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February 19, 2011

Jail Time

One of the tours we took this week that I thought was interesting was a visit to the Val Verde Correctional Facility in Del Rio. It's a privately owned, for profit, business that is owned by the Geo Group out of Florida. It started receiving prisoners ten years ago on January 15, 2001 and currently has 1407 beds, after an 576 bed expansion in 2007.

 I came across this You Tube video, filmed in 2007,  protesting inhumane treatment at this facility.

I thought the video was interesting because it sharply contrasted my own observations. I  have to get on my soapbox a bit and proclaim that these prisoners are here for a reason - they broke the law! I can't stand it when I see people protesting the inhumane treatment of prisoners. This is not a hotel. This is a place you don't ever want to go to - period. Give me a break.  

Ninety-Nine percent of the prisoners at this border town facility are Hispanic. Many are illegal aliens crossing the border for various reasons. Del Rio is one of the few facilities in the country that prosecute illegal aliens before sending them back home. This is a detention facility where prisoners are awaiting trial and most are housed from a few days to maybe 2 years. Consequently there is high turnover of prisoners. Many would be considered minimum security but there were some that were in for capital murder, some Mexican Mafia, drug cartel, smugglers (drugs and humans). They segregate these men from the minimum, low risk to the maximum, high risk. Some are monitored 24/7. Some are isolated in single cells. They have effective ways of nipping problems in the bud before they escalate. Both the warden and the deputy were quick to point out that this facility was quite minor in comparison to some of the prisons they worked at before. They liked working here.

The facility was exceptionally clean. The Warden talked to us at length and answered any questions we had. The deputies and guards seemed very well organized and everything seemed to function flawlessly. The commissary was very well stocked with whatever you could imagine. The most popular items were Chili Pepper Top Ramen Noodles and Hostess-type Cupcakes. We asked where the prisoners get the money to buy all this stuff and were told it's mostly through family members, who put it into an account for them. Prisoners are allowed to come in a couple of times a week (i think) to buy anything from calling cards to toothbrushes. They have excellent medical and dental care and each prisoner is medically checked out during the intake process.

Each cell can house two prisoners. They separate the men from the women. The guards (and one of them was a women we spoke with) think the women prisoners are a "pain in the ass" and they couldn't emphasis that enough! (we didn't get to see the women) I was told they are currently being sued by one female prisoner for $2 million because her finger was slammed in a door. The women fight amongst each other. Both sexes are housed in separate cell blocks but the men are more freely able to roam outside of their cells into the common area and the women are only allowed out once per hour and then must return to their cells. I must say there is a very small percentage of women here, the majority are men. Each cell block has a medical center, a case manager, a chapel/library, an outside exercise area - and other stuff I probably forgot about! There were many instances during the tour where we mingled amonst the prisoners - the commisary and the kitchen to name two and the prisoners were very quiet. I was told this is largely due to their culture. (the women may be a different story!)

Each block has two floors of cells, each cell housing two prisoners. There is a common area in each block, where the prisoners eat three times a day. It also has a large flat screen TV and an industrial microwave (where they can cook all those noodles). Other than the noodles and cupcakes they are fed three hot meals a day. There are two shifts that work the kitchen (which we were allowed to see). With slight differences in the menu (the prisoners diet consisted of more Mexican items like beans and rice) we ate the same menu for lunch that the prisoners ate. And I have to tell you, it was my favorite lunch out of all the lunches I had this past week. We had chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, homemade rolls, peach cobbler dessert and iced tea. If I ate three meals like that every day I'd easily weigh over 200 pounds. Someone told me that these guys consume around 4200 calories a day. I don't know if that's acurate - seems like a lot to me, but considering the meal I just had, it could be true!

The kitchen also cooks special meal for diabetic prisoners and they do not cook any pork at all because the Muslim Islamic faith prohibits it. Never mind that this facility is 99% Hispanic (and most likely Catholic) - maybe it's a federal mandate. I thought it was amazing. Don't get me back on my soapbox!

I would like to take this tour again someday. I'm sure there is much that I missed the first time around. The warden and deputy that spoke with us seemed very proud of their facility and I can see why. I was impressed as well but that doesn't mean I'd ever like to live there.....well.....maybe for the food anyway!

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