(This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty.)

Thirteen former correctional officers at the Delaware County prison on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit alleging the county improperly fired them and dozens of others shortly after the county assumed full managerial control of the prison back in April 2022.

The filing comes as prison employees have been vocal about evaporating morale and what they say are increasingly dangerous conditions at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility (GWHCF), alleging that the county’s management has been worse than the last private contractor, GEO Group.

The lawsuit’s main thrust is that the county, through its new warden Laura Williams, “systematically targeted roughly sixty-eight individuals who they terminated absent any notice hearing, charge, or due process whatsoever.”

Most of the plaintiffs were members of the Delaware County Prison Employees Independent Union, and say that the last contract in force when the prison was still under private management was still the ruling force in employment matters even though the union contract had lapsed.

They say they “possessed a legitimate claim of …continued employment” unless the county could show just cause why the officers should be fired — something they say the county did not do.

The county did not immediately return a request for comment. The county’s standard position is not to comment on pending litigation, but if a comment is provided, this article will be updated.

Thursday’s filing merely formalizes a dispute that has continued to percolate behind the scenes after the county’s takeover of the GWHCF in 2022.

The lead plaintiff, Frank Kwaning, remains the president of the union, and has publicly accused Williams of trying to break the union by firing so many of its members at her first opportunity.

The filing says Kwaning was a fourteen-year veteran of the facility, and “did not have any violations of rules…until the very end of Geo’s administration of the jail, when he was disciplined for inadvertently bringing headache medicine” into the jail.

Kwaning went before the Delaware County Council in December to complain publicly for a second time in as many years about conditions at the prison.

“The [union] members are as frustrated as they could be. So through the members, I am told to let you know that the council should step in,” Kwaning said. “Go to the facility. Talk to the members. The morale is at its lowest level. One may have thought that with this interim agreement that we have with the $3 raise that we have gotten — and we thank the council for agreeing with the union for the $3 raise — we were of the view that with the $3 raise, the morale was going to be up. But because of the treatment that has been meted out to the members, the morale is at its lowest, at best.”

Councilmember Kevin Madden, who chairs the county’s Jail Oversight Board, rebuked Kwaning.

“Mr. Kwaning, I recognize your position as head of the union. Given the fact there is an open negotiation over an agreement, I will, as always, refrain from engaging in a back-and-forth about such things. But I will certainly remind you and others that I am regularly at the facility and I am regularly interacting with the workforce. So, you know, any suggestion that council is not involved regularly with our facility would be inaccurate.”

Councilmember Richard Womack said at that meeting he would go to the prison and do an inspection and talk with correctional officers. Sources have indicated to Broad + Liberty that Womack’s tour did happen, but Womack has not offered any public comment about his assessment.

Just two months earlier, the union and the county announced they had agreed in principle to a temporary agreement.

The Inquirer reported at the time that Kwaning, “and the union’s vice president, Ashley Gwaku, were among those whose employment was terminated by the county. The pair filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the state’s Labor Relations Board, saying they were unfairly targeted because of their work with the union. A judge recently ruled against them, saying the county was justified in its decision not to retain them.”

Broad + Liberty report from January noted that many sources close to the prison indicated that the largest issue contributing to low morale was the decision by Williams to remove “split shifts.”

Previously under GEO management, when an employee was given a mandatory 8-hour overtime shift attached to the end of the regular shift, the officer could split the overtime shift by taking four hours and finding a coworker to take the other four hours. But sources say Williams nixed that.

As a result, sources said many new hires began to quit after having their first mandatory overtime shifts placed on them, realizing that they would sometimes have to work sixteen-hour days with only eight hours to recover before being right back at work.

Meanwhile, the prison has witnessed one death in January and one in February, although those fatalities may not end up being counted on the prison’s annual statistics to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

In each of those cases, the inmate had a medical emergency that began at the prison. Prison officials, however, appear to have been able to get courts to technically release them such that when they passed, they were not technically in the custody of the GWHCF.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Derek Smith Law Group of Philadelphia.