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.
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 a dozen or more federal security guards—usually retired police officers and sheriff deputies—are posted in the courthouse foyer to block entry to criminals and terrorists.
Pecos boasts a privately run, federally supplied, and locally owned immigrant prison on the outskirts of this remote West Texas town. 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 (BOP) custody. But townspeople are feeling jittery about the criminal alien business these days.
I felt it as soon as I stepped through the doorway: suspicion and disdain for outsiders. "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 who 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 referring to it as a "riot," "protest," "mutiny," and "disturbance."
The county contracts with the prison giant GEO Group to run the Bureau of Prisons facility and brags that the Reeves County Detention Center (RCDC) is "the largest detention/correctional facility under private management in the world." What happened at the Reeves County Detention Center on two separate occasions was that immigrant inmates set fire to prison buildings to protest the deaths and untreated illnesses of fellow prisoners. Officially classified as "criminal aliens," these prisoners will be processed for deportation upon completing their 1-5 year sentences—in both cases the catalyst for the protests was the treatment of sick inmates being placed in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) for "medical observation."
In modern prisons and detention centers, SHUs are the modern equivalent of the old "solitary confinement"—intended as both punishment for disciplinary infractions, and as a deterrence to prevent unruly behavior. But at the RCDC and many others throughout the country, 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 RCDC, which since 1985 has expanded from a 300-bed prison to one that holds up to 3,700 inmates, the SHU is systemically and routinely used to house severely ill inmates. That’s because there is no infirmary at RCDC.
The Death of Jesus Manuel Galindo
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 was deported to Ciudad Juarez (about 20 miles from his home in the United States). He attempted to return home to his extended and nuclear family (three children and second wife)—all 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, loneliness, emptiness, and yourself.
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 hole any longer, of how his plea to get out of the SHU 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—riot or protest, criminals being criminals or human beings demanding humane treatment—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.
Fellow prisoners reacted with rage to news of Galindo’s death. The Dec. 12-13 incident resulted in several hundred thousand dollars worth of damage to the SHU and a badly burnt recreation building. Reeves County attributed the property loss at the RCDC III prison (the 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.
Prosecuting the Prisoners, Protecting the Prison
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, RCDC inmates rebelled again and set fire to prison buildings in a widespread protest Jan. 31-Feb. 5 that was also sparked by medical malpractice and mistreatment concerns involving the use of the SHU for "medical observation." Since then, the criminal justice system, the insurance system, and the financial system are providing most of the follow-up.
|The mutiny at the RCDC was a reaction to the lack of adequate healthcare provided for the detention
center’s immigrant inmates. Photo: www.malcolm-che.com.
Despite demands by the Texas ACLU and immigrant advocacy groups, the Office of the Inspector General of the Justice Department has not initiated an investigation. But the criminal justice system did immediately kick-in 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 sick fellow prisoners shut in the hole and in part out of fear that they 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," while the media echoed the line of the security guards in the federal building lobby, also referring to the incidents as "riots." Twenty-six inmates from the first incident have been indicted. They initially faced two counts—causing a riot or mutiny, and 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 it is. The BOP is the contractor; the county owns the facility; while the GEO Group operates it as county sub-contractor. This convoluted chain of responsibilities makes accountability difficult in the best of cases.)
The second count was 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." The two counts were filed on April 9 and May 12.
But they didn’t have the desired result. At first, some defendants refused to enter guilty pleas, to the annoyance of the U.S. Attorney’s Office that hoped to save the trouble of presenting evidence and actually trying the case. Then, on July 14, Acting U.S. Attorney John Murphy came to the grand jury with a superseding indictment that included a new charge: "the use of fire to commit a federal felony offense."
Mary Stillinger, one of the court-appointed attorneys representing the immigrants, said the new indictment "really hammered" the immigrants, since it came with a mandatory 10-year sentence.
There was little hard evidence against the men. But all the indicted immigrants had court-appointed defense attorneys, who receive their fees whether their clients are found innocent or guilty. With the federal public defenders in the borderlands overwhelmed by federal immigrant prosecutions, the federal government assigns the cases to private attorneys, many of whom simply go through the motions of defending immigrants.
As part of the prison reconstruction, GEO has insisted that the county install a comprehensive system of security cameras and video recording units to insure that the next time around surveillance tapes can be used as evidence. The architect directing the reconstruction project explained in a county commissioners meeting in Pecos, "Cameras and recording equipment are among the highest things on their list, because they 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 with prosecuting, indicting, gathering evidence, or even investigating the conditions at RCDC that sparked the riots and the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo.
Business First in Reeves County
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, the expenses of the 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.
Enter 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. He receives both a commission for underwriting the bond issues and a fee for advising the county on financial matters. When County Attorney Alva Alvarez complained of the inherent conflict of interest in his dual role, Friedman answered the question of whether he represented bondholders angrily: "No, I represent the county," he replied.
Reeves County is angry, worried, deep in debt, and going deeper. No wonder, then, that the elderly security guard reacted defensively 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. In any case, 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 complaints of 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 a massive prison bond debt, Pecos with an empty prison complex on the edge of town, and more than 400 area residents without jobs. 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 Pecos. And poor immigrants who still suffer the same medical conditions that sparked the incidents.