Federal officials say a detention center for low-risk inmates in Karnes… (Associated Press, Will…)
Reporting from Washington — As prisons go, the detention center that opened in southern Texas last week may be a pleasant surprise for illegal immigrants and others awaiting possible deportation.
Behind tall walls, the grassy compound offers inmates a salad bar, a library with Internet access, cable TV, an indoor gym with basketball courts, and soccer fields. Instead of guards, unarmed "resident advisors" patrol the grounds in polo shirts and khakis.
It is a far cry from the grim and sometimes dangerous county lockups and local jails that hold most immigration detainees across the country.
The new 608-bed facility is in Karnes City, southeast of San Antonio, and will house only adult men who present minimal safety concerns or flight risk, officials said. It is part of an effort by the Obama administration to improve conditions for some of the 33,000 people now in detention as their immigration cases are reviewed.
Built on 29 acres of former farmland, the new facility was designed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to give detainees more freedom of movement and easier access to lawyers and medical care, as well as family visits. The first detainees are expected to arrive later this month.
"We are not detaining people for punitive reasons," said Gary Mead, head of enforcement and removal operations for ICE, which handles deportations. "So the conditions can be different."
Officials said the facility was a model for two more planned centers, in Crete, near Chicago, and in Southwest Ranches in southern Florida. But those sites will include separate areas for medium- and high-security detainees.
ICE has come under fire from news reports, internal investigations and human rights groups for putting people who have not been convicted of crimes in local jails and other facilities where overcrowding, sexual assaults and poor health conditions are rife.
Aggressive enforcement efforts have meant more people are being deported than ever before. Last year, 396,906 people were deported, a record number for the third year in a row. More than 217,000 had criminal convictions and would not have been be eligible for low-security detention.
Critics in Congress charge that the Obama administration is coddling people before they are deported. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said a new 400-page manual that requires detainees to be granted access to medical care, recreation and fresh food reads "like a hospitality guideline."
"Changes to these facilities look more like recess than detention," Smith said.
The $32-million Karnes City complex was built and will be managed by GEO Group Inc. a publicly traded company. It was built directly for Karnes County, but to specifications set by ICE, which limited public scrutiny and congressional oversight.
GEO Group plans to recover its construction costs with an estimated $15 million in annual revenue from operating the facility. ICE will reimburse Karnes County for each detainee it houses there.
The U.S. government paid GEO Group more than $910 million between 2003 and 2011 to manage and provide other services to detention facilities across the United States. Corrections Corp. of America, another company that manages prisons, won at least $631 million in contracts from ICE during that time.
Some critics argue that even low-security facilities are too harsh . They say the noncriminal detainees who qualify for such treatment should be given less onerous alternatives, including telephone check-ins and ankle bracelets.
"The idea that you can just rely on ankle bracelets is a delusion," said Stewart Baker, former head of policy for the Department of Homeland Security.
But opposition to privately run prisons has a long history.
After years of documented abuses, such prisons were banned in Illinois in 1990. In August 2011, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed an amendment that expanded the ban to local and county prisons. Those laws don't apply to immigrants and asylum seekers, however. Seeking to block the planned facility at Crete, local advocacy groups are pushing to expand the ban so it applies to civil detention facilities.
"They will want to maximize their profits, and their revenue depends in large part on filling their beds," said Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that has opposed the Crete facility. "They have every incentive to skimp on quality of conditions, space and care provided to detainees."
"The private prison corporations are making a tremendous profit off the detention of asylum seekers and other immigrants in detention," said Bob Libal, a senior organizer at Grassroots Leadership, a Charlotte, N.C.-based nonprofit group that opposes the use of for-profit prisons and detention centers.
The Southwest Ranches plan in Florida also faces strong local opposition. Citing concerns about traffic congestion, property values and water shortages, the city commission of Pembroke Pines, which surrounds the site, recently voted to deny water and fire services to the planned facility.
Last week, Corrections Corp. of America, which is supposed to build the complex, filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that city officials "intentionally and unjustifiably interfered with the advantageous business relationship."