Chester County prison officials had 'concerns about the leadership' a year before Danelo Cavalcante's escape

Officials vowed to make changes "immediately" to earn community's trust back.

September 20, 2023, 7:37 PM

Officials in Chester County, Pennsylvania, admitted Wednesday that there were failures in official communications following convicted murderer Danelo Cavalcante's escape from their county prison on Aug. 31.

During the first public meeting of the board that oversees the prison since the two-week manhunt for Cavalcante drew national headlines, Chester County Commissioner Josh Maxwell told residents the ordeal was "something we never expected to happen here in Chester County, a place where people move to be and feel safe."

Officials stated that they started having "concerns about the leadership and operations" at the prison a year earlier.

PHOTO: Pennsylvania State Police search for escaped inmate Danelo Cavalcante in Pennsbury Township, on Sept. 7, 2023.
Pennsylvania State Police search for escaped inmate Danelo Cavalcante in Pennsbury Township, on Sept. 7, 2023.
Steven M. Falk/The Philadelphia Inquirer via ZUMA Press Wire

"We want to find ways to earn your trust," Maxwell said. "It's going to take more than a day, more than a meeting today. It's going to take weeks and then months and then years without any incidents to earn the community's trust."

He added that Cavalcante was "one of the worst prisoners we have had in terms of crimes they committed."

Maxwell said the board's concerns a year ago prompted them to hire third-party consultants to evaluate conditions at the prison.

One consultant conducted an unannounced inspection over a three-day span in April, which led to recommendations being delivered in July.

"Those recommendations focused on what they believed to be the root cause of concerns, which was leadership within the prison administration," Maxwell said.

"Ultimately, corrective actions that were tasked to the previous warden were not satisfactorily undertaken."

One day prior to the escape, the board accepted the resignation of the jail's warden and named Howard Holland, a former police chief in nearby Downingtown, as the prison's interim warden. Maxwell said Holland had spent several months as a "special liaison" to the board during the investigations by consultants.

'Emergency communication was lacking'

Maxwell acknowledged that there were issues with how Chester County residents were informed about the escape from the prison, which is located at the edge of Philadelphia's suburbs in one of the wealthiest regions of Pennsylvania.

PHOTO: Danelo Cavalcante was taken into custody on Sept. 13, 2023, after escaping from a prison in Chester County, Pa., two weeks prior.
Danelo Cavalcante was taken into custody on Sept. 13, 2023, after escaping from a prison in Chester County, Pa., two weeks prior.
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"We do understand and believe that notifications and emergency communication was lacking regarding this prison escape and the county's Department of Emergency Services will start to make changes immediately," he said.

Maxwell noted in the event of any future escape, ReadyChesCo, the county's notification system for residents, will be activated at the same time as the escape alarms.

"In the situation like this, that notification did not go out quick enough. We own that and will ensure that the Department of Emergency Services corrects that for any incident moving forward," Maxwell said.

Changes ahead in Chester County

During Wednesday's meeting, the Chester County Prison Board approved a $94,000 contract with TranSystems to design security upgrades to the prison, including enclosing the yard that was where Cavalcante's escape began.

The board also approved temporary fixes to the prison, including closing off the area above the entrance doors to the prison yard with a security metal soffit, removing basketball hoops and adding correctional officers to the prison yards to supplement the supervision from the guard tower.

During the meeting, representatives from TranSystems shared photos taken inside the prison and offered three possible options for solutions, with the main one being that the prison yards should be fully enclosed with roofing so that detainees cannot climb out of the yard as Cavalcante did.

Community pushes back, 'You had one job to do.'

Local residents voiced their concerns about Cavalcante's escape during the meeting.

"I'm livid," said Sheila Lerner of Westtown Township. "You had one job to do, which was to ensure the safety of the citizens and manage the prison properly, and you failed it."

Holland, acknowledged that more needs to be done.

"I have work to do," Holland told the board and attendees at the meeting. "The only way I can get that work done and make sure it's acceptable is, one, be clear and transparent about what we're doing at that facility."

Holland is seeking a number of changes to the prison, including adding more high-tech cameras, conducting more drills, improving community relations, adding a new alarm system for the perimeter fence and implementing surveillance by drone.

He said that after the May escape of Igor Bolte from the same facility, razor wire was added near the exterior exercise yards and overhang immediately and $155,000 worth of additional razor wire was recommended for the prison roofline.

"The reason for that was when Mr. Bolte escaped, he didn't use the same path as Mr. Cavalcante," Holland said. "He actually got up onto the prison roof, ran across the roof and over the front overhang."

Although the $155,000 project was authorized on Aug. 14, Holland said the vendor has been waiting on supplies to arrive and the work is not expected to be finished until November.

"The combination of the razor wire added after Bolte's escape and the fine mesh metal fencing added after Cavalcante's escape prevents anyone from accessing the roof from the exterior exercise yards," Holland said.

ABC News' Charlotte Greer contributed to this report.