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News In Brief

Alabama: “The public should know that the state, its officers, representatives, or employees would never request any type of payment in the form of a prepaid money card or other similar method,” the director of the Alabama DOC’s Investigation and Intelligence Division, Arnaldo Mercado, said in a November 9, 2018 press release, after six people masqueraded as a law firm to defraud a prisoner’s family. “The suspects led the family to believe the law firm could get charges against their family member dropped, or sentence reduced, if the family agreed to pay for the services,” the press release added. The suspects also filed a fake insurance claim in the victim’s name. Family members paid for the services using prepaid money cards and wire transactions. Alabama prisoner Trederris Cowan, 27, was accused of being the ringleader; he was already serving four years on a 2015 theft conviction. His new felony charges include theft of property, identity theft and conspiracy to commit insurance fraud. Four co-conspirators outside of prison were arrested on first-degree theft charges on November 8, 2018, including Willie Edward Wells, Adrianne Mary Collins, Latoya Howell and Alexia Danielle Collins, while a warrant was issued for Kimeya Pringle.

Alaska: An August 2017 uprising at the Fairbanks Correctional Center resulted in the indictment of 13 prisoners on felony riot and third-degree felony criminal mischief charges. Five were convicted at a jury trial on July 17, 2018; the small courtroom in Fairbanks required separating the 13 defendants into groups for trial. Three more prisoners were arraigned on November 21, 2018. The riot involved “breaking windows in the facility as well as pouring soap and water on the floors,” according to state troopers. “Chemical irritants” were used to quell the disturbance. Under Alaska law, a riot consists of five or more people engaging in “tumultuous and violent conduct.” Two of the prisoners told the Daily News-Miner that the incident was a nonviolent protest against transfers from two-man cells to dormitory bunk housing that were announced by staff with no explanation. Bunk housing is usually for prisoners with short sentences.

California: State Senator Nancy Skinner introduced the “Getting Home Safe Act,” SB 1142, in the state legislature in August 2018, after Jessica St. Louis was found dead at the Dublin-Pleasanton BART station on July 28, 2018. St. Louis had been released from the Santa Rita Jail at 1:12 a.m., and walked a mile to the closed rapid transit station. At 5:30 a.m. she was found dead of a suspected overdose. The bill is intended to end late-night jail releases. At a rally held on August 19, 2018, Jessica Nowlan, with the Young Women’s Freedom Center, said, “Releasing people in the middle of the night with no support, no resources, with no transportation is a harmful practice.” Sheriff’s office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly countered, “If we shut down release operations for continuous periods of time, we would be holding people over their incarceration times and then we’d get sued because it would be illegal detentions of people.”

Camaroon: English-speaking separatists in north- and southwest Cameroon want a separate state, the Republic of Ambazonia, independent from the majority French-speaking West African nation. To that end, on July 29, 2018, fifty armed separatists staged a jailbreak at the prison in Ndop. “Shooting from everywhere” and breaking down the doors, “the assailants doused fuel around the prison buildings before setting it alight,” according to witnesses, allowing 163 prisoners to escape. William Benoit Emvoutu Mbita, a local official, said prisoners who voluntarily returned would be transferred to a prison in Bamenda. That facility, however, was also stormed by gunmen “under cover of darkness” on September 26, 2018, with 80 prisoners escaping.

Colorado: When Philippa McCully filed a lawsuit against the El Paso County jail in April 2016 for excessive use of force during her five-day stay at the facility in April 2014, a “fight club” culture was revealed. The county and the jail’s medical provider, Correct Care Solutions, settled the case for $800,000 in July 2018. [See: PLN, Jan. 2019, p.46]. Newly re-elected Sheriff Bill Elder downplayed the concerns and a jail spokesman stated, “Nobody used force when it wasn’t warranted. Nobody baited an inmate into using force. They were doing their job and using force within the guidelines of the office.” Six “letters of counseling” and four “letters of reprimand” were issued to jail employees, though no one was demoted. McCully’s attorneys credited a 2014 photo of a beaming Deputy Sandra Rincon as a turning point in their lawsuit. The photo showed Rincon wearing a tiara and holding a cake with “5-0” candles. She was celebrating 50 use of force incidents against prisoners – the highest number that year. 

