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Delco’s jail, the only privately run facility of its kind in Pa, may soon return to county control

The vote, on Tuesday, followed years of debate over how the 1,800-bed facility has been run. The final decision falls to the County Council next week.

The George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton, Delaware County's jail, is the only privately run facility of its kind in Pennsylvania.
The George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton, Delaware County's jail, is the only privately run facility of its kind in Pennsylvania.Read moreJose F. Moreno / Staff Photographer

At a special meeting Tuesday, the Delaware County Jail Oversight Board voted to recommend terminating the county’s contract with the private prison firm that operates the county jail, the first step toward returning the facility to public operations after years of debate.

The measure passed 6-2, with board members Deborah Love and County Judge John J. Whelan dissenting.

Since 1998, the George W. Hill Correctional Facility — the county’s 1,800-bed jail in Thornton — has been privately run, and is currently operated by the GEO Group, a Florida-based prisons firm. It remains the only privately run county jail in Pennsylvania.

The county signed a five-year, $259 million contract with GEO in December 2018 that gives the county the option to terminate it early with six months’ notice. Tuesday’s vote by the Jail Oversight Board sends a recommendation to the County Council, which meets next Wednesday, to exercise that early termination option.

If passed by the council, the contract with GEO would end in the spring.

GEO oversees staffing at the facility, as well as providing food, health care, and other services, while a handful of county employees act as executive staff overseeing GEO’s day-to-day operations.

In recent years, the jail has been plagued by complaints of mismanagement and mistreatment of prisoners. More recently, guards at the prison have complained of widespread staff shortages, attacks by inmates on guards, and extended lockdowns.

Its longtime superintendent, John Reilly, resigned in 2019 after The Inquirer revealed accusations of racist and sexist behavior by his subordinates.

County Councilman Kevin Madden, the prison board’s chair, said returning the jail to county control was preferable to “allowing the situation to further erode.”

“Fundamentally, this comes down to what do we envision the role of a jail in our society,” he said. “If it is just to warehouse humans, the simplest solution is to do what we’ve been doing. But if we believe in restorative justice, if we believe in redemption, if we think our community is better when we help those with mental health and drug addiction to get the help they need ... then that objective is diametrically opposed to a company with a for-profit business model.”

Before casting his dissenting vote, Whelan said his priority was the inmates at the jail, who he said might not benefit from switching the facility back to county control.

“What I believe the analysis should be is how do we improve the living circumstances of inmates at the Delaware County prison, and can we do it in a reasonably and financially prudent manner to not burden the taxpayer,” he told fellow board members. “If the county can do it better and cheaper, the county should run the prison. If they can’t, the county should be looking for alternate means.”

» READ MORE: Boss of Delaware County’s private jail accused of racism, abuse of power

The board has long telegraphed its desire to return George W. Hill back to county control, a process that began in December with the hiring of two firms to estimate the cost of, and eventually help oversee, the transition.

A study commissioned this year by CGL Cos., one of those firms, found that returning to a publicly run model would cost as much as $9 million, but could save Delaware County as much as $10 million a year.

In an open letter to the Jail Oversight Board in April, a spokesperson for the GEO Group cautioned that reverting to county control would not make the facility safer or improve the lives of its inmates.

The spokesperson said then that the county’s plan to rely on multiple contractors for many of the services GEO provides “will require significant administrative oversight.”

In a statement Tuesday, a GEO spokesperson said the company will continue to work with the county and keep inmates safe, though it remains critical of the way the Jail Oversight Board has handled the analysis of de-privatization.

”As long-standing partners with Delaware County as the contracted management provider, we acknowledge the county’s legal authority to end its management contract with a six-month notice,” the spokesperson said. ”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.’'