Since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico six months ago, dealing a new blow to an island already crippled by devastating austerity measures, some 200,000 residents have moved to the U.S. mainland. They were encouraged to do so by government officials who — as The Intercept has reported — seem to want to rebuild Puerto Rico “with many fewer Puerto Ricans.”
Soon, the displaced might be joined by thousands more Puerto Ricans — this time, inmates moved from prisons on the island to prisons on the mainland as part of a government plan to relocate as many as a third of Puerto Rico’s detainees over the next five years. The proposal by Puerto Rico’s fiscally beleaguered government to cut the cost of incarcerating people by shipping them off the island has caused alarm for the rights of prisoners and their families. But the plan, about which officials have revealed few specifics, has also raised questions about the influence of private prison companies on the island and Puerto Rico’s complicated history of relocating inmates to facilities thousands of miles away overseas.
According to the commonwealth government’s proposed fiscal plan, which slashes funds across agencies, the island’s department of corrections would cut costs through — among other measures — the “externalization of imprisonment services.” In January, government officials submitted the draft plan to the fiscal control board appointed as part of the island’s bankruptcy deal. The board is supposed to vote on the plan next week.
Corrections officials hope to move as many as 900 inmates by next year, and about 3,200 inmates — 30 percent of Puerto Rico’s imprisoned population — by 2022. The secretary of corrections and rehabilitation, Erik Rolón Suárez, told local reporters that housing detainees in mainland prisons would cost the government $60 per day versus roughly $100 per day in Puerto Rico, and that the move could save the government $17.2 million next year and $46.9 million by 2022. Officials plan to close prisons in Puerto Rico as they move detainees, Rolón said.
On Friday, 34 members of Congress called on Puerto Rican officials to abandon their plan. “Not only are privatized prisons known for employing inhumane conditions to save money, they tear families apart and hinder meaningful rehabilitation,” New York Rep. Nydia Velázquez, who led the effort, said in a statement. “This shameful effort puts profit before the well-being of inmates and must be rejected by the board.”
“Time and again, we have seen that private prisons lack incentives to consider the needs of inmates, instead focusing on their bottom line — profit,” Velázquez added.
Puerto Rican criminal justice professionals are also skeptical that the plan would truly cut costs and worry about the impact of moving detainees so far from their families to facilities run in a language many of them don’t speak.
“Puerto Rico is in a terrible, terrible fiscal situation, and they’re trying to cut expenses,” Rosa Alexandrino, a criminal defense attorney, told The Intercept. “All agencies have had big budget cuts — except other agencies don’t have the responsibility of an inmate population.”
Lorenzo Villalba Rolón, a corrections administrator in Puerto Rico for over 40 years who also served as director of the island’s civil rights commission and senior adviser to the corrections department under the former commonwealth administration, said that whatever the government saved on detainees’ per diems, it would likely spend in flying officials back and forth for administrative tasks like parole board hearings, as well as in maintaining bilingual bureaucracies.
“They say it’s going to save the government a few million dollars,” he said. “I have my doubts.”
Puerto Rico’s corrections department did not provide comment in response to questions from The Intercept. The governor’s office did not reply to a request for comment.
It’s unclear when the transfers would start, but prison administrators have been asked to compile rosters of inmates as part of the effort to find “volunteers,” according to Alexandrino. Officials have stressed that participation in “out-of-state” transfers would be optional. But critics are skeptical that the selection process could truly be voluntary.
“What happens if they don’t meet the quotas?” Alexandrino asked.
The prospect of long-distance transfer might appeal to some inmates who fear gang violence in the island’s prisons or those with family already in the U.S. (though there are few Puerto Ricans in the mostly rural states where prisoners are likely to end up). But those with little incentive to leave might be pushed in other ways, advocates warn.
“I don’t know that when you are incarcerated you have any options,” Gary Gutierrez, a criminal justice professor in Ponce, told The Intercept. “We are normalizing the idea that these people don’t have any rights, that they are just excess.”
In response to criticism that volunteers would be hard to find, the island’s governor argued that such a program had already been piloted in the past. “Some of the inmates were presented with the opportunity to go to other institutions and they saw the option as favorable,” said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, according to El Nuevo Día. “There’s already evidence that some inmates are available to make this decision, to go to a different jurisdiction.”
In fact, Puerto Rico has tried something similar before — twice. It didn’t go so well.
In 1993, facing severe prison overcrowding, Puerto Rico sent 350 inmates to the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minnesota, with plans to send 150 more soon after. The contract was good news in Minnesota, where the facility had sat empty for months and 185 jobs were at risk. Detainees who volunteered to go were promised special programs, time off their sentences, Spanish-speaking staff, and a Puerto Rican-style meal each day. Meanwhile, local officials in Appleton were warned that “the Puerto Rican inmates may be difficult,” according to an account of the deal in the book, “Inside Private Prisons.”
“You are in the middle of nowhere Minnesota with hundreds of Puerto Rican inmates,” said Villalba, the former corrections administrator. “The prison guards were all American gringos. The food was mashed potatoes and gravy — nothing to do with the Puerto Rican diet. And all the programs were in English.”
“Things were so bad the inmates rioted,” Villalba said.
Eventually, an investigation into the inmates’ complaints revealed “grievous contractual transgressions causing the human rights of the transferred inmates to be violated,” according to an ombudsman’s account of the episode.
By 1995, all the Puerto Rican inmates had been flown back to the island on a chartered plane.
Meanwhile, through the 1990s, Puerto Rico’s then-Gov. Pedro Rosselló González — father of the current governor — engaged in an effort to privatize corrections on the island, partnering with private prison giants Corrections Corporations of America (now called CoreCivic) and Wackenhut Corrections (now the GEO Group).
