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. There’s nothing much here except abandoned ranch houses, still oil pumps, endless stretches of creosote and tar bush—and a prison for immigrants on fire.

The prisoners had long complained about medical care at the prison and were enraged at the deaths of two inmates in the prison. They took control over sections of the prison and lit fires to call public attention to conditions. Despite repeated protests, county and prison officials have denied media access to the prison and have refused to comment on the healthcare situation.

On Dec. 12, 2008 prisoners rioted after an inmate died. Rioting inmates presented a series of complaints to prison officials and to the Mexican consulate, centering on demands for better healthcare. GEO (a private prison corporation) and county officials assured the public that they had reestablished control and were evaluating and addressing the prisoners’ complaints.

On Jan. 31 prisoners rioted again, setting fire to various buildings and causing heavy damage. On Feb. 2, GEO issued a statement asserting that they had reached 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."

But by Thursday morning, plumes of smoke were once again rising from the prison. The county issued a reassuring statement, asserting that "during the past 24 hours progress has continued toward returning the facility to more normal operations." In an effort to downplay the disturbance, it added, "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."

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.

Pecos Prison Boom

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 front 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 millennia created 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 early 1980s. Today 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.

Back then, 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 would rise to $150 or more. The few hotels that front the interstate rented 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 mid-1980s the town fathers envisioned another economic boom for Pecos. This one wouldn’t depend on nonrenewable resources like before—water, oil, the soil of the arid plains—but on a resource that seemed to be abundant 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 the United States producing tens of thousands of more prisoners every year. The number of detained and imprisoned immigrants was also rising exponentially. In 1995, the year that the second of the three Reeves County prisons opened, Congress passed 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.

Reeves County started out by opening a "Law Enforcement Center" with capacity of some 900 "criminal aliens." Soon the county 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. County officials have dreams of expanding to 7,000 prison beds if all goes as planned.

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.