Immigration detention center in South Georgia to cost $116.7 million

A new 780-bed immigration detention center that is set to open in South Georgia in the coming months will cost taxpayers $116.7 million over the next five years through a no-bid contract with a private corrections company, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Trump administration confirmed this week it is seeking more such detention space as it cracks down on illegal immigration. In South Georgia, where the economy has struggled, officials welcomed the jobs the new center will create. But some advocates countered that the private company running the center would be the one reaping the profits.

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Signed in December by Charlton County and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, the fixed-price contract will cost $1.9 million a month, regardless of whether all of the beds in the center are filled. Florida-based GEO Group, a private firm, is planning to open and operate the new Folkston ICE Processing Center in an existing facility — now unused — next to the D. Ray James federal prison, near the Georgia-Florida border. The contract does not mention any construction costs.

A spokeswoman for ICE said her agency has similar flat fee arrangements with other private detention centers because they provide “a monthly (price) guarantee to the vendor, which generally lowers the cost for ICE.”

Such no-bid contracts are allowed under federal law, according to ICE, which provided the AJC a list of many other similar arrangements. ICE chose the Folkston site, ICE Acting Press Secretary Jennifer Elzea said, partly because it is accredited by the American Correctional Association, it is not far from the Jacksonville International Airport and because other detention centers in the region are already full.

The Obama administration signed the contract even as it was considering phasing out the use of privately run immigration detention centers in Georgia and across the nation. The U.S. Justice Department had already announced it was going that route for its prisoners. But that could change under the Trump administration. In office less than two weeks, the Republican has already signed several executive orders aimed at toughening controls on illegal immigration and more decrees are expected.

“We have got to secure our borders,” Thomas Homan, the newly appointed acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told reporters during a news conference Tuesday. “For those arrested entering the United States, we need to detain those people, so we are in the process of identifying additional detention capacity.”

Taxpayers will pay $73.79 daily per bed in the new detention center in Folkston, not including transportation costs. That is higher than the daily bed costs at any of the existing immigration detention centers in Georgia, including some privately run facilities in Irwin and Stewart counties, according to Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, or CIVIC, which wants to end immigration detention in the U.S. But it is lower than the national average cost for private detention centers as calculated by CIVIC: $90.43.

The payments from the federal government will pass through Charlton County to GEO. In return for its role, GEO will pay Charlton a monthly $2,500 administrative fee, according to an Oct. 13 resolution unanimously approved by Charlton commissioners. The contract is also projected to create 231 new jobs — primarily detention center officers — and generate property tax revenue for Charlton. Asked how GEO was chosen, Charlton County Administrator Shawn Boatright said, “This is something that was beyond our hands. We were just a third party on this. There is nothing that the county is bidding for.”

A surge of Haitians illegally entering the U.S. last year prompted the need for the new detention center, according to ICE, though the facility may also house unauthorized immigrants from Central America. ICE said the Folkston location was also chosen because GEO has “an exceptional past performance record” under its contract with the federal government to operate the D. Ray James federal prison.

Last month, CIVIC complained to ICE that GEO has been denying attorneys and families access to detainees at the Adelanto Detention Facility in Adelanto, Calif. A spokesman for GEO said ICE controls visitation. An ICE official referred questions about the CIVIC complaint to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which said it “will review the complaint and determine if further action is warranted.”

“Opening another taxpayer-funded immigration detention facility is unnecessary and wasteful,” said Christina Fialho, one of CIVIC’s cofounders. “Holding immigrants in privately run detention centers doesn’t benefit anyone but the companies that manage them — in this case GEO Group.”

GEO spokesman Pablo Paez said his company is “proud of our track record of delivering high-quality, cost-effective service to meet ICE’s needs.”