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Civil immigrant detention: Kinder and gentler, but still a boon for private prisons

Almost three years ago, after a flurry of lawsuits alleging overcrowding, shoddy medical care and the unlawful detention of children in one former prison-turned-immigrant detention center in Texas, Homeland Security officials announced they'd be reforming the immigrant detention system.

The jury is still out on how much of those planned reforms have taken root; last fall, a report put out by an international human rights organization suggested that in spite of promises to make detention centers more liveable, "the overwhelming majority of detainees are still held in jails or jail-like facilities."

Enter what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is calling its "first-ever designed-and-built civil detention center." It's in Karnes City, Texas and is owned by Karnes County, with the county acting as middleman between ICE and The Geo Group, a private prison company. As is standard practice, counties contract with these companies to develop immigrant detention centers for the government, receiving a cut of the revenue in exchange.

The development of the Karnes County Civil Detention Center, whose 608 beds have yet to be occupied, is an interesting experiment. It's also latest development in a story that began early in the last decade, when ICE suddenly found itself with an overwhelming demand for contract detention space post-9/11 and the existing private-prison stock consisted of, well, prisons.

Since reforms were announced in 2009, according to ICE, some of its existing contract facilities have been rehabbed, but this one, designed to house male adults, is one is the first designed with a model that "allows for greater unescorted movement, enhanced recreational opportunities and contact visitation," reads an agency news release. B-roll footage of the interior shows a place that still looks institutional, but there's some green space, basketball courts, a soccer field and what looks like a small library, among other things.

Does it make any sort of difference? It depends on who you ask. The advocates who were calling for reforms to the system years ago cheered the idea of more humane, less prison-like facilities for people who are not being held for a crime. While immigration officials commonly refer to detainees with criminal records as "criminal detainees," these are people who have completed their prison sentence already, and are only held by ICE while awaiting or fighting deportation.

"We want to hold people in facilties that are appropriate to their background," said Gillian Christensen, an ICE spokeswoman, by phone. "We don’t detain people for punitive reasons."

That said, the new detention center will house "low risk" detainees not deemed a flight or security risk, while others will still be held in tighter-security facilities. And the overall number of immigrants in the detention system - undocumented immigrants, deportable legal residents, asylum seekers and others - has remained consistently high, averaging 33,000 on any given day.

Several factors that led to problems in the last decade remain, including the fact that private for-profit contractors manage the bulk of ICE detention centers, and there continue to be financial incentives for these companies to keep their facilities full. Private prison companies make money via a daily "per diem" rate per detainee, with contracts that typically charge less per person if there are more detainees. For example, at the new Karnes County facility, GEO will be paid $68.75 a day per immigrant if there are 480 detainees or less, according to ICE. But it will give the agency a break ($56.48 a day per detainee) if there are more than 480 detainees at a time.

A move toward kinder, gentler detention facilities stands to be a boon for private prison companies regardless. According to a December 2010 news release from The Geo Group, a Florida-based company that is the nation's second-largest private prison operator, its contract with Karnes County was expected to generate approximately $15 million in annual revenue. That's just under half the $32 million GEO estimated then that the place would cost to build.

ICE is planning more newly-built contract facilities, including some that may house a combination of low-risk detainees in less restrictive surroundings and others with more security. Part of the building push is also to have large detention centers closer to metropolitan areas, Christensen said, to avoid transfers and because "their families are there, and legal counsel is there."

Among these is planned detention centers is one outside Chicago in Crete, Illinois, where the private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America, has met with resistance.