Conditions in Delaware County’s George W. Hill Correctional Facility have improved dramatically in its first year back under direct public control, the Prison Society’s latest monitoring of the county jail found.
The county took back full control of operations at the jail last April when it terminated its contract with GEO Group, the for-profit corporation that had run the jail for over two decades. An earlier Prison Society walkthrough had identified a number of unsafe and inhumane conditions in the jail that the new administration would inherit: incarcerated people were locked in their cells for days at a time, housing units were left unsupervised, violence was prevalent, and people slept in overcrowded intake cells without beds or toilets for a week or more.
“Delaware County’s progress over the past year is proof that with greater transparency and an administration committed to putting in the work, a problem jail can turn itself around in short order,” says Prison Society Executive Director Claire Shubik-Richards.
Working together toward a more humane prison
When Prison Society staff and volunteers returned for a walkthrough of the jail in December 2022, a year after their previous visit, we found that many of the issues had been resolved or significantly improved. Touring three housing areas and interviewing 29 people in custody, we found that most people were spending their days in activities outside of their cells. There were multiple staff members supervising each housing area. The jail had also opened a new intake housing unit, resolving overcrowding and unhygienic conditions for recent arrivals. And while most people interviewed reported having witnessed fights, including a minority who said they had seen assaults by corrections officers, the level of violence reported was less severe compared to a year earlier.
Since the previous walkthrough, the county has hired more corrections officers and decreased the jail population by nearly 20 percent. It has also acted on the Prison Society’s recommendations to resolve issues identified on our monitoring visit a year earlier, including opening the new intake housing unit. The jail had also distributed digital tablets to everyone in general population housing to address the lack of in-cell activities incarcerated people had reported.
“The case of George W. Hill Correctional Facility over the past year is the perfect illustration of a local government and the Prison Society working together for the shared goal of a more humane prison, and ultimately a safer community,” says the Prison Society’s prison monitoring director, Noah Barth.
The county values the Prison Society’s role in continuing the progress
There are still several areas where more progress is needed in the jail. Incarcerated people reported significant wait times to receive medical care. They said that many in-cell buzzers to call for aid from a corrections officer still don’t work. A number also reported having issues accessing the law library.
A memo detailing the complete findings from the monitoring visit has been published on the Prison Society’s website, along with a response from the warden at George W. Hill Correctional Facility, Laura Williams.
“We are exceedingly grateful for the thorough and thoughtful review completed by the PA Prison Society and look forward to future visits and continued advancement towards facility strategic goals,” Willams wrote. Regarding the broken in-cell buzzers, she said the county had hired a contractor to assess the buzzer system throughout the facility. Williams said the jail would also review the law library schedule to determine whether modifications to increase access were necessary.
Since transitioning back to county control, Prison Society volunteers have had greater access to the warden and other administrators to communicate concerns raised by incarcerated people.
“There are more staff at higher levels involved in the conversation than before, allowing us to resolve issues more efficiently,” says the Prison Society’s head volunteer for Delaware County, Bob Cicchinelli.
The deprivatization of George W. Hill was part of an ongoing effort in Delaware county to overhaul its approach to public safety and justice.
“Delaware County has set the ambitious goal of making George W. Hill a model for corrections that is truly focused on rehabilitation and preparing those in our custody for success on the outside,” says Delaware County Councilman Kevin Madden. “While much work remains in meeting these lofty goals, we have made extraordinary progress in less than a year since transitioning from private management, and we are very grateful to the Prison Society for being an independent and constructive monitor during this process.”
The Prison Society looks forward to continuing to play a role in this transformation.