Prison Riot Recalls Private Prison Injustices

The prison riot in Texas rightly calls attention to poor prisoner treatment

Inmates caused a riot last Friday at the Willacy County Correctional Center, a private federal prison in South Texas, by using pipes as weapons and starting fires in three of the prison’s 10 housing units. No prison staff or contract employees were harmed, and inmates after the event have been cooperative. Willacy County Correctional Center serves as a Criminal Alien Requirement prison—in short, a facility exclusively for illegal immigrants, who often have only committed immigration-related crimes. The American Civil Liberties Union has found that inmates in CAR prisons are “subjected to shocking abuse.”

Though we do not necessarily agree with the use of riots as a method of calling attention to issues of prisoner rights, we certainly do believe that these issues deserve more attention. This is especially true given that prisoners themselves are often stripped of rights they would otherwise use to make their voices heard. Additionally, we do not condone the privatization of any aspect of the criminal justice system; the rights and wellbeing of prisoners are particularly susceptible to being trampled in private prisons.

Private prisons are teeming with incidents of rape, rat infestations, and malnourishment. They often lack supervision and have less comprehensive security requirements than equivalent institutions run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. CAR prisons’ immigrant detainees also have access to fewer education, work, medical care, emergency care, and drug treatment resources than prisons operated by BOP.

These are issues that too often are ignored by the general public. Given these conditions and the corresponding lack of attention, prisoners often have few methods other than riots or outside investigations to express discontent—the former might appear especially appealing when the latter fail to effect reforms. There can be no doubt that the voices of these prisoners deserve to be heard when their rights are being compromised, regardless of the means.

Moreover, private prisons benefit from their inmates’ displeasure as overcrowding their facilities helps bring in a profit. Between 1990 and 2009, inmate populations in prisons grew 17 times their size, in step with drastic rises in revenues for major private-prison firms; by 2009, revenue for the largest firm had reached $1.7 billion.


The deportable community is especially susceptible to this exploitation. As the most rapidly growing constituency of inmates in America, illegal immigrants have been particularly lucrative for the private prisons. In fact, the richest of these private prison firms even announced that “leniency in conviction or parole standards” would hurt its business model. This perhaps explains why inmates at Willacy County Correctional Center describe the prison as having “severely crowded and squalid living conditions.”

Though private prison firms claim that they are a more cost-efficient alternative to state-run prisons, data does not support this conviction; in fact, private prisons may actually be more expensive. In short, there is no real need for private prisons, and the relatively unregulated nature and undisputedly appalling conditions of these facilities is a further strike against the privatization of the criminal justice system.

We do not condone prison riots, but the events in Texas have called to attention that the nature of private prisons and the conditions to which they subject their inmate population, most notably illegal immigrants, are abhorrent and must be addressed.


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