But that partnership fared no better than the out-of-state experiment. Private contractors didn’t take high-security prisoners or those in need of mental health services. Puerto Rico’s prisons have a tumultuous history and have at times been ruled by rival gangs, including the Ñeta Association, started by political prisoners, which was later described by a court-appointed prison monitor as a “shadow governing body” that enforced its own discipline and controlled inmate housing and privileges. Private companies had little understanding of Puerto Rican prison culture and were poorly equipped to deal with it, according to Villalba. Soon, prisoners rioted in private facilities on the island just as they had in Minnesota. And when the government was late on payments, its private partners stopped taking inmates. “It was a very business-like deal,” said Villalba.
In the early 2000s, the government ended its contracts with private prisons on the island.
Then, in 2012, Puerto Rico gave outsourcing its detention services another try, again contracting with CCA to send 480 inmates to the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, Oklahoma. On that occasion, too, the corrections department asked for volunteers.
Alexandrino, who is in contact with some of the detainees who signed up to go, said that before agreeing, they were shown a video of the prison to which they would be transferred, but then they were sent somewhere else. “The place was not in good condition,” she told The Intercept. “They were duped.”
Soon, tensions flared once again. The three-year contract was cut short after just one year and the detainees were sent back to Puerto Rico, where officials scrambled, as they had in the 1990s, to find space for them.
More recently, Puerto Rican officials floated the possibility of new public-private partnerships to run rehabilitation programs on the island — which is why the proposal to send inmates to the U.S. mainland took some by surprise, though critics of the initiative say it is well in line with the government’s overall embrace of privatization and downsizing of government functions on the island.
“All of a sudden, they stared talking about transferring inmates,” said Villalba, referring to the draft fiscal plan submitted in January. “Who is behind this? CCA was here in the 1990s, so once they heard the governor won the election, they probably started lobbying for more business.”
CoreCivic did not respond to questions from The Intercept in time for publication.
Gutierrez, the criminal justice professor, described moving prisoners to private facilities outside Puerto Rico as “a way to privatize prisons without privatizing the actual institutions.” He added that while simply reducing incarceration rates might be more fiscally sound, government officials had little interest in alternatives to incarceration that might keep inmates on the island and costs down. “These people will buy any private-sector proposal,” he said. “But they have to do it in a way that saves their face as hard-liners.”
While the governor’s office did not answer questions about detainees’ proposed destinations, the governor mentioned Oklahoma, once again, as a possible destination for the relocated detainees, according to local reports. Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States and prisons that regularly operate beyond capacity. Those prisons are increasingly run by private companies, which have often taken in detainees from other states.
Last month, CoreCivic held two recruiting events in Puerto Rico — in Ponce and San Juan — seeking “bilingual correctional officers” and offering $3,000 in “relocation fees,” according to a post by the company no longer available online.
“Private companies have taken advantage of Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis to push for privatization and to lobby for preferential treatment in the handling of Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis and bankruptcy,” said Jennifer Turner, a human rights researcher with the American Civil Liberties Union who has documented police abuse on the island. “This is of a piece with that.”
“In Puerto Rico, disaster capitalism is potentially going to result in a substantial privatization of all kinds of public functions — from the electrical grid to incarceration,” Turner added.
But recruiting a few bilingual guards to work on mainland prisons won’t fix the problems that arose in the past, according to Villalba. “It’s going to be the same. It’s going to be in English. It’s going to be in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, we have some Puerto Rican guards there, and everything is going to be fine and dandy.’”
“I think there is going to be trouble.”
The inmates sent to Minnesota and Oklahoma in the past were not the only Puerto Rican prisoners in U.S. mainland facilities. There are also dozens of Puerto Rican detainees in federal institutions operated by the Bureau of Prisons under the U.S. Department of Justice.
In 1993, Puerto Rico built the first federal prison outside the continental U.S. and the only federal prison on the island — the Metropolitan Detention Center at Guaynabo, capacity 1,400. Like most other facilities on the island, the Guaynabo prison sits near a high-risk flood area, as reported by the Marshall Project. After Maria, the BOP evacuated its detainees at Guaynabo, sending them to Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida before returning them to Puerto Rico earlier this year.
In addition to building Guaynabo, over the past two decades, the Puerto Rican government has federalized a growing number of crimes as a way to ship inmates to federal prisons on the mainland — in part in response to a 1979 class-action lawsuit over conditions in Puerto Rican prisons that ended in 2012 with an order to rein in overcrowding. In the 1980s and 1990s, the island was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for failing to comply with court orders and shrink its prison population, which was growing as officials pushed “tough on crime” measures. Yet instead of curtailing incarceration, officials sought to change the classification of crimes to be able to send prisoners away, according to Marisol LeBrón, an assistant professor of American studies at Dickinson College who has studied policing and punitive policy in Puerto Rico.
“Using mainland prisons as a kind of safety valve is really the only way that the commonwealth government was finally able to bring the island’s department of corrections into compliance with the guidelines set by the Morales Feliciano case,” she told The Intercept, referring to the lead plaintiff in the 1979 lawsuit.
Amid reports, not always accurate, of a post-hurricane surge of violence and crime, Puerto Rican authorities doubled down on broken windows policing, once again putting a strain on the island’s prisons. Sending inmates away, said LeBrón, would allow the government to comply with court orders while maintaining the appearance “that it is doing something to address public safety concerns.”
“Given its history, it is not surprising that the current administration is looking to once again exile its population in mainland prisons and jails,” she added. “To me, this move is evidence that the commonwealth is gearing up to really drive up rates of arrests and incarceration, and is trying to manage the fallout.”