By Forrest Wilder for The Texas Observer
Last Dec. 12, on the outskirts of Pecos, Texas, the immigrants doing time in the world’s largest privately run prison decided to turn the tables on their captors. It was the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an important religious holiday in Latin America. But the inmates were in no mood for celebration.
The motin, as the overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking inmates called their uprising, began in the Reeves County Detention Center’s Special Housing Unit (SHU), better known as solitary confinement, with two men—a Honduran and a Mexican—using the wires in an electrical outlet to set a mattress on fire.
They broke out the windows of their cell, and when prison guards tried to extinguish the fire by sticking a fire hose through a port in the door, the two broke the sink off the wall and held it up as a shield. One brandished, but didn’t use, a “shiv,” a crude jailhouse knife. Meanwhile, the two men yelled for other inmates to join in the uprising. Soon, at 12:45 p.m., a lockdown order went out across the prison. Staff tried to hustle prisoners on their way to lunch or the recreation center back to their cells. Inmates in one of the housing areas refused, and they forced the guards to release friends from their cells. “Open the doors or we will take your keys,” the prisoners demanded, according to an FBI account. “We’ll see who has control in a bit,” one inmate told a guard.
The prison’s emergency-response team deployed an arsenal including rubber bullets, pepper spray, expulsion grenades and bean-bag guns. To little avail. The insurrection quickly spread to the other housing areas. The rioters assembled in the outdoor recreation yard armed with rocks, concrete, and steel poles as well as horseshoes, hammers and box cutters they had pilfered from the recreation building. Many of them, aware of the prison’s extensive surveillance system, hid their faces with T-shirts, hats and bandanas. Some wore sunglasses.
Two prison employees were taken hostage. (Neither was harmed.) With more than 1,200 inmates milling around outside and hordes of law enforcement officials, the prison must have looked like a war zone.
It was not mere anarchy, though.
By midafternoon, members of the FBI, Texas Rangers, DPS and the Odessa Police Department arrived at the prison. As the crisis negotiators quickly found out, the riot had not been prompted by gang infighting, racial tensions or a spontaneous outburst of violence. The men incarcerated at the Pecos prison are considered “low-security”; most are serving relatively short sentences for immigration violations or drug offenses. All are set to be deported at the end of their sentences.
Leaders of the rebellion were demanding a meeting with the Mexican Consulate, the FBI and the warden to discuss a number of grievances that they said GEO Group, the prison company that manages the 3,700-bed facility, had refused to address.
The evening of the uprising, the inmates sent a delegation of seven men—a Venezuelan, a Cuban, a Nigerian, and four Mexicans—to meet with the authorities.
They explained that the uprising had erupted from widespread dissatisfaction with almost every aspect of the prison: inedible food, a dearth of legal resources, the use of solitary confinement to punish people who complained about their medical treatment, overcrowding and, above all, poor health care.
The delegates pointed to a string of deaths (according to public records, five men died in Reeves between August 2008 and March 2009, including two suicides) they attributed to the prison’s inattention to medical needs. The riot had been sparked by the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo, an epileptic, who had been carried out of the prison’s Special Housing Unit in a body bag that same day. “Suspect(s) are talking about the guy being out of the shoe [SHU],” the Odessa Police Department report said. “Someone should have been there with him. Special housing was not the place for [him].”
The authorities jotted down the concerns and promised to take them seriously.
Twenty-four hours after it began, the uprising was over. More than $1 million worth of damage had been done to the prison. Less than two months later, on Jan. 31, the prison would be under inmate control again—and this time the rioting would last for five days and end with one building destroyed and some $20 million in damage.
To critics of GEO and other for-profit prison companies, the two huge riots in as many months—rare, especially in low-security prisons—were the logical consequence of the largest experiment in prison privatization to date.