A 'slippery slope': What does the future hold for York County's prison contract?

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

York County's $253,000 two-year contract with a prison contractor accused of various inmate abuses is still in a holding pattern.

County officials have argued they won't need to bring the contract back before the public because any changes would be minor — or, as they call them, "de minimis."

Commissioner Doug Hoke said there was no update on the contract approved Oct. 20, but not yet signed, and that no timeline had been established for it to be finalized..

It's the latest pause to the contract, which would be CSAU's second with York County Prison. The pause would allow the county to add clauses to the contract.

READ MORE: Did York County violate the Sunshine Law with prison contract vote?

 "If there were changes to be made of not significance and didn't affect the contract amount or timing or anything," Hoke said last week. "They were considered de minimis changes and we could move forward with those minor modifications."

Melissa Melewsky, an attorney for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, described that justification as a slippery slope.

"It raises a question: Why authorize a contract not in its final form? Why would they do that?" she said. "If nothing else, it creates the appearance of impropriety, and why would the county commissioners want to do that? It's just bad practice."

READ MORE: York County appears to have second thoughts about $253,000 prison contract — after its approval

Melewsky said she didn't necessarily disagree with the claiming of de minimis. But the practice creates the appearance of impropriety.

"That's obviously something public officials should work to avoid when possible," she said.

After receiving unanimous approval to seek a second contract with Corrections Special Applications Unit from the county's Prison Board of Inspectors, York County paused to investigate allegations stemming from a March 31 incident at the prison.

READ MORE: Investigator calls York's prison trainer 'the Bernie Madoff of correctional consultants'

Inmates alleged the contractor abused them in a variety of ways. York County Prison says those allegations have been proven false.

 "The allegations made by inmates sparked an extensive review by prison officials. YCP conducted multiple inmate and staff interviews, collected reports, and reviewed hours of video," Warden Adam Ogle said in a recent email. "The allegations made by inmates could not be substantiated. Video evidence confirmed that C-SAU staff were professional at all times."

York County Prison in Springettsbury Township Monday, August, 24, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

The Pennsylvania Prison Society, which first brought the allegations to the county's attention, says otherwise.

"We've not been provided with anything that would disprove or suggest that this is not to be believed," said Noah Barth, the group's prison monitoring director.

In that March 31 incident, inmates told the society they were forced to stand facing a wall for several hours while weapons were pointed at them. Two inmates also reported being forced to walk through the prison in handcuffs with their genitals exposed.

After the incident, CSAU senior team leader Joseph Garcia posted photos from the prison on his Facebook page to promote the contractor, prompting an email from Ogle asking him to take them down.

READ MORE: 'I own you': The brutal history of York County's prison contractor

Garcia is himself a controversial figure.

An Allegheny County background check raised concerns about his background and work history. That included an arrest in England in the 1980s for conspiracy to commit serious bodily harm.

Noelle Hanrahan, who conducted the background check, called Garcia the "Bernie Madoff of prison contractors" in a York Dispatch interview.

"You couldn't have done an inquiry without running into problems," Hanrahan said in September.

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.

"There is no educational attainment, no list of clients, no resume, no curriculum vitae," she added. "There were red flags on every single category that one would check in a background check." 

The York NAACP has objected to the contract, citing comments Garcia made on a podcast in August 2020 where he mocked "Black Lives Matter" by saying "Dogs' Lives Matter" and predicted a racial war against correctional officers in the wake of the George Floyd murder.

“It is outrageous that the Prison Board and the County Commissioners plan to continue doing business with this organization," York NAACP president Jamiel Alexander said in a news release before the contract vote. "We will not ignore this. Allow public input before you allocate these funds.”

A photo of an issue of "Tactical Life," where CSAU "Senior Team Leader" Joseph Garcia expressed concerns of a "racial war" after George Floyd's murder.

While York County did allow public comment at the meeting during which they unanimously approved the CSAU contract, the time for comments came after the vote.

That may be a Sunshine Law violation, according to Paula Knudsen Burke, attorney for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.

"The whole purpose, the underpinning purpose is to hear from the public before you take action," she said. "If you want public participation, you don't take the vote and then ask the public what they think. And that's not what the Sunshine Act says either."

Matt Enright can be reached via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.

Like what you're reading? Consider subscribing to The York Dispatch.