'This is human trafficking': After Maria, Puerto Rico to move 3,200 inmates to Arizona
Some warn that the radical overhaul of Puerto Rico’s prison system badly impacted by Hurricane Maria may have dire consequences for the civil rights of inmates
When Maria pounded the concrete walls and rusted iron gates of the Bayamón correctional complex last September, inmates here watched in fear through the reinforced windows and metal bars.
“We went without running water for weeks, without electricity for weeks,” says inmate Joseph Villalobos, who sat in the open courtyard of Bayamón’s minimum security wing in the heart of the complex’s sprawling mass of structures. “It was hard.”
The lack of communication with the outside world kept inmates like Villalobos, seven years into a 26-year sentence for what he describes as a felony offense involving kidnap, in a state of perpetual anxiety.
The shock of last year’s category five hurricane was just a precursor to the radical overhaul of Puerto Rico’s overburdened prison system that some warn may have dire consequences for the civil rights of inmates.
Six months after the hurricane hit, the island’s unelected federal financial oversight board – colloquially named La Junta – approved a suite of austerity measures, ranging from workplace benefits cuts to slashing the education budget, in an ostensible bid to rid the commonwealth of its multi-billion dollar debt crisis.
The plan led to widespread protests and civil unrest in the island’s capital. Nestled away in the 200-page document was a policy to offshore around a third of Puerto Rico’s prison population – 3,200 inmates – to private facilities thousands of miles away within the US. The board claim the policy will help to save close to $400m over four years. The government insists it will be voluntary. But advocates describe it as a disaster waiting to happen.
“This is government sponsored human trafficking. You are transferring people basically against their will,” said William Ramirez, executive director of the Puerto RicoAmerican Civil Liberties Union.
“Even if you say it’s consensual, the reality is that you can’t provide consent freely if you’re a ward of the state, because you’re not free. And secondly, you’re not given the information you need to actually give consent. And finally, it’s all being done for profit.”
Villalobos grimaced when asked about the program. Having spent four years in maximum security on daily 22-hour lockdowns, he recently graduated to the facility’s woodwork program, where his hand-carved biblical figures are sold on by the prison, who hand him back 75% of the profits. He uses the proceeds to provide for his mother and four children who visit him here once a week.
He worried that he would be ripped away from both his family and the progress he had made inside, and expressed skepticism that the transfer policy would remain voluntary.
“I really don’t want to go. But once you’re in jail and you’ve got that sentence on you, they dictate the rules,” he said. “If they come and say, come, pick up your things, you’re leaving, I will make no movement. I will pick up my things and I will go because for you to go home as quickly as you can, you’ve got to obey the rules. You’ve got to do everything that they ask.”
For a week in July the Guardian was granted extensive access to Puerto Rico’s prison system to examine the transfer policy and the many unreported pitfalls that accompany the plan.
‘This is something we need to do’
Erik Rolón’s 15th floor office commands a panoramic view of San Juan. As the sun sets over the the North Atlantic, cruise liners dotted along the coast, the corrections minister, 36 years-old, calmly but vehemently defended his department’s decision.
“This is something that we need to do due to the economic situation we have in government,” Rolón said. “It’s an initiative that represents a very cost-effective way to provide our service.”
The department hopes to transfer between around 1,200 inmates in 2019, with cohorts of 700 following for the next three years. At the same time it plans to permanently shutter an as yet unspecified cluster of government-run prisons on the island.
Despite Rolón describing the plan as “99% complete” the government has not signed a contract with the only private prison company, CoreCivic, still in the tender process, and many of the finer details appear unresolved. Neither CoreCivic nor Rolón would say how much the contract was valued at.
Further, the department spent a period of weeks last month orientating Puerto Rico’s entire prison cohort on transfers to two prisons – one in Mississippi and another in Texas – that are no longer being considered for use in the program. Rolón insisted his department would re-orient the whole prison population to the facility now being considered – the La Palma correctional center in Eloy, Arizona – before signing any contract.
CoreCivic would not say how it planned to adapt the medium security prison – that was until recently used to incarcerate prisoners from California – to house a variety of inmate categories.
