In 2015, the Willacy County Correction Center in Raymondville, Texas was shut down after a prison protest which later escalated into a riot rendered the prison “uninhabitable.”
However, three years later, Willacy County is now signaling it’s ready to re-open the notorious center and ready to do business with MTC again.
Although the riot elevated the prison to national news, amongst many human rights organizations and immigration advocates, the “tent-city” prison was already infamous for its terrible reputation; it was frequently called the “Guantanamo in Raymondville” or Ritmo.
The protest was organized in response to extremely cramped and squalid living conditions. Among other things, prisoners at Willacy County complained about constantly overflowing toilets, water seeping, and frequent insect and rodent issues. Prisoners also frequently described neglectful or lack of appropriate and timely medical treatment. By some prisoner accounts, a major protest had been bubbling since at least 2014 following the deaths of two inmates in March and April 2014. Another intimate had also died in September 2013.
Complaints of sexual abuse, as well as physical and racial abuse, had also been made.
Shortly after the riot, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) canceled its contract with Management & Training Corp, the private agency responsible for running the facility. In the aftermath, Willacy County was left with 400 unemployed residents, as well as $68 million worth in damages and legal bills.
In response, Willacy County sued MTC, explicitly blaming MTC for the “abysmal conditions” at the prison and adding it “failed to properly oversee, manage, and repair the Prison and turned a blind eye to the enormous problems that plagued the Prison from its inception.”
According to The Monitor, the new contract between Willacy County and MTC was approved at a meeting held on June 25.
Since then, community members and immigration rights advocates have flooded the County Judge and Commissioners with calls to voice their opposition.
Now, the Commissioners have scheduled a special meeting Friday afternoon. On a Facebook event, Grassroots Leadership and the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network shared that they have been told the meeting will be behind closed doors, prompting questions about the transparency with which the issue is being handled.
Marlene Chavez, a local leader with the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, shared her discontent with the way meeting was being handled.
“They need to be held accountable for the decision making process and how they inform the community about this and their constituents about what is going on,” stated Chavez.
Nevertheless, she shared with Neta that she believes that meeting is a testament to the effectiveness of community pressure and calls. She shared that the sponsoring organizations are demanding that the meeting be public and that there is hope there may still be an opportunity to stop the re-opening of the center if the community continues to voice its opposition.
Norma Herrera, Criminal Justice Organizer with Grassroots Leadership who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, echoed that sentiment.
“We have a history of allowing these things to happen in our backyards,” Herrera stated. “Collectively as a border area and as a state and as a county we did, we allowed that to happen and there wasn’t this level of outrage as there is now. All we can do is accept that…name that we’ve allowed these things to continue and correct course… Now that we know, now that we see the horrors and now that some of us are waking up for the first time to what our reality actually is and how miserable it can be and how abusive and horrible it can be for other people…now we can’t look the other way.”
In interviews with local press, Raymondville Mayor Gilbert Gonzalez shared that MTC was planning on hiring between 50 to 75 employees. As part of a lawsuit agreement struck on March 2017, Willacy County would make $3 a day for each person detained. At full-capacity, Willacy County would make $1 million dollars a year from the detention of immigrants.
Chavez, however, thinks “this is not the way to bring job opportunities…There are other ways to bring economic development…It’s not economic development, it’s inhumane.”
The special meeting notice for Friday’s meeting states that discussion and action will be taken to “consider amending the stipulation entering into IGSA (MTC Intergovernmental Service Agreement) SF1447.”
On Friday, July 6 at 2:30 PM, the organizations are planning a rally outside the Willacy County offices located at 576 W. Main Avenue #145 in Raymondville, Texas.
According to The Nation, when the Willacy County Correction Center was open before its shutdown in 2015, as many as “seven in 10 were incarcerated for immigration-related crimes, mainly ‘illegal reentry’-meaning they had been caught crossing the border or in US territory more than once, or caught returning after a previous deportation.”
As Willacy County deliberates what next steps to take, hundreds of thousands of individuals across the U.S., including the Rio Grande Valley, have and continue to take steps against “zero-tolerance” prosecutions for immigration-related offenses such as “illegal entry” and “illegal re-entry” and resulting family separations.
Both Chavez and Herrera shared that if the center re-opens, they believe that both MTC and Willacy County officials should be seen as responsible for whatever issues or harm ensue in the future.