Is immigrant detention softening up?

Government makes initial deal with jailer

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) | In an agreement U.S. immigration officials hope will begin to reshape the entire 30,000-bed detention system, some asylum-seekers and immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings could soon be held in facilities where they can wear their own clothes, participate in movie and bingo nights, eat continental breakfasts, and celebrate holidays with visiting family members.

It could end confinement in prisonlike facilities - complete with razor wire, jail-style uniforms, armed guards and partitions that prevent physical contact with loved ones - for those who have never been convicted of a crime and are not considered a threat.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest contractor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has reached a preliminary agreement to soften confinement, free of charge, at nine immigrant facilities covering at least 7,100 beds - a deal that ICE officials see as a precursor to changes elsewhere.

Overall, the facilities are expected to be less prisonlike, offering freer movement for detainees, fewer pat downs and better access to legal resources. The agreement calls for fresh vegetables and access to self-serve beverages along with cooking and exercise classes, according to a list released by ICE.

CCA will soften “the look for the facility with hanging plants, flower baskets, new paint colors, different bedding and furniture” and allow lengthy visits from friends and family who can provide outside packages or food for special celebrations under changes to be made over the next six months.

ICE Director John Morton announced last year that the agency would make detention facilities less prisonlike because immigrant detainees are being held on civil immigration charges, not criminal offenses, though it was not clear at the time what changes would be made. The agency has long maintained that detention is not a punishment and that it ensures the immigrants show up for hearings. Nonetheless, it has relied heavily on contract facilities built to house criminals.

Negotiations continue with the remainder of the nearly 300 facilities under contract with ICE, mostly facilities owned by state and local governments, but “it’s our goal to provide these types of reforms with all the facilities that ICE contracts with,” said ICE spokesman Brian Hale.

ICE wants to create a less-restrictive environment for those who are low risk and not criminals, but those with criminal histories or who are otherwise a danger will remain in prisonlike settings, he said.

New systemwide detention standards are being drafted, but the agreement with CCA signals the less-restrictive modifications the agency wants for many detainees.

Union leaders representing guards object to the new plans, saying they are dangerous.

“It’s absolutely insane, the changes they’re making,” said Chris Crane, president of AFGE Council 118/ICE, the union that represents 7,000 ICE officers but not the contractors. “It just makes for an absolutely unsafe environment, not only for the detainees, but for the officers.”

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