Sina Moghtader was pursuing medical school when he was detained in a private prison run by the GEO Group Inc., ICE’s top contractor. The 35-year-old UTSA graduate had fled childhood persecution in Iran for his family’s Bahá’í faith. He says guards called him a terrorist for his Iranian ethnicity, and encouraged other inmates to do the same.
On June 24, Moghtader filed a lawsuit against GEO, accusing guards of turning away when other inmates beat him, broke his nose and shoved a toilet brush up his rectum. His injuries led to an ear infection that doctors allegedly wouldn’t treat, so now he can’t hear out of his left ear. He says the medical staff also refused to provide medications prescribed for his PTSD and anxiety diagnoses, despite letters from his doctor and lawyer demanding proper treatment. According to the complaint, Moghtader was told he’d see a doctor only if he pled guilty.
Authorities eventually dropped all charges against him, but not before Moghtader spent a full year in GEO’s downtown San Antonio prison.
Topped with razor wire, GEO’s Central Texas Detention Facility sits where San Pedro Creek meets Dolorosa Street, mere blocks from the Riverwalk and a stone’s throw from Mi Tierra and the historic Market Square.
Moghtader was imprisoned two years ago for sending threatening texts, emails and phone calls to two Department of Justice attorneys and their families. He had just lost a complaint accusing the National Board of Medical Examiners of illegally refusing to accommodate his learning disability during med school tests. A federal judge dropped the charges against him last April, blaming his actions on a psychotic break brought upon by a negligent Adderall prescription that severely and dangerously interacted with the post-traumatic stress disorder related to his troubled childhood in Iran.
“Everyone is in prison for some reason. He did not injury anybody,” said Randall Kallinen, Moghtader’s lawyer, in a phone interview. “He was in there for saying words, and... he was found not guilty by reason of his mental condition.”
At a press conference held in front of the San Antonio federal courthouse on June 26, Moghtader spoke out about his experience in the facility, named “Texas Parole Violation Center” but listed as a detention center on ICE’s website thanks to a contract between the company, Bexar County and the U.S. Marshals Service. GEO has leased the facility, formerly a county jail, since 1989.
“It was terrible. It was like a nightmare,” Moghtader said. “I want this facility to treat people right, and not abuse their power.”
Kallinen likened the experience to “torture.”
“Although [prison] is not a vacation, you cannot be subjected to excessive force – you cannot be denied reasonable care for your serious medical needs,” Kallinen said.
GEO did not respond to requests for comment.
Kallinen says the company has not yet gotten back to his law firm, and believes that it may not be until next fall that the case makes it to either trial or mediation.
GEO is no stranger to allegations and negative press. Since 2012, five guards and other employees of this San Antonio facility have been arrested for crimes such as smuggling contraband, including cell phones and drugs, to inmates, as well as sexually abusing them.
A June report released by Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union and other government watchdogs cites medical professionals who say that, since 2012, at least four deaths in GEO prisons across the nation can be attributed to substandard medical care. An August 2016 report issued by the Department of Justice found that GEO’s prisons “had more incidents per capita” than facilities operated by the government as well as competing corrections companies in the areas of “contraband finds” and “lockdowns, guilty findings on inmate discipline charges, positive drug test results and sexual misconduct.”
That DOJ report was cited in an August 2016 memo issued by former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates that ordered the Bureau of Prisons to begin phasing out the use of private prisons. The next day, GEO Corrections Holdings Inc. donated $100,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC, Rebuilding America Now, and gave another $125,000 one week prior to Trump’s electoral victory.
Two weeks into Jeff Sessions’ career as attorney general, he reversed Yates’ decree. Last April, ICE gave GEO a 10-year, $110 million contract to build and operate a new 1,000-bed immigrant detention center in Conroe, north of Houston.
These events led the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center to cry foul. Their lawyers have filed lawsuits against ICE and the Federal Elections Commission over unfulfilled requests for information about these donations. They say that if ICE had an operating agreement to run a GEO prison in Washington when the donations were made, then they were illegal. GEO has given a total of $845,000 to political committees since 2015.
Moghtader’s suit cites violations of the Fourth Amendment (against cruel and unusual punishment), the Americans with Disabilities Act and due process, and also charges GEO with negligence, medical malpractice and racial discrimination. Besides damages for himself, Moghtader seeks a court order for the company to “implement and train employees in the importance of not inciting violence between inmates and not denying inmates access to needed medical care.”
Moghtader has also taken his psychiatrist, Shawna Deeves, to district court over the negligent Adderall prescription that induced his psychotic break.
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