As residents vent about escape, Chester County Prison Board approves security upgrades

Sept. 21, 2023
Members of the Chester County Prison Board have agreed to upgrade the physical barriers to outdoor recreational yards at the Pocopson facility.

Sep. 21—WEST CHESTER — Members of the Chester County Prison Board have agreed to upgrade the physical barriers to outdoor recreational yards at the Pocopson facility, enclosing them with walls and roofing that a consultant said would eliminate the building flaws that allowed two men — one a convicted murderer — to escape the prison this year.

The action came as residents continued to vent their anger at the county officials whose perceived lax oversight of the prison allowed the escape of Danelo Cavalcante to happen. Residents said the escape left the county in fear, and said they were frustrated at the slow pace of capture, and afraid to leave their homes.

Wednesday's meeting, which was rescheduled to be held at the county administrative offices in West Chester rather than the prison itself, lasted for more than 2 1/2 hours as residents rose to speak at the public comment portion of the meeting. Most all were critical of the board's attention to security, and handling of the escape emergency.

The board — the three county commissioners, the county district attorney, the sheriff, and the county controller — voted to proceed with the solution laid out by the TranSystems firm brought in by acting Warden Howard Holland that would turn the recreation areas from outdoor open-air yards to indoor gymnasium-like rooms.

The cost of the project, which a TranSystems representative said could begin this fall, was set at between $2.5 million and $3.5 million. It will be paid for out of American Rescue Plan Act funds left over from the pandemic.

The project was approved at the same time that the board voted to OK other suggestions made by Holland to improve security at the 1,100-inmate facility, including additional surveillance cameras, personnel to watch those monitors, and improved communication with Pocopson Township officials about prison issues.

"Yes" votes came from commissioners Josh Maxwell, Marian Moskowitz and Michelle Kichline, as well as DA Deb Ryan, Sheriff Fredda Maddox and Controller Margaret Reif. President Judge John Hall did not attend the meeting.

Cavalcante escaped on Aug. 31 by scaling walls in one of the exercise yards, climbing through a razor wire enclosure that led to a roof, running over the rooftops, jumping to the ground and then scaling a wire mesh fence to freedom.

Cavalcante was at large for two weeks as law enforcement led a sizable manhunt with as many as 500 officers looking for him in the area near the prison, which included the grounds of Longwood Gardens. He was able to steal a delivery truck, make his way to northern Chester County, steal a rifle from a homeowner who shot at him, and was finally captured on Sept. 13.

He was found hiding in a wooded area near Pughtown in South Coventry Township, and taken into custody by a tactical team of state troopers and U.S. Border Patrol officers, including a K-9 officer named Yoda.

The plan to upgrade the security at the prison came even as Holland has said that there had been only three escapes in the past 20 years — including two by the same man — and there had been no other significant security issues brought to the prison administration officials over the years.

Holland, in comments to the press and the public, blamed a "single point of failure" for Cavalcante's escape: the triangular open space above the walls he climbed in Yard 6, where he was allowed to roam while awaiting transfer to the state prison in Montgomery County where he is now housed.

Cavalcante's escape went undetected by a corrections officer in the observation tower that looks out over the exercise yards. The officer, whose name has not been publicly disclosed, was fired from his position for allegedly bringing a cell phone into the prison, in violation of prison regulations.

It is unclear whether Cavalcante was being housed in the prison's maximum security area at the time of his escape. Those inmates on "max" are supposed to be confined to the block unless they are accompanied one-on-one by a corrections officer to a meeting with their attorney or a family member.

He had been sentenced to life in prison plus 2 1/2 to five years for the murder of his former girlfriend, Deborah Brandao, in April 2021. He had not been transferred to state prison, however, as he worked with his attorneys from the county Public Defender's Office on his appeal.

In response to a question from Ryan, who had been the lead prosecutor in Cavalcante's trial, Holland said he was examining ways that prisoners convicted of crimes and sentenced to state prison terms could be transferred earlier than the now-standard 30 days.

Holland's other suggestions include adding at least 50 new cameras to the prison and hiring eight additional corrections officers to monitor those cameras.

He will also require inmates on the maximum security block to wear bright pink prison garments instead of the white T-shirt and green pants Cavalcante wore when he escaped. His recommendations for having high-risk inmates wear ankle bracelets that would track their movements and employ drones to observe inmates outside the prison walls were not acted on.

The prison board meeting, normally a perfunctory affair with dry monthly reports by the warden, was crammed with residents Wednesday who angrily accused the members — two of whom, Maxwell and Moskowitz, are running for re-election and two others, Maddox and Ryan, are seeking election as Common Pleas County judges — of putting the county in danger.

"I don't feel safe anywhere in this county," said one woman who bemoaned the fact that a K-9 unit at the prison had been disbanded more than 35 years ago.

"You failed us," said Guy Ciarrocchi, the former head of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Congress. "You failed us in your duty."

"I'm livid," said a woman from Westtown. "You had one job to do, which is to ensure our safety and you failed us. We can't afford another mistake like this."

To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.


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