Getting into the federal building in Pecos, Texas takes political sophistication – something I was apparently lacking when attempting to enter the building for the trial of a couple of immigrant inmates indicted for their role in the Dec. 12-13 incident, let’s call it, at the immigrant prison in this far West Texas town.
It’s the same all over the country. After Sept. 11 the federal halls of justice have been on virtual lockdown status. To get into these buildings – which typically house the district courts and U.S. Marshals Service offices, you need to pass through metal detectors, present identification, and rid yourself of all electronic devices. As many as half dozen or more federal security guards – usually retired police officers and sheriff deputies – are usually in the courthouse foyer to block entry to criminals and terrorists.
In Pecos, which has a privately run, federally supplied, and locally owned immigrant prison on the outskirts of town, people are feeling jittery about the criminal alien business. It’s a business that has for the past two decades been a source of a steadily expanding number of local jobs and increasing county revenues, as the prison has gone through three expansions to accommodate the ever larger number of immigrant inmates under Bureau of Prisons custody.
I felt it as soon as I stepped pass the doorway: suspicion and outsider disdain. “What are you here for? Who are you,” one of the guards demanded.
“Well, I am here for the trial of the immigrant prisoners indicted for the disturbance at the prison last December,” I said, handing the questioning guard my business card (from Center for International Policy).
“Disturbance, there was no disturbance,” says he. (It wasn’t until later that I asked how HE was.) “There was a riot, and it’s costing us tens of millions of dollars.”
During several trips to Pecos since the second inmate news event of Jan. 31 –Feb. 5, I had been alternating between “riot,” “protest,” “mutiny,” and “disturbance.”
What happened at the Reeves County Detention Center in two separate occasions was that immigrant inmates – officially classified “criminal aliens” who will be processed for deportation upon completing their 1-5 year sentences – set fire to prison buildings to protest the deaths and untreated illnesses of fellow prisoners. In both cases, the main prisoner concern was that sick inmates were being placed in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) assigned for “medical observation.”
The SHUs in modern prisons and detention centers are the modern equivalent of the old “solitary confinement” – intended as both punishment for disciplinary infraction and as deterrence to prevent unruly behavior. But, as the practice at the Reeves County Detention Center, SHUs are often used simply to better manage prison populations – to isolate and punish problem inmates whether they break the rules or not.
At the Reeves County Detention Center (RCDC) – which since 1985 has expanded from 300-bed prison to one that holds up to 3700 inmates – the SHU is systemically and routinely used to house severely ill inmates. That’s because there is no infirmary at what the prison giant GEO Group (which the county contracts to run the BOP prison) calls RCDC “the largest detention/
correctional facility under private management in the world.”
The first incident was precipitated by the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo, 32, who was serving a 30-month sentence for illegal reentry from Mexico. Galindo was picked up by the Border Patrol after an epileptic seizure at a convenience store near the borderland town of Anthony, NM, where he had lived with his family since he was in his mid-teens. The local police, who responded to the call for assistance from the clerk at the local 7-11, turned Galindo over to the Border Patrol after it was determined he was an “illegal alien.” Galindo, after being deported to Ciudad Juárez (about 20 miles from his home in the United States), attempted to return home to his extended and nuclear family (three children and second wife) – all of whom were legal residents or citizens -- two years ago after spending a month in the Mexican border town across from El Paso.
But increased border security and a new “criminal alien” policy that criminalizes and penalizes illegal border crossing combined to put Galindo into the federal slammer in Pecos, where an estimated 75% of his fellow inmates were also serving time for illegal border crossings and the balance for nonviolent crimes, mostly drug violations.
Another severe epileptic seizure in mid-November 2008 sent Galindo to an area hospital – and in the SHU. The greatest fear of inmates at the Reeves County Detention Center is getting sick and being consigned to the SHU – what they call “el hoyo” (the hole). It’s the hole not because it’s so dark or dirty, but rather because it’s where there is no relief from the walls, the loneliness, the emptiness.
