Judge Says GEO Group Negligent in Australian Prisoner's Brutal Death

Geo Group, based in Boca Raton, operates five prisons in Australia.
Geo Group, based in Boca Raton, operates five prisons in Australia.
Eflatmajor7th/wikimedia

At midnight on April 23, 2011, Colin Johnson, a prisoner at the Fulham Correctional Centre in Sale, Australia, was found in his cell, naked and bent over on his knees, surrounded by blood and vomit. A closer look found his head had been bashed in and the right side of his forehead was massively swollen.

Johnson, 40, was taken to the hospital, where he would remain on life support until May 10, when doctors concluded he wouldn't recover from the injuries. The cause of Johnson's death was complications arising from blunt-force trauma to the head. It was later determined that he was hit in the skull four times with a wooden rolling pin. But no guards saw the attack. Cameras weren't in position to record who went in and out of Johnson's cell. And whoever did it was allowed enough time to mop the floor a bit, possibly ridding the scene of evidence.

According to an Australian court inquest issued March 27, Johnson's death could have been prevented by Geo Group, the Boca Raton-based private prison operator that runs the Fulham Correctional Centre.

Johnson was serving a two-year sentence for drug possession, something he had trouble with throughout his adult life. At the time he was killed, Johnson could have been out on probation if he hadn't failed a drug test while locked up. That tragic misstep turned out to be fatal because of the poor security conditions created by Geo Group, according to state coroner judge Ian Gray.

Johnson wasn't found in his cell until about six hours after the attack, which occurred sometime between 5:09 and 5:45, according to the inquest. Gray asked doctors if earlier medical attention could have prevented death, and the answers pointed to yes.

“If Colin Johnson had been transferred to hospital soon after the wounds had been inflicted, a CT scan may have shown an evolving subdural haemorrhage which could have been more readily evacuated and this may possibly have changed the outcome,” responded Dr. Malcolm Dodd.

Geo Group disagreed with Dodd's analysis, referring to it as “necessarily speculative.”

Gray sided with the doctor's perspective that earlier medical attention would have helped.

Geo Group operates prisons in the U.S., Australia, South Africa, and the U.K.
Geo Group operates prisons in the U.S., Australia, South Africa, and the U.K.
GeoGroup.com

The inquest showed that Johnson was likely attacked in the late afternoon while lying on a couch in the prison's day room. No CCTV cameras recorded the incident. Geo Group explained that it doesn't put cameras in the day room because the location is “adjacent to the officers' station from which correctional officers have a clear visual through its glass windows.”

Yet no guards saw Johnson getting whacked in the head with a wooden rolling pin.

The general demeanor of the guards was described by a witness in the inquest:

“I've had concerns for myself, what happens if I had a heart attack or something, you know, look at them, they're just kicking back. How easy their job – feet on the chair, reading the paper, and some are perhaps on the computer doing their work and – you know, you do see them sometimes snoring asleep and there's been incidents where they've had to wake them up because the governor's coming down, I've seen that happen.”


After getting bludgeoned, Johnson somehow made it back to his cell and sat on his bed. Two times, prison staff briefly checked the cell but didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. One nurse says she saw Johnson lying naked on the bed but didn't see the right side of his face, where he was hit.

This has led to a change in policy where prison staff is required to tell the prisoner to stand up during cell checks to make sure he's physically OK.

Gray concluded that if weren't for the inattentive prison guards and lack of security cameras, Johnson's death could have been prevented.

"In my opinion, Mr. Johnson's death was preventable. With the right camera coverage and/or attentive observations by the guards in the office of the day room where Mr. Johnson was attacked, it is less likely that the attack would have occurred but once it did, it is highly likely it would have been seen. Mr. Johnson would have been attended to immediately, medical intervention and treatment would have occurred far earlier, and there is a possibility that he would not have died from his injuries."

Nobody was ever charged with Johnson's death.

Geo Group runs five prisons in Australia, which has, like the United States, been increasingly privatizing its prison system, albeit at a slower pace.

The Fulham prison where Johnson was killed has proven to be problematic for Geo Group. In 2012, a 12-hour riot broke out. Media reports at the time pointed to concerns that the prison's population was rising (from 100 prisoners to 770) while staff was being cut.

You can read Judge Ian Gray's inquest into the death of Colin Johnson below:

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