When the only privately operated jail in Pennsylvania finally returns to full public control next week, its new administrators will inherit the unsafe and inhumane conditions that have taken root inside. The Prison Society recently published a memo we sent to the jail, Delaware County’s George W. Hill Correctional Facility, detailing the troubling conditions we found during a December walkthrough. Our findings highlight the serious challenges the county faces in the jail after over two decades under private management and the importance of our ongoing monitoring work.
Lack of supervision, fights, and crowding at intake
Prison Society staff and volunteers visited George W. Hill on December 7 and interviewed 53 incarcerated people. We discovered a facility in which incarcerated people are often locked in their cells for days at a time with minimal supervision, fights are common, and arriving detainees sleep on the floor of crowded intake cells for upwards of a week.
In the majority of the housing units we observed, all incarcerated people were locked in their cells with no staff present. The cells are equipped with buzzers to call for the attention of a corrections officer, but every incarcerated person interviewed said that staff rarely or never respond. They mentioned four specific instances of medical emergencies in which these buzzers were sounded and staff did not respond.
All 53 people interviewed said that on weekends they are not allowed out of their cells. Some said that the extended lockdowns were exacerbating tensions in the jail and leading to frequent outbursts of violence. Thirteen incarcerated people interviewed reported witnessing fights. Another eight witnessed assaults by corrections officers.
In the jail’s intake unit, new people being admitted into custody were tightly packed in groups of up to 15 in cells without beds or a toilet. Some reported being held in intake cells for a week or more. Unless they are exhibiting symptoms, the jail does not test new arrivals for COVID-19 before placing them in these close quarters.
The Prison Society stands ready to support
Since April 2021, the Prison Society has conducted 25 facility walkthroughs to assess conditions behind bars in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the problems we found at George W. Hill are not unique. Staffing shortages, restrictive lockdowns, and rising jail populations have contributed to unsafe conditions in county jails across Pennsylvania during the pandemic, with the violence in Philadelphia’s jails providing the most severe example.
But the transition to public control and the recent hiring of new warden Laura Williams gives Delaware County a unique opportunity to address the problems in its jail.
“The Prison Society believes this new era for Delaware County will allow for greater transparency and, ultimately, better outcomes for the people incarcerated at George W. Hill,” says our executive director, Claire Shubik-Richards.
Deprivatization alone, however, will not solve all of the myriad issues facing George W. Hill. The Prison Society’s monitoring will continue to play a critical role in identifying and addressing them. Since the December 7 visit, our volunteers have responded to 33 individual requests from people incarcerated in the jail to privately discuss their concerns.
“We look forward to continuing to work in partnership with the facility’s new administration and county leadership to help foster a safer, and more humane prison,” Shubik-Richards says.
We are here to help.