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York County inmates sue training company banned from Allegheny County Jail

C-SAU trainer Joseph Garcia speaks to Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board members at a September virtual meeting.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
C-SAU trainer Joseph Garcia speaks to Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board members at a September virtual meeting.

A corrections consultant once used by the Allegheny County Jail has been sued by 49 current and former incarcerated people at York County Prison. The class-action lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg Monday, alleges training by Corrections Special Application Unit (C-SAU) created an environment in which guards frequently terrorized inmates.

The Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board narrowly voted to end a contract with C-SAU in September. Board members who voted to ban the training provider cited concerns about the resume of the company’s lead trainer and his refusal to divulge details about training practices.

The class-action lawsuit by York County Prison inmates names C-SAU, trainer Joseph Garcia, several York County officials, the former York County Prison Warden and two unnamed guards as defendants.

In the complaint, attorneys allege C-SAU training developed for York County Prison led to unlawful use of Kel-Tech shotguns. It claims guards regularly brandished, pointed and fired the weapons without justification at inmates, leading to injury and mental distress.

The lawsuit alleges excessive use of physical force by guards and that concussion explosives were glorified as a way to terrorize and harm inmates.

“The uses of violence and militaristic tactics and weapons specified in this Complaint are dangerous, rampant, merciless, unrelenting, unjustified, immoral, and unconstitutional,” the 65-page complaint reads. “Several inmates began having mental health emergencies, including panic attacks, due to the severity of the treatment by Garcia and the members of the C-SAU1 Team.”

The plaintiffs are asking the court to issue an injunction prohibiting York County from continuing to use the C-SAU training. They’re also seeking punitive and nominal damages.

York County hired C-SAU in 2020 to provide equipment and training to form a special response unit at York County Prison. Commissioners approved a two-year contract extension with C-SAU in October, according to The York Daily Record.

Similar equipment and training was sought by Allegheny County Jail officials earlier this year. When oversight board members questioned the tactics and weapons used, officials declined to disclose details about how guards were being trained to remove inmates from their cells.

The board voted 4-3 to stop the contract and remove Garcia as a contractor.

But the Allegheny County Jail’s correctional response unit did receive training from Garcia before oversight board members halted the contract, according to Warden Orlando Harper.

“Our CRU was trained by Mr. Garcia for six and a half weeks. They were trained in de-escalation and mental health training,” Harper said at an oversight board meeting earlier this month.

Secrecy around the company’s techniques makes it difficult to know if training at York County Prison was at all similar to that used by the Allegheny County Jail.

“That’s always going to be a concern. How do we know?” said oversight board member and Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam. “The jail puts up so many obstacles to transparency.”

Harper declined to outline specifics about control tactics currently used at the Allegheny County Jail.

"The jail employs a broad spectrum of training and tactics to ensure the safety and security of all those in the facility," he said in a statement. "For those same reasons of safety and security, specific detail on the training and tactics are not shared publicly."

The York County lawsuit describes a C-SAU training exercise on March 31, 2021 in detail. The complaint alleges guards removed inmates from their cells at 4:30 a.m. at gunpoint, demanded they strip naked and stand still.

The complaint goes on to say inmates were ordered to get dressed and sit facing a gymnasium wall for more than five hours without food or the ability to use the restroom.

During the ordeal, the lawsuit alleges inmates were threatened with dog bites or shotguns if they moved out of line.

Allegheny County Jail officials have said dogs were not used in training at the Pittsburgh facility.

When speaking to the Allegheny County Jail’s Oversight Board, Garcia claimed his training at ACJ included de-escalation techniques but did not describe them.

The York County lawsuit argues de-escalation was not part of the training received by York County Prison guards.

“CSAU1’s written policies falsely claim … that CSAU 1 teaches de-escalation techniques. But in fact CSAU1’s training focuses on combat techniques including eye gouges, strikes to the head, attacks from K9s, and other excessive and justified uses of force,” the lawsuit alleges.

When Allegheny County Jail oversight board members halted the C-SAU contract in September, some members expressed distrust of Garcia, the company's trainer.

“Every time he goes somewhere, it seems that trouble follows,” Hallam said.

Garcia’s training was described as “ridiculous” and “excessive” in a use of force analysis commissioned for a South Carolina lawsuit over the death of an inmate there.

Garcia's background has been criticized throughout the country, according to the lawsuit, which refers to him as the “Bernie Madoff of correctional consultants.”

“Garcia is a fraud who falsifies and exaggerates his work history,” the lawsuit reads. Plaintiffs allege Garcia’s claims to have been in business for twenty years is impossible to verify because he has repeatedly founded and dissolved the same business under different names.

Calls to C-SAU and Garcia were not returned.

Hallam said she hopes the Jail oversight board’s move to halt the contract can prevent Allegheny County from being in the same position as York County. But she worries tactics taught by Garcia during his six weeks at the Allegheny County Jail could still be used by guards.

“It’s hard to in any way be relieved that we ended his training here because we’re still concerned that certain aspects of his training may pop up down the road,” Hallam said. “I can’t help but worry that this isn’t the last time that we’re going to hear about him.”

Among the eight counts in the York County lawsuit are excessive force, denial of adequate medical care and cruel and unusual punishment.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.