The company declined to respond to a list of specific questions relating to the transfer program, citing: “respect for the integrity of the procurement process” and “competitive reasons”.
Away from the organizational challenges, Rolón was keen to quell criticism from a host of civil rights groups and federal politicians who point to generally poorer conditions inside prisons run for profit versus those run by the state.
In 2016 a stinging independent review by the Obama administration’s justice department found that private prisons used by the federal government were drastically more unsafe and more punitive than those operated by government – identifying poorer medical care and the overuse of solitary confinement as two key markers. The report prompted the president to order the end of federal government’s use of private prisons, a decision that was almost immediately reversed by the Trump administration.
When reminded of this audit’s findings, Rolón nodded and said: “I know I have to guarantee the rights of inmates. We’re not going to send inmates to another state, to a private prison to suffer what they don’t suffer here.”
Rolón insisted all prison staff would be at least bilingual, that the contract would mandate Puerto Rican cuisine be served to all inmates and that rehabilitative rights, as described by the island’s constitution, would be upheld.
But documents seen by the Guardian indicate that private companies initially bidding for the contract had already begun to look at ways of cutting corners.
In a tender document in which solicitors from three private security companies asked Rolón’s department questions about the deal, Trinity Services Group, a private corrections group specializing in prison catering, asked the department whether it would foot the bill for any legal cases brought against private providers, whether the department would pay providers more money for specific dietary requirements, and if providers would be expected to pay for transportation costs of inmates.
In another question, the company asked: “It is a rumour that 90% of inmates in Puerto Rico have a type of hepatitis, could you please elaborate on the bill of health of the inmates in Puerto Rico…”
The department responded: “This rumour is not true.”
Trinity Services Group did not respond to multiple requests for comment. .
‘You create the likelihood of hardened criminals’
Not all operating in Puerto Rico’s criminal justice are convinced of the plan. Eric Vos, the chief of Puerto Rico’s federal public defender officer, expressed grave concerns that the program would lead to warehousing of inmates and, by default, make rehabilitation exponentially more difficult.
“When you remove a Puerto Rican from his family, his community and you put him in a foreign country that has limited Spanish, has limited training for the inmates, and a huge cultural divide between the people who guard them, you do not create rehabilitation. What you create is the likelihood of hardened criminals,” Vos said.
“Even if you’re saving money by sending them to Arizona. You’re now going to cost yourself even more because you didn’t do the job of rehabilitation. It’s like storing a car for less money, but storing it underwater. When you pull it out of water, you’re going to have a mess.”
Pivotally, Rolón insisted the entire program would be voluntary. He claimed that 1,193 inmates in the system had registered “expression of interest” in the transfer program (based on orientations that included the wrong prisons). The department later revised the number to 867 without explanation.
The secretary insisted that while no inmates would be forced into the program, he acknowledged that once the contract was signed the department would be obligated to pay for its full imposition whether or not they managed to find the full cohort of 3,200 transferees.
The department has no contingency plan, the secretary said, due to the “expressions of interest” it has already received from inmates.
But experts warn that the plan has already overlooked a pivotal aspect to Puerto Rico’s prison make-up: the dominance of gang culture.
At Bayamón’s north complex, the four brightly painted medium security wings are segregated by gang affiliation. Of the 936 inmates in this block, officials estimate 70% are members of Puerto Rico’s largest and most dominant gang, Asociación Ñeta. Some estimates suggest that up to two thirds of the entire Puerto Rican prison population are part of the Ñeta association, which began in the late 1970s with ties to independence movement prisoners, ballooning into a powerbroker in Puerto Rico’s prison network.
By the late 1990s, according to a court appointed monitor reportcommissioned in response to a spate of violent prison riots on the island, the Ñeta association functioned as a “shadow governing body” across the entire network, enforcing its own rules and practices among inmates.
Three blocks here are run by Ñeta, said Lieutenant Angel Burgos Lopez, a burly senior prison officer who has worked here for decades, while one is operated by Grupo 27, a rival organization smaller in size.
