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Former Delco Correctional Officers File Lawsuit Alleging Improper Dismissal

(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.

‘My Son Could Still be Alive, Maybe.’ — Delco Prison Suicide Raises Questions About Privacy Laws and Broken Cell Locks

(This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty)

Editor’s note: The following story has explicit descriptions of suicide and suicide attempts that may be disturbing for some readers. For anyone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts or ideations, call 988. If it is an emergency, call 911.

For any family, a suicide is a tragedy not only of the death itself, but a tragedy of unanswerable questions that gnaw and corrode.

When that suicide happens in prison, the number of those destructive questions only multiplies.

This is the life now of Janet Owens of Elverson Borough, as she seeks what answers she can gather to the death of her son, Andrew Little, who hanged himself in a prison cell at Delaware County’s George W. Hill Correctional Facility on the first Saturday in June of 2022.

“They called me on Monday and I asked [the chaplain] some questions and she said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I’ll have to get back to you.’ I asked her, ‘Was he on a mental health unit?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ ‘Was he receiving treatment?’ ‘I don’t know.’”

Andrew Wesley Little was born in September of 1987. With Andrew being her second son, Janet remembers him as a much more peaceful baby than her first.

“When he turned fourteen, fifteen, when he went through puberty, that’s when his mental illness kicked in and he took off and went out [to California] and lived on the streets,” Owens said.

Eventually, Owens was able to help get Andrew enrolled in the forestry program at Penn State, Mont Alto, but Andrew’s illness came to dominate again.

Court records show Andrew had numerous contacts with various police departments in Chester, Delaware, and Philadelphia. The dockets show mental illness factored into several of those cases, such as a judge requesting a mental evaluation.

Owen’s frustrations are many, as anyone might imagine. But in particular, she feels as though many medical privacy laws, like the 1996 federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, acted as a constant barrier between her and her sick son.

Understandably, a law like HIPAA assumes that it is meant for individual, rational actors. But Owens feels like that’s where the HIPAA and other laws like it are incomplete, and incompatible with mental illness.

“The patient has an inability to recognize their own illness. And that’s why these people think, ‘I don’t need medication.’ And part of their paranoia is they’re [thinking] ‘They’re trying to poison me. They want to give me this medication.’ and that’s why they can’t be medicated or they won’t be medicated because they don’t believe there’s anything wrong with them.”

Owens pointed out that her son’s resistance isn’t just an anecdote, it’s a diagnosis — anosognosia, when “someone is unaware of their own mental health condition or that they can’t perceive their condition accurately,” a webpage from the National Alliance on Mental Illness says.

Retired, with abundant time to just think about her departed son, she wonders how else privacy laws put a wall between her and her son.

For example, Owens says her son was in Chester County months before he was transferred to Delaware County. While there, she says he attempted suicide twice. Owens wonders if a suicide attempt is privileged medical information, and if it is, would Chester County have been prohibited from relaying this safety information to Delaware County?

She says her numerous calls over months and years to jails, prisons, hospitals, all were turned away leaving her with no way to even begin to try and help.

There are other, more straightforward questions as well.

Broad + Liberty showed Owens documents obtained from Delaware County via Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law.

In an email from April 15, 2022, a sergeant at the GWHCF alerts several other staff members that “On unit 10, we have multiples [sic] doors issues, ranging from broken locks to doors not being able to open or only open with keys,” (emphasis added). The email went on to say that many of those same cells in the unit were frequently subjected to sewage backups.

“Every time a toilet and sink are flushed, a backup of water and sometime [sic] feces into cells and day rooms,” the sergeant wrote.

The timing of the email is important because when it was written, the government had only taken over the management of the prison from a private operator earlier that month. The email represents one of the first alerts that the new management was struggling to deal with broken locks or inoperable doors, a problem that persists to this day.

On May 4, 2022, a work order shows a repair technician worked on cell A210 to replace a wire harness on the door lock, a door lock that is meant to be operated from a remote control room.

One month later in cell A210, Andrew Little hung himself apparently using sheets in the cell. But an incident report shows the door locks were still an obstacle for the officer who was rushing to help.

“Sgt. McDevitt stated that the cell door was inoperable from the Control room, so he quickly proceeded to the main hallway to retrieve the cell key from Officer Kpadeya.”

