A changing of the guard at county prison

The New Year’s tradition of out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new was evident at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Concord Jan. 1, when the private company that managed Delaware County’s prison left after more than a decade of performing day-to-day operations.

Citing financial underperformance, frequent litigation and higher-than-average workers’ compensation claims, GEO Group Inc., formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corp., let its intentions be known in a letter from Chairman and Chief Executive Officer George C. Zoley to the county’s Board of Prison Inspectors in August, just eight months after penning a two-year, $80 million contract.

Prison Superintendent John Reilly estimated at that time the county-owned, 1,883-bed jail constituted about 70 percent of GEO’s total corporate litigation. He added GEO’s departure was unexpected, but not a total shock.

After reviewing its options, the prison board decided to look for a new company to manage the prison, finally going with West Caldwell, N.J.-based Community Education Centers Inc.

CEC touts “a full range of therapeutic residential and non-residential re-entry services” with a focus on reducing recidivism, according to a company profile on its Web site.

“The foundation of CEC was built on treatment services and reducing recidivism, so regardless of the facility we’re running or the program we’re delivering, we have an eye on reducing recidivism at all times,” said William Palatucci, senior vice president and general counsel for CEC.

The new company has had a team on-site learning the ins and outs of George W. Hill for more than a month, but Palatucci couldn’t comment last week on exactly how it will run things at the Concord facility.

“We’re really just in the beginning stages of figuring out how we’re going to be delivering treatment,” he said. “It’s not just a textbook you bring and say, ‘Let’s do this.’”

He said the first public meeting of the board following the transition should produce a better of picture of where the new company wants to take the prison. He did report Friday, however, that the hand-off from GEO Jan. 1 went “very smoothly.”

“It was a non-event, which was very much what we were trying to achieve,” said Palatucci. “It was a very routine 24 hours.” Continued...

An optimistic beginning

By 1995, it was obvious that Broadmeadows, the county’s crowded, dilapidated prison facility on Cheyney Road, had outlived its usefulness.

Built in the 1930s for 586 inmates, the stone structure was bursting at the seams by the mid-90s with a population of nearly 1,200. It was also dangerously out of code and, because of a lack of space, afforded no room for rehabilitative programs.

The county at that time was looking to build a new, $89 million prison, but the price tag was a bit too daunting. Then the idea of privatization began to take root.

County officials took two trips to Nashville, to see a facility run by Corrections Corporation of America, another private provider of prison management.

Apparently impressed, the county solicited bids from CCA and others, including Wackenhut Corrections of Coral Gables, Fla., which eventually won the contract to build and operate the new $58 million Delaware County prison, later renamed the George W. Hill Correctional Facility.

Wackenhut also took over operations at the existing Broadmeadows jail during construction, with projected costs of $70.6 million for five years of running the new facility, about $16.5 million less than what the county could expect to pay during the same period.

While saving money by contracting out operations, the county would still retain oversight with county employees on-site, such as the superintendent’s office, and retain ultimate control with the county board of prison inspectors.

It seemed an ideal setup, but it wasn’t long before problems began.

A history of trouble Continued...

In the same month the county picked Wackenhut to oversee the prison, the Delaware County Prison Employees Independent Union, representing some 250 individuals, filed suit to stop the move, complaining it was unconstitutional and illegal.

Union members were to be laid off under the Wackenhut deal, but the suit claimed that would be a “complete unilateral abrogation” of the county’s obligations under its collective bargaining agreement.

The fight went to the highest levels of the Pennsylvania court system, with the county finally winning a decisive victory over the union more than two years after Wackenhut was installed in April 1996.

Prison guards would remain without a union until May 1999, when they rejoined the DCPEIU following an overwhelming vote to unionize.

Meanwhile, an elderly Ridley Township couple had settled a suit out-of-court with Wackenhut over a convict who had terrorized them during a brief escape in 1997.

Several other court actions have been settled in years past to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, many of them for wrongful deaths.

GEO was also forced to fire several employees who committed serious crimes, such as institutional sexual assault, prisoner attacks and, in one case, a guard who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank robbery in 2004.

Time and again, inmates have also complained of poor conditions associated with the medical facilities at the prison. Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project Executive Director Angus Love said he had personally handled two of those cases — one involving an inmate with HIV who received “virtually no treatment” during six months of incarceration and another for an inmate who came in with a cast from a freshly broken bone, which was removed by prison staff.

