This article appears in the October issue of VICE.
Sheriff Larry Spence remembers the riot getting out of hand at around 3am on February 20, though the conflict that sparked it came hours earlier and discontent among the inmates at the Willacy County Correctional Center had festered for years. It wasn't the first incident at "Ritmo" — the Gitmo of isolated Raymondville, Texas — and Spence and his deputies had expected to arrive, make a routine show of force, and be done with it. Nobody was prepared for pandemonium.
Willacy's 2,834 inmates were mostly immigrants jailed for coming back to the US after getting kicked out at least once before and other low-level "criminal alien" offenders who also faced deportation, potentially through dangerous border crossings. Overcrowding was a constant issue, and the majority of the detainees were packed into 10 large, dome-shaped tents made of Kevlar. Using blades from their prison-issue shaving razors, the inmates cut through the easily breached walls and poured out into the yard.
"They weren't trying to get out of the fence," Spence recalled with a sedate Texas drawl. "They were just trying to get into the recreation area. It looked like ants coming out of an ant-hill, hundreds of them. I said, 'Ooh, we're going to have a problem here.'"
Guards used tear gas, rubber bullets, and "hornet's nest" grenades that sprayed out dozens of rubber "sting balls" in a futile attempt to control the mob. Some inmates wrapped towels around their faces and wore their flimsy mattresses as makeshift body armor. They ripped lengths of pipe from the prison fence, hurled stones, and ransacked the place, setting several tents on fire and sending plumes of black smoke billowing into the sky.
Two days later, Ritmo was in ruins. A dozen other local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies joined the local sheriff on the scene, and negotiators from the FBI ultimately persuaded the inmates to surrender. Only minor injuries were reported, with five prisoners and two guards receiving treatment. All of the detainees were transferred elsewhere, and the federal government's Bureau of Prisons eventually canceled its $532 million contract with Management and Training Corporation (MTC), the private company responsible for the Willacy prison.
For critics of the private prison industry, Ritmo embodied everything that has gone horribly wrong with America's decision to spend billions in taxpayer dollars incarcerating tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in for-profit facilities.
'The fate of the private prison industry and the fate of mass incarceration are inextricably intertwined.'
Depending on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, the US could double down on these policies or reverse course by reforming the immigration system and rolling back mass incarceration. The industry doubled in size between 2000 and 2010 as the US cracked down on undocumented immigrants, and the two largest private prison corporations, the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), now take in a combined $3.2 billion in annual revenue. Advocates see next year's vote as a moment of truth.
"The fate of the private prison industry and the fate of mass incarceration are inextricably intertwined," said Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the ACLU's National Prison Project. "If mass incarceration ends, that destroys the entire reason the private prison corporations exist."
So how do next year's candidates stack up?
Donald Trump, the current leader in the polls for the Republican nomination, has vowed to expand deportations and end "birthright citizenship" for children born to immigrants who entered the country illegally. The American Action Forum, a conservative-leaning policy institute, concluded such a plan would cost up to $600 billion and take up to two decades to realize — a veritable jackpot for the prison industry.
After Barack Obama won more than 70 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, presumptive GOP frontrunners like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush set out to tone down the xenophobic rhetoric and woo Latinos, who are a key demographic in battleground states like Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. On the Democratic side, leading candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have each pledged to reform the immigration system and ramp down deportations.
Campaign rhetoric aside, a more insipid and often overlooked factor lingers for both parties: the influence of private prison corporations. GEO, CCA, and MTC spent more than $32 million on federal lobbying and campaign contributions since 2000, according to a 2012 review of Federal Election Commission data, which included political contributions made by the companies' employees.
VICE reviewed federal campaign disclosures and found that lobbying firms linked to GEO and CCA have already contributed more than $288,300 to three of the leading candidates. Clinton's Ready for Hillary PAC received $133,246 from lobbying firms linked to GEO and CCA. Rubio's PACs and campaign have taken a total of $133,450 from private prison companies or groups that lobby on their behalf. Bush's campaign and his Right to Rise Super PAC have received $21,700 from lobbying groups affiliated with GEO and CCA.
"These companies are investing their money for a reason," said Bob Libal, the executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a group that fights to end for-profit incarceration. "That reason is to maintain policies that benefit them."
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Officially, private prison companies don't try to influence how the US government treats immigrants. The GEO Group noted that the company's lobbyists "focus entirely on promoting the use of public-private partnerships." MTC and CCA did not respond to requests for comment.
The candidates aren't talking about it either: The campaigns for Clinton, Bush, Rubio, and Trump ignored repeated VICE inquiries about private prisons. But activists say industry lobbying may have shaped the "detention-bed mandate," a policy that requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to keep at least 34,000 people locked up — mainly in private prisons — while they wait to appear in immigration court. It costs taxpayers $2 billion a year for ICE to meet the quota.
Private prison companies have also benefited from what's known as the "Criminal Alien Requirement," which since 1999 has had for-profit prisons reserve beds for undocumented immigrants convicted of low-level offenses before they're deported. Today, the Bureau of Prisons has 14 CAR contracts to lock up 25,000 "criminal aliens." Since 2009, the total number of people who have entered the federal prison system for immigration offenses is greater than the number of people charged with weapons, violent, or property offenses combined.
