ICE, GEO weigh expanding immigration detention center in South Georgia

February 15, 2018 Folkston, GA - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO Group are considering expanding the Folkston ICE Processing Center in Charlton County. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

February 15, 2018 Folkston, GA - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO Group are considering expanding the Folkston ICE Processing Center in Charlton County. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

First, the Trump administration moved last year to close the federal immigration detention center near the Georgia-Florida border, citing "low usage."

Then U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement negotiated to shrink the no-bid, $1.9 million-a-month contract this year to run the Folkston ICE Processing Center.

Now ICE and the Florida-based corrections company that operates the center – GEO Group — are considering revising the contract and expanding the center by 338 beds. That move would cost taxpayers up to nearly $500,000 more a month, if all the beds are filled, according to documents obtained through Georgia’s Open Records Act.

The deliberations come as the federal government is seeking additional detention space amid increasing arrests on the southwest border. Since February, U.S border authorities have made 232,367 arrests there, or more than twice the total from same period last year.

GEO Group referred questions about the contract to ICE, which said it wouldn’t comment because the agreement was still being negotiated.

Payments from the federal government pass through Charlton County to GEO under the current arrangement. In return for the county’s role in handling these transactions, GEO pays Charlton a monthly $2,500 administrative fee, county records show.

Charlton County officials said revising the contract as proposed would keep a major employer in Folkston and create 70 more jobs at the detention center, which now generates $265,000 in annual county property tax revenue and fees for the county. County commissioners are set to vote on the revised contract Thursday.

Charlton Commissioner Luke Gowen, who represents the area where the detention center is located, credited GEO Group for doing humanitarian work in the area and for buying supplies from vendors in the county.

“We want to see jobs — we want to see growth — in our county, especially with someone that has taken a good community approach, such as the GEO Group,” he said.

The current five-year contract for the detention center has come under criticism because it costs taxpayers $1.9 million a month, regardless of whether all the 780 beds in the center are filled. Immigrant-rights activists have decried the project as a waste of taxpayer money.

The proposal county officials are considering would reduce the monthly flat fee to $1.6 million, including detention and transportation costs combined for 544 detainees. But it would also pay $30.56 per each extra detainee per day, for up to 236 additional detainees. And it adds $598,991 for the use of a 338-bed annex on the property.

ICE gave the AJC an exclusive tour of the detention center in February, revealing that most of the detainees are arrested along the U.S.-Mexican border and at ports of entry in California and Texas. Only men are held there. Many come from Mexico and Central America, while others have traveled from Cameroon, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Nepal and Pakistan. They share common rooms in the center and sleep on blue bunk beds, use communal bathrooms and gather around octagon-shaped tables topped with chess boards.

Azadeh Shahshahani, the legal and advocacy director for Project South, which advocates for immigrants, called the county’s contract negotiations “egregious.” She cited how four ICE detainees who have been held in immigration detention centers in Georgia have died since May of last year. None were held in the Folkston facility.

Two hanged themselves at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin. Another one who was held there died from pneumonia. Shahshahani reiterated her call for Stewart to be shut down after it was the subject of a stinging federal investigative report in December. A fourth detainee who was held in the Atlanta City Detention Center died from complications from congestive heart failure.

“At a time that we’re witnessing gross human rights violations against detained immigrants,” Shahshahani said in an email, “Charlton County should not be complicit in expanding the immigration detention system; rather they should vote down this expansion and terminate this contract with ICE.”

Asked about the county’s involvement with the Folkston ICE Processing Center, Gowen said he opposes illegal immigration.

“I believe we should not have illegal immigrants in the United States. If they are here illegally, they have broken the law,” he said. “If they want to be a citizen of the United States, they should go through the process and the steps and become a legal citizen.”