As Pa. jail returns to county control, its new warden is focused on mental health, staff training
Under private management, the facility has been plagued by inmate deaths, attacks on officers, and mistreatment by supervisors
By Vinny Vella
The Philadelphia Inquirer
THORNTON, Pa. — After decades of management by one of the world's largest private prison firms, the Delaware County jail returns to local control in April.
And when that happens, the George W. Hill Correctional Facility will be led by a new warden whose background in behavioral health made her the ideal choice for the new era at the beleaguered facility in Thornton, county officials say.
Laura Williams, 36, spent six years in various roles at the Allegheny County Jail outside Pittsburgh, including three as its chief deputy warden. During her time there, she oversaw the facility's drug treatment program, drawing on experience she gained in her previous career as a substance-abuse counselor.
In early February, Williams was selected to lead George W. Hill. She was drawn to Delaware County, she said, by the willingness of county leaders to bring about change at the county jail, which has been beset in recent years by controversy surrounding inmate deaths, attacks on guards, and alleged mistreatment by supervisors.
"There's a misconception that people who work in these institutions don't know what the right next steps are; we do, but we just don't always have the means or resources to carry them out," Williams said. "To have a whole county behind this effort, this facility could be an example of putting our money where our mouth is, and lift reforms out of the criminal justice system."
George W. Hill was the last privately run county jail in Pennsylvania. In 1998, county leaders handed control of the 1,800-bed facility to the Wackenhut Corp., which later, through acquisitions and mergers, became the Florida-based GEO Group. For most of that time, George W. Hill was overseen by John Reilly, who resigned in 2019 just days after an Inquirer investigation revealed previously unreported allegations of racist and sexist behavior against his staff.
GEO officials declined to comment at length for this story, saying that the company has been working with county officials and their consultants to "realize a smooth, seamless, and safe transition."
The push to de-privatize the facility started in earnest when Democrats took control of the county council in 2019. They formed a new Jail Oversight Board, chaired by Councilmember Kevin Madden, one of the most vocal proponents of returning the jail to local control, and in September exercised a termination option in the county's contract with GEO.
Madden said Williams "breaks the mold" and was the clear choice as a warden who can usher in the culture change that he and his colleagues are eager to see at the jail.
"She is someone who prior to being in corrections, her life was about helping folks in need of treatment and therapy, and that's the mindset she brings to this job," Madden said. "That's even more important in the context of a county jail: these are people who are here on average 60 days and will be back in the community soon."
During her first weeks in office, Williams has had frank conversations with staff at George W. Hill. She's heard the oft-repeated complaints of understaffing and a lack of training for the jail's guards. The suicides of inmates — including Janene Wallace, whose death in 2015 ended in a $7 million settlement with GEO — trouble her, and underscore her commitment to better prepare corrections officers to deal with mental health issues.
They won't be qualified therapists, she said, but they'll learn how to handle a crisis so that it doesn't end in a needless death.
"The employees here have truly been doing the best they can with resources provided to them," she said. "That's what I see here: a county of people interested in doing the right thing and absolute best thing. It's a matter of putting resources in the right areas to make sure those things are executed."
But, in her view, there are also plenty of things working at the jail. Williams praised the results of the facility's GED program and pledged to enhance it by forming connections with employers in the county.
All of that is in service of the county council's goal of reducing recidivism, a goal Williams says she shares.
"This is not a place I desire people have to come to, but I understand the need for them to be," Williams said. "But while they're here, they will be presented with opportunities to help them build a better life.
"I think most of us in life are one desperate act, one drunken mistake from being engaged in the criminal justice system," she added. "That doesn't make us innately bad. It just shows the role that corrections and rehabilitation can play in our society."
Williams' hiring is just the beginning of reforms at George W. Hill, according to Madden. He promised sweeping changes at the facility under county control, everything from new uniforms for the guards to a 35% increase in salary, the latter to address concerns from the union that represents corrections officers.
"People who show up to work at our jail, they have to come in with a mindset that not only is there a priority to keep everyone who lives and works there safe, but that these are our neighbors, many of which are dealing with addiction issues and mental health issues," Madden said. "Their safety and their ultimate outcome in the outside is entrusted with us and with this workforce."
Community activists who have served as watchdogs for the goings-on at the jail are also optimistic about Williams' arrival. Tonita Austin, the executive director of the Delaware County Coalition for Prison Reform, said she was particularly encouraged by Williams' background.
Austin said she doesn't want another "former security guard" making important policy decisions about mental health and rehabilitation.
"I think people assume, like I assumed before I became more aware, 'It's a prison, it's not supposed to be a health spa,'" Austin said. "But then you actually go into the facility, and you hear the stories from people who have lost loved ones because they didn't get their meds or because of a lack of mental health care led to suicide.
"You have to remember these are human beings. They are awaiting trials, and not even convicted," she added. "They should be getting the care they deserve, and we should be helping, not harming, the people that come through those doors."
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