Galindo corresponded frequently with his mother, Graciela Galindo. His letters from mid-November until the day before he died tell of his fear and despair at being kept in the hole without any company, without the friends he made in prison. He tells his mother of the inhumanity of most of the guards who didn’t seem to recognize the humanity of the immigrant inmates. He writes of the urgency to get the right medicine to prevent his seizures – medicine, his mother told me, for which he had a prescription before he was imprisoned but was replaced by the nurses at Reeves with sedatives that kept him sleepy and unable to stand up. On Dec. 5 he wrote of being “afraid” of what would happen to him if he stayed in the hold any longer, of how his was being ignored by the guards and nurses, of his bruises from thrashing around during unattended seizures.
The day before he died he wrote a letter to his mother that the family didn’t read until much later when they received his few personal belongings along with his body.
In his Dec. 11 letter he wrote: “I told them that I have been here (in SHU) for a month, and I’ve gotten sick twice, and let’s see if they move me or do something quickly. All they say is 'yes, yes.' and they don't do anything.”
What happened after two of his fellow inmates in the SHU saw his body being removed in a black body bag on the morning of Dec. 12 is a matter of interpretation and interests.
The Dec. 12-13 incident resulted in some damage – several hundred thousands of dollars -- to the SHU and in a badly burnt recreation building. Reeves County attributed the property loss at the RCDC III prison (the most 2005 expansion of the immigrant prison) to a “disturbance.” Calling it a “riot” would have precluded the insurance company from covering the losses, said County Judge Sam Contreras.
The inmates themselves referred to it as a “motín” or mutiny – a term that conveys the sense of an uprising against authority.
After the Dec. 12-13 incident in Pecos and after the second closely related incident of Jan. 31-Feb 5 (when inmates also rebelled and set fire to prison buildings in an incident also sparked by medical malpractice and mistreatment concerns involving the use of the SHU for “medical observation”), the criminal justice system, the insurance system, and the financial system are providing most of the follow-up.
Despite demands by the Texas ACLU and immigrant advocacy groups, the Office of Inspector General of the Justice Department has not initiated an investigation. But the criminal justice system did immediately kick in other respects. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Midland, Texas immediately began investigating the new crimes of the immigrant inmates who, in part out of solidarity with those sick fellow prisoners shut in the hole and in part out of fear that too would be released from prison in a body bag, took control of the two different sections of the prison to highlight their concerns.
Like the inmates, the U.S. attorney called the incidents “mutinies” and like the media and the security guards in the federal building lobby is also referring to the incidents as riots. Twenty six inmates from the first incident have been indicted. At first, they faced two counts – causing a riot or mutiny, or aiding and abetting in a mutiny or riot. The first count declared that the defendants “and other persons known or unknown to the grand jury, unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly, did combine, conspire, confederate and agree together and with each other and others to instigate, connive, attempt to cause, assist, and conspire to cause a riot at the Reeves County Detention Center, a federal penal, detention, or correctional facility.”
(Apparently, the U.S. attorneys are as confused as everyone else about what the Reeves County Detention Center really is, a prison or detention center. And while it does hold federal prisoners – all immigrants with orders for deportation – there is much confusion about whose prison is it. It is county owned – hence the Reeves County – but it is operated by GEO Group while the BOP contracts with the county to run it and the county subcontracts with GEO.)
The second count was the essentially the same but in this count the defendants purportedly “aided and abetted by each other and others did instigate, connive, attempt to cause, assist, or conspire to cause a riot.” In brief, the criminal indictment described the incident as a “mutiny or riot.” Those two counts were filed April 9 and May 12.
But they didn’t have the desired result. Not all the defendants were entering guilty pleas, thereby saving the U.S. attorney the trouble of presenting evidence and actually trying the case. Then, on July 14, the U.S. John Murphy came to the grand jury with a superceding indictment that includes a new charge: “the use of fire to commit a federal felony offense.”
