After Riot, Feds End Contract for Private Texas Prison

March 17, 2015
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Workers carry wire mesh past the first tent-like dome erected at the Willacy County owned Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas, on Thursday, July 27, 2006. (AP Photo/Joe Hermosa)

The federal Bureau of Prisons has said it will terminate its contract with Management and Training Corp. (MTC) to run a Texas prison that erupted in protests last month after years of complaints about poor conditions.

The Willacy County Correctional Center in Texas housed people convicted mainly of immigration and nonviolent drug offenses. It has been slammed by the ACLU for prisoner reports of overcrowding, bug infestations and toilets that overflowed with waste. During the uprising in February, prisoners set fire to the Kevlar tents in which they were housed, rendering the facility uninhabitable. Inmates were transferred to other facilities.

According to MTC, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) severed the contract because the inmate population has declined and Willacy’s more than 2,800 beds were no longer needed.

Ed Ross, a BOP spokesman, declined to comment on MTC’s characterization of the decision. He said only that the contract is set to expire in August, and “we are not exercising our option to renew.”

The two organizations appeared to differ on their assessments of what caused the uprising. In February, the BOP said that the protests arose because inmates were upset with their poor medical care.

But on Tuesday, MTC said that was only a pretext for the unrest. “Patient satisfaction surveys at Willacy indicated the inmates were satisfied with care received,” said Issa Arnita, an MTC spokesman.

Instead, Arnita said MTC’s preliminary inquiries found that a small group of “influential” inmates had plotted the disturbance to get themselves transferred to another facility. MTC said the men feared for their safety if they were to be released into the area of Mexico near Willacy, and hoped that forcing a transfer to another facility would allow them to return to a safer part of the country. The group plotted to burn the tents and told other inmates to say they were protesting poor medical treatment.

MTC said it was still pursuing its investigation, and had also hired the Nakamoto Group, a national firm, to conduct an independent investigation into the disturbance.

The BOP declined to comment on MTC’s findings. The federal agency has been conducting its own investigation into what happened at Willacy. It also had monitors at Willacy responsible for ensuring inmates were properly treated, but the BOP has declined to say whether its monitors had flagged any problems at the facility before the riots.

This isn’t the first time the federal government has terminated a contract for Willacy with MTC. In 2006, the company began operating Willacy as an immigration detention center under a contract with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But ICE severed the contract after FRONTLINE reported on numerous allegations of sexual, physical and verbal abuse by guards at the facility in our 2011 film Lost in Detention. When ICE transferred out its detainees, BOP contracted MTC to continue operating the facility for federal prisoners.

On Tuesday, MTC said that it would work “tirelessly” to secure another contract with the BOP to reopen the facility.

The Bureau of Prisons contracts with MTC and two other private companies to service a network of 13 detention centers around the country.

MTC currently operates two other facilities for the federal government — Taft Correctional Institution, in California, and Giles W. Dalby Correctional Institution in Post, Texas.

Giles W. Dalby was also cited by the ACLU in its report last year for multiple abuse allegations. The ACLU said it had received reports from inmates saying that they were threatened with physical violence, sexually harassed and addressed with racial slurs like “Mexican n—–”. Those who complained were threatened with time in solitary confinement. That punishment was also reportedly reserved by those who spoke Spanish to the mostly English-speaking guards, the ACLU said.

MTC has disputed the report and defended its treatment of inmates, saying the allegations are anecdotal.

Related Film: Lost in Detention

Watch FRONTLINE’s 2011 investigation into allegations of abuse at Willacy Detention Center.

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