News in Brief
Afghanistan: The Ministry of Interior Affairs is working on a draft proposal aimed at reducing jail time, while promoting “reading culture.” By the end of 2019, Afghanistan had at least 35,000 prisoners in jails across the country. If the proposal is adopted, a prisoner could receive a six-day prison sentence discount for reading a book and giving a 10-minute presentation about it. To qualify, the book must be at least 100 pages. Pul-e-Charkhi Prison in Kabul often houses up to 10,000 prisoners, of which 2,000 Taliban insurgents are housed in the Block Six wing. It is unclear if the proposed reading program would be available to Block Six residents.
Arizona: Back in May 2019, a fugitive Pima County, Arizona, couple was picked up in Henrietta, New York. Blane and Susan Barksdale were wanted for killing Frank Bligh in Tucson in early April, taking his car and setting fire to his house. They sat in the Monroe County, New York, jail for three months before being handed over to Security Transport Services on August 22. Six days later, they overpowered security officers in Blanding, Utah. They were on the lam again. Considered armed and dangerous, cash rewards were offered, and Blane Barksdale was added to the 15 Most Wanted list. In September, U.S. Marshal for the District of Arizona David Gonzales reported, “The 16-day intensive manhunt for Blane and Susan Barksdale ended last night.” They were extradited to Tucson to face first-degree murder charges. Tucson Homicide Detective Josh Cheek told reporters in February 2020, “Susan said she was done protecting this monster and she wanted to tell the truth about what happened.” Susan’s attorney has indicated that she may be ready for a plea deal.
California: Former Wasco State Prison guard Joseph Andrade was arrested with Leonard Velazquez-Martinez after trying to buy two kilos of cocaine and 18 kilos of methamphetamine from an undercover cop, the Department of Justice announced. They were charged in June 2019 with conspiracy to possess drugs with intent to distribute. Andrade had worked at Wasco State Prison as a guard since 2006. Velazquez-Martinez was from Minnesota, with a prior criminal history. It is unclear how the two knew each other. Andrade was driving his car with Velazquez-Martinez in the front passenger seat. Velazquez-Martinez showed the undercover cop a grocery bag of money intended for the purchase. Investigators speculate that some of the drugs were intended for distribution at Wasco State. Joseph Andrade was placed on administrative leave for the duration of the investigation. The arrest followed an undercover sting on June 24, 2019, by the DEA, in concert with the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela Scott is prosecuting the case.
California: Just past noon on June 17, 2018, Fabian Cardoza headed to a shower in the Merced County Main Jail but was soon attacked. His lifeless body was carried back to his cell by his assailants. A full day passed. A guard who went to get Cardoza for his court hearing found his body. His murder was captured on security cameras, but no one was watching. A 2008 review of the jail called it “deplorable.” In 2013, Merced County failed to document the jail’s defects in order to qualify for state “realignment” money to relieve unconstitutional overcrowding. Gang violence had escalated and taken advantage of the many blind spots in the facility which was built in 1968. The Merced County District Attorney’s Office announced in July 2019, that it was pursuing the death penalty against Santiago Martinez, 28, the main suspect in Cardoza’s murder. Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive moratorium on California executions in March 2019, but prosecutors noted that the Martinez case and appeal would probably not conclude until well after Newsom was no longer governor.
China: February 2020 saw 500 confirmed coronavirus cases in prisons south of Beijing. Of those, 230 were diagnosed in the Wuhan’s women’s prison, whose director was dismissed. About 200 prisoners and seven guards tested positive at Rencheng prison in Shandong province; seven prison officials and the Shandong Department of Justice party secretary were removed. Shilifeng prison in Zhejiang had only 34 prisoners infected, but two prison officials were fired. Chinese state media had featured the story of Peng Yinhua, 29, a respiratory and critical care doctor at the First People’s Hospital in the Jiangxia district, who had delayed his wedding to continue working against the coronavirus. He was admitted as a patient in January and died, despite emergency treatment in February. Wuhan officials announced planned “condolence funds” of 5000 yuan ($719) for families of those who die because of the virus.
Florida: Donald Eastman’s body was discovered on June 26, 2019, at the Mayo Correctional Institution Annex, the same day two prisoners attacked and seriously injured a guard with “improvised weapons” in a different part of the prison, according to a DOC spokesman. Eastman had a rap sheet stretching back to 1980 for mostly robbery and drug charges. There was still an active death investigation being conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Office of Inspector General as of February 2020. No perpetrator has been identified, and Eastman’s death appears unrelated to the attack on the unnamed guard, who was treated at a local hospital and released the next day. Of the guard, FDOC Secretary Mark Inch said, “He showed extraordinary courage, and his teammates are to be commended for their quick response. We appreciate our correctional officers who serve in this often-overlooked profession dedicated to public safety.” Inch declined to comment on Eastman’s death.
