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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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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."

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