Connecticut: In a plea deal, Nikki Yovino’s felony charges were reduced to two counts of falsely reporting an incident, a second-degree misdemeanor, and a single count of interfering with police, also a misdemeanor, on August 24, 2018. Yovino, who was a student at Sacred Heart University in 2016 when she falsely accused two other students of rape, was sentenced to three years in prison, to be suspended after she serves one year, followed by probation. That was only two months more than Alphonso Reid – the man eventually arrested on her false rape claim – spent in jail awaiting trial. Reid is now suing Yovino and Sacred Heart, as are the two football players who were initially accused. The university already settled a $1 million defamation lawsuit and issued an apology to Gary Douglas, yet another falsely-accused suspect, for circulating a poster on campus with his picture and naming him as a possible rapist. Yovino admitted to making up the story to elicit sympathy from someone she wanted to date.

Delaware: On July 20, 2018, a federal judge denied a motion to dismiss and held prisoner Lawrence Dickens could pursue his lawsuit against former Vaughn Correctional Center warden David Pierce and two deputy wardens for denying him prompt medical attention. In August 2014, Dickens injured his bicep tendon after he collided with another prisoner during a softball game. He didn’t get to see an orthopedist until 19 days later, past the 10-day window in which surgery to repair the tendon would have been effective. As a result, he is now permanently injured and has limited use of his arm. Pierce was the warden at Vaughn until he was placed on administrative leave three weeks after a major riot on February 1, 2017 that resulted in the murder of Sgt. Steven Floyd. [See: PLN, April 2018, p.38]. 

Florida: Trisha Denlinger, 49, had already been in jail 60 days when she was sentenced to 30 months in prison after pleading no contest to unlawful possession of a handcuff key and conveying tools to aid escape. Denlinger’s husband is incarcerated at the Florida State Prison in Raiford. During an April 2018 visit she purchased a sealed, prison-approved chicken sandwich, opened it, microwaved it and handed it over for inspection. A plastic handcuff key was found inside. It is unclear where she was concealing the key before putting it in the sandwich, as her personal items had gone through an X-ray scanner when she entered the prison. Denlinger will receive credit for the 60 days she spent in jail; her scheduled release date is July 28, 2019.

Florida: The mailroom at the Bay Correctional Facility was locked down on July 24, 2018 after an employee reported a rash and difficulty breathing while hand­ling packages. According to GEO Group, the private company that runs the prison, she was taken to Bay Medical Center for observation, where she was reported in stable condition. A hazmat team from the county’s Emergency Management Division and the Bay County Sheriff’s Office Bomb Squad spent over three hours taking air and physical samples from the mailroom. Ambulances were on standby, but nothing was found to explain the employee’s symptoms. “It’s better for us to come in and clear the building before they go back to normal operations,” said Joby Smith, the Emergency Management Division Chief for Bay County.

Georgia: As previously reported by PLN, former Georgia DOC Captain Edgar Daniel Johnson was charged with sexually assaulting prisoners at the Emanuel Women’s Facility. [See: PLN, July 2018, p.62; Jan. 2017, p.56]. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in June 2018 to 51 months in federal prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release. Once released, he will have to register as a sex offender. His sentence covered three counts of willfully depriving the prisoners of their Eighth Amendment rights, three counts of obstruction and one count of maliciously conveying false information about explosive materials, for making a false bomb threat to a fire department. The FBI and Georgia DOC investigated the case, and the county district attorney’s office dismissed state charges against Johnson once he was sentenced in federal court.

