A small corner of the prison industrial complex crumbles.
On Feb. 20, prisoners wielding pipes, sharpened broomsticks and kitchen knives seized control of the privately run federal prison for nearly two days. The prisoners—undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation while serving federal criminal sentences, many for illegally entering the U.S.—mutinied after years of built-up exasperation over inadequate medical care, filthy toilets and maggot-infested food. They set fire to three of the 10 Kevlar tents that lend the South Texas prison its nickname, Tent City, and damaged the plumbing and electrical systems. The FBI was called in to negotiate; armored vehicles were sent inside; tear gas was fired. Somehow, the inmates managed to slice open the tents that hadn’t been torched. Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence told reporters that inmates were “pouring out like ants coming out of an ant hill.” By the time prison authorities regained control of the prison, the $60 million facility was reduced to a shambles; the federal Bureau of Prisons declared it “uninhabitable.”
In the riot’s wake, all 2,834 inmates were transferred to other facilities. Nearly all of the 400 people employed by Management and Training Corporation (MTC), the private company the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) paid to run the prison, were laid off. When I traveled to Raymondville, an impoverished town 50 miles north of Brownsville, Willacy County leaders were waiting to see how long it might take for the prison to reopen—or if it would reopen at all. A decade ago, persuaded by a consortium of private prison salesmen, the county had entered into a kind of Faustian bargain, staking its financial future on a continual supply of state and federal prisoners. Now, as Willacy County faces a gaping hole in its budget, $128 million in debt still owed on Tent City, and the loss of its largest employer, I’d come to find out if the prison that was supposed to be the county’s economic salvation would end up being its undoing.