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Delco Democrats try, and fail, to overhaul board overseeing county prison

The county's George W. Hill Correctional Facility is the only private prison in Pennsylvania.

George Hill Correctional Facility, located in Thornton, Delaware County, is the subject of political backlash as some county leaders are pushing for more transparency in how it's overseen.
George Hill Correctional Facility, located in Thornton, Delaware County, is the subject of political backlash as some county leaders are pushing for more transparency in how it's overseen.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The two Democrats on the Delaware County Council on Wednesday unsuccessfully sought to remake the board that oversees the county's embattled prison.

In a last-minute addition to the council's meeting agenda that took their Republican colleagues by surprise, Councilmen Brian Zidek and Kevin Madden proposed to expand the prison board, saying that would increase transparency and accountability to the public.

The measure was introduced against the backdrop of growing dissension surrounding the George W. Hill Correctional Facility, the only privately run facility in Pennsylvania, and one that has been beset in recent years by reports of chronic staff shortages and inmate deaths.

"This is not about whether to have a private prison," Zidek said in calling for more oversight. "We have an unelected body making decisions on how $50 million in taxpayer dollars is spent."

He said the current five-member prison board has not been responsive to the council and its questions about the prison. The larger board he and Madden envision, they said, was authorized by an obscure 2009 amendment to the nearly 200-year-old statute that governs how prisons in Pennsylvania are run.

The Democrats' proposal was defeated 3-2 by the Republicans on the council.

Before the vote, Council Chairman John McBlain said he took exception to "the subjective statements" about the prison by Zidek and Madden, adding that "the light of facts" usually causes those statements "to fail." He did not elaborate on what the two had said that was incorrect.

The two other Republicans, Colleen Morrone and Michael Culp, complained that the Democrats proposed the measure without discussing it with them beforehand, and said they were not prepared to consider it.

The 1839 state statute that officials have said still applies to Delaware County calls for a board of five prison inspectors, three appointed by judges and two by the county council.

Zidek and Madden pointed to a 2009 amendment to the statute that grants the county council the ability to establish a larger oversight board that would include the county's chief executive, two judges, the county sheriff, the county controller, the county council chairman, and three members of the public.

Under the current arrangement, the board has autonomy not granted to other county departments, most notably not having to seek council approval for contracts more than $25,000, according to the two Democrats.

"We've handed the checkbook to this five-person board," Madden said, adding that the "county and its taxpayers are completely left out of the conversation."

The current board is composed of Thomas Danzi, Edward Lawlor, and James Shields, appointed by county judges to terms ending in January, county records show. The two other members, William Clinger III and John Hosier, were appointed by the county council to terms that expired in May. There was no indication in county records that they'd been formally reappointed, but both continue to serve on the board.

All five board members have come under rising political pressure in recent months by a growing number of grassroots protesters, organized by the Delaware County Coalition for Prison Reform. Coalition members have packed the once sparsely attended prison board meetings and pushed for them to be held in a more accessible location. The meetings are now held inside the prison, requiring attendees to pass through security.

Until recently, the board did not record its meetings. That changed after Christine Reuther, the chair of the Nether Providence Democratic Committee and a former county council candidate working on behalf of the reform coalition, contended that the lack of such recordings violated the state's Sunshine Act.

At Wednesday's meeting, Reuther urged the county council to adopt the Democrats' proposal and put in place an expanded prison board.

"As county council you have the authority to opt in to a more modern prison board structure," she said. "… For the last eight years, you've had the ability."

Zidek and Madden, for their part, underscored the timeliness of the resolution: The county's contract with the GEO Group, the firm running George W. Hill, ends on Dec. 31, and there are  currently no provisions for extending that contract.

The county has put out a request for proposals from companies to compete to take over GEO's contract, but officials have provided little insight into its progress. That process runs parallel to an economic impact study to determine whether it would be more cost-effective to keep the prison privately run.

That study, commissioned in May, was supposed to be completed in eight weeks but has yet to be delivered to the council.