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Texas Matters: How Did A Small Texas County Become Prisonville USA?

Max Parrott
The entrance to El Valle detention facility in Willacy County.

Raymondville, Texas, is sometimes known by another name: Prisonville USA.  

The nickname came after Willacy County, where Raymondville sits, became financially dependent on prisons and on an ICE detention center for migrants. This brought jobs, controversy and national headlines to the small town.

In 2015, a riot broke out at the Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville after prisoners protested conditions inside the facility. The detainees tore through the kevlar tents of their dorms, and a fire broke out, leaving the private prison uninhabitable. 

The facility was an economic engine for the impoverished Rio Grande Valley community. When the facility closed, it left the county $2 million short of its estimated budget, with $78 million in unpaid bonds and 400 fewer jobs for a population of about 21,000 people. 

But last summer, three years after experiencing near economic collapse, Willacy County rushed back into business with the same company that ran the failed facility. They opened a different kind of prison — El Valle, a 1,000 bed immigrant detention center.

Why would a county jump back into the arms of the same private prison company that brought it to near-financial ruin?

This investigation explores the story of the prison’s construction, the numerous scandals throughout the past two decades and the county’s complicated relationship with the private prison industry. 

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos

Reporting for this story was funded in part by the Judith Watson Investigative Reporting Fund.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi
Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at reynaldo@tpr.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos