Just weeks away: Hiring staff remains a critical need as Delco prepares to take over county prison

George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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For the first time in roughly two years, on-site visits at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton have returned, allowing Delaware County residents a chance to finally see friends and family face-to-face.

The prison had previously suspended in-person visits due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the plummeting case count has now led to a reversal in policy.

“I wanted to make sure that we highlighted that we are committed to restoring true services within the institution as the pandemic stabilizes,” Warden Laura Williams said at the March 16 Delaware County Council meeting.

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The county’s $259 million contract with private prison operator GEO Group will officially be terminated on April 6. With Delco just weeks away from taking back control of management and operations over the soon-to-be deprivatized facility, hiring staff remains the most critical task for the county.

Delco has had success throughout the transitioning period in other areas such as retaining new healthcare and food services. A commissary contract has also recently been finalized with the new vendor set to begin April 4. However, even with incentives like cash payments and medical benefits being offered, recruiting personnel at the prison has lagged, specifically for correctional officers.

As of March 16, just 52% of current correctional officers had offer letters in process and just 38% of that group have already signed their offer letters.

The county has had more success retaining and recruiting for sergeants, lieutenants, and other non-security positions. In total, the George W. Hill Correctional Facility intends to have roughly 325 current staff members transition. Externally, the county has also extended 60 offers to new correctional officers as of March 17.

Delco has since been on a hiring spree to fill the positions at the facility and doesn’t plan on stopping until every job is filled. In an interview with WHYY News, Williams said that the county is leaving no stone unturned.

“​​With 71% of the positions filled, it’s an enormous vacancy rate that existed already, so we are working diligently to ensure that we can close that gap. We’ve been doing job fairs within the community and working with recruitment agencies that have assisted us in some of the marketing to recruit employees who are looking towards the future with us,” Williams said.

She believes that there are still some current employees that are mulling retirement and looking for opportunities elsewhere, but she is hopeful that with more people on board, some of the burden facing remaining staff members will be lifted.

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Williams is also optimistic that increased training opportunities in areas like mental health first aid, trauma-informed care, and crisis intervention over the coming months will also be a welcomed change.

“We think that those kinds of cultural changes, when you change the foundation of the way that you perceive how we carry out our duties, will have a pretty profound impact in the next couple of months,” Williams said.

At the council meeting where Williams detailed the need for hiring new staff, Delco’s executive director Howard Lazarus said that the county has interviewed more than 200 candidates for various openings not only in the county prison — but elsewhere in the county as well.

“I think what it really speaks towards is the improved openness of the county and the credibility we now have as a place to work and as a workplace of choice for many people who live here in the county, and barriers that may have been put in place in the past are no longer there, as we are tapping the full talent of our of our county,” Lazarus said.

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