YORK, Pa. - The biggest immigration jail east of the Mississippi River, with 700 inmates and dozens of workers in rural Pennsylvania, could be shut early next year because of a contract dispute with local officials.
The York County Prison has leased cells, office space and courtrooms to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for more than a decade. But that might end as a result of a two-year disagreement over INS reimbursement rates, a dispute that boiled over Friday.
Exasperated by an INS demand for a 20 percent rate cut and facing a budget deadline, the York County commissioners submitted their 60-day notice to cancel the contract. If there is no resolution, the INS and its detainees will be ejected Feb. 18.
"This is idiocy of the most supreme magnitude," said Christopher B. Reilly, president of the county Board of Commissioners. "If somebody in Washington comes to their senses and wants to do the right thing, we'll listen. But ... if they don't want to pay, we will part company."
An INS spokesman, Michael Gilhooly, said talks were continuing and the INS hoped to keep its key facility in York.
"They're a highly professional and solid organization. We can't say enough good about them," Gilhooly said of the York prison.
Immigration lawyers, advocacy groups and local INS staffers blasted the money-saving effort as a shortsighted move that might end up costing the federal government more.
Ted Nordmark, assistant district director of the Philadelphia INS office, said local officials "plan to start moving people out in the second week of January if there is no resolution."
Detainees could be relocated wherever space is available nationwide, officials said. The INS is allowed to move detainees anywhere in the country, without notice or regardless of distance from family and lawyers.
The sprawling facility's INS detainees come from Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Baltimore and elsewhere, and include anybody from simple visa over-stayers to convicted felons awaiting deportation.
The issue underlying the dispute is a federal policy that might prohibit local governments from making a profit on federal contracts, officials said.
For the past three years, York County has received $60 a day for each INS inmate to cover guards, food, transport, rent on court facilities, and payments on the county's $19 million bond to renovate the prison for the INS in the 1990s, Reilly said.
The $60 fee includes a profit margin for York County. Its direct prison costs are about $12 million a year, and it receives about $17 million from the INS. The difference has helped it avoid increasing local property taxes in recent years, Reilly said.
"We've realized about $90 million over the years that would have come from property taxes," he said. "The contract has been enormously beneficial for us."
But federal auditors balked at the rate. In 2000, the U.S. Justice Department, which oversees the INS, demanded that York County lower its rate to $38, strictly in line with prison costs, and pay back about $6 million it collected in 2000.
After a year of negotiation, the INS raised its rate offer to $48. But the York commissioners said they still could accept nothing less than $60, and they voted to look for another tenant, such as a work-release program.
York's rate is less than the current national average of $75, mostly paid to local and county governments for holding about 20,000 INS detainees on any particular day, according to local and national INS officials.