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September 30, 2014

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Photo: Photos by Michael Barajas, License: N/A

The Karnes County Civil Detention Center has outdoor courtyards, basketball courts, and a soccer field, all designed to make it feel less like a prison.

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Immigrant detainees sleep eight to a room inside dormitory-like units

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Gary Mead, head of enforcement and removal operations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, tours the Karnes County Civil Detention Center for immigrants.

ICE's 'soft' detention strategy at new immigration facility begs the question: Why do lowest-risk detainees need to be detained at all?

KARNES COUNTY — This month, the first asylum seekers and border crossers landing in the sparkling new Karnes County Civil Detention Center will be among the first to experience Immigration and Customs Enforcement's kinder, gentler approach to immigrant detention.

An hour drive southeast of San Antonio, the 608-bed facility still smelling of fresh paint and new carpet stretches across a 29-acre swath of farmland in rural South Texas. Rather than prison cells, jumpsuits, and barbed wire fencing, detainees here will sleep in eight-bed dormitory-style quarters, wearing more cozy attire like jeans and T-shirts. The facility's high walls enclose lush green courtyards with volleyball courts, an AstroTurfed soccer field, and basketball hoops, where detainees are free to roam throughout the day.

The Karnes facility, the newest piece of the nation's sprawling immigrant-detention network encompassing some 250 detention centers, is perhaps the most tangible evidence of the detention reforms sparked by years of complaints from human rights groups and immigrants' advocates claiming shoddy medical care, abuse, and lax oversight plaguing ICE facilities. Although ICE says Karnes is a sign of things to come, critics worry the agency may be simply expanding a broken system in need of sweeping overhaul, saying other reforms the agency rolled out in 2009 have yet to score meaningful results system-wide.

The Karnes facility, set to house low-risk male detainees and asylum seekers, marks a shift away from agency's reliance on jails and prison-like facilities to detain undocumented immigrants, said Gary Mead, executive associate director of ICE's enforcement and removal operations overseeing the agency's detention facilities. "We're not in the business of holding people for long-term punitive reasons, you know, serving a sentence," Mead said during a tour of the Karnes facility last week. "It was never our authority or responsibility to punish people or to correct their behavior. … We have to treat them very differently than a state prison system or a county jail system would treat people in their custody."

Still, prison-like conditions persist across ICE's detention network, said Andrea Black, executive director of Detention Watch Network. The new Karnes facility, she remarked, proves ICE's commitment to detain even low-risk undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, who she says would be better suited for alternatives to detention. "It looks like we're still using a penal-type structure and framework for immigrant detention," Black said. "Our question remains why this lowest risk category needs to be detained at all."

ICE spends on average $122 a day to detain an undocumented immigrant, while alternatives, such as the agency's ankle bracelet monitoring programs, top out at around $15 per day, Mead said, adding that ICE has worked to expand alternatives from 18,000 immigrants to 23,000 in such programs over the past year.

Black and others also worry the new facility further increases ICE's reliance on private prison contractors to do the job. The facility, like over a dozen across the state, will be managed and operated by the GEO Group, one of the most active private-prison contractors in the state.

Advocates were stunned in December 2010 when they first learned of the deal via a GEO press release, said Bob Libal with the immigrant rights group Grassroots Leadership. Just the previous day the ACLU of Texas had sued GEO on behalf of the family of an immigrant at a West Texas GEO facility, saying he died after being denied medical care for frequent seizures. Days after the press release was issued, the Karnes County Commission quickly voted to ratify the contract with GEO. "The development of this facility was absolutely done in secret," Libal charged. "ICE was explicitly telling local folks to keep it quiet until the contract was signed."

Austin Indymedia, members of which accompanied Libal and others to the commission meeting in December 2010, quoted then Karnes County Judge Alger Kendall saying at the meeting, "DHS told me not to say anything to anyone."

The secrecy allowed Karnes and ICE to avoid controversy racking negotiations to open similar facilities elsewhere, Libal said.

The opening of Karnes' civil detention center solidifies Texas as one of the most GEO-heavy states in the union. As the number of immigrants held in ICE custody has skyrocketed over the past decade — from about 7,500 to 33,000 immigrant detainees held on any given day — immigrant detention has become a key growth market for such private prison contractors who now control about half of all immigrant detention beds.

Expected to bank $15 million in annual revenue for GEO, the Karnes site could be the first piece of a growing market for private contractors in the "soft" incarceration field, said Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU in Texas. "That was probably the single most discouraging thing about this new facility, knowing that it's being run by a private prison company with such a bad record," she said.

