Willacy County Detention Center

How a South Texas County Bet on Immigrant Incarceration and Got Burned

Despite a $100 million debt, a lawsuit and a torched prison, Willacy County officials hope Trump's expected immigration raids will be good for business.


A version of this story ran in the February 2017 issue.

When the Willacy County Correctional Center opened in 2006 to detain undocumented immigrants, local officials banked on the promise of jobs and revenue for the struggling South Texas county. As long as the federal government kept locking up immigrants, the money would roll in. What could go wrong? The answer: plenty.

Willacy County Detention Center
Willacy County Detention Center before it was destroyed in 2015.  ACLU

A decade later, Willacy County is left with a destroyed shell of a prison and more than $100 million in debt. In February 2015, the prison was torched during an uprising, the culmination of a decade of complaints from detainees about overcrowding, maggots in the food, beatings from guards and allegations of sexual assaults. Afterward, its 2,834 inmates were transferred to other facilities and 400 employees were laid off. The prison has sat empty ever since.

Now county leaders are blaming the riot on the private contractor that ran the prison. In December, Willacy County sued Utah-based Management & Training Corp. (MTC) for causing the riot due to its “abysmal mismanagement of the prison.”

The facility earned the nickname “Tent City” for its unusual construction — 10 windowless “tents” made of Kevlar stretched over steel frames. Each tent held 200 men, often with just one guard. Some called it “Ritmo,” a riff on Gitmo, the nickname for the Guantanamo Bay military base.

Tent City’s demise was a decade in the making. Built in just 45 days during a Bush-era deportation frenzy, it was constructed with a $65 million nobid contract that would lead later to indictments against two Willacy County commissioners for taking kickbacks.

In 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) turned over the facility to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which expanded it to 3,000 beds and turned Tent City into a “criminal alien requirement” prison to house noncitizens serving time for low-level offenses, including crimes related to crossing the border.

To finance the BOP expansion, Willacy County dug itself further into debt, refinancing its bonds.

As part of the deal, the county received $2.4 million a year, said Willacy County Commissioner Eliberto “Beto” Guerra. That was enough to fund a quarter of the county’s annual operating budget.

“It was a very good contract,” said Guerra.

BOP also offered a bonus to MTC if it filled Tent City to capacity. That provision would eventually be the jail’s undoing, according to the county.

“Two hundred inmates slept in each housing pod, there was insufficient room between beds, and new inmates were forced to stay in solitary confinement because of overcrowding,” the county states in its lawsuit.

Now Willacy County is teetering toward default on its bonds, which have been downgraded to junk status. The lawsuit against MTC could take years to wind its way through the courts. “We’re stretched to the limit with county services,” said Guerra.

But he said the cash-strapped county hasn’t given up on the prison economy. “The tents won’t be rebuilt,” Guerra said. “But I think the jail will be reopened again under President Trump. This time it will be brick and mortar. ICE is going to need a lot of places to hold all of the illegal immigrants.”