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Delaware County’s Long-Private Prison Is Now a Public Facility

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Tessa Marie Images

A number of changes are in store now that Delaware County’s formerly private prison has become a public facility.

Don Dunbar is no angel. He’s had three stints in Delaware County’s George W. Hill Correctional Facility since 2013. Currently out of jail, Dunbar is still busy defending himself after having been arrested on additional drug and conspiracy charges. “We had to get him out on bail or they would’ve killed him,” says his sister, Jane Dunbar, a Media-based accountant and co-chair of the Democratic Committee of Norwood. “It’s not just my brother, but stories from strangers and family members.”

delaware county prison

Warden Laura Williams outside Delaware County’s George W. Hill Correctional Facility.

Dunbar maintains that her brother was denied basic civil and human rights at George W. Hill, including medical treatment and religious services. Once, after enduring more than six hours of seizures, he flatlined in the emergency room at Crozer-Chester Medical Center. Thankfully, he was revived.

The conditions he described included black mold, no air conditioning, cold meals delivered at 8:30 p.m., flickering lights at night, sewage seeping into his living space and head lice inherited from a cellmate. There were the times his sister visited, only to be told her brother wouldn’t get out of bed. Once back in her car and heading home, she’d find eight missed calls from him.

All of that could change. This spring, George W. Hill—once the only privately run county jail in Pennsylvania—went public under the new Delaware County Council. Since its inception in 1998, the 1,800-bed facility had been run by the GEO Group, a Florida-based prison-management firm. In December 2018, the county signed a new five-year $259-million contract with GEO—one that included an early termination option. County council unanimously voted last fall to exercise that option on a recommendation from the Delaware County Jail Oversight Board, which itself voted 6-2 to end private management.

As part of its review, the county hired CGL Companies to analyze the budgetary impact of a changeover while devising a transition plan to ensure public safety, improve detainee outcomes and protect taxpayer resources. The study found that returning to a publicly run model would cost as much as $9 million up front, but it could save the county $10 million a year. The hope is also that new drug treatment options, planned mental health programs and alternative approaches within the criminal justice system will help drive the prison population down to as few as 1,000 inmates. “Even if we break even the first year, it’s in our fiscal best interest to shrink the prison system,” says county councilman Kevin Madden, who also serves as JOB chairman. “For-profit prison management’s entire business model is predicated on keeping the jail full. With a public operator, the public could get a return every day by getting those there back on their feet. Jail is a disruptive moment in one’s life, but we have the opportunity to turn the model on its head.”

County jail detainees are typically sentenced to two years or less for relatively minor crimes. Some are held there pre-trial, then released within weeks. The average stay is 60 days. “But as it was, the longer you stayed, the more money for GEO,” says Jane Dunbar. “And all they give you when you leave George W. Hill is a bus token.”

In past published statements, GEO has been critical of how JOB handled their analysis of deprivatization, suggesting that its termination was politically motivated—a claim Madden denies. “For-profit prisons do not work,” he says. “I’m a for-profit guy, but not in places where for-profit clashes with ideals. Incarceration is one of them.”

Even so, Dunbar is critical of the county’s plan to rely on multiple external contractors, which could lead to an oversight nightmare. “The hope was to get rid of GEO—there was nothing good there,” she says. “But I’m not 100 percent behind going from one private enterprise to three—a medical company, Aramark for food, and another for maintenance. But I guess anything could be better than what was there.”

In recent years, the jail has been plagued by complaints of mismanagement and prisoner mistreatment. Longtime superintendent John Reilly resigned in 2019 after the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed accusations of racist and sexist behavior by his subordinates. For years, the county jail has had significant operational difficulties, including extended lockdowns, incidents of violence and staffing shortages. Part of the transition to county control includes paying jail workers more and improving their work environment to better attract and retain staff. “We had no control of what GEO paid folks,” Madden says. “We’re going to pay people better and create a new environment and expectation of how we expect employees to treat inmates. If you treat someone like an animal, you’re going to get an animal.”

New warden Laura Williams left a chief deputy warden position in Allegheny County for her new post. At 36, she’s spent her career implementing the drug treatment strategies she now applies to the correctional world. She also brings previous deprivatization experience. “It would be dishonest to say this isn’t an enormous undertaking,” Williams says. “Though I’d like to say I have what it takes, I also recognize that I don’t have it all, so I’ll be relying on other experts.”

Williams says that, on paper, the transition the county has adopted isn’t typical of correctional facilities. In her mind, its commitment to reforming the criminal justice system is “an intercept” that will lead to a healthier Delco. “Incarceration may be the current model with a focus on rehabilitation services the system may not be able to provide,” she says. “Some come into the system who’ve never received services. You can’t rehabilitate someone who’s never been habilitated.”

And should he return to county jail, perhaps Don Dunbar will get the services he needs for his mobility disabilities, heart condition and COPD. “All they did was continue to harass him because I was causing problems,” his sister says. “My brother was a nuisance. I became a mouthpiece, and they didn’t like it.”

Related: A Chester County Family Fights for the Rights of Those With Disabilities