News in Brief
Alabama: U.S. Attorney George L. Beck, Jr. called Chris Miles, the former assistant police chief for the town of Tallassee, Alabama, a “maverick” when Miles was sentenced on March 25, 2016 for beating a suspect during an interrogation, making false statements to the FBI and selling drugs. Miles had pleaded guilty in November 2015 to one count of deprivation of civil rights and two counts of false statements; he also admitted to a count of possession with intent to distribute for stealing approximately 16 pounds of marijuana from the police evidence room and selling it to a known drug dealer. U.S. District Court Judge Myron H. Thompson ordered Miles to serve 41 months in federal prison.
Alabama: Russell County jail guard Donna Michelle Ridgeway was arrested on March 16, 2016 and fired after a recorded conversation revealed she had tried to help a female prisoner plot to gain early release by performing oral sex on a male guard. The sex act did not occur, but the investigation resulted in a conspiracy to commit sodomy charge against Ridgeway. The former guard was initially booked into the Russell County jail but moved to another county due to security concerns. She had been employed as a jailer for four years.
Alaska: Goose Creek Correctional Center guard Adam Jason Spindler got spooked when he arrived for work on May 23, 2016 and saw a drug-sniffing K9 unit stationed in the parking lot. He approached an unnamed fellow guard and told him that he was in possession of recreational marijuana; the second officer agreed to dispose of it. Instead, the other guard turned in Spindler’s baggie of weed. A narcotics field test determined it contained not only marijuana but also a significant amount of heroin. Spindler admitted that he intended to distribute the drugs inside the prison; he was arrested on charges of possessing a controlled substance with the intent to distribute, as well as conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and to possess it with the intent to distribute.
Alaska: PLN previously reported on walkaway escapes from the privately-operated Northstar Center near Fairbanks. [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.63]. On May 22, 2016, another walkaway occurred, but this time there was a twist. In the early hours, GEO Group employees at Northstar contacted state troopers to report that 20-year-old resident Joshua Yaska had hopped out of a window and was seen pedaling away from the facility on a bicycle. Several hours later Yaska returned in a stolen SUV and tried to help some of his friends escape. He nearly ran over a Northstar employee and fled again before being captured.
Arkansas: The former chief deputy and jail administrator for Stone County pleaded guilty on March 3, 2016 to a single count of deprivation of civil rights under color of law, prompting prosecutors to drop a conspiracy charge. Randel Branscum, 56, will be sentenced at a later date for soliciting the beating of a prisoner at the county jail. He admitted to telling prisoners James Beckham and Matthew McConniel to “handle” the victim, then forcing the man into a cell where he was assaulted. Branscum provided Beckham and McConniel with tobacco for carrying out the attack. The Department of Justice issued a press release that speculated Branscum will receive a sentence of one year and one day in federal prison for arranging the assault.
Australia: Families of several prisoners housed at the Alexander Maconochie Centre presented a petition to AMC General Manager Don Taylor in protest of the facility’s May 1, 2016 change to its visitation policy, which reduced visiting opportunities from 8 hours per week to two hours a week. Kathleen Tully, who is married to an AMC prisoner, disagreed with the change. “Part of rehabilitation is maintaining close ties to supporting families,” she stated. “This is terribly unfair for families, for children and for the inmates themselves.” Corrections Minister Shane Rattenbury responded by saying, “The new visiting schedule at the AMC reflects the growing population within the jail and the need to give every detainee equal access to visits.”
Belgium: The BBC reported on May 9, 2016 that 180 Belgian soldiers had been deployed to provide security in prisons short-staffed due to a strike by guards in Brussels and French-speaking Wallonia. Belgian Human Rights League President Alexis Deswaef stated it was the first time the Belgian military had been called in to intervene in a social conflict. Prison ministers said they asked for army personnel “to provide additional humanitarian support” for the police and Red Cross workers who had taken on the role of prison guards. The striking workers claimed prisoners were not being given their basic human rights because of severe understaffing.
Brazil: Human Rights Watch investigator Cesar Muñoz told Spanish international news agency EFE on May 26, 2016 that 18 prisoners had died in riots in five prisons in the state of Ceara in the previous week. This latest chapter in the violent history of Brazilian prisons was triggered, according to Muñoz, by severe overcrowding in the nation’s correctional system. A recent report from Brazil’s Justice Ministry documented over 622,000 prisoners being housed in facilities designed to hold approximately 372,000. “The Brazilian prison system is rotten. It’s a factory for criminals, out of which people emerge worse than when they entered,” said former congressman Domingos Dutra. PLN has previously reported on violence in Brazilian prisons, often connected to gangs and overcrowding. [See: PLN, Feb. 2015, p.46].