Private prison contractors like GEO have faced notable controversy in Texas over the past decade, with allegations of assault and poor medical care at several of their Texas operations. While some reforms have taken root — like ICE implementing an immigrant detainee locator so families can easily track relatives whisked away to detention — Graybill said ICE has yet to address glaring problems, even as the system's stretched under the Obama administration's record high deportation numbers for each of the last three years, deporting nearly 400,000 immigrants in 2011.

Graybill points to ICE's heralding of the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a facility in Taylor operated by private prison group Corrections Corporation of America, as the model of enhanced oversight and softer detention. Last fall, the ACLU of Texas sued CCA, three ICE officials, and a former Hutto guard for alleged abuses. The guard has already pled guilty to multiple charges that he sexually assaulted women detainees that he transported from Hutto to the nearby airport and Greyhound stations. Ultimately, eight female victims came forward saying they were abused during Hutto's transports, and the ACLU says it has tracked at least 185 complaints filed with the Department of Homeland Security claiming sexual abuse in ICE custody, 56 of which were in Texas facilities. "These so-called model facilities too often have the same problems. They appear to be operational," Graybill said. " I'm not confident one brand-new model facility is going to change that."

Reed Smith, the head of GEO's regional operations called the new Karnes center a "complete departure" from other ICE contracts, but offered few details of how ICE trained GEO for its "soft detention" mandate beyond a change in uniform. Instead of sporting badges and wearing typical corrections uniforms, GEO staff at Karnes will don khakis and polos and will be known as "resident advisers" instead of "guards," he said.

Asked about allegations that have followed GEO in Texas, Smith responded, "The pretty searing allegations were just that: allegations." He mentioned how ICE opted to hold its contract officer training at GEO's 1,900-bed immigrant detention center in Pearsall, about an hour south of San Antonio, last year, saying ICE had deemed it a "model facility."

However, in 2007, two immigrant detainees held at Pearsall sued GEO claiming staff repeatedly threw them in isolation cells when they sought medical treatment. One woman, crippled and mentally disabled, claimed she was denied medication, forced into isolation, stripped naked, and ridiculed by GEO staff.

"Yes we are a for-profit company," Smith said regarding Pearsall, "but if we cut corners we couldn't be selected for a facility like this. ... If we ran poor operations, we'd be out of business." Asked what has changed since the allegations of abuse, and the ICE reforms touted since, at facilities like Pearsall, Smith responded, "Not much. Not much."

Only time will tell how and if ICE can stretch the new "soft" detention mandate showcased in Karnes across its existing patchwork of private prisons and contract beds in county jails, though ICE's Mead promises "these same concepts [will] come into play in eventually all of our facilities." In 2010 ICE hoped to roll out a series of changes at a number of private-owned detention centers, including relaxing security measures for low-risk detainees and offering similar amenities now displayed at the new Karnes facility. The plan was promptly slammed by conservative lawmakers and leaders within the ICE union, who continue to charge administration officials with pampering undocumented immigrants.

When in late 2010 ICE announced it would end its contract to detain immigrants at the county jail in Etowah, Ala., where for years immigrants' advocates have complained of poor conditions, local officials reacted by flying to D.C. and pushing for Congress to step in and preserve the contract. By spring of last year, ICE officials announced they'd continue detaining immigrants there indefinitely.

"The case of Etowah illustrates that, despite the government's stated commitment to reform and to move away from prison-like facilities, ICE continues to operate facilities with conditions of confinement that do not meet its own criminal detention standards," wrote the Women's Refugee Commission in a report on ICE detention reforms this month. "[T]he evidence suggests that even where ICE attempts to manage its complex system efficiently and makes reasonable decisions to close facilities, they are often thwarted by political intervention."

Said Andrea Black with Detention Watch Network: "The idea that they're going to be able to spread this type of detention across the system just does not seem feasible to me, especially with the pushback they're sure to get at every step. … The danger I feel is that [Karnes] will be something nice and pristine to show off. I'm worried it's going to be a Potemkin village."

Advocates continue to hope ICE will move away from detention where conditions allow it. In its budget request for next year, ICE for the first time in recent memory asked for less money to spend on detention while requesting a $40 million boost for alternatives, a move that's already caught significant heat in Congress. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, last month even criticized new detention standards adopted by ICE earlier this year that call for expanding medical and mental health care services for detainees, along with increasing visitation and access to legal services. "The Obama administration's new detention manual is more like a hospitality guideline for illegal immigrants," Smith charged in a prepared statement.

Touring the new Karnes facility's law library, ICE's Mead responded briefly to the criticism. "I wouldn't say they're living in the lap of luxury. … They're not free to leave. They are detained." •

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