Detention Center In Texas That Once Burned During Riots Reopens

Aug 2, 2018
Originally published on August 7, 2018 1:39 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the past few months, we've talked a lot about the human side of immigration detention. Now we're going to talk about the economics of it. Three-quarters of immigrants locked up in the U.S. are housed by private companies, and the Trump administration is looking for space for thousands more. Each of these new beds is money to the companies that run these centers. Our co-host Ari Shapiro wanted to know more about the economic impact of immigration detention, so he went to a small town in South Texas that depends on the private prison industry where a new immigration detention center is just opening up.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Lara's Bakery is known for having the best doughnuts in Raymondville, Texas, and not just doughnuts. The glass cases are full of Mexican pastries like pan dulce and pumpkin empanadas. When this bakery opened in 1963, the city of Raymondville was thriving.

GEORGE LARA: The downtown area was - absolutely everything was busy. We had three theaters in town. We had a drive-in theater that was always busy on the weekends. Restaurants - it was a really growing community.

SHAPIRO: George Lara took over the bakery from his father in 1974. Back then, agriculture drove the local economy. In the decades that followed, a lot of the businesses around Lara's Bakery closed down. Today Raymondville's historic movie theater is vacant. Even the Walmart closed a few years ago.

LARA: They left town, and we were really devastated by it.

SHAPIRO: Right now the town's biggest employer is the school district, and coming in at number two is the prison industry.

LARA: The prisons, when they came into town, really was a boost as far as the economy. It helped quite a bit.

SHAPIRO: That was in the early 2000s. Today there are three prisons in town. This is the story of one immigration detention center and its impact on a community. And it's a story that's playing out in similar towns around the country right now. The new center in Raymondville only got its first bus of immigrants a couple weeks ago, but the place already goes by a few different names. Officially it's El Valle Detention Facility or The Valley. Unofficially some people call it Ritmo, short for Raymondville Gitmo. Others still call it Willacy because Willacy is the name of the detention center that stood on this site before inmates torched it in 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEDIA MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Marcy, some unbelievable insights here. The Willacy County Corrections...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The trouble began on Friday when the prisoners seized three of the center's housing units, setting fires and vandalizing the buildings.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That prison is uninhabitable due to all the damage that they caused.

SHAPIRO: For years, immigrants at Willacy had complained about overcrowding, rodents and physical and sexual abuse.

MARK FLEMING: I think it was in a class of its own when it was running as an immigration detention facility.

SHAPIRO: I spoke with Mark Fleming, who investigated Willacy almost a decade ago for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He visits a lot of immigration detention centers, and he says Willacy was worse than most. It included a literal tent city, each tent packed with bunk beds.

FLEMING: You know, when it was built, it was intended to be a temporary facility. And soon temporary turned into a over five- to 10-year slowly disintegrating situation.

SHAPIRO: The company that operated Willacy is the third-largest private detention business in the U.S. It's called MTC or Management & Training Corporation. They deny that there was a pattern of abuse, and we'll hear more from them in a moment. When Willacy prison shut down after the riots, Willacy County was tens of millions of dollars in debt for the cost of the center. So the county sued MTC for breach of contract, accusing the company of, quote, "abysmal management of the prison." The county later agreed to drop the lawsuit. MTC bought the Willacy site from the county and paid off the county's debts in the bargain - case closed, prison closed until this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Justice.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

SHAPIRO: In early July, protesters marched in the Texas summer heat in front of Willacy County Courthouse. Commissioners met inside to approve a new contract for MTC to run a detention center on the same site where detainees burned down the old Willacy tent city. Judge Aurelio Guerra oversaw the process, and once the meeting wrapped up, he made some remarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AURELIO GUERRA: I have not had a single constituent come to me and tell me since February of 2015, which is when the riot happened, to not consider reopening it.

SHAPIRO: We requested an interview with the judge and with each county commissioner. They all either declined or didn't reply. We also filed a public records request for the new contract between the county and MTC, and they haven't responded to that either. Christina Patino Houle was at the courthouse that day. She's with a local group called the Equal Voice Network.

CHRISTINA PATINO HOULE: To put money on the table and to say if you lock up your brothers and sisters, we will improve the quality of your street, to position the well-being of few against the well-being of the collective - I think it is an absolutely false dichotomy.

SHAPIRO: But for many people living in Raymondville, the most important thing about this prison is that it pays corrections officers close to $20 an hour. Other jobs in town pay less than half that. Luz Montez used to work as a guard at Willacy. She quit because of working conditions that she says endangered her pregnancy. And she says she wouldn't go back to work there again even though she could use the money.

