Second ‘hidden’ death discovered at troubled Delco prison

Documents newly obtained by Broad + Liberty show the Delaware County prison had a sixth death in 2022, but the fatality was of the type that allowed the county to escape having to count it on its death tally reporting to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. 

In addition to reporting such numbers to the state, the prison must also report deaths in order to comply with the federal Death in Custody Reporting Act, or DCRA. If this newly discovered death was not reported to the federal government, the prison may have run afoul of that law.

In many cases, an inmate’s medical emergency begins within the prison walls, such as a heart attack, drug overdose, suicide attempt, or even injuries from an violent event like a fight or stabbing with another inmate. However, if the prison is able to get the inmate released by a court before they pass away, the prison can say the death did not technically happen while the inmate was in custody, and so does not have to count it on its record.

This technique — what many journalists and some lawmakers have called “hidden deaths” — has come under fire in recent years as criminal justice reform efforts from both the right and the left have continued to press for more accurate statistics for better accountability.

For example, a 2022 house editorial from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette excoriated the practice, especially as it relates to the federal law, the Death in Custody Reporting Act, or DCRA.

“Allegheny County is violating a federal law on reporting in-custody deaths by excluding certain prisoners who died after they were transported to a hospital. In doing so, local jail officials are withholding information from the state and federal government that could help prevent such tragedies,” the paper’s editorial board wrote.

“The letter and spirit of the federal Death in Custody Reporting Act is clear: An inmate who is transferred to a medical facility and dies there should be reported.”

Internal prison documents provided to Broad + Liberty by a source familiar with the prison show on March 17, 2022, Jacob Rapp, then 36, had a medical emergency in which he was having obvious difficulty breathing. “An ambulance crew arrived and took over,” and Rapp “was then placed on a stretcher and taken off the unit to Riddle Hospital,” one incident report says.

Another prison document shows Rapp was discharged that day “by courts order.” His court docket also shows that a previously ordered psychological evaluation was canceled that day as well. The court order canceling the evaluation indicates the judge approved because of a “stipulation” between the county public defender’s office and the county district attorney.

Finally, a document just obtained from the Delaware County medical examiner shows Rapp’s death was pronounced on March 22, with a cause of death listed as “Hyptertensive Cardiovascular Disease.”

Rapp’s death and its connection to the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Concord has not been reported on previously by any outlet.

The county declined to answer questions for this article. District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer’s office also did not return a request for comment, as well as a request for any document that would provide greater detail about the stipulation that appears to have been key in getting Rapp released from custody.

The one common denominator between Allegheny County and Delaware County is that prisons in both jurisdictions were managed, even partly, by the current Delaware County prison warden, Laura K. Williams. The criticism leveled against the Allegheny County prison by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is identical to the lack of accurate reporting by the Delaware County prison, described in greater detail below.

State reporting

County prisons must submit inmate death data to both the federal and state government. Those processes, however, are independent of each other, meaning that there is no requirement or checks that the data submitted to one is the same as what is submitted to the other. And different agencies are used in the different processes.

As for state-based reporting, by law the county is supposed to submit monthly data of “extraordinary occurrences” to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. The DOC then aggregates that monthly information into a single spreadsheet which is published once a year, and is made available on a DOC webpage.

But data collection is more or less where the interaction between county prisons and the PA DOC ends, at least when it comes to statistics.

According to a DOC spokeswoman, “DOC does not have any operational or administrative authority over county facilities. We are only the collectors of the data and do not have the authority to audit the county statistics in any way,” (emphasis original).

The same spokeswoman noted, “[t]here are no consequences in [the state law] for falsification of statistics, nor is there any authority to audit or investigate statistics.”

According to the DOC’s statistics from 2022, Delaware County experienced four deaths that year.

The following chart lays out the fuller extent of what happened in the prison that year, based on numerous documents, the DOC’s statistics, media reports, and Broad + Liberty‘s own reporting.

Broad + Liberty asked the county if it disputed this list, in a general way, or in any of the particulars. The county declined comment.

Federal reporting

Reporting inmate deaths to federal officials is a responsibility put on the state government by the DCRA, introduced as a bill in 2013 and signed into law in 2014.

To achieve this, the state has tasked an agency different from the DOC, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD), to aggregate this data. Once collected, it sends the information to the federal government via the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), a sub-agency of the Department of Justice.

Broad + Liberty asked the PCCD for all in-custody death data for the last decade, and the commission directed us to file a Right to Know request, which we have done.

Broad + Liberty also asked the PCCD whether a death like Rapp’s should be counted as an in-custody death. The commission pointed us to a presentation to the federal agency that aggregates that data from around the country.

The document says the following circumstances would be reportable: “Deaths occurring when an individual is on medical furlough but had been expected to return to custody following treatment are reportable. (e.g., if not for the precipitating event or underlying medical condition would the person still be in the correctional facility).

