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Chester County Press

Board OKs design to fully enclose Chester County Prison exercise yards

09/27/2023 03:16PM ● By Richard Gaw

In one of the first actions designed to secure the Chester County Prison after the Aug. 31 prison break by Danelo Cavalcante led to a two-week manhunt for the convicted killer, the Chester County Prison Board on Sept. 20 unanimously approved a design that will fully enclose the prison’s eight exercise areas.

The meeting, held at the Chester County Commissioners’ Meeting Room in West Chester, featured a presentation by TranSystems, a Kansas City, Mo.-based engineering and design company, who presented three options for securing the prison’s exercise yards, each designed to eliminate the security flaws that allowed Cavalcante – as well as prisoner Igor Nolte in May – to escape the prison, both by way of crab walking up the walls of a narrow vestibule.

Introduced by Brian Endler, vice president of architecture and engineering at TranSystems, the chosen option will replace fencing with 18-foot-high masonry security walls; construct an elevated roof structure that will fully cover the entirety of the yards; install a ribbon of secure screening at top of wall for ventilation and natural daylight; install LED lighting that will be built into ceilings; create a new sallyport to prison exits; remove existing shed roofs; close off the area at the entrance door to the yard with a security metal soffit; and remove all basketball hoops.

The option the board selected was also TranSystems’ preferred choice, Endler told the board.

“It is the option that solves all of your problems, we believe, with a wall instead of fence, a solid roof, and the fact that it is fully enclosed,” he said. 

Endler told the board that the company was invited to tour the Chester County Prison shortly after Cavalcante escaped and made several observations of its infrastructure.

“The yards don’t have any roofs or any caps, so once you get up there, you have breached a secure perimeter,” he said. “The yards are fenced and not walled, which also poses a security risk. The yards do not have what we would call a clean layout or design, and with that stair tower jutting out in the yard, there are some hidden corners that are problematic and there are some climbable features that you don’t want.”

Endler said the cost of the project to enclose the eight exercise areas will be between $2.5 million and $3.5 million and will take between six and nine months to complete. Board member Josh Maxwell said that the funding for the project will be paid for through a grant from the American Rescue Plan Grant. The Prison Board approved a $94,000 contract with TranSystems for the conceptual design, design and construction management related to the prison enclosure project. The company, which has offices in Pennsylvania, has designed over 150 correctional facilities in the U.S., including facilities in 41 counties in the commonwealth.

Endler said that the next steps for the construction of the enclosed roof will be to conduct an in-depth survey of the area that will include taking measurements, proceed into design and provide the design to a contractor who will be selected by county officials.

The Prison Board also agreed to TranSystem’s temporary security options for the prison’s exercise area, which include removing all basketball hoops; staffing the exercise area and the cell tower with direct supervision; and close off the area above the yards’ entrance doors with a security metal ceiling. Endler said that the temporary solutions would take a few weeks to finish. 

Board supports portion of acting warden’s wish list

During his presentation, Howard Holland, the acting warden for Chester County Prison, said that in the aftermath of the Cavalcante escape, he pledged to be clear and transparent, and forge new relationships while rebuilding old and current ones. 

Holland listed several infrastructure improvements that have been made at the prison since Bolt’s escape in the spring that included two areas of vulnerability: adding extra razor wire on the exterior of the exercise yards and purchasing $155,000 worth of razor wire which will be installed installed along the roof line of the prison and be completed in November.

Immediately after Cavalcante’s escape, the prison installed fine mesh metal fencing between the roof line and the gable line where the fugitive escaped. The upgrade now prevents anyone from accessing the roof from the exterior exercise yards.  

Focusing on three improvements areas -- security, technology and operations – Holland received the Prison Board’s approval to add between 50 and 75 additional cameras around the facility, that will be trained to sound alarms when a prisoner enters a restricted area, such as a roof or a perimeter fence. He said that the estimated cost for the cameras will be $70,000.

The Board also approved Holland’s request to add eight new security camera operator positions, who will focus solely on 24-7 monitoring of security cameras. 

Holland also called for the prison to begin regular drills and exercises with its staff; to create a transparent relationship with communities in the vicinity of the prison; to update the public during meetings at local municipalities; to establish an alarm system installed at the prison’s exterior fence; to institute a drone program to provide aerial observation of the prison; to begin high-caliber training programs with staff; to outfit prisoners in high-visibility clothing, chosen according to each prisoner’s classification level; and to pursue outside accreditation from a national source or organization.

He also called for the re-establishment of the prison’s canine program, which ended in 1986.

“[These recommendations are] above and beyond what we already do at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Everything is good with the prison including our policies and procedures. We were evaluated in September of 2022 and [the Department of Corrections] was impressed with our operation so they waived our 2023 evaluation and scheduled the next one for 2024. 

“I want to make it clear to you that they are the bare minimum standards that the [Department of Corrections] requires. We have lots of room for improvement. We should be seeking excellence, not just meeting a lower standard.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].