Two Delaware County prison guards file bias suits

Posted: November 26, 2013

THORNBURY The allegations are vivid:

African American inmates placed for hours at a time in a "dirty cell" strewn with rotten food, human feces, and urine.

White guards "waterboarding" black prisoners with pepper spray until they vomit.

K-9 officers letting "their dogs urinate on the belongings and bedding" of black inmates.

The claims are spelled out in lawsuits filed by two guards at Delaware County's prison, the George Hill Correctional Facility in Thornbury. The private company that runs the prison denies the accusations, and a lawyer for the county prison board called them "sensational" and noted they had not been substantiated.

But the charges, leveled in complaints filed this fall, represent the latest criticisms of the 1,883-bed prison and its operator, Community Education Centers of New Jersey.

Concerns over conditions for inmates and workers sparked a protest in recent weeks. On Friday, a group of human rights advocates held an open meeting in which they hoped to share their concerns with county and prison officials. No representative of the county or the prison attended.

"The ultimate goal is to establish a citizens' advisory committee," said the Rev. Keith Collins, who heads the group. "Right now, everything is shrouded."

Collins, of the Church of the Overcomer in Chester, said the agenda was to include abuse of prisoners, overcrowding, lack of effective reentry programs, lack of opportunity for religious services, and treatment of visitors.

Community Education Center, which the county hired in 2009 to run the jail, declined to discuss the allegations.

"While the company does not comment on pending litigation or complaints such as these," spokesman Christopher Greeder wrote in an e-mailed statement, "we do strenuously deny these allegations and are confident these matters will be dealt with appropriately in due course."

This is not the first time the company has come under fire.

In 2010, at least seven inmates were mistakenly released from the Thornbury jail. In New Jersey, its halfway houses have drawn scrutiny from state officials. Residents at its Philadelphia halfway house won a class-action lawsuit after being denied adequate medical care there.

The George Hill guards - Angelina Blocker of Philadelphia and Silver Black of Lansdowne - are suing for wrongful termination, breach of contract, harassment, and other related complaints.

Neither Blocker nor Black was available for comment, according to their lawyer, Stewart C. Crawford Jr. He said he stood behind every allegation in the lawsuits.

"Our investigation has also produced a number of independent sources to support these allegations," he said.

Calls to prison superintendent John A. Reilly Jr. were referred to Robert DiOrio, solicitor for the Delaware County Board of Prison Inspectors, which is responsible for administration of the jail. DiOrio said he had not heard of the abuse allegations in the lawsuits.

"They are certainly sensational," DiOrio said of the allegations. "That doesn't mean they are true."

Marianne Grace, the county's executive director, said during her impromptu tours of the prison she had not seen any evidence of the claims made in the lawsuits.

The 2013 budget for the prison is $43 million - 13 percent of the county's overall budget. By contrast, Montgomery County, which has a capacity of 2,080 beds, budgets $30 million; York County, with a capacity of 2,694, budgets $41 million.

Blocker was fired in June 2012 for allegedly exaggerating an incident report. In 2007, a racially charged photo of her with a noose around her head was found in a union mailbox. Blocker is African American.

Silver Black, who is also African American, was fired March 26, 2012, for allegedly being late. During her nearly eight-year tenure at the prison, Black had been written up three times for lateness - twice while under the protection of the Federal Family Medical Leave Act, according to the lawsuit.

The two suits charge that African American guards are discriminated against and held to different standards than their white coworkers. They cite an alleged 50 percent drop in the number of black correctional officers at the prison.

They also contend that black guards receive a disproportionate number of write-ups and that black guards who take and pass tests to become supervisors are disqualified while white officers receive the questions in advance.

Collins said he was outraged at the abuse and discrimination allegations in the lawsuit and by what he has heard from prisoners.

"This needs to stop," he said. "It's a human rights issue."


mschaefer@phillynews.com

610-313-8111

@MariSchaefer

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