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

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

Photos by Michael Barajas

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.

Photo: , License: N/A

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

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

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



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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."

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