Whopping Damage Award Against Private Prison Company for Inmates Death Affirmed by an Angry Court

By August of 1997 Texas had about 5,500 prisoners from other states housed in 22 facilities, generating revenues of more than $1,000,000 for private prison corporations. With such a strong profit motive, is it any wonder that cost-cutting measures such as hiring unqualified prison guards and failing to provide necessary medical care will be undertaken that will lead to problems?

In a searing opinion, the 13th Court of Appeals has upheld $42.5 million in punitive damages against a private prison GEO Group Inc., formerly named Wackenhut, a multinational corrections corporation for the horrific and gruesome death of inmate Gregorio De La Rosa Jr. in 2001. The award is among the largest punitive damages ordered against a private prison company.

De La Rosa was beaten to death by two other inmates using padlocks stuffed in socks at a 1,000-bed facility in Raymondville while guards and supervisors looked on, according to trial testimony three years ago. When De La Rosa, an honorably discharged former National Guardsman, died, he had only four days left to serve on a six-month sentence for a minor drug offense. The trial judge concluded that prison officials, including co-defendant David Forrest, the prison warden, had destroyed or lied about critical evidence, including a videotape of the fatal beating. In the appellate court’s ruling late last week, it upheld all but $5 million of the original $47.5 million jury award, noting, We find Wackenhut’s conduct was clearly reprehensible and, frankly, constituted a disgusting display of disrespect for the welfare of others and for this state’s civil justice system. The first line of the court’s judgment describes the case:

  • This case involves the horrific and gruesome death of Gregorio de la Rosa, Jr. (Gregorio). Gregorio, an honorably discharged former National Guardsman, was serving a six-month sentence at a prison operated by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation for possession of less than 1/4 grams of cocaine. A few days before his expected release, Gregorio was beaten to death by two other inmates using a lock tied to a sock, while Wackenhuts officers stood by and watched and Wackenhuts wardens smirked and laughed.

De la Rosa’s case sparked a criminal indictment of GEO Group for murder in Willacy County last fall, a charge that was ultimately dismissed. Geo Group operates about 50 private prisons in five countries, including 19 in Texas.

Mr. De la Rosa’s death is not the only one that occurred in a GEO-run prison. Jose Manuel Falcon died while in custody at GEO Group’s Reeves County Detention Center on March 12, 2009. Falcon, 32, was two months shy of his release from the Pecos prison when he died. In 2007, the firm settled a lawsuit for $200,000 with the family of a 22-year old inmate who hung herself after she was apparently raped and beaten after being locked in the same cell block with male inmates. Shortly after, she had hung herself in her cell.

In 2006, the company agreed to pay $100,000 to the family of a 25-year-old mother of two who died from a toxic dose of a blood-pressure drug while in prison custody. In October, GEO agreed to an undisclosed settlement in the case of Cassandra Morgan, 38, who died in 2006 of complications from an untreated thyroid condition while jailed on a shoplifting charge. GEO also paid $125,000 in 2005 to the family of a prisoner who hung himself with his bootlaces and agreed to a $300,000 settlement in 2000 involving another suicide.

Comic Kenneth Keith Kallenbach, 39, died at Riddle Memorial Hospital while an inmate at the prison, due to complications of cystic fibrosis, with bronchiectasis, acute and organizing pneumonitis and sepsis, according to a report from Medical Examiner Frederic Hellman. Officials there say Kenneth Keith Kallenbach refused medications, while his mother, Fay Kallenbach asserts her son was not given access to the breathing machine he used at home and that his medications had been switched.

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