Guest Commentary: GEO Group Employees Purposely Harm and Retaliate against Blind Inmate at El Centro Detention Facility In California

Malik Washington

By Malik Washington

“City and state officials are replicating and escalating tactics often associated with totalitarian regimes: They are weaponizing the criminal legal system to intimidate, silence and lock away critics of the government.”

~ Micah Herskind, MSNBC – Stop Cop City article

On December 21, 2023, I and six (6) other detainees at the GEO Group El Centro Detention Facility in El Centro, California were the victims of one of the most punitive and retaliatory transfers I’ve ever experienced or been subjected to. Considering my long-time experience as a journalist and prisoner rights advocate, that’s a pretty strong statement.

Before I delve deep into explaining the current situation, I want to quote Ricardo Flores, a disabled detainee from Brawley, California. He was one of the six transferred with me to San Luis Regional Detention Center in Arizona from GEO Group’s El Centro Detention Facility. Mr. Flores said:

“This is the most horrible thing that could happen to us during the holiday season. I can barely keep my sanity right now not being able to communicate with my family. I used to have video visits with my daughter every week at El Centro. I was scheduled for surgery on my ankle on November 6, 2023. I was an electrician in the City of Imperial, California and fell off a 50-foot electric pole. I came to El Centro Facility on a violation and expected to be treated fairly. I believe I was retaliated against by the Warden at El Centro, Mr. Semaia, and his assistant, Ms. Franco, because I filed a grievance about maggots that were in our beans during a recent evening meal at El Centro Detention Facility. I’d like the public and the media to help us.”

I’d like to thank Mr. Flores for having the courage to speak out and speak up.

I arrived at the GEO Group El Centro Detention Facility from GEO Group’s Western Regional Detention Center in San Diego on or around December 8, 2023. Initially, my assessment of El Centro was favorable. The facility offered many amenities that the San Diego facility did not have. For instance, El Centro had tablets. I was able to have daily video calls with my partner and colleague, Gale Washington. The recreation yard was large. It had a full-size soccer field, full-court basketball, pull up bars, and dip bars.

I have a seizure condition and was housed in a dorm with other detainees who had medical issues and disabilities. One specific prisoner named William Thurlow aka “Billy” U.S. Marshal Service #36855-298 is completely blind. Like Ricardo Flores, Billy is originally from Brawley, California and was finishing up a violation of supervised release. The El Centro facility had barely any accommodations for disabled prisoners, but things were especially harsh for Billy because he is blind. Billy Thurlow’s story of how he lost his eyesight is intriguing yet heartbreaking at the same time.

Billy had un-diagnosed diabetes for quite some time. I spoke with him at length about his loss of sight. Billy said he began noticing issues with the acuity of his sight in October of 2021. Ironically, he was housed at GEO Group’s El Centro facility. However, it was June 2022 where he had an instance of complete eyesight loss at the San Luis Regional Detention Facility in San Luis, Arizona. Remember, the GEO Group operated facility in El Centro has no accommodation for a blind human being. No hand holds or safety bars in the shower, no special seats in the shower. This lack of accommodation would prove to be the reason why Billy got hurt.

On the evening of Thursday, December 14, 2023, on A-South Dorm at El Centro Detention Facility, Billy Thurlow fell hard inside the shower area. Medical staff responded and placed him in a cell on the medical unit at El Centro. I knew right away that Billy had a claim under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Apparently, the GEO Group employee, Warden Semaia and his colleague, Associate Warden Franco, switched immediately into “damage control” mode. Unknown to Billy, he was being targeted for a punitive transfer. The ADA covers government-operated detention facilities and privately-operated facilities like the GEO Group El Centro facility.

All high-ranking administrators knew about and were aware of Billy’s medical disability. I believe GEO Group crossed the line and violated Billy’s rights when they asked the United States Marshal Service (USMS) to transfer Billy to San Luis, Arizona.

The medical department at El Centro had just recently consulted with an eye specialist. The eye specialist had scheduled Billy for an operation that would have restored his eyesight to 30-45% vision with eyeglasses. Billy was so excited and hopeful. His hopes were soon destroyed. On the evening of December 20, 2023, at approximately 10:25 p.m., I and five (5) other prisoners on Alpha-South were notified that we were being transferred. Staff would not inform us as to where we were being transferred to until we were taken to the Intake Department. At 2:00 a.m. Thursday morning, December 21,2023, we were told the BAD news. Seven (7) detainees were chosen. I couldn’t comprehend for the life of me why I was chosen. I had just arrived at El Centro on December 8, 2023. During that time, I was humble and respectful to all I interacted with.

I do have a reputation as a journalist and “truth-teller.” Gale and I were recently recognized publicly when the Davis Vanguard re-published our “Open Letter to Rob Bonta,” the Attorney General of California. Gale and I requested that Rob Bonta conduct a thorough investigation into deaths which have occurred inside Santa Rita Jail located in Dublin, California.

