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Courts & Justice

Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board To Discuss Controversial Training At Monday Meeting

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Kiley Koscinski
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90.5 WESA News

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner says she has been waiting two weeks for background information about the firm hired to train county jail corrections officers in how to remove prisoners from their cells. But she still hasn't received it — even as a special meeting of the county's Jail Oversight Board to discuss that contract is slated for this evening.

And at this point, it may be too late for that information to make a difference to her.

“I cannot see any way that we are going to be presented with information that rebuts all of the different areas of concern that we have with this contract,” Wagner said late last week about the contract given to Corrections Special Application Unit (C-SAU).

Earlier this month, the oversight board narrowly decided to permit the company's training program to continue, pending a special meeting tonight to more thoroughly discuss its qualifications, and to decide whether to dismiss the contract amid questions board members have about the firm and its lead trainer, Joseph Garcia.

Subsequent media reports have only added to those questions. And there may be another for the Oversight Board to weigh: how much power it has to alter the decision to hire the firm.

'We are outnumbered ... but we're never outgunned'

Jail officials hired C-SAU in July to train corrections officers in a new approach to cell extractions, which can include the use of Kel-Tec shotguns and rubber projectiles on inmates who refuse to leave their cell. Jail officials argued that new procedures became necessary after this past spring, when voters passed a ballot question which largely ended the use of solitary confinement, leg shackles, and restraint chairs along with agents like pepper spray.

In a statement earlier this month, jail warden Orlando Harper said C-SAU was the only firm whose approach "allowed our facility to comply with the referendum while also ensuring the continued safety and security of inmates and staff."

But critics have argued that C-SAU’s training is extreme, citing promotional videos where Garcia is shown in tactical gear dropping in on facilities by helicopter and running through hallways with dogs and shotguns.

In one video, Garcia shouts at a group of apparent corrections officers, “We are warriors! We are outnumbered… but we’re never outgunned. No matter who’s calling, no officer is going to be on the ground… in their own pool of blood.”

“When you go in, I go in with you and you’re coming out," he later says. "Dead or alive!”

But Garcia’s methods don’t reflect most jail standards, according to Gary Raney, a jail policy consultant and use of force expert.

Raney researched C-SAU’s training as part of an investigation into the death earlier this year of Jamal Sutherland, who was then incarcerated in a South Carolina jail. Sutherland, who'd been arrested the day before after a fight at a psychiatric facility, died during a cell extraction in which officers used stun guns and pepper spray.

“Automatically resorting to an impact weapon is not the generally accepted correctional practice,” Raney said.

When questioned by oversight board officials about the death earlier this month, Garcia said the officers involved had not graduated from his program, and that his contract with the jail there had ended in 2018. But in his use of force analysis about Sutherland's death, Raney noted that Garcia's techniques were still in use, and that there was little evidence that corrections officers there understood de-escalation techniques after being trained by Garcia.

“While some of the vendor’s ... statements emphasized force avoidance, there was no evidence of meaningful de-escalation or avoidance training,” he wrote.

Raney expressed sympathy for Allegheny County Jail officials, whose job he said may have been complicated by the referendum.

While he said that “banning solitary confinement is typically a good thing" because it is "far overused,” he said banning equipment like pepper spray could lead to more injuries.

“That took out one of the most important tools in actually not hurting somebody,” Raney said. “Taking that away now means I have to go from verbal skills directly into some form of physical contact.”

Warden Harper argued during the September oversight board meeting that C-SAU’s less-lethal weapons approach is designed to avoid having multiple officers on top of an inmate. But Raney said that if done correctly, such an approach has been a proven technique in other facilities.

At the September 2 meeting of the Jail Oversight Board, members were offered a chance to attend a demonstration of the training at the Allegheny County Jail. It is not clear how many of them have accepted the offer: Requests made Friday for interviews with oversight board members Beth Lazzara, Terri Klein and board president Kim Berkeley Clark were not returned.

For her part, Wagner said she declined to attend a demonstration, calling it a “distraction” from bigger issues.

Less transparent than a window-washing contract?

Wagner's office is currently withholding a payment of over $180,000, though it did pay an earlier $25,000 bill.

Brad Korinski, chief legal counsel to the county controller, said the office has the authority to withhold payment because of questions about how Garcia characterized his employment history, and because the invoice discloses too little about what the payment covers. The one-page bill charges a lump sum $182,770 for work the invoice describes as "high-risk corrections special operations and mitigation program" that "addresses violent mentally ill inmates."

Korinski said the invoice does not describe how many hours were worked, an hourly rate or other information about what the funds pay for. “Most invoices have much more information, particularly for something like this,” he said.

“We have no basis to suggest that Mr. Garcia is an expert [or] is using any type of approved methods,” Korinski added. “We have less information about him than we do about the people who may wash the windows at the court house.”

Those questions increased after Garcia told oversight board members he would not disclose the names of 14 correctional departments claimed to have worked with. He did name four Virginia sheriff's offices when Wagner asked about Garcia’s employment history, but the Tribune-Review reported last week that those offices said he was never a full-time employee. He did hold volunteer positions and trained at two of the departments, according to the Trib, which also documented a history of financial problems for Garcia.

It is not clear that Wagner can refuse to pay C-SAU's bill, or whether the oversight board could terminate its contract. A spokeswoman for the county declined to comment for this story, and Allegheny County Solicitor Andrew Szefi was not available for comment.

But Korinski acknowledged the county could file suit to compel Wagner’s office to pay Garcia. And contracts are typically handled by county and jail administrators. In his statement from earlier this month, Harper said, "As a practice, the jail does not provide notification to the Jail Oversight Board, or consult with the JOB, on contracts or potential contracts.”

State law says the oversight board’s powers "shall include the operation and maintenance of the prison [and] oversight of the health and safekeeping of inmates.” Wagner and Korinski argue this puts the future of C-SAU’s contract in the hands of the oversight board.

But the law does not explicitly give the board power over contracts, about which it says that "contracts and purposes required for the maintenance and support of the prisoners, repairs and improvements of the prison ... shall be conducted in accordance with the applicable provisions of the county administrative code."

That code allows officials to bypass the usual bidding process in certain cases, as when professional services are involved, or where a vendor offers a unique product.

The oversight board will meet to discuss the contract Monday at 5:30 p.m. The virtual meeting is open to the public and available here.