Florida: On December 12, 2019, a judge granted Kenzi Dunn’s motion for early release, citing “extreme distress” after she miscarried in an Osceola County Jail cell toilet. She was serving a four-month sentence for a probation violation. Dunn, 21, found out she was pregnant when she was booked into the jail in October 2019. She was 13 weeks along, when she began bleeding on December 4, 2019, three weeks before her scheduled release. “‘It was torture,” Dunn said, “I was laying in my bed full of blood and they never came back to check on me.” Dunn hired attorney Mark O’Mara in January 2020 to take legal action against the jail and Armor Correctional Health, the medical care contractor. Dunn claims Armor nurses said nothing could be done about her bleeding and, later, that doctors were not available on weekends. She was finally taken to a hospital on December 9, then back to the same cell the following day. On January 15, 2020, Armor denied negligence, “We found that all policies and procedures were followed.”
Florida: “They don’t let me see him. They don’t want my son happy, that’s why they don’t let me see him,” said Marlene Simmons, the mother of Florida rapper Kodak Black, 23. Black, born Dieuson Octave, was sentenced to 46 months in prison in November 2019 for lying on background check forms to buy guns. His family announced plans to sue the BOP in January 2020 for violating his and other prisoners’ civil rights while at FDC Miami. But when his lawyer, Benjamin Crump, took them to visit and discuss the case, Black was gone, moved out of state to FTC Big Sandy in Inez, Kentucky. In February 2020, Black filed an appeal. The judge had considered him as a convicted felon in a previous Florida armed robbery, but Black had pleaded “no contest” in that case, so had not been convicted. Despite being in prison, Black also released a new single, Because of You and an official music video in February. Promoters say the video was cut before his 2019 arrest.
Georgia: McRae Correctional Facility is a private prison in Telfair County, operated by CoreCivic under contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and housing non-citizens. In August 2019, Michael Kerr, 30, of Vidalia was hit with a 14-count indictment for taking bribes in exchange for smuggling cigarettes to an unnamed prisoner. The indictment alleges 12 payments totaling $5,790, the amount the government seeks in forfeiture. Kerr claimed to have only accepted a single $100 bribe, leading to the single count of making a false statement to law enforcement. It is unclear if Kerr resigned or was fired by CoreCivic. “Bribery and smuggling contraband into federal prisons will not be tolerated, and our agents will continue to root out these schemes,” said Special Agent in Charge, James F. Boyersmith.
Iran: To stem the spread of Covid-19 infections in Iran’s crowded jails, the country has temporarily released more than 54,000 prisoners. Prisoners must test negative for the virus and post bail. Gholamhossein Esmaili, a judiciary spokesman, assured the public that “security prisoners,” those serving sentences longer than five years, would not be eligible. British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was convicted on espionage charges and sentenced to five years in 2016. She and the UK insist she is innocent. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released from Tehran’s Evin prison. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband feared that she had contracted Coronavirus. A UK Foreign Office spokesman said, “We call on the Iranian government to immediately allow health professionals into Evin prison to assess the situation of British-Iranian dual nationals there.” Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) were sent to Iran, where 23 members of the 290 seat Parliament have already tested positive.
Italy: Protests in Italy’s overcrowded prisons erupted in March fueled by coronavirus anxieties and containment measures. Italian prisons are notoriously overcapacity, with the nationwide average at 120 percent. San Vittore was built for 700 but houses 1,200 prisoners; prosecutors climbed onto the roof to listen to protesters’ grievances. At least 50 prisoners escaped from the Foggia prison by climbing the fence, while riot police tried to hold them back. Forty have been recaptured. Riots occurred in 24 lock-ups, with six prisoners in Modena overdosing on methadone after breaking into an infirmary. While the government has instituted sweeping measures to avoid mass gatherings, existing prison conditions make those populations most vulnerable and they know it. Advocates are advising wardens to allow greater access to information and more phone calls to family members, stating, “The difficulty of accepting extreme measures is accentuated in places where people don’t have any freedom.” Secretary General of the Penitentiary Police Union Donato Capece told reporters. “The administration is completely absent. They have left the penitentiary police in jeopardy.”
