Looking glum as they sat at the dais, the Chester County Prison Board members got an earful from enraged residents on Wednesday, angry over convicted murderer Danelo Cavalcante’s escape from the county prison and the manhunt that stretched over two weeks until law enforcement caught him.
Although the board voted to immediately enclose two areas, including the one where Cavalcante escaped by crab-walking up a wall to the roof and a similar site in another section, and also to wall in all the exercise yards, many in the crowd of 100 or so people were not mollified.
Another prisoner used a similar method to escape in May.
“I’m livid,” said Sheila Lerner of Westtown Township. “You had one job to do, to ensure the safety and to manage the prison properly. Maybe this is not the job for you.”
A man who lives in West Marlborough Township, two miles from the prison, said, “For all those kids, for all those parents, we can never unsee what we saw.”
He also thanked law enforcement and Commissioner Chair Josh Maxwell, who said he was sorry and acknowledged mistakes were made.
“I watched this board ratify two proposals without budgets and without the objectivity or the experts,” the resident said. “We need to bring people in who have that objectivity. I’m going to ask you guys to form a committee that does an investigation that does reach out to experts. I saw the governor offer his entire staff of the Correctional Department. That’s probably the way to go.”
Acting Warden Howard Holland, who was appointed just one day before Cavalcante’s escape, gave a long list of suggestions, including at least 50 more cameras and eight more people to man them 24 hours; ankle bracelets; color-coded uniforms based on the severity of prisoners’ charges; at least two officers monitoring the exercise yards; and alarm systems around the perimeter of the prison. He would also like to see the prison’s search dog program started again.
Holland said he has already taken steps to prevent the path of escape Cavalcante and the previous prisoner used.
Sally Mininger of Tredyffrin Township refused to give the current county government any credit for Cavalcante’s capture. “We all know it was Yoda, the scent dog, who was the hero,” she said. “The prisoner was able to steal a vehicle and travel some distance, so any one of our communities could have been affected.”
Guy Ciarrocchi, a former deputy attorney general who ran for Congress, spoke passionately about what he saw as the board’s failure. “Allow me to cut to the chase: You failed us. You failed us in your duties to protect us, to keep the bad guys away from the good guys.
“My comments aren’t personal. I’m disappointed to come here with so many citizens to point out the obvious. Our comments are not directed at law enforcement. I’m eternally grateful to the men and women who went into the woods in the heat to find him,” Ciarrocchi said.
But, Ciarrocchi continued, the behavior of political figures like Sheriff Maddox and District Attorney Deb Ryan, who both sit on the Prison Board, was problematic.
“If something like this happens again, do you promise not to hold political fundraisers while citizens are asked to be sheltering in place?” Ciarrocchi said. “I hope that the citizens of Chester County, that we’ve learned our lesson.”
Maddox and Ryan are both running for judgeships on the Court of Common Pleas.
A group of architects from TransSystems LLC presented “high-level” drawings of plans to enclose the exercise yards and permanently secure those problem areas, which the board approved. They gave a cost estimate of $2.5 to 3.5 million to enclose all eight exercise yards. The work might take six to nine months, depending on the availability of materials.
Several citizens suggested the solution was simply to reject high-risk prisoners like Cavalcante.
“Will you refuse to accept murderers and rapists until the prison is fully staffed and secured? And if you’re forced to take them, will you guard them 24/7?” Ciarrocchi asked. “Deny them outdoor exercise? What are you going to do about the staffing shortage emergency? What are the steps you’re taking? Are you reaching out to the FOP, retired military, or retired correctional officers? Have you talked to private security firms? Are you treating it like an emergency?”
“I hope that the citizens of Chester County, that we’ve learned our lesson,” Ciarrocchi added.
County Administrator Robert Kagel said federal American Rescue Plan dollars could be used to fund the project. The Prison Board will meet again on Sept. 26 at the prison, and residents can watch via Zoom.