Prison populations are what experts call a “sick population,” said Love. Inmates typically did not get adequate preventive health care growing up and many now have chronic diseases such as HIV, AIDS or hepatitis, he said.

“So the prison has their hands full, so if they get short-staffed or people don’t come in, people don’t get their attention (and) emergencies happen,” said Love. Continued...

But, he said, “If people are trained and they’re professional, then medical care is a different thing. They need adequate staffing and the staffing needs to be adequately trained and they need to be readily available when the needs arise.”

Love said he is currently litigating a class-action suit against CEC due to poor medical care at its Coleman Hall facility, a 300-bed residential re-entry center in Philadelphia.

(Love noted reports from Hoffman Hall, CEC’s 400-bed facility that opened in October and handles overflow from the Philadelphia Prison System next door, have been “pretty good.” Prisoners actually seem to prefer it to Philadelphia jails, he said.)

Of course, handling a prison is a different animal, he said, and Love had no frame of reference for CEC’s performance on that front.

“Our senior medical team has been on-site there for probably a month and our medical staff has a lot of experience with county populations, so we’re bringing that experience and oversight to this project,” said Palatucci. “I think it’s too soon to tell what changes we may or may not make there, but we will certainly make an intense effort to make sure we’re contract compliant when it comes to medical services.”

GEO finally acknowledged the problem following the death of Alvin Chance, 60, of Chester, who was found unresponsive in his bunk by his cellmate early Aug. 2. It was the seventh inmate death either at the prison or an outside medical facility since November 2007.

Comic Kenneth Keith Kallenbach, 39, had died April 24 at Riddle Memorial Hospital while an inmate at the prison, due to “complications of cystic fibrosis, with bronchiectasis, acute and organizing pneumonitis and sepsis,” according to a report from Medical Examiner Frederic Hellman.

Kallenbach’s mother, Fay, is expected to sue over her son’s death, which she lays squarely at the feet of the prison. Officials there say Kenneth Keith Kallenbach refused medications, while Fay Kallenbach asserts her son was not given access to the breathing machine he used at home and that his medications had been switched.

GEO spokesman Pablo Paez did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment for this story.

“Everybody is very much aware of the challenges that are in front of us in terms of taking over the medical program there,” said Palatucci. “We’re going into this with our eyes open, understanding what the challenges are, but I believe our team — we’re up to the challenge.”

Not impressed

In the prison realm, said Love, privatizing seems like a way to fatten campaign coffers for politicians and the savings tend to be illusory.

Privatization, which has existed in America since at least the 1850s, was heralded as more cost-effective and efficient than government-run operations.

County Executive Director Marianne Grace said having a private interest run the prison saves the county about $3 million annually, according to an update of a study performed by the county office of the budget in September.

But a recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance found private prisons’ assurances of cost effectiveness never really materialized.

“I think the privatization movement didn’t live up to its billing,” said Love. “Their stocks were pretty much tanking out by the mid-90s.”

But then came the Clinton-Gore era, said Love, and a desire to cut government — or at least give that illusion through privatizing areas classically handled by the government, such as incarceration.

It was also about that time that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) began pressing for more “tough-on-crime” legislation.

But private operations often make money at the expense of quality and professionalism, said Love, and morale and loyalty suffer when the bottom line drives the operation in the form of decreased benefits for workers and mandatory overtime.

“The little things, they add up,” he said. “You’re basically beholden to some company in Germany who’s trying to make a buck, as opposed to people in Media who you know who they are.”

Staying the course

After GEO announced it would be pulling out in August, the prison board had three options: Have the county totally take over the prison again; draft an agreement with a company to deliver fewer services; or find a new company to function in the same capacity GEO had.

It decided on bringing in CEC to finish out the second half of GEO’s two-year contract for approximately $40 million.

CEC, which entered Pennsylvania in 2000, operates a variety of functions in 22 states — everything from in-prison treatment programs to juvenile programs to county prisons, such as GWH.

CEC now takes up its newest assignment with a few caveats to the original GEO contract. Among them, an agreement that CEC will pay for the installation and maintenance of fiber optic lines, associated with the jail management system at a cost of about $85,000 for installation and $700 per month. The county will own the lines, however.

