RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And in Texas yesterday, a new kind of immigrant detention center was unveiled. The facility has a soccer field, a gym and is guarded by officers in polo shirts. It's part of a new push by the Immigration Enforcement Agency to make detention feel less like prison. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: On the side of the road here, just outside of Karnes, there's not a whole lot out here. So it's easy to spot these four flags flying on top of the new Karnes County Civil Detention Center. It's a huge, beige building that looks a whole lot like a prison. But if you look at the top of the fence, you'll notice that there's no razor wire here. Inside, the doors still slam. People still sit in control booths, and the hallways echo from the concrete walls. But in the courtyard, things begin to change.
GARY MEAD: We are in one of two courtyards at the Karnes facility.
SULLIVAN: Gary Mead runs all of the detention facilities for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. It's his job to house immigrant detainees, a job critics have long charged the agency with not doing very well.
MEAD: Going down on our left-hand side is the residential area, which consists of eight-person suites. In the center of the courtyard, we've got a soccer field and some pavilions for people to gather under.
SULLIVAN: Next to the soccer field is a gymnasium and a recreation room. There's a walk-up commissary and pharmacy, a bank of phones and a workout room. The facility's empty now, but within a month, as many as 600 immigrant detainees will fill the rooms off of this courtyard. This place is three years in the making. ICE officials say this is the future for low-level detainees in the system. That means immigrants who have been picked up in sweeps or those seeking political asylum - for the most part, nonviolent people, people who haven't committed any crimes, except for overstaying their visa or crossing the border illegally. Some will be deported quickly. Others will stay for months as they press their cases in the courts. In the library, Gary Mead explains the new thinking.
MEAD: Our authority is only to facilitate removal, so we have to treat them very differently than the state prison system or a county jail system would treat people in their custody.
SULLIVAN: You know, you did it the other way for about 20 years, though, where it was very prison-like. Why are you changing it now?
MEAD: It was never our authority or our responsibility to punish people or to correct their behavior. You know, we've listened to and heard stakeholders across the spectrum in terms of the need to reform our system. We took them seriously, and that's what we're doing.
SULLIVAN: Yesterday, you could find a dozen of those stakeholders - largely immigrant rights advocates - in the parking lot of the facility. They talked in a group in the late afternoon after touring the facility for themselves. They didn't love it.
LISA GRAYBILL: It's a prison. It's a prison. It's a clean, nice-looking prison.
SULLIVAN: Lisa Graybill is the legal director of the ACLU in Texas.
GRAYBILL: And it really begs the question of why did they spend so much money constructing a facility like this, when we know there are alternatives and less expensive ones. Having one of the big, private prison companies run it at a profit I think is a mistake. It walks like a duck. It talks like a duck.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAMMING)
SULLIVAN: GEO Group, the second-largest private prison company in the country, won the contract to operate this facility. The company's been sued in recent years over the conditions of some of its facilities. But Reed Smith, GEO Group's vice president of operations for the region, says he's proud of what they've done here.
REED SMITH: Yes, we are a for-profit company, but if we cut corners, we wouldn't have been selected to open a facility like this. If we ran poor operations, we'd be out of business.
SULLIVAN: Advocates say they don't want a private prison group or the federal government in the business of detaining low-level, non-criminal immigrants, especially those who have extended families or who have lived here since they themselves were children. They say there are alternatives. So I asked Gary Mead. I'm wondering if you trust them enough to play soccer and to watch TV and take themselves to the commissary. And why not just put these people in ankle bracelets or some sort of other method?
MEAD: We now have more people on alternatives to detention than we ever had. The fact of the matter is, people here are detained and, you know, we think it's appropriate for a certain population.
SULLIVAN: Mead says more than 23,000 low-level detainees are wearing ankle bracelets or other devices right now. Many others will come here, to a place that's not quite prison, but not a place any of them want to be. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.