Japan: To celebrate Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony in October 2019, the government approved granting nearly 550,000 pardons to prisoners whose convictions were more than three years prior and were for minor infractions. Approximately 80 percent were involved in traffic violations or accidents. The Justice Ministry stated that the enthronement is “an opportunity for the citizens of Japan to cleanse their spirit and start anew.” Upon request, special clemency will be granted to people with suspended sentences due to hospitalization, most of whom are over 70 years old. Japan’s modern constitution was introduced in 1947. Since then, criminal pardons have been issued 10 times to mark significant national events. Ten million people received amnesty in 1989 to mark the death of Emperor Showa. Some 2.5 million people were pardoned the next year to celebrate the enthronement of Naruhito’s father, Emperor Akihito. Japan is a constitutional monarchy and the role of Emperor is largely ceremonial. The Japanese monarchy, also referred to as the Yamato Dynasty, is the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world.
Kentucky: In May 2019, former Fulton County Detention Center jailer James Eakes was convicted by a federal jury for violating the civil rights of a prisoner by assaulting him with a dangerous weapon. The episode took place in August 2016, and the FBI Louisville Field Office investigated. Eakes and two female jailers went to the cell of a suicidal prisoner. Following jail procedure, they stripped the prisoner, removed all possessions and left him with an anti-suicide garment. After the door was locked, the prisoner cursed at Eakes. According to a Department of Justice press release, Eakes “ordered that the door be unlocked, removed his Taser from his holster, opened the door, and immediately shot L.B. with his Taser. Eakes then entered L.B.’s cell, and, while activating the Taser, repeatedly yelled at L.B. not to curse at him again. Despite the fact that L.B. took no aggressive action towards Eakes and remained slumped against the cell wall, Eakes tased L.B. two additional times.” Eakes was sentenced to four years in prison and one-year supervised release.
Louisiana: Ten prisoners were taken to area hospitals after a freak lightning strike in the recreation yard of the David Wade Correctional Center in Homer on September 9, 2019. Prison officials did not release the names of the injured. The men were playing flag football in the yard about 6 p.m., when lightning struck the ground near them. Nine were back from hospital the next day after treatment for cuts, bruises, headaches, disorientation and dizziness; one stayed at Northwest Louisiana Hospital in critical condition. Prison officials were quick to note, “It is David Wade Correctional Center’s procedure to clear the yard when potentially dangerous weather approaches.” No further information was released.
Michigan: RecoveryPark in Detroit began in 2010 to launch a new vision of community development around urban farming and food production, just as the “eat local” movement was emerging. It took over a 22-block area (105 acres) in the city’s lower east side. The mission was to create jobs for recovering addicts and former prisoners re-entering the job market. None of its workers has returned to prison. In July 2019, RecoveryPark was plagued by a rash of three robberies in the same week; over $25,000 in equipment was stolen. The setback was temporary. Investors have made it possible for the project to expand to commercial scale hydroponics. The first crop of baby lettuce is expected to be harvested in August 2020. CEO Gary Wozniak said, “Our mission is to create jobs for people with barriers to employment: people coming out of prison and/or drug treatment programs. Our vision is to do that by creating jobs in the food industry and eventually we’ll transfer majority ownership to the workforce in those businesses.”
New Jersey: Alia Imad Faleh Al Hunaity, 44, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Jordan, was sentenced in March 2020 to 70 months in prison for enslaving a Sri Lankan in her home. She also was ordered to pay the victim $1.2 million in restitution and will be under three years’ supervised release when she gets out of prison. Hunaity was convicted in May 2019 by a federal jury on charges of forced labor, alien harboring for financial gain and marriage fraud. The victim was brought to New Jersey in 2009 on a temporary visa with promises of a better life. Hunaity works as a cancer research scientist in New York state. She forced the victim to cook and clean Hunaity’s homes in Woodland Park and Secaucus, and work as nanny to her three children without pay. One of the triplets has cystic fibrosis. U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler stated that Hunaity also “forced the victim into a sham marriage” to obtain legal U.S. residence. The victim wanted leniency because of her children, but the judge believed Hunaity showed no remorse.
North Carolina: “If you’re a Muslim in here, you’re gonna’ get a Bible as well as a Quran, because that’s my mandate,” former High Point Jail Ministry chaplain, Rick Taylor told the local newspaper in April 2019. He also said he worked with people with depression, suicidal thoughts, addiction, and other mental health issues by sharing Christ to help them. That same month, Sheriff Danny Rogers decided to restructure the religious programs at the jail. Administrative director for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office Catherine Netter said, “Sheriff Rogers has decided to restructure the ministry program for the High Point Jail and expand the reach to ensure all religious denominations are being served” She declined to say if the restructuring was in response to Taylor’s comments, but the chaplain was fired in April. In July, the High Point Jail Ministry, founded in 1991, closed after nearly 30 years. Its mission, stated on its Facebook page, had included “saving lost souls and changing lives in our jail and prison systems.”
