfast. Prisoners were upset about the quality of prison medical services, as well as what they describe as liberal use of solitary confinement.

Sheriff Larry Spence watched the melee unfold from outside the prison fence, as he tells National Public Radio:

It looked like ants coming out of an ant hill.

Roughly 2,000 prisoners scrambled into the rec yard and began pushing over posts, setting fires, and grabbing pipes as weapons. After five hours, the riot was finally controlled with only minor injuries to staff and prisoners.

The Willacy County Correctional Center is run by Management Training Corporation (MTC), a for-profit company that receives $48 million a year in tax dollars to run the facility for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. MTC spokespeople tried to downplay the riot claiming that it was orchestrated by a small group of prisoners and that their own private surveys show that prisoners were happy with the medical treatment they were receiving.

Two official delegations that visited the prison in the last eight years are disputing MTC’s statement that discontent over lack of medical services (as well as use of solitary confinement and other complaints about sanitary living conditions) were isolated to a small group of people. Willacy has been under fire since it opened in 2006, according to Adriana Pinon, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Texas, who visited the prison in 2012 and 2013.

“Willacy has a terrible track record; it earned the name of RITMO,” said Pinon.

The name RITMO is a play on GITMO, with an R for Raymondville where the prison is housed. Prisoners had been complaining for years about the terrible living conditions in the large Kevlar domes where they are housed. Claims made to the American Bar Association allege that they were leaks in the tents where mold grew and sewage regularly backed up into where the inmates slept.

Interview with Carl Takei, ACLU, about conditions at RITMO:

Squalid conditions and overcrowding were among the other complaints from the prisoners. The Federal Bureau of Prisons have responded that three full time staff members are on hand to continually monitor the contract the government has with the for-profit company and make sure that MTC is in compliance.

For now though, the prison will remain closed and many of the questions about the effectiveness of for-profit prisons will remain unanswered.

See the news video above for local opinions on the riot, and the importance of the jail to the nearby community’s economy.

 

 

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