Delaware County Takes Control of George W. Hill Correctional Facility, Pennsylvania’s Last For-Profit Prison

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The George W. Hill Correctional Facility, Pennsylvania’s last for-profit prison, has been taken over by Delaware County after 24 years of private control.

The GEO Group handed over responsibility on Wednesday after a six-month transition period. The prison, located in Thornton, has long faced allegations that inmates and staff have been mistreated.

“I am extremely proud of the thoughtful and considered work that has gone into this process,” said County Councilman Kevin Madden, who also chairs Delco’s Jail Oversight Board. “A multinational corporation whose existence depends solely on keeping our prisons running has been replaced by a district administration focused on preparing inmates for life on the outside and curbing recidivism.”

Madden and others, including the Delco Coalition for Prison Reform, have been pushing for the prison to be removed from private control for years.

after democrats took control of the provincial government in 2019, the Board of Prison Inspectors was replaced by the Jail Oversight Board. That board voted last September to terminate a $259 million contract with the GEO Group. The city council followed the following month.

In February, the county appointed Laura Williams as the prison’s new warden. Williams has spent years in prison administration, overseeing health services and substance abuse programs, as well as serving as a substance use counselor.

Tonita Austin, CEO of the Delco Coalition for Prison Reform, praised Williams, noting that her background will help her prioritize mental health and rehabilitation initiatives.

“I believe prison can be an opportunity for inmates to pay their debt to society and become healthy, contributing members of the community,” Williams said. “We owe it to them and to the entire community to provide support and training to inmates so that they can lead productive lives when they are released and return to our community as our neighbors.”

The prison accommodates approximately 1,800 inmates. It was first built in 1998 as a partnership between the county and the profitable Wackenhut Corrections Corp., which also had a contract to operate the facility. The scheme was seen as a cost-effective way to replace the deteriorating Broadmeadows facility, which was built in 1930.

Wackenhut became the GEO Group in 2003. In 2009, the contract was awarded to a company called Community Education Centers, which GEO bought in 2017. The following year, GEO was awarded a $259 million contract to operate the facility through 2023. That contract included a clause allowing the province to terminate the agreement with six months’ notice.

Under the GEO Group, the prison faced several charges of assault. Former prison superintendent John Reilly, who retired in 2019, reportedly used racist language and hired unqualified administrators. In 2017, the prison agreed to pay $7 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of an inmate who committed suicide in 2015. The family claimed the prison guards could have prevented her death.

The Delaware County Prison Employees Independent Union, which represents the guards, considered organizing a strike last year due to working conditions and understaffing at the facility after two guards were attacked on the job.

Although the prison is now controlled by the county, some say there is more work to be done.

Lee Awbrey, an attorney for the Delaware County Office of the Public Defender, told WHYY that the county continues to practice “chronic over-incarceration.” Delco has incarcerated 1,320 people, which is only 366 fewer than in Allegheny County, although Delco’s population is only about half the size.

The county has also expanded funding for diversion programs and community-based policing. In addition, Madden has promised a 35% salary increase and new uniforms for the guards.

“Keep in mind that today isn’t just the end of one era in Delaware County — it’s also the beginning of the hard work that will be needed to put our words into action,” Madden said. “It has taken more than two years of planning and preparation to get to this point – and it will take time for us to achieve everything that needs to be done.”

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