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News in Brief

Alabama: “I know I was wrong. But, on the other end, I don’t want to say it’s the culture, or it’s accepted culture, but it happens,” declared former Warden Cedric Specks, when asked about his extra-marital affairs with two contract nurses at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in 2016, 2017 and part of 2018. Sparks was an assistant warden at the St. Clair prison when he was fired in June 2018. He was initially suspected of using his state-issued cell phone “to promote contraband” at the facility. Forensic examination of the phone revealed a password-protected photo app, which looked like a calculator, that contained nude photos of the nurses and a St. Clair DOC administrative assistant. Because no contraband charges were brought, Sparks believed he should get his job back. His attorney, Julian McPhillips, claimed the Alabama DOC was “making a mountain out of a molehill.” On October 18, 2018, the state personnel board upheld Spark’s firing due to numerous misuses of DOC equipment and authority.

California: An almond orchard served as cover for a paroled sex offender evading police in a motor home, with his three-year-old son and infant daughter inside. The chase began in Hollywood. Stephen Houk, 46, took off when Los Angeles County cops approached him after his wife reported he had threatened her with a loaded gun. Houk got on and off the freeway, driving north and cutting through parking lots for over 100 miles, trying to shake the police, before heading into the orchard, where dust blinded his pursuers. Officers surrounded the RV after it ran out of gas. Only the boy emerged. Houk was picked up in a rail car in the Mojave Desert two days later on May 3, 2018. He had served eight years in Oregon for felony sodomy, was released in 2010 and had been in violation of his parole since 2016. Bond was set at $1 million. He faces over a dozen charges, including assault and kidnapping.

Colorado: On August 10, 2016, former Sedgwick County Sheriff Thomas “TJ” Hanna, 45, drove a handcuffed, developmentally disabled female prisoner in his personal pick-up truck away from the Sedgwick County jail. A deputy noticed and later saw the truck parked at Hanna’s house. The sheriff was supposed to be taking the prisoner to the Logan County jail. Hanna had served as the county’s sheriff for two years. According to the prisoner, Hanna had her strip and offered her $60 for sex, which they did not have and he did not pay her. Later he deposited $20 in her jail account because, as he put it, he “has a big heart and wanted to make sure the woman could call her brother....” Hanna was charged with but acquitted of sexual assault, kidnapping and solicitation. However, he was sentenced on July 11, 2018 to seven months in jail for first-degree official misconduct for transporting the prisoner in his truck. He was allowed to leave the jail to go to work, and ordered to write a letter of apology to be published in the local paper.

Florida: Broward County Circuit Court Judge Merrilee Ehrlich resigned under pressure on April 20, 2018, after being recorded berating wheelchair-bound prisoner Sandra Faye Twiggs, 59, in her courtroom on April 15. Twiggs, who was having trouble breathing, died at home three days later after being released on bond on a misdemeanor charge. She suffered from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and had trouble getting medication while at the county jail, but Ehrlich wouldn’t listen. The judge’s encounter with Twiggs was marked with aggressive shouting as Twiggs tried to answer questions. The tongue-lashing was so extreme that Twiggs’ public defender, Howard Finkelstein, demanded that Ehrlich be banned from presiding over criminal proceedings. “She raised her voice to many defendants, berated the attorneys and was impatient and exasperated during the proceedings,” Finkelstein wrote in a letter to Chief Judge Jack Tuter, who said he would apologize to Twiggs’ family.

Georgia: In November 1992, Stanley Jackson, an African-American, was gunned down with an assault rifle. A witness who later said it was too dark to identify the killers claimed he saw a 1992 Chevrolet Cavalier with three white men, and identified two of three soldiers who were arrested and convicted of the shooting. No physical evidence connected them to the crime. Centurion Ministries, an innocence project based in New Jersey, took up their case. Lawyers for the project convinced the Georgia Supreme Court in November 2017 that prosecutors had withheld evidence of a similar crime that had taken place the night after the soldiers were arrested, with three white men menacing a neighborhood with assault weapons and threatening “to shoot blacks who hung out on street corners,” according to a witness. Mark Jason Jones, Kenneth Eric Gardiner and Dominic Brian Lucci served 25 years in prison before being released on bond in December 2017. On July 12, 2018, the charges against them were dismissed after prosecutors admitted there was insufficient evidence to re-try them.

