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Feds unveil reform-minded immigration facility

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KARNES CITY, Texas — A 608-bed facility unveiled Tuesday in Texas represents what federal officials say is a centerpiece of the Obama administration's pledge to overhaul America's much-maligned system for jailing immigration offenders.

Although the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility has heavy security, with doors that lock electronically and windows made of reinforced glass, officials insist this isn't a prison.

Guards don't carry handcuffs, there's no wall around the facility, and the exterior is painted a crisp royal-blue and burgundy. The dorm-style rooms have four bunk beds, a private bath, television and phone, which they can use to make international calls for just 15 cents per minute — rates mostly unheard of on the outside. There's not even a lights out policy at night, with the residents free to wander common areas even during designated sleeping time.

Some conservatives argue criminals are being coddled.

In response to civil-liberties lawsuits filed on behalf of families held at a crowded central Texas facility where children were held behind razor barbed-wire, the White House promised three years ago to rethink its detention policies. The Karnes County Civil Detention Center in this tiny South Texas town 60 miles southeast of San Antonio was built with many of those more-humane reforms in mind.

Officials are retrofitting facilities in California, Virginia and New Jersey to make them more like the one here, and also constructed more-restrictive detention centers in Florida and Illinois for medium- and high-risk detainees.

"We needed to do better. We needed to improve our detainee treatment," said Gary Mead, executive associate director for ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations. He said the agency "has come a long way since 2009."

The $32-million civil detention center will hold only adult males considered low-risk detainees, and they won't begin arriving for about three weeks. But ICE invited reporters and representatives from non-government groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to tour the facility on Tuesday.

The Karnes facility's gym has weight-lifting equipment, a soccer field, indoor and outdoor basketball courts and sand and nets for beach volleyball. There are 117 pay phones, and besides the cheap international calls, domestic ones are just 10 cents a minute.

There's a law library, a walk-up pharmacy and a computer lab that's often open 13 hours a day that offers free internet access. Dayrooms have TVs that is tuned to channels in English and Spanish, microwaves, tables for board games and washers and driers where inmates who chose to can do their own laundry.