York County officials stand by prison contractor amid misconduct allegations

Matt Enright
York Dispatch
A photo from the Corrections Special Applications Unit Instagram page. York County Prison wants to contract with CSAU again, even after a controversial March 31 incident.

York County officials are standing by a prison contractor despite allegations of physical threats and sexual humiliation.

The South Carolina-based Corrections Special Applications Unit (CSAU) already received $122,850 for "confidential training" involving gas masks and "less-than-lethal rounds" in 2020. Prison officials asked the county to renew that contract for an as-yet unreleased amount.

Inmates of the prison reported being forced to stand handcuffed, facing a wall for hours with weapons pointed at their backs, as the private contractors threatened them in a March 31 incident. Two said they were led through the prison in shackles with their genitals exposed.

"I'm sure the safety and welfare of the staff and the prisoners are being taken into consideration," said York County Commissioner Doug Hoke, who also serves as president of the prison board of inspectors.

More:Allegations of physical threats and sexual abuse dog York County Prison contractor

Hoke, and the rest of the board, recommended that the county move forward with a second CSAU contract. That renewal, which would require a vote from the county board of commissioners, could come as early as Sept. 1.

Like Hoke, Commissioner Ron Smith said he has faith in the contractor's work.

President Commissioner Julie Wheeler said county officials would consider the allegations but would not commit to a course of action.

"I think the board of commissioners and the prison board are being very responsible and deliberate," she said.

So far, county officials have not disclosed the amount of this new proposal, which would first require the approval of the county solicitor.

CSAU and its staff members have not responded to numerous requests for comment.

In public statements, county officials said CSAU have helped the prison cut back on use of force incidents and to seize more contraband from inmates. County spokesperson Mark Walters said from 2020 to 2021, contraband items found went from 30 in 2020 to 106 in 2021. He did not specify what kinds of contraband had been seized.

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CSAU's leader, Joseph Garcia, frequently appears in articles and on video touting his team's military training and advanced weaponry.

"In the event of a hostage situation or a major riot, we're the team that they'll send in," he said during an episode of the A&E reality TV show America's Top Dog, which was filmed in 2020 and aired last month.

A 2014 National Rifle Association profile described Garcia as having a "Jekyll and Hyde persona common to a military drill instructor or a WWF wrestler." In an NRA video, Garcia said: "That is my mission in life: to train warriors and operators to deal with the most violent things behind prison walls."

Garcia has not responded to several requests for comment.

Joseph Garcia, who leads CSAU, in a promotional video he recorded last year for Tactical Life magazine in which he describes the group's tactics.

Another private corrections contractor led by Garcia, called the U.S. Corrections Special Operations Group (US-COG), faced accusations of training excessive force in Colorado and South Carolina.

During a May 20 visit to the York County Prison, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a prisoner advocacy group, conducted interviews with 10 inmates who were in the housing unit where the March 31 incident took place. According to those interviews, the inmates were forced out of their cells, made to strip out of their clothes and handcuffed. 

"'They were threatening us with guns. Someone would yell 'stage 2' and they would cock their guns,'" inmates told the Prison Society, according to a memo sent by the Society to York County Prison. "They told us they could use the guns. They told me 'if you give me a reason, I’m going to use it.'”

More:We want your input: Mental health at the York County Prison

York County Prison Warden Adam Ogle has said the prison investigated the allegations and that they were not true. Ogle declined comment beyond the statement: "[CSAU] is a safer alternative to conventional use of force methods."

Inmate advocates express grave concerns about the county's proposed new contract with CSAU.

"There appears to be a disconnect between the language that the warden uses about CSAU's approach and the multiple first-hand accounts of the men in York custody," Prison Society official Noah Barth said.

The society has recommended that York County Prison have an external expert observe CSAU and report to county officials, which they addressed in their memo to  Ogle.