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Officials halt prison for D.C. inmates

(Published September 20, 1999)

A private prison company under federal contract to build a correctional facility in Pennsylvania for D.C. inmates has run into a major legal stumbling block.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Michael Fisher notified Cornell Corrections Inc. Sept. 1 that the company is not legally authorized to operate a private prison in the state.

"Unless and until the Pennsylvania General Assembly acts to authorize the operation of a private prison, no such operation may be undertaken," Fisher wrote in a letter to the companyís chief executive officer, David Cornell.

Fisher threatened "legal proceedings" against the company but was assured by a company official at a subsequent meeting that construction would not proceed, said Sean Connolly, Fisherís spokesman.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons awarded Cornell a $343 million 10-year contract April 2 to house 1,050 low and minimum-security in-mates, including women and youths, at a site near Phillipsburg, Pa.

Dan Dunne, spokesman for the bureau, said federal officials were not aware of the state attorney generalís concerns but that the contract award had gone forward in compliance with all federal laws.

Cornell spokeswoman Amy Schmidt said company officials were not overly concerned about the attorney generalís letter. She declined to comment further.

A stop-work order halted construction of the prison several months ago, after local residents went to court with environmental concerns.

Female D.C. inmates now being held in Connecticut and West Virginia were to be transferred to the Pennsylvania site in January. Now that transfer could be delayed for months, even years, pending resolution of the legal dispute. Male inmates now being held at the Lorton prison facility in Fairfax County, Va., would likely be moved to state or federal prisons under short-term emergency contracts until the Pennsylvania issue is cleared up, Dunne said. The scheduled shutdown of Lorton by 2001 will not be delayed, he said.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator