‘Nobody is safe': COs speak at city council meeting of unsafe conditions at Pa. prison
“It’s the only way to get anyone’s attention before one of you are calling one of our families to tell a father, a mother, daughter, son was killed in the line of duty,” a 14-year CO said
By Kathleen E. Carey
Daily Times, Primos, Pa.
PRIMOS, Pa. — Prison employees painted the George W. Correctional Facility as a toxic, unsafe environment where reports of assault are ignored and inmates work on the cell locks as shanks are distributed and violence rises, causing one Delaware County Councilman to say he’s going to visit the facility himself.
“Nobody is safe: not staff or inmate population,” 14-year Corrections Officer Al Johnson told County Council on Wednesday night. “This is why we’re here. It’s the only way to get anyone’s attention before one of you are calling one of our families to tell a father, a mother, daughter, son was killed in the line of duty. Well, by then, it’s too late.”
County Council Vice Chair Richard Womack said he’s going into the prison.
“I want to see for myself,” he said. “I have made up my mind. I am going to the prison for a visit and it’s not unannounced, it’s announced.”
This comes after a 30-year-old male inmate was transferred to a hospital over the weekend after being stabbed in the neck with a “manufactured weapon.” He returned to custody Sunday.
County Councilman and Jail Oversight Board Chair Kevin Madden noted these comments arise while a new contract is being negotiated.
“I respect your right to come in and to speak in public forum,” he said. “I disagree with this being a means of bargaining a contract.”
The first contract between the county and the Delaware County Prison Employees Independent Union since the county retook operations in 2022 expired Dec. 31 . It offered $3-an-hour wage increases for starting correctional officers from $21 an hour to $24 an hour.
On Wednesday, staff painted a serious picture of the environment at the 1,500-inmate prison.
“We have had more suicides, more assaults on staff and more inmate-on-inmate assaults than we have ever had since the new administration has taken over the facility,” Johnson said. “Officers are locking down units and before they’re done, half of the incarcerated persons have popped their cell doors and their locks and they’re back out like they were never locked in.”
He offered a reason for that.
“The fact that the inmate workers are the ones helping repair locks would not only make sense to the fact that not only are the locks easily broken but the increase in the number of shanks being made and distributed throughout the jail has gone through the roof,” Johnson said.
The correctional officer continued.
“The work environment itself is not only toxic but hostile for everyone that works in the jail,” Johnson said. “We have officers right now that have reported even so much as sexual assault, sexual harassment to the jail and nothing has been done.”
He said, in his opinion, the conditions are the worst he’s ever seen.
“In my 14 years at the jail, I have never seen it this bad,” Johnson said.
He also spoke of retaliation for speaking out.
“As I learned in the past, when you voice your First Amendment right to speak, you become targeted by jail administration and supervision,” Johnson said.
Frank Kwaning, president of the Delaware County Prison Employees Independent Union, asked county council to get involved in the situation.
“I implore the council to please step in,” he said. “The last thing some of us thought we would ever say is that we wish GEO Group was still here. This is unacceptable. The facility is not safe for the officers.”
Madden said he visits the facility regularly.
“I speak to a number of inmates and officers during the course of those visits out of earshot to ensure that people ... can speak candidly about how things have been,” he said.
He noted that the facility has gotten positive remarks since the county takeover by both the Pennsylvania Prison Society and the Delaware County Coalition for Prison Reform.
“The idea that it’s worse off than it was under GEO ... needs to be refuted,” Madden said, noting that some salaries have been increased by 40%, the benefits are better and staffing levels are higher, resulting in less mandatory overtime.
He said Kwaning was presenting the facility in its most negative light “as an effort to bargain a contract or for your own personal gain.”
“We do not bargain in public forums,” he reiterated. “We bargain at the bargaining table. It’s an unfortunate tactic that you take.”
Womack said he needs to see for himself.
“I don’t mind fighting, but I want you to know one thing: If you’re wrong, I’m going to tell you that you’re wrong,” he said. “That goes for workers, for management, whoever ... Our community depends on a good workforce and I will defend that right for good jobs, for good pay, for safe working conditions and a nontoxic environment.”
He spoke about the visit he intends to take.
“I welcome any staff member or any management or any council person to join in with me on the visit,” Womack said. “I want one union person to go along with me on this visit and I’m going to ask questions. I want to talk to staff, correctional officers, whoever’s available and I want you to tell me what you truly feel and don’t worry about anybody retaliating against you. I want to know what is going on. Hopefully, we can get to the bottom of it.”