California: On April 2, 2016, former death row prisoner Moreese Bickham died in an Alameda, California nursing home at the age of 98. Bickham, who was African-American, was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury for the murders of two white Mandeville, Louisiana law enforcement officers in 1958, though he steadfastly maintained that the deputies were Ku Klux Klan members who had come to his home to kill him. In 1994, attorney Michael Alcamo took Bickham’s case pro bono; he successfully secured his client’s release in January 1996. Bickham served 37½ years at Louisiana’s infamous State Penitentiary in Angola, including 14 years on death row where he was locked down 23 hours a day.
California: In honor of Mother’s Day, on May 8, 2016, Google teamed up with criminal justice reform groups to produce the “Love Letters” campaign – a series of videos filmed to give the world a very personal glimpse into the lives of children who have an incarcerated mother. In the videos, the children speak candidly about the things they miss most about their moms. “I miss your smile and I miss how you used to always say funny things on Facebook and post it,” eleven-year-old Aliyah said into the camera. Malika Saada Saar, public policy and government relations senior counsel at Google, stated, “This is an opportunity for us to bear witness to those who are rarely given a voice.”
California: Russian immigrant Igor Zyazin became the sixth person to die in immigrant detention centers around the country when he was found unresponsive inside the Otay Mesa Detention Facility on May 1, 2016. The Russian consulate and Zyazin’s family were notified of his death at the 1,040-bed facility, which is operated by Corrections Corporation of America. Zyazin had no criminal record in the U.S. but was detained when he tried to re-enter the country after previously being deported in 2009. The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office attributed Zyazin’s death to heart disease.
Canada: The St. Lawrence Parks Commission will operate tours inside the notorious Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario as the historic prison opens its doors to the public from June 14 to October 29, 2016. Visitors will be allowed to tour “The Pen,” which housed some of Canada’s most dangerous prisoners from the time it opened in 1835 to when it closed in 2013. The Parks Commission said the guided tours will be conducted in English and noted the facility is mostly accessible to people with disabilities. “We know there is tremendous interest in this site and our hope is to get even more people from across the country and internationally to come to Kingston to see this historic site,” Mayor Bryan Paterson said in a statement.
Colombia: The Daily Mail reported on May 12, 2016 that the director of the Villahermosa Jail was under investigation after photos surfaced that showed her dancing erotically in front of a crowd of prisoners. Claudia Patricia Giraldo Ossa was pictured “twerking” on a stage before cheering prisoners while wearing a halter top, skinny jeans and stiletto heels. The scandal made international news when the photos of the busty, blonde prison director went viral online.
Colorado: A 50-year-old prisoner at the Mesa County Detention Facility flung himself from a second-floor balcony inside the jail and died at the scene on April 7, 2016. The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office identified the man as Carl McDaniel, who had been in custody since 2014 on numerous child sex charges. McDaniel was convicted by a jury in March and remained in jail awaiting an expected sentence of two consecutive life terms plus 288 years. The Mesa County Coroner ruled his death a suicide and said he died of multiple blunt force injuries.
England: On April 13, 2016, a BBC report revealed that sleeping bags and tents were offered to female prisoners upon their release from HMP Bronzefield because they had nowhere to live. An inspection of records at the prison found that 103 women were released without a valid address in the six months prior to the November 2015 review. The inspection concluded that only 83.7% of prisoners left the facility with permanent housing plans in 2015, compared with 95.5% who secured accommodations prior to their release in 2014.
Georgia: A Chatham County Sheriff’s deputy is suing healthcare contractor Corizon for negligence after a mentally ill prisoner with untreated psychosis attacked and injured her in a confrontation at the county jail in 2014. Sgt. Wendy Smoot-Lee filed the lawsuit on May 16, 2016 and also seeks damages from Shena Danielle Burton, the prisoner who assaulted her. Smoot-Lee’s complaint alleges that Corizon nurses did not properly medicate Burton even though they “knew, or with exercise of reasonable care, should have known of [Burton’s] psychiatric disorder and propensity for violent/aggressive behavior should she fail to receive her medications.” Smoot-Lee said her scuffle with Burton left her unable to work due to pain from a spinal injury.
Georgia: In August 1968, Robert E. Stackowitz escaped from the infirmary at the Carroll County Prison Work Camp in Carrollton, Georgia while serving a 17-year prison term for robbery by force. His 48 years on the run came to an abrupt end when a lead about his alias led authorities to an address in rural Connecticut, where they arrested Stackowitz without incident on May 9, 2016. According to NBC News, residents of the small town of Sherman knew the escapee as “Bob Gordon” who ran a boat repair business. Stackowitz’s attorney said his client will fight extradition back to Georgia and seek a commutation of sentence.