North Carolina: Ruth Bryant turned 100 on March 4, 2020. She stands 5-feet 1-inch, according to her mugshot at the Person County Jail in Roxboro, North Carolina. “I’m in the jail-house now! I finally got here!” she announced after deputies presented her with an orange “PERSON COUNTY JAIL” T-shirt. Sheriff’s officers arrived at Bryant’s assisted living facility with an arrest warrant for indecent exposure on her birthday. The men handcuffed her to her walker and put her in a patrol car. “Don’t kick me; I’ve got a bad knee!” cautioned one of the arresting officers. “I’ve got two bad knees!” retorted Bryant. She was whisked to jail with sirens blaring. It turned out the whole thing was a stunt as going to jail was on Bryant’s bucket list. A party and birthday cake were waiting for her at the facility when she returned. TV station KOKH FOX 25 posted video of the arrest on its Facebook page.
Ohio: “Inmates do not surrender their human dignity along with their freedom. These two men abused their authority to pound a prisoner strapped to a chair. We wouldn’t stand for a dog to be treated like that – let alone by someone exercising the authority of the State,” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said in a press release after two Cuyahoga County jailers plead guilty in the March 2019 beating of Terrance Debose, 47. Jail surveillance cameras recorded Nicholas Evans turning off his bodycam before he and Timothy Dugan pummeled the mentally ill prisoner who was confined to a restraint chair and fitted with a “spit hood.” The two were sentenced in February 2020 in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. Nicholas Evans will serve nine months in prison and Timothy Dugan only 10 days. Both resigned. Debose considers the sentences a “slap on the wrist” and is expected to file a civil suit against Cuyahoga County. The jail has been under scrutiny since eight prisoner deaths in 2018.
Ohio: The minimum-security wing of the Columbiana County Jail used to be a county nursing home. In June 2019, three men escaped through the shower area by breaking a window and cutting the security fence. Michael Conzett changed his mind and went back to the jail, but Anthony Wagoner of East Liverpool and Michael Hover Jr. of Salem were homesick. Those two were on the lam for two days before being re-captured at their respective homes after tips were called in to police. St. Clair Township’s police dog, Axel, was sent into Wagoner’s house. He ran out the back and was subdued after two stun gun shots. Hover pleaded guilty to escape in February 2020 and was sentenced to 24 months, concurrent with his previous sentences, adding 14 months to his total time. Wagoner previously pleaded guilty to escape and evidence tampering, but skipped his February 2020 sentencing hearings, prompting a bench warrant to be issued. Conzett’s jury trial on a fifth-degree felony escape charge is scheduled for April 2020.
Russia: On February 12, 2020, moments after Viktor Sviridov was sentenced to three years in a prison colony for extorting 10 million rubles ($158,200) from former Russian Federal Penitentiary Service Deputy Director Alexander Sapozhnikov, Sviridov shot himself in the head with a handgun. Emergency services told the Russian state news agency TASS, “After the guilty verdict was handed down, Sviridov committed suicide. He died on the spot.” Russian authorities claimed that the bag Sviridov pulled the gun from had been “properly inspected” when he carried it inside. Bailiffs had only found a flask filled with alcohol on him. Sviridov, 71, had stage four cancer. His attorney, Grigory Ivanishchev, said his client had expected a not-guilty verdict. “I associate this [suicide] with the court’s decision,” he said. Both the defense and the victim’s representatives requested leniency in the case. Three years was less than half of the seven-year minimum provided for in Russian extortion laws. Sviridov had been head of the federal prison service’s motor transport department. He had previously served as a liquidator following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
South Carolina: Kenney Boone had been Florence County’s sheriff since 2004, when he pleaded guilty to embezzlement and misconduct in January 2020 for using federal drug money to buy personal items. Judge William McKinnon gave Boone a five-year suspended sentence, with Boone agreeing to pay $16,000 in restitution. In February, the ousted sheriff was charged with second-degree domestic violence and animal abuse after threatening his wife with a baseball bat and hitting the family cat. Their daughter called 911. He was booked into the Darlington County jail, then moved to the Florence County Detention Center. In March, Circuit Judge Paul Burch revoked Boone’s bond after he went to the gym where his wife works out, violating his probation agreement. Anna Boone, his wife spoke in his defense, “I believe the conditions of the bond are far too restrictive on Kenney. It was never my intention for Kenney to be arrested, and I was never afraid of Kenney harming me or the children.” Boone was being held in protective custody at the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office.
