by J.D. Schmidt
On December 13, 2021, a group of 49 current and former prisoners sued the York County Prison (YCP) in Pennsylvania, along with a contractor hired to train its guards, Corrections Special Applications Unit (C-SAU), as well as the firm’s founder and “Senior Team Leader,” Joseph Garcia, alleging that policies and practices they put in place created “a toxic culture where excessive and unjustified terror and violence is perpetrated with impunity.”
The county hired C-SAU in November 2020 on a $122,000 contract to help the prison construct a special-response team of guards, extending the contract for another two years and another $252,770 in October 2021. That was a month after officials in nearby Allegheny County had voted to terminate an even larger contract with the firm—$347,770 plus $95,000 for ammunition—that had just been inked in July, citing concerns that Garcia had been insufficiently transparent about his background.
It was also well after a “training exercise” described in the lawsuit on March 31, 2021, when C-SAU staff and YCP guards allegedly “barged into” a housing pod at 4:30 a.m. and strip-searched prisoners at gunpoint before marching them to the prison gym, where “they were forced to sit, handcuffed facing a wall for over five (5) hours.” See: Schwenk v. Garcia, USDC (M.D. Pa.), Case No. 1:21-cv-02079-SHR.
C-SAU is one of a few private, para-military-style organizations looking to profit by turning prison and jail guards into “warriors,” complete with a gung-ho militaristic mentality and the latest high-tech gadgetry and weapons. Along the way, they’re also generating controversy with the violent techniques that their “operators” train guards to use on prisoners, as well as the high cost imposed on government budgets through both pricey no-bid contracts and litigation that results from brutal use-of-force incidents.
Ironically, it is often in response to public scrutiny over a previous use-of-force incident that law enforcement agencies first turn to these trainers, who make a show of taking a smarter and more strategic approach, using “tactics” and technology rather than old-fashioned brute force to gain compliance from reluctant or resistant prisoners. However, critics allege that at the heart of these programs is the same old use-of-force, done up in a gear-and-weapons-heavy package with all the latest “tacticool” trappings.
Based in Greenville, South Carolina, C-SAU (formerly U.S. Corrections Special Operations Group/US C-SOG) bills itself as a “High-Risk Corrections Special Operations and Mitigation” force, focused on training jail and prison guards to respond to prisoner uprisings.
That’s a job otherwise deferred to local police SWAT teams and state police, unless incarceration facilities can create a cadre of jailers trained in “riot control,” often known as CERT/SERT (Corrections Emergency Response Team/Special Emergency Response Team).
In addition to this primary focus on riot/emergency response training, C-SAU also offers what its website refers to as “Real World Ancillary Support Services,” such as training to move high-risk prisoners and other “real world classified operations.” C-SAU looks, sounds, and acts like a small military unit in its promotional videos, with Garcia and the rest of a self-described “Level 1 cadre” acting as de facto drill sergeants for the guards they train.
A National Rifle Association (NRA) video about the earlier incarnation of Garcia’s company, US C-SOG, provides insight into the aggressively violent attitudes embedded in the organization’s militaristic approach. The 20-minute “Patriot Profile” from Life of Duty TV, entitled “US C-SOG: On the Razor’s Edge,” is presented by weapons manufacturers Brownells and Smith & Wesson, two corporations apparently eager to cash in on corrections militarization. Featuring short clips of interviews with Garcia and other C-SOG “operators” in actual training sessions is bodycam and security camera footage of real-life guard/prisoner interactions, fights, and “riot porn” images of prisoner uprisings, all accompanied by an aggressive hip-hop and heavy-metal soundtrack.
A Hollywood-style, “edgy” voiceover presents the issues in stark terms: Prisoners are “the most deviant, the most disturbed, the most violent” of human beings, the most “perverted, depraved, deviant, psychotic and evil that our society has to offer,” and “America’s prisons are ripe for rebellion, like a festering sore, and a ticking time bomb”—as if prisoners themselves are to blame for the conditions they endure. These claims are belied by the rather docile nature of the American prison population who despite steadily worsening conditions and even in the midst of a Covid pandemic that has killed thousands, do not resist their captors. But no one has ever let the facts get in the way of making a buck off the government.
The video repeatedly references the “5,000-plus jails and 2.3 million inmates” in the U.S. No mention is made of the fact that over two-thirds are pre-trial detainees not yet convicted of any crime. Instead there is a salute to jail and prison guards—“frontline foot-soldiers” and “men and women who risk much for their communities”—along with a warning that if not trained in CERT/SERT, they are “unarmed and at constant risk of injury and attack” because they are “outnumbered and surrounded by the most violent, the most deviant, and the most despicable that the human race has to offer.”