Illinois: A class-action lawsuit claiming the Cook County Sheriff’s Office had violated prisoners’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches was filed in federal court on August 8, 2018. Michelle Urrutia spent the night at the Cook County jail for driving with a suspended license; weeks later, she was at a barbecue when a sheriff’s employee informed her, “You know we can see everything in the holding cell ... including you guys using the washroom?” Attorney Thomas Zimmerman told reporters “There are male sheriff’s deputies who are viewing and recording females using the toilet in the holding cell.” A sheriff’s spokesman responded, “We vehemently deny the allegations that there are hidden or secret cameras focused on detainees’ private parts or the toilet areas of holding cells.” Urrutia noticed the fixed video camera in the cell but thought a privacy screen obscured its view; however, the camera actually has “bird’s eye” coverage of the holding cell. Zimmerman said he will seek an emergency order to preserve existing video evidence.

India: An eyewitness was deposed in the Manjula Shetye murder case in December 2018. Shetye was serving a life sentence at the Byculla Women’s Prison on June 23, 2017, the day she died after being beaten by Manisha Pokharkar, a prison jailer, and five other staff members. At first it was believed that missing food items had prompted the beating, but the witness said Shetye had requested a transfer out of Byculla due to harassment by Pokharkar. Shetye asked about the transfer during the jail superintendent’s weekly rounds, sparking Pokharkar’s anger. “All six [jailers] took turns with the stick and beat her,” according to the witness. Prisoners who tried to help Shetye were warned that they too would be beaten. She later died due to internal bleeding, and her death sparked a riot at the prison. Dr. Vishwas Roke at the JJ Hospital was suspended earlier in 2018 for issuing a false death certificate that indicated Shetye had died due to a fall.

Indiana: Former Tippecanoe County civilian jail officer Braden Mark Tolle, 27, was sentenced on February 22, 2019 to one year in prison, a year of community corrections and a year on probation. Tolle was arrested in August 2018, along with Bryan R. Ball, 37, on charges of conspiracy to provide a firearm to convicted felon Justin Joel Sands, 37. As a felon, Sands was prohibited from owning any firearms. An investigation into the smuggling of chewing tobacco into the jail revealed the plot to sell a pistol to Sands; texts on Tolle’s phone gave him away. Ball, another jail employee, was the intermediary between Tolle and Sands. Tolle received $400 of the $500 sales price from Jimmie D. Miller, Jr., 66, one of Sands’ outside contacts. Ball, Miller and Sands were charged with conspiracy to provide a firearm to an ineligible person. 

Kansas: Aramark food service employee Brandon Carr, 21, was booked into the Shawnee County jail on June 17, 2018 after “reportedly kissing and fondling a female inmate” at the Topeka Correctional Facility. Aramark has been the food service provider for Kansas state prisons since 1997. Chris Collum, a spokesman for the company, stated: “We have zero tolerance for misconduct of any kind and terminated this person’s employment immediately.” 

Kentucky: Stephen Renfrow, a former Hardin County Detention Center guard who accepted a plea deal in June 2018 after giving tobacco to a prisoner in exchange for sex while guarding her during a hospital stay, is now being sued by that prisoner. [See: PLN, Aug. 2018, p.63]. On August 11, 2018, the woman filed suit against several Hardin County jail workers, seeking compensatory and punitive damages. She claimed the sex was not consensual and only happened because another deputy left her alone with Renfrow. She named Lt. Jamie Motter in the lawsuit for blaming her for the alleged rape and discouraging her from reporting it, saying she would get into trouble if she filed a complaint.

Louisiana: The Louisiana DOC finally realized that staff members may be smuggling drugs after two prisoners at the notorious state penitentiary in Angola died on July 18, 2018 due to overdoses. John Hatfield, 31, and Kenneth LaCoste, 42, overdosed on synthetic marijuana, aka “mojo,” according to anonymous Louisiana state government sources. An immediate search of the Transitional Unit at Angola found small amounts of synthetic marijuana and amphetamines. A subsequent shakedown by 100 guards and K9 teams netted two ice pick-type weapons, seven cell phones and four phone chargers. Warden Darryl Vannoy cited low pay and high staff turnover as challenges to controlling contraband. DOC spokeswoman Natalie Laborde said employees will soon have to pass through scanners as they enter state prisons to go to work; she also noted that recently approved pay raises should attract “better quality and more committed employees,” who presumably will be less likely to smuggle contraband.