I spoke directly to El Centro’s Chief of Security, a GEO Group employee named Mr. Stratton. Mr. Stratton blamed the punitive transfer to San Luis, Arizona on the USMS. I found this to be unbelievable. However, that wasn’t the only statement that Mr. Stratton said that didn’t make any sense. Mr. Stratton said the USMS was transferring un-sentenced, pre-trial detainees to the San Luis Regional Detention Center. Almost immediately, Bill Thurlow, the blind Mexican American prisoner spoke up. “I’ve been sentenced, Mr. Stratton, and I’m scheduled to get my eyes operated on – why am I leaving? What did I do?”

Once again, Mr. Stratton laid the blame directly at the feet of the USMS. We want the truth! Either Mr. Stratton is lying or there is some collusion between GEO Group and the USMS to dodge liability and protect government contractors from civil lawsuits.

Prior to being placed on the transfer bus to San Luis, Arizona, a GEO Group employee, Lt. Mendez at El Centro told a LaSalle Corrections Officer named Mr. Vargas that William Thurlow was completely blind. The transport officer, Mr. Vargas, asked Lt. Mendez, “If Thurlow is blind, why is there no paperwork describing his condition?” I was literally four feet away from this back-and-forth exchange of words.

LaSalle Corrections operates the San Luis Regional Detention & Support Center. San Luis has an infamous reputation for racial violence and poor living conditions. I was told by a GEO Group employee in San Diego, Assistant Warden Carney, that San Luis is a disciplinary facility used to house “troublemakers” and those who have angered the USMS.

We arrived at San Luis around 1:00 p.m. and they began the intake process. All the staff were perplexed and confused by this transfer. Billy Thurlow is blind, Ricardo Flores has a walker, I have a seizure condition, and San Luis has absolutely no accommodations for the disabled.

What added insult to injury was the violent lightning and thunderstorm that knocked out phone service on Thursday, December 22, 2023 and part of the next day. Most of the men I arrived with were already having a terrible time contacting their family members who were also caught off guard by this unusual transfer. Was this some sick joke or is this how GEO Group treats human beings on a regular basis?

Phone calls at San Luis are 30 cents per minute!! Customarily, phone calls are 7 cents per minute at facilities who contract with the USMS in California. In comparison, phone calls are free in San Francisco, California where my case is out of. Phone calls are also free in facilities operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Price gouging is real!! Taking advantage of immigrants seems to be a favored strategy of companies that provide services to those detained by ICE and DHS.

I am glad I am able to shed light on the extortion tactics utilized by San Luis via their phone contractor, Correct Solutions Group (www.regentpay.com).

Maggot Infested Beans!

Just a couple days before we were transferred to San Luis, Arizona from GEO Group El Centro Detention Facility, all detainees in my dorm noticed maggots and worms in our beans. Once we brought it to the GEO Group employees’ attention, it was as if they didn’t believe our allegations. This happened Tuesday, December 19, 2023 during the evening meal. I aided numerous detainees in formulating the correct language for a grievance.

Christian Ramos Marrogan, USMS #18166-510, filed a grievance about the maggot infestation. Unsurprisingly, Christian was one of the seven transferred to San Luis. Here’s the exact language from Christian’s grievance: “On 12-19-23 at approximately 5:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. during the dinner meal, I found maggots in my beans. This made me feel nauseated & sick. I am requesting that I not be served food that is contaminated with worms or other insects. I would like the Warden and the kitchen supervisor to conduct a thorough and fact-finding investigation in-order to determine how this happened.”

The next day, Wednesday, December 20, 2023 around 1:00 p.m. the GEO Group head Warden Semaia arrived on the dorm A-South with the Food Service Manager, Mr. Moreno. Mr. Moreno admitted to all of us that maggots had in fact been present in the beans we were served the night prior. I spoke directly to Mr. Moreno and thanked him for conducting an honest investigation and correcting the problem by discarding the contaminated beans.

Warden Semaia appeared visibly angry at Mr. Moreno’s candor and honesty. Little did I know Warden Semaia had been plotting to have me transferred. My legal knowledge and expertise in filing civil rights complaints made me a threat to the GEO Group staff.

I arrived at GEO Group El Centro on December 8, 2023. On Monday, December 11, 2023, I witnessed a hate crime that was covered up by the GEO Group Security Staff. It didn’t take me long to figure out that Sergeant Lara, Lieutenant Trujillo, and their supervisor, Mr. Stratton were aiding and abetting violent organized gang activity. By the way, the victim of the hate crime was one of the seven transferred with us to San Luis. I am refusing to publish his name for his own safety.

I am requesting that my colleagues in the journalist profession aid us in sharing this article far and wide.

Destination Freedom Media Group gives our express permission to post or publish this article in its entirety or in part on any media website or social medal platform.

– Malik Washington is a free-lance journalist and staff writer for Destination Freedom and Destination Freedom Media Group. He is a co-founder of the SRJ Freedom Collective. For over 10 years, he has reported on conditions inside U.S. prisons and jails. Human rights abuses, environmental racism, and class warfare are special interests of his. Occasionally, he provides provocative political commentary. He can be reached at mwashington@destination-freedom.org

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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