Delco Jail Oversight Board recommends terminating $259M contract with prison operator GEO Group

The action sets the stage for a vote by the Delaware County Council next week that could return the only privately run prison in Pa. to county control.

The exterior of George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County

George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Delaware County’s Jail Oversight Board has voted on a partial takeover of services and formally recommended terminating the $259 million contract with GEO Group, the for-profit company that runs the controversy-plagued county prison.

The bottom line: Control of the George W. Hill Correctional Facility, Pennsylvania’s only privately managed county prison, will likely return to the hands of county government.

The board’s action Tuesday evening set the stage for an Oct. 6 vote by the five-member County Council to officially terminate the contract — and deliver on one of the major campaign promises of the 2019 election that gave Democrats every seat and wrested control from the Republican Party for the first time since the Civil War.

If the council chooses next week to cut ties with GEO Group, the vote would trigger a 180-day notice and transition period.

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The partial takeover of services would focus on the four key areas — food, medical, commissary, and maintenance — that were the subject of a request-for-proposals process over the past few months. Full deprivatization of the prison would be a more gradual process.

County Councilman Kevin Madden, who chairs the nine-member Jail Oversight Board, said his vote Tuesday evening came down to what a society should envision the role of a jail to be.

“We as a county as a whole, as residents and taxpayers, we will also be better off with a county jail that is laser-focused on reducing recidivism and improving the health of our entire community, instead of maximizing its profits,” Madden said.

A for-profit company is “diametrically opposed” to the interests of the community, he said.

While stressing the financial viability of a return to county management, county Executive Director Howard Lazarus also touched on the issue of values as he voted to recommend that GEO Group’s contract be terminated.

“I’m committed to this change, we will put the resources in place to make it successful. And we will do better by the people who are placed in our care for the time that they’re with us,” Lazarus said.

WHYY News reached out to GEO Group for a comment. A company spokesperson responded with a statement acknowledging the county’s legal authority to end its management contract with proper notice.

“As previously stated on several occasions, we do not dispute the county’s authority to terminate the contract, but we do dispute the misleading and misinformed findings of the county’s financial and management analysis, along with any reason for termination that is unsound and politically motivated. We will work in cooperation with the county to transition the management to the county so it can outsource the services to multiple private entities,” the statement said.

GEO Group also said in the statement that it was committed to ensuring “a safe environment” for incarcerated people and its employees during the transition period.

Though both the partial services takeover and the recommendation to terminate the contract passed with a majority, two Jail Oversight Board members voted against them. (Another member, Delaware County Common Pleas Court Judge Mary Alice Brennan, was not present for the meeting.)

Delaware County Common Pleas Court Judge John Whelan and citizen appointee Deborah Love went back and forth with Alta Management, which was representing the county, as well as the other oversight board members over the RFP process, the financial feasibility of deprivatization, whether the county has kept GEO Group in the loop, and the county’s possible use of subcontractors.

“Everyone is having problems across the board, and the pandemic even makes it a more difficult challenge and everyone knows that, so I don’t know if we’re treating GEO fair in this by not trying to remedy some of the defects that exist, but I understand — I believe the board is acting in good faith, I believe the consultants and solicitors and people involved with this process are all acting in good faith,” Whelan said.

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Whelan said he recognized that the board’s voting preferences were likely due to philosophical differences over the idea of private prisons. Some on the board opposed private prisons regardless of how well one is run, Whelan said, but he does not share those objections.

Love expressed her concern regarding the existing contract with GEO Group and whether the company was kept up to date.

“If this is a company that the county has partnered with for so long, it doesn’t seem like there’s been any outreach to alter the contract or modify the contract,” Love said.

Those qualms were met with pushback by Madden and another citizen appointee, Jonathan King.

“All of the concerns [of] the public, the county, the people of Delaware County who were interested in a change at George Hill Correctional Facility were addressed directly to the warden and the staff of GEO,” King said, noting that these concerns were recurring, rather than new complaints.

Completion of the votes was greeted with applause from those in the audience, many of whom came to speak during the final, public comment portion of the meeting.

Jane Dunbar of Norwood expressed her happiness that deprivatization is finally a reality.

“I’ve been fighting this fight now for four years, and there are people here that have been fighting that longer, and I just can’t tell you, thank you enough — from the bottom of my heart,” Dunbar said.

She told the board that a kindergartner could have done a better job than GEO at running the correctional facility. According to Dunbar, the conditions in the facility almost led to the death of a loved one.

Clifford Brock of Yeadon had a question about phrasing in the RFP process, but he ended his comments by highlighting the work of the Delco Coalition For Prison Reform in bringing attention to deprivatization, as well as thanking the board for making the move.

“We’re so grateful that you did the right thing and in our eyes, and we’re backing you 100%. And we do know it’s gonna be a long, long road to travel, but clearly the road map has been laid out in numerous communities,” Brock said.

According to a proposed schedule laid out by Alta Management during the meeting, takeover of the prison’s operations would begin in April 2022.

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