Maine: A former Penobscot County jail prisoner, identified as “Carla,” was happy with her job in the facility’s laundry room until she realized her duties included looking at naked pictures of Corporal Steven Buzzell and touching his erect penis. She described events after her release as “a whole other sentence.” Buzzell continued to seek meetings with her and send her photos of his genitals. She was not alone. The jailer had been harassing prisoners, colleagues and jail volunteers for over a decade before a co-worker alerted Human Resources. Prisoners felt the risk of reporting him outweighed the benefits, while fellow guards feared being targeted for reprisals if they “snitched.” Clare Davitt, now a Bangor city councilwoman, said she regretted not coming forward when she became a target of Buzzell’s inappropriate photos and messages when she was a jail library volunteer. Buzzell resigned in June 2018, but is still certified to work as a corrections officer.

Missouri: Referring to Governor Mike Parson’s decision to shutter the Crossroads Correctional Center, Missouri Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe stated, “This was all a business decision at the end of the day.” She estimates the $20.6 million saved by closing the facility will be shifted to salary increases for prison staff. The current average salary is $31,300 per year. Low pay and high turnover is believed to have contributed to a May 2018 riot at Crossroads that left the prison on lockdown for four months with some prisoners being housed in segregation due to a lack of bed space. Half of the Western Missouri Correctional Facility will be converted to maximum security to accommodate the prisoners moved from Crossroads when it closes. Staff from Crossroads will be able to transfer to other facilities. The closure of the prison should be complete by summer 2019.

New Jersey: Immigrants’ rights group Make the Road New Jersey picketed Wells Fargo Board member Maria R. Morris at her house in Westfield on July 24, 2018. The protest signaled a new strategy of targeting banks that provide funding to private prison operators. Community organizer Nedia Morsy announced to the crowd, “Immigrants in your community are being detained and imprisoned in private jails that your bank finances. We demand that you withdraw financing.” Morris was out of town on the day of the protest; her husband accepted a box of petitions and promised to relay the concerns. In an email, Wells Fargo spokesman Kevin Friedlander acknow­ledged the ongoing immigration debate, saying, “However, we do not as a corporation take positions on public policy issues that do not directly affect our company’s ability to serve customers and support team members.” He noted that Wells Fargo is not a shareholder in GEO Group or CoreCivic – though the bank holds shares through its mutual funds. 

New Mexico: On January 15, 2019, the family of prisoner Keith Kosirog, who committed suicide, filed suit against the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility (CNMCF), prison staff and Centurion Correctional Healthcare, the company contracted to provide medical services at the facility. The family of Adonus Encinias, who also killed himself at the prison, filed a similar lawsuit on March 21, 2019. Both prisoners had documented mental health issues. Kosirog was transferred from a jail to CNMCF for “safekeeping” by a judge after a competency hearing. DOC policy mandates housing pre-trial detainees separate from convicted prisoners, so Kosirog was placed in solitary confinement. A bill to keep mentally ill prisoners in solitary no longer than 48 hours passed in 2017, but was vetoed by then-Governor Susana Martinez, who said the bill “oversimplifies and misconstrues isolated confinement.” On April 3, 2019, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed nearly identical legislation, HB 364, which sets limits on placement in solitary and requires detailed quarterly reports on the practice. The bill also requires quarterly reports on litigation settlements involving private prisons in the state.

New York: The Incarceration to Education Coalition is a NYU student activist organization that seeks to make New York University more user-friendly for former prisoners. On December 5, 2018, the group led an occupation of the Kimmel Center for Student Life that lasted six days. They sought agreement from the NYU administration to cut ties with Aramark, the school’s dining hall food service company, which also provides food services for prisons. The occupation ended after the administration agreed to “create a committee that will begin investigating the financial feasibility of self-operated dining services at NYU. The university will also create a standing committee within the University Senate to address NYU’s relationship to mass incarceration.”

