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US opens kinder, gentler immigrant jail

14 march 2012, 18:43
Prison. ©REUTERS
Prison. ©REUTERS
Federal officials on Tuesday unveiled a new model of detention facility for low-risk immigration violators in Texas -- designed in every way not to resemble a jail, though it still is one, AFP reports.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton called it "a first in the entire history of immigration detention," allowing ICE detainees "greater unescorted movement, enhanced recreational opportunities, and contact visitation, while also maintaining a safe and secure atmosphere for detainees and staff."

The civil detention center in rural Karnes City, Texas (population 3,042) is a 608-bed facility for male immigration detainees deemed not to pose a threat to themselves or others.

It was launched as the United States is riled by a major debate over immigration reform and after years of protests by human rights groups about the conditions in which illegal immigrants -- including families with children -- were being held.

The series of low buildings surrounded by green pastures peppered with grazing cows and wildflowers looks more like a Walmart than a detention facility.

There's no obvious security in the form of chain link fences, razor wire ringing the perimeter, or a giant gate to pass through on the way into the building.

Eight-bed dormitory rooms, not cellblocks, ring a courtyard with multiple grassy recreation yards, a library, a courtroom, and a medical center staffed 24 hours a day.

A series of skylights lets in natural light, detainees can wear jeans and sweatshirts and their own athletic shoes, and an array of payphones makes calling family and friends convenient during what immigration officials hope is an estimated 30-day stay in the facility.

ICE has facilities with greater security for medium- and high-risk immigration violators elsewhere in the country, including Chicago and South Florida.

In addition, ICE contracts with several hundred facilities nationwide to house detained immigration violators.

Critics charge that other methods for keeping track of low-risk detainees, like ankle bracelets and telephone monitoring, can also be effective -- at a much lower price.

"We live in a world of limited resources, and even detention beds have to be prioritized," said Muzaffar Chisti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute at NYU's School of Law.

"In this matrix, it doesn't make sense to have asylum seekers and non-criminal immigrants with good family ties occupy those beds."

Detainees in the facility are being held while Department of Homeland Security's removal proceedings take place, a process that frequently but not always results in deportation to their home country.

Occasionally, detainees are allowed to stay in the United States.

Some immigration experts worry that the location -- an hour and a half or more away from urban centers like San Antonio and Austin -- is simply too remote and rural to find attorneys willing to make the drive.

"Study after study has shown that legal representation matters even more than the strength of the underlying case," said Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies.

"It's significant procedurally but also substantively."

Kerwin is working with the American Bar Association to draft civil detention standards, which he said are in need of major reform.

Immigrant detention has long been "based on the criminal incarceration model," Kerwin told AFP, "but the majority of detainees are people with no criminal background, or at least not a serious one."

"It's positive that they're building facilities like Karnes," he added, "but at the end of the day, there's still a very low percentage of detainees in these model facilities."

The detention center was designed and built by the GEO Group, Inc., who will staff the facility, through an intergovernmental service agreement with ICE and Karnes County.

GEO will be paid by ICE on a per diem basis for each immigration detainee they house, a setup that involved no outlay from the federal government for the design and construction of the center.

Nationally, it costs approximately $122 a day to detain an immigration violator, according to Gary Mead, executive assistant director for ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations, who spoke at a press conference for media and non-governmental organizations.

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