A view of immigrant detainees at the Willacy County Immigration Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas in 2007.
Photo by Delcia Lopez/San Antonio Express-News/ZUMA

Inmate standoff continues over prison conditions

A private federal prison contractor is working to regain complete control of a facility in South Texas amid a three-day standoff that started after prisoners staged a mass protest over work duties and inadequate medical care. 

FBI spokesperson Michelle Lee said while officials have made “significant progress” in negotiations with the protesting prisoners at the Willacy County Correctional Center, the situation still remained far from resolved.

“The inmates are still inside the interior of the facility,” Lee told msnbc, adding that correctional officers had yet to regain complete control.

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The uprising broke out late Friday morning after more than 2,000 prisoners began protesting the medical services and work conditions provided at the privately run prison facility. According to the Willacy County District Attorney’s Office, demonstrations escalated when the prisoners stormed the recreation yard and began throwing objects and started fires. Authorities said correctional officers attempted to disperse the crowd by deploying tear gas, but those efforts proved ineffective due to wind conditions.

By Saturday, authorities described the inmates as “compliant” and willing to negotiate.

Inmates in the facility, located about 200 miles south of San Antonio, are primarily immigrants held in federal custody for entering the U.S. illegally. A spokesperson for Management & Training Corporation (MTC), the private prison contractor in charge of the facility, said plans are currently underway to relocate the entire prison population – roughly 2,800 inmates – to institutions in Texas and out of state. So far, 570 of those prisoners have already been transferred

Issa Arnita, director of communications for MTC, said initial assessments showed “significant damage” to the plumbing, heating and cooling systems since unrest first broke out.

“The offenders are fully cooperative and we have full control over the relocation process which is expected to continue through the week,” Arnita said in a statement. “Once all of the inmates have been moved, we will begin a full investigation into the incident.”

The conditions at the Willacy facility have been the subject of numerous reports of abuse at immigrant detention centers. In 2011, a PBS Frontline investigation uncovered a trove of complaints of verbal and sexual abuse by guards – more than any other facility surveyed for the report. The Department of Homeland Security launched more than a dozen criminal investigations in response, and has since converted the facility from a general immigrant detention center to a prison for immigrants with criminal convictions.

A flurry of various federal, state and local law enforcement bodies were dispatched to the facility to assist with security efforts. In a statement, U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Ed Ross said the agency will help facilitate moving all inmates out of the facilities“MTC staff are continuing to communicate with the inmate population in an effort to regain complete control‎ of the facility, which is now uninhabitable due to damage caused by the inmate population,” Ross said.

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Meanwhile the FBI will remain onsite to assist with maintaining operations. Lee said the situation at the facility is stable with a “balance of cooperation” since the inmates are aware of the extent of the damages and how they will impact the prison population.

“They recognize that conditions are really bad there,” she said, “the sooner they can get out, the better.”