Oklahoma: Johnny Edward Tall Bear was convicted of the 1991 murder of a homeless man in Oklahoma City and sentenced to life without parole. The state enacted a post-conviction DNA testing law in 2013, and in November 2017 the blood evidence from the murder scene was re-tested. Joyce Gilchrist was the forensic analyst at the time of Tall Bear’s trial. The re-testing found her serology evidence to be false; the evidence she presented in five other cases was also proved to be flawed. [See: PLN, April 2015, p.1; Oct. 2010, p.1]. There were numerous inconsistencies in the state’s case against Tall Bear, but the new DNA tests, which eliminated him as a suspect, led the Oklahoma County District Attorney to join with the Innocence Project in a motion to vacate his conviction. The motion was granted on June 11, 2018 after Tall Bear had served 26 years in prison. Tragically, Tall Bear died in a DUI accident on March 8, 2019 after swerving into oncoming traffic while trying to pass a car and crashing into a school bus, killing himself, his passenger and a 12-year-old student.

Pennsylvania: A data breach occurred in April 2018, but the Department of Corrections did not alert the 13,100 prisoners, 680 DOC employees and 11 others whose data may have been compromised until July 13, 2018. The DOC claims it took the intervening months to analyze the data and determine who was affected; only then did it move the data to a secure state server and terminate its contract with Accreditation, Audit & Risk Management Security (AARMS). “Upon learning of this security incident, the Department of Corrections moved quickly to limit any potential harm to individuals and made contact with the authorities,” DOC Secretary John Wetzel said in a statement. Prison officials did not confirm or deny that DOC data was accessed by unauthorized parties, but offered a year of credit protection to people who received a letter notifying them about the data breach.

Pennsylvania: Former Primary Care Medical nurse Danika Alexander, 27, was originally charged with institutional sexual assault, which was reduced to a misdemeanor count of official oppression in a plea deal. Co-workers had noticed “unusually high foot traffic” to her work area, which prompted an investigation. Alexander’s phone revealed 39 calls, in June and July 2017, from a prisoner that had been recorded and indicated they had a sexual relationship. The prisoner gave details to investigators and Alexander admitted to touching and kissing him. Chief Deputy District Attorney Matthew Falk justified the reduced charge, noting that Alexander had not forced herself on the prisoner and saying, “The essence of this crime was the inappropriate abuse of power.” On July 10, 2018, Judge Kelly L. Banach told Alexander that her behavior was “skeevy,” and sentenced her to 23 months in jail.

Pennsylvania: Over Memorial Day weekend in 2018, Washington County jail captain Wendy Harris was handcuffed by City of Washington police officer Joseph Moore, after Harris refused to book Benjamin Burgess, 34, on a DUI charge, saying he needed to go to a hospital first. The jail’s nurse concurred. Burgess had undergone brain surgery earlier in the month and still had staples in his skull. Referring to the jail, county commission chairman Larry Maggi said, “They cannot accept a person if they need medical help.” Officer Moore was placed on administrative leave on June 15, 2018 and resigned the following month “to pursue other interests,” according to City of Washington Mayor Scott Putnam. Washington County released video footage of the incident following a Right to Know Law request by the Observer-Reporter newspaper. The video shows Harris on the phone with the jail’s warden while arguing with Moore, then Moore places her under arrest. Harris, who continues to work at the jail, filed a lawsuit on July 21, 2018 against Moore and the police department.

Russia: Yevgeny Makarov’s attorney, Irina Biryukova, released a bodycam video to Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper, that showed a naked and handcuffed Makarov being beaten by guards at Prison Number One, north of Moscow, in June 2017. The ten-minute video plays to the sound of Makarov begging his tormentors to stop. “The guards feel they can get away with it, so they carry on using force,” said Biryukova, who fled Russia after receiving death threats. Despite the arrests of the abusive guards, human rights experts on the UN’s Committee Against Torture don’t believe that signals a shift away from torture by Russian prison staff. A whistleblower released the tape, not government officials, and arrests were only made after the video was made public. An initial investigation reported that “appropriate” force was used against Makarov. 

