Company that’s closing Gainesville detention center tried to buy another one

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Georgia’s Immigration Detention Centers

Federal taxpayers pay for privately-run detention centers to detain immigrants facing deportation. Here are the current capacities, populations and the daily rates paid per U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee held at three detention centers in Georgia:

Rate/Current Number of ICE detainees/Capacity for ICE detainees/

Irwin County Detention Center $45/402/500

North Georgia Detention Center $83.42/0/502

Stewart Detention Center $61.85/1,575/1,924

Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

A corrections company sought unsuccessfully to buy an immigration detention center in South Georgia just a few months before confirming it is closing a separate one in Gainesville this month, court records show.

Corrections Corporation of America’s bid to buy the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla has prompted some speculation that CCA was seeking to close the facility to bolster other ones it operates in Georgia.

The Nashville-based company said its offer had nothing to do with its plans to close the North Georgia Detention Center in Gainesville. The company said it would have assessed what to do with the property in Ocilla had it been successful in buying it.

“This was solely a bid to purchase an asset. Not a bid for management,” CCA spokesman Steve Owen said in an email. “As a standard practice, CCA conducts due diligence on the merits of each individual procurement. For competitive reasons, we do not publicly elaborate on that due diligence.”

CCA bid $13 million for the Irwin County Detention Center at a bankruptcy auction in September but lost out to Miami-based CGL, a facility management company with offices in Georgia. CCA has since disclosed it is planning to shut down the facility in Gainesville by the end of this month, citing a dwindling number of detainees there.

On Dec. 3, the 502-bed detention center in Gainesville was holding just 97 immigrants facing deportation, down from 303 the year before and 393 the year before that. The reasons for the decline are unclear. But this month, the Obama administration reported a 10 percent drop in deportations between the past two fiscal years.

Any detainees remaining in Gainesville were to be transferred to the detention center in Ocilla and a facility CCA manages in Stewart County, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There were no ICE detainees left in Gainesville on Tuesday, an ICE spokeswoman said.

Gainesville officials are now grappling with the fallout from the impending closure of the North Georgia Detention Center, a large employer. Gainesville also faces bond payments that are scheduled to continue until 2027. The bonds helped finance the city’s $7.2 million acquisition of the detention center from Hall County, and to help fund those bonds, the city entered into a lease with CCA to operate the facility.

CCA has committed to paying its annual rent to the city for 2014. Gainesville officials must figure out how they will pay off the remaining debt on the former jail after that.

CCA’s offer to buy the Ocilla complex topped a $12.9 million bid from CGL. But in October, the judge in the federal bankruptcy case approved the sale to CGL.

The judge issued his order after Irwin officials warned CCA could close the detention center, the county’s largest private employer. The county and CGL have since entered into an agreement with LaSalle Southeast — a corrections company — to continue running the detention center, public records show.

Mixon speculated CCA was trying to close the detention center in Irwin to consolidate detainees at the facilities it operates in Gainesville and near Lumpkin.

“And from a business standpoint,” Mixon said, “that would be the wise thing to do.”

The federal government has been paying higher rates to house each ICE detainee per day at the Gainesville and Lumpkin locations — $83.42 and $61.85, respectively — compared with the Ocilla location at $45.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes, who represented Irwin County in the bankruptcy case, offered a view similar to Mixon’s.

“CCA has a prison in Stewart County that was not full and we knew they would take our prisoners and transfer them there,” Barnes said in an email.

Owen, the CCA spokesman, said ICE determines where detainees are held, not CCA.

Located about 180 miles south of Atlanta, the center in Ocilla houses detainees for ICE and the U.S. Marshals Service. About 200 jobs are tied to it. The center was holding about 700 detainees in September, court records show.

Hoping to create more jobs and save taxpayers money, Irwin County issued $55 million in tax-exempt bonds in 2007 to help pay off other bonds and to finance an expansion of the center in Ocilla. The bonds were to be paid off with revenue from the center, which receives federal funding for holding federal detainees. But the center was not housing enough detainees and eventually its bond payments went into default, court papers show.

Last year, the center narrowly avoided being auctioned off at a county tax sale after creditors forced its then-owner, Municipal Corrections LLC, into bankruptcy proceedings. About $1.9 million from this month’s sale of the center to CGL went to cover delinquent city and county real estate taxes on the property, Mixon said. The rest of the proceeds went to bondholders, he said.