by Steve Horn
Bernard Carter was incarcerated at the privately-operated North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan when he alleged a prison nurse coerced him into sexually uncomfortable situations.
In a federal lawsuit, Carter v. GEO Group, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 1:16-cv-00667-RHB-PJG, Carter laid out the facts in his October 2016 hand-written complaint. He wrote that nurse Teresa L. Belohlavy performed numerous sexually coercive acts upon him, to which he had objected. Reporting the incidents up the chain of command through the grievance process, the GEO Group-owned prison’s administration was apathetic. Exhausting his other options, Carter filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.
“In about Aug. 2015, [Belohlavy] would make sexual commands to me that made me feel uncomfortable,” Carter stated. “I told her I didn’t want her to speak to me like that and she said she wasn’t going to stop. She would tell me how she could see my penis through my shorts, that she wanted to give me oral sex....”
Carter claimed that things escalated from verbal comments to the physical.
“Then it got to where she would be touching me in ways that she shouldn’t have and it made me feel uncomfortable,” he continued. “I was scared to tell anybody, I was in a high security unit and she would come there and call me out, call me to medical ... 3x a week.... Many times she had me expose myself to her, have me rub between her legs. On 12-16-15, she called me to medical and wanted me to rub between her legs, she said that was my B-Day present.”
Carter said those incidents took a toll on his mental health, causing post-traumatic stress and leading to a weight loss of 25 pounds over a three-month period.
Carter requested $150,000 in damages in his complaint, asked to be removed from the North Lake Correctional Facility pending the case’s resolution and wanted the defendants to produce all documents and video pertaining to his claims. Instead, he walked away with only $750 once the suit settled. The settlement was obtained via an open records request by Prison Legal News, which filed suit against GEO Group in April 2018 to obtain documents related to lawsuits and claims concerning the North Lake facility.
After Carter filed his lawsuit, federal judge Robert Holmes Bell dismissed both prison administrative officials and GEO Group, finding they were not proper defendants.
“Government officials may not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates under a theory of respondeat superior or vicarious liability,” Bell wrote. “A claimed constitutional violation must be based upon active unconstitutional behavior.... The acts of one’s subordinates are not enough, nor can supervisory liability be based upon the mere failure to act.”
While the $750 settlement in this case wasn’t much, it was more than most pro se prisoners obtain through litigation. And the fact that PLN had to file a lawsuit to obtain records regarding the outcome of Carter’s case, among others, is yet another indication of the lack of transparency by private prison companies.
According to an article published by Splinter News, Carter was one of several hundred Vermont prisoners who had been transferred to GEO’s Michigan prison.
As of December 2016, 265 Vermont prisoners were held at the North Lake Correctional Facility, according to the Valley News. GEO’s two-year contract with Vermont, worth $30.4 million, began in 2015. [See: PLN, Jan. 2016, p.22]. The contract has since been terminated and the Vermont prisoners were moved to Pennsylvania’s prison system in 2017. Vermont officials paid over $7 million per year to house state prisoners in Pennsylvania under a three-year contract that had two one-year optional extensions.
“It’s extremely disappointing, but not surprising,” said Suzi Wizowaty, a former state lawmaker and executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, which has called for ending out-of-state transfers.
However, the Pennsylvania contract did not work out, with Vermont prisoners reporting abuse and inadequate medical care. After several deaths occurred, they were moved from SCI Camp Hill to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi in October 2018. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.42]. That prison is run by CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America. Vermont will pay the company $71 per prisoner per diem during the first year of the contract and $72.99 per diem during the second year; after that, the cost will increase to $75.04 per diem in year three and $77.15 per diem in year four.
While the Vermont prisoners were reportedly glad to leave Pennsylvania, advocates were not pleased with the new private prison arrangement with CoreCivic.
“The same concerns that motivated Vermont to terminate the Pennsylvania contract apply in full to this latest contract, and Vermonters should question the wisdom of moving inmates from an unacceptable situation to one that is likely to be even worse,” said James Lyall, executive director of the Vermont ACLU.
“I’m not a big fan of a private prison,” added Vermont state Senator Dick Sears. “I would prefer to have them all back in Vermont and run by the Vermont state Department of Corrections, but it’s just not realistic right now.”
At least Carter will no longer have to deal with private prison staff; he has since been released from prison and returned to Vermont.
Sources: upnorthprogressive.com, vermontbiz.com, vnews.com, mlive.com, michigan.gov, splinternews.com, doc.vermont.gov, snl.com, burlingtonfreepress.com
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