KARNES CITY, Texas -- With free Internet access, cheap overseas phone calls, private bathrooms and no lights-out policy, the new immigration detention center in this isolated corner of South Texas would hardly seem like a prison if not for the electronically locking doors and reinforced-glass windows.
Following civil-liberties lawsuits filed on behalf of families at a crowded central Texas facility where children were held behind razor barbed-wire, the Obama administration promised three years ago to rethink the nation's much-maligned system for jailing immigration offenders.
The 608-bed lockup in Karnes City, about 60 miles southeast of San Antonio, was intended to be more humane to detainees – though some activists argue they shouldn't be locked up at all.
"We needed to do better. We needed to improve our detainee treatment," said Gary Mead, executive associate director for removal operations with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Some conservatives, however, fear the $32 million civil detention center unveiled Tuesday is coddling criminals.
Guards don't carry handcuffs, and they're not even referred to as guards, but rather, "assistance staff." There's no wall around the facility, and the exterior is painted a crisp royal-blue and burgundy. The dorm-style rooms have four bunk beds, a private bath, television and phone, which inmates can use to make international calls at just 15 cents a minute – a rate mostly unheard of outside. Detainees can stay up all night if they want, or even wander into common areas while everyone else sleeps.
Most of the inmates held here will be those arrested after sneaking across the border in the Rio Grande Valley and other parts of Texas.
Officials are retrofitting centers for low-risk detainees California, Virginia and New Jersey to make them more like this one. They're also building new, more-restrictive immigration detention facility in Florida and Illinois for medium- and high-risk detainees.
The facility will hold only adult males. They won't begin arriving for about three weeks, but ICE invited reporters and representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups to tour it Tuesday.
The Karnes facility's gym has weight-lifting equipment, a soccer field, indoor and outdoor basketball courts and sand and nets for beach volleyball. There are 117 pay phones, a law library, microwaves, board games and washers and dryers so inmates can do their own laundry.
Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU of Texas, said, "this is their new model civil detention facility, but it's still going to involve detaining people who don't need to be detained."
"It sounds good but our concern is it's not actually going to be good," said Graybill, who said her group is troubled that profit margins maybe more important than detainee welfare.
She said that the Obama administration should scrap U.S. policy adopted in 2005 of detaining nearly all immigration offenders, and instead only lock up only those considered most-dangerous, including any with past criminal records. Others could be given electronic ankle bracelets to ensure they appear for future court dates, she said.
Mead said ICE had increased its use of ankle bracelets and other alternatives to detention, and now has about 23,000 people in such programs compared to about 18,000 last year. He said it costs the federal government about $122 per day per immigration detainee and that those outside detention are cheaper – but their cases are processed more slowly.
The ACLU sued in 2007 over incarcerating families at the T. Don Hutto detention center just northeast of Austin, alleging inhumane conditions. Authorities removed all families and sent them to a facility in Pennsylvania, and Hutto now only houses females.
The detention system has grown from 7,500 beds in 1995 to more than 33,000 today – as have reported abuses such as medical neglect of detainees and denial of due process. ICE removes nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants per year, and has reduced the average length of stay to about 30 days.
Not all detainees are undocumented immigrants. Some entered the country legally and committed a crime, making them deportable, but many people in detention have not been convicted. Others are seeking asylum.
The Obama administration recently released more than 400 pages of guidelines for undocumented immigrants held in federal custody, and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called them "more like a hospitality guideline for undocumented immigrants."
Mead said Tuesday that inmates at Karnes, aren't "living in the lap of luxury."
"They are not free to leave," he said.