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News in Brief

California: Rafael Rodriguez, Matthew Farris and Jereh Lubrin lost a fierce battle to keep a judge from remanding them to trial on murder charges on March 3, 2016. The Santa Clara County jail guards were accused of beating Michael Tyree, a 31-year-old mentally ill prisoner, to death and attacking a second mentally ill prisoner, Juan Villa, shortly before the fatal attack on Tyree. Superior Court Judge Ron M. Del Pozzo ruled that the criminal case against the trio of guards should move forward. If convicted, they face life in prison.

California: The Kern County Sheriff’s office told reporters that a prisoner crashed a van at the Lerdo Jail in an apparent escape attempt on March 2, 2016. Ramon Castro, 23, was being loaded into a transport vehicle along with six other prisoners when he slipped out of his handcuffs and climbed into the driver’s seat of the running van. Castro was arrested at gunpoint before he reached the main gate, but not until he nearly ran over a deputy, crashed through a locked gate and slammed the van into a jail employee’s personal vehicle. Everyone received minor injuries in the crash, but none of the six hijacked prisoners faced charges. Sheriff Donny Youngblood declined to answer whether it was within departmental policy to leave a vehicle running while loading prisoners.

California: During court testimony in January 2016, former Men’s Central Jail prisoner Bret Phillips, 44, told a jury that Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez beat him unconscious in February 2009 while he was restrained and awaiting transfer to a medical appointment. Phillips, who was homeless and suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, said he had been in jail on a probation violation charge for about three weeks at the time of the incident. After deliberation, the jury hung on excessive force charges against Aguiar and Ramirez but found both guilty of falsifying records. On May 12, 2016, Aguiar was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison; Ramirez will serve 13 months. Both must also serve supervised release and community service upon completion of their prison terms. Famed attorney Gloria Allred filed a lawsuit for unspecified damages on Phillips’ behalf in 2014, which remains pending.

Colorado: A loophole in the state’s “Make My Day” law has been closed after prisoners twice invoked the defense to mitigate against murder charges for killing a fellow prisoner. Prosecutors pushed for modifications in the law, which allows for deadly force when defending one’s home, contending that the law could also allow prisoners to defend themselves against prison guards who entered their cells. The statutory modifications passed both the House and Senate and were passed along to Governor John Hickenlooper, who signed them into law on April 14, 2016.

El Salvador: The Toronto Sun reported on March 2, 2016 that prisoners at the Izalco Jail were treated to a skin show by prison officials who hired strippers to entertain the incarcerated men as a reward for the development of a truce between rival gangs. Cellphone video footage of the naked dancers was leaked to an El Salvadorian television station, causing a national uproar and an investigation by Prisons Minister Rodil Hernandez into the 2012 incident, which he said was approved by his predecessor. The Sun reported that gang violence had led to a surge in prison homicides during the first two months of 2016, making El Salvador a contender for the world’s most murderous country.

Florida: A Broward County judge who flashed her judicial ID rather than her driver’s license as she refused a breath test during a suspected DUI stop in 2013 has resigned from the bench. On February 10, 2016, the Sun-Sentinel reported that Cynthia Imperato, a former police officer and prosecutor appointed to the bench in 2003 by then-Governor Jeb Bush, would retire from the 17th Judicial Circuit in advance of a deadline for disciplinary action. Imperato was found guilty of DUI and served 20 days on house arrest in 2015, but kept her job until the Supreme Court rejected her deal with the state Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Florida: The barber shop at the Northwest Florida Reception Center was the site of a vicious, racially-motivated attack on a black prisoner by four white guards. The Department of Corrections confirmed on February 24, 2016 that those guards, Daniel Lucante, Kendal May, Grady Johnson and Sgt. Joseph Stapp, were charged with battery for beating prisoner Jessie Knight. According to court records, the guards shouted “Let’s beat this n---- and teach him a lesson” as the group choked, punched and kicked Knight while he was restrained by his neck in a barber’s chair. Affidavits said Knight had dropped a cookie outside the chow hall, apparently sparking the violent assault by the guards.

Illinois: Tommy Haire, a former religious services worker who had been employed at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, was sentenced to two years of probation on February 25, 2016 for violating multiple security protocols, including allowing prisoners to make calls from his cell phone and surf the Internet on his office computer. Haire had faced a year in prison after he pleaded guilty to one count of conversion of government property, a misdemeanor, but his attorneys successfully argued for a lighter sentence. His lawyers claimed Haire had “felt sorry” for the prisoners and did not realize the consequences he would face. Federal prosecutors did not object to the district court’s lenient sentencing decision.

