Desperation in detention

By Michelle Chen Feb 04, 2009

Violence and unrest are bleeding through the system of immigrant detention centers dotting the country, where the government warehouses the undocumented who have been swept from the shadows of the economy into the shadows of the immigration system. According to news reports, an uprising at the Reeves County Detention Center in Pecos, Texas, has been squelched by authorities, with several hundred detainees being shifted to another facility in Texas. The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) reports that detainees were outraged when demands for basic medical treatment went unheeded:

“The protest began after a group of immigrant prisoners attempted to meet with the detention facility’s authorities, demanding that a gravely ill detainee be released from solitary confinement and be taken immediately to a hospital. The prison authorities refused to listen and did not take action. The detainees responded by protesting after being ignored.”

The clash led to a fire and several injuries, and the area is still under tight guard. NNIRR advocates said Tuesday:

"the prison guards forced immigrant inmates to stay outdoors in the prison facility yard on Saturday night. Since then, they have only been fed once a day… detainees have been forced to sleep, eat, and relieve themselves outdoors without any access to running water or sanitary facilities, or blankets.”

This is the second uprising in recent weeks at the facility. After an inmate’s death last December, similar protests erupted, also driven by demands for better health care and humane treatment. The incident, according to the local NewsWest 9 involved a fire as well as the brief taking of two hostages. Days later, another inmate was reported dead under unclear circumstances. Federal authorities have backed local law enforcement in putting down the protests. In the most recent incident, local Customs and Border Patrol’s public affairs office said the agency provided “limited perimeter security” at the request of the sheriff’s office. So far, the company that runs the detention center, the notorious GEO Group, has said little. But county authorities are reportedly responding by approving new funding to the facility—for building fences to “keep prisoners from wandering off when going from prison units to the recreation facility.” And today, the public got this progress report from the management:

“Over the last 24 hours, some progress has been made in the clean-up at the Reeves County Detention Center. Staff members with the assistance of limited inmate work crews worked through the night to clean and secure available housing.”

While the “work crews” restore the conditions that apparently prompted the prisoners’ outrage to begin with, Juan Guerra, the district attorney of Willacy County, TX, which has encountered similar problems involving a private prison, has urged officials to mark a disturbing trend. NewsWest reported:

“ ‘You’ll find this all over the country, this is not an isolated case," Guerra said. He believes that Friday’s riot is a perfect example of what the inmates are faced with. " ‘For a riot to have occurred that means that the people there suffered to the point of breaking,’ Guerra said.”

The scope of maltreatment in immigrant jails was illustrated recently at a Virginia facility, where an ill inmate perished, even after warnings about appalling conditions from prisoners and advocates. A slew of deaths, two uprisings, and increasingly desperate, unanswered protests across the country. What, and where, will the next breaking point be?