Thursday, February 5, 2009

Prison Dreams in Pecos

The Reeves County Detention Center started burning again on Wednesday night, and the billowing clouds of smoke could be seen for many miles across the northern reaches of the Chihuahua Desert. Nothing but abandoned ranch houses, still oil pumps, and endless stretches of creosote and tar bush -- except for a prison for immigrants on fire.

Reeves County officials and residents are worried. The prison, which is owned by the county and located outside of the county seat of Pecos, is about the only font of "economic development" the county has left.

The glory days of Pecos are long since gone. Residents remember when farmers used to drive into Pecos in Cadillacs when taking their cotton to the railroad depot, and when the area was known for its sweet cantaloupe and rugged ranchers. But the farm and ranch boom ended in the early 1960s when the water wells ran dry. Nine inches of annual rainfall over the millenenia did create underground pools of sweet water, but several decades of intensive farming and ranching left these high plains dry and dusty.

The oil boom spurred new development in the 1970s and 1980s but hundreds of pumps silhouetted against endless horizon stand dark and still. High gas prices fueled a brief boom in 2007 and early 2008, but the signs of that brief boom are evident only to locals.

The county clerk's office buzzed with activity as speculators and representatives from oil companies in Midland and Odessa searched county land records looking to gain rights to oil fields that might again produce black gold if barrel prices rose about $150 or more. The few hotels that front the interstate were renting rooms at weekly and monthly rates to oil services workers who came to Pecos hoping for another one of the town's boom times.

In the early 1990s the town fathers envisioned another economic boom for Pecos. This time, though, not development dependent on nonrenewable resources -- water, oil, earth of the arid plains -- but on a resource that seemed to be ever rising in modern America. They dreamed of making Pecos a destination for prisoners.

They could offer a remote location, a county willing to issue nearly $100 million in revenue bonds for prison construction, and a downtrodden, , desperate, despairing workforce left behind by previous booms. All this would make Pecos "competitive," as county officials say, in a national market that seemed bust-proof.

Not only was the system of crime and punishment in America producing tens of thousands of more prisoners every year. The number of detained and imprisoned immigrants was also rising exponentially. The year that the first of the three Reeves County prisons opened Congress was passing legislation that would start a new era of criminalizing immigrants. With nearly a million illegal immigrants streaming into the country each year, the demand for prisons to hold these immigrants until deportation seemed boundless.

Initially called the Law Enforcement Center with capacity of some 900 "criminal aliens," Reeves County has expanded the prison to three units with a total capacity of more than 3,700. The contracts with the Bureau of Prisons and GEO Group and the revenue bonds note that this may be just the beginning of the dream of making Reeves County the nation's immigrant prison capital. Someday, the prison may expand to 7,000 prison beds if all goes well.

Although owned by Reeves County, the detention center is managed and operated by GEO Group, the world's second largest prison corporation.

Now the dreams of county officials and many county residents are going up in smoke.

On Dec. 12 prisoners rioted after an inmate died. Rioting inmates presented a series of complaints to the prison officials and to the Mexican consulate centering on demands for better health care. GEO and county officials assured the public that control was reestablished and prisoner complaints were being evaluated and attended to.

But on Saturday Jan. 30 prisoners again rioted, setting fire to various buildings and causing heavy damage. On Monday morning GEO issued a statement asserting that there had been a "positive outcome." According to GEO Group's John Hurley, "We're close to resolving this issue. We're going to meet with them again and we think that everything will be resolved today."

On Thursday morning, even as plumes of smoke began rising again from the prison, the county issued a reassuring statement, asserting that "during the past twenty-four hours progress has continued toward returning the facility to more normal operations." What is more, "It is expected that the remainder of the population will be processed to the designated housing area throughout the day....Inmates have engaged in no renewed disruptive behavior and have cooperated with staff as the repositioning process is completed."

But even as the county judge's office was handing out its latest statement, fire trucks and county deputies were speeding out to the prison, sirens blaring and lights flashing.

Photos by Tom Barry

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