After decades of operation by one of the largest private prison companies in the world, the Delaware County Jail returns to local control in April.
And when that happens, the George W. Hill Correctional Facility will be led by a new superintendent whose behavioral health background has made him the ideal choice for the new era of the beleaguered Thornton facility, county officials say.
Laura Williams, 36, spent six years in various roles at the Allegheny County Jail outside of Pittsburgh, including three as chief deputy warden. While there, she oversaw the facility’s addiction treatment program, drawing on the experience she gained during her previous career as an addiction counselor.
» READ MORE: Delaware County will return its private prison to public control
In early February, Williams was chosen to direct George W. Hill. She was drawn to Delaware County, she said, by the willingness of county leaders to make changes to the county jail, which has been beset in recent years by controversy surrounding inmate deaths. , attacks on guards and alleged mistreatment by supervisors.
“There is a misconception that people who work in these institutions don’t know what the right next steps are; we do, but we just don’t always have the means or the resources to carry them out,” Williams said. “To have an entire county behind this effort, this facility could be an example of putting our money where our mouth is and pulling reforms out of the criminal justice system.”
George W. Hill was the last private county jail in Pennsylvania. In 1998, county leaders ceded control of the 1,800-bed facility to the Wackenhut Corp., which later, through acquisitions and mergers, became the Florida-based GEO Group. For most of that time, George W. Hill was overseen by John Reilly, who resigned in 2019 just days after an Inquirer investigation uncovered unreported allegations of racist and sexist behavior against his staff. .
GEO officials declined to comment at length on this story, saying the company was working with county officials and their consultants to “achieve a smooth, seamless and safe transition.”
READ MORE: Delaware County private prison boss charged with racism, abuse of power
The push to deprivatize the facility began in earnest when Democrats took control of the county council in 2019. They formed a new Prisons Oversight Board, chaired by council member Kevin Madden, one of the more vocal about returning the jail to local control, and in September exercised a termination option in the county’s contract with GEO.
Madden said Williams “breaks the mould” and is the obvious choice as the manager who can usher in the culture change he and his colleagues are eager to see at the prison.
“She’s someone who, before she was in corrections, her life was all about helping people in need of treatment and therapy, and that’s the mindset she brings to this job,” Madden said. “It’s even more important in the context of a county jail: these are people who are here an average of 60 days and will soon be back in the community.”
During his first weeks in office, Williams had candid conversations with George W. Hill’s staff. She heard the oft-repeated complaints about the understaffing and lack of training of prison guards. Inmate suicides — including Janene Wallace, whose 2015 death resulted in a $7 million settlement with GEO — trouble her and underscore her commitment to better preparing correctional officers to deal with mental health issues.
They won’t be trained therapists, she says, but they will learn how to handle a crisis so it doesn’t end in unnecessary death.
“Employees here have really done their best with the resources that have been provided to them,” she said. “That’s what I see here: a county of people interested in doing the right thing and the absolute best thing. It’s about putting resources in the right areas to make sure these things get executed.
But, in his opinion, there are also a lot of things that work in prison. Williams praised the results of the school’s GED program and pledged to improve it by connecting with county employers.
It’s all in service of the county council’s goal of reducing recidivism, a goal Williams says she shares.
“It’s not a place I want people to come to, but I understand the need for them to be,” Williams said. “But while they are here, they will be given opportunities to help them build a better life.
“I think most of us in life are a desperate act, a drunken mistake to be engaged in the criminal justice system,” she added. “That doesn’t make us inherently evil. It just shows the role that corrections and rehabilitation can play in our society.
The hiring of Williams is only the beginning of reforms at George W. Hill, according to Madden. He promised sweeping changes to the county-controlled facility, ranging from new uniforms for guards to a 35% pay rise, the latter to address concerns from the union that represents corrections officers.
“People who come to work in our prison must arrive with a mindset that not only is there a priority to ensure the safety of all who live and work there, but that they are our neighbors, whose many deal with addiction issues and mental health issues,” Madden said. “Their safety and ultimate outcome on the outside is entrusted to us and this workforce.”
Community activists who served as watchdogs for events at the prison are also optimistic about Williams’ arrival. Tonita Austin, executive director of the Delaware County Coalition for Prison Reform, said she was particularly encouraged by Williams’ track record.
Austin said she doesn’t want another “former security guard” to make major political decisions about mental health and rehabilitation.
“I think people assume, like I used to assume before I became more aware, ‘It’s a prison, it’s not supposed to be a health spa,'” Austin said. “But then you walk into the facility and you hear the stories of people who have lost loved ones because they didn’t get their medicine or because of a lack of mental health care that led to the suicide.
“You have to remember that these are human beings. They are waiting to be judged, and not even sentenced,” she added. “They should be getting the care they deserve, and we should be helping, not hurting, the people who walk through those doors.”