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Lives at Stake as Pennsylvania County De-privatizes Prison
Since it was built in 1996 – by Wackenhut Corrections Corp., which became GEO Group in 2004 – GWH has been privately managed. Providing the first private prison in Pennsylvania, the firm bragged of saving taxpayers $30 million in construction costs while providing services on par with those in publicly operated prisons. Instead, problems and scandal have plagued GWH.
During a six-year stretch under GEO Group’s management from 2002 to 2008, 12 prisoners died, spawning a number of wrongful death lawsuits that claimed rampant understaffing had created a dangerous environment for prisoners and guards. In 2008, Community Education Centers (CEC) took over the GWH contract.
“CEC was OK,” said a guard who requested anonymity out of fear of losing his job if he spoke openly. “They didn’t want to pay overtime, so they flooded us with hires.”
But even as staffing levels improved at Hill Correctional under CEC’s stewardship, there were still problems. Nine prisoners committed suicide between 2009 and 2016, including the May 25, 2016 suicide of Janene Wallace, whose estate later reached a $7 million settlement with the county. (See PLN, November 2018, p.36.)
In April 2017, GEO Group resumed control of operations at GWH when it acquired CEC in a $360 million deal. Conditions at the prison again began to decline due to understaffing.
“With GEO, we’re constantly understaffed,” the guard said. “There are times where I can’t find a working radio or a pair of handcuffs.”
He also said only 245 of the 350 guard positions are staffed, forcing guards to work 16-hour shifts. At times, one guard is watching two cell blocks containing 100 prisoners.
That is similar to what happened when GEO Group bought Cornell Corrections in 2010 for $685 million and inherited the contract for Mississippi’s Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, which was finally closed in 2016 (See PLN, September 2017, p.58).
“The GEO Group is a bed of snakes,” said Berl Goff, a former supervisor at Walnut Grove, who said the firm “came in and promised the world: an unlimited budget, new uniforms, and a $1.50-an-hour raise for all the officers.”
“But as soon as they got there,” he added, “they started cutting corners. We got to the point where they were intentionally running us at 15 percent beneath the minimum staffing levels to maximize profit margins.”
Back in Pennsylvania, over a five-week stretch in the summer of 2019 – after GEO Group had resumed operational control – GWH suffered five major incidents: a prisoner’s suicide, a guard’s beating and hospitalization, the overdoses of two prisoners in the jail’s work release program and a “full blown riot” that was quelled only after a Community Emergency Response Team armed with pepper balls managed to subdue 26 prisoners. (See PLN, January 2020, p.14)
In September 2019, the County Council took a significant step in trying to right the ship by abolishing the two-member Board of Prisons Inspectors, which was created in the 19th century, and replacing it with a seven-member Jail Oversight Board. Then, in November 2019, GEO Group’s Hill Correctional superintendent, John A. Reilly, retired one day after a Philadelphia Inquirer report disclosed his use of racial slurs toward jail employees had been covered up and that he kept a $750,000 account secret from the County Council.
But still the prison’s problems continued to mount.
In mid-December 2019, a female prisoner was sexually assaulted after guards were instructed to put male and female prisoners together because of overcrowding.
On December 25, 2019 – just hours after Austin Mulhern, 45, hanged himself in a cell and died – five female prisoners overdosed on heroin that was allegedly smuggled in by one’s teenage son during a visit. Four of the prisoners recovered after treatment at a hospital, but prisoner Fatima Muse, 27, died.
“The GEO Group dropped the ball on what transpired that horrifying week,” agreed a GWH guard. “They follow some crazy corporate mathematical equation where a Sergeant is equivalent to six guards; Lieutenant to nine; and Captain to twelve. So, with each one and six officers, they believe they have the manpower of 33 — when actually they have nine — who they treat like garbage.”
In December 2019, the newly elected Delaware County Council’s Democratic majority signaled its desire to end privatization at GWH.
“I want to make it abundantly clear — we stand absolutely behind the idea that profiteering on the incarceration of individuals is not something that should be happening in Delaware County,” said Councilman Kevin Madden, who added that having “the only privately-run for-profit prison in the state of Pennsylvania” was an “ignominy” and that it “needs to end.”
But transitioning GWH to public operation carries a learning curve for a county government that has always relied upon private companies to run the prison.
“The first step is really to make sure that we understand the implications … and that we have thought through all the steps necessary to safely transition to a public-run model,” said Madden. “During that time of the transition, it doesn’t take us off the hook of overseeing GEO and that doesn’t mean we can’t reform the way in which the prison is run.”
Fortunately for the county, it owns GWH, so GEO Group can’t do what it did when Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) expressed an interest in late 2019 in closing the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center that GEO Group both owns and runs. The firm responded with a January 7, 2020, statement giving the state Department of Corrections (DOC) just 60 days to remove its 600 prisoners from the facility.
“I knew that this certainly was going to be a possibility,” admitted Colorado DOC Executive Director Dean Williams, who added that he thought his agency and GEO Group were “on track” and “would continue to work this situation out.”
As for what prompted the ultimatum from GEO Group, Williams said, “You’d have to ask them, but I’m sure it was a corporate decision. That’s the deal that you make with a private prison corporation. You know if it starts to go south, you really don’t have long-term leverage to keep a prison going that they operate.”
With the war on illegal immigration peaking under the Trump administration, GEO Group could offer its Colorado cells to its biggest customer: the U.S. government. That revenue stream had been shut off by an Obama administration order to phase out private prisons. But when President Trump took office in early 2017, one of then-Attorney General Jeff Session’s first moves was to rescind the Obama order. GEO Group, which donated $170,000 to a Trump political action committee in 2016 and $250,000 to his inaugural bash, quickly signed over $774 million in contracts in 2017 to provide detention cells for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
However, when GEO Group manages a prison it doesn’t own, like GWH, it has to take a different approach than it did with Colorado. Losing a contract worth $52.8 million annually, the firm has given itself a nine-month withdrawal window also to smooth operational transition of GWH to Delaware County.
“One of the things that’s going to have to happen to deprivatize the prison is to be able to move all of those employees back to the county payroll,” admitted County Councilwoman Christine Reuther, who added that this will also provide the employees with more generous benefits while at the same time improving conditions for prisoners.
“People are dying in that prison,” she said. “It’s not just an issue of deprivatizing the prison, there’s lives at stake right now.”
Sources: yc.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, delcotimes.com, bizjournals.com