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Revolt at “Ritmo”: Dire Conditions in For-Profit Texas Immigration Jail Spark Prisoner Uprising

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Image Credit: American Civil Liberties Union

In Texas, up to 2,000 immigrant prisoners in Raymondville staged a two-day uprising to protest inadequate medical care at a privately run prison. After refusing to eat breakfast on February 20, prisoners seized control of part of the prison and set fires. Critics have described the jail as “Ritmo” — short for Raymondville’s Guantánamo prison — or simply “tent city,” since most of the prison population sleeps in massive Kevlar tents. In a report last year, the American Civil Liberties Union described living conditions as “[not] only foul, cramped and depressing, but also overcrowded.” The Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville is owned and operated by Management & Training Corporation, a private company based in Utah. It is one of 13 privately run so-called “Criminal Alien Requirement” prisons. The latest reports indicate that the prisoners are being relocated from the facility after it was deemed “uninhabitable.” We speak to Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Last year he wrote the report, “Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to Texas, where up to 2,000 immigrant prisoners have staged a two-day uprising. It began Friday at a privately run prison in Willacy County to protest poor medical care. After refusing to eat breakfast, prisoners seized control of part of the prison and set fires. Video shot by KGBT in Texas showed a large group of prisoners in the yard, some climbing and shaking the prison fence. Prison guards reportedly used tear gas to quell the protest.

Federal officials have since deemed the prison to be “uninhabitable” and are moving the prisoners to other facilities. Critics have described the jail as “Ritmo,” short for Raymondville’s Guantánamo, or simply “tent city,” since most of the prison population sleeps in massive Kevlar tents. In a report last year, the ACLU described living conditions as, quote, “[not] only foul, cramped and depressing, but also overcrowded.”

AMY GOODMAN: The Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas, is owned and operated by Management & Training Corp., a private company based in Utah. It’s one of 13 privately run so-called Criminal Alien Requirement prisons.

This marks the third uprising in recent years at a privately run immigration prison. In 2012, one guard was killed, 20 people were injured, when prisoners rose up at the Adams County Correctional Facility in Mississippi. That prison was operated by CCA—that’s the Corrections Corporation of America. In 2008, immigrant prisoners at a facility in Reeves County, Texas, staged an uprising after the death of a prisoner named Jesus Manuel Galindo. That prison was owned by the GEO Group.

We’re joined now by Carl Takei. He is a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, author of the report, “Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System.”

We invited a representative from Management & Training Corp. to join us, as well, but they declined our request.

So, if you could tell us, Carl, what happened, that you understand? I mean, it’s hard to get information, obviously, from inside this for-profit prison right now. How many prisoners rose up? What’s happened?

CARL TAKEI: Well, it is hard to get information, as you said, because one of the things that happens when a prison gets taken over by the prisoners and the authorities feel they’ve lost control, one of the first groups to lose access is a nongovernmental organization. So, I’m going entirely on what I’ve heard from media reports. The uprising appears to involved as many as two-thirds of the people who are incarcerated at Willacy, and it was about poor conditions and medical care, from what I understand.

AARON MATÉ: Carl, can you give us a background on this prison and the broader network of privately run immigration prisons that it’s a part of? Your group did an extensive report on the conditions there.

CARL TAKEI: That’s right. Willacy is one of 13 private prisons in the federal system. It’s sort of a shadow system within the Federal Bureau of Prisons system, that is run by private prison companies. These prisons house immigrants who have been convicted of drug offenses and immigrants who have been convicted of something called illegally re-entering the United States after deportation. The Bureau of Prisons has consigned immigrants to these prisons based on the assumption that they are all going to be deported after their sentences are up. And it can therefore treat them as second-class prisoners and hand them over to these for-profit companies that have a history of abusing and mistreating the people in their custody.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Carl, how many people are in this prison? And what do the grounds look like? They talk about the tents that they live in. What actually is taking place?

CARL TAKEI: Before the uprising occurred, there were about 2,800 or 2,900 people incarcerated at Willacy. And it’s—as you said, it’s a tent city prison, which means that the complex is dominated by 10 200-foot-long Kevlar tents. There are about 200 men inside each tent. And when I went there and interviewed prisoners in 2013, the impression that I came away with was a sense of overwhelming despair. People talked about how overcrowded it was and how unclean the place was. There were insects that would crawl in and bite people at night in their bunks. The toilets were constantly overflowing, spilling raw sewage back into the housing units and leaving the stench of sewage hanging in the air of the entire tent. They also talked about problems with medical care and the overuse of isolation. People would actually be moved into isolation cells when they first arrived at the prison, not because they had done anything wrong, but just because the tents were so overcrowded that there weren’t even available bunks there.

AMY GOODMAN: A recent study by the Justice Department found the number of suspects arrested for federal offenses more than doubled between ’94 and 2012, and that by 2012 half of all federal arrests were for immigration violations. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of arrests for unlawful re-entry into the U.S. increased 28-fold during that same time period. Can you talk about these reports and this program Operation Streamline?

CARL TAKEI: Yeah. Over the past decade, there have been a couple of little-used criminal offenses, that were on the books before, but that, thanks to zero-tolerance programs like Operation Streamline, have led to an explosion of immigration prosecutions. These are criminal prosecutions of people for crossing the border into the United States. And it’s taken over the federal judicial system along the Southwest border and also fed the flow of people into these Criminal Alien Requirement private prisons. And there are serious due process problems with the Operation Streamline proceedings, with mass guilty pleas. There are also—it’s also, as I said, led to a huge increase in the number of people entering the federal prison system for what was previously treated as a civil immigration violation.

AARON MATÉ: Carl, could you talk about the policy issues here? I mean, has there been any debate over the fact that we have private companies running prisons for immigration, effectively creating what some could call a second-class prison system for immigrants? And are there any efforts to reform this private control?

CARL TAKEI: It is a major problem. In our 2014 report, “Warehoused and Forgotten,” we profiled the lack of oversight, transparency and accountability from the Bureau of Prisons. These are companies where their goal is to use the housing of—the incarceration of human beings and our tax dollars, and convert that into maximum profits. And that creates a situation rife with abuse, neglect and misconduct. One example comes from the Reeves CAR prison, also in Texas, where the Bureau of Prisons’ own monitors went in and found that the private prison company was not complying—not meeting its own corrective action plans. And they concluded that the lack of healthcare at the prison was contributing to significant suffering among the prisoners who were incarcerated there. Even after making those conclusions, though, the Bureau of Prisons chose to renew its contract with the company. When they asked to justify this to other Department of Justice officials, Bureau of Prisons officials said that they did this in order to preserve their credibility as a good customer for the private prison companies.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Carl Takei, for joining us, staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, author of the report, “Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System.” Of course, we’ll continue to follow this uprising at the Raymondville, Texas, immigrant prison run by a for-profit company, as well as others, of course, across the country.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll be joined by the daughter of Malcolm X on this aftermath of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. Stay with us.

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