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Private Prison in Pennsylvania Takes Heat; Prison Board Replaced, Superintendent Retires

by David M. Reutter

On September 25, 2019, Pennsylvania’s Delaware County Council abolished its Board of Prison Inspectors (BPI) and replaced it with a Jail Oversight Board (JOB), after problems occurred at the privately operated Delaware County Prison, formerly known as the George W. Hill Correctional Facility. PLN has previously reported on problems at the jail. [See: PLN, Nov. 2018, p.36; Jan. 2016, p.57].

Over a five-week period in the summer of 2019, the facility erupted in new crises:

• On July 31, a prisoner committed suicide; 

• On August 5, a sergeant was beaten with handcuffs and required hospitalization; 

• On August 24, there were two separate overdoses by prisoners in the jail’s work release program;

• On August 26, several prisoners beat another prisoner with a plastic tray, then threw trays at a nurse and guard, who were trapped in the cellblock until backup arrived; and

• On September 4, there was a “full blown riot” at the facility that was quelled after a Community Emergency Response Team armed with pepper balls managed to subdue 26 prisoners.

“I’ve been there so long and I said, ‘It’s not if it’s going to happen, it’s when,’ because we’re so short staffed,” said one guard. “People blow this off and we’ve been saying it for years: It’s an unsafe place to work and no one cares and it’s awful. It’s an awful, scary place.”

The 1,883-bed jail, run by Florida-based GEO Group, Inc., was Pennsylvania’s first privately operated lockup, built in the 1990s to save the county $30 million in construction costs. That figure is dwarfed by GEO’s current five-year, $264 million contract to operate the facility. The contract has optional extensions up to nine years, at a total cost of $495 million.

In getting rid of the BPI, which was comprised of two members, Delaware County abolished an institution that had been established in the 19th century. The new JOB is larger, with seven members comprised of four county officeholders as well as three citizen members. Brian Corson, Jonathan Abdur-Rahim King and Deborah Love – all active on other local boards and organizations – were appointed to the JOB citizen positions in November 2019.

The change from the BPI to the JOB found bipartisan support. Democratic council members argued it would eliminate unqualified appointees and check unnecessary expenses. Republicans pointed to the need to expand the jail’s resources beyond short-term imprisonment, by providing mental health, addiction and other services.

“My support of this resolution is entirely indicative of my lack of faith in the current board,” said Councilman Brian P. Zidek. “They have wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and continue to do so.... Our prison has been run with no oversight and it is long past due.”

Before GEO Group’s most recent contract was awarded, the BPI paid Phoenix Management Services $130,000 to re-evaluate the economic feasibility of having a private contractor run the jail. 

“Our mandate was to put together a side-by-side analysis of the cost structure that GEO was operating under and to overlay on that cost structure what it would hypothetically cost for the county to bring the operation over to the county,” said Mitchell B. Arden, Phoenix’s senior managing director.

The company’s 27-page report pegged the minimum cost for the public option at $1.5 to $2 million – an estimate that was made despite the fact that Phoenix said its findings were “severely impaired” because GEO Group failed to provide relevant information. Nevertheless, in a statement issued following the council’s vote on September 25, 2019, GEO said it welcomed the “oversight and accountability” of the new JOB.

“The public-private partnership already allows the county to oversee our management role on a daily basis and it ensures the facility is operating at the highest level of services of all time – a successful model unlike any other county,” the company stated, while failing to address the incidents that occurred at the jail during the summer.

In November 2019, the jail’s superintendent, John A. Reilly, announced his retirement following an investigation published in the Philadelphia Inquirer detailing his allegedly racist and abusive behavior. The 62-year-old was the subject of a 2014 whistleblower complaint that former warden Cameron Lindsay sent to the state Attorney General’s Office, accusing Reilly of using racial slurs against nonwhite jail employees and hoping aloud that a pregnant employee would deliver a child with birth defects. He also was accused of targeting black guards for extra work assignments.

Further, Reilly had hired a woman who was allegedly under-qualified to fill a senior jail position, and allegedly maintained about $750,000 in county funds in bank accounts kept secret from the county council. He was suspended without pay for 30 days after an investigation by an outside attorney resulted in a closed-door presentation to the council that found he had created an “unprofessional environment.”

I realize the allegations are horrible, but I was not involved in any of this,” Reilly insisted. “I didn’t say [any of] that.” 



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