Time for a calm, measured look at what happened at Chester County Prison

By Rich Heiland, Columnist, The Times

DANELO CAVALCANTE is in custody. In Chester County, our 14-days of living with some level of fear, being couch potato voyeurs has ended. Mega congratulations are due for all the law enforcement personnel and others who worked tirelessly to track him down including Yoda, the police dog that locked onto him.

But what now? I would hope a calm and professional debriefing of how he escaped and what happened over the course of the two weeks. I would hope that would include some soul-searching on the parts of some area residents, but more on that later.

First, the debrief. I spent the latter part of my career working with companies and organizations in the U.S. and around the world on various types of planning, project management and de-briefing. Here is what a debrief is: It is first and foremost a look at all the systems and processes and organization had in place throughout the events or actions being de-briefed. Second, it is a fair, non-blaming look at how human beings functioned within those processes and systems.

A close associate of mine has an interesting way of responding when one of his staff dashes in his office to complain about a co-worker’s actions. First, he asks “did anyone die?” Given the answer 99.9 times out of 100 is a resounding “no,” then any problem becomes fixable. But the next question is the most important: “What was it about our systems and processes that put him/her in the position of doing what they did?”

In other words, before we try to affix personal blame, which most often is mis-placed and actually a distraction, let’s look at all the systems, processes and even circumstances that came into play that led to a certain human action or inaction.

In the case of Cavalcante’s escape from the Chester County Prison on Aug. 31 the guard on duty in the tower has been fired. I disagree with that action coming so quickly, based on what I said above. I am not saying a firing may not have come to be an action, but given it came mid-way through the 14 days it has more the appearance of scapegoating than enforcing accountability. Now, if that employee had a history of offenses, had been under warnings, OK. But if this was their first black mark, absent the sort of dispassionate de-brief I mentioned, it seems hasty and does not lead to any lasting improvements.

Here’s why. Another prisoner had escaped a few months earlier in the same fashion – by crab-walking up two walls and the going over an exterior wall. In the wake of that a consultant was brought in and two rows or levels of razor wire were placed along the wall. Cavalcante managed to crab-walk up the walls and, because he’s only 5-feet tall and 120 pounds, slip between the wire strands.

NOW, BACK TO the guard. I lived for nearly 20 years in Huntsville, TX, headquarters of the Texas Department of Corrections in a county with six prison units. I know what a tower looks like, and I’ve watched guards in them. Towers have four sides. A guard usually has a set rotation. In the case of the Cavalcante escape, the guard would have been aware of the placement of the razor wire and could well have assumed that meant that side did not merit the attention the other three sides did, particularly since the rec yard had prisoners in. Rec yards are notorious for fights, swapping contraband and the like.

If this employee had no other bad marks, then officials cut off learning when they fired the guard. In my experience the person least likely to make a mistake is someone who previously has made one and learned from it.

Beyond the employee, the debrief also would include electronic surveillance. If it was caught on camera obviously that camera was not consulted until after guards had done a prisoner account and discovered they were one inmate shy.

A dispassionate debrief would look at the jail as an entire day. What processes and systems are in place from the time an inmate wakes up in the morning until they are in bed at night, and then overnight? Processes and systems should be challenged. Are they doing what they were intended to do? Have there been changes of any kind that make existing processes and systems obsolete, no longer needed? How do we need to change or update training to ensure our jail is as escape proof as possible?

The questions asked during a debrief are critical. At the end of it processes and systems can be changed and improved. As a part of that employee performance can be assessed and then decisions can be made about whether an employee was negligent or actually a victim of system deficiencies.

NOW, WHAT ABOUT the general public?

By far, most citizens exercised caution and many called in tips. But this episode should have taught us that citizens also can become a part of the problem. For instance, television news featured several people who were basically the same kinds of people who slow down to look at a car wreck. One man talked at length, as if he were some kind of expert, about how he drove to the most active part of the search area. He said he just wanted to see it, talked about conversations he had with officers. Seriously? Not good. As a print journalist I would have walked away from someone like that and not given them a second of fame. But, TV is a different animal.

Another fellow featured in the media drove up from Maryland. He brought his drone with him and would drive around the search area to fly it. He told interviewers he had a gun so he wasn’t in danger. Police took a dim view of his activity.

We also have the dairy farm adjacent to Longwood Gardens that left the keys in a van parked near outbuildings. Cavalcante stole it and made his way to the northern part of Chester County. Seriously? Keys left in a vehicle in a red-hot search zone?

Then we have houses that were left unlocked where he stole food and clothing, including one fellow who was working in his garage with the lights on and the overhead door up, and a loaded, scoped .22 rifle leaning against the wall. Cavalcante went into the garage and stole the gun and fled when he realized the homeowner was in the garage. And, they guy fired seven shots at him and missed!

It may be too much to expect that every citizen in a search zone will act responsibly. It may be too much to hope for that every citizen will realize this is real life, not a TV show or spectator sport and stay the hell out of the way of the professionals.

Here is hoping that any de-briefing, and any public presentations such as are being planned by the Chester County Commissioners to update citizens on what happened and what is going to happen going forward, will be cool, calm, free of politics and any uninformed Monday Morning Quarterbacking.

Finally, everyone needs to keep in mind that while obviously a system inside the jail failed, over the next two weeks law enforcement from the State Police through the Chester County Sheriff’s Department to borough and township departments, U.S. Marshalls, fire companies and a damn fine dog did their jobs as professionals and brought this to an end without injury or loss of life.

Rich Heiland, has been a reporter, editor, publisher/general manager at daily papers in Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and New Hampshire. He was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the Xenia Daily (OH) Daily Gazette, a National Newspaper Association Columnist of the Year, and a recipient of the Molly Ivins First Amendment Award from the Walker County (TX) Democrat Club. He taught journalism at Western Illinois University and leadership and community development at Woodbury College in Vermont.  Since 1995 he has operated an international consulting, public speaking and training business specializing in customer service, general management, leadership and staff development with major corporations, organizations, and government. Semi-retired, he lives with his wife in West Chester, PA. He can be reached at heilandrich1@gmail.com.



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