Sunday, February 01, 2009

Prison Riot or Inmate Resistance?

For the second time in two months there is an uprising at a privately run prison in Pecos, Texas. It is described by the media as a "riot," and it is frustrating to read the various and brief reports on the matter:

The CNN story says, "As many as 2,080 inmates from two of the center's three buildings began fighting in the prison yard about 4:30 p.m. CT, said county Sheriff's Office Dispatcher Anna Granado."

But this story from UPI says that a guard at the prison who described the situation as "out of control" also said that "a medical dispute between inmates and staff may have sparked the riot, the second disturbance at the privately-run prison in two months."

It is not surprising to hear someone from a prison claim that an uprising is actually a fight between inmates even as another official contradicts her statement - prison uprisings are often described as fights, and usually fights between racial groups or various gangs, regardless of the truth. It rarely is described as having anything to do with poor treatment, abuse by guards, or bad management; and of course there is never any commentary about why the U.S. has well over 2 million people locked up in prisons and jails (and many more on probation or parole), whether it is a failing of our other public institutions, or whether we can afford to continue to lock up so many people (in this case it looks like many of these people are in for immigration violations - most likely completely nonviolent offenses - which should also raise questions about the costs of our immigration policies).

Regardless of what guards or officials say, this looks like an uprising of inmates against poor conditions. Even if we doubt the statement from the one guard about a medical dispute, the earlier incident within the two month span is described as follows by the CNN story: "On December 12, inmates took two workers hostage and set fire to the recreation area at the center in Pecos, located about 430 miles west of Dallas. The inmates, who had made several demands, surrendered later that night." Clearly not a fight between inmates but an uprising with demands of prison officials. The latest incident is likely consistent.

If you read this report (pdf) from the GEO Group - the private prison corporation paid by American tax dollars to run this facility - it admits that several incidents have occurred previously at this prison. In 2004 "The entire inmate population (approx. 2100) engaged in a food strike and refused to partake of any meals. The chief complaint of the inmates centered on changes related to food preparation." In 2005, "Approximately 150 inmates in a housing dormitory refused to rack-up due to complaints about a correctional officer." In 2008, "Approximately 14 inmates began flooding the special housing units by using objects to obstruct the drainage in their toilets because they were scheduled to be transferred from the facility."

There are multiple complexes at this prison and these incidents come from the low-custody complexes - the same complexes that appear to be involved in the present uprising; at the minimum/medium complex there are several other incidents of resistance including in 2004 "All Black Inmates housed in C Building (minimum custody) began a work stoppage because a Black Inmate from their housing unit had been placed in detention." And in 2007 "Approximately 340 inmates refused to participate in count. Chemical agents were utilized."

Of course these are the narratives provided by the private prison corporation; there may be other incidents unreported and even these likely leave out critical (embarrassing) details. That is the nature of prisons - it is difficult to actually find out what is going on inside of them; for the media, for attorneys, and for family members. When they are privately run there are more substantial transparency issues, e.g., Freedom of Information Act requests do not necessarily apply. And of course we get contradictory accounts of what is happening inside and reports like this from the AP: "Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Tela Mange said the disturbance at the Reeves County Detention Center was still going on Sunday. But no details were available on the extent of the riot ... Officials at the prison could not be reached for comment. Calls to the GEO Group, which runs the lockup, were not immediately returned."