Illinois: During the first week of May 2018, 54 prisoners at the Cook County Jail “began experiencing symptoms of a gastrointestinal illness,” according to the Sheriff’s Office. Five confirmed cases of salmonella poisoning were reported, and two prisoners were hospitalized. Cook County Jail’s Division XI, where the outbreak occurred, houses 1,400 prisoners. Symptoms of salmonella poisoning include nausea, stomach cramps, fever, vomiting and diarrhea. There may also be long-term health effects such as high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome and endocarditis, which affects the lining of the heart. Despite a statement claiming the Cook County Department of Facilities Management, the Sheriff’s Office and the Cook County Health and Hospitals System were “working closely with local health officials to identify the source of the salmonella bacteria,” no source was reported. Other recent salmonella outbreaks in Illinois have been traced to fresh, pre-cut melons and raw chicken.

Indiana: The Vanderburgh County jail in Evansville is overcrowded. Designed for 550 prisoners, the facility’s population topped 800 one day in March 2018, prompting Vanderburgh County Sheriff Dave Wedding to consider alternatives. A state inspector had raised the alarm months earlier, when the jail was putting bunks in day rooms and using “sled beds.” Sheriff Wedding contacted nearby jails but none could take more than 10 prisoners, so he looked over the border to Daviess County, Kentucky and Jefferson County, Illinois. Opponents to the out-of-state placements feared the moves would erode prisoners’ relationships with their families. Wedding said he understood those concerns but stated, “We are a prison now, because we are housing level 6 felons in a jail that’s built for pre-trial detainees.” The jail was constructed in 2005 with land for expansion, but at a July 2018 meeting the county commissioners were not ready to issue a proposed $40 million bond to pay for a 600-bed expansion, with operational costs estimated at $2 million annually.

Louisiana: Demario Shaffer, 33, pleaded guilty in federal court on November 26, 2018 to one count of conspiring to falsify documents to obstruct and influence a matter within federal jurisdiction. He was trying to cover up an incident in which he and four other guards at the Richwood Correctional Center used a chemical spray on five kneeling, handcuffed prisoners suspected of gang activity, in an area of the facility without surveillance cameras. The prisoners didn’t pose any threat to the guards during the October 2016 incident. Shaffer and his accomplices filed false reports to explain why the prisoners needed medical treatment; the four other guards are scheduled to go to trial in April 2019. The Richwood Correctional Center is operated by LaSalle Corrections, a private company. Louisiana’s corrections department regularly inspects the facility but doesn’t employ the staff who work there, according to department spokesman Ken Pastorick. John Robert, a former guard who was employed at the prison, said beatings and abuse were common. “I was taught how to hate [prisoners],” he stated.

Maryland: Frenel Pierre, 53, was ticketed for driving 49 mph in a 25 mph zone less than nine hours before his tractor trailer sideswiped a prison van, then veered toward a Maryland Correctional Training Center work crew on I-70 West, near the Meyersville exit, on November 27, 2018. The work crew was mowing and landscaping. Pierre’s truck hit two prisoners and debris struck two others. Two of the prisoners and Pierre were uninjured. One member of the work crew, Milton Pajak, 34, died at the scene. Two others, Aaron Abrecht and Robert Knight, were treated at Meritus Medical Center in Hagerstown and released. Wade Rickets, 24, suffered serious injuries to his chest and both legs, and was hospitalized. The accident was under investigation. Gerard Shields, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, told reporters that prisoners who work on road crews are paid and receive good-time credits. 

Mexico: The contract for building a prison known as CPS Coahuila was originally awarded, in December 2010, to the Mexican construction firm Grupo Tradeco under then-President Felipe Calderón; the project was later changed and the contract awarded to the American investment firm BlackRock, Inc in 2016, under subsequent President Enrique Peña Nieto. In addition to investing in prison construction in Mexico, BlackRock has long held stock in private prison companies in the U.S. The Mexican government will be in charge of security at CPS Coahuila, while a BlackRock subsidiary will oversee food concessions and maintenance. CPS Coahuila was the last of eight semi-private prisons contracted by President Calderón to reduce overcrowding, but it opened in August 2018 as new justice system reforms have reduced pre-trial detentions in Mexico. It is estimated that BlackRock will receive $65.5 million per year for 20 years to cover construction and operational costs. Profits from the prison project will go to BlackRock’s clients in Mexico, according to the company.