A portion of the incident report for Andrew Little. Highlights have been made after the fact by Broad + Liberty.

The documents stunned Owens.

“I was appalled to know that first, some of the letter from the maintenance man was saying that sewage has been seeping into these places. So is it sewage and backup that was making these [lock] systems not work? And then, if somebody should be watched regularly, what are they doing in a unit that locks and they can’t get to the locks in time? My son could still be alive, maybe.”

Two days after Little’s death, another work order shows the lock being fixed.

Owens’s theory about moisture is given credence when the technician noted, “Seems that moisture into the inner lock parts…” The rest of the report is obscured for some unknown reason.

The work order to fix the lock for Andrew Little’s cell two days after his death. Highlights have been made after the fact by Broad + Liberty.

Two sources with intimate knowledge of the prison say the run from Little’s cell to the control room and back for the physical keys would have taken at least two minutes, possibly as long as four minutes. Those sources have requested anonymity out of fear of career retaliation.

“He [Sgt. McDevitt] would’ve had to first run downstairs from the top tier (because that cell is on the second level), get buzzed through the 10A block door, secure that door, get buzzed out of the octagon door that connects all four blocks (A, B, C and D), get the cage door buzzed (there is a cage door that secured the control room) and finally get into the control room (which was probably already open because the officer knew he was coming). After retrieving the key you run through the same steps to get back on the unit to the cell,” one source explained.

The second source said other details in the incident report are telling. The report begins by noting that the officer who first became aware of the situation “was conducting chow relief on Unit 10[.]”

“The fact that the Sgt. is ‘conducting chow relief on Unit 10 control room’ is a very clear indicator that the unit was short staffed,” the second source said. “Essentially, the Sergeant had to step in as the Control Room Officer to allow another officer to take a lunch break. The report only mentions one other officer being present at the time of the incident. The information suggests that there was one Control Room Officer and one Block Officer left responsible for a unit that is supposed to have the highest level of security. If the unit were fully staffed it would consist of six total officers.”

The first source confirmed the concern about staffing levels, saying, “At the time of the incident only one officer was assigned to that block.”

The county declined to comment on several questions posed by Broad + Liberty, some of which were not specific to Little’s death.

Owens said she has already been working with local attorneys on a wrongful death lawsuit, prior to seeing the documents provided by Broad + Liberty. While no suit has been filed yet, should it be successful, she hopes to use any monetary awards to work on mental health issues.

“He [Andrew] shouldn’t have been in prison. He should have been in a mental health institute. And because there’s nowhere to go, that’s where he was. And if that’s what they’re going to do, then they need to protect these people, these kids, these children, these young men that should be getting care outside, but they don’t have anymore. And they closed them down. They closed down Brandywine. It was the last one here. He was in Belmont. He was in Brandywine. I can’t even tell you how many places he was.”

The incident makes clear Andrew was in Delaware County’s custody because of a parole violation related to an indecent exposure charge. None of the court dockets available on Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System website for Delaware County show charges for indecent exposure. But Owens says her son shouldn’t be thought of as a sexual offender, rather that he was mentally ill and had lost all sense of right and wrong. Supporting that idea is the fact that all of the dockets that are available from Delaware and Chester counties are for nonsexual offenses like disorderly conduct, trespassing, shoplifting, or simple assault.

Owens is estranged from her former husband, and Broad + Liberty was not able to find contact information for Little’s father.

Broad + Liberty has been able to get some answers for Owens. Her son was being housed in the mental health wing according to prison sources who spoke with Broad + Liberty. However, our inquiries did not get any kind of answer as to whether Little and other mentally ill patients were being checked on regularly.

As for whether HIPAA could have acted as a barrier between Little’s time in Chester County versus Delaware, Chester County spokeswoman Rebecca Brain responded to a hypothetical question about inmate privacy that essentially mirrored Little’s situation.

Brain first explained that the county contracts with Primecare for its delivery of medical care for the county’s correctional facility.

“If that inmate is then transferred to another correctional facility that also contracts with Primecare as its medical provider, that information is shared across Primecare’s medical record platform. If the correctional facility does not use Primecare as their medical provider, then Primecare, when aware of a transfer, drafts and sends a document with the patient/transporting authority which includes information regarding the inmate’s suicidal ideology and other basic medical information,” Brain explained.

