Better prison oversight overdue, Delco Dems say, as superintendent faces accusations of misconduct

An Inquirer/The Caucus investigation detailed abuses of power by Superintendent John Reilly. A new oversight board hopes to prevent future impropriety.

George W. Hill Correctional Facility (Google Maps)

George W. Hill Correctional Facility (Google Maps)

The superintendent of Delaware County’s prison used racist language, hired unqualified deputies and controlled private bank accounts he didn’t disclose to the county. That’s according to a new investigation by The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Caucus that outlined a history of abuse by John Reilly, head of the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton.

The county’s Republican-appointed Board of Prison Inspectors was supposed to oversee Reilly, but the investigation found that, in many cases, the board kept Reilly’s conduct a secret.

“It’s sort of symbolic of what’s gone on in Delaware County government for years,” said Brian Zidek. In 2017, he and Kevin Madden became the first Democrats ever elected to the County Council.

In November 2018, and again last spring, Zidek and Madden called for dissolving the Board of Prison Inspectors and replacing it with an elected or partially-elected board. But the Republican-controlled council rebuffed those efforts.

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Then, in September, the council approved the idea and voted to dissolve the board and replace it with a Jail Oversight Committee that will consist of nine members: the county sheriff, county controller, county executive director, two judges, the County Council’s chair, and three members of the public.

“I guess they sort of had the notion that they weren’t going to win this fall and thought, well, let’s put the [Jail] Oversight Board in as the last gasp and get to appoint the three citizen members before we leave office,” Zidek said, speculating on the timing.

Whatever the motivation, officials on both sides of the aisle say the new oversight board will provide more accountability and transparency and, given its composition, likely would have prevented some of the abuses of power and impropriety alleged in the investigation.

“I think having elected people on the board, like myself and the sheriff, at a minimum will add to more transparency,” said Delaware County Controller Joanne Phillips.

Upon taking office in 2018, Phillips ran a countywide survey of banking institutions and asked if they had any accounts with the county’s banking ID number or name. That’s how she uncovered that Reilly was using four private bank accounts for prison business, the contents of which amounted to more than $750,000.

She also noticed that the contract for the prison, which is the only privately-run prison in the state, had not been signed off on by the County Council. The council is supposed to sign off on every contract over $25,000, but Phillips found the prison board was basically running independently, not reporting back to the council on how money was being spent.

“I do think the new oversight will solve a lot of the mystery of the business practices that go on up at the prison, or at least that people have concerns about,” Phillips said.

John Hosier, current chairman of the Board of Prison Inspectors, did not respond to a request for comment.

Delaware County Executive Director Marianne Grace, who has served in that role since 2001, will be in charge of nominating the three members of the public who will serve on the new board. She said she received 33 resumes and will nominate three candidates by Nov. 27, when the council is scheduled to vote on them.

“I think that the new model is going to provide much more robust opportunity for the exchange of information and communication across the board,” Grace said.

Councilmember-elect Christine Reuther, who won her seat in a historic election Tuesday that led to the first Democrat-controlled government in Delaware County in 150 years, said that when the Democrats take over the council in January, the prison will be a focal point.

“I do think elected officials are going to take a much harder look at what goes on with the management of the prison,” Reuther said. 

Zidek echoed that, saying that under Democratic control, the council plans to do things differently.

“All of this stuff was going on, from our perspective, behind closed doors,” he said. “Any time where you have a situation where things happen in back rooms and behind closed doors, bad things are more likely to happen.”

He also reiterated a point the Democratic candidates made over the course of the campaign —  that the prison needed not only better oversight but also public ownership.

“We’ll be taking a really hard and long look at how to deprivatize the prison and put it back in the control of the county,” Zidek said.

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