Former Cornell treatment center's alleged privacy violations lead to lawsuit

When the GEO Group acquired Cornell Companies for $374 million last year, it not only took over some of the company's more troubled corretional facilities, it also took on some lawsuits-in-waiting.  Or, so it would appear, based on this Robert Wilonsky's article at his Dallas Observer blog ("Thirty-Six Sue Private Operator of Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center For Privacy Invasion," January 7):

Cornell Companies, the private operator of correctional facilities 'cross the country, has a motto: "People Changing People." A lawsuit filed this week in Dallas County District Court proposes an alteration: "People Filming People." At least, so suggest 36 former inmates of the Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center in Wilmer, a 300-bed facility to which men and women convicted of drug- and alcohol-related crimes in Dallas County are sent to get clean and sober rather than spend time behind bars.

Says the suit, in January 2008 Cornell Companies employees began filming the inmates without their consent. Caught on film were their often intense drug treatment sessions, scenes from their daily routines and a talent show called, but of course, Cornell Idol. The suit says the inmates, who were already uncomfortable about the filming, were told the footage would be transferred to DVD and shown only to the Drug Court judges who send prisoners to the treatment center. But the complaint alleges it was "turned into a publicity and promotional film" -- shown to, among others, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and Attitudes & Attire -- and used as a fund-raising vehicle and "to obtain future contracts for supervision and operation of other treatment facilities in Texas and locations in other states."


Cornell Companies no longer exists, technically: In August of last year, it was bought out by The GEO Group, the same Florida-based company that announced last month it's building a 600-bed Civil Detention Center for immigration detainees down in Karnes City. This morning, via e-mail, Pablo E. Paez of The GEO Group told Unfair Park the company has no comment: "As a matter of policy, our company cannot comment on litigation related matters."

It doesn't appear that GEO still operates this facility, and we've taken it down from our list of privately-contracted facilities.  We'll keep you updated on developments from this suit. 

Another Death at LCS Corrections' Coastal Bend Detention Center

Earlier this month, a 27-year old man who was detained at the Coastal Bend Detention Center died from a brain tumor after going to the doctor for high blood pressure (Melissa Schroeder, KrisTV, "LCS Detention Center Inmate Dies at 27," June 2nd, 2010):

A Taft man who was detained at the LCS Detention Center in Robstown died this past Saturday.  Warden Mike Striedel said 27-year-old Leo Guajardo died from a brain tumor.

Striedel said Guajardo had been at the detention center since January for taking the weapon of a U.S. Marshal. Striedel says Guajardo saw a doctor Friday afternoon for high blood pressure, he was immediately put on medication, but a couple hours later he claimed to feel dizzy.

The Warden says he was taken to the hospital and doctors found a massive brain tumor. His condition worsened and eventually he was put on life support.

Striedel says the family decided to take him off life support Saturday night and he was pronounced dead.

The Texas Rangers will investigate the incident to make sure everyone at the detention center did what they could to help Guajardo.  The man's family is not ready to make a statement yet, as they are preparing for Guajardo's funeral. 

Earlier this year, the Coastal Bend Detention Center was found to have not known that the facility was supposed to report deaths of inmates while in custody. If the family or LCS have any more comments we will share them here.

Texas lock-ups part of GEO Group strip search class action settlement

Several current and former Texas GEO faciltiies are subject to a class action lawsuit settlement challenging the company's strip search policy of low-level inmates.  I first saw the story as part of a Philadelphia Inquirer story ("Settlement reached over Delco Prison strip-searches," May 20),

A company that formerly operated the Delaware County Prison has settled a federal class-action lawsuit involving strip-searches of incoming inmates charged with minor crimes.

The $2.9 million settlement awards up to $400 each to about 10,000 inmates at six GEO Group facilities.

Prisoners at the Delaware County facility, now operated by Community Education Centers of West Caldwell, N.J., who were strip-searched between Jan. 30, 2006, and Jan. 30, 2008, may be eligible for settlement awards.  The lawsuit named five other GEO Group prisons, in Texas, New Mexico, and Illinois.

... Those eligible to apply for settlement include prisoners who were not accused of drug, weapons, or violent crimes; those involving probation or parole violations; and those who did not behave in a manner that would give guards cause to conduct strip searches.

According to Class Action Lawsuits in the News ("The GEO Group Jail, Correctional Facility & Detention Center Strip Search Class Action Lawsuit Settlement," May 24), those eligible for the settlement payment include folks who were strip-searched for minor infractions at the Frio County Detention Center in Pearsall, the Dickens County Detention Center (now operated by CEC) in Dickens, and the Newton County Correctional Center in Newton between January 30, 2006 to January 30, 2008.  According to the site:

The GEO Group Jail Strip Search class action settlement, if finally approved by the Court, reportedly would entitle each settlement class member who submits a timely (by September 14, 2010) and valid claim form to a payment of up to $400.00 as their share of a $2.999 million Settlement Fund (after payment of administrative costs, an incentive award to the representative plaintiffs, and attorneys’ fees).

In addition, the GEO Group has agreed to revise its allegedly unlawful strip search policy going forward, and has agreed to an injunction to ensure that detainees being admitted to the Jails are only strip searched where there is reasonable suspicion to justify the search.

Settlement information is at

Employee lawsuit at MTC detention center in Raymondville

The Brownsville Herald ("10 guards suing Management & Training Corp," May 21) reported last week that guards are suing the Management and Training Corporation for wrongful termination.  According to the Herald story,

Ten former security guards at Willacy County Regional Detention Facility have filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Management & Training Corp. of Centerville, Utah, and two company officials claiming they were fired for refusing to make false statements.

Peter Zavaletta, the attorney for 10 of the 11 guards who were fired, said his clients lost their jobs for refusing to sign statements saying other guards were gambling while on duty.

"None of my clients were gambling and when they refused to sign statements accusing each other of gambling, they were terminated," he said.

Zavaletta said he doesn’t know who the 11th guard is or who his attorney is, but was told by MTC there is an 11th guard who was fired. None of the guards had ever been disciplined and several had been promoted to supervisory positions at the privately owned and operated prison, the lawsuit states.

The Willacy County Regional Detention Facility is one of two large MTC prisons in Raymondville.  The other, the Willacy County Processing Center, labeled by the press "Tent City" after being built of a series of Kevlar pods, is the nation's largest and one of its most notorious immigrant detention centers. "Tent City" has come been protested many times by immigrant, faith, and human rights organizations. 

We'll keep you posted on developments from this lawsuit. 

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