The Delaware County Council on Wednesday took the first major step toward reclaiming control of its privately run jail, but the transition comes with a cost of $410,000 for contracts that have stirred criticism from the plan’s opponents.
In a unanimous vote, the council hired one contractor to oversee that transition, and is preparing to hire a second. All five Democratic members of the council won their seats on a platform that prioritized turning the controversial George W. Hill Correctional Facility — long plagued by complaints of mismanagement and mistreatment of prisoners — back into a county-run jail.
But members of the county’s Republican Party question why the cost to shift the management structure is so high, especially when running the jail will also add to the county’s expenses.
“It’s kind of ironic that this group has been around for years bashing us for privatizing the prison, and in all these years, they’ve never come up with a plan to take it over,” Tom McGarrigle, a onetime council president and now local GOP chair, said this week.
But County Councilman Kevin Madden, chair of the Jail Oversight Board and a frequent, vocal supporter of making George W. Hill public, justified the new contracts as a necessary expense.
“This is an extraordinarily complex transition that is involved in an area that requires the utmost security, and it’s not something you do lightly,” Madden said in an interview this week. “I’d rather spend the funds to make sure we do the sensible thing here, than get ourselves into a messy situation because we didn’t plan for it.”
The 1,800-bed jail in Thornton is the only privately run facility of its kind in Pennsylvania.
The measure voted on Wednesday approved the hiring of CGL Cos., a Florida-based consulting firm, to oversee transitioning management of the jail from the for-profit GEO Group to a county department. It also paves the way for council to ratify a contract with Alta Management Services to act as a project manager working on council’s behalf, which will likely come at its next meeting in January.
Combined, the two contracts would cost the county about $410,000, according to county Executive Director Howard Lazarus. With Wednesday’s approval, CGL is expected to begin its work almost immediately.
Delaware County is currently locked into a five-year, $259 million contract with the GEO Group, the second-largest private-prison firm in the world. But that contract, signed two years ago, gives the county an option to terminate the agreement with six months’ notice.
Given that timeline, George W. Hill wouldn’t return to county control until the latter half of 2021 at the earliest.
A spokesperson for GEO said the company “will remain focused on providing outstanding services and value to the county until we are formally notified of intent to transition.”
McGarrigle, the GOP chairman, noted a similar transition study that was completed for $125,000 in 2019 by the Phoenix Group, commissioned by the previous council members. Phoenix’s report concluded that the process of de-privatizing the jail would cost the county $1 million. He questioned why more outside consultants were needed.
“If you’re taking it back, hire a warden who would run the prison, and let him take the prison back under county control,” McGarrigle said. “It’s a matter of guards and employees — the prisoners are the prisoners.”
George W. Hill has been a political football in Delaware County since 2017, when Madden and Council President Brian Zidek first ran for public office on a platform of making the jail public.
Meanwhile, a growing grassroots coalition of residents attacked GEO for the conditions at the facility, and others have highlighted a number of high-profile suicides and reports of violence.
The jail’s longtime warden, John Reilly, resigned last year after The Inquirer chronicled previously unreported allegations of racist and abusive behavior toward employees.
Madden defended the hiring of both CGL and Alta Management, saying both beat out other firms during a competitive bidding process and came highly recommended by previous clients.
For CGL, that client list includes the Philadelphia Department of Prisons and the state Department of Corrections. Alta Management is run by Majid Alsayegh, a Philadelphia developer who previously served in the city’s Department of Public Property and worked on the redesign of the city’s Criminal Justice Center.
Madden said Alsayegh’s appointment is necessary — he’ll serve as a “quarterback” on the project, acting as council’s liaison with CGL as its members handle other government business, including the response to COVID-19.
“If we think of it as being an opportunity to invest in our community and provide mental health and drug treatment services, and these other programs that will better prepare someone for their reentry, we’re creating a more healthy community and we’re creating a safer community,” Madden said. “That’s how we think of it, as an investment.”