By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - A large detention center holding hundreds of Central American women and children near San Antonio should be shut down amid accusations that guards have sexually abused and harassed detainees, human rights groups said on Thursday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied the allegations brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and other groups about the Karnes Detention Center southeast of San Antonio.
GEO Group Inc, which runs the center, issued a statement also denying the charges.
The center opened on Aug. 1 and houses more than 500 women and children detained after fleeing violence and persecution in Central America.
The groups said detention center guards took women from their cells at night and early in the morning to engage in sex acts.
ICE spokeswoman Adelina Pruneda said the agency has a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse and assault. "Individuals in our custody are housed and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner," she said.
The women also have been subjected to demands for sexual favors in exchange for promises of money, help with immigration cases and shelter when and if they are released, the groups said.
"This is exactly why the federal government should not be in the business of detaining families," said Marisa Bono, a staff attorney for MALDEF.
The groups said the federal government should close the center and find alternatives to detaining immigrants who have committed no crime except for illegal entry. Detainees who meet asylum claims should be released on bond, they said.
The groups, which filed a complaint with ICE on Sept. 25, also said the Karnes center has inadequate food, health and mental health services.
"GEO strongly refutes these allegations. The Karnes County Residential Center provides a safe, clean, and family friendly environment for mothers and children awaiting required processing by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency," the Boca Raton, Florida-based company said in the statement.
It said the center provides high quality care and that ICE personnel on the site provide direct oversight to ensure compliance with agency standards.
GEO Group says on its website it is the world's leading provider of correctional and detention management and community reentry services to federal, state and local government agencies. It has operations in the United States, Australia, South Africa and Britain.
(Reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Eric Walsh)