“According to Primecare, this process falls under continuity of care, where no authorizations are required for the sharing of information between facilities. I would recommend reaching out to Primecare, as they are contracted as the medical provider for a number of prisons and could provide you with more information,” she said.

While this answers some questions, it raises others, such as whether one prison would be able to alert another about known suicide risks even if there were no direct transfer of the inmate, as is used in the hypothetical.

With reform in mind, Owens says she has been following changes in California led by Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“Governor Gavin Newsom’s Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Court initiative would grant more authority to a civil court judge to mandate treatment,” a 2022 report from a CBS affiliate in San Francisco said. “Disability rights groups say that’s a violation of civil liberty. But some family members of the severely mentally ill say it may be the only way for them to survive.”

Delaware County’s prison had been privately managed for nearly 30 years until 2022. Although the formal transition to government management did not take place until April 2022, the county’s hand-picked warden, Laura Williams, started in February.

In the 23 months since then, the GWHCF has witnessed eleven deaths, four of them suicides.

New Court Ruling Could Pry Loose Autopsy of Delco Inmate Who Died by ‘Delayed Homicide’

This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty.

A Commonwealth Court ruling on Tuesday will likely erase previous restrictions that had kept citizens, journalists, and some public officials from being able to access autopsy reports in the largest counties in Pennsylvania.

A quirk in the state’s Right-to-Know Law, combined with another piece of legislation known as the Coroner’s Act, created a scheme in which anyone could get an autopsy report in counties of the third class or lower. Counties of the second or first class, however, had the legal ability to deny access to those documents.

The 6–1 ruling seems likely to shake loose a key document in Delaware County, where officials have thus far denied access to the autopsy report for an inmate who died at the county prison last February of what officials described as a “delayed homicide.”

“The homicide is a delayed homicide from complications from a previous gunshot,” county spokeswoman Adrienne Marofsky said in March, roughly one month after inmate Mustaffa Jackson died.

Broad + Liberty filed a Right-to-Know request for Mustaffa Jackson’s autopsy to learn more, given that county officials have not divulged any of the most basic information about his death, including when and where he was originally shot, and the degree to which that wound received appropriate attention while he was incarcerated.

After county officials denied the request, Broad + Liberty appealed that decision to the Office of Open Records. The appeal is still pending.

If the autopsy is ultimately pried loose, it will be due to today’s ruling borne of similar problems at the Allegheny County prison that emerged in 2020, where Delaware County’s new warden, Laura Williams, was then serving as a deputy warden.

The lack of transparency in obtaining an autopsy for a prisoner who died under extraordinary circumstances spurred one reporter in Pittsburgh to fight the issue all the way to Commonwealth Court, which generated today’s ruling.

As Pennsylvania law stood just one day ago, counties of the third class or lower have coroners who must file their autopsies yearly with the county prothonotary. When that happens, the documents essentially become public records.

In counties of the first and second classes, however, coroners are replaced by medical examiners who are not required to make the same filing with the county court system that lower counties are. As a result, medical examiners in larger counties like Philadelphia, Allegheny, and Delaware could keep autopsies closeted.

In 2020, Allegheny County Jail inmate Daniel Pastorek died under unusual circumstances that journalist Brittany Hailer was determined to verify.

“Two incarcerated people who were housed with Pastorek in the acute mental health housing unit told [the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism] that Pastorek cried out for medical attention for days,” Hailer wrote. “He complained of chest pains, vomited, and seemed disoriented, incarcerated persons said. They remembered him as the elderly man with the walker. One man said he was haunted by Daniel’s death, and said he felt like he was watching himself die on the floor of the cell.”

The attempts to obtain Pastorek’s autopsy have been something of a legal ping pong match.

Hailer’s Right-to-Know request for Pastorek’s autopsy was denied, but the denial was then reversed on appeal at the Office of Open Records. Allegheny County then elevated the matter to trial court where a judge reversed the OOR.

With the help of the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, Hailer appealed that last decision to the Commonwealth Court, which heard oral arguments on the case in May.

The judges in the majority said counties of the second class or higher, like Allegheny and Philadelphia, were essentially taking advantage of a wording quirk when the Pennsylvania General Assembly made some minor updates to the Coroner’s Law in 2018.

