One of America’s most notorious detention centres may be opening its doors again under President Donald Trump.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is considering reactivating the vacant Willacy County Correctional Facility in Raymondville, Texas, according to Texas Monthly, prompting concerns about the center’s history of abuse, neglect, and other illegal activity.
The news comes as ICE rapidly moves to expand its detention capacity along the Mexican border, under instruction from Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.
Built in 2006 with a maximum capacity of 3,000, the detention center was the largest in the country at the time — but it faced problems immediately.
Attorneys and immigration advocates revealed that undocumented immigrants were held up to 23 hours a day in the center’s 10 windowless tents, and reported insufficient food, medical attention, clothing, and access to telephones, all within a year of the facility opening.
The problems continued in 2007, when in July officials discovered maggots in the inmates’ food supplies. Though officials called the incident a one-time occurrence, inmates complained the next month of mould, flooded toilets, and infestations of insects and rodents.
Inmates also claimed they were being given dirty underwear and towels for use, as well as shoes and socks with holes. The American Bar Association reported some detainees “indicated that they had been instructed not to say anything negative to the delegation about the facility.”
The facility earned the disparaging moniker “Ritmo” during this time, because it was “
like Gitmo, but it’s in Raymondville,” said immigration lawyer Jodi Goodwin, using the nickname for the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
“The level of human suffering was just unbelievable,” a former nurse at the center said in a 2009 testimony before Congress. “There was inadequate food and personal items — personal hygiene was a problem — as was access to medical care.”
Subsequent reports exposed even more illegal activity at the detention center. A 2011 documentary found sexual and physical abuse had been a common occurrence at the facility, with female inmates particularly at risk. Former employees said management encouraged its staff to cover up allegations of sexual or physical abuse.
In another stunning allegation, a former nurse said in 2009 that medical staff gave inmates antacids to fight hunger pains.
The facility was shuttered in 2015 after inmates revolted and set fire to three of its tents, leaving the center uninhabitable — a “welcome but long overdue move,” the ACLU said at the time.
However, critics are now worried about its potential re-opening.
“To reopen this troubled private prison would be a giant step backwards,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based social justice group that opposes private prisons, in a statement.
An ICE spokeswoman did not confirm to Texas Monthly whether the organisation was considering re-opening the facility.
“ICE remains committed to providing a safe environment for all those in its custody,” the spokeswoman said.
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