This article first appeared on the Broad + Liberty website.
A former Delaware County councilman says the recent scandal of alleged abuse at the Delaware County Juvenile Justice Center should force a rethinking of ongoing efforts to “deprivatize” an adult prison back to the government’s hands.
Wallace Nunn was a driving force on the council during its decades of Republican dominance — a time in which Nunn helped convert the George W. Hill Correctional Facility’s government-run administration to private management by The GEO Group. The county council, now under the control of Democrats, plans to reverse that.
Last weekend, a judge ordered all youths at the county-run juvenile justice center to be transferred to other facilities “after the county’s public defender sent a letter warning the county of what it said were credible and horrific claims of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Nunn says the incident undermines the arguments for evicting GEO from the day-to-day administration of GWH, which houses an adult population.
“The argument that the county and Councilman [Kevin] Madden is making is that they could do a better job than the private company and that they could do that job more efficiently,” Nunn said. “Well, they’re spending $11 million [annually] for a sixty bed [juvenile detention facility]. And clearly, the management is out of control. The judge had to shut the place down, and I can imagine the lawsuits that will come from that. This is a six-bed facility. How do they even begin to think they can run an 1,800-bed facility?”
The Inquirer reported the $11 million figure as an annual budget, but it is not currently clear what percent of that is dedicated exclusively to the center. Broad + Liberty is working to obtain that information and will update this story when it is available.
The center has 66 total beds, but the number of juveniles staying there has been in steady decline for years, according to a county webpage. When the judge ordered all youths transferred out, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer told the Inquirer the population was low, and only four children were there on Saturday morning when the last of the transfers occurred.
All five members of the Delaware County Council are Democrats who have taken over the board from Republicans in the last two election cycles in 2017 and 2019. All of them campaigned on deprivatizing GWH.
Much of the bureaucratic work needed to accomplish that is in motion, as evidenced by a county jail oversight board meeting last week. Councilman Madden, who is orchestrating the transition, said a “special meeting” would be called soon to discuss the deprivatization plan in depth.
The county says its main motive is not that it can drastically improve costs, but that recidivism can be improved, and that a more “holistic” approach will improve that metric.
“We believe the most important benefit is that the focus of incarceration will shift from merely ‘locking up bodies’ to rehabilitation, re-entry and reducing recidivism,” county spokeswoman Adrienne Marofsky told Broad + Liberty. “Recall that the George W. Hill facility, as a county jail, holds people who have either yet to be tried and sentenced or have been sentenced to serve two years or less, which means that they will very quickly return to our community.”
But one member of the oversight board, Delaware County Common Pleas Court Judge John J. Whelan, noted his concerns at the jail oversight board meeting.
“One of the things I would like to address at the appropriate time, certainly not tonight, is how the county takeover is going to improve the situation for the taxpayer, as well as the residents — the inmates — at Delaware County prison. Because I have those concerns, I’ve had them since we started this project.”
Whelan emphasized he was not decidedly for or against the deprivatization plan, but, “I just want to make sure what we’re doing is in the best interest of all concerned.”
Nunn says the issue of lawsuits should be at the forefront of the financial assessments.
GEO recently disclosed that it had paid $9 million in lawsuit claims over a four-year period, costs that were absorbed by the company but will have to be borne by taxpayers if the contract is finally severed.
“One could only imagine the millions of dollars of damages that are going to have to be paid to these plaintiffs coming out of this mismanagement of a 30-person [juvenile] facility,” Nunn said.
Marofsky said the taxpayer is “always the ultimate payer” for those costs, saying “litigation costs are built into the cost of the GEO contract.”
In 2018, the county’s board of prison inspectors awarded a new five-year contract to GEO for $264 million. Comparing that cost to the county’s administration isn’t possible yet, as an assessment on future budgets is still being compiled by an outside contractor.
In the fall of 2019, the county council successfully dismantled the “Board of Prison Inspectors” and formed the new jail oversight board. Madden had accused Republicans in the county of using the prison board “to hide patronage and corruption from the public eye,” for years.
Nunn argues recent audits refute that notion.
In late 2018, an audit from the commonwealth’s department of corrections said GWH “met or exceeded” statutory expectations.
“Due to this achievement, the George W. Hill Correctional Facility is exempt from the normal one-year inspection cycle,” the audit letter continued. “As such, the next inspection cycle for this facility will be 2020.”
The county told Broad + Liberty they expect to maintain or exceed those standards.
Eliminating private prisons generally has been a popular policy position among Democrats, illustrated recently when President Joe Biden ordered the Department of Justice to phase out the use of privately run prisons at the federal level.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter.