Pa. warden apologizes for Cavalcante escape, proposes new security measures
Howard Holland, acting warden of Chester County Prison, proposed new fencing, ankle monitors for high-risk inmates, more cameras in the facility and establishing a K-9 unit to enhance security
By Michael P. Rellahan
Daily Local News
POCOPSON, Pa. — Chester County officials faced an edgy and discontented crowd of residents Monday in the first of two scheduled town hall meetings to discuss the situation at the Chester County Prison in the wake of the escape of convicted murderer Danelo Cavalcante.
In the gymnasium of the Pocopson Elementary School, almost every one of the 200 seats set up for the meeting was occupied, and others stood around the side and rear of the large room as the three county commissioners, their emergency services director and the acting prison warden apologized for the two weeks of uncertainty and dread the escape had caused in the community.
Cavalcante was at large in the Pocopson area for almost two weeks before stealing a dairy delivery truck and driving to northern Chester County, where he was eventually captured on Sept. 13 in South Coventry by a tactical team of law enforcement agents who had been tracking him since his flight from incarceration.
And even though the man who brutally murdered his former girlfriend in front of her two children in 2021 is now securely behind bars at the state correctional institution at Phoenix in Montgomery County, the fear and frustration that residents felt during his freedom was clearly on display at the meeting.
“Why is this person so close to our community?” asked one woman, echoing a common complaint expressed by those attending. “Why are we housing dangerous, high-risk people to begin with?”
“He was running through my mother’s backyard,” one woman exclaimed to murmurs throughout the audience.
“Should this prison accept high-risk inmates?” asked Pocopson resident Kirk Harman, an engineering firm owner. “Good point!” shouted someone in the audience.
“This county needs to think seriously, from this day forward, if it’s going to accept high-risk inmates,” Harman said."Is it even safe to operate a prison at the current staffing levels?”
Another woman who identified herself as a resident of Brandywine Valley, a development just east of the prison, said she did not hear the warning siren that is supposed to alert people of an escape. “I almost (got sick to my stomach). I’m just yards away.”
A woman who did not identify herself said she did not receive the text message from ReadyChesco, the county’s emergency warning system that there had been an escape until well after the event, and had not received any notification at all when another prison escape occurred in May.
“I think we need to have open communications after these events so that we know what is happening in the community of Pocopson. If there is an (escapee) in the area, I want to know. It’s kind of a big deal.”
The meeting opened with statements from each of the three commissioners — Chairwoman Marian Moskowitz, Vice Chairman Josh Maxwell, and Commissioner Michelle Kichline — about their regret for the escape and the tension that it brought to the county. It also featured presentations by acting Warden Howard Holland, who took over operations at the prison the day of the escape, and Department of Emergency Services Director Bill Messerschmidt, who walked the crowd through the emergency alert response.
“This has been an extraordinary moment for all of us,” said Maxwell, who chairs the county’s Prison Board and aided in the response to some of the questions. “Chester County has been in the news a lot recently, for all the wrong reasons. We need to earn back your trust.”
“We know what a trying time this has been for everyone in the county, especially the people in this township,” Moskowitz said. “And we are committed to providing resources to help you recover.”
“I am so sorry for what this community went through for 13 days,” said Kichline, the sole Republican on the three-person board. “It’s just unthinkable.”
Kichline told the crowd that she and her husband had discussed moving from their home in Tredyffrin to the more rural areas she found so attractive in the southern and western parts of the county.
“It certainly wasn’t that way for 13 days,” she said. “But if we don’t correct what’s wrong in our community then we are not serving you the way you trusted us to do.”
Maxwell did attempt to explain to those in the room why the county prison was housing a person like Cavalcante, who was accused of and eventually convicted of stabbing the 33-year-old mother of two Deborah Brandao outside her Schuylkill home two years ago.
Those “high-risk” inmates, he said, are awaiting their criminal trials in the county and thus are assigned to the county prison. After they plead guilty or are convicted, they remain in the local prison for 30 days to be accessible to their attorneys. After that, they, like Cavalcante now, are housed in state prisons.
“We don’t have a right to turn down or to send someone to state prison who is going through the court process,” he said.Indeed, the county prison routinely houses criminal defendants who have been accused of murder, child abuse, drug trafficking, sexual offenses and violent assaults — in addition to those awaiting trial on lesser offenses or serving their sentences for non-violent crimes.
Holland, who noted that he “walked into a mess” when he took over the prison on Aug. 31, outlined what had occurred to allow Cavalcante to escape, again stressing that there was a failure by a corrections officer in an observation tower who should have spotted the prisoner running across the rooftops after scaling a wall in one of the exercise yards.
He outlined a set of security measures that he will ask the county Prison Board to adopt to shore up the oversight of inmates and guard against future escapes. Those include a different kind of fencing outside the walls that would deter people from climbing them; requiring high-risk inmates to wear ankle monitors to keep track of their location; increasing the number of cameras inside the facility; establishing a K-9 unit in the prison to track any future escapees; and possibly having drones fly about the yard to observe prisoners who are outside.
But Holland did note that in the past 20 years, with the thousands and thousands of inmates who have come through the prison, there have been only three escapes — Cavalcante’s and two by Igor Bolte, the man whose wall-scaling trick Cavalcante copied. (Bolte escaped in May but was apprehended five minutes later, and once earlier in 2019, when he left the prison’s minimum security Work Release Center.)
Messerschmidt discussed what the county DES had done to alert residents to the escape, and urged those who had not signed up for the ReadyChesco messaging system to do so. He was asked whether news of future escapes should be limited to only those in the surrounding area, or whether the entire county should be included, and agreed to look into the matter.
The gathering, while intended for area residents, also had some political overtones, as the two Republican candidates for commissioner, Eric Roe and David Sommers, attended but did not speak. Maxwell and Moskowitz are seeking reelection, and the escape and its aftermath may have some impact on the race.
A second town hall is set to be held at the Pocopson Elementary School at 7 p.m. on Wednesday. The county Prison Board’s regular monthly meeting will be held at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at the county’s administrative offices on West Market Street in West Chester, and Holland’s recommendations for security upgrades are set to be discussed.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.
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