Illinois: The Cook County Jail was locked down on May 8, 2016 as a result of understaffing due to excessive employee call-outs. Jail detainees were allowed to attend medical appointments and receive visitors, but all recreation and other prisoner programs were cancelled for the day. Cook County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Cara Smith said the 3 to 11 p.m. shift was hard hit by call-outs. Of approximately 640 workers scheduled to report for duty that night 133 skipped work, resulting in an absentee rate of almost 21 percent. Jail officials admitted that the Mother’s Day holiday was likely the reason for the mass absences.
Indiana: Clark County jail guard Dalton Warfield, 25, was sentenced to a year of home confinement and three years’ probation on April 6, 2016 after pleading guilty the previous month to one count of sexual misconduct by a service provider. He admitted to having sex with a prisoner who had been his high school classmate. Warfield is married, and he and his wife were expecting their second child at the time. He had worked at the jail for about four months.
Iran: Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, known as the Leader of the Islamic Revolution, commuted the prison sentences of hundreds of convicted criminals and pardoned hundreds more on May 23, 2016. The mass sentence reductions for prisoners convicted by the Judicial Organization of the Armed Forces came in response to a letter from Iran’s Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, who called for amnesty on the occasion of the birthday of a religious figure and the anniversary of the liberation of the city of Khorramshahr. The sentence commutations resulted in the release of 669 prisoners.
Louisiana: On April 8, 2016, The Advocate reported that three people had been charged in an unsuccessful conspiracy to smuggle synthetic marijuana into the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson. April Lemon, a guard at Dixon at the time, conspired with former prison employee Lashonda Lee to bring 91 grams of spice into the facility in a container of red beans and rice. Prisoner Tyrone Stevens was also charged for his role in the scheme. The East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s office uncovered the plot following an investigation into Stevens’ emails and phone calls to and from Lee.
Michigan: A lawsuit filed on April 11, 2016 claimed that Chippewa Correctional Facility prisoner Jeffrey Glen Spates experienced months of pain and suffered damage severe enough to require dental surgery after biting into three rocks inside a taco served by prison food contractor Aramark in May 2014. The company refused to comment on the lawsuit, which seeks $35,000 for medical bills and damages. As previously reported in PLN, Aramark has been the subject of multiple incidents of scandal and controversy, and was replaced by another food contractor in Michigan prisons in 2015. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.1].
Nebraska: The family of prisoner Shon Collins, who was beaten to death during a riot in May 2015 at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, has taken the first step required to file a lawsuit against the state. On April 12, 2016, the Journal Star reported that Collins’ mother, Susan Collins, had filed a tort claim in late January that alleged the state was liable for her son’s death. She sought $1.2 million in damages. The wrongful death claim blamed overcrowding and understaffing for contributing to the riot, and claimed the Department of Corrections knew there was a problem. A second prisoner, Donald Peacock, also was killed during the 10-hour riot, in which two guards were injured. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.63]. Both Collins and Peacock were serving time for sex offenses.
New Mexico: At least 20 prisoners will face additional charges for their roles in a May 21, 2016 brawl at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center. Serious felony charges have been filed against three of the prisoners, who are accused of assaulting three jail guards. While the attack on the guards was in progress, around 17 other prisoners took control of the recreation yard in what jail officials described as a “group effort.” Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies and Community Emergency Response Team officers responded to quell the riot. “This happened because of a lack of respect,” said one of the prisoners involved in the incident.
New Mexico: A former guard at a tribal jail was sentenced on May 11, 2016 to 30 months in prison for sexually abusing and violating the civil rights of a female prisoner. Trevor Hunt’s plea agreement also calls for five years of supervised release and 15 years on the sex offender registry. Prosecutors said Hunt, 22, was working as a guard at the Laguna Pueblo Detention Facility when he assaulted the woman in a laundry room in May 2015.
New York: Lonnie Hamilton’s family wants to know why he was buried in the Marcy Correctional Facility’s prison cemetery without their knowledge. Hamilton, who was 22 at the time of his death in March 2016, was serving a 2- to 6-year prison term when he died of unknown causes at a nearby hospital. His family claimed they had tried to contact Hamilton for “several weeks,” and were “shocked” to learn of his death when they searched the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s website. According to DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey, the department made several attempts to locate Hamilton’s next-of-kin without success and he was buried pursuant to DOCCS policies.
