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Prisoners watch as law enforcement converge on the Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas during a riot on Feb. 20.
News

After Willacy

A private prison company, a prison riot, and what comes next.

Update 5:29 p.m. 3.16.2015

The federal Bureau of Prisons has canceled its contract with Management and Training Corporation to operate an immigrant detention facility in Willacy County, Texas, where prisoners rioted last month. The company is still cleaning up the facility, and it remains unclear whether the cancellation is a direct response to the riot and how it may affect the company's bids for future contracts to run federal and state prisons around the country. Company representatives told a local news station the shutdown is in part a response to declining inmate populations nationwide.

Update 1:25 p.m. 3.9.2015

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter on March 9 to the federal Dept. of Justice calling for an independent investigation into the causes of the riot last month at an immigration detention facility in Willacy County, Texas, as well as the response to the riot from MTC, the private company that runs the facility, and other governmental organizations. The federal Bureau of Prison's "decision to contract out the incarceration of federal prisoners to privately operated prisons does not absolve the Bureau of responsibility for conditions and practices in those facilities," the letter states. "If BOP has not provided effective oversight at Willacy, which the recent protest would suggest, then the Department of Justice must implement meaningful remedies to BOP contracting and oversight practices, and consider withdrawing from all private prisons as soon as reasonably possible."

Original Story

The federal Bureau of Prisons is still dealing with the aftermath of a riot late last month at the Willacy County Correctional Center that left the southeast Texas prison — in reality a collection of Kevlar domes — officially “uninhabitable.”

The Utah-based Management and Training Corporation (MTC), which runs the facility, has said the prisoners — who were mostly immigrants caught illegally trying to enter the U.S. — planned a riot in hopes of getting transferred to another facility (and perhaps delaying their deportations). In a commentary piece for The Marshall Project last week, Carl Takei of the American Civil Liberties Union instead blamed conditions at the prison, from overcrowding to overuse of solitary confinement to overflowing toilets.

Neither the private company or the federal prison bureau have announced any substantial policy changes in response to the riot, and it appears their relationship remains unshaken. On March 9, the private company is due to bid for contracts to run a new immigrant facility in Leflore County, Miss., as well as four existing immigration facilities throughout Texas. MTC will compete for these contracts with two bigger private prison operators, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, Inc.

According to Takei, the federal prison agency could bar MTC from competing “if they wanted to,” as a way of sanctioning of the company for their handling of the riot. Neither MTC nor the Bureau of Prisons has responded to a request for comment.

The other party watching the March 9 bid closely is the Board of Supervisors in Leflore County, Miss. Late last month, the board approved MTC’s proposal to fill 1,172 beds in a county facility with immigrant detainees, who would be moved to the facility if the company wins the federal bid. In 2012, the county ended a contract with CCA when the company could not house the prisoners as cheaply as the state. The prisoners were moved elsewhere in the state system, leaving the county to pay for the facility’s upkeep even as it sat mostly empty.

It’s a familiar story. Small communities from Rhode Island to Georgia to Oregon have paid to build prisons to attract private contractors — at moments when they believed a boom in prisoner populations was coming — only to get stuck with their upkeep when the contractors left town due to losing a contract or miscalculating inmate population projections. As incarceration numbers around the country have begun to dip, many of these communities have been looking to immigrant detention as a potential savior.

But it comes with big risks. Willacy County, Texas, where the riot took place, owes roughly $63 million on the facility, for which it issued bonds and assumed the financial risk in order to lure MTC. The county was getting $2.50 per day per inmate from MTC, according to the Rio Grande Valley’s local news station KRGV, and expected to reap nearly $3 million this year. When the prisoners were moved in the wake of the riot, the county stopped getting its share. “If the portion of that money is not coming in, or all that money is not coming in, it's going to cause some financial problems,” the county sheriff Larry Spence told the channel, mentioning road maintenance as a potential casualty. The county has also had its bond rating downgraded by Standard and Poors due to the lost income from the prison. Many in the community who had worked at the prison are now unemployed.

Willacy should be a cautionary tale, says Takei, for Leflore County, Miss., which is hoping to get the new contract. Takei also points to a series of scandals over poor conditions at state prisons run by the company, which may lead to an ACLU-sponsored class action suit, additional reasons not to trust MTC’s stewardship.

The county official most familiar with the bidding for the Mississippi contract is Chancery Clerk Sam Abraham, who could not be reached for comment. Anjuan Brown, a district supervisor who spoke on Abraham’s behalf, said the rest of the board has yet to learn details of the plan. Brown did not know “who we are looking at to manage that facility” and said “we don’t have a lot of details.” When asked about the possibility of housing immigrant detainees, he said he did not know for sure who would be housed at the facility.

At the moment, it is unclear whether the county or the Bureau of Prisons has raised any issues with MTC about their handling of the prison riot in Texas ahead of the March 9 bid.

For more on the federal solicitation for bids — or if you’d like to bid to house federal immigrant detainees — click here.