Superintendent of Pa. private jail accused of racism, abuse of power

John Reilly, Jr. was investigated for misuse of funds, racist language


Vinny Vella
Philadelphia Inquirer

DELAWARE COUNTY, Pa. — For years, employees at Delaware County’s big, privately owned jail have complained about its powerful superintendent, the scion of a prominent Republican family: John Reilly, Jr.

These were no ordinary workplace gripes. Reilly has been accused of casually using the N-word when referring to corrections officers, of leveraging his clout to hire a preschool teacher to a high-level position at the jail, and controlling multiple bank accounts that county officials say they didn’t know existed.

John Reilly, Jr., superintendent of a private jail in Delaware County, Pa., has been accused of misusing prison finances and abusing employees. (Photo/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
John Reilly, Jr., superintendent of a private jail in Delaware County, Pa., has been accused of misusing prison finances and abusing employees. (Photo/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

But Reilly, 62, didn’t operate in a vacuum. The county’s Board of Prison Inspectors, which has long been composed of political appointees, was supposed to oversee the superintendent but instead kept his alleged misconduct from ever becoming public, an investigation by The Inquirer and The Caucus has found.

Interviews with current and former employees, and newly obtained documents — including a whistle-blower complaint that was written by a former warden at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility — paint the first full portrait of a troubled jail, an ineffective board of overseers, and a public official who only now may be forced to account for a decade of past allegations.

The whistle-blower letter, which was sent in 2014 by former warden Cameron Lindsay to the state Attorney General’s Office and Delaware County officials, accused Reilly of calling black corrections officers N-words in front of senior staffers, referring to Latino workers as “tacos,” and once saying he hoped a pregnant female employee would have a child with birth defects.

Lindsay also alleged that Reilly directed underlings to target black guards for unnecessary urine tests and searches of their lockers and cars.

Reilly, in an interview Wednesday at his office on the prison’s grounds, denied Lindsay’s claims.

“I realize the allegations are horrible, but I was not involved in any of this," he said. “I didn’t say [any of] that.”

The allegations proved so difficult to overlook that the county paid a Philadelphia law firm more than $20,000 to investigate. Reilly said he was suspended for 30 days without pay in 2014 for overseeing an “unprofessional environment” where employees used “salty language.”

An election sweep earlier this week gave Democrats control of county council and the District Attorney’s Office for the first time in more than 150 years, and will likely lead to the jail’s operations — and previously withheld allegations, like the ones against Reilly — finally getting a critical evaluation.

Reilly, who has worked at the jail since 2001, now faces an uncertain future.

For much of the last two decades, Reilly has had a front-row seat for the prison experiment playing out in Delaware County, home to the state’s only privately run county jail.

In the early 1990s, county officials realized they would have to replace Broad Meadows, a decrepit, 60-year-old county jail, with a new one estimated to cost $90 million.

Wally Nunn, a county council member at the time, persuaded his colleagues to let Wackenhut Corrections Corp., now called the GEO Group, build and run a new jail, with the county paying a daily rate for each inmate. The county would appoint a superintendent and a handful of assistant superintendents, who would oversee Wackenhut’s warden.

The new facility — named George W. Hill Correctional, in honor of its longtime superintendent — opened in 1998.

After 12 years as an assistant prosecutor in the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, Reilly was recruited in 2001 by Nunn for a new position: deputy superintendent at George Hill.

Reilly considered himself a political appointee — his father, John Reilly, had served as Delaware County’s district attorney from 1981 to 1987, and his brother, Andrew Reilly, was the longtime chairman of the county’s Republican Party.

“When I came down here, it was made clear to me that ... you’ve got to get up to speed to replace George, if something happens,” Reilly said of Hill, who he said had serious health problems.

After Hill retired, Reilly became superintendent in 2008.

By then, the jail had attracted notoriety after a series of grim developments. Twelve inmates died at the facility between 2002 and 2008, and lawsuits filed by their families against the prison company resulted in more than half a million dollars in wrongful-death settlements.

Two years ago, GEO paid a $7 million settlement to the family of Janene Wallace, a mentally ill 35-year-old woman who had been incarcerated on a probation violation, and then hanged herself after 52 days in solitary confinement.

The GEO Group, which runs 133 facilities and had revenue last year of $2.3 billion, is being sued by the family of Nickaleen Bishop Williams, a South Philadelphia man who was addicted to heroin and ended up at George Hill in February 2018 after being arrested on a probation violation. He hanged himself, as well.

This July, another inmate killed himself, according to a GEO spokesperson, who declined repeated requests for the man’s identity and an explanation of how he died.

George Hill has been routinely understaffed, too, so much so that the county withheld $1.7 million from GEO in staffing penalties over the last eight years, county records show. Current corrections officers cite an inmate attack in August that sent two guards to a hospital, and a minor riot in September as proof that staff shortages have put them in peril.

