The new warden of Delaware County’s correctional facility comes from one of the most troubled prisons in all of Pennsylvania, according to state data as well as numerous media reports published in the last several years.
County officials selected Laura K. Williams to helm the George W. Hill correctional facility just as it was returning to the county’s full control in April after having been privately run for nearly three decades.
Before taking the Delaware County position, Williams served almost six-and-a-half years in several roles at the Allegheny County Jail, according to her LinkedIn profile. The last three-and-a-half years of her tenure was as chief deputy warden.
The Allegheny County Jail, meanwhile, has been the focus of many investigative reports, especially for thirteen deaths at the facility, all of which came during the coronavirus pandemic.
That number is somewhat disputed; another outlet puts the number at ten. But even the differing numbers have led to accusations that the ACJ may have been underreporting deaths.
The editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette weighed in on the situation just two months ago, saying “the Allegheny County Jail appears to be in turmoil. We say ‘appears’ because it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on, given a barrage of allegations and rebuttals and an ongoing beef between jail administrators and reform advocates.”
The editorial called for more independent oversight of the jail, adding, “The under-reporting of in-custody deaths is a national scandal. Allegheny County should not become part of it.”
Jails and prisons are by their very nature allegation-rich environments, and no investigation or lawsuit appears to have yet pinned any blame for some of the tragedies at the ACJ on Williams.
But at the same time, the sheer number of issues and media reports about problems at the ACJ warrant a closer look, especially given the heavy responsibility Williams will now shoulder in Delaware County.
Less than a month after Delaware County took back management of its prison, an inmate allegedly murdered a cellmate. By relying on sources, the Delco Daily Times first reported the incident before any announcement from the county.
The incident happened Friday, April 22. The Daily Times reported it in the early hours of Wednesday, April 27.
As to why a news outlet beat the county to getting news of the murder out in the public, Delaware County spokeswoman Adrienne Marofsky said, “The County responded to the press when they inquired and once we had confirmed information for the public.”
Outside of that remark, the county declined to comment for this story.
Statistics kept by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections also illustrate the turbulence of the ACJ.
For example, the ACJ led all prisons in Pennsylvania in “extraordinary occurrences for the year” which includes totals of deaths, escapes, use of force incidents, assaults, and emergencies.
In 2020, the ACJ led the state with 828 extraordinary occurrences, followed by 739 in 2021. That surpassed even Philadelphia’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility which has roughly 30 percent more inmates than the ACJ. In 2020 and 2021, the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility tallied 561 and 626 extraordinary occurrences.
Other Media reports on ACJ:
September 2020: Allegheny County Jail Sued In Class-Action Lawsuit As First Inmate Tests Positive For COVID-19
Five inmates filed a federal class action lawsuit against ACJ officials, with Williams named as the lead defendant.
The lawsuit alleges that “Superficial or non-existent diagnostic care, the lack of counseling or group therapy, medication mismanagement, and a culture of punishment rather than treatment amount to a system of mental health care that rarely provides any actual treatment. When treatment is provided, it is inadequate and fails to adhere to a minimally accepted standard of care.”
The lawsuit also alleges that Williams does not “have the training, experience or qualifications for overseeing the operations of the health care department.”
The court docket indicates the lawsuit is ongoing.
December 2020: Jail Oversight Board to investigate why high-ranking medical administrators keep quitting
The story details the departure of three high-level medical administrators in the prison, one of whom, Janet Bunts, lasted only three months on the job.
“Specifically, Bunts said that Chief Deputy Warden Laura Williams, who has no background in medicine, would not allow her to do her job,” TribLive reported.
“She’s very micromanaging and controlling,” Bunts said about Williams, according to the paper.
December 2020: Impossible workloads, ‘hostile’ management and unsafe medical practices: former ACJ medical employees speak out
Fifteen current and former ACJ employees raised issues about unsafe medical practices, and, like the previous story, Williams’ management was questioned.
“Other former employees questioned why supervisors without medical training, such as [Laura] Williams and Deputy Health Services Administrator Ashley Brinkman, are allowed to override the decisions of staff with medical training,” the report from Public Source said. “‘How is that possible that none of them have a medical background but they’re still medical management for the jail?’ asked Sara McClung, a former medical assistant who said she was terminated in May for arriving late to work.”
November 2021: Three years in solitary confinement: An open letter from the Allegheny Co. Jail
This article from the Pennsylvania Capital-Star is not a news piece, but an opinion essay by a man who was still an inmate at the AJC, and who had been in the jail’s solitary confinement unit for more than three years.
“Despite the recent abolishment of solitary confinement in this year’s election, Warden Orlando Harper and Chief Deputy Warden Laura K. Williams have failed to take the necessary measures to end the use of solitary confinement,” the prisoner wrote.
January 2022: ‘My whole body hurts’: Incarcerated woman at Allegheny Co. jail spends recreational time shackled
“A woman incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail mental health unit said she spends four hours a day — the entirety of her daily recreational time — chained to a table in the women’s acute mental health unit,” the report details.
March 2022: Ex-prisoner says Allegheny County Jail’s lack of care caused him to lose his leg
A person formerly incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail has filed a lawsuit against multiple members of the jail’s medical staff alleging that a lack of medical treatment in the facility led to the amputation of his leg,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
“Clayton McCray, 27, was incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail from September 2019 until October 2020 as a pretrial detainee on a probation violation. He is suing the county, the jail’s medical directors and staff members, including former Chief Deputy Laura Williams, on claims of malpractice and violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports