Pa. legislators make plans to improve prison security, staffing
Recent escapes in county jails have representatives increasingly concerned about security and punishing escapees
By Linda Stein
Delaware Valley Journal
WEST CHESTER, Pa. — Convicted murderer Danelo Cavalcante's escape from the Chester County Prison has people increasingly concerned about security at county jails.
In recent months, inmates also escaped Philadelphia and Warren County jails.
Several state House Republicans have teamed up to introduce a package of bills designed to make county prisons more secure. The five bills would provide funding to upgrade security and health infrastructure (including heating and air conditioning); increase staff by allowing jails to hire other county corrections officers or state corrections officers to fill vacant shifts; eliminate parole for inmates who escape or attempt escape; require Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections (DOC) to conduct a security audit of county jails that have experienced a jail escape; and create an alert system to be activated in the event of a prison escape.
Rep. Craig Williams (R-Chester/Delaware) said the state needs to send the counties more resources to improve their jails and help with staffing shortages.
"Pennsylvanians deserve to know that our county jails are safe and secure, and we must do more to improve working conditions for our county corrections officers to enhance recruitment and fill staffing shortages," said Williams, who is sponsoring legislation to require that a more significant portion of the savings from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) be directed to fund Pennsylvania's county jails to improve security and promote the safety of inmates and staff.
"The bill I will be introducing will provide needed state resources to assist counties in keeping communities safe, securing county jails, and providing for our county corrections officers who put their lives on the line to keep some of the most dangerous criminals among us in custody," Williams said.
Stressing the importance of preventing repeated escapes from county jails, Rep. John Lawrence (R-Chester) said his legislation would require the DOC to investigate any prison escape at a county prison and make recommendations to prevent future incidents.
Before Cavalcante's escape on Aug. 31, another inmate used the same method to break out in May. He was caught within minutes because a tower guard spotted him.
"Any jailbreak from a county prison demands a thorough review from experts at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and the State Police," said Lawrence. "Repeated escapes from the same county-run facility cannot be tolerated, and failures in county prison administration must be addressed to prevent future catastrophes."
"My proposal will require the Department of Corrections to conduct a full security and staffing review at any county jail that experiences an escape or attempted escape, working in cooperation with local officials, the State Police, and other law enforcement officials that the department believes should participate," Lawrence said. "Following this review, the Department of Corrections will be required to issue a report that includes specific recommendations to address the flaws in security or staffing that helped facilitate the escape or attempted escape and follow up to ensure compliance."
Rep. Mike Stender (R-Northumberland/Montour) will be introducing legislation to create the Pennsylvania Dangerous Inmate or Escapee Alert System (DIEAS), which will assist in protecting impacted communities and capturing dangerous inmates when they escape from incarceration through prompt notification to the general public, appropriate law enforcement and other public agencies. The Pennsylvania State Police will run the DIEAS system.
"This simple alert system, like an Amber Alert, will notify local communities when an inmate escapes, their description, and any other useful information that can enhance community safety and the swift recapture of an escaped inmate," said Stender.
To deal with staffing shortages at county jails, Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) will introduce legislation to allow county jails to hire off-duty staff from other county jails or the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to bolster county jail staffing where shift vacancies arise.
"A persistent problem facing county jail facilities is the lack of trained staff to undertake the important public safety function of keeping inmates at county jail facilities in custody," Delozier said. "With having SCI Camp Hill in my district, I know our state corrections officers are hardworking, highly trained, and skilled in securing inmates. We need to break down existing barriers and get government out of the way so those already trained in prison security can assist in bolstering staff complements, keeping inmates in jail, and ensuring our communities are safe from prison escapes."
Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren/Forrest) will offer legislation as part of this package to prohibit inmates who have escaped or attempted to escape county jail custody from being eligible for parole to make escape attempts less enticing.
"When inmates face less than significant consequences for escaping or trying to escape custody, sometimes the risk is worth the reward," Rapp said. "The Legislature can and should use every legislative tool to ensure inmates are completely disincentivized from attempting escape. The recent and unacceptable pattern of county jail escapes in the last several months shows now is the perfect time to reevaluate how we are punishing county jail escapes and attempted escapes."
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