Puerto Rican civil rights groups and the families of prisoners here are demanding the government stop its plan to send a third of the island’s inmates to prisons on the mainland US.
“They’re separating families completely. They’re getting rid of the strongest support and path to rehabilitation that they have,” Madeline Gotay, 60, the mother of two men serving time in a Puerto Rican prison, told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday.
Her sons are at the Bayamón Correctional Complex, about a 45-minute drive from where she lives in Trujillo Alto. She said being able to visit them once a week has been a lifeline for them — and for her — while they’ve been serving time for the past 10 years.
“The only help that they have in the jail is the help that their family gives them, to be able to spend time with them one hour per week. There are lots of hugs and kisses. We talk about how everyone in the family is doing, my mother, their sister, all the family news,” Gotay said. “And we talk about how they are doing in jail, emotionally. Definitely it’s the most indispensable part of their rehabilitation. It gives them strength in their hearts.”
Her sons, Freddy Fraticelli Gotay, 34, and Juan Moraza Gotay, 30, are serving 50 years for second-degree murder and 28 years for intent to murder and possession of weapons, respectively.
If her sons were moved away from the island, she said, like most families she knows with loved ones in prison, “I wouldn’t be able in any way to go. We would lose them. How would I go to see them? There’s no money, no way to pay for those flights.”
Moving the inmates is part of a series of cost-saving measures outlined in Puerto Rico's 2018 fiscal plan, which was approved by the federally appointed Financial Oversight and Management Board last week. The agency will move 3,200 people — about a third of the island’s incarcerated population — to private prisons on the mainland over the next five years. The oversight board has ordered the department to cut $395 million from its budget by 2023.
In a letter released on Wednesday morning, the ACLU of Puerto Rico and 33 lawyers, civil rights professors, social workers, and advocates said they oppose the move because it would ”substantially affect the process of rehabilitation of inmates and cause anguish and suffering to their families and friends as the ties preserved through their visits will be broken.”
The advocates and lawyers say they believe the move will reduce prisoners’ access to the Puerto Rican court system, and questions what will happen to prisoners if they end up in private prisons in the US and ultimately decide they want to return home upon release.
“Having committed a crime is not an excuse to dispose of people without considering their well-being and that of their relatives,” the letter added.
The Puerto Rico Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But Erik Rolón, the secretary of the department, told El Nuevo Dia that the department hopes to save between $44 million and $50 million in the coming fiscal year alone with the prison transfer plan.
“With the move to the United States, we’re looking at a cost per prisoner of between $60 and $70 per day, maximum. Each prisoner in Puerto Rico costs on average between $95 and $100 per day,” he said.
William Ramirez, executive director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico, told BuzzFeed News that “the Puerto Rican constitution assures that prisoners will go through a rehabilitation process. That’s not the mission of private prisons in the US. The private prisons in the US are about business. They are about getting new prisoners and making income.
“The rehabilitation process,” he said, involves “having contact with your family members — having your family be able to visit you is considered part of that rehab process.”
The program will be voluntary, and the department said prisoners cannot be legally moved against their will, except in the case of a security risk.
But lawyers and civil rights advocates are skeptical. They say that even if prisoners volunteer, they’re not confident they and their families will be aware of what they’re getting into.
“We question the ‘voluntary’ way in which the program claims to be carried out. What promises will be made to the inmates to make them agree to move from the island? Will it be explained that the prisons to which they will be moved will be administered privately? Will the inmates who agree to be moved know about the serious complaints that have been made about the levels of violence experienced in private prisons in the US?” the letter said.
Iris Rosario, a public defender in Puerto Rico and adjunct professor at the University of Puerto Rico’s school of law, was one of the lawyers who signed the letter. She told BuzzFeed News she’s also wary of a provision in the government’s Financial Emergency and Fiscal Responsibility Law, renewed in January for six months, that allows the government to suspend agency rules if they’re deemed to stand in the way of the island’s economic recovery.
“That makes me distrust the situation,” she said.
Rosario is concerned that the government has laid out a quota — 3,200 prisoners — so she questions what would happen if they didn’t get enough volunteers.
“We don’t believe they’ll be able to convince that many people to move from the island,” she said. “And though they keep saying it will be voluntary, they don’t offer an alternative plan if they can’t meet their quota.”
Ramirez pointed to previous attempts by Puerto Rican authorities to move prisoners to the mainland to save costs, including an attempt in the early '90s and another in 2012, when 480 prisoners were moved to the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Oklahoma.
Prisoners found that they had little access to Puerto Rican court procedures and that conditions in the prison were not what they were promised. After inmates rioted, the government rescinded the plan the following year.
Gotay said families would rather see the government consider other plans to reduce prison populations, like parole programs and reduced sentences for good behavior before thinking of sending thousands off the island.
Last month, a group of Democrats in Congress, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Nydia Velázquez, wrote to Gov. Rosselló and the chair of the financial oversight board, José B. Carrión, to express their opposition to the plan.
Rosselló did not immediately respond to a request for comment.