In the immediate aftermath of Maria all four wings were place on lockdown for over a week as tensions flared between the two groups. Now, said Lieutenant Lopez, a brokered peace has lead to greater stability.
The Guardian was invited into one Ñeta controlled wing to meet with Isander Báez Muriel. The 34-year-old is a self-described senior member of the group and the spokesman for the association’s entire prison population, which he claimed to be over 6,000 inmates. Muriel’s status was confirmed by both Lieutenant Lopez and two other corrections officials who did not want to be named.
Sitting in the wing’s courtyard, flanked by two other unidentified male prisoners, Muriel said the whole association was opposed to the transfer program.
“We refuse it in its essence,” he said, as three armed guards with the prison’s tactical response unit who had accompanied the Guardian throughout the visit waited outside the wing, peering in. “Every prison in Puerto Rico is against that program. It takes us far away from our families.”
The association member, dressed in a white T-shirt with a large pendant concealed underneath, continued: “They’d have to take me by force. Our association, we all believe this.”
The inmate, who has served seven years for two weapons violation convictions and did not want the full length of his sentence published, warned there would be “chaos” if any member of the association was moved to the US.
“We don’t promote violence,” he said. “We understand that it won’t get to that point.”
Gary Gutierrez, a criminology professor at the American University of Puerto Rico, cautioned that such forceful opposition to the policy from the island’s most powerful association could lead to serious consequences for the government.
First, Gutierrez suggested that Ñeta, who control many of the prison kitchens and laundry units, could lead an island-wide prison strike. Second, he pointed to the fact that the organization control a significant voting block – prisoners are granted the vote in Puerto Rico – and could punish the current administration at the next election in 2020.
“We have to realize that by opposing the policy, they are probably trying to secure their market base and their membership,” Gutierrez said. “They are Puerto Rico’s most powerful prison organization and have controlled the system for years.”
He added: “But it’s too simplistic to say it’s just about controlling the market. They know exactly what’s going on, and they know what happened last time.”
This is not the first time Puerto Rico has attempted to move inmates to the United States. In 1993, as prisons on the island suffered from chronic overcrowding, the government attempted to move up to 500 inmates to a facility in rural Minnesota. Following inmate complaints about the conditions inside, the transfers were abandoned within two years, and all the individuals incarcerated were returned.
In 2012, the government tried again. This time with voluntary transfers for 480 inmates to a private prison in Cushing, Oklahoma. In March the following year Puerto Rican inmates rioted at the facility and the program closed three months later.
Secretary Rolón was adamant, however, that this new program, six times the size of the old ones, would not mean history repeating itself. In fact, he pointed to the scale of the project as a marker of how he believed it would succeed, drawing attention to the savings his government planned to make, rather than how conditions inside might be different this time.
“It’s different, because I’m sending inmates abroad but also plan to close institutions [on the island]. Doing this allows me to relocate personnel and make better jobs at the institutions I have open. The more institutions I have open the less overtime I can pay, so then I make savings.”
But overlooking the conditions at La Palma may be an oversight.
A 2010 California inspector general report found serious flaws in the standard of care at the facility including: overuse of solitary confinement, a failure to provide video conferencing for inmates to contact family members, a failure to provide a “full complement” of programming for Hispanic inmates, and a range of basic security and safety flaws.
CoreCivic did not respond to specific questions about the audit but a spokeswoman said: “We take any inspection or audit findings very seriously and work closely with our government partners to take any corrective action necessary.”
‘Everything in prison is an adaptation’
At the Bayamón minimum security wing, Joseph Villalobos was keen to show off the murals inmates painted on the facades after Maria hit. A painted US flag, with bright reds and blues, covered the front of one building next to another painted with the Puerto Rican flag.
With his head bowed, a tape measure clipped to his jeans, he seemed resigned to the uncertainty that lay ahead. “To be honest, everything in prison is an adaptation,” he said.
“I hear people saying I would never do one day in jail. I’d rather kill myself than do that. That’s a state of mind that everybody has. The first time you cry, the first time you scream. But then the adaption comes in and you settle in, and you say hey I’ve got to make the good out of this time,” he paused, staring at the floor. “Because I’ve got to get home.”