Mississippi: In October 2017, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed a lawsuit against Pearl Youth Court Judge John Shirley on behalf of the mother of a four-month-old, who was denied contact with her baby for a year due to $1,000 in unpaid court fees. The woman and her friend were pulled over in a routine traffic stop in August 2016, with the baby in the car, when outstanding warrants were discovered. The arresting officer documented the baby as “abandoned,” thus involving the Youth Court, even though the baby’s grandmother arrived within minutes of the arrest. The grandmother was awarded custody, with a caveat that the mother should have no contact with her child until her fines were paid. The Youth Court was permanently closed on October 24, 2017 and Judge Shirley resigned, saying, “Every day as a judge, I try to remember that people lied about and ultimately crucified Jesus Christ, who was perfect, and since I am an imperfect human being, I can expect some people to do the same to me.” A federal lawsuit was filed against the city of Pearl in May 2018 over the Youth Court’s practice of preventing parents from seeing their children in multiple cases.

New Jersey: Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee were convicted in 1996 of the murder of Tito Merino, even though their confessions contradicted crime scene evidence. In October 2010 the court, opposed by the DA’s office, ordered retesting of DNA on a hat that prosecutors were convinced was worn by the perpetrator; the test excluded both Kelly and Lee but matched a man released from prison just months before Merino was killed, who had committed a similar knifepoint robbery in the area. Based on this new evidence, Paterson Superior Court Judge Joseph Portelli vacated the convictions in September 2017. The prosecution appealed both that decision and Kelley and Lee’s release on bail after serving 24 years in prison. In March 2018, the Appellate Division upheld the vacated convictions. “We hope this case will spark changes in how prosecutors in New Jersey respond to potential wrongful conviction cases,” said Vanessa Potkin with the Innocence Project. 

New Mexico: Former Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility guard Matthew Shriner said Clifton Bloomfield, a notorious serial killer serving 195 years in the Restrictive Housing Unit, tricked him into opening his cell door on September 23, 2017. Bloomfield jumped Shriner and unlocked other cells, sparking a riot that was kept under wraps for months. More than a year later, the state charged Shriner with unlawful rescue and assisting escape. In October 2018, Shriner filed suit against the New Mexico DOC, Corrections Secretary David Jablonski, Warden Mark Bowen, Lt. Randall Thomas and the GEO Group, which runs the prison. He claims that the DOC neglected to ensure that GEO adequately trained and maintained staff at the facility, putting him in danger. When the riot occurred, Shriner was working alone in the RHU without a weapon or radio. Corrections Secretary Jablonski admitted there should have been 20 guards on duty at the prison that night. Instead there were only nine. Shiner is seeking back pay, compensation for medical expenses and emotional distress, and punitive damages against GEO Group.

New York: The Ontario County jail takes its underwear seriously. On July 30, 2018, Angel Rojas, 29, and Derrell Eldridge, 25, forcibly pulled the underwear off a third prisoner, causing rips and tears to the jail-issued garment. That was not the first time they had done so, according to sheriff’s investigators, who charged Rojas and Eldridge in August 2018 with fourth-degree criminal mischief. The charges will be heard in Hopewell Town Court.

New York: Donald L. Quinn, 53, had served as superintendent at the Gouverneur Correctional Facility for just three weeks when he was placed on administrative leave with pay after being arrested by University at Albany police for driving in the opposite direction on a one-way road at 3:00 in the afternoon on August 27, 2018. He was charged with DWI and aggravated DWI; his blood alcohol level registered 0.18, well above the legal limit. Quinn was first deputy superintendent at the Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015 when murderers Richard W. Matt and David Sweat made a well-publicized escape with the help of a female employee. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.26]. Quinn was placed on administrative leave following that incident and was later transferred to the Upstate Correctional Facility before being promoted to superintendent at the Gouverneur prison.

Ohio: On August 20, 2018, five faith leaders were booked into the Mahoning County jail on charges of trespassing, after protesting outside the CoreCivic-operated Northeast Ohio Correctional Center. The purpose of the protest was to meet and bestow Holy Communion to undocumented immigrants being held at the facility. There are believed to be 300 prisoners at Northeast held on “administrative” immigration violations. The protesters said detainees have asked for spiritual services and been denied. CoreCivic spokesman Rodney King denied that allegation. One immigrant at the facility reportedly told his attorney, “The last time I saw a priest was when I was in El Salvador.” The protest was one of an increasing number of demonstrations across the country by people concerned about conditions for undocumented immigrants, including women and children, held in detention centers.

