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Jail Oversight Board Votes To End Contract With Controversial Trainer

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Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

After nearly three hours of debate Monday night, members of the Jail Oversight Board voted to end the Allegheny County Jail’s relationship with Corrections Special Application Unit (C-SAU) and its controversial top trainer, Joseph Garcia.

Over the objections of Warden Orlando Harper, board members voted 4-3 in favor of ending the company’s contract to train corrections officers in tactics to remove noncompliant prisoners from their cells. One member abstained from voting. At the heart of the debate was Garcia, whose credentials have been questioned for weeks, and who had been expected to attend tonight’s special meeting but did not appear.

“I am being asked to trust without the ability to verify. And as a community representative … I am unable to do so,” said oversight board member Terri Klein, one of the no votes.

The company was represented instead by Jerry Baldwin, a “public information officer,” who could not disclose how many employees the firm had. Baldwin said a company lawyer advised Garcia not to attend because “there was nothing he could add to the conversation." Baldwin then professed not to have the name of the lawyer who gave Garcia that guidance.

"The public information officer does not know the legal counsel for the company for which he is the public information officer?" asked County Councilor Bethany Hallam.

Klein and Hallam were joined in opposing the contract by County Controller Chelsa Wagner and Common Pleas Judge Beth Lazzara. M. Gayle Moss was the lone abstention. Stephen Pilarski, representing Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, voted to keep the contract in place, along with Kevin Kraus, top deputy to board member Sheriff William Mullen, and Abass Kamara.

At a meeting two weeks prior, Lazzara had been a key vote to continue C-SAU’s contract pending further information about Garcia’s background and a chance to see the company’s training approach at work. But on Monday, Lazzara said she was “incredibly concerned that [Garcia] so completely refused to answer any questions or be available. I think that’s something that has to be taken very seriously."

Harper had said hiring C-SAU was necessary after county voters approved a ballot question in May that ended the use of solitary confinement and other jail tactics that included the use of pepper spray. The ballot question gave the jail until December to bring its policies into compliance with that policy, and Harper said C-SAU was the only firm capable of offering the necessary on-site training in the intensive 8-week period needed to meet the deadline. The jail’s only other option, he said, was to reinstitute “extraction teams” in which multiple officers physically remove an inmate.

C-SAU, Harper told the board “has built leaders with these correctional officers,” in the six weeks it had already been active. “These COs have learned more [from their training] than they have their whole entire career with this agency. This is nothing but a win-win for this agency. And if the board decides to discontinue, the board will be saying they want to send five men into a cell to restrain an inmate.”

Board members who saw the training said it raised few flags: “I didn’t see anything problematic in the training,” said Kraus. “I thought they were professional.” Klein too said she saw nothing untoward — though she said she worried about promotional materials that featured police "in full combat gear" which "did not convey a sense of de-escalation.”

But board members were clearly concerned that they were not able to see Garcia’s resume or CV, which they were told was confidential. They were also troubled by reports that guards in a South Carolina jail where Garcia provided training were involved in the death of inmate Jamal Sutherland earlier this year. The board had raised similar questions at an earlier meeting this month and scheduled Monday's gathering in hopes of getting more answers.

Garcia had previously told the board that his firm had ceased working at the facility two years before. But Gary Raney, a jail consultant and use-of-force expert who took part in the investigation of Sutherland's death, said that the guards were still using the techniques taught by Garcia.

“If you had the opportunity today, would you hire Mr. Garcia and his company to come into your correction facility?” Hallam asked him.

“No,” Raney flatly replied.

Hallam later said C-SAU had “left a trail of destruction, scandal and death in their wake," and that attempts to convince the board the firm was offering a kinder, gentler approach to training amounted to "gaslighting."

It is not clear what happens next. C-SAU has already billed the county $182,770 for the training it has provided — a bill Wagner’s office has not yet paid, citing her concerns. And while the oversight board is charged by state law with "oversight of the health and safekeeping of inmates," the law doesn't explicitly give the board power over contracts. The law simply requires that such work be done in accordance with the county's administrative code — which largely leaves such matters to the county executive's office.

Nor is it clear how the jail will proceed going forward.

“I really am concerned that the jail will not be able to comply with the referendum, and what is the board’s responsibility in that?” asked Common Pleas President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, who chairs the oversight board. “They have six weeks of de-escalation, and that part is good.” But as for whether the deadline could be extended, or what the oversight board could do to help the jail comply, “I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. So, those are some things that we’re going to have to find out.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.
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