Thirty-Six Sue Private Operator of Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center For Privacy Invasion

Cornell Companies, the private operator of correctional facilities 'cross the country, has a motto: "People Changing People." A lawsuit filed this week in Dallas County District Court proposes an alteration: "People Filming People." At least, so suggest 36 former inmates of the Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center in Wilmer, a 300-bed facility to which men and women convicted of drug- and alcohol-related crimes in Dallas County are sent to get clean and sober rather than spend time behind bars.

Says the suit, in January 2008 Cornell Companies employees began filming the inmates without their consent. Caught on film were their often intense drug treatment sessions, scenes from their daily routines and a talent show called, but of course, Cornell Idol. The suit says the inmates, who were already uncomfortable about the filming, were told the footage would be transferred to DVD and shown only to the Drug Court judges who send prisoners to the treatment center. But the complaint alleges it was "turned into a publicity and promotional film" -- shown to, among others, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and Attitudes & Attire -- and used as a fund-raising vehicle and "to obtain future contracts for supervision and operation of other treatment facilities in Texas and locations in other states."

Other patients in the facility also saw the film, says the suit, and as a result: "The sharing of the film with the patient population caused considerable embarrassment for the women residents from taunts and teasing of the male patients."

The suit is alleging that Cornell Companies violated both state and federal privacy statutes, including those related to keeping confidential records related to those undergoing drug and alcohol treatment. It also directs the court's intention to a 2002 doc prepared by the U.S. Department of Justice -- Practical Guide for Applying Federal Confidentiality Laws to Drug Court Operations -- which says that "the intent of Congress in creating these statutes was to encourage the rehabilitation of substance abusers who might otherwise be deterred from entering treatment by concern that their substance abuse would become public knowledge."

The suit is asking for $50,000 per plaintiff. The attorney -- Charles Paternosto, who's up in Denison -- wants $100,000 for providing "exemplary work for his clients"; more, if it goes into appeal.

Cornell Companies no longer exists, technically: In August of last year, it was bought out by The GEO Group, the same Florida-based company that announced last month it's building a 600-bed Civil Detention Center for immigration detainees down in Karnes City. This morning, via e-mail, Pablo E. Paez of The GEO Group told Unfair Park the company has no comment: "As a matter of policy, our company cannot comment on litigation related matters."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky