Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are preparing to roll out a series of changes at several privately owned immigration detention centers, including relaxing some security measures for low-risk detainees and offering art classes, bingo and continental breakfast on the weekends.
The changes, detailed in an internal ICE e-mail obtained by the Houston Chronicle, were welcomed by immigrant advocates who have been waiting for the Obama administration to deliver on a promise made in August to overhaul the nation's immigration detention system.
The 28 changes identified in the e-mail range from the superficial to the substantive. In addition to “softening the look of the facility” with hanging plants and offering fresh carrot sticks, ICE will allow for the “free movement” of low-risk detainees, expand visiting hours and provide unmonitored phone lines.
ICE officials said the changes are part of broader efforts to make the immigration detention system less penal and more humane.
But the plans are prompting protests by ICE's union leaders, who say they will jeopardize the safety of agents, guards and detainees and increase the bottom line for taxpayers. Tre Rebstock, president for Local 3332, the ICE union in Houston, likened the changes to creating “an all-inclusive resort” for immigration detainees.
“Our biggest concern is that someone is going to get hurt,” he said, taking particular issue with plans to relax restrictions on the movement of low-risk detainees and efforts to reduce and eliminate pat-down searches.
The changes outlined in the ICE e-mail are planned for nine detention centers owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America, including the 900-bed Houston Contract Detention Facility on the city's north side.
Some of the changes will be implemented within 30 days; others may take up to six months, said Beth Gibson, ICE's senior counselor to Assistant Secretary John Morton and a leader of the detention reform effort.
Other major changes include:
• Eliminating lockdowns and lights-out for low-risk detainees.
• Allowing visitors to stay as long as they like in a 12-hour period.
• Providing a unit manger so detainees have someone to report problems to other than the guard.
• Allowing low-risk detainees to wear their own clothing or other non-penal attire.
• Providing e-mail access and Internet-based free phone service.
Not about punishment
Gibson said the improvements are part of ICE's efforts to detain immigrants in the least restrictive manner possible while ensuring they leave the country if ordered to do so.
“When people come to our custody, we're detaining them to effect their removal,” Gibson said. “It's about deportation. It's not about punishing people for a crime they committed.”
ICE officials have faced pressure from immigrant advocates and some members of Congress to improve the detention conditions for the roughly 400,000 immigrants it houses annually. The agency has relied on a hodgepodge of more than 250 government-run detention centers, private prisons and local jails to accommodate its growing population — with roughly one in four detainees held in Texas.
At the CCA facilities that have agreed to ICE's changes, detainees will see more variety in their dining hall menus and have self-serve beverage and fresh vegetable bars.
CCA also plans to offer movie nights, bingo, arts and crafts, dance and cooking classes, tutoring and computer training, the e-mail states.
Detainees also will be allowed four hours or more of recreation “in a natural setting, allowing for robust aerobic exercise.”
CCA also committed to improving the look of the facilities, such as requiring plants, fresh paint and new bedding in lower-risk units.
Some of the improvements offered at the CCA facilities counted as hard-fought victories for immigrant advocates, including plans to improve visitor and attorney access.
“A lot of these measures are what we've been advocating for,” said Lory Rosenberg, policy and advocacy director for Refugee and Migrants' Rights for Amnesty International.
“Many of these points are very important to changing the system from a penal system, which is inappropriate in an immigration context, to a civil detention system.”
Union members said they have concerns about the plans, primarily focusing on safety.
Rebstocksaid some detainees may be classified as low-risk because they have no serious criminal history but still may be gang members that “haven't been caught doing anything wrong yet.”
He also said eliminating lockdowns will make it more difficult to protect detainees from one another.
He said reducing or eliminating pat-down searches could allow contraband into the facilities, including weapons.
Gibson, with ICE, said the agency is developing a sophisticated classification system and will make sure “that our detainees are still safe and sound.”
“As a general matter, it will be the non-criminals who don't present a danger to anyone else who are benefitting from the lowest level of custody,” Gibson said.
‘On the taxpayers' dime'
Rebstock also questioned the cost to taxpayers for the changes.
“My grandparents would have loved to have bingo night and a dance class at the retirement home they were in when they passed away, but that was something we would have had to pay for,” he said. “And yet these guys are getting it on the taxpayers' dime.”
Gibson said CCA is making the improvements at no additional cost to ICE. The agency's contract with CCA for the Houston detention center requires that ICE pay $99 per bed daily for each detainee, slightly lower than the $102 average daily rate ICE pays nationally .
Rosenberg said some of the changes, like new flower baskets, may seem small, but they will combine with the bigger changes to make a difference in the daily lives of detainees.
“Taken together they will go some way to making this system less penal,” she said.