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After Riot, Private Prison In South Texas Is Scrutinized


All 2,800 inmates have been transferred out of a private prison in South Texas after a riot there on February 20. The facility has been closed for repairs, and 90 percent of its staff is being laid off. There will now be an investigation into how well a for-profit company ran the prison. There have been complaints for years. Here's NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The call came in to the sheriff's office about 11:30 on a Friday morning. The warden at the Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas, needed backup. Inmates refused to go to work, and they wouldn't come to breakfast. They were reportedly upset over the quality of prison medical services. Sheriff Larry Spence watched the melee from outside the perimeter fence.

SHERIFF LARRY SPENCE: I don't know how to describe it. It looked like ants coming out of an ant hill, I guess. They never did try to breach the fence or anything like that, but they were kind of going crazy out in the recreation yard on both sides.

BURNETT: An estimated 2,000 prisoners streamed into the rec yards and began pushing over guard posts, pulling out pipes to use as weapons and setting fires in 3 of the 10 Kevlar domes they lived in. Guards fired tear gas and put down the mutiny after about five hours. Only a handful of prisoners and staff were injured.

The Willacy prison is run by Management and Training Corporation, or MTC. It receives nearly $48 million a year in taxpayer dollars to run the lockup for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The inmates at Willacy are classified as criminal aliens. They're low-level security offenders serving out sentences for multiple illegal border crossings and for aggravated felonies.

An MTC spokesman sent out an email late yesterday saying the riot was, quote, "orchestrated by a small influential group of inmates." Further, he said, surveys indicate the inmates were satisfied with the medical care they received. The prison company's assertion that discontent was not widespread is disputed by two delegations that visited the prison in the last eight years. Willacy has been under fire since it opened in 2006, says Adriana Pinon, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas.

ADRIANA PINON: Willacy has had a terrible track record. It earned the name of Ritmo.

BURNETT: That's Gitmo, starting with an R for Raymondville. In 2008, inmates complained to a delegation from the American Bar Association about the huge, rubbery tents. They said water seeped in, mold grew, insects and rodents crept about and the toilets didn't work. In 2012 and 2013, when the ACLU's Adriana Pinon visited Willacy with other lawyers, the detainees had similar complaints.

PINON: So the sewage system is a constant problem as reported by the men at Willacy. The toilets would back up and raw sewage would overflow into the Kevlar tents.

BURNETT: The ACLU published its report last year. In addition to accounts of overcrowding and squalid conditions inside the tent city, inmates complained of excessive use of solitary confinement, a lack of activities to occupy their time and inadequate medical treatment. An MTC spokesman emailed, we completely disagree with the anecdotal allegations in the ACLU report. He said the prison offers GED degrees, substance abuse programs and daily recreation.

After the ACLU report came out, the Bureau of Prisons agreed to reduce the number of solitary confinement beds. A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons sent a statement to NPR pointing out that three Bureau staffers are always on site at Willacy to monitor MTC's contract compliance and ensure the detainees are treated well. Both MTC and the Bureau of Prisons say they will conduct thorough reviews of why the inmates rioted at Willacy County Correctional Center. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.