The Delaware County Council has signaled for the first time that, after 30 years, the embattled George W. Hill Correctional Facility may become a publicly run jail.
At its monthly meeting Wednesday night, the five-member, all-Democratic council unanimously voted to commission a study to see what would be required to carry out the shift, and how much the process would cost.
George W. Hill, the only privately run county jail in the state, is operated by the GEO Group, a Florida-based, international private-prisons conglomerate.
“We continue to have the ignominious status of having the only private prison in Pennsylvania,” said County Councilman Kevin Madden, who has been a vocal critic of the prison. “There should be no debate about that. The idea of any organization viewing maintaining people incarcerated as being a source of recurring revenue, that doesn’t work. That doesn’t work for what our interests are, which is to rehabilitate folks and to work as a community to get people back on their feet.”
It’s not immediately clear how much returning the prison to county control would cost. In a study commissioned last year by the defunct Board of Prison Inspectors, the Phoenix Group estimated that such a switch would require at least a $1 million investment from the county.
In addition to the salaries and benefits of roughly 500 correctional officers and staff members, GEO also handles legal liability in claims filed against the facility, and covers the costs of medical and food services at the jail.
GEO is locked into a five-year, $259 million contract with Delaware County. The deal, inked in December 2018, includes a clause that allows county officials to terminate the agreement with 180 days’ notice.
A spokesperson for GEO said in a statement Thursday that the company values its "long-standing partnership with the county and will continue providing high quality services that maintain a safe and positive environment for our staff and those entrusted to our care at the facility.”
The nearly 1,800-bed facility has been mired in controversy for the last two years, when the first two Democrats elected to the county council began raising concerns about it amid increased activism from residents.
Those councilmen, Madden and Brian Zidek, repeatedly lobbied for the creation of the new Jail Oversight Board, made up of residents, judges and county officials. It replaced the previous, politically appointed Board of Prison Inspectors in November.
Madden, the chair of the new oversight board, said the vote to explore de-privatization is the “first step in an ongoing process.” It follows high-profile incidents at George W. Hill, including five heroin overdoses that occurred there on Christmas. One of the overdose victims, Fatima Musa, died after fellow inmate Kathleen Fisher had her son smuggle in the narcotic during holiday visitation hours, according to sources familiar with the incident.
A month earlier, George W. Hill’s longtime superintendent, John Reilly Jr., retired the day after an investigation by The Inquirer and Caucus detailed previously undocumented accusations of what current and former prison workers described as his abusive and racist behavior. Reilly has denied the allegations.
Brian Corson, one of the members of the Jail Oversight Board, said Thursday that he welcomed the commission of the study, given the recent debate about the facility.
“For me, before I vote for anything, this is exactly what I would like to see: a report done by an outside party that has everything in there,” he said. “There are a lot of moving parts at this facility, and I don’t want to be a part of any decision that doesn’t do its due diligence.”