by Christopher Zoukis, MBA
The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent organization of Prison Legal News, prevailed in a lawsuit seeking to force private prison contractor GEO Group to comply with Vermont’s public records law.
The complaint, filed in a Vermont Superior Court, sought to obtain records related to lawsuits brought against GEO in connection with the company’s contract with the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) that resulted in monetary payouts. The lawsuit alleged that GEO Group stood in the shoes of the Vermont DOC and therefore was required, as the equivalent of a public agency, to produce the requested documents. [See: PLN, June 2019, p.18].
PLN readers know this is not the first time that HRDC has resorted to litigation to obtain public documents maintained by private prison companies. In fact, it settled a similar Vermont case against CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) in 2015. [See: PLN, July 2013, p.42]. One would think that GEO would recognize its duty under Vermont’s public records statute and provide the documents requested by HRDC, based on the outcome in the prior suit involving CoreCivic. But one would be wrong.
The litigation records produced by GEO Group may interest Vermonters, some of whom might be surprised to learn that GEO previously held state prisoners. The company does not operate any facilities in Vermont; rather, it contracted to hold Vermont prisoners at an out-of-state facility.
All of the litigation records requested by HRDC involved claims filed by Vermont prisoners. The majority related to property that was allegedly lost or damaged when prisoners were moved from a CoreCivic-operated facility in Kentucky to GEO Group’s North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan.
For example, prisoner Robert White said the hard drive from his Xbox 360 was lost when his property was shipped from Kentucky to Michigan. White filed a grievance in which he requested that his hard drive and the nearly 3,000 songs it contained be replaced. He also noted that his property appeared to have been ransacked, and included a box of things that belonged to another prisoner (he returned that box).
GEO Group rejected White’s grievance.
North Lake Correctional Grievance Coordinator B. Naidow attached a letter to the rejection, advising that Vermont officials had instructed GEO to address property-related claims by directing them to CoreCivic, GEO or the property transportation company.
White, being incarcerated, had no way of knowing who was responsible for his missing property. He did know three things: 1) he was incarcerated by the state of Vermont, 2) his Xbox 360 was intact when it was boxed up in Kentucky and 3) his Xbox 360 was missing the hard drive when it was unpacked in Michigan. Therefore, he sued the Vermont DOC, DOC Commissioner Andrew Pallito and GEO Group in Vermont small claims court.
According to the records obtained by HRDC, the state settled the case four months later. In exchange for $750, White dismissed his claim.
At least 15 other Vermont prisoners sued the state for similar missing or damaged property after their grievances were rejected by GEO. All of their claims settled – but only after they filed suit. The settlement amounts ranged from $50 to $750.
Interestingly, it is not entirely clear who paid the settlements. Multiple prisoners tried to file claims with the transportation company, as instructed by B. Naidow, but no one heard from them.
Vermont invoked an indemnification clause in its contract with GEO Group, requiring the company to defend and hold the state harmless for all the claims.
The documents obtained by HRDC also included a number of other complaints and settlements. Prisoners Jabbar Chandler, Ronald Gagne, Paul Gincherio, Jason Shuffleburg and Timothy Wiley all filed suit in small claims court over property that was lost or stolen while they were in segregation. They settled for amounts in the hundreds of dollars.
Dwight Tester sued GEO Group after property was allegedly stolen from his room. He said in his small claims complaint that GEO’s North Lake facility had an unwritten policy of allowing any prisoner to enter another prisoner’s locked room by pushing the call button outside the room. He settled his claim for the theft of his Playstation for $325.
Shayne Fleming-Pancione sued the state and GEO, alleging he was improperly placed and held in segregation during his last two weeks at the CoreCivic-run Kentucky facility and the first few days after he arrived at the GEO Group prison in Michigan. He said his due process rights were violated because he was never issued an incident report or charged with any disciplinary offense. That case settled for $450.
Vermont prisoner Bernard Carter filed the most serious lawsuit documented in the records obtained by HRDC: He accused North Lake nurse Teresa Belohlavy of sexually harassing and assaulting him. According to Carter’s lawsuit, Belohlavy made graphic sexual comments and forced him to “rub between her legs.”
When he complained of this improper behavior, he was placed in segregation and accused of making sexual comments himself. Carter said an investigation ultimately cleared him of wrongdoing and resulted in Belohlavy’s termination. He settled the case for $750. [See: PLN, May 2019, p.10].
As with every other settlement included in the documents produced by GEO Group, the company admitted no liability.
It is notable that every grievance filed in connection with a claim for damages against GEO was denied; only those prisoners savvy enough to file suit ultimately received payments for their claims. Records related to 27 claims were produced by GEO Group; each of the settlements was under $1,000.
The company had initially ignored HRDC’s public records request, resulting in a lawsuit being filed in May 2018.
HRDC had requested the litigation records from GEO under the Vermont Access to Public Records Act, stating, “This case seeks to vindicate the public’s right to know what the government is doing, and to access records showing a private corporation’s performance of duties delegated to it by the state of Vermont.”
The public records case settled in February 2019, with GEO agreeing to produce the documents and pay a total of $6,865.09 to HRDC for attorney fees and costs. HRDC was represented by staff attorney Deb Golden and Burlington, Vermont attorney Robert Appel. See: Human Rights Defense Center v. GEO Group, Vermont Superior Court (Washington Unit), Case No. 272-5-18 Wncv.
Source: Documents obtained by HRDC from GEO Group
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Related legal case
Human Rights Defense Center v. GEO Group
|Vermont Superior Court (Washington Unit), Case No. 272-5-18 Wncv