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Federal Detention Facility In West Texas Called Out After Inmates Complain Of Inhumane Treatment

The U.S. Marshals Service is monitoring a privately run detention center in west Texas after inmates and their attorneys complained of inhumane conditions, including the use of plastic bags as toilets.

The West Texas Detention Facility sits 88 miles east of El Paso in a sparsely populated swath of desert. It houses inmates awaiting trial for federal crimes like drug trafficking and illegal reentry. It also houses people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The most serious complaints stem from December when the facility had problems with its water supply. Efrain Chavez was held at the detention center for six months while he awaited news on his petition for U.S. asylum. He said the taps went dry for three days.

"The toilets were all full of human waste," he said. "You can't imagine the smell. It was awful."

After the toilets were full, Chavez said the guards told inmates to use plastic bags. On another occasion, Chavez said he and his bunkmates found a live rattlesnake in their sleeping quarters. He said they had to kill the snake themselves after jail managers failed to respond.

The head attorney for the company that runs the West Texas Detention Center declined to comment for this story. 

Chavez shared his experience during a closed meeting organized by the U.S. Marshals Service at the federal courthouse in El Paso on Tuesday. At that meeting defense attorneys said their clients were verbally abused and their medical needs neglected. Maureen Franco, head of the federal public defenders office in El Paso, said problems at the facility have gotten worse in the past year.

"Attorneys were having a very difficult time seeing their clients," she said. "They were given arbitrary rules as to when they could show up and if they showed up late then the visit was cancelled."

Emerald Companies purchased the detention center in January and has since fired the warden. The company runs six other detention centers including one in Arizona and another in New Mexico.

The U.S. Marshals Service has the authority to remove prisoners from facilities that don't meet federal standards.