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Pennsylvania Town Rejects Private Prison Firm

by Ed Lyon

Regular readers of Prison Legal News are well aware of the abysmal reputations that private, for-profit prisons have earned. Apparently word travels and people on the outside eventually listen and pay attention to such matters, as the citizens of Lancaster, Pennsylvania demonstrated when they decided to say no to GEO Group.

For over a decade, post-release reentry programs in Lancaster County have been provided by a group of nonprofit organizations. Recidivism rates were low, and parolees received job and housing assistance through the Community Action Partnership and Reentry Management Organization. The YWCA offered support groups and counseling for prisoners who were sexually assaulted while incarcerated. Compass Mark worked with the children left behind whenever a parent was arrested, until he or she was released. 

All of these services were funded via a month-to-month allocation by the county with a total annual expenditure of around $100,000.

In 2018, county commissioners Josh Parsons and Dennis Stuckey decided to put an end to the ad hoc manner of contracting for and funding the successful work by nonprofits in these areas. The county wanted to cap parolee housing costs at $1,000 for the 90-day program period and begin helping children of incarcerated parents when they were convicted of a crime rather than at the time of their arrests (when studies indicated counseling should start). 

A bidding system was set up by the county’s purchasing department that was so byzantine the nonprofit groups decided not to even try submitting a bid. Private prison firm GEO Group did, at a projected cost of $361,000 annually – a significant increase over the prior cost for the reentry programs.

On April 23, 2018, assured of its success as the sole bidder, GEO released a statement announcing it was looking forward to providing services for parolees in Lancaster. However, local residents had something else in mind. 

Led by Michelle Hines, an organizer for Lancaster Stands Up, citizens began packing the county commission meetings – events that usually drew two to three spectators at most. The large turnouts were referred to by commissioners as “a distraction,” according to Hines, who added: “I don’t think they were expecting to have to make this decision in the light of day. I don’t think they expected such a community response.” 

After hearing from religious figures, nonprofit leaders, parolees and ordinary citizens, the county commissioners soon learned how negatively people felt about GEO Group. They also realigned their focus on the success of the reentry services already in place and functioning. By July 2018, GEO had become persona non grata in Lancaster, and the commissioners voted to create a staff position to oversee reentry services, funded by the county prison’s commissary account, rather than contract with GEO.

“These big corporations over and over again come into our communities, buy people off, and then are able to perpetrate harm against everybody here,” Hines stated. “For a really long time I’d been watching this happen and it just felt like an impossible thing to fight back against, and I feel so empowered to be in a position to have enough people power in our community to be able to fight back.”

GEO Group vice president Monica Hook criticized Lancaster County’s decision, saying released prisoners would “not be afforded the opportunity to receive GEO’s high quality, evidence-based reentry services and the best opportunity for successfully reentering society.” 

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Sources: inequality.org, lancasteronline.org, pennlive.com