A privately operated midtown Gainesville facility that holds illegal immigrants prior to deportation could soon have a less jail-like environment.
The North Georgia Detention Center, former site of the Hall County jail, holds about 500 people who are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for being in the country illegally. Most of the detainees, who come to Gainesville from across the Southeast, spend 30 to 90 days at the center before being deported.
A spokesperson for Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the facility through an agreement with Hall County and ICE, confirmed this week that the North Georgia Detention Center is one of nine facilities that could undergo changes allowing greater freedoms and privileges for detainees and a “softening” of the look of the center, if requested by ICE.
The proposed changes were revealed in an internal CCA e-mail first obtained by the Houston Chronicle, a copy of which ICE provided this week to The Times.
The changes include extended visitation hours for detainees, more recreation and common areas, e-mail access and more phone service.
The memo, written by CCA Vice President for Operations Steven Conry, also suggests they should “soften the look for the facility with hanging plants, flower baskets, new paint colors, different bedding and furniture, wall graphics and framed pictures on the walls.”
The suggestions also include providing movie nights, bingo nights, arts and crafts, dance and cooking classes, as well as self-serve beverage bars, fresh carrot sticks and self-serve continental breakfasts on holidays and weekends.
The Hall County facility is specifically mentioned in the e-mail, along with the Stewart Detention Center in Southwest Georgia.
D.A. King, president of the Dustin Inman Society, a group that advocates for enforcement of immigration laws, derided the suggested changes, which he said were a “giveaway to special interests groups” that have been critical of immigration detention.
“For people who are not able to avoid apprehension, we are now creating a taxpayer-funded Club Fed,” King said.
Gillian Brigham, a spokeswoman for ICE, said CCA has indicated it will provide the changes at no expense to the federal government.
“The proposals are currently being evaluated and have not been implemented,” Brigham said. “ICE is committed to making sensible reforms to its noncriminal detention system and will continue to consider reasonable approaches that seek to achieve those goals.”
Louise Grant, a spokeswoman for CCA, said, “should ICE proceed with seeking civil detention reform initiatives, it is our understanding that the North Georgia Detention Center would be ... involved in these initiatives.”
Those housed at the Gainesville facility are being held on civil immigration violations after their criminal cases have been resolved in court.
Azadeh Shahshahani, director of the ACLU of Georgia’s National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project, said the treatment of detainees should reflect their status as civil detainees, not criminal inmates.
“A lot of these people who do not present flight risks should not be detained in the first place,” she said.
While the changes may be a good first step, they do not address the real problems of immigration detention, Shahshahani said.
The ACLU has protested conditions in other CCA facilities, including allegations of medical neglect and sexual abuse.
“The underlying issue to us is there should be greater use of humane alternatives to detention that would be much less expensive for taxpayers,” she said. “And unless there is oversight and accountability, nothing is going to change.”
The suggested changes include a loosening of security measures for “appropriate classification levels,” according to the e-mail.
Detainees could be allowed to wear their own clothes, and lockdowns and pat searches could be eliminated.
The proposal does not address the razor wire that surrounds the facility, a sore spot for Gainesville city officials who opposed Hall County’s leasing of the old jail to CCA.