Earlier this year, reporters requested records of the jail’s staffing levels, but Reilly’s office said that the information was proprietary and that its release could pose a public-safety risk.

The Inquirer appealed Reilly’s refusal to the state Office of Open Records, which ruled the information should be made public. Instead, the county prison board filed a lawsuit in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas to block the staffing numbers from being released. The lawsuit is pending.

The warden’s whistle-blower letter portrayed Reilly as a boss who used his power to foster an environment hostile to minority workers, and to support the questionable hiring of an underqualified assistant superintendent.

According to the letter, Reilly once suggested collecting the children of African American officers “into a slave farm” during a conversation with a senior staffer. Six current and former employees also told reporters that Reilly regularly used racial slurs in conversations at the prison.

“First of all, the allegations in the letter are not true,” Reilly said. Instead, he said that any overheard racist language came from his office’s handling “dozens and dozens” of complaints from inmates as they described being called the N-word, or other racist and sexist slurs. “So those conversations were had, no question about it. But did I ever say, ‘You’re this, or you’re that'? Absolutely not.”

Lindsay, who had been a warden at four other facilities across the country, accused Reilly of ordering senior jail employees to “target minorities” for random urine tests and canine searches of their lockers and cars for contraband.

Both Lindsay and his attorney declined to comment for this story.

Reilly denied targeting minorities, saying that every employee, regardless of race, is subjected to the same security procedures. He added that union rules prevent him from directly ordering urine testing.

In 2013, Reilly used his influence to get a preschool teacher with no correctional experience hired as an assistant superintendent of the nearly 1,900-bed jail. The two had met at a local gym, and Reilly had grown infatuated with her, according to former colleagues. Reilly disputed that characterization.

He said he had heard that the woman, Kelly Shaw, was interested in working at the jail. “She was a warrior. And that was something that I talked about when I came back: ‘If you see this person at the gym, she went hard with everybody,’ ” Reilly said.

Reilly persuaded Delaware County officials to hire Shaw soon after. Her resumè at the time, obtained by reporters through a Right to Know request, showed that her only professional experience beyond teaching at the preschool was working as a nanny.

Current and former employees said Shaw stepped into a role that had been custom-made for her. Reilly denied that, saying her background in education made her a great fit to improve the jail’s GED and wellness programs.

“This wasn’t just some fly-by-night, ‘John Reilly decides I’m going to hire this person.’ Absolutely not,” he said, although he conceded that his decision was “out of the box.”

Before Shaw started work in March 2014, a medical compliance officer raised concerns to Reilly and to the prison board about Shaw’s hiring. Reilly responded to the woman, who was pregnant, with fury, sources said.

According to the warden’s whistle-blower complaint, Reilly said that he would have the woman punched “in the face if she were a man” and that he hoped her child would have a birth defect.

Reilly denied making those remarks, too, but acknowledged that he and the woman had a “candid conversation” about Shaw’s hiring. The woman took her complaint against Reilly outside the jail, to the county’s personnel department, and Reilly removed her from her duties, the whistle-blower complaint said.

The personnel department contacted Reilly about the matter, he said, and encouraged him to take a two-week paid vacation, which he did.

Jail employees were soon told by John Hosier, the chairman of the prison board, that they should report workplace harassment issues to one person: John Reilly.

If they felt their complaints weren’t being resolved, they could bring them to him, Hosier said, and if still unsatisfied petition the county’s prison board.

Former employees who wanted to take their complaints about Reilly to the full prison board said in interviews that Hosier had denied them that opportunity. But the message was clear: These complaints should not be sent to the county’s personnel department, the normal channel for such concerns.

(Asked by reporters about the board’s protocol for dealing with such disputes, Hosier wrote in an email that “the board has complete confidence in the Superintendent and his staff.”)

That same year, the county hired Elizabeth Malloy, a Philadelphia employment attorney, to examine some of the complaints it had received about Reilly. The scope of Malloy’s investigation is unclear all these years later, as are her findings; she discussed the matter in a closed-door meeting with county officials, instead of compiling a written report.

“The taxpayers of the county who are footing the bill for this nonsense are not being well-served,” David Colapinto, cofounder of the National Whistleblower Center, said of the way the law firm’s findings were withheld from the public.

But Reilly confirmed to reporters that he was suspended without pay for 30 days as a result of Malloy’s investigation. “I took full, complete responsibility,” he said. “I owned it.”

His suspension was approved by the county council at the time, but wasn’t disclosed because it was considered a personnel matter.

Colapinto puzzled over the fact that workers were told to report complaints about workplace harassment to Reilly.

“They are treating it like it’s some run-of-the-mill personnel dispute, but the [comments in the whistle-blower complaint and allegations from the lawsuits] constitute gross intolerance of race and gender that should not be tolerated in any workplace," he said. “You can’t expect the person who is making those comments to do something about it.”

