Delco’s Jail Oversight Board to vote on the fate of Pennsylvania’s only for-profit county prison

Democratic County Council member Kevin Madden (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Democratic County Council member Kevin Madden (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Updated 11:35 a.m. Friday

The fate of Pennsylvania’s only privately managed county prison, the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County, will soon be decided. The county Jail Oversight Board is looking to move forward with a vote in late September or early October on possible termination of the contract with GEO Group, the for-profit company currently running the prison.

“It was important that the board be able to make an informed decision and understand what the budgetary implications would be of deprivatizing, make sure that the various elements of managing a jail, you know, that we have vendors lined up,” said County Councilmember Kevin Madden, who also chairs the oversight board.

The will-they-won’t-they saga has been going on for about two years, though the most recent chapter began with a financial feasibility study that was presented in March.

The oversight board’s members liked the numbers the consultants provided, so they took it one step further. Over the past three months, the board has been going through an RFP process for four key services needed to run the jail: maintenance, commissary, food, and medical.

“And with responses now in, we’ve now gotten to the point where I feel that the members of the board have everything they really can to make that informed decision,” Madden said.

GEO Group, which currently operates the prison under a $259 million contract that it signed in 2018, has not acted as he would have hoped, Madden said.

The prison has been accused of mistreating incarcerated people and even its own staff, which has drawn the attention of the current County Council, with members making it clear that their goal is to deprivatize the facility.

GEO Group and the county have had a more tenuous relationship as of late. The company criticized the findings of the March feasibility study, saying that deprivatizing the prison “won’t save money, won’t make the facility safer, and won’t improve the lives of inmates.”

WHYY News reached out to GEO Group for comment Thursday. On Friday, the company’s spokesperson responded only by including a copy of a letter GEO had sent to Madden on Sept. 14 that “communicates the facts.”

In the letter, GEO Group rejects any assertion that its financial health as a company is in any risk, citing $500 million cash on hand, outstanding bonds at the lowest levels in over one year, and a rising yield on 10-year Treasurys.

Madden said of the prison contractor, “I wouldn’t say that they really behave in the way we would have liked, but they’re entitled to do what they’re entitled to do.”

He added that the county is also entitled to make its own decisions, such as the right to terminate its contract with the company with six months’ advance notice — which is what the  oversight board is considering.

GEO Group does not dispute that, but it notes in the Sept. 14 letter that it has its own complaints regarding what it says is an “unsound and politically motivated” contract termination.

“As we have previously stated on several occasions, we do not dispute the county’s authority to terminate the contract with a six-month notice, but we do dispute the JOB and county’s misleading and factually incorrect claims about GEO’s financial health and stability, management of operations, and costs associated with our contract,” the letter says.

If the board does, indeed, vote to make a formal recommendation to deprivatize the prison, the final decision would fall to the County Council.

Madden noted that managing a jail that can hold up to 1,800 people will be a very challenging task. That’s why the step must be approached carefully, he said, so that both the community and those in custody are safe.

“There’s a lot that goes into this. I understand that many would like to see this happen overnight, but we have to make sure that we’re proceeding in a way that’s responsible,” Madden said.

The president of the Delco Coalition for Prison Reform, Tonita Austin, said Thursday that her group sees a need for urgency for those inside the prison, from incarcerated people to the staff members who work there.

Her initial reaction on hearing of the upcoming vote: “About time.”

Through her connections inside the prison, Austin said she has heard stories of understaffing and violence stemming from a lack of guards.

“We just feel that [the county] had a lot of time and a lot of effort and put a lot of money into figuring this out. And I hope that this isn’t just pressure from the unfortunate things that are happening, but that they are to a point where they’ve worked everything out and thought everything through, and can really take it over,” Austin said.

GEO Group’s statement also addressed staffing challenges, which it believes many conversations regarding the topic are misleading.

“Almost every county across Pennsylvania is experiencing staffing shortages in their correctional facilities, which is irrespective to the compensation levels for correctional officers,” the statement said.

As for what the coalition imagines the county jail ought to be, the group has already released a 45-point proposal that outlines the ideal system.

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