COs 'in fear of safety' at Pa. county prison
12-year CO described violence, low morale and mandates at the facility that recently transitioned to county control
Kathleen E. Carey
Daily Times, Primos, Pa.
THORNTON, Pa. — Delaware County Council heard allegations of fear and violence at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility and said such claims are evaluated vigorously, with the warden adding that significant investments have been made to ensure safety.
"We are ... in fear of our safety on this job," Albert Johnson, a 12-year correctional officer at the county prison, said Wednesday night. "As of yesterday, two inmates stabbed. There have been more deaths in this prison since the county has come on. We are fearful for our lives with cells that do not lock, from inmates that come out when they want. We get feces, we get urine thrown on us on a daily basis."
County Councilman Kevin Madden, who also serves as chair of the county Jail Oversight Board, responded.
"In addition to (Children and Youth Service) workers, we certainly value our correctional officers and those who work at the jail," he said. "Any credible allegations of mistreatment, we take seriously."
Warden Laura Williams addressed the matter in a statement: "De-privatization of (George W. Hill) has been a significant undertaking after over 20 years of private operations/management, and the county has made a significant commitment to invest the resources required to increase standards for employees and the incarcerated persons to ensure a safe working and living environment for all."
She spoke of efforts that have been made.
"These include ongoing recruitment and incentive bonuses which have contributed to a material increase in staffing levels since the time the county took over operations; and a historic commitment of nearly $30 million in capital spending to upgrade the facilities in the 2023 budget," Williams said in the statement late Wednesday. "This evening alone, county council approved the procurement of a body scanner and Incarcerated Person Monitoring Software to increase officer and incarcerated person safety."
Deaths this year
All of this has come after Delaware County regained control of the prison in April after 24 years of being privately run by GEO Group Inc. At the time, there were 1,400 inmates at the facility.
On April 22, 54-year-old Elliott Funkhouser was found strangled in his cell. Funkhouser's 25-year-old cellmate Shad M. Boccella of Bridgeport, Pa., was charged with criminal homicide and murder in the first and third degree.
Other deaths have occurred at the correctional facility, including two that occurred under GEO Group's supervision, before the county takeover.
On March 29, an unidentified 36-year-old male inmate was pronounced dead after onsite medical staff initiated life-saving measures while notifying 911, and on Feb. 25, Francis Dellorefice, 41, was found hanging in his cell. He was transported to a local hospital but died a few days later after being taken off a ventilator by family members.
'Look into them'
At Wednesday's council meeting, Johnson asked for the county council to hear from the correctional officers directly, not only administrative staff. Johnson also serves on the board of the Delaware County Prison Employees Independent Union.
"I hope the council is aware of the conditions and the things that are going on in that prison, especially to officers," he said. "We are called essential workers but we are not treated as such ... We're asking that the county investigate these allegations. Look into them."
Johnson said officers were tired and burned out from "excessive, excessive, excessive mandation."
"At the end of the day, the officers, the morale is at an all-time low and they feel like bottom feeders," the correctional officer said. "As essential officers, we can't be told that, 'Well, there's no (collective bargaining unit), this is why we're doing what we're doing to you.' We need to be treated as human beings in this prison."
County Councilman Richard Womack said the situation would be evaluated.
"I heard what you said here tonight," he said. "I will be one of the council people, if not others, who will look into that matter which you brought forth and take a look at it personally to see what's there, and what's not there as well."
"We do value your work," Womack told Johnson. "You are considered essential workers and we want to make sure that you're working under proper conditions, as well. It is something we will look into."
In her statement, the warden spoke to the hiring process and she thanked the staff who work at the facility.
"The county had no obligation to hire all employees from GEO and went through a rigorous process of interviewing candidates in making hiring determinations," Williams said. "The county participated in the joint certification process, recognizes Delaware County Prison Employees Independent Union as the bargaining representative for the correctional officers and is actively engaged in labor negotiations. The county has made the commitment to increase wages significantly from the wage structure under The GEO Group."
"The transition and fight to restore George W. Hill is not over," Williams continued. "The administration could not continue to progress if it weren't for the dedicated employees working diligently each day. We are grateful for our employees and will continue to work to fill every vacancy to provide the relief that the staff deserves."
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