Indiana: On January 10, 2016, The Herald Bulletin reported that the Indiana State Department of Health had confirmed that 4.6% of the 108 new cases of tuberculosis diagnosed statewide in 2014 were discovered in jails and prisons. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website reports that infectious diseases such as tuberculosis are not uncommon in correctional facilities and that up to 6% of TB cases reported nationally were diagnosed among prisoners. Ken Severson, media relations coordinator for the Indiana State Board of Health, said overcrowding and frequent movement of prisoners, prolonged indoor confinement – often with insufficient ventilation – and inadequate negative air pressure rooms often contribute to the quick spread of contagious diseases in lockups.

Ireland: The New IRA claimed responsibility for a bomb blast that injured a prison guard in Northern Ireland on March 4, 2016. The group said it was planning further attacks on other prison officers. The New IRA claimed the guard they tried to kill was targeted because he was responsible for training employees who supervise a Maghaberry jail unit that houses dissident republican prisoners. Stephen Martin, the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s assistant chief constable, warned it was “very likely” violence would escalate over the coming weeks.

Kentucky: Gynnya McMillen was only 16 years old when she died at the Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center on January 11, 2016. Employees at the facility had approached McMillen at least three times without response over a three-hour period before they discovered she was dead in her cell. She was offered breakfast, a snack and a phone call, but never acknowledged those attempts to communicate with her and guards never confirmed her physical wellbeing. The commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice, Bob Hayter, was fired after McMillen died; a guard involved in the incident, Reginald Windham, was also fired in February 2016. An autopsy attributed McMillen’s death to a rare genetic condition that caused an irregular heartbeat.

Louisiana: St. Mary Parish Sheriff Mark Hebert issued a press release on February 27, 2016 that announced the arrest and firing of jail guard O’Sharra Silas, as well as charges against jail prisoner Joseph B. James for the pair’s involvement in an attempt to bring contraband into the facility. Silas, 20, had worked at the jail for just over 5 months at the time of his arrest; he was booked with no bond and transferred to another facility. James, 34, faces a conspiracy charge for his role in the contraband smuggling scheme.

Louisiana: Prisoners Jared “Pablo” Johnson and Darryl McKinney took advantage of a deputy’s vacant computer terminal to surf Internet porn at the recently-opened Orleans Parish Jail. Deputies from Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s new lockup acknowledged that an unnamed fellow jailer had not logged out of a departmental computer, and the two prisoners had taken advantage of the unattended terminal to peruse pornography. Prosecutors said the computer also contained sensitive information, including the location of other prisoners at the jail. Johnson was convicted of misdemeanor computer tampering on March 1, 2016 and sentenced to six more months in jail plus a $500 fine. McKinney is still awaiting trial.

Michigan: Prison transport guard Danny Johnson was fired after 26 years on the job when he was charged on February 22, 2016 with assault and battery for punching a prisoner who spat on him while being transferred between facilities. The prisoner, 26-year-old convicted murderer Arshad Hamza Aljamailawi, was restrained but allegedly sprayed spittle on Johnson and charged at him. Johnson then allegedly assaulted Alajamailawi, who received disciplinary sanctions as a result of the incident. Johnson was initially suspended when the assault was discovered, but MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz confirmed he was subsequently terminated.

Michigan: Thanks to an attorney who listened, a detective who immediately investigated and a prosecutor’s office willing to dismiss his case, an unnamed Michigan man escaped a false rape accusation and the possibility of a decades-long prison term. Instead, the man’s accuser, Rachel Erin Soderblom, 34, now faces four years in prison for falsely reporting a felony. Soderblom had rendezvoused with the man at a motel for consensual sex, then reported that she had been raped by an unknown attacker. DNA from the rape exam linked the man to the alleged crime and he was arrested and jailed in December 2015. Detective Joseph Merritt quickly found evidence that Soderblom had rented a motel room on the evening before she reported the rape, which corroborated the falsely accused man’s story. Soderblom was arrested and arraigned on February 26, 2016.

Michigan: The Guardian reported on January 11, 2016 that the widow of a man who died in custody at the Midland County Jail after being suffocated by a “spit hood” had filed a wrongful death suit seeking damages against the county and several individuals. Sharyl Marden said her husband, Jack, had a documented history of cerebral aneurysm and heart stents which the jailers were aware of, yet they placed him in the mask despite a nurse’s warning to take it off to let him breathe. Edwin Budge, a Seattle-based attorney who has represented several clients in spit hood-related cases, said there have been similar deaths in prisons and jails in several states, including Florida, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Budge said of spit hoods, “They are, in my opinion, extraordinarily dangerous.”