New York: On May 4, 2016, former Metropolitan Correctional Center guard Rudell Mullings admitted to forcibly raping a female federal prisoner and was sentenced to seven years in prison. In the courtroom, the unnamed woman read a statement about the attack, saying the assault by the 350-pound ex-guard left her with flashbacks of the rape. Judge Edward Korman rejected arguments by Mullings’ defense counsel for a lenient sentence and instead imposed an upward departure from the sentencing guidelines. “It’s necessary to send a message to people in positions such as his that the conduct is unacceptable and deserves severe punishment,” Korman stated.
New York: The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association represents 500 guards at the Elmira Correctional Facility. On May 8, 2016, the union organized a picket across from the prison to bring attention to its concerns about guard safety. According to the union, the number of prisoner-on-staff assaults has increased 55% statewide since 2010. Andrew Rice, chief union steward at the Elmira facility, said the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision was aware of the problem but wasn’t doing enough to ensure employee safety. “It’s not just Elmira but statewide,” he remarked. “Working conditions make our lives dangerous. At one point, some of us might not go home. That’s what this picket is all about.”
Nigeria: In an attempt to ease overcrowding at the maximum- and medium-security Kirikiri prison in Lagos, Justice Olufunmilayo Atilade announced on April 13, 2016 that she had ordered 153 prisoners to be released from the facility. Atilade admonished the prisoners to embrace a new life free from crime and encouraged community participation in their rehabilitation. Overcrowding is an issue for both security levels at the Kirikiri prison; the maximum-security unit houses 1,235 prisoners in a facility approved for 1,053. The medium-security unit is packed much tighter, with the 1,700-bed unit housing 2,853 prisoners.
Ohio: A 23-year-old man pleaded guilty to supplying drugs that led to the overdose death of Kristi Jean Ellis at the Lake County Jail in December 2015. Michael Beachler admitted to the third-degree felony of complicity to illegal conveyance of drugs of abuse onto the grounds of a detention facility, and was sentenced to 30 months in prison on June 30, 2016. He was also ordered to pay more than $12,000 for Ellis’ funeral expenses. Beachler, an addict himself, said he supplied heroin to a girlfriend who smuggled the drug into the jail inside a body cavity and shared it with Ellis and another prisoner. Guards found the second prisoner unresponsive; she was given the anti-overdose drug Naloxone and survived. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.22].
Ohio: Jason Pittman, a 25-year-old father of two, died of dehydration inside his Warren County jail cell in September 2015. On April 6, 2016, Darlene Pittman, his mother, filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of her deceased son. The suit alleges that Jason Pittman suffered needlessly for four days with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea as a result of detoxification from heroin. He had been jailed on a probation violation; according to the lawsuit, it was the first time he had been incarcerated. A 2010 study by Columbia University found that 65% of all U.S. prisoners meet the medical criteria for substance abuse or addiction, but only 11% of that group receives any type of treatment while incarcerated.
Oklahoma: On May 2, 1999, Reeco Maurice Cole, then 20 years old, made headlines when he was arrested following a two-day crime spree that reached from Tulsa to Okmulgee. Exactly seventeen years later – on May 2, 2016 – he was the subject of news reports again, this time for trafficking methamphetamine from inside the Cimarron Correctional Facility, a private prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America. Cole, who already faced 61 more years for 13 felony convictions related to his 1999 crimes, could be sentenced to an additional 12 years to life for the smuggling scheme. It wasn’t the first time Cole had managed to sneak contraband past CCA’s security; in September 2015, former prison guard Alyson Posey pleaded guilty to smuggling contraband tobacco to Cole. [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.63].
Pennsylvania: State Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin announced his retirement from the bench on March 15, 2016. Eakin was the second Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice to leave in the past 18 months in the wake of allegations related to lewd emails. The email scandal also shook the administration of former Governor Tom Corbett, with at least three high-ranking state officials resigning or retiring after their involvement in the electronic mail exchange was revealed. Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery retired in October 2014 when accusations arose that he had circulated pornographic emails.
Peru: On April 11, 2016, the AFP news agency reported on the success of the “Pieta” clothing line designed by French fashionista Thomas Jacob and tailored by prisoners at two Peruvian correctional facilities. The organic cotton T-shirts, which are priced at $35 each, are sold online along with prisoner-made hoodies and jackets. Around thirty prisoners at the San Pedro prison and Santa Monica women’s prison have produced and sold more than 12,000 items in the company’s three-year history. The prisoners receive a percentage of every sale.