Oklahoma: Don Lee Dickerson, 57, had been a chaplain for the Oklahoma DOC since 2000. He was arrested on July 13, 2018 on a charge of rape by instrumentation for acts that occurred at the Kate Barnard Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison for women. The charge refers to “an act of sexual aggression forced on an individual that does not involve sexual intercourse.” Prisoner Starla D. Harp, 36, told investigators that she had “intimate physical contact with Dickerson” in his office on several occasions between January 31 and July 1, 2018, involving digital and oral contact. Dickerson reportedly admitted to the incidents. He posted $25,000 bond the day after his arrest, and resigned on July 17. The Oklahoma DOC has since removed all references and pictures of the former chaplain from the department’s social media accounts. If convicted, Dickerson could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison and required to register as a sex offender upon his release.

Pennsylvania: Former SCI Retreat prison librarian Karen Stroup, 45, found a prisoner so irresistible that on June 8, 2017 she suggested he work with her in the library. Rather than fondle the books, the pair performed oral sex on each other in a library closet. On July 28, 2017, she reported her inappropriate conduct to the prison’s deputy superintendent, Kevin Ransom, and was charged by state troopers. Stroup pleaded guilty to a single count of institutional sexual assault on March 12, 2018. She was sentenced by the Luzerne County Court in September 2018 to three to 23 months in jail, but was granted immediate work release. In accordance with Megan’s Law, Stroup must register as a convicted sexual offender for 15 years. The unnamed prisoner was transferred to a different facility.

Peru: Arturo Montoya wanted out of the Quencoro prison in Cusco, and executed a plan that had worked to spring Dwight Worker, a U.S. citizen, from a Mexican prison five decades earlier that was highlighted on “Locked Up Abroad,” a National Geographic series. On Mother’s Day, May 13, 2018, Montoya put on a skirt from the textile workshop, along with a wig, falsies, glasses and lipstick, and tried to blend in with visitors. As visiting hours ended, he joined the crowd and got as far as the last door. There, guards noticed that Montoya was “visibly nervous” and didn’t have a guest stamp. When they checked the cells, they found that Montoya, who was awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges, was missing. Due to the attempted escape, he was moved from pre-trial detention to a high-security prison.

South Carolina: The dating site was the preferred site for South Carolina prisoners to find military personnel in a “sextortion” scam using contraband cell phones. More than 400 service members across the U.S. have been blackmailed, paying out more than $500,000 between 2015 and 2018. Prisoners, posing as adult women, met the servicemen on the dating site, then switched to text messaging. They would send nude photos to the soldiers, then someone posing as an angry father would contact them, making threats and demanding money. In fear for their careers, many made payments. One such scam led to the suicide of a Greenville army vet. Accomplices, including friends and family members of the incarcerated scammers, were rounded up by federal agents on November 28, 2018 in “Operation Surprise Party.” One, a “money mule” for a prisoner at the Broad River Correctional Institution, collected payments from Wal-Mart sent via Western Union and converted them to pre-paid credit cards or deposited them in the prisoner’s DOC account. Military officials are now warning servicemen about the scam and how to protect themselves.

 South Dakota: The transcript from death row prisoner Rodney Berget’s October 29, 2018 execution was released on November 13. He was sentenced to death for killing prison guard Ronald “R.J.” Johnson during an escape attempt in 2011. Another prisoner involved in that incident, Eric Roberts, was executed in October 2012. For six years, Berget’s mental competency was argued in court. His execution at the South Dakota State Penitentiary was delayed by hours, waiting on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. When offered last words, Berget quipped, “Sorry for the delay, I got caught in traffic,” then thanked his family and friends. His last words were, “Is it supposed to feel like that?” Lynette Johnson, the widow of the slain guard, said her husband’s death was “cruel and unusual punishment” while Berget’s execution was “peaceful” and “sterile.”

Tennessee: Hepatitis A outbreaks have become so common, some healthcare officials consider it a national emergency that threatens both prison and non-prison populations. By November 2018, an outbreak in Nashville had spread across the state, killing two people and infecting hundreds more. In June 2018, Davidson County was already taking steps to prevent the spread of hepatitis A. “Jails are a microcosm of the community; therefore, it isn’t surprising we are now seeing cases in our facilities following several cases diagnosed in Davidson County,” said Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Karla West. The health department began working closely with jail officials to begin screening prisoners before court dates and offering vaccinations to all new arrivals booked into the jail. Staff and prisoners at the Correctional Development Center and Offender Re-Entry Center were offered voluntary vaccinations, and prisoners exhibiting symptoms of hepatitis A were isolated until cleared by medical staff. 