Mississippi: On March 10, 2016, an escapee from the Warren County Jail was killed by a woman he had taken hostage, along with her family, during a home invasion. Rafael Arnez McCloud had been on the run for over a week after he forced a guard to remove his uniform under threat of a “makeshift weapon,” then donned the guard’s clothes and escaped. McCloud took the family hostage and held them in a bathroom, but he allowed the 24-year-old wife to leave. She returned with a handgun and shot at McCloud, but initially missed. She then fired several more times, fatally wounding him and ending the massive manhunt that had been launched following his escape.

Missouri: Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams said on March 5, 2016 that jail overcrowding is so bad that more than 12,000 warrants had not been served for minor crimes because the jail had no room to house new arrestees, though more serious and violent criminals were still being arrested. The dilemma arose when Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott and Springfield officials clashed over a contract for the city to house prisoners at the county jail. Last April, Arnott announced that the county would no longer accept municipal prisoners due to jail overcrowding. Critics noted that while the Greene County Jail routinely runs over capacity, Arnott has not turned away the $61 per day he receives for housing federal prisoners.

Netherlands: On February 29, 2016, Dutch News reported that Norwegian prisoners housed in a Dutch jail under a contract between the two countries are so happy with conditions at the facility that there is a waiting list for placement there. Prison personnel were also pleased with the behavior of the Norwegian prisoners, and described them as having better manners than Dutch prisoners. Some of the amenities at the Norgerhaven Jail include more time outside and less work. Prisoners are also allowed to keep in touch with their families via Skype and receive more telephone time. PLN previously reported on the advantages of Scandinavian prisons in its January 2014 cover story, “American Apartheid: Why Scandinavian Prisons are Superior.”

Nevada: State officials announced on February 25, 2016 that a 41-year-old former guard who had worked at the Southern Desert Correctional Facility was arrested for smuggling cell phones and drugs into the prison. Michael James joined five other men who were implicated in the scheme; the investigation turned up two cell phones inside and 16 outside the medium-security facility, as well as unidentified drugs. Prisoners Michael J. McNeil, Jamel Vincent Harris and Jesus Eduardo Chavarria, and parolee Endrel Deone Pope, were also named suspects in the plot. The sixth man, Shawn Yazzie, faces charges of conspiracy and unlawful communications with a prisoner.

New Hampshire: Former Belknap County deputy Ernest Justin Blanchette pleaded not guilty in December 2015 to charges that he assaulted a female prisoner while transporting her between jails. He was convicted of that crime on April 28, 2016. Blanchette also faces charges that allege he coerced five prisoners into having sex with him or each other; he is scheduled to go to trial later this year on nine counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault and one count of felonious sexual assault. Separately, Blanchette was accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a Laconia cemetery.

New Jersey: The Trentonian reported on January 6, 2016 that a former prisoner who reported the events surrounding the 2013 death of Robert Taylor, a homeless man who was placed in segregation rather than a medical unit at the Burlington County Jail while he detoxed from alcohol, had filed a lawsuit against the county. Sean Turzanski, who was also in the jail’s segregation unit, detailed what he had seen in the days preceding Taylor’s death in letters that were smuggled out of the jail. His suit alleges that his whistleblowing resulted in retaliation and unwarranted disciplinary actions, as well as problems in his criminal case. The family of Jerome Iozzia, another prisoner who died in 2014 at the Burlington County Jail while under the care of for-profit medical contractor Corizon, has filed a $25 million wrongful death suit.

New Jersey: Former Essex County Correctional Facility guard Shawn D. Shaw was convicted on February 5, 2016 on charges of raping a female prisoner and attempting to cover up the 2010 crime. According to court records, Shaw was the only guard on duty during an overnight shift at the jail when he entered the victim’s cell as she slept and forcibly had sex with her. He then lied about the attack when confronted by investigators several days later. U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas revoked Shaw’s bail after the verdict was announced; he faces up to a life sentence for the sexual assault and 20 years for obstruction of justice.

New York: Vanessa Gathers spent 10 years in prison for a robbery and assault she did not commit, then fought for 18 years after her release to clear her good name. On February 23, 2016, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced that his office would ask a judge to exonerate Gathers after the Conviction Review Unit examined her case and determined she had falsely confessed. Gathers’ conviction was one of dozens that have been overturned after the discovery of widespread corruption in investigations conducted by now-retired police detective Louis N. Scarcella. PLN recently reported that over $23 million in wrongful conviction settlements had been paid to victims of Scarcella’s misconduct. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.54].

