Susanne Wallace's daughter, Janene, was awaiting a probation-violation hearing when she killed herself inside her cell at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton. Her mental-health issues, including paranoia, were largely ignored by the staff at the Delaware County prison, who put her in solitary confinement for 52 days, Wallace said.

"Janene wasn't violent. She was not a threat," Wallace said Sunday, holding back tears at a hearing sponsored by the Delaware County Coalition for Prison Reform. "It is time for outside, independent examination to determine what's going on in this house of horrors."

A “house of horrors” is how one person described George W. Hill Correctional Facility at Sunday’s session.
DAVID SWANSON
A “house of horrors” is how one person described George W. Hill Correctional Facility at Sunday’s session.

Wallace's story was one of many horrific accusations of neglect and incompetence leveled at the leadership of the correctional facility at a public hearing in nearby Media. The contract for the prison, the only privately run facility remaining in Pennsylvania, is up in December.

And members of the Delaware County Coalition for Prison Reform have embarked on a public information campaign to see that it isn't renewed.

"We believe this is a moral issue," said Kabeera Weissman, one of the coalition's founders. "That no one should benefit from the incarceration of human beings."

Currently, George Hill and its 1,883 beds are managed by the GEO Group, the second-largest private prison firm in the world. GEO, based in Boca Raton, Fla., receives $49 million annually from its contract with the county, and is overseen by a board of prisons inspectors employed by the county.

At the same time, it has been plagued in recent years by rampant reports of suicide and violence, reports that have become public largely through legal action. Wallace's family, for instance, settled a lawsuit with GEO for $7 million.

Weissman and other coalition volunteers said Sunday that their objectives since organizing last year have been twofold: calling on the Delaware County Council to "stop hiding behind the prison board" and require its members to report publicly, and  deprivatizing the prison, returning its management to public officials.

The coalition invited members of the County Council and the prison board to attend Sunday's meeting and address these concerns, but only one, Council Democrat Brian Zidek, accepted. His fellow Democrat, Kevin Madden, a vocal supporter of prison reform, could not attend because of a prior commitment, according to the organizers.

"Private prisons have perverse interests," Zidek said. "Our interest as a community is not to have them make money. Our interest is to incarcerate people who are a danger to our community and hopefully rehabilitate them.

"And it's certainly not to keep the prisons full," he added, noting that GEO explicitly mentioned that objective in its most recent annual report.

Delaware County Councilman Brian Zidek (left) said private prisons have “perverse interests” and should not be in business to make money.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photograoher
Delaware County Councilman Brian Zidek (left) said private prisons have “perverse interests” and should not be in business to make money.

After pressure from the public, as well as the recently elected Zidek and Madden, a study was commissioned by the Phoenix Management Group to determine and compare the costs of running the prison privately and publicly. That study, which was supposed to be completed by the end of August, has been delayed at least a month, according to Jack Stollsteimer, the deputy state treasurer for consumer programs and a member of the coalition.

Meanwhile, the county has sought proposals from prison firms to take over the contract for managing George Hill.

"That's the wrong way to do government work," Stollsteimer said Sunday."You don't do a [request for proposals] and at the same time you commission a study that questions the necessity of an RFP."

But financial concerns are far from the only issue the coalition and its members have with George Hill.

Robert Cicchinelli, a member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said Sunday that his organization has received numerous complaints about health care at the prison, saying that its quality "is a step below what you'd get if your coverage is through Medicaid."

Robert Cicchinelli, a member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said his group receives numerous complaints about conditions at George Hill.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photograoher
Robert Cicchinelli, a member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said his group receives numerous complaints about conditions at George Hill.

"No one expects a prison to provide platinum-level health care, but we can and should demand a lot more of George Hill's medical subcontractor," Cicchinelli said. "We shouldn't be fielding complaints about rampant flu outbreaks, poorly treated wounds, untreated preexisting conditions, untreated dental abscesses, and perhaps most sadly, miscarriages."

Cicchinelli, echoing Wallace's testimony, shared anecdotal reports of a lack of mental-health care, with some prisoners being withheld medication for days and others having their issues treated with punitive measures, including solitary confinement.

"The business of George Hill should be corrections," he said. "And continuing to export our tax dollars to an out-of-state contractor that is not producing positive, corrective results does not, ultimately, benefit the community at large."