On Feb. 20 prisoners at the Willacy County Correctional Center refused to work and eat breakfast, to protest inadequate medical care at the for-profit Texas tent prison. The situation soon escalated into a riot, with inmates setting fire to some of the tents and at least three injuries. Guards used tear gas to quell the uprising.
A day later, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) said the Willacy facility, which houses mostly undocumented immigrants — many held for illegal border crossing and low-level offenses — was uninhabitable and its 2,800 prisoners would be moved to other facilities.
The Willacy prison fiasco highlights the problems of privatizing prisons and prison services across the U.S. Instead of protecting their limited rights, state and federal governments are selling prisoners to the highest bidder.
Criminal alien requirement (CAR) prisons such as Willacy only magnify the routine abuses of private prisons. CAR prisons are almost entirely filled with low-security immigrant prisoners serving time before being deported. The overwhelmingly majority of Willacy prisoners were convicted only of illegal re-entry into the United States. Most of the other prisoners are there for low-level drug crimes.
Willacy is operated by the Management and Training Corp., based in Utah. Last year for-profit companies ran at least 13 CAR prisons. Other private prisons hold noncitizens with no criminal convictions. These include the so-called family detention centers, whose shameful conditions were documented in a New York Times article on Feb. 4.
Willacy has a history of abuse. This is not the first time Willacy prisoners went on strike. In 2013 prisoners refused to go back into their tents until overflowing toilets were repaired. Authorities punished leaders of that protest by sending them to extreme isolation. Problems with toilets and sewage continue to occur. In 2011 the facility was shut down because of its terrible reputation, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement terminated its contract with Management and Training. Willacy reopened promptly with a new population of immigrant prisoners, under a new contract from the BOP.
The latest strike came eight months after an American Civil Liberties Union report slammed the Willacy County prison as inhumane and squalid. “Prisoners described a facility that is not only foul, cramped and depressing but also overcrowded,” the report said. “They are reportedly housed so tightly that when they lie in their bunks, their feet can touch the bunk next to them.”
Privately owned and operated prisons are not required to provide education and rehabilitation programs to immigrant prisoners. The Willacy facility offers few jobs, small recreation yards and a tiny library with few Spanish-language books. Even the jobs that pay the prison rate of 11 to 17 cents per hour are in short supply.
Prisoners also complained about the lack of cleaning supplies for their 200-person Kevlar tents. “The tents are dirty and crawling with insects and the toilets often overflow and always smell foul,” a 38-year-old Mexican immigrant, who was convicted of re-entry, told ACLU investigators. The inmates said their clothes were washed, without detergent, in the same loads with mops and other cleaning equipment. When prisoners tried to wash their own clothes, they were punished for hanging clothes up to dry.
Dickensian conditions prevail in Willacy’s special housing unit (SHU), a euphemism for solitary confinement. SHU cells are small, described as having three metal walls and a metal door. The isolation drives some deep into mental illness, with prisoners reporting suicide attempts and self-mutilation.
The BOP contract with the Management and Training requires that 10 percent of beds be reserved for SHU. That's a standard provision in BOP contracts with private prisons. All new arrivals at Willacy are sent to SHU, or “the hole,” for a period. Other prisoners have been sent to SHU for offenses such as asking for new shoes or more food, according to the ACLU. All the private prison contracts have minimum occupancy quotas, which guarantee payment for a certain number of prisoners, usually 90 percent of capacity. These provisions encourage incarcerating more people, since the spots are already paid for.
The latest protest at Willacy focused on the lack of basic medical services. Prisoners report long wait times, limited access to doctors or registered nurses, limited dental care, outright refusal to treat diseases or injuries and hostility from medical staff. Sadly, there is no reason to believe that Willacy is the worst private U.S. prison or even very different from many others housing immigrant and nonimmigrant prisoners.
The United States has the biggest prison population in the world, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of population. The U.S. prison population grew from 319,598 people in 1980 to 1.57 million in 2013, a nearly fourfold increase in 33 years, during a time when crime rates were falling. Private prisons are a fast-growing part of the prison picture.
Even states that do not privatize prisons may contract with private vendors for specific services, such as food, health care, telephones and financial services. A 2014 report from In the Public Interest details problems with such contracts. In Florida, for example, privatization of prison health services led to increased inmate deaths as well as delays and outright refusal of treatment. Michigan prisons’ food contract with Aramark resulted in similar abuses. “The contract has been plagued by one scandal after another — scandals that involve every sort of misconduct you could imagine,” the report said. “Underserving inmates. Maggots in and around food. Smuggling of contraband by Aramark employees, including cocaine and heroin. Sex with inmates in kitchen coolers.”
Society owes special protection to its most vulnerable members. When government takes away the independence of prisoners and their ability to defend themselves, it owes them protection against abuse. People who are imprisoned for crimes still have basic rights to food, shelter and medical care. They still have the constitutional guarantee that they will not be subject to cruel and unusual punishment.
The crisis at Willacy highlights blatant disregard for the human rights of prisoners that characterizes U.S. prisons, especially private, for-profit ones. These violations don’t just hurt those disproportionately represented in our prison populations — immigrants convicted of border crossing, mothers and families fleeing horrendous situations in their home countries, poor people, people of color and young people. They also betray the fundamental principles on which this country was founded.