Dropping suit may be key to reviving Willacy prison

RAYMONDVILLE — The road to reopening the former tent-city prison includes options such as dropping a lawsuit against the facility’s former operator.

Earlier this week, Willacy County commissioners met in closed session with county-contracted attorney Ricardo Morado to consider dismissing a lawsuit against Management and Training Corp., the company that operated the former Willacy County Correctional Center.

“We’re keeping all options on the table,” County Judge Aurelio Guerra said yesterday.

Guerra said commissioners plan to meet with Morado again to discuss such options as the possibility of a settlement.

“We’re all working toward the same objective and that is the opening of the facility,” Guerra said.

In December, the county filed a lawsuit against MTC, alleging its “abysmal mismanagement” led to the Feb. 20, 2015, inmate uprising that destroyed much of the 3,000-bed prison made up of tent-like domes, plunging the county into financial crisis.

The lawsuit argues overcrowding and plumbing problems created “deplorable” inmate living conditions, raising tensions and leading inmates to destroy much of the 3,000-bed prison.

MTC denied the allegations, arguing it conducted “frequent comprehensive audits to make sure the facility was safe and clean and that it met all federal BOP standards.”

Then last week, county officials and MTC announced they are working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to reopen the facility as a detention center holding undocumented immigrants.

Guerra declined to disclose any further details.

“We have been in contact with MTC for the past two years,” Guerra said. “Since it closed, our objective has been to open it. We’re working through this as fast as we can to reach our objective — to open it.”

Guerra said officials do not have details regarding ICE’s plans or any possible economic impact.

Commissioners have not set their next meeting with Morado regarding the lawsuit demanding MTC pay the county unspecified damages.

The prison was a vital economic engine in this farming area struggling with a jobless rate hovering near 13 percent.

The closure of the prison, which paid Willacy County for every inmate it housed, plunged the area into financial crisis, leading to 400 employee layoffs while slashing a third of the county’s $8.1 million general fund budget.