“Accepting the conclusions of the trial court would lead to the absurd result that a requester could receive autopsy records located anywhere in the Commonwealth, unless those records are located in [Allegheny County] or Philadelphia County,” the majority noted in Tuesday’s opinion.

Even before Tuesday’s result, the challenge was catching the eye of transparency advocates.

“Government accountability depends on a favorable ruling for PINJ. It’s highly unlikely that a bitterly divided state Legislature would fix the problem by cleaning up the law,” the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette wrote in a house editorial.

“Making autopsy records public in some counties but not others is absurd. It amounts to access by geography. If anything, the right of public access is more compelling in larger counties, where more deaths occur.”

The death of Mustaffa Jackson has already been kept behind a veil by Delaware County administrators. Like Pastorek, Mustaffa Jackson does not appear to have any kin, close or far, advocating on his behalf — and who might have legal access to the autopsy because of the family relations.

Towards the conclusion of the Post-Gazette piece, the paper seemed to speak to the driving reason behind Broad + Liberty’s request for the autopsy of Mustaffa Jackson.

“The cause of the deceased’s death, without additional information, reveals little about the circumstances leading to it. If a person dies of a shotgun wound, for example, it matters greatly whether the wound was in the chest or in the back. Autopsy records are important pieces of the puzzle in determining how someone died, and whether the death was preventable.”

The final determination from the Office of Open Records on the Broad + Liberty appeal for the autopsy is due on or before next Monday, July 17, which now seems likely to incorporate new conclusions based on the Tuesday ruling.

Delco Inmate’s Death Ruled a ‘Delayed’ Homicide

This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty.


The cause of death for an inmate who died at the Delaware County George W. Hill prison in February has been ruled a homicide but, in a surprising twist, a homicide that apparently happened outside the prison’s walls.

“The homicide is a delayed homicide from complications from a previous gunshot,” county spokeswoman Adrienne Marofsky said.

“The County isn’t releasing any additional information,” Marofsky said in response to a bevy of follow-up questions, such as asking for the prisoner’s name, when he was admitted to the prison, as well as all of the information related to the incident in which the inmate was first shot.

The inmate died Sunday, Feb. 12.

“A 25-year-old African-American male was found to be unresponsive in his cell,” Warden Laura Williams said at a meeting of the jail oversight board on Feb. 14.

“He was found by an officer who was working the unit. He [the guard] had been completing his tours as indicated by policy. The officer had been familiar with the individual and noticed that they were in a state of distress, or an atypical behavioral state of how they typically are, and immediately called a medical emergency within the facility,” Williams told the board.

The county also did not respond to questions about what kind of medical care the inmate was receiving, and if he had been making any medical complaints close to the time of his death.

The homicide marks the fourth death since the county took over day-to-day management of the facility in April, after almost three decades of being privately managed — a shift that local media called a “new era” for the “beleaguered” facility.

In April, a prison inmate killed his cellmate by strangulation.

In June, two inmates died by suicide just days apart — the first time the facility witnessed two suicides in the same year since 2015. The county has not released any information on those two deaths. Broad + Liberty has a Right to Know request pending with the jail oversight board in an attempt to uncover more details.

Although not a homicide, the prison also dealt with a January stabbing in which the wounded inmate had to be taken to the hospital.

In another incident in February, the county acknowledged the prison accidentally released the wrong inmate.

Democrats on the county council campaigned on a platform that included deprivatizing the combination jail/prison, along with pledges of increased transparency. While certain transparency elements have been implemented, such as making board oversight meetings available on Youtube, the county has also backtracked in some areas.

For example, the prison is no longer disclosing its monthly staffing rates, whereas that statistic was routinely disclosed under private management.

The county also recently denied the release of the final report by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections from the scheduled inspection of the prison last fall, designed to make sure the facility is meeting minimum requirements of state law. Broad + Liberty has appealed that Right to Know denial to the Pennsylvania Office of Open records.

The prison has also been dealing with increasing costs.

At the February meeting of the jail oversight board, the board approved $3.19 million in increased spending to modify the prison’s contract with Wellpath, which provides health services.

In 2019, the prison budget was just over $48 million. By the end of 2022 — a year that included nine months of government management — the prison budget climbed to $55.7 million.

Despite the missteps and setbacks, prison officials and especially County Council Member Kevin Madden have pointed to reduced rates of incarceration as one of the defining achievements since the government took back management control almost one year ago.