By Jim Forsyth
KARNES CITY, Texas (Reuters) - Immigration authorities unveiled their first purpose-built civil detention center on Tuesday, constructed as part of an overhaul of a detention system under fire for failing to treat detainees with dignity and ensure their due process.
The sprawling Karnes County Civil Detention Center on the Texas coastal plains looks more like a big-box superstore or a warehouse than a jail. It will house 608 adult male, low-risk, minimum security immigration detainees, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said.
The center, which is without guard towers and razor wire, is part of a government overhaul to put civil immigration detention centers in locations that will maximize access to consular and pro-bono legal services while cutting detainees' average time in custody, ICE said.
"This is the first civil detention facility built from the ground up, to meet our unique immigration detention needs," Gary Mead, ICE's deputy director for enforcement and removal, told reporters on a tour that showcased the facility's cafeteria-style dining area, barber shop, and exercise equipment.
The Obama administration, which last year deported a record 396,906 people, has come under fire from rights groups over the treatment of immigration detainees.
A report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights last March found that detainees lacked adequate access to legal representation and medical care, while the system itself was over reliant on detention.
The Commission said it was troubled by the lack of a civil detention system providing conditions "commensurate with human dignity and humane treatment."
Detainees at Karnes, who will include illegal immigrants awaiting deportation and refugees seeking asylum, will be held in dormitory like 'suites' with access to immigration attorneys, family visits, and e-mail and internet services.
The model design also allows greater unescorted movement, while maintaining a safe and secure atmosphere for detainees and staff, ICE said.
The center, due to be followed with similar purpose-built facilities in the Chicago and Miami areas, was cautiously welcomed by rights activists on Tuesday.
"Karnes County, I hope, will provide a new model for more appropriate detention conditions - a model that will mean little if it is not just a first step in transforming all facilities where ICE holds immigrants," said Ruthie Epstein of the Refugee Protection Program at the nonprofit group Human Rights First.
"But ICE and other U.S. government agencies also need to put forth new models for due process, legal access, and alternatives to detention. Only then will the promised transformation of the immigration detention system be realized," she added on the Human Rights First blog.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Cynthia Johnston)