South Carolina: On New Year’s Day 2017, a former lieutenant at the Broad River Correctional Institution, Nicole Jenice Samples, 36, was having a bad day and decided to take it out on two juvenile offenders who were making too much noise. She and two deputies applied “mechanical restraints” that connected their wrists and ankles, commonly known as “hog-tying.” The practice is forbidden under Department of Juvenile Justice rules. The juveniles were left in restraints for over two hours, and Sample instructed the deputies to lie on incident reports. Two weeks later she was suspended without pay, then fired on February 2, 2017. The FBI, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and U.S. Attorney’s office investigated the case, and Samples pleaded guilty to two counts of deprivation of civil rights. On August 1, 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Mary Geiger Lewis sentenced her to one year and one day in prison, to be followed by two years of supervised release.

Tennessee: Jeri Dawn Patrick, 47, a former Sullivan County jailer, turned herself in to her former workplace on July 17, 2018 after being indicted for physically assaulting a female prisoner at the jail and falsifying a report. Previously, in March 2017, Sullivan County jail guard Edward Smith, Jr. was indicted for assaulting a prisoner. He was granted judicial diversion in August 2018, which will clear his record if he meets court requirements of completing 120 hours of community service and refraining from alcohol and drug use after serving a year in jail. The Sullivan County jail is severely overcrowded and has been under investigation since 2014. As of early 2019, the facility housed an average of 950 prisoners but had only 619 beds. The county commission approved just over $1 million for 20 more jail employees in May 2019, but that will not alleviate the overcrowding – or the staff misconduct.

Texas: Edward Perret, 35, was charged with felony escape following his four-minute taste of freedom on July 23, 2018. Perret appeared in court that day and was arrested on a motion to revoke his probation. He managed to get out of his restraints and ran off just as the transport vehicle arrived at the Bexar County jail. Deputies were able to catch him less than a block away, and four minutes later he was back in custody. He was sentenced to a maximum of four years in prison on the felony escape charge on September 17, 2018. Perret had made a previous escape attempt in 2016.

Virginia: Richmond sheriff’s deputy and jail chaplain Matthew Eli Mellerson was arrested on June 7, 2018 for engaging in “carnal knowledge of an inmate.” The grand jury indictments covered incidents from September 17 to 23, 2017, but further investigation revealed that Mellerson had lured at least three male prisoners into having sex in November 2017 and January and February 2018. The grand jury indicted him on six counts of carnal knowledge of an inmate and two counts of sexually abusing an inmate. According to the Richmond jail’s database, Mellerson was booked into the facility on May 23, 2019 and listed as a “probationer” on the first six charges. The disposition of the remaining two charges is unknown.

Washington: A former Washington State “most wanted” fugitive, Jacob Ozuna, 36, aka “Kapone,” died of severe blunt-force trauma after being attacked by fellow Norteño gang members at the Yakima County jail on December 9, 2018. Surveillance video showed Julian Luis Gonzalez, Deryk Alexander Donato and Felipe Luis, Jr. striking and kicking Ozuna, then dragging him feet first down a set of stairs as his head struck each stair in turn. The three were charged with aggravated first-degree murder, with bond set at $1 million each; they pleaded not guilty and face a potential sentence of life without parole. Ozuna had been on the run after the May 10, 2018 killing of another Norteño gang member, Dario Alvarado III, before being caught in Montana and extradited to Washington. 

Wisconsin: Former jail guard James Ramsey-Guy, 38, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of obstructing an officer and was sentenced to 30 days in jail on March 7, 2019. Former jail Lt. Kashka Meadors, 40, received 60 days in February 2019 after pleading no contest to abuse of residents of penal facilities; she was accused of ordering Ramsey-Guy to shut off the water to Terrill Thomas’ cell at the Milwaukee County Jail in April 2016, as punishment for flooding his cell. Thomas spent seven days in solitary without water and died due to dehydration. Armor Correctional Health, the company contracted to provide medical services at the jail, was charged with seven misdemeanor counts of intentionally falsifying health care records in connection with his death. Nancy Evans, the jail commander, pleaded no contest to misconduct in office for lying during the investigation, and received a 90-day sentence. Thomas’ family settled a wrongful death lawsuit in May 2019 for $6.75 million, which will be reported in a future issue of PLN.