LUZ MONTEZ: When they said it was opening up, I was like, well, you know what? Like, there was a lot of people working there that were from Raymondville. They need jobs. They're going to have jobs. But at the same time, when people ask me if I did it, I was like, no. Through experiences that they've - I've already went through with them, I would not. And I wouldn't recommend anybody to go apply.

SHAPIRO: MTC told us they hope the new facility will have around 250 employees at full capacity. The old Willacy prison had 400. David Correa Gomez is the economic development coordinator for the city of Raymondville.

DAVID CORREA GOMEZ: This region for the most part is poverty-stricken. So in terms of jobs and employment, it was critical that we re-establish again the operations here and put our fine citizens and community back to work.

SHAPIRO: Did MTC give Raymondville or the county of Willacy any kind of reassurances that the things that went wrong the last time wouldn't happen again this time?

GOMEZ: Not at the moment. But we have an extreme amount of confidence in MTC.

SHAPIRO: What gives you that confidence?

GOMEZ: Because they're highly reputable in the U.S. in terms of operations.

SHAPIRO: But here in Willacy County, the experience shows otherwise. I mean, here in Willacy County, things really went badly.

GOMEZ: Yes, sir. Well, we - again, as you know, we unfortunately had the riot in 2015. And as a result, we lost the operation. But, you know, things happen.

SHAPIRO: Things happen. We put that to the man in charge of corrections operations for MTC now. Dan Joslin has been at the company about a year and a half after a long career with the Bureau of Prisons.

DAN JOSLIN: We're committed to Willacy County. We've been doing business down there for several years. And, you know, we feel like we're a part of that community. And our goal all along has been to bring a project back there.

SHAPIRO: Joslin points out that when Willacy closed, it was a Bureau of Prisons facility, so every immigrant there had a criminal record, in many cases multiple border crossings. ICE parted ways with Willacy in 2011 because of the complaints about abuse and poor conditions. So when the riots happened in 2015, Joslin says it was a more dangerous population of immigrants.

JOSLIN: I think the primary lesson would be that the tents were probably not the appropriate structure to house the sentenced offenders. Those structures were not as secure as a hard structure would be.

SHAPIRO: In the lawsuit, it said that MTC had abysmally failed to fulfill the terms of the contract. Do you think that was just a reference to tents?

JOSLIN: I think what it was was posturing just based on what happened in this instance that obviously led to the termination of the contract. And it had consequences for the county. Over time, we clearly have moved past that as well as the county.

SHAPIRO: That lawsuit the county filed also said MTC, quote, "turned a blind eye to the enormous problems that plagued the prison from its inception" - flooding toilets, rodents, failure to provide basic services and overcrowding so bad that detainees were forced to stay in solitary confinement. I drove to see the new detention center now called El Valle. It's right next to a U.S. Marshal Service jail that's also operated by MTC. And the two look identical, so I asked a guard to point us to El Valle.

That's this one here, OK. Thank you. There are two layers of fences with coils of barbed wire stacked at the base of the fence and on top of the fence, signs saying no unauthorized vehicles beyond this point. And then there's the big white and blue flag flying outside that says MTC, Management & Training Corporation, a leader in social impact.

The tent city is gone. Now it's just low metal buildings and a big, empty courtyard. We asked MTC for permission to go inside. They said no and sent us a video that the company calls a virtual tour of its other facilities. It shows detainees playing volleyball, taking computer classes and getting medical care from a friendly looking doctor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: MTC staff are trained to treat detainees with great respect and dignity. We call it a bionic believe-it-or-not-I-care approach.

SHAPIRO: Here in Raymondville, this debate is basically over. The first buses full of immigrants arrived at El Valle in mid-July. In other parts of the U.S., Immigration and Customs Enforcement is seeking new contracts for 3,000 immigration detention beds near Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. And ICE has asked companies for information about a potential 15,000 new beds for family lockups. Private detention companies are looking for more towns like Raymondville that are eager to cash in on the growing demand.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUANTIC'S "TIME IS THE ENEMY")

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow our reporting along the U.S.-Mexico border concludes with a story of friends and neighbors whose jobs put them on opposite sides of the fight over immigration enforcement.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Him being an immigration attorney and me being a Border Patrol agent is such a small part of us living together, next to each other that it's never even been a thought to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUANTIC'S "TIME IS THE ENEMY")

CHANG: That's our co-host Ari Shapiro reporting this week from South Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUANTIC'S "TIME IS THE ENEMY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.