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ICE mulls 'softening' immigration detention centers

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement is considering immigration detention center reforms
  • Longer visitation hours, no pat-downs among proposed reforms
  • ICE officers are opposed to the changes
  • Reforms were first talked about last August

(CNN) -- Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) leaders and rank-and-file agents are at odds over proposed reforms in the nation's immigration detention centers that would make the facilities more comfortable for some detainees.

An internal e-mail from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which operates many of the detention centers, dated May 27, has a laundry-list of changes that it is ready to implement at its facilities within a month, including movie nights, bingo and the possible elimination of pat-down searches.

The e-mail, which the Houston Chronicle first reported, was later posted on a union website.

The reforms are aimed at improving amenities for the non-criminal immigrants being held at the detention center. These detainees have not been convicted of any crimes and are being held pending their removal from the United States.

If implemented, lock-downs and lights-out for non-criminal detainees would be eliminated, and visitors would be granted full access and be allowed to come for as long as they like during a 12-hour period each day.

The availability of legal supplies and postage to indigent detainees would be increased, and non-criminal detainees would be allowed free movement within the facilities.

Other touch-ups include adding hanging plants, flower baskets and new paint colors, and allowing some detainees to wear their own clothes inside the detention center.

The "softening" of the facilities by ICE has met criticism from agents who work with detainees, who say they were left out of the decision process and that the changes will create safety risks for their officers.

"This has all been done very, very, very secretly," Chris Crane, president of AFGE National Council 118-ICE, the union that represents more than 7,000 ICE officers, told CNN.

The decision to pursue these reforms came without ICE leadership talking with the "technical experts," Crane said.

"These are purely input from special-interest groups," he said.

Immigrant advocate groups have lobbied the Obama administration for such changes in the past.

"These reforms have been offered by ICE contractor CCA for consideration by ICE. They are currently being evaluated and have not been implemented," ICE spokeswoman Gillian Brigham told CNN.

If implemented, the reforms would not cost additional money to taxpayers, Brigham said.

"ICE is committed to making sensible reforms to its non-criminal detention system and will continue to consider reasonable approaches that seek to achieve those goals," she said.

The rationale behind the reforms is the fact that a large population of the people in ICE custody are non-criminals, Brigham said.

"The purpose of immigration detention is not punitive," she said.

The intention to reform the detention centers was first publicized by ICE last August.

One of the problems, Crane said, is that "non-criminal" doesn't always mean non-criminal.

According to Crane, more than 90 percent of detainees in ICE custody came from jails, meaning that they were arrested for some type of criminal offense. However, in many cases, local jurisdictions with overcrowded jails decide to "dump" these individuals on ICE once they learn they are in the country illegally. They do this by dropping charges, thereby transferring them for removal proceedings at an ICE detention center.

The effect is that detainees who were arrested for many types of crimes but never convicted, including gang members, will end up together with the non-criminal population that the reforms are meant to help, Crane said.

"Not only are our employees at risk, but our detainees are at risk," he said.

The most appalling reforms for the union are the prohibition of searches and the full-contact visitations, he said.

Victoria Lopez, an immigrant rights advocate at the ACLU in Arizona, said that the reforms are positive, but that they don't address the bigger issue of why non-criminal offenders are detained to begin with.

"These proposed reforms are a good step, but frankly they don't do enough to address the question of why we have so many detainees," she told CNN.

Real reform for immigration detention centers must include steps to reducing the number of people in detention, and better use of alternatives to detention, Lopez said.