County official: After nearly 30 years, ICE ends contract with York prison

Matt Enright
York Dispatch
Alix Webb, executive director of Asian Americans United, based in Philadelphia, speaks during the "Free Our Loved Ones" vigil held outside York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, on Human Rights Day, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. Organizations including MILPA (Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania), New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, VietLead and Juntos, based in Philadelphia, hosted the event urging officials to release those being detained by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the York Detention Center, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York County will no longer house ICE detainees at the prison after Aug. 12.

Local officials and Immigration and Customs Enforcement had been trying to reach a new deal during a 120-day negotiation period, but the agency has informed the prison it will no longer send detainees to the York County Prison starting next month.

York County Commissioner and Prison Board Chair Doug Hoke confirmed the end of the nearly three-decade relationship on Thursday.

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"As we got word from ICE, negotiations have not produced any outcome," he said Thursday. "We stand by our vote that on Aug. 12, the ICE contract will end unless something happens, and I don't foresee something happening." 

At a rally organized by immigrant advocacy organization CASA on Thursday evening at the prison, a woman spoke of the ordeal her family went through as her father was detained and deported to Mexico.

"I'm thankful this facility is closing because no one will have to encounter any problems like we did," said Anallely Rugerio Soto, 19. About 45 people attended the event.

Warden Adam Ogle said in an email Thursday that ICE had informed the county Wednesday that the agency would not continue their contract with the prison.

The facility first began accepting federal immigration detainees in the 1990s after the freighter Golden Venture ran aground near New York harbor. Some of the Chinese immigrants aboard were detained at York County Prison for years while they applied for asylum.

At one point in the early 2000s, York County Prison was the largest detention center in the country for what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service, housing about 800 INS detainees for $60 a day each. 

A total of 320 ICE detainees were housed at the prison as of Thursday, at a rate of $108 per day each, according to county spokesperson Mark Walters.

Hoke said given the financials and updated standards by ICE, it was not feasible for the county to continue the contract. 

Ogle said he expects the ICE population will continue to decline but that new ICE detainees could be accepted on a case-by-case basis until Aug. 12.

The end of the contract could have a major impact on York County's finances. Last year, the prison received $18.4 million from  ICE, with the caveat that much of that goes into costs and upkeep at the prison. ICE also contracted for rental space within the prison and for transportation.

Ogle said he didn't yet know how ICE leaving would affect the prison. Now that negotiations have ended, the county will examine issues such as prison staffing and rental space, Hoke said.

Immigrant rights advocates, who had been preparing to mount a campaign against York County Prison renewing its contract, were pleased but realistic about the result.

"Whenever a contract that profits off the detention of people ends, it's always a good thing," said Erika Núñez, executive director of the Philadelphia-based immigrations rights group Juntos.

She said her organization's main concern now is making sure detainees in York County are released "and not just transferred to other facilities."

Ogle said it was not yet determined what would happen to the detainees at the prison. 

Hoke said the county had a good working relationship with the federal government.

"I always said to people when they asked me about ICE that we had a mattress and a bed for each of them to sleep on; we had three square meals a day; we had medical assistance provided; legal advice to people here in York County," he said. "But (the new terms are) not favorable to York County and York County residents."

President Commissioner Julie Wheeler said for her, it's simple.

"We could not come to an agreement that was mutually beneficial to both organizations, and it's really that simple," she said Thursday. "Historically, we've had a great relationship with ICE, and it has nothing to do with anything but we could not come to an agreement that made sense for both parties." 

It wasn't always smooth sailing with the federal government.

The county was required to pay the federal government $16 million as part of a 2006 settlement stemming from a disagreement over how much the county charged to house detainees at the prison between 1999 and 2003.

The settlement came after a 2001 audit by the U.S. Office of the Inspector General found that the county was improperly making a 38% profit by charging more than it cost to house the prisoners.

ICE did not respond immediately reply to requests for comment.