Controversial prison contract in limbo as Garcia faces new scrutiny across the state – York Dispatch

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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.

Over a month after its initial approval, York County's second deal with controversial prison contractor Corrections Special Applications Unit remains in limbo.

Meanwhile, in Allegheny County, CSAU senior team leader Joseph Garcia appeared in front of a jail oversight board to defend himself and the work of his group. That included answering for the death of an inmate in South Carolina. 

"That does not represent who we are,"Garcia said of the officers who were investigated in Jamal Sutherland's death at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in Charleston County.

This week, Allegheny County hired a private investigator to conduct a background check due to the lack of information available about the contractor, according to county legal counsel Brad Korinski.

In his testimony before the board, Garcia said Charleston County had mixed the training of C-SOG with more traditional crisis intervention training after C-SOG was no longer employed by the detention center. One of the officers had not graduated from C-SOG training, while the other had not been certified in C-SOG training since 2017.

"Everybody involved in the Jamal Sutherland case had nothing to do with our organization, our training, period," Garcia said.

Lindsay Fickett, one of the two officers investigated in the death of inmate Jamal Sutherland. Fickett appeared in a 2014 NRA profile on C-SOG and its leader Joseph Garcia.

The fallout of a March 31 incident at the York County Prison, meanwhile, is still being investigated despite CSAU's unanimous approval by the Prison Board of Inspectors in August.

York County Prison Warden Adam Ogle said the county is continuing to do its due diligence on the CSAU contract.

"We do not have an exact time frame as to when the final decision will be made," he told The York Dispatch, "as this due diligence involves a thorough investigation of all allegations and a detailed review of the March 31 high-risk search that uncovered multiple weapons made by inmates."

Neither Garcia nor CSAU responded to repeated requests for comment for this and previous stories. Aside from glowing profiles by pro-gun groups including the National Rifle Association, Garcia has generally avoided public scrutiny.

At the Allegheny County meeting, he spoke about the organization's work and his background. In response to a question, he said he'd officially worked for four sheriff's departments: Spartansburg, South Carolina, and Richmond, Arlington County and Virginia Beach in Virginia.

Messages left with all four departments were not returned. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported last week that all four said Garcia was never an employee of their offices.

At one point, the Allegheny County meeting got heated when Councilor-at-Large Bethany Hallam asked Garcia if he had ever served in the military.

"We're not going to get into his history with the military," Warden Orlando Harper answered. "What we're going to do is base our opinion on the training that he's going to bring to our agency, the background checks we did with NCIC, and he was cleared."

In response, Hallam asked again, to which Harper again told her Garcia would not answer.

Board Chair President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark interjected and asked Garcia herself, saying the question was relevant. Garcia confirmed he had served, though Harper intervened when Hallam asked if Garcia had been discharged.

Later, Garcia said that anything before his corrections experience was private and personal, and he will not answer anything about his personal life.

During a presentation on why CSAU was needed, Harper spoke about how a referendum approved by voters that will ban the use of a restraint chair, leg shackles or chemical agents as of Dec. 6 would inhibit the jail's operations.

"Our correctional staff are already working in extraordinary circumstances, but the lack of tools and resources will put their safety and well-being in jeopardy," Harper said. 

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

CSAU's training and strategies is uniquely qualified to meet the goals of Allegheny County Jail after research and outreach to other tactical training companies, Harper said.

During the presentation, Garcia spoke about what he called misconceptions. He said that he was inspired to create C-SOG after his friend and colleague died in 2002 after contracting HIV from an inmate during a five-man cell extraction. 

"I wanted to develop something that no matter who was on the other side of that door, whatever inmate that we had to deal with, we could do deal with fairly, we could understand whatever situations they're in and we could try to work through the process," Garcia said. The key, Garcia said, was dealing with it measurably. 

The utilization of technology helps make things measurable, Garcia said. He showed a less-than-lethal round that his teams use, describing it as something a cat could play with.

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"When the accountability process comes, I want to know that the individual officers, how much force they used, I can tell you. Where the force was applied, I can tell you. When they stopped, I can tell you,"  Garcia said. "Because if you follow the traditional way of utilizing physical force, it's very personal. And what we're trying to do is before it gets personal, I want to be able to try and find what is causing this problem from the inmate's side of the house or the officer's side, completely try to neutralize." 

Hallam asked about the use of KelTec shotguns. Garcia responded by saying the shotguns were tools in the toolbox, not a guarantee that they'd be used.

"Just because we have tools to protect us, tools to be able to deal with barricades in different situations, doesn't mean we have to use it," Garcia said. "We want to allow them the option of being able to look at that inmate and deal with them accordingly, preferably at standoff distance." 

Of the board members, Hallam was one of the most critical, directly referencing the South Carolina case where Sutherland died in custody and former sheriff Gary Raney's report criticizing Garcia's work with past contractor C-SOG.

"It is not the warden who will pay. Nothing will come out of his pocket when something goes wrong, because it will. It will be the taxpayers of Allegheny County who will be paying when something goes wrong," Hallam said in response to Sheriff Bill Mullen's indication of confidence in the warden and the prison.

A photo from the Corrections Special Applications Unit Instagram page. York County Prison wants to contract with CSAU again, even after a controversial March 31 incident.

Eventually, the board voted 4-3 to continue the training but hold off on implementation before they had the chance to observe the training in action. A special meeting on CSAU is also set for Sept. 20. 

In York County, CSAU already fulfilled a $122,000 contract with the prison that began in November 2020. In a March 31 incident, inmates reported being forced to stand facing a wall for several hours while weapons were pointed at them. Two inmates also reported being forced to walk through the prison in handcuffs with their genitals exposed.

After the incident, CSAU used footage from the day's events in a promotional video posted to Garcia's Facebook page, according to an email from Ogle. 

York County's commissioners must still vote on any new CSAU contract. Their next meeting is Sept. 29, although there are no indications so far that the contract will be on the agenda.

This article was updated to include Allegheny County's hiring of a private investigator.

Matt Enright can be reached via email at [email protected] or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.

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