U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is seeking to shrink its contract for the privately operated Folkston ICE Processing Center in South Georgia, citing low usage. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

ICE seeks smaller contract for S. Georgia immigration detention center

The Trump administration is negotiating to shrink a costly no-bid contract for a privately run immigration detention center in South Georgia, saying it has not been busy enough since it opened last year, according to documents obtained through Georgia’s Open Records Act.

Last month, GEO Group, the Florida-based corrections company that operates the Folkston ICE Processing Center, proposed dropping the number of detention center beds guaranteed in the $116.7 million contract by 105, a move that would bring the total down to 675 and save taxpayers $1.6 million annually, the records show.

GEO proposed the changes after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement cited “low usage” at the center while moving to cancel the contract. In a Jan. 8 email, ICE told GEO the 780-bed center’s average detainee population was about 400 last year. Presumably, that was a daily average, though ICE’s email doesn’t identify the time period. Officials in Charlton County — where the center is located — have pushed back against ICE’s low usage claim, saying the center was holding 588 detainees on Nov. 8. GEO reported 661 detainees on Feb. 15.

RELATED: ICE moves to close South Georgia detention center, then re-evaluates

Days after it announced it was canceling the contract for the center, ICE said it would re-evaluate that decision. The federal agency switched gears after U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, the Republican congressman who represents the area, pressed ICE to keep the facility open. Carter has joined Charlton in vigorously defending the project, which comes with 233 jobs, $10 million in annual payroll and $265,000 in annual property tax revenue and management fees paid to the county.

EXCLUSIVE: A look inside Georgia’s newest immigration detention center

GEO referred questions about the contract negotiations to ICE, which declined to comment.

In December 2016, Charlton and ICE signed the five-year agreement, which 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.

RELATED: Immigration detention center in South Georgia to cost $116.7 million

Asked about the possibility that shrinking the contract could result in layoffs at the detention center and decreased revenue for the county, Charlton Administrator Hampton Raulerson said the situation could be worse.

“It is definitively something the county is concerned about, but I think the shock of them wanting to just outright close it kind of put everyone back on their heels,” he said. “Keeping it open is clearly better than having it closed for us.”

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