Federal judge rejects class-action status for lawsuit by York County Prison inmates

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

A federal judge has once again blocked efforts by York County Prison inmates to have their lawsuit alleging civil rights violations by prison training contractor Corrections Special Applications Unit listed as a class action.

Judge Jennifer Wilson upheld an earlier ruling by Judge Martin Carlson, saying the inmates' attorneys objections were not enough to overturn Carlson's decision.

"The fact that Plaintiffs disagree with the outcome of this analysis is not a basis to decline to adopt the report and recommendation," Wilson wrote in her ruling.

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The inmate allegations stem from a March 2021 incident in which prison staff and representatives from a training contractor allegedly forced inmates to strip naked at gunpoint, march into the gymnasium and stand against the wall for hours without access to food or medical care. According to the lawsuit, inmates were also allegedly threatened with a mock execution in which staff were told to "lock, load and take aim" at them. One inmate reportedly had a panic attack.

The lawsuit also alleges that C-SAU leader Joseph Garcia allegedly yanked the inmate off the ground by his handcuffs and told the inmate that if he continued to move or express fear, he would be shot in the head.

A default judgment was already issued against C-SAU and Garcia for reportedly failing to respond to the lawsuit. York County, however, continues to contest the allegations.

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.

An attorney for the inmates said he was reviewing additional options.

"Plaintiff’s counsel are disappointed with the denial of class certification," attorney Alan Denenberg said Tuesday. "We are reviewing all of our options, including a petition for review by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals."

Matthew Clayberger, attorney for York County and York County Prison, declined comment due to ongoing litigation.

In an email response Tuesday, Garcia wrote: "I have no idea what you’re even talking about. I and nobody that I know have told me anything."

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Garcia, in explaining his failure to respond, previously said that his organization wasn't served paperwork in the lawsuit.

Inmates at York County Prison filed a lawsuit in December 2021 shortly after the county approved a two-year, $252,770 contract for "confidential training" with C-SAU, which has garnered controversy for its conduct.

The county would later agree with C-SAU to end the contract months before it was up, while paying C-SAU an additional $43,500 for equipment.

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

If it had been approved, certifying the lawsuit as class action would have broadened the pool of plaintiffs to any inmate jailed at the prison since C-SAU began their work. In his ruling earlier this year, Carlson found the inmates had not met the sufficient prerequisites.

"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."

Another ruling by Carlson earlier this year recommended the dismissal of one allegation against county officials only, which alleged that the county had violated inmates' 14th Amendment equal protection rights by contracting with C-SAU. Carlson found that entering into the contract itself did not in itself deprive inmates of their rights, nor did it qualify as "extreme behavior."

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That was then merged with another allegation that accuses all defendants of violating inmates' civil rights protections. 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.

According to Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper, York was one of two Pennsylvania counties that recommended C-SAU in 2021. Allegheny County, however, subsequently barred its prison from contracting with C-SAU over concerns about the program and Garcia.

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Noelle Hanrahan, a private investigator hired by Allegheny County, called Garcia "the Bernie Madoff of correctional consultants" during an interview with The York Dispatch in 2021. Hanrahan's report included information about time Garcia spent in a British prison in the 1980s.

"You couldn't have done an inquiry without running into problems," Hanrahan said in the 2021 interview.

She added: "There were red flags on every single category that one would check in a background check." 

An earlier incarnation of C-SAU called the Corrections Special Operations Group was the subject of an investigation following the 2021 death of an inmate in a Charleston, South Carolina, jail. Although the two officers involved in that case were never criminally charged, they were fired. The jail system settled with the victim's family for $10 million.

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