Letter to the Editor - Transparency Would Help Alleviate Prison Problems

To the Times:

It’s understandable that members of the Delaware County Council don’t believe the horror stories they’re hearing about the George W. Hill Correctional Facility. The explanation is too obvious to see: Reliance on a private contractor adds a layer of obscurity to a situation that is naturally shielded from public view.

Openness, accountability and honesty define transparency and we value transparency today, especially in government and with $49 million in play. The council’s long-term reliance on an out-of-state incarceration contractor to run our jail is the biggest obstacle to the reasonable transparency that we should demand for every expenditure of public funds. Instead, we’re forced to rely on this contractor to self-report all that goes wrong inside the walls that confine our citizens while they await their day in court, guilty or not, or serve sentences for minor crimes.

Recently, we’ve read accounts of short-staffing, broken pipes and staff arrested for smuggling drugs. The council has been bombarded with credible accounts of overcrowding, lack of mental health care, bullpens for up to 10 men with no shower, triple-celling, a holding cell with no toilet, miscarriages and even suicides. The reports come from current and former inmates and employees, outside observers and the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s official visitors.

GEO Corp. has no financial incentive to self-report these horrors; the small staff of county administrators is naturally reluctant to admit their inability to manage the contractor; the prison board doesn’t investigate these events or even report them at their public meetings. So County Council is kept in the dark. It’s understandable.

So is the remedy: Improve transparency to fully reveal the way our citizens are treated at the jail. Removing the private contractor removes the thickest layer of obscurity. Public management brings us one large step closer to public oversight and to control of our $49 million per year and those we commit there.

Better transparency means the council could oversee periodic maintenance of the physical plant, potentially protecting our investment and averting a multi-day lack of running water and sanitation. It means knowing the facility is fully staffed at all times, potentially ending regular weekend lockdowns and the $547,966 credit we’re now due for staff that simply didn’t show up. It could mean restoration of weekend visiting and better salaries for those we pay to staff the jail.

Better transparency means believing the horror stories of crowded holding areas that have no toilets or showers, putting three men in a two-man cell, and the dearth of basic necessities. It means closer over-sight so as to reduce the likelihood of officers smuggling drugs into the jail and selling them to desperate inmates, which also puts their colleagues at greater risk from drug-induced violence.

Better transparency means a better chance to provide quality help for those struggling with substance abuse and closer conformance with the modern standards of care, custody and control, goals which are in direct conflict with profiting from incarceration. This is the first step we must take to elicit and decrease the human cost we are experiencing. GEO must go.

Authored by DelcoCPR members:

Robert A. Cicchinelli, Pennsylvania Prison Society’s Convenor for Delaware County

Sean P. Garraty, Chapter Lead, YPR-Philadelphia