CEC is also expected to bring in a new fleet of vehicles of which it will retain ownership, said Reilly.

Under the agreement, CEC was additionally given a three-month grace period to shore up a 50-person staffing shortfall the facility has been dealing with since the summer.

There are supposed to be 503 employees working at the facility in any given month and the provider is penalized if it fails to hit that number, said Reilly. There are nine individuals currently being trained that should be able to bring that shortfall to 41 by mid-January, he said.

As a trade-off for that grace period, the board will be excused from a $25 per-diem payment to the provider for each inmate it houses in excess of the 1,883 capacity figure, according to the contract terms.

The prison population was 1,793 as of Monday, but Reilly said that was a “December lull” that would definitely pick up again later this month.

The health-services provision of the contract was also amended to provide an exception that would allow CEC to achieve a renewal of National Commission on Correctional Health Care Standards accreditation by Sept. 30 of this year.

Moving forward

Palatucci said last week the transition had been going fairly smoothly and all players were working together. Some prison employees complained to the Daily Times that they had to use their personal days, sick days and vacation time before the switch because they would not be reimbursed for them, which was resulting in staff at the facility being short-handed.

Reilly said 31 individuals used some form of that time off last Sunday, and 16 supervisors and officers responded to an “all call” to make up for the deficit.

“Visitations were canceled, which doesn’t sit well with the county,” he said. “This has been an ongoing situation since GEO placed the county on notice of its intent to terminate the contract.”

Reilly said he had spoken with CEC’s new warden, Frank Green, an old hand at the prison who indicated he did not expect the pattern of behavior to continue past the switch to CEC. Green declined comment for this article.

That switch should also bring with it changes to the basic philosophy of what the prison intends to do with its inmates, said Reilly.

“I’m a skeptic, because I believe in arrest, prosecution and jail,” he said. “But I think we need to explore alternatives to incarceration for the nonviolent criminals that really seem to be clogging up our jail. I don’t think re-entry is a panacea for the problems here, but we’ll see.”

While re-entry might sound antithetical to the basic premise of a private, for-profit jail — i.e. more inmates equals more money — Palatucci said that view is short-sighted.

“Our founder, John Clancy, comes from the treatment field,” said Palatucci. “That’s who he is and what he believes in.”

While that doesn’t mean every single offender is right for the re-entry program, Palatucci said there is an assessment and classification process that CEC will undertake with all the prisoners once it gets up and running, to figure out who can be recycled back into civilian life.

“It takes an intelligent approach to figure out who will do best in that setting,” said Palatucci. “This is a major undertaking, it’s a facility that had challenges in the past, but I think everybody’s bringing a renewed commitment to quality, and so far, the working relationship has been good.”


Talk of the Web

View More

Place a Classified

National News Videos

Recent Activity on Facebook

Blog Center

Heron's Nest

Phil Heron uses this site to turn back the curtain a bit on the great mystery involved in creating a newspaper and his other general thoughts on life and the news.


Blogging with Gil Spencer.

Rise and Shine

Your daily wake up call with updated traffic, weather and few fun things to get you through the morning.

Delco United

Lou Mahlman is executive director of the Upper Darby Arts & Education Foundation. He has extensive background in non-profits and writes about the complex issues and needs they serve.

C-City Blogger

Presenting Chester City's news and views to Delco Times web visitors who want to know more of what's going on in the City besides the stories they read in the paper.

Fun Things To Do With Kids In Delaware County

Promotes family friendly events and activities held in and around Delco on a weekly basis.


Cliff's Notes

Cliff Wilson served as chairman of the Delaware County Democratic Party for 16 years (1994-2010). He will write on politics and other issues he feels strongly about.

Destination Koehler

Eric Koehler is the pastor at ValleyPoint Church in Glen Mills. A father of six, husband and teacher, he uses his site to share a mixture of insight on life, family, culture and the church.

Animal Coalition of Delaware County

Offers timely health advice for pets, behavioral tricks of the trade, follow-up success stories, and more. Updated regularly by ACDC's all-volunteer staff that includes long-time foster parents and pet owners who have years of experience.


Media, PA News

Kent Davidson covers local politics, events, and goings-on in the borough of Media, PA.

More Blogs

National AP Headlines

View all AP National Headlines