HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) - Since July, two major manhunts in Pennsylvania have captured national attention and thrust Pennsylvania county jails into the limelight. Now, state lawmakers say it’s time to learn from past mistakes to prevent future escapes.  

A proposed five-bill package of legislation is looking to address infrastructure needs, staffing shortages and other issues at county jails.   

“It has given us a moment to start thinking about correctly funding prisons and correctly punishing attempted escapes,” said State Representative Craig Williams (R-Chester/Delaware), a former federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice and whose district is not far from the massive manhunt for convicted murderer Danelo Cavalcante. “I want prisoners to know if you try and you don't get away, you're going to suffer a pretty severe consequence,” he added. 

Cavalcante escaped the Chester County Prison on August 31 by crab-walking between two walls near a prison exercise yard. 

Just two months ago, a similar elusive escape took place in the opposite corner of the state, when Michael Burham used bed sheets to scale out of the Warren County Prison – directly across the street from the district office of Representative Kathy Rapp (R-Warren/Crawford/Forest). 

“Our infrastructure at the county level needs help and we need to beef it up,” said Rapp. "When we see there's not just one isolated incident, there is now multiple incidents, then it's time that we take notice,” she added. 

County jails typically hold inmates who have been convicted of lesser offenses, are in between facilities, or are being held while awaiting trial. They operate at the county level, but lawmakers believe they need some extra help from the state.  

"Bringing our state resources to bear here to give them a hand, I think is actually part of our responsibility for responsible incarceration,” said Williams, who is sponsoring the legislation to require that a greater portion of the savings realized from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) be directed to fund Pennsylvania’s county jails to improve security and safety of inmates and staff. “It's community safety, prison safety and security officer safety,” he added. 

Rapp’s proposal would prohibit escaped inmates, and those who attempt to escape, from becoming eligible for parole.   

“When inmates face less than significant consequences for escaping or trying to escape custody, sometimes the risk is worth the reward,” said Rapp. “The recent and unacceptable pattern of county jail escapes in the last several months shows now is the perfect time to reevaluate how we are punishing county jail escapes and attempted escapes. It’s one thing to make mistakes. It's another to learn from your mistakes,” Rapp added. 

Lawmakers believe state investments into county jails now will save state and local dollars down the road because large-scale manhunts are not cheap.  

House Republicans say the five-bill package would: 

  • Provide funding to upgrade security and health infrastructure (including heating and air conditioning) of county jails. 
  • Bolster staff by allowing county jails to hire other county corrections officers or state corrections officers to fill vacant shifts. 
  • Eliminate parole opportunities for inmates who escape county jails or attempt escape. 
  • Require the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to conduct a security audit of county jails that have experienced a jail escape. 
  • Create an alert system to be activated in the event of a prison escape. 

The package of legislation is still in the drafting stages. Rapp says it could be introduced as early as October.