York County Prison inmates take civil rights case appeal to district court

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

The inmates suing York County Prison, the county and its former training contractor over alleged civil rights abuses are appealing a judge's decision denying their effort to pursue class-action status.

Attorney Alan Denenberg, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said they are continuing to seek justice.

"We believe it meets all requirements necessary to be certified on behalf of all pretrial detainees and inmates," he said.

Matthew Clayberger, the lawyer representing the county and prison, did not respond to a request for comment.

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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.

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

The lawsuit also alleges that Joseph Garcia, leader of Corrections Special Applications Unit, or C-SAU, 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.

In his ruling earlier this year, federal magistrate Judge Martin Carlson found the inmates had not met the sufficient prerequisites to file as a class-action.

"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."

One of the plaintiffs' arguments is that the abuses the defendants allegedly subjected inmates to were to inmates as a group.

"Although the nature of the force used in each incident was different, in each incident the dehumanizing torture was applied to detainees/inmates as a pod or group, and not as unrelated individuals ...," the petition reads. "If the force used was unconstitutional as to one detainee/inmate in the group, it was unconstitutional to all of them."

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Inmates sued the county, prison and C-SAU in December 2021, shortly after York County unanimously 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.

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.

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." 

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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.

At a NAACP candidate forum held Monday, President Commissioner Julie Wheeler and Commissioner Doug Hoke, who serves as president of the Prison Board of Inspectors, defended contracting with C-SAU.

"The program has worked well over the years," Hoke said. "I think the prison itself is on a good course. Our people have been trained, we don't have the contractor anymore, and I think we're in a good place."

For her part, Wheeler said the data backed up contracting with C-SAU.

"We've seen a reduction in worker's compensation issues as well as a reduction to injuries to the inmates," Wheeler said.

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