Page 7 of dcra-jail-deaths-presentation
Contributed to DocumentCloud by Todd Shepherd (Broad + Liberty) • View document or read text

Another document from the same federal agency gives the same guidance, saying, “[i]f the incarcerated person, absent the medical condition, would have been in prison at the time of death, it counts as a reportable death. Although the person was not physically in a correctional facility at the time of death, the death is still one of an incarcerated individual.”

States that fail to comply with DCRA reporting risk losing federal funding related to criminal justice programs, according to federal websites.

Rapp’s death, and Warden Williams’ reporting role

Rapp’s death came at a time of remarkable transition for the prison. In October 2021, the county voted to end nearly three decades of using private companies to manage the prison.

Even though the first official day of government management wouldn’t come until April 6, 2022, the date was merely a formality in the transfer of power. The county had already selected Williams as the county’s warden months earlier, giving her a start date of January 31. Sources with intimate knowledge of the prison say when Williams was installed, the facility was de facto under government management, and she had full control of the daily decision making from her first moments on the job.

Video of the April meeting of the Delaware County Jail Oversight Board shows Williams informing the board of an inmate death on March 29, 2022, but that was regarding a different inmate, not Rapp. Therefore, Williams did not give the board information about Rapp’s medical emergency and subsequent passing, at least in the public portion of the meeting.

Williams is familiar with the method of getting inmates quickly released from custody when in the throes of a medical emergency.

Prior to becoming the Delaware County warden, she was the deputy warden of health services for Allegheny County.  While there, she defended the quick-release-from-custody method according to minutes from Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board meetings.

Although the previously referenced editorial from the Post-Gazette didn’t directly name Williams, it was aimed at a practice that had become somewhat commonplace during her tenure at the facility.

According to her LinkedIn resume, Williams served as the deputy health services administrator from 2017-2018, and then as the jail’s chief deputy warden from 2018 until her departure for Delaware County in 2022. A lawsuit filed in 2020 claimed her role as deputy warden at that time was to oversee the prison’s health services.

Even before the Post-Gazette’s editorial, Williams had been under withering scrutiny from Pittsburgh-area journalist Brittany Hailer, who also was attempting to track and record unreported deaths.

As Hailer reported about the death of John Brady in July, 2021, one member of the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board said she had not been informed of the death by the jail’s own administration.

“Unfortunately that’s not all that surprising,” Allegheny County Councilwoman and member of the Jail Oversight Board, Bethany Hallam, said to Hailer. 

“The jail has at other times considered the death of someone who was previously in their custody, but were at a hospital at the time of their death declaration, as something other than a ‘death at the jail’, and therefore chose not to inform the Board of their passing. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Jail Oversight Board should absolutely be notified any time there is a death of someone who is currently in the jail, was in the jail prior to hospitalization, or whose death could potentially be directly related to treatment received at the jail or a lack of treatment at the jail,” she wrote.

Other reporting by Hailer mirrors that of Broad + Liberty’s recent reporting on Delco’s George W. Hill Correctional Facility (GWHCF).

For example, Hailer reported many family members of deceased inmates at Allegheny felt that their notification of a medical emergency from the jail was late. Those same complaints were made to Broad + Liberty by Janet Owens and Pam Langworthy, the mothers of sons Andrew Little and Patrick Langworthy, respectively, who died by suicide at the GWHCF less than six months into Williams’ tenure in Delaware County.

Broad + Liberty reported in February that the prison was using the quick release technique to help lower its death count. For that report, Broad + Liberty took extra steps of sending requests for comment to each individual member of the county council as well as to individual members of the jail oversight board to see if they approved the technique. None of those persons responded.

Broad + Liberty has also asked the county on more than one occasion if it had any evidence that any of the private companies who managed the prison, such as the GEO Group, ever used quick release to help keep its death count low. No answer to that question has ever been provided.

In December of 2022, the president of the GWHCF,  correctional officers union and another correctional officer, Albert Johnson, went before the Delaware County Council to alert them of plunging morale.

Those complaints continued through much of 2023 to the point that the union formally filed a no-confidence vote against Williams last month.

Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at tshepherd@broadandliberty.com, or use his encrypted email at shepherdreports@protonmail.com. @shepherdreports

3 thoughts on “Second ‘hidden’ death discovered at troubled Delco prison”

  1. The entire point of this article is to convey these ideas: “1) In December of 2022, the president of the GWHCF, correctional officers’ union and another correctional officer, Albert Johnson, went before the Delaware County Council to alert them of plunging morale. 2) Those complaints continued through much of 2023 to the point that the union formally filed a no-confidence vote against Williams last month.”
    Six (6) prisoners died. How many prisoners (total) occupied that same prison during the time of those deaths? What is the percentage of dead vs live prisoners?
    Yellow Journalism (referring to stories and cartoons that were sensationalized for the sake of selling papers in the late 1890s) seems to be alive (no pun intended) at Broad + Liberty in 2024.

    1. I think the point is to show that the prison is lying about deaths — possibly in violation of federal law — by dumping half-dead cons in the hospital so they can die on someone else’s watch. Not really sensationalist to point out government abuses, is it?

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