Highlighting the firm’s mission to create “highly skilled and professionally certified operators,” the video disparages its predecessor CERT/SERT as the “hats with bats brigade...fitted with body armor, shields, helmets, handcuffs, and batons,” who “operate in many ways like riot police,” clumsily “stacked together in lockstep” as they try pathetically “to quell uprisings with force and numbers.” That “mentality,” the film warns, has “long lost its lustre, effectiveness, and even acceptance.” Thus the need for newly trained “operators,” who “do not rely as much on muscle and brute force as they do brains and tactical precision.”
A Trail of Lawsuits
Despite C-SAU’s claims, though, trouble in the form of use-of-force incidents seems to follow in the wake of the company’s training. Garcia claims in the NRA video that “[s]ince 2004 when we started the operations, we haven’t had one officer injured, we haven’t had one lawsuit, and everything has been justified.” Everything the firm does is legal, ethical, and safe he assures—at least for the jailers, prison guards and corporate “special operators” involved.
Much more concerning for prisoners, their families and advocates are the injuries and at least one prisoner death attributed to jail and prison guards trained by C-SAU. Back in York County, Pennsylvania, the Daily Record delved into controversies surrounding the firm’s contracts with YCP, which total over $375,000, in a series of investigative articles from May through November of 2021. They detail a number of allegations against Garcia and C-SAU, but the most serious arise from 2008-2019 contracts with the jail in Charleston County, South Carolina.
On January 5, 2021, a prisoner at the jail, Jamal Sutherland, who was suffering a mental health crisis, died after being repeatedly tasered, pepper-sprayed, held down on the floor and then placed in a restraint chair during a cell extraction. After his death, local prosecutors obtained a use-of-force analysis from corrections expert Gary Raney, the former sheriff of Ada County, Idaho, who said that Sutherland died due in part to “highly aggressive” C-SOG/C-SAU training that “emphasized the use of weapons and intimidation to gain compliance from detainees.”
As a result, Raney recommended that deputies involved not be held criminally liable because they were acting in accordance with their training. No charges were filed, but Sutherland’s family sued. Charleston County settled the case in June 2021 for $10 million. [See: PLN, Sep. 2021, p.32.]
In addition to Sutherland’s case, there was a Colorado federal civil rights lawsuit in which Joseph Garcia and C-SAU were mentioned over 60 times. Though not listed as defendants in the case, they were cited as the source of training for the Special Operations Group (SOG) at Colorado’s Weld County Jail, in a lawsuit brought by a University of Colorado student held on pretrial detention, who alleged that SOG guards trained by C-SAU unleashed a barrage of brutal violence that left him with serious physical and psychological injuries—including a concussion and deep lacerations to his face—and violated his civil rights.
According to that suit, SOG “functions as a militarized combat force trained to intimidate, terrorize, and brutalize people detained in the Weld County Jail,” where guards use weapons and ammunition provided by C-SAU, including Kel-Tec shotguns and explosive concussion munitions, as well as physical tactics that included smashing the detainee’s face into the floor, all under policies and practices instituted in part through C-SAU training. The county reportedly settled the suit in November 2021 for $325,000 and agreed never to hire Garcia and C-SAU again. See: Rustgi v. Bd. of County Comm’rs, USDC (D. Colo.), Case No. 20-cv-945-WJM-STV.
In another series of stories spanning the summer and fall of 2021, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette detailed concerns over hiring C-SAU at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). After a video produced by the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center noted that ACJ had more use-of-force incidents than any other jail in Pennsylvania over the preceding five years, voters passed a May 2021 referendum mandating changes to use-of-force policies at the jail. Among the practices nixed were the use of chemical weapons and restraint chairs. Yet both are touted in training programs by C-SAU—which ACJ Warden Orlando Harper then hired to address the referendum’s demands via a $347,770 no-bid contract in July 2021.
Prisoner rights activists, civil liberties advocates, the county controller, and even members of the ACJ Oversight Board reacted with alarm. In a letter sent on August 24, 2021, the Abolitionist Law Center threatened to sue the county if C-SAU training continued, asserting that in direct contravention to the will of the voters, “ACJ and Warden Harper [had] responded by buying new weapons and contracting with a company renowned for its brutality.” In the end, the county voted to kill its contract with Garcia and ban him from bidding for future work.
‘Break the Jaw and Walk Away’
In addition to issues with his company’s programs, Garcia himself has become a source of controversy. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Allegheny County Controller Chelsea Wagner and Councilwoman Bethany Hallam, who expressed concerns over Garcia’s seeming unwillingness or inability to furnish a resume or answer basic questions about his employment history and background.
The York Daily Record also questioned that background, noting that Garcia apparently was merely a volunteer, a paid contractor, or was never employed or contracted in any capacity with the “four major [law enforcement] agencies” he claimed to have worked for over a career spanning 27 years in law enforcement and corrections.
