A Tale of Two Prisons

By Clio Chang

After years of suffering poor medical attention at Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas, prisoners recently rioted in protest, setting fire to the tents in which they were housed.

The problems at Willacy are well known. A few months ago, the ACLU released a report that detailed the terrible living conditions there and urged immediate reform. But apparently, prison management did not heed that advice, hence the riot.

Deplorable conditions in prisons are nothing new. In fact, the same week that the ACLU released its Willacy report, the New York Times published an article, "Even as Many Eyes Watch, Brutality at Rikers Island Persists," that cited 62 instances of inmates' being seriously injured by correctional officers in the five months after the United States Attorney's office in Manhattan first threatened to sue the city unless conditions were improved.

Rikers desperately needs to change the way it operates and eliminate its culture of violence. Thankfully, the issue has not been completely ignored. Mayor Bill De Blasio has eliminated the use of solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-old inmates, and recently released a proposal to increase Rikers's budget. Meanwhile, federal prosecutors made good on their threat and filed a lawsuit in December, insisting especially on future federal oversight at city jails.

But the operators at Willacy -- Management and Training Corporation, a private company -- have done nothing in response to complaints about the conditions. This was this the third instance of prisoner protests since 2013, when toilets overflowed into inmates' tents (apparently a common problem at Willacy), and yet there has been no attempt at reform. Even now, the only course of action the company is taking is to move 2,800 of the inmates to other facilities, because the damage from the riot left the center uninhabitable.

So, why is reform in progress at Rikers, while the operators of Willacy continue their bad management? And why has the federal government investigated abuses at a city jail like Rikers, yet ignored abuses at Willacy, a federally contracted private prison?

Part of the reason may be that Willacy County Correctional Center is one of fourteen Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) facilities under federal jurisdiction. CAR prisons are unique because they are all contracted to private, for-profit companies -- and because they exclusively house noncitizens, most of whose only crime was to illegally reenter the country after previously having been deported.

Why do we even have prisons like Willacy?

Federal prosecution of immigration offenses has only become commonplace in recent history. Since 2004, according to a report by Fusion, prosecution for illegal reentry has risen over 183 percent, owing in large part to a program implemented in 2005 called Operation Streamline, which requires the federal prosecution of unlawful border crossers. Previously, illegal reentry had been treated as a civil rather than criminal matter, with those who were caught either deported or allowed to leave voluntarily. This focus on prosecution has resulted in the imprisonment of 25,000 immigrants, whose sentences last on average 18 months.

This swell in arrests was a challenge for federal enforcers, but a boon to the private prison industry. According to Fusion, these companies receive roughly $50-75 from the federal government per prisoner, per day, to house inmates in their CAR facilities.

The need to deliver a profit from this revenue stream can introduce some perverse incentives.

While public prisons like Rikers can become dysfunctional, the profit margins of private prisons can be greatly enhanced by having lawmakers send over more inmates. Thus it's no surprise that the three biggest private prison companies -- CCA, GEO, and MTC -- have spent more than $45 million on lobbying and campaign contributions since 2000. A portion of this has been spent influencing immigration policy, including donations to Senator Marco Rubio, who advocated greatly for increased border enforcement in 2013, as well as to Senator John McCain, who, along with Rubio, sponsored legislation to expand Operation Streamline in 2011. By supporting the criminalization of illegal reentry, private prisons have ensured increasing demand for their services.

And what's worse, the revolving door from government to the private sector couldn't be more blatant than in the prison industry. Three of the past four Bureau of Prisons (BOP) directors moved to senior positions at CCA or GEO. One of the most notable examples is Harley Lappin, who oversaw the BOP when it contracted out nine CAR prisons to private companies. Now, as executive vice president at CCA, he makes more than eight times his salary at the BOP.

As the ACLU report states, CAR prisons operate in the shadows. The BOP does not collect evaluative data from privately contracted prisons the same way it does from its own facilities, citing added costs, and rarely cancels contracts with private companies -- even when there are serious problems, like at Wallacy.

Having the offenses occur in the private sector creates an added layer of obfuscation, moving CAR prisons one degree further away from public accountability. And the golden pathway that has been built from the Bureau of Prisons to private industry means that things are unlikely to change anytime soon -- unless someone from outside the BOP rattles some cages.

So while Rikers is far from reformed, at least reform is on the table. But for the unfortunate prisoners who protested inadequate health services at Willacy, little change seems to be on the horizon.

Clio Chang is a policy associate at the Century Foundation.

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