Prisonville in Southern Texas Could Soon Be Back in Business

An impoverished county is eagerly awaiting the reopening of a detention center for deportees, because of the jobs it will bring.

Officials in Willacy County, Texas, a Democratic enclave in the Rio Grande Valley, are counting on President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown to revive what was its biggest employer, a prison that was mothballed after a 2015 riot, putting 400 employees out of work. The county in March deeded the facility to the company that used to operate it, which agreed to assume $69 million in outstanding debt. Now residents and officials, many with relatives on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, wait for a flood of detainees to fill the jail’s beds—and hope to find work guarding them. “It is the way it is,” says Eleazar Garcia Jr., the city manager of Raymondville, the county seat. “We have to do what we have to do for our community.”

Willacy, which is about 50 miles from the border, is the second-poorest of Texas’ 254 counties. The area’s past as a farming community is evident from the rusty silos that dot Raymondville’s skyline. Downtown, the building a Walmart once occupied sits empty. Among the survivors: a Rent-A-Center, a McDonald’s, five taquerias, two banks, a gas station, and a grocery—plus 10 churches. The unemployment rate stands at 13.2 percent—more than double the state’s 5 percent.

The county’s troubles stem in large part from its decision to hitch its wagon to the incarceration economy. Starting in 2006, it issued bonds totalling $100 million to pay for the construction of the Willacy County Correctional Center (WCCC). The facility went up on a 3-square-mile campus in Raymondville that already housed two other prisons. At one point, inmates accounted for more than a third of the town’s population of 11,000, which is why some in southern Texas call it Prisonville. Management & Training Corp., a company based in Centerville, Utah, that operated the new correctional center along with an adjacent lockup, had a federal contract to hold criminal undocumented aliens before they were deported.

Two years ago, some among the approximately 2,800 inmates held at the WCCC set fire to the tentlike structures where they were housed to protest living conditions. Then, for two days, they gutted the electrical and plumbing systems with makeshift knives and metal pipes. Within a month, the federal government scrapped its contract with MTC and the prison shut down.

Raymondville city manager Garcia points to the Willacy County Correctional Center.
Photographer: Spike Johnson for Bloomberg Businessweek

“That job paid all of my bills and then some,” says Mia Vasquez, a single mother who worked as a pharmacy coordinator at the facility before the uprising. “I had money for all the luxuries and necessities of life, from light and water to Netflix and a car.”

The closure of the detention center devastated the county’s finances, wiping out more than a third of its $7.3 million budget in 2015. Besides the $2.5 million in administrative fees and other charges MTC and the federal government paid to the county, local residents lost about $8 million a year in salaries. Garcia reckons the ripple effect across the region amounted to $32 million, as other employers dismissed employees in response to spending shortfalls.

Willacy County, Texas.
Photographer: Spike Johnson for Bloomberg Businessweek

Other calamities followed. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. closed its Raymondville location in January 2016, doing away with an additional 200 jobs. Later that year rains flooded many of Willacy’s farms, destroying crops. “We need a spark of some kind, something to get people excited about,” says Raymondville Mayor Gilbert Gonzales.

That spark could be the president’s Jan. 25 executive order to expand the nation’s ability to warehouse some of its 11 million undocumented immigrants as they await deportation. The White House has requested a $1.5 billion increase in the Department of Homeland Security’s 2018 budget dedicated to detention, transportation, and removal. Private operators have about 20,000 empty beds to lease to the government, roughly 10,000 shy of the number the administration wants for immigrant detention. “Depending on border enforcement and some other rules, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] could outstrip the available capacity that exists,” says Tobey Sommer, an analyst at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. MTC and peers such as CoreCivic Inc. and Geo Group Inc. spend about $60,000 for each prison bed they add, according to analysts’ estimates.

For Willacy, that means opportunity. The county sold the partially razed prison to MTC in March. The company not only got at least 1,000 beds to dangle before the Trump administration—with the option to expand to 2,000—it also got the county to drop a suit accusing it of mismanagement leading to the riot, says Aurelio Guerra, the judge who leads the county government. MTC has denied the allegations.

As the company prepares to renovate the facility, MTC and ICE officials are negotiating a new lease for immigration detention, the prison’s original purpose when it was built in a 90-day sprint. Reconstruction is likely to take “several months,” says MTC spokesman Issa Arnita. “We know that the county has experienced significant financial hardship since the facility closed in 2015, and we’re looking forward to bringing back the jobs and economic stability.”

Photographer: Spike Johnson for Bloomberg Businessweek

Guerra initially estimated Willacy could see about $450,000 a year in property taxes from the reopening of the detention center, but now says that, lacking an accurate property assessment, he’s not sure.

Any revenue will come at a personal cost in a county that’s 86 percent Hispanic and voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in November. Most of Raymondville’s residents have family in Mexico. It’s a small town: Everyone knows who has their papers in order and who could end up getting deported.

Willacy’s desperation is evident in the trade-off, and even more so when Guerra acknowledges that the county will probably recoup only about half the jobs it lost following the 2015 riot. “The immigration policy will have a negative impact nationwide, and probably on Willacy, too,” Guerra says. “But we can’t turn down jobs. We just can’t.”

The bottom line: A Texas county is eagerly anticipating the reopening of an immigration detention center, because of the jobs it will bring.