Scotland: The Courier reported on May 10, 2016 that prisoner James Frail had been given more jail time after Perth prison officials caught him in the act of expelling a cell phone from his rectum. Frail, 36, was one month away from his release date after serving several years for a 2008 crime spree when the contraband phone was discovered. He pleaded guilty to the contraband charge in February 2016. His solicitor, Cameron Tait, said his client had the phone, a SIM card and wires in his possession to work out relationship problems with his romantic partner.
Scotland: Hundreds of former detainees, asylum seekers and refugees gathered alongside protestors from the group We Will Rise to participate in a Europe-wide day of action against immigrant detention centers on May 7, 2016. The activists held up banners and chanted “Shut down Dungavel” as they marched outside the GEO Group-operated Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre. Sonny Adisa, a former detainee, called Scotland’s immigration system “racist and inhumane,” adding, “Scotland needs immigration, yet it’s spending public money on locking people up that could contribute to society.”
Tennessee: The Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office has been cleared of wrongdoing in the suicide deaths of two jail prisoners. In a May 23, 2016 interview with the Murfreesboro Post, District Attorney Jennings Jones said TBI investigation reports and videos of the incidents had been reviewed by his office. “In our view, it does not appear there is any criminal wrongdoing on behalf of the sheriff’s department,” he stated. Jonathan Maxwell, 32, and Michael J. Murray, 54, hanged themselves in separate incidents at the Rutherford County jail in early 2016. Both of their families have filed lawsuits against the county.
Tennessee: On May 24, 2016, the Whiteville Police Department responded to a report of a service dog found dead in a hot vehicle on the grounds of the Hardeman County Correctional Facility. An affidavit said Corrections Corporation of America K9 officer Robert Strickland had left his drug-sniffing dog, Kilo, locked inside a kennel in his vehicle while he attended a training exercise. Strickland’s failure to provide a safe environment for his canine partner resulted in a charge of animal cruelty, though CCA spokesman Steve Owen called the incident an “accident.” Strickland was briefly jailed and has been placed on administrative leave.
Texas: A group of 33 prisoners from the Darrington Unit graduated with bachelor’s degrees on May 9, 2016, earned by completing an intensive 4½-year biblical studies program within the prison. The graduates will now be transferred to other facilities throughout Texas to spread the program’s message of finding God and changing one’s ways. The non-profit Heart of Texas Foundation provided funding for the seminary classes, which were inspired by a similar program in Louisiana. [See: PLN, June 2012, p.1]. Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion was awarded a $1.3 million grant to study the impact of the faith-based education programs in both states, and is expected to release the results soon.
Washington: PLN has reported on Grammy-award-winning entertainer John Legend’s announcement of his new #FreeAmerica criminal justice reform initiative. [See: PLN, Nov. 2015, p.63]. As part of that campaign, on April 7, 2016, Legend performed for a small audience inside the Washington Corrections Center for Women. The concert was broadcast live on Facebook, allowing the R&B singer to reach a much larger audience with #FreeAmerica’s mission “to change the national conversation about our country’s misguided policies.”
Wisconsin: A former Waukesha County jail guard pleaded guilty and was sentenced on April 7, 2016 after admitting to causing mental harm to a child. Keith Knutsen was found with dozens of child porn images on his computer in September 2014; he was immediately suspended and later fired from his job as a county jailer. Knutsen’s plea agreement to the lesser charge resulted in a 12-year prison term that was suspended to 6 months of incarceration and 7½ years of probation; he was also required to register as a sex offender and undergo sex offender treatment. Knutsen’s wife divorced him shortly after his arrest.
Wisconsin: On April 8, 2016, Bennie Stroud, 37, pleaded not guilty to a felony count of resisting an officer, causing injury. Stroud was incarcerated at the St. Croix County Jail on February 25, 2016 when he was involved in an altercation with jail sergeant Scott Blaisdell that left the guard injured. According to the criminal complaint, Stroud had become frustrated and caused a disturbance when jailers ended his visit after finding Stroud’s female visitor nude from the waist down under a blanket in the visitation area. Blaisdell suffered a separated shoulder and torn ligaments during the scuffle.
Zimbabwe: The Zimbabwean Constitution allows President Robert Mugabe to extend amnesty to prisoners whenever he wants, and he took advantage of that power on May 26, 2016 to release more than 2,000 prisoners in an effort to ease overcrowding at prisons throughout the country. The presidential pardon freed all of the nation’s female prisoners except two who were serving life sentences. Terminally ill, juvenile and elderly prisoners were also released along with many others who had served at least a quarter of their short-term sentences. Correctional Service public relations officer Priscilla Mthembo said the mass amnesty will improve living conditions for the prisoners who remain behind bars.