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Pennsylvania County Retakes Control of Jail From GEO Group

by Keith Sanders

On April 6, 2022, Pennsylvania’s Delaware County assumed control of its jail for the first time in 24 years, after terminating its contract with the Florida-based GEO Group. Prior to that, the 1,800-bed George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton was the state’s last privately-operated county lockup.

GEO Group, the nation’s largest private prison operator, has managed the jail since 1998, when the firm was still known as Wackenhut and entered a private-public partnership with the county to build and run the jail. That partnership endured despite legal payouts for lawsuits filed over detainees’ wrongful deaths, including a $7 million settlement in 2018 with the survivors of a mentally ill detainee who was locked in solitary confinement and hanged herself with her bra. [See: PLN, Nov. 2018, p.36.]

In December 2018, the county signed its most recent contract with the firm, which was worth $259 million over five years. The fallout between the two dates to the following year, 2019, when employees said they were subjected to racist and sexist mistreatment by facility Superintendent John Reilly, Jr., and he resigned. [See: PLN, Mar. 2020, p.28.]

That same year, Democratic candidates took over the County Council, replacing the county’s Board of Prison Inspectors with a Jail Oversight Board (JOB). The next year, the county hired CGL Companies to assess the cost of transitioning to a county-owned facility. According to the consultant’s report, “returning to a publicly run model would cost as much as $9 million up front, but it could save the county $10 million a year.”

In February 2021, JOB recommended exercising an early termination option in the contract with GEO Group. The County Council did so in October of that same year, beginning a six-month transition period. The firm disagreed with that decision, saying the county neglected to factor in added costs of providing all the services that the firm does, like staffing, medical care, and food service, or the job cuts and liability costs the county would have to absorb.

But County Councilman Kevin Madden insisted that cutting ties with GEO Group was not motivated strictly by economic considerations. If jails exist solely to “warehouse humans,” Madden said, then “the simplest thing would be continuing with a private operator.” However, “if we believe in redemption, if we believe we all, in fact, gain and our community is healthier when we help those struggling with drug addiction and mental health issues to get the help they truly need … then those goals are diametrically opposed to the interests of a for-profit enterprise,” Madden concluded.

On September 6, 2022, the county was served with the first lawsuit filed by a detainee at the jail it now runs. Ironically, the torn bicep that prompted Robert Matthews’ complaint was allegedly sustained while working his jail job on April 5, 2022 — the last day GEO Group was in charge. See: Matthews v. Delaware Cty., USDC (E.D. Pa.), Case No. 2:22-cv-03550. 

Additional sources: Delco Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, WHYY

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