New York: Following lengthy plea negotiations, former prison guard Gene Palmer was sentenced to six months in jail on February 29, 2016. Palmer, who had been a guard for 28 years, pleaded guilty to three charges related to assisting prisoners Richard Matt and David Sweat in their well-publicized escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in June 2015. [See, e.g.: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.63]. Palmer admitted to helping the men carry out their plan by giving them tools and supplies, and allowing them access to a catwalk behind their cells. He claimed he did not know the prisoners were planning to escape. Palmer’s defense attorney, Bill Dreyer, said his client’s sentence could be reduced to four months for good behavior.

North Carolina: On February 19, 2016, around 25 protesters marched to Duke University’s “fraternity row” to hold a “teach-in” in front of the Delta Sigma Phi Greek organization to express their outrage at the fraternity’s annual incarceration-themed party. Two days earlier, the frat members and fellow students from Duke’s Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority had held the “Kappa Kops” gathering, which featured a cage/jail cell, a mug shot photo booth, and partygoers dressed as police and prisoners. The protesters represented #DukeEnrage and read a statement that said in part, “Our fellow classmates find it appropriate to so callously ‘party’ around a theme that has brought pain, suffering and violence into the lives of so many. Their acts normalize a system that enacts brutality and violence against low-income communities and communities of color – right here, down the road, in Durham.”

Ohio: A former director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, who participated in the execution of 33 men between 2001 and 2010, now says the state’s death penalty is unfair and flawed. In a scathing editorial published on February 24, 2016, Terry J. Collins said the United States continues to be “one of the few industrialized nations to carry out the death penalty even when we know mistakes happen.” He added, “My experience tells me the death penalty isn’t worth fixing. Our justice system will be more fair and effective without the death penalty.” Nine death row prisoners have been exonerated in Ohio between 1979 and 2014. “It is time for state officials to have serious and thoughtful conversations about whether Ohio’s death penalty remains necessary,” Collins concluded.

Oklahoma: Tulsa World reported on March 1, 2016 that a special audit by a forensic accountant and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation will be conducted to determine what happened to nearly $200,000 missing from a Tulsa County Jail account designated to hold funds for prisoners’ commissary and phone call purchases. Sheriff’s office spokesman Justin Green said the funds were first discovered missing in 2012, but the agency was unable to resolve the issue on its own. A state audit confirmed the discrepancy in 2015 and Tulsa District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler ordered the special audit, which was also to focus on a “breakdown of bookkeeping at the jail” that led to problems in the county’s payroll process.

Oklahoma: On February 24, 2016, The Norman Transcript reported that Diana Thurman, 50, filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against a former Rogers County District Attorney and the DA’s husband claiming that the couple, Janice and Larry Steidley, approached her to participate in a plan to discredit Sheriff Scott Walton. Walton had called for an investigation into Janice Steidley’s conduct in office and the couple allegedly asked Thurman to sexually seduce the sheriff. Thurman said she initially cooperated in the scheme, but balked when her adult son remained in jail instead of being assigned to a drug court as Janice Steidley had promised. The suit further alleges that the Steidleys then insinuated if Thurman disclosed the plot, her safety and that of her imprisoned son would be jeopardized. Thurman is seeking $3.1 million in damages.

Oregon: The Oregonian reported on February 29, 2016 that Coffee Creek Correctional Facility staff had mixed up bags of breast milk pumped by prisoners for their infants on the outside. Milk program staff at Oregon’s only women’s prison allegedly gave the wrong milk bags to the babies’ caregivers. One of the nursing mothers had hepatitis C, causing the other prisoners to worry about transmission of the disease to their children. Oregon Department of Corrections spokeswoman Betty Bernt said milk program supervisors now require prisoners to check the bags before they are sent to caregivers, and have notified nursing prisoners that hepatitis B and C are unlikely to be transmitted through breast milk.

Oregon: On February 27, 2016, Snake River Correctional Institution prisoner Sou Seng Saepharn, 42, died suddenly as medical staff prepared to transport him to a hospital. Saepharn had complained earlier of not feeling well, but his condition worsened before he was transferred to a medical center and efforts to resuscitate him failed. His death closely followed that of 22-year-old Snake River prisoner Michael Teves, who was found dead in his cell on February 25, 2016. Although the investigation into the two deaths was ongoing as of the end of March, Saepharn’s death was presumed to be of natural causes while Teves’ death was being investigated as “some level of homicide.”

