Civil rights groups question new ICE detention facility in Karnes City
Southeast of San Antonio, plans are set for the construction of a new immigrant detention center — one that Immigration and Customs Enforcement calls its first civil detention facility, but civil rights groups are still concerned over where that leaves ICE’s promise to improve the detention system in the U.S.
In early December, Karnes County awarded a contract to The GEO Group to build and operate the new $32 million, 600-bed facility in Karnes City, about 60 miles from San Antonio. One of the largest private prison companies in the country, GEO has been involved in several lawsuits over abuse, lack of medical attention and other civil rights violations.
Right around the time of the announcement of the contract, GEO, along with Reeves County and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, were sued over an immigrant’s death in the Reeves County Detention Center after GEO employees failed to provide him with any medical attention to control his seizures. He had been left unattended in isolation. That was the ninth death at the Reeves County Detention Center in recent years.
“I think it’s really questionable to be partnering with the GEO group,” said Bob Libal, Texas Coordinator for the Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit civil rights group based in Austin. “The GEO Group is amongst the worst partners for this kind of facility. ICE has proven to not be able to prevent some of the really bad things that happen in facilities.”
Libal referred to the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor as an example of an ICE failure. That facility had been remodeled as a progressive detention center in 2009, after years of controversy when it housed families, including children, but reports of sexual abuse surfaced last year. This change came under an ICE overhaul of the federal detention systems which prioritized health and safety in facilities.
Nina Pruneda, an ICE Public Affairs officer for South and Central Texas, said she has not heard of any opposition to the new detention center in Karnes County, and she said she is unaware of any lawsuits against GEO.
“It doesn’t seem that [the county] is going to be able to provide a lot of oversight,” said Libal, who has submitted an open records request with the county concerning the contract and the facility.
The Grassroots Leadership, along with Texans United for Families, testified during a Karnes County Commission meeting Dec. 14 to oppose the proposed facility, bringing up a number of concerns, including the possibility of lack of oversight.
Since this is an intergovernmental service agreement (IGA) between the federal government and the county, ICE did not have to make a public bidding for a private prison company to manage the facility.
“We’ve seen this before,” said Libal. “The private contractor just uses the county to serve as a secret agreement with ICE.”
“ICE is saying this is the first civil detention center, that it’s building it from the ground up,” he said. “For us, regardless of how civil this is, it continues to deprive people of their civil rights.”
The county met and approved the GEO Group contract despite concerns — but that was almost a week after GEO sent out a press release formally announcing its contract with the county. GEO did not respond to a request for an interview.
“It was absolutely a done deal,” said Libal. “The judge had already sealed the deal. I think that process is really troubling.”
Libal has only been contacted by two media organizations and hasn’t seen much attention given to the new facility. “It hasn’t really been in the media. The GEO press release is the only way it’s been announced,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot of transparency. To me that’s another pretty disturbing part of this.”
For ICE, the new detention center is another step toward improving the country’s detention system. Pruneda said the facility will house low-risk male detainees who do not have previous criminal or violent offenses. It will feature more recreational opportunities than most ICE facilities, and detainees will have access to pro bono legal services and a medical center.
The detention center, adjacent to an existing GEO facility, will also help stimulate Karnes County’s economy, former County Judge Alger Kendall Jr. told the San Antonio Express-News. The county has an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent, while the unemployment rate for the entire San Antonio metro area was 7.3 percent in October.
According to GEO, the new company-owned detention center will generate $15 million a year in revenue. With a projected completion date at the end of 2011, the detention center will also employ about 140 new staff members.
Libal and other organizers, however, questioned how building new detention centers is the right answer. “We think that the population that this is intended for shouldn’t be in detention at all,” Libal said. “ICE should be looking into other alternatives.”