Complaints Over Medical Care Presaged South Texas Prison Riot

In 2007, border patrol officers caught Jesus Manuel Galindo swimming across the Rio Grande to visit family in New Mexico. Charged with and convicted of illegal re-entry to the country, Galindo was ordered to serve 30 months at the Reeves County Detention Center, a sprawling prison complex in Pecos, Texas. In prison, he told officials he had a long history of epileptic seizures. He routinely complained he wasn't being given the right medication, that his seizures had worsened. For some reason he was placed in solitary confinement.

"I already told them (warden and doctor) that I have been here for one month alone and I have gotten sick twice," Galindo wrote his mother two days before his death, according to a lawsuit later filed against the prison. "I've already asked if they can place me with someone else so I won't be by myself anymore."

In December 2008, Galindo suffered a grand mal seizure while he was alone inside his isolation cell. His body was already cold to the touch and showed signs of rigor mortis when staff found him in the morning. Fellow prisoners were outraged when they saw Galindo's body being carted out of his cell. Two inmates set a mattress on fire using wires and an electrical outlet. In the ensuing riot, inmates took some prison workers hostage, set fires across the facility, and caused over $1 million in damage.

The prisoners' demands: adequate medical care.

That same complaint appears to have sparked a riot at another of Texas' so-called Criminal Alien Requirement prisons -- privately-run facilities that contract with the federal Bureau of Prisons to house low-risk non-U.S. citizen inmates. On Friday, inmates at the Willacy County Correctional Center, a South Texas prison operated by private-prison company Management & Training Corp., refused to do their routine chores or eat breakfast, according to the McAllen Monitor. Issa Arnita, a spokesman for the company, told the paper that inmates were complaining about medical care.

The situation eventually disintegrated into a full-on riot. Officials say inmates set fire to three of the prison's tent housing units. Two officers and anywhere between three to five inmates were treated for minor injuries. MTC announced yesterday that hundreds of inmates had already been transferred to other federal prisons in the region. The company says it plans to move all of the roughly 3,000 inmates housed at Willacy to other prisons so it can assess and repair the damage.

It's not entirely surprising that the situation at Willacy would boil over, according to the ACLU of Texas, which has investigated CAR prisons and last summer released a 100-page report on conditions at facilities like Willacy.

One allegation central to the ACLU's report is that private prison contractors have cut corners in order to boost shareholder profits, leading to medical under-staffing and extreme cost-cutting that's limited prisoners' access to both emergency and routine medical care. As the ACLU points out, many of the inmates housed in CAR prisons are immigrants caught crossing the border -- an infraction that, up until recent years, was almost entirely handled by the civil immigration system.

"Willacy County Correctional Center represents everything that is wrong with the criminalization of immigration and the federal Bureau of Prisons' use of private companies to operate a shadow, for-profit prison system that warehouses thousands of immigrants for violations normally handled in the civil immigration system," said ACLU of Texas executive director Terri Burke in a statement.

The ACLU's report alleged that immigrants in CAR prisons are housed in severely overcrowded and squalid conditions. Even before this weekend's inmate uprising, Willacy had an incredibly rocky history. Dubbed "Ritmo" by immigrants rights and prison reform advocates (a portmanteau of Raymondville and Gitmo), Willacy was once an immigrant detention center until ICE ended its contract with MTC in 2011 following years of allegations that sexual assault, physical abuse, and medical neglect plagued the facility (see this Frontline documentary for more troubling details). However, months after ICE ended its contract with MTC, BOP opted to send immigrants convicted of crimes, many for criminal re-entry, to Willacy.

In prison interviews, inmates at Willacy told the ACLU that in 2013 some 30 prisoners were sent to isolation cells for refusing to return to their dorms because officials refused to fix toilets that were overflowing with raw sewage. In February 2014, 30 local sheriff's officers were sent out to the prison to control another uprising.

The more alarming complaints out of Willacy involve allegations of shoddy medical care. "One prisoner told us about a man who died after security staff failed to send medical staff into the unit for hours, despite the pleas of fellow prisoners who watched him slowly deteriorate," the ACLU wrote in its report. Foreshadowing this weekend's riot, another prisoner at Willacy told the ACLU last year:

"They have a lot of people in here. Sometimes it smells. It's too many people. Some people even talk about burning this place down. They just don't have enough space for all of us here. Sometimes it makes me go crazy."

The ACLU's report paints the picture of a prison that had turned into a powder-keg because of serious inmate complaints that went unchecked. MTC estimates a full two-thirds of Willacy's inmates -- about 2,000 people -- were involved in the weekend's riot.

An MTC spokesman says that any complaints of inadequate healthcare are unfounded, telling Fusion that "offenders receive timely, quality health care" and that the company's health services have been accredited by two independent associations.

Advocates with the ACLU, however, say the weekend's uprising was entirely predictable. "Though not surprised, we are saddened by the events in Raymondville and hope they can be a catalyst for the changes we have demanded in our report."

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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas