After Prisonville: What Next For Willacy?

George Lavender

After an uprising in February by prisoners at Willacy County Correctional Center, Texas, the privately-run facility was left uninhabitable.” All 2,834 inmates were transferred to other facilities and the prison closed. Whether the prison will remain closed remains to be seen, but Daniel Tyx at the Texas Observer has been looking into the economic promises made before the center was built, and what its closure could mean for the local area.

When I traveled to Raymondville, an impoverished town 50 miles north of Brownsville, Willacy County leaders were waiting to see how long it might take for the prison to reopen — or if it would reopen at all. A decade ago, persuaded by a consortium of private prison salesmen, the county had entered into a kind of Faustian bargain, staking its financial future on a continual supply of state and federal prisoners. Now, as Willacy County faces a gaping hole in its budget, $128 million in debt still owed on Tent City, and the loss of its largest employer, I’d come to find out if the prison that was supposed to be the county’s economic salvation would end up being its undoing.

At Tent City, the parking lot was nearly empty, but the two lock-ups next door — the Willacy County State Jail, operated by Corrections Corporation of America, and the Willacy County Regional Detention Center, a U.S. Marshals Service prison also contracted to MTC — were bustling. Drivers lined up three or four deep at the gate to have their IDs scrutinized by the guards. Before the riot, the three prisons in this sprawling complex could house up to 4,500 inmates, roughly a quarter of the county’s population. The prisons are so central to the area’s identity that locals have given their town a nickname that’s stuck: Prisonville. Continue reading…

Willacy’s story is not unique. Across the US many towns, particularly those in rural areas, have been offered what Ruth Wilson Gilmore author of Golden Gulag” calls a prison fix.”

When private prison representatives first showed up in Willacy County in the 1990s, they distributed spreadsheets promising millions of dollars a year for a county whose major source of income, agriculture, was in decades-long decline. They even suggested the possibility that all local taxes could eventually be eliminated. And because the bonds would be issued not by the county but by a quasi-governmental organization known as a local government corporation, all that revenue — and the debt to finance it — would be virtually risk-free, they said.

For county leaders whose budget was in the red, the temptations proved impossible to resist. Continue reading…

Last year, an ACLU report described Willacy as a physical symbol of everything that is wrong with enriching the private prison industry and criminalizing immigration.” The facility was one of 13 Criminal Alien Requirement” (CAR) prisons in the United States, managed by private companies on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

With the facility empty and 400 staff laid-off, Daniel Tyx spoke with concerned officials from the county, who had relied upon the facility for revenue.

…county auditor Ida Martinez explained that the county relied on the BOP revenue to service both $8 million in annual debt payments as well as more than a quarter of the county’s $8 million operating budget. Impossible,” Martinez said, when I asked her if the county could find a way to plug the hole in its budget. Well, not impossible, but at least not in the near future.” Without the prison revenue, in just a few months the county would be forced to make difficult choices. Health insurance [for county employees] goes first,” Martinez said, then hiring freezes, then a reduction in force.”

Worst-case scenario, if that does happen,” Commissioner Guerra said, it’s going to be devastating for our county, financially. And then, pues, we’re going to have to make some cuts, or — how are we going to deal with this?”

Questions like these prompted at least one lonely critic in the county to speak out when the bonds were refinanced in 2011 to fund renovations requested by BOP. This is a staggering amount of debt,” District Attorney Bernard Ammerman told the Raymondville Chronicle then. We are going to hit an iceberg.” Continue reading…

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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