Mary Stillinger, one of the court-appointed attorneys appointed to represent the immigrants, said the new indictment “really hammered” the immigrants, since it came with a mandatory ten-year sentence.
There was little hard evidence against the men, and even with the court-appointed defense attorneys, most of whom simply go through the motions of defending immigrants in the flood of criminal charges resulting from immigration violations that is overwhelming the judicial system along the border. As part of the prison reconstruction, GEO has insisted that the county install a comprehensive system of security cameras and video recording units so as to insure that the next time around, as was explained in a county commissioners meeting in Pecos by the architect directing the reconstruction: “Cameras and recording equipment are among the highest things on their list, because if say that if they had more security cameras, better recording equipment, when they had this disturbance, they would have been able to prosecute more, indict more people, if they had more proof of what everybody did.”
No one in a position of responsibility– not in county government, not in GEO, not in the correctional healthcare subcontractor Physicians Network Association (of Lubbock, Texas), not in the BOP , not in the U.S. Attorney’s Office – is apparently concerned of prosecuting, indicting, gathering evidence, or even investigating the conditions at RCDC that sparked the riots and the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo.
But the county has other concerns that involve high finance and keeping prison jobs in Reeves County.
Since 1985 the county has issued approximately $115 million in revenue bonds to finance the construction and maintenance of the RCDC immigrant prison complex. Going into the riots/mutinies/disturbances, the county had $92 million in outstanding prison debt. This debt is in the form of tax exempt municipal bonds called project revenue bonds that are issued by a specially established county public facility corporation to create a project that brings revenue to the county.
The county got off relatively easily from the first incident. The insurance companies paid by the county over the past couple of decades for the prison covered most of the rebuilding expenses. But then came the proverbial ‘fire next time.’
Less than two months after the first inmate protest, inmates renewed the Dec. 12-13 protest with a much larger incident – one that completely destroyed the oldest prison unit and resulted in reconstruction and upgrading expenses project to approach $40 million. This time the insurance companies are expected to come through with only $25 million, leaving the county $15 million short.
Here comes Barry Friedman of Carlyle Capital Markets, the bond underwriting firm that has been with Reeves County since the beginning of its prison enterprise. Friedman assures the county that he can sell another $15 million plus in bonds to cover the gap. “I have been on the side of Reeves County since 1986,” Friedman recently told the county commissioners, assuring them that he only wants what is good for the county.
Not only is Friedman underwriting the new bond issue but after the prison disturbances he was hired as a special financial consultant to the county for about $15,000 a month. In addition to his commission for bond underwriting, he is also advising the county on what is in their best financial interest, as he told the commissioners. “As financial adviser, my responsibility is to the county,” he explained, angrily and righteously dismissing a complaint raised by County Attorney Alva Alvarez. “Do you represent the bondholders,” he was asked. “No, I represent the county,” he replied.
Reeves County is angry, worried, and deep in debt – and going deeper. No wonder then the reaction of the elderly security guard at the federal building. After I asked who he was, he threatened to call the U.S. Marshals. Knowing about justice in Reeves County, I turned around and walked out. Just as well, the immigrants had all decided to plead guilty. The scheduled trial was cancelled.
Tempers are also flaring in the county building across the street with conflict-of-interest charges swirling around having Carlyle’s Friedman work two sides of the prison business and with fears that if the county doesn’t get the prison back together the BOP might, as one county official noted, “bring in the buses and bring the inmates out.”
That would leave Reeves County with massive prison bond debt, Pecos with any empty prison complex on the edge of town, and more than four hundred area residents without a job. It would be a near fatal blow to the county, where a quarter of the population lives in poverty and unemployment stands at 14.1%. Poor Reeves County.
And poor immigrants who still suffer the same medical conditions that sparked the incidents.
Photo/Tom Barry: Pecos prison reconstruction