Delaware County residents want to end private control of Thornton prison

Group hopes to convince Delco officials to take over George W. Hill Correctional Facility.

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In this 2018 file photo, Kabeera Weissman, a co-founder of DelcoCPR, lays out the reasons the group and other residents want the privately managed George W. Hill Correctional Facility in the the public's control. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

In this 2018 file photo, Kabeera Weissman, a co-founder of DelcoCPR, lays out the reasons the group and other residents want the privately managed George W. Hill Correctional Facility in the the public's control. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

A group of Delaware County residents is urging local government to take control of the county’s jail and prison, which has been run by a Florida-based for-profit prison operator that’s managed the facility for most of its existence.

George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton has been privately managed since 1998, when it was built by the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, now known as the GEO Group, Inc.

At a public hearing Sunday, the advocacy group Delco Coalition for Prison Reform geared up for a campaign to convince county officials not to renew the contract with the GEO Group, which is set to expire Dec. 31, and instead take on management of the facility.

Gwendolyn McCullough is a member of DelcoCPR and a former inmate at George W. Hill Correctional Facility. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

“People are making profits off of people being in jail,” said Gwen McCullough, a member of DelcoCPR and a former Hill inmate. “And we really don’t want that in our county.”

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Aside from the moral implications of those profits, the group cited the facility’s troubled history of inmate deaths and alleged mistreatment of prisoners.

In 2009, the GEO Group faced a wrongful death suit over the 2007 suicide of Thomas Bryant. His was one of 12 deaths that occurred at the facility between 2002 and 2008, according to the suit.

Between 2009 and 2017, Community Education Centers operated the facility; six inmates took their own lives, according to a Delaware County Daily Times report, between 2008 and 2015.

Community Education Centers’ management ended in 2017 when the company was purchased by GEO Group, thus returning control of Hill to its original operator.

The 2015 suicide of Janene Wallace, 35, resulted in a $7 million lawsuit settlement.

She had a history of mental illness, including anxiety and paranoia, according to her family who said Wallace didn’t get proper medical attention and care.

Also included in the settlement were revisions to the facility’s policies around suicide prevention and restricted housing. But Susanne Wallace, Janene’s mother, said the county council and Hill’s operators haven’t been transparent about the implementation.

“Obviously our daughter is not going to be brought back,” said Wallace. “But for her legacy we want to be an agent for change, and to make sure other families don’t have to go through what we did.”

Right now the county budgets around $50 million a year for prison operations. But DelcoCPR and others contend expenses are underreported, and they say it’s difficult for the public to attend prison board meetings that take place inside the facility.

“We need better oversight in order to have more humane treatment,” said Kabeera Weissman, co-founder of DelcoCPR.

In addition to ending the GEO contract, DelcoCPR is also urging the county council to require the prison board to report on expenditures of county funds at council meetings.

First-term Delaware County Councilman Brian Zidek said he supports DelcoCPR’s efforts.

“At the bare minimum, I hope that we can have some more transparency and discourse about the way things are done here,” said Zidek, one of the first Democrats to serve on the council in 40 years.

Councilman Brian Zidek was the only Delaware County council member present at a public hearing looking to bring the privately managed George W. Hill Correctional Facility into public control. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

The decision to continue or end private management lies with Delaware County’s five-member prison board of inspectors.

As the contract’s December expiration date approaches, the board is awaiting the results of an independent study on the operational and financial benefits of private versus public management.

However, the board has also issued a request for proposals from service providers. That did not go unnoticed by those calling for changes in prison operations.

“That’s the wrong way to do government work,” said Jack Stollsteimer, deputy state treasurer for consumer programs, from the podium at the DelcoCPR hearing.

“You don’t already decide you’re going to do [a request for proposals] at the same time you’re kind of deciding” if it’s necessary, he said.

A draft of the report is expected by the end of the month, said Robert DiOrio, the prison board solicitor.

DiOrio said the board is waiting for the results of the study and the request for proposals to make “an informed and intelligent decision” on how the facility will be operated.

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