Until late February, ten Kevlar tents and a few adjacent buildings housed nearly 3,000 inmates in a south Texas prison called the Willacy County Correctional Center. The Raymondville facility near the Mexico border was known by most inmates as "Ritmo," a nod to the notorious prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Almost all of the prisoners were immigrants incarcerated for nonviolent drug-related crimes, border-crossing violations, or some combination of the two. The facility was one of 13 "Criminal Alien Requirement" (CAR) prisons run by for-profit corporations contracted by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), many of which have been plagued by allegations of inhumane conditions and abuse. One of the unlucky inhabitants had told the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which issued a report on the facility, that these conditions made life there like "walking on minefields" because so many inmates were frustrated or angry.
On February 20, somebody apparently stepped on one of the mines.
That's when the tensions that had been accruing for years exploded—about 2,000 inmates rose up, took over large swaths of the facility, set fire to three of the tents, and sent the guards scurrying, according to inmates and media reports.
For sometime between a few hours and a week—depending on whom you ask—detainees effectively had the run of the place.
Initial statements from the Management and Training Corporation-run (MTC), the private contractor that ran the facility, suggested inmates were outside their control for only two days. Issa Arnita, a spokesperson for the company, told VICE via email in May that officials regained control of the prison "within a few hours."
But when I spoke with FBI Special Agent Michelle Lee, she explained, "If there was no danger, we [the FBI] wouldn't be there."
According to the ACLU report, the conditions in CAR facilities were "shocking," "discriminatory," "inhumane," and "abhorrent."
FBI agents remained at the site until at least early Monday morning, February 23—three days after the initial uprising. By the following weekend, the prison was deemed uninhabitable, and all 2,834 inmates were moved to other facilities.
VICE got in touch with nine inmates who took part in the uprising, eight of whom said they have since been transferred to a newly opened maximum-security prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and one of whom is in a separate facility in Tennessee. According to them, the revolt—some outlets called it a "riot"—at the Texas facility was the inevitable result of brutal conditions imposed on the population.
Now the question is whether the feds are ready to change things at other facilities like this one.
According to inmates, the uprising began when detainees in one of the Kevlar tents—the "Fox Tent," as it was called—refused to "rack up," or stand in front of their bunks for a headcount. They say they were primarily protesting lack of medical care, and had also had enough of what they described as racist guards, the stench of sewage, and rampant overcrowding.
After inmates didn't obey the order to rack up, things escalated quickly. There was a standoff, and according to the Nation report, Daniel Leyva, the head of Willacy's Special Investigations Services unit, threw a BB-filled grenade called a hornets' nest into the tent. One of the guards also allegedly shot at least two rubber bullets, one hitting a Paisa in the face just below the eye, and another striking an inmate in the back of the head. (None of the inmates I spoke with witnessed the grenade going off or the shooting first-hand.) There are also reports that guards used teargas during initial attempt to subdue the uprising.
Soon, after the guards fled the facility, one of the tents was burning, and then a second tent started going up in flames, inmates said. That's when they started dismantling bunk beds to make weapons and tools with which they took to destroying the insect-infested tents.
Peter, an inmate I spoke with multiple times, and who said he'd been locked in the SHU for six months, told me about his experience during the uprising.
"I thought I was going to die," he said. Members of Tango Blast—another gang, with far fewer members than Los Paisas—had to beat his door down to let him out. It took 20 of them beating at the door about 20 minutes, he said. Due to the smoke curling into his cell, Peter could barely breathe.
Meanwhile, another man I spoke with, whom I'll call Nicolai, had a friend who was trapped in the SHU. Working in the control room, which inmates had commandeered, he and others tried to open the SHU doors electronically. When they were unsuccessful, Nicolai said he used the phone to call an MTC company number and that he spoke with an employee, telling him that the inmates trapped in the SHU were in danger. He claims the employee hung up on him.
Next, Nicolai called 9-1-1.
I tracked down the 9-1-1 records and found the call, where you can hear Nicolai repeatedly ask the operator for help releasing the inmates still locked in the SHU. The operator patched him through to a Texas Ranger. Explaining the situation to the Ranger, Nicolai told him, "There will be a lot of dead people if they don't come in time. The fire is getting over here already." The Ranger responded, "Well, will you tell everybody to go back into their units?" later adding, "We need to make sure we're secure there before we can go in." Nicolai responded, "Ain't nobody gonna do nothing to you," to which the Ranger replied, "We can't just go in there like that after you guys have rioted like this."
A moment later, the Ranger can be heard explaining the situation to somebody off the line: "There's a fire in the SHU and there's prisoners in there and they're saying that they're probably going to burn alive."
