Earlier this month, reports surfaced over a lawsuit was filed against The GEO Group for Cornell's past actions in July 2009 for allegedly illegally videotaping female residents of a Dallas-area drug treatment facility. The facility is now operated by Phoenix House, but was operated by Cornell at the time, before the Cornell-GEO Group merger. You can read our original coverage of this story here. Since the time of our publishing the original story, more details about the extent of the allegations have surfaced.
The lawsuit alleges that the treatment facility videotaped 36 female residents without their permission and distributed DVDs of these recordings.
"The Dallas Morning News reports, for its Monday editions, that the DVDs were distributed as promotional material for Cornell Companies Inc. The lawsuit, filed last week, says residents were told that the January 2009 videotape would only be seen by judges who sent the women to the Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center in Wilmer. The lawsuit says the DVD was instead used to raise money for the program and obtain contracts for other treatment facilities." (AP, The Houston Chronicle, "Lawsuit over videotaping at Texas drug facility," January 10, 2011).
The Dallas Morning News also covered the story:
"One of 36 women complainants in the suit, Theresa Watkins, a heroin addict with a criminal record, said she feels violated. She said she blames the taping and distribution of the video for anxiety and panic attacks she says she has suffered since her release from the Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center in Wilmer...
...'You pretty much go in at your lowest point,' Watkins said. 'We had no choice but to trust these people...'
...As part of the project, 45 female residents were videotaped in treatment sessions and while performing in a talent show called 'Cornell Idol.' Watkins said that the women were also told to march and sing while being taped, and that the marching and singing had never been a part of the treatment.
Those who saw the video include Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, probation officials and a group that donated clothes to women going on job interviews, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit says the material was also shown to other residents and resulted in male patients taunting women who appeared in it.
Price said he doesn't recall seeing the video but said he has toured the facility and has seen presentations about the program.
The attorney who filed the lawsuit, Charles Paternostro, said state and federal laws require a written release to videotape the residents. Paternostro said the taping itself constitutes a privacy violation since there was not written consent.
'To me, it's a clear-cut case,' he said.
The lawsuit asks for $100,000 for each plaintiff and another $100,000 in attorney fees." (Jennifer Emily, The Dallas Morning News, "Company being sued over alleged privacy violation in DVD," January 20, 2011.)
As usual, no officials from GEO are willing to comment on pending litigation. We will keep an eye on this story and relay any further developments in the case.
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.
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.
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 www.multistatestripsearchsettlement.com.