Hall County officials say Gainesville City Council members who are unhappy about a private prison company’s long-term plans for the old county jail were given a chance to buy the property in a formal contract but never followed through.
This week, council members Ruth Bruner and Danny Dunagan and City Manager Kip Padgett made public their disappointment in future plans for the jail adjacent to the Hall County Sheriff’s Office on Main Street.
The building will house about 500 immigration detainees through an agreement between Hall County and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and a county contract with private corrections company Corrections Corporation of America.
Padgett and Gainesville Planning Director Rusty Ligon met Tuesday with CCA officials. They referred questions about the meeting to City Attorney James “Bubba” Palmour, who said he was unavailable to comment Thursday.
Council members said after the meeting they had hoped that the company would take down the razor wire surrounding the facility, and that they had believed the facility would hold low-risk, minimum security detainees. City officials said the razor wire creates an aesthetic eyesore in an area of midtown the city plans to revitalize.
Dunagan also said city officials were under the impression that when county officials signed a lease agreement with CCA, they also would finalize a purchase agreement with the city.
That plan, as first made public in December 2007, called for the city to buy the jail for $4 million, with the agreement that the county could lease the facility to CCA for seven years. The city would then have the option of razing the facility to make way for new development.
Late last year, the county finalized a 20-year lease for the property with CCA at a rate of $2 million a year. The newly-renamed North Georgia Detention Center is expected to open in April or May.
“The county went ahead and signed the contract with CCA with no communication with the city as to what was going on and what their intentions are,” Dunagan said. “We had to find out the hard way that they’d already signed the agreement.”
Hall County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver on Thursday pointed to a contract prepared late in 2007 that was hand-delivered to city hall. The purchase agreement negotiated between the city and county had an expiration date of February 2008. It was never signed.
“It was couriered to them,” said Oliver, who provided a copy of the 25-page contract to The Times. “I don’t know what they did with it once they got it.”
Louise Grant, a spokeswoman for CCA, said Thursday that the company will house low and medium-security detainees, but no maximum-security detainees.
Certain security measures, including razor wire, are standard for all CCA facilities, she said.
“When we operate a facility, we operate it at a certain level, period, because we’re one of the safest, most secure correctional systems in the United States, and we’re very proud of our record,” she said. “Razor wire is part of our security protocol, and ICE has come to expect that.”
Grant said she believes there may be a misunderstanding as to the type of detainees to be housed at the old jail.
“Using the term ‘maximum security’ would be completely inaccurate,” she said.
Most of the immigration detainees at the facility will have not been convicted of a crime, she said. Those that have would have already served out their jail sentences at sites such as Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County Jail, she said.
“If ICE wasn’t detaining them for their administrative (deportation) process, they would already be out on the street,” she said.
“They’re going to be held in our facility for a short duration of time while they’re being processed.”
The average detainee will stay at the facility between 30 and 90 days, she said.
Grant said CCA officials are sensitive to the concerns of local leaders.
“It’s extremely important to us as corporate citizens to come into a community and have it be a positive experience for all involved,” Grant said. “We feel confident that both the city and the county and the surrounding businesses will come to see CCA as an important part of their community.”
Oliver estimated with the company providing 160 jobs and paying the county another $2 million annually to lease the property, CCA could have a local economic impact approaching $10 million a year.
“In this economy, it’s hard to turn that down,” he said.
Dunagan said city officials previously hoped to have control of the property within 10 years. But he noted that with CCA spending millions to renovate the aging jail, it doesn’t appear the company would move out in only a few years.
Oliver said, however, that the length of time CCA occupies the property may depend on future federal immigration policies.
“It depends on if these ICE programs continue,” he said.