Papua New Guinea: In the aftermath of a mass prison break at Buimo Prison, the body count was estimated at 11 dead and 17 wounded from gunshots fired by prison staff. Anthony Wagambie, Jr., the superintendent of the city of Lae, where the facility is located, said “a very big number of prisoners” broke out on February 25, 2016. A report by The National newspaper indicated the actual number of escapees ranged between 50 and 90, and Wagambie said an official head count would be conducted to determine the identities of any missing prisoners. According to Acting Correctional Service Commissioner Bernard Nepo, “The situation in Lae is sketchy at the moment. Inmates and prison officers have been injured but it is still unclear as to how many.”

Pennsylvania: Westmoreland County paid $92,000 to install nine computers with video visitation software at the county jail, but received much less revenue than the program was expected to generate. Prisoners’ families and friends are charged $15 for a 25-minute video call, but the facility reported on January 25, 2016 that low utilization of the system had resulted in less than $14,000 in income. In-person visits at the jail were cut from 3 times per week to one per week with the addition of two authorized video calls. Officials said three of the computers were non-functional for several months, possibly contributing to the lower-than-expected usage. PLN has previously reported on the growing use of video visitation in prisons and jails. [See: PLN, March 2015, p.1; Nov. 2014, p.48; March 2014, p.50; July 2013, p.44].

Pennsylvania: Approximately 30% of 230 employees and more than 900 prisoners tested negative for tuberculosis, but a lockdown remained in effect at the Lackawanna County Prison according to a February 1, 2016 announcement by Warden Robert McMillan. The warden, whose own test came back negative, said a single prisoner at the facility had tested positive for the contagious lung disease, prompting all prisoners to be confined to their cells and mass TB screenings. McMillan said he expected the prison to return to normal operations shortly. None of those tested, including the prisoner whose test was positive for TB, have exhibited symptoms of the illness. Stephen Pancoast, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Regional and Moses Taylor hospitals in Scranton, said TB lies dormant in most people who are infected.

Tennessee: Janet Utley was charged with two felony counts of introduction of contraband into a penal institution on February 29, 2016. Utley, a freeworld civilian, had conspired with prisoners assigned to landscaping duty at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution to smuggle in prohibited items. Earlier that month, TDOC officials intercepted three lighters, three rolls of electrical tape, 3.9 ounces of marijuana, 10.6 ounces of loose tobacco, 11 cell phones, two SIM cards, nine USB chargers with charging blocks, 14 air fresheners and 50 cigar wraps. An aggressive investigation was launched, leading to Utley’s arrest. Other outside accomplices are suspected in the smuggling scheme, and the investigation remains ongoing.

Texas: In January 2016, former federal prison guard Marshall Thomas pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual abuse of a ward for engaging in sexual relationships with two different prisoners at Federal Prison Camp, Bryan. Thomas admitted that beginning in March 2014, he made inappropriate comments to a female prisoner that led to hugging, kissing and inappropriate touching, and then escalated to forcible intercourse in July 2014. He also admitted that he had used his fingers to vaginally penetrate another prisoner who refused his advances on the same day he raped the first woman. On April 15, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Gray Miller handed Thomas an 18-month prison sentence to be followed by 10 years of supervised release. He must also register as a sex offender.

Texas: According to a January 15, 2016 news report, the kitchen at the Central Texas Detention Facility failed a routine inspection when a food inspector found a colony of roaches living and breeding inside the hollow leg of a food prep table. The facility is operated by for-profit prison company The GEO Group under contracts with the U.S. Marshals and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It houses almost 700 male and female federal prisoners and immigrant detainees.

United Kingdom: An unnamed prisoner is suing the HM Prison Service after being knocked unconscious by falling potatoes. A January 24, 2016 news article in the Daily Mail reported that Solicitor Rhonda Hesling, who represents the prisoner, said her client was working in the prison kitchen as a vegetable prep assistant. He was returning a box of carrots to a walk-in refrigerator when 11 boxes of potatoes – weighing nearly 240 pounds – fell directly onto him, knocking him out and leaving him with a badly bruised back, muscle spasms and “unrelenting headaches.” Prison officials were to blame for the accident, Hesling argued. “It was clear that the prison was responsible for this incident and liability was admitted straight away,” she said. “Such a situation would not be tolerated in any other work place in the country and there can be no justification for prison being an exception to this.”  

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