Both the Post-Gazette and the Daily Record also cited Garcia’s arrest for conspiracy to commit “grievous bodily harm” while deployed as an airman in England in the 1980s. He was sentenced to two and a half years in a British prison, though it is unclear how much of that sentence he served or what the exact terms were of his departure from the U.S. Air Force.
This apparent disingenuousness about his background does not extend to Garcia’s take on issues of race and racialized conflict. Quoted in the August-September 2020 issue of Tactical Life Magazine, Garcia said he expected the Black incarcerated population to start a “racial war” against “corrections officers” after the murder of George Floyd. In response to a question on the Talking Lead podcast about what he thought of Black Lives Matter, Garcia replied that he likes “Dogs’ Lives Matter”—an actual New York City-based animal welfare campaign—saying “I’m supporting that organization.”
Garcia and his wife were also named in a civil lawsuit in which family friends alleged the couple reneged on repayment of a $125,000 personal loan. As previously reported in PLN, this suit came along at the time US C-SOG was involved in a high-profile, costly and controversial contract with New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail, training guards who reported they were taught to use elbow strikes and eye gouges, among other violent tactics, in order to subdue prisoners, repeating a vicious “catchphrase”: ‘Break the jaw and walk away.’ [See PLN, March 2017, p.47.]
Charleston County Jail director Abigail Duffy said that Garcia also taught guards at her facility that “choking and throwing an elbow into the eye socket were appropriate techniques.” In response to a query from York County authorities in Pennsylvania, Duffy stated for the record that “we had a lot of concerns with the training that our people received” and “I very, very strongly advised them against allowing [Garcia] to continue.”
C-SAU is not the only private paramilitary-style organization profiting from the militarization of the corrections industry. Based in Lakeland, Florida, and led by CEO and Chief Instructor Sidney Lopez, the Tactics and Operations Group (TOG) claims that its mission is to “[p]rovide corrections specialized teams the best instructors in the industry with a vast real-world experience” involving cell extractions, prisoner transports and escorts, “Pod Domination/Riot Operations” and “In-Custody Tactical Hostage Rescue,” along with “many other corrections-specific high liability issues.”
A Florida-based partner, Force IMI, an Israeli-American company with deep ties to the Israeli military and intelligence agencies, owns and operates Force Center USA, a massive 1,200-acre training complex on the grounds of a decommissioned high-security prison in Immokalee. There on the edge of the Everglades, TOG and other organizations run realistic tactical drills for jail and prison guards, law enforcement agencies and others.
In addition to high-dollar contracts with corrections facilities, these paramilitary companies also profit by shilling for manufacturers of the high-tech tactical gear that is their calling card. In addition to the usual suspects—weapons manufacturers such as C-SAU’s firearms partner Kel-Tec—a new breed of high-tech companies is getting into the game. Communications and monitoring equipment developer GuardianRFID bills its gadgets to assist prison guards with chores like keeping headcounts as “Warrior Technology.” Stun gun and conducted energy weapon manufacturer Phazzer is looking to horn into TASER International’s territory, with an aggressive marketing campaign targeting prison guards as well as police. TOG’s website also sells military-style tactical bags, pouches, and body armor, as well as promoting a distributorship deal with Energy Technical Systems, Inc., a “less lethal” munitions maker.
The trend of militarizing prison and jail guards mirrors a larger trend of militarizing many aspects of law enforcement. For example, a YouTube video touting Singapore’s “SPEAR” (Singapore Prisons Emergency Action Response) team bears the hallmarks of this approach: military-style body armor fitted with the latest high-tech tactical gear, firearms shooting “less lethal” projectiles, and chemical weapons. But there is one crucial difference: Singapore’s specialized prison riot-control force is organized and trained by other government-employed, certified law enforcement professionals.
In the U.S., where the privatization of the incarceration system proceeds apace, jail and prison authorities are training guards with profiteering organizations like C-SAU and TOG, which are getting in on the ground floor of a prison-paramilitary industrial complex. The full impact on prisoners’ lives and rights remains to be seen, but the early evidence suggests that, contrary to the corporate paramilitary sales pitch, the “warrior” mentality is fundamentally at odds with the health, safety, and few remaining rights of incarcerated people in America.
Sources: Abolitionist Law Center, BlueToad, CSau1.com, ForceCenterUSA.com, ForceIMI.com, GuardianRFID.com, LessLethal.com, PhazzerUS.com, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, TacticsandOperationsGroup-US.com, TribLive, WITF, York Daily Record
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Related legal cases
Schwenk v. Garcia
|Cite||USDC (M.D. Pa.), Case No. 1:21-cv-02079-SHR|
Rustgi v. Bd. of County Comm’rs
|Cite||USDC (D. Colo.), Case No. 20-cv-945-WJM-STV|