When John Chavez peers through chain link and razor wire into the vast tent city that once housed one of the nation’s most notorious prisons for immigrants, he does not see a failed experiment.
Two years ago, inmates set fire to the sprawling complex in protest of poor medical conditions, slashing holes in their tents and forcing the government to shut it down. Yet many people in this struggling south Texas county— like Chavez, who once worked as a security guard at the privately run prison — have high hopes the abandoned detention center will reopen.
“If Trump is going to crack down on immigrants, we’re going to have to process them somehow,” the stocky 55-year-old said as he stood outside the empty shell of his old workplace. “Maybe there’s a shot I could get my job back.”
Stocks for private prison companies have surged in the two weeks since President Trump signed an executive order calling for expansion of immigrant detention facilities at or near the border with Mexico, specifically authorizing the use of private contractors “to construct, operate, or control facilities” in what is expected to be a substantial ramp-up of the massive detention system that thrived under the Obama administration.
With the number of immigrant detainees already at historic levels, critics warn that rapidly expanding prisons will only exacerbate squalid living conditions and substandard medical care. The big beneficiaries, they say, will be stockholders and executives of for-profit prison companies.
Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, predicts “an enormous boondoggle for the private prison industry.”
“The immigration system already lacks rigorous oversight and transparency,” he said, “and now there’s this perfect storm — a push to rapidly expand the system, a lack of existing oversight and the profit motive driving these companies.”
Private companies provide immigrant detention at a lower cost: about $144 per inmate a day, versus $184 in federally run Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities. Immigrant attorneys and human rights groups have long argued the profit motive spurs private companies to cut corners and cram inmates into shoddy and overcrowded facilities.
For critics, Raymondville’s Willacy County Correctional Center is Exhibit A in the case against private detention centers. Not long before it was forced to close in 2015, the ACLU dubbed it a “physical symbol of everything that is wrong with enriching the private prison industry and criminalizing immigration.”
Officials in Willacy County are still banking on being a place to lock up immigrants, even though the county has filed a lawsuit against the private company whose “abysmal management,” it claims, caused inmates to riot.
“Everybody here wants it back because they need jobs,” Eliberto “Beto” Guerra, a Democratic Willacy County commissioner, said of the facility. “It means security for a lot of families.”
Well-paid jobs are scarce in Raymondville, a Rio Grande Valley hub of cotton and sugarcane fields whose main street is dominated by loan stores and pawn shops. More than a third of Willacy County residents live below the poverty line.
The idea for an immigrant detention center was born 15 years ago, when a large construction company approached local officials with a pitch to revitalize their economy: borrow $65 million from the public debt markets to build prisons.
In 2006, as President George W. Bush pushed to crack down on illegal immigration, the county hired a Texas construction company to build the detention center on a cotton field on the outskirts of town. It then contracted with a Utah-based company, Management & Training Corp., to run the complex.
This has become a common arrangement. As ICE detention has exploded in recent years — reaching more than 41,000 beds last November — about 65% of ICE detainees are now held in facilities operated by private, for-profit contractors.
As Joe Alexandre, Raymondville’s former mayor, remembers it, county officials were assured they would earn more than they needed to recoup their multimillion-dollar investment.
Built in just a few months, the sprawling complex, dubbed Tent City, could hold 2,000 inmates and was the largest immigrant detention camp in the country. Ten huge tent domes, made of Kevlar stretched over metal frames, were erected over concrete pads. Each oval tent held 200 men or women, with no partitions dividing the toilets or showers.
Almost immediately, there were problems. Inmates complained of rotten food, unsanitary conditions, poor medical care and limited access to the law library and telephones. [MORE]