A judge sentenced a former guard at the East Hidalgo Detention Center to more than two years in prison Thursday for accepting bribes — including a horse.
U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez sentenced former Correctional Officer Amber Marie Estrada, 22, of Weslaco during a hearing Thursday morning.
Estrada apologized for accepting bribes and thanked the government for arresting her.
“I don’t know where I’d be if I was continuing to do that,” Estrada said. “So I am very thankful for the lesson learned and I do apologize. And I am very, very remorseful.”
Estrada worked at the East Hidalgo Detention Center in La Villa.
The 1,300-bed jail is owned by the GEO Group, a private prison company based in Boca Raton, Florida. It holds people detained by the U.S. Marshals Service.
Estrada smuggled food and marijuana to people detained at East Hidalgo, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Lynn Greenbaum, who prosecuted the case.
Her conduct seriously undermined “the safety of the institution, the safety of her fellow coworkers, the safety of the inmates and the public’s trust in the day-to-day operations of this facility,” Greenbaum said.
In exchange, Estrada accepted cash and a horse, according to the indictment against her.
Estrada and six other detention center employees, including her mother, Brenda Fuentes, were arrested in 2019 and 2020.
Fuentes was accused of engaging in sexual activity with a person in custody, which is illegal. She pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of a ward and was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison.
“It saddens me always when we have a defendant who has engaged in criminal conduct along with a parent. In your case it wasn’t necessarily you were involved in the same offense, but you were involved in very similar conduct,” Alvarez said. “I can see from the perspective of a young person that if they see a parent doing something, then maybe in their mind they don’t think it’s all that bad if the parent is going to do it.”
Alvarez said people frequently apologize at sentencing, but many don’t recognize the mistake they’ve made and learn from it.
“Hopefully the lesson that you have learned here, Ms. Estrada, is one that will stay with you for the rest of your life,” Alvarez said. “That is: No matter how minor the conduct may seem to you from your perspective or how from your perspective maybe something that you think is worthwhile, that you step back and look at it from the perspective of society as a whole.”
Corruption in jails and prisons is a serious problem in many other nations, Alvarez said. Integrity is what sets the United States penal system apart from others.
“We hear often about situations in foreign countries where the penal institutions are run by the inmates, where if an inmate has the right connections and the right money, life can be easy for them. They can basically live in custody as if they were living on the outside,” Alvarez said. “We take some pride in believing that our institutions are not like that. And then we have situations like this that show that anybody is subject to corruption.”