Delco Prison Too many deaths

Posted: May 02, 2008

Too many inmates are dying at Delaware County's jail.

Since 2005, at least eight inmates have died at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton, the only privately run jail in Pennsylvania. The latest fatality is Kenneth Kallenbach, 39, who died April 24 after contracting pneumonia at the lockup. He had been held there awaiting trial since mid-March.

Last year, a woman died at the jail after being held there for six weeks. She suffered from a thyroid condition; her family said she was not receiving her medication.

In 2005, five inmates died in five months. Two were apparent suicides; one was a heroin overdose.

GEO Group, which operates the facility, has faced lawsuits over these deaths. It has problems elsewhere. In Texas, where GEO runs more than a dozen prisons, it has come under criticism for alleged mismanagement and foul conditions. One inspector called an adult facility in Texas operated by GEO the worst he'd ever seen.

"They're horrible," said Pennsylvania House Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.), who is sponsoring a state prison reform bill. "Absolutely freaking horrible." His political rival, Rep. John Perzel (R., Phila.), has served on GEO's board since 2005.

Eight deaths in little more than three years is alarming in a facility that has a duty to take care of its inmates. Yet there's little outward indication that the county's five-member prison board or GEO are taking significant steps to find out what has gone wrong, or investigate whether policies need to be changed.

It's especially troubling that some of these inmate deaths allegedly involved the lack of proper medical care. Suicides, unfortunately, do occur in prisons, despite corrections' officers best efforts to prevent them. But a for-profit facility, especially, should have high standards of medical treatment.

Delaware County has been paying GEO more than $30 million annually to run its jail. County officials have boasted that they were saving $1 million per year by outsourcing the prison operation. They should be asking whether another outfit could do a better job, or whether this for-profit model is even working.

The jail deaths raise questions about whether the county has enough leverage in its contract with GEO to enforce better accountability. The prison superintendent is allowed to impose fines on GEO for failing to maintain adequate staffing. But judging from the continued problems at the jail, those fines have not been enough.

GEO describes the Delaware County facility as efficient and accredited. OK, but that doesn't account for the deaths of these inmates. GEO and the prison board owe the general public, as well as the inmates' families, an explanation for these failings. They should also explain how they intend to make this facility less deadly.

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