Former employees said that beginning in 2013, they reported Reilly’s behavior to an array of government agencies and officials, including the county council, the county government, then-Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the FBI, and the state Attorney General’s Office.

Nothing came of those efforts other than a response from the state AG to Lindsay’s whistle-blower letter, saying it had limited jurisdiction over the county jail and suggested he and his attorney contact the FBI. (A spokesperson for Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who took office in 2017, recently said that if those complaints are ongoing, the agency’s Civil Rights Unit would consider investigating.)

Reilly had enough clout in Delaware County to survive the raft of discrimination allegations, but his power was not limitless. The five-person Board of Prison Inspectors was intended to oversee the daily operations at George Hill, make policy and budgetary decisions — and, in theory, keep Reilly in check.

County Controller Joanne Phillips, a Democrat elected in 2017, conducted an audit of the superintendent’s office and found that Reilly had control over four private bank accounts — a general fund, two so-called “sunshine” accounts, and an “inmate fund” — that added up to more than $750,000.

Some of the money belonged to former inmates; Reilly’s office claimed it had outstanding checks that were owed to the inmates, some dating back to the 1970s, but had been unable to locate them. Other portions of the funds were collected from “vending machine revenue and other voluntary contributions” from jail employees, Phillips wrote in a memo that she sent to Reilly.

The “sunshine” funds, which held nearly $170,000 at the end of last year, were used by Reilly’s office to, among other things, buy Christmas fruit baskets for prison board members, and to make a $5,000 donation to two local women he had met at his gym who were participating in “Fight the Kraken,” an attempt to cross the Pacific Ocean in a rowboat, according to financial records.

Reilly defended that donation, saying it was made after one of the participants worked with Shaw to develop and teach a wellness program for 16 female inmates. He said the donation was approved by the prison board, and was made “within established policies and guidelines.”

Phillips said the jail was the only department in Delaware County that had bank accounts that hadn’t been disclosed to the controller’s office.

“With other departments, contracts and expenses would have to go to county council, and council would’ve heard: ‘How did you pick this vendor?’ ‘Is this the right vendor?’ ‘Why are we doing this?’ Phillips said in a recent interview.

Reilly disputed her statement, saying that the county officials, including Phillips, were well aware of the accounts, and that the prison had previously turned over funds from them. The accounts, he added, were audited annually by an accountant contracted by the prison board.

Still, in early October, the prison board transferred all of the money from the four accounts into a fiduciary account at Phillips’ urging, according to Reilly.

The public faced obstacles in keeping an eye on George Hill, as well. Its prison board insisted on holding its monthly meetings inside the jail, usually at a time when most people were at work. Activists and families of inmates demanded to know why.

The board also barred attendees from recording meetings. Under this mounting scrutiny, the prison board has been forced to make changes, little by little.

The Caucus reported the prison board to the Delaware County district attorney for a Sunshine Act violation after learning in 2018 that attendees were barred from recording the meetings; the board responded by changing its policy.

But the board and its leadership have been largely reluctant to answer questions outside of those meetings. In a recent written statement, Hosier chided reporters for not asking questions about the jail’s “positive aspects.”

The status quo at George W. Hill Correctional for much of the last two decades seems all but certain to change in the wake of the Democratic takeover of Delaware County’s political realm.

Progressive activists who have championed the idea of having the county resume running the prison will, for the first time, have a full county council sympathetic to their cause.

“This stands out as [an issue] that makes Delco seem behind the times, in having a privately managed prison,” said Kabeera Weissman, the cofounder of the Delco Coalition for Prison Reform.

An opportunity to pursue de-privatization seemingly arose in spring 2018, when the prison board hired an outside firm, Phoenix Management Services, for $100,000 to evaluate the feasibility of such a move once GEO’s contract expired at the end of the year.

But before the study was completed, the board decided to award GEO a new five-year, $259 million contract. Phoenix’s report arrived three months later, $30,000 over budget, and missing information that GEO refused to provide; the firm estimated it would cost the county $1 million to resume running George W. Hill.

A newly created Jail Oversight Board will soon replace the existing prison board, and include three members of the public.

GEO, meanwhile, was dealt a significant financial blow earlier this year. The banking giants that provide more than $2 billion of its financing — Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase — committed to ending their relationships with for-profit prison companies, amid pressure from coalitions of activists that oppose President Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration policies, which have flooded private prison facilities with undocumented immigrants.

The long-term impact of that move is unclear. For now, GEO is still in Delco — and so, too, is John Reilly Jr.

Later this month, Marianne Grace, the county’s executive director, is expected to announce whether Reilly will continue to serve as superintendent.

The day after Democrats completed their election sweep, Reilly sat at the edge of a conference table in his office, and mulled his future. After nearly two decades at George Hill, Reilly seemed to have little interest in fighting to hang on to the superintendent’s office.

If his presence sparks a contentious political battle, he said, “I will walk, happily retire, and say thank you, and move on."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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