Texas: Jose S. Nunez died in his cell on August 20, 2018 at the Karnes County Correctional Center, operated by GEO Group. He committed suicide. Nunez, a former Bexar County sheriff’s deputy, had been arrested and placed on unpaid leave on June 17 for molesting the four-year-old daughter of an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant to whom he was related. Investigators believed Nunez put the mother “in fear that she would be deported,” and speculated the abuse may have spanned years. Nunez had been charged with super aggravated sexual assault of a child; he faced a prison sentence of 25 years. Noting that sex offenders are “creatures of habit and opportunity,” Sheriff Javier Salazar expressed concern at a news conference that Nunez may have abused other children. “I don’t know if he was purposely targeting the undocumented community, but what appealed to him certainly was the vulnerability of the community.”

United Kingdom: As of April 27, 2018, five prisoners had died in the space of seven weeks at HMP Birmingham, run by private company G4S. In the prior two years the facility had experienced a major riot, hundreds of assaults, plummeting staff morale, rat infestations and a flood of the “zombie drug” spice. The Prison Officers’ Association and the Howard League for Penal Reform had warned of a prison system in crisis. The POA cited a large drop in the number of guards since 2010 and soaring rates of self-harm, assaults and hospital visits by prisoners. The government took over HMP Birmingham from G4S in August 2018 amid alarming incidents of violence and drug use. Inquest, a charity that investigates deaths in custody, reported the facility had the highest number of deaths of any UK prison but did not have an unusual number of suicides.

Utah: Seven police agencies responded to a 25-person protest on July 12, 2018 at the Centerville office of Management & Training Corporation (MTC), a private prison company that operates ICE detention centers in California, New Mexico and Texas. Fifteen of the protesters left after the first police officers arrived. Eight were eventually taken into custody for disorderly conduct, trespassing and resisting arrest. Protestors, some chained to doors, called for MTC to withdraw from its federal contracts. Taylor Goldstein, who spoke for the protestors, said: “We are protesting the criminalization, deportation and destruction of our communities by this corporation.” MTC spokesman Issa Arnita responded, “The group is advocating to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which they have the right to do. But they don’t have the right to break the law.” He admitted there may be parents of separated immigrant children housed at MTC facilities, but added, “we just have nothing to do with the administration’s policies.”

Virginia: The FBI is investigating the death of Abraham “Listo” Aldana, 34, after a fight at USP Lee on September 14, 2018. Staff attempted life-saving measures before Aldana was pronounced dead at a hospital. A member of the Puente-13 gang, he was serving 27 years after pleading guilty to racketeering and drug charges in a high-profile case. Aldana allegedly became an aggressive “lieutenant” of Rafael Munoz-Gonzalez after his release from the Pelican Bay State Prison in California in 2008, and collected payments and facilitated the murders of rival gang members. Gonzalez and his brother received life sentences in 2013. Prison officials have not released the name of the other prisoner involved in the fight that resulted in Aldana’s death. 

 Washington: Despite the word “ZOOM” tattooed across the back of his head, Joseph Tremato, 49, followed another prisoner out of his housing unit, sat with a group of soon-to-be-released prisoners, followed them to processing, changed into discarded clothes, then was released from the King County jail – all without detection. His low-tech escape on August 22, 2018 was caught on the jail’s surveillance video. The process took one hour and fifteen minutes. Tremato was originally charged with three felony-level burglaries and three counts of meth possession. Following his escape, he was on the loose for three weeks. The day before his re-arrest on September 12, 2018, he posted on social media, “Well my beloved Seattle. It [sic] another day of try to get the bad boy. Wish me luck and f--- the police.” Then he sent a lewd text to Seattle Police Major Crimes Task Force supervisor Scotty Bach, which gave the police a lead that led to his capture. This time Tremato had eight grams of meth and possibly crack cocaine on him when he was arrested, and he now faces a felony second-degree escape charge.

Wyoming: As in all states, it is illegal for Wyoming correctional employees to have sex with prisoners, regardless of their age or consent. Tosha Sheesley plans to appeal her case to the Wyoming Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of that state law. In March 2018, Sheesley agreed to a conditional plea deal to third-degree sexual assault and was sentenced to three years of probation with a suspended prison term of three to five years and registration as a sex offender. Judge Catherine Wilking adjusted Sheesley’s probation to allow visits with her young sister. Sheesley, 24, was a resident manager at the Casper Re-Entry Center, operated by the GEO Group, from November 28, 2016 through March 30, 2017. Her paramour at the facility was caught with methamphetamine and had his cell phone confiscated, which revealed messages from Sheesley. She admitted to having sex with him six times, including in her car while parked behind baseball fields in north Casper, according to the unidentified prisoner. 

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