When asked how many prisoners were in danger, Nicolai responded, "I'm guessing like a hundred," he estimated, though other accounts put the number closer to 75. The Ranger then asked if there was a way to reroute the incoming calls. At that point, the call ends.
Before the men in SHU succumbed to smoke and flames, inmates succeeded in opening all the doors. Some of the doors were simply broken down. Others, I'm told, were successfully opened when an inmate figured out how to operate the computer system in the control room.
I asked all of the inmates I spoke with what sparked the uprising, and each cited lack of medical care first, and then the awful conditions like overcrowding, overflowing toilets, and disgusting food.
Back in 2009, a former Ritmo nurse testified at a Capitol Hill briefing about the "extreme temperatures, inadequate nutrition, medical staffing shortages, and long delays for critically needed health care" in the prison. She added, "The level of human suffering was just unbelievable." According to MTC's website, the American Correctional Association, a private accreditation agency, gave Ritmo "a score of 100 percent on mandatory standards and 99.6 percent on non-mandatory standards."
But since that 2009 briefing, the MTC-run facility doesn't seem to have made much improvement. The abominable conditions described in the ACLU report published a year ago, and in the PBS documentary three years before that, strongly resembled the horrid conditions described to me in conversations with former inmates over the past few months.
In an emailed statement to VICE, MTC spokesperson Issa Arnita wrote, "We completely disagree with and dispute the anecdotal allegations in the ACLU report."
As for the uprising itself, MTC has made various assertions to the press about why it took place but has stuck most closely to the idea that inmates planned the revolt in order to be transferred to a different facility so that they wouldn't be deported to dangerous Mexican border towns. I asked all of the inmates I spoke with what sparked the uprising, and each cited lack of medical care first, and then the awful conditions like overcrowding, overflowing toilets, and disgusting food. I asked each of them if the uprising was about changing where they would be deported to. Though they all wanted to leave Ritmo, none of them said this desire had anything to do with the incident.
In response to allegations that inmates revolted about poor medical care, MTC spokesman Arnita told me, "Just prior to the incident, The Joint Commission concluded an audit for reaccreditation in which inmates were surveyed." According to Arnita, the surveys showed that inmates "were satisfied with their medical care." But after talking to the Joint Commission, a private accreditation agency, I found that the survey did not appear to have been conducted "just prior to the incident," as Arnita suggested, but in 2013, over a year before the uprising and before the ACLU report alleged that "basic medical concerns are often ignored or inadequately addressed by staff."
One inmate (whom I also spoke with) told ACLU staff he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C while in Ritmo but was not informed of his own diagnosis and received no "treatment or explanation about how to care for himself."
The Bureau of Prisons, which contracts MTC to run CAR facilities, declined to comment for this story.
After working to put out the various fires, inmates survived by eating what they could scavenge from the commissary and scrounging up carts of boxed lunches that the authorities—beginning on the second day of the uprising—rolled through the prison gates daily. After two full days without running water, by the third day the water was turned on for 20 minutes every four hours, inmates said. Most of the prison was flooded (from the fire sprinklers) and the yard was filled with excrement. Inmates were "taking dumps wherever they could," according to Nicolai.
A law enforcement officer who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said, "Things could have been really, really bad." She was talking about the possibility that inmates might have breached the facility's perimeter. "It's scary to think how close conditions were for that to happen."
Describing those days as "absolute chaos," Grigori told me he was scared of catching a disease, and that he was prepared to "fight for his life." Most of the inmates slept outside in the yard, where the temperature dropped to the 30s at night. Finally, after more than a week of negotiation with authorities, inmates relinquished their makeshift weapons and kitchen knives, and consented to be transferred to other facilities.
None of the inmates I spoke with had any of their belongings transferred with them. One inmate I spoke with told me $300 was not transferred to his new account. Another claimed to lose all of his legal paperwork, which he had been working on for years. A third inmate I spoke with asked a guard in Yazoo City if his belongings were going to be transferred to him and was told: "[Your stuff] got contaminated. It got burned."
For the first month of their stay in the maximum-security facility in Mississippi, both Grigori and Nicolai, as well as another inmate I spoke with, were locked into SHU. Still, Grigori told me, "Yazoo is better than Willacy."
In their 2014 report, the ACLU described an inmate who "told us that fellow prisoners had threatened to burn the tents, but rationalized, "What's the point? They'd build them back up."
That seems to be exactly what's happening. The company is currently bidding on a new contract with the Bureau of Prisons and is apparently intent on re-opening Ritmo by 2017.
John Washington is a novelist/translator currently living in Arizona. He is the co-translator of The Beast (Verso, 2013), by Salvadoran author Óscar Martinez. Follow him on Twitter.