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Located just off Highway 77 in the remote Rio Grande Valley at the southern tip of Texas, Willacy opened in 2006 as an ICE detention center, but in 2011 the agency canceled its contract with MTC after allegations of abuse, overcrowding, and vermin infestations. A former nurse at the facility testified at a June 2009 Capitol Hill briefing about the "extreme temperatures, inadequate nutrition, medical staffing shortages, and long delays for critically needed health care." She said that "the level of human suffering was just unbelievable."
Incredibly, just a month after ICE severed ties, the Bureau of Prisons announced a new contract with MTC to operate Willacy as a CAR prison with nearly 3,000 inmates. Local officials were ecstatic. The new contract meant the county would receive $2.5 million annually as its cut of the contract, and MTC hired about 250 locals to work as guards and staff.
But what was good for Willacy County was hell for inmates. The prison's problems with access to medical care persisted, and the toilets overflowed. The federal contract required that 10 percent of the prison's bed space be set aside for solitary confinement, and the overcrowding issues meant many detainees were reportedly sent to the hole for weeks simply because there was no other place to put them.
According to an ACLU investigation of CAR prisons in Texas (four remain now that Willacy is vacant), in the summer of 2013, 30 prisoners at Willacy were sent to solitary after refusing to return to the tents because prison officials had ignored their complaints about feces pouring out of the backed-up toilets. That was the first time Sheriff Spence was asked to send squad cars "as a defensive measure" to persuade the inmates to back down.
Spence claims he was unaware of the reports of horrendous conditions inside the prison.
"It was a good place to be, they were talking about medical services and stuff like that, but we never had any complaints before," Spence said. "The scuttlebutt I heard from one of the other wardens is they were complaining about where they'd be deported to. They wanted to go someplace else and were worried about the cartels."
A report in June in the Nation based on interviews with guards and prisoners found that the inmates had planned to stage a peaceful protest over long waits for inadequate medical care, and suggested that the melee was the result of escalation by prison officials.
For Takei, the ACLU attorney who co-authored the CAR report, the uprising came as no surprise. He'd actually spoken to several inmates months before who said they were thinking about setting the tents ablaze as a form of violent protest.
"People had told us that was something they were feeling angry enough to do when we visited and interviewed prisoners," said Takei. "The only thing that stopped people from doing that was the feeling that if they burned the tents down, the company would just build them back up again."
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The uprising at Willacy wasn't an anomaly. More than a thousand inmates at a state prison in Kingman, Arizona, operated by MTC rioted for nearly ten hours in July. Just like at Willacy, MTC's contract was canceled, and state investigators later determined that the insurrection was sparked by anger at the company and poor conditions, not a beef between inmates.
"That lock-'em-all-up, deport-'em-all mentality is clearly bad for immigrants, and bad for people of color, and bad for taxpayers," Libal said. "We're the ones spending billions of dollars to do this, but it's good for private prison corporations."
'The political contributions are the visible tip of the iceberg of the influence these folks wield.'
Judy Greene, director of Justice Strategies, a group that advocates for immigration and criminal justice reform, says that lobbying and campaign contributions are just one way that private prison companies exert influence. She noted that the last three of four BOP directors left their government jobs to work at prison companies, and that the industry routinely poaches administrators, bureaucrats, and officials from government agencies.
"The political contributions are the visible tip of the iceberg of the influence these folks wield," Greene said. "You can't underestimate the relationship issues. This is lobbying writ large."
Of the major presidential candidates, only Sanders has taken a stand against private prisons. The Vermont senator has said he will introduce legislation to abolish the private prison industry and has called taking campaign contributions from prison-company lobbyists "immoral." Though Clinton has called for an end to mass incarceration and promised more sensible immigration policies, the fact that she has received significant campaign contributions from the prison lobby makes activists wary.
"It's a huge concern," said Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law. "How can anyone who takes that much money from a private prison corporation then say, 'I support meaningful change in our deportation and detention system,' and yet know the company is giving money to a lobby for the types of laws and policies that keep their industry going?"
At the local level, private prisons still prove extremely tempting for some cities and counties as a source of jobs and revenue. Willacy County has had to lay off 25 employees and cut its budget by about 10 percent. The prison sits empty, but the county is still holding out hope that the government will award another contract for a private company to bring inmates.
"It provided a lot of jobs," said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney in Willacy County. "But I've never been blind to the fact that that there's this dichotomy to providing jobs to one of the poorest counties in the US, and meanwhile we're housing migrants and refugees, who are the poorest of the poor. It's the poor making money off the backs of the poor."
Spence said the Willacy County Sheriff's Office lost three positions as a result of budget cuts after the prison was shuttered. The Texas lawman grumbled about the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the federal government to secure the southern border while he's forced to cut jobs, but when he was asked how the upcoming election might affect the county and its chances of getting another private prison contract, the sheriff refused to talk presidential politics.
"I don't want to get into that. I've got a big enough headache already," he said. "There are some issues that Washington just doesn't seem to be addressing."
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton