Lawsuit concerning C-SAU's alleged York County Prison abuses moves forward

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

A federal judge issued a split decision on motions in the ongoing case York County Prison inmates filed against the county over alleged civil rights violations related to its training contract with the Corrections Special Applications Unit.

Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson denied a motion by the county to dismiss allegations that it conspired with C-SAU to deprive inmates of their rights. However, Carlson also quashed an attempt by the inmates' attorneys to allow for a class action, which would broaden the pool of plaintiffs to any inmate who was jailed at the facility since C-SAU began its work.

In November, a federal judge issued a default judgment against C-SAU leader Joseph Garcia for failing to respond. The case against the county and the prison, however, continued.

"What took place at that county jail was a serious violation of the U.S. Constitution," said Leticia Chavez-Freed, one of the attorneys representing the inmates. "We are pleased with much of the ruling and will consider whether to continue with more than 40 individual lawsuits or respond to the report and recommendation by the Honorable Judge Carlson."

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Don Reihart, who represents the county Prison Board of Inspectors in the case, declined to comment on the underlying facts but said the board would abide by the court's decision.

"I think it was a court decision that was fairly made," he said Wednesday. "We will continue to defend the matter according to the principles of due process and the balance of judicial fairness to all parties."

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

A judge had made decisions in the lawsuit against York County Prison, York County and Corrections Special Applications Unit by inmates at the prison following the county's decision to enter into a second contract with the controversial prison contractor.

In a March 2021 incident, inmates reported being 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. Attorneys for the inmates allege C-SAU violated the constitutional rights of inmates and turned the prison into a “militarized environment.”

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That lawsuit came in December 2021, shortly after the county entered into a $252,770 contract for "confidential training" in November of that year. County officials severed ties with Garcia and C-SAU last week, 10 months before the end of that contract, saying that C-SAU's training work had been completed.

Garcia did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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.

Matthew Clayberger, the attorney representing the county in the lawsuit, said they had received and reviewed the recommendations but declined comment.

The decision on the competing motions had been remanded to Carlson in November by District Judge Jennifer Wilson.

Class action denial: On the attempt to classify the lawsuit as class action, Carlson found that the plaintiffs did not meet the sufficient prerequisites for such a designation.

One issue, he wrote, is that the lawsuit combines both those being held before trial and convicted prisoners. Claims by convicted defendants are controlled by the Eighth Amendment concerning cruel and usual punishment, Carlson wrote, while pretrial detainees are controlled by the Fifth Amendment concerning the rights of the accused. As a class action lawsuit designates one class, he wrote, the different claims would cause problems in the legal process.

Carlson also found that, due to the multiple alleged incidents involving C-SAU at York County Prison, there would have to be individual assessments of damages caused by the contractor for each individual affected. Thus, he wrote, there cannot be one equal class of inmates for a class-action lawsuit.

"The plaintiffs’ proposed class includes individuals 'who will be incarcerated in York County Prison', meaning the injunctive relief would be prospective and thus there would not be a finite universe of potential class members," Carlson wrote. "Further there would be no objective criteria to apply to determine the class."

Merging counts: In another ruling filed the same day, Carlson recommended the dismissal of one count against county officials only, which alleged that the county had violated inmates' Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection rights by contracting with C-SAU. Carlson found that entering into the contract itself did not by itself deprive inmates of their rights, nor did it qualify as "extreme behavior."

"We conclude that it is not necessary or proper to construe the contracting which led to the alleged constitutional violations in York County Prison, and the actual constitutional violations in York County Prison as distinct and separate events that warrant separate claims," Carlson's ruling reads.

That count now merges with another count that accuses all defendants of violating inmates' civil rights protections.

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However, an attempt by the defendants to have a count alleging conspiracy by York County, C-SAU and York County Prison to deprive inmates of their rights dismissed did not succeed. In denying the dismissal of that count, Carlson wrote that the plaintiffs have pleaded sufficiently well enough that a conspiracy cannot be ruled out. That issue will next proceed through the court's discovery process.

"We are pleased that Plaintiffs, a group of inmates housed at York Co Prison, survived four out of the five of the claims against York County," Alan Denenberg, another attorney representing the inmates, said in a written statement about the ruling. "We intend to vigorously proceed in our efforts to obtain justice for these inmates on all remaining claims."

The two sides have until Feb. 7 to appeal to Wilson.

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.