South Carolina: Former Postal Center Director for McCormick Correctional Institution Brenda Wideman, 59, was arrested and fired in July 2019. The arrest warrant states, “Probable cause based on investigation, recovery of evidence and a statement of subject.” Wideman is accused of giving contraband food and clothing to a prisoner. Upon arrest, she admitted to knowing that prisoners received packages through the mail containing tobacco and marijuana but did not report the incidents. The warrant further alleges that Wideman was given cash by prisoners for her cooperation. The South Carolina Department of Corrections Police Services released the arrest warrant.
Tennessee: A Cheatham County Grand Jury presentment was filed in November 2019 against former Cheatham County jailer Mason Carr, 23. According to Cheatham County Sheriff Mike Breedlove, Carr “was introducing drugs into the facility and providing them to inmates.” The drugs in question were alleged to be Suboxone. The presentment states Carr possessed a Taurus .45 ACP pistol “with the intent to go armed during the commission of a dangerous felony.” The “dangerous felony” was not specified. Carr was initially arrested in June 2019 and District Attorney General Ray Crouch asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to help with the investigation. Carr was booked into the Cheatham County Jail, then moved to Montgomery County Jail for his safety. Online sources show him later transferred to “another authority.”
Tennessee: Two deadly tornadoes with winds up to 175 mph ripped through central Tennessee on March 3, 2020, killing 24 people. An architectural casualty was the Victorian style Tennessee State Prison near Nashville, formerly the Tennessee State Penitentiary. The prison was built using mostly prison labor and opened in 1898. Built for 800, it housed 1400 prisoners on day one and remained over-capacity until it was closed in 1992, due to a class action lawsuit, Grubbs v. Bradley. A permanent injunction was ordered prohibiting the state from ever housing another prisoner there, citing it as “unfit for human habitation.” Still owned and operated by the state, the old pen’s castle-like façade made it a favorite location in at least nine films, most notably The Green Mile and Walk the Line. It has also been a backdrop in numerous music videos. Nashville film producer Brian Siskind posted online, “The weight of the loss of this building will be felt for many as it was a tie to their past, in darkness or light.”
Tennessee: Lauderdale County District Attorney Mark Davidson announced in February 2020 that his office has filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty if Curtis Ray Watson is convicted of the August 2019 rape and murder of West Tennessee State Penitentiary administrator Debra Johnson. [See: PLN, January 2020, p. 26] Johnson was the first TDOC employee killed in the line of duty in 15 years
Tennessee: Claiborne County Sheriff’s Office policies ban using stun guns to punish inmates but allow their use “to control a detainee that otherwise cannot be controlled by any other means or for personal protection for an aggressive inmate.” The attorney for former Claiborne County assistant jail administrator Mark Steven Ellis, 38, believes his client would not have been indicted, if the policy had been revealed to the grand jury. Ellis was indicted in July 2019 on one count each of official oppression and assault for a single stun gun shot while guards struggled to place prisoner Robert Davis Jr. in a restraint chair in May 2019. Witnesses claim Ellis also smacked the prisoner. According to Ellis’s incident report: Davis punched, kicked and spat in the struggle. “The Taser had the appropriate effect and inmate Robert Davis (then) complied with commands. No officers or inmate was harmed.” Ellis was fired and turned himself in after the indictment. He posted $5,000 bond. Ellis’ father, Steven Ellis, the former chief jail administrator, quit over the incident.
Texas: A GEO Group spokesman confirmed in May 2019, that Manuel Lopez III, 25, of Laredo had resigned from his job as a guard at the Rio Grande Detention Center. He had worked there since 2014. Lopez, driving a black Ford Explorer, had been pulled over by a state trooper for a traffic violation on U.S. 59. The trooper found 15 bales of marijuana, with a street value of $140,000, in the cargo area. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, the contraband weighed 280 pounds. Lopez was booked into the Webb County Jail before being released on bond. In November 2019, Lopez was arrested again, charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. In August 2019. Lopez took his ex-wife’s keys from her purse, when he dropped his children off at her house. He came back later that night to take the Ford Explorer. The Laredo PD auto-theft task force brought the case to an assistant district attorney, who approved the arrest warrant. Lopez is again out on bond.
Virginia: The Department of Corrections announced plans to spend $13.6 million to replace all cell doors at Sussex I and II high security state prisons in Waverly, because prisoners are jamming them and can leave their cells without staff knowledge or approval, making the facility unsafe. The project is slated to begin in April 2020 and take three years to complete. The existing doors are opened and closed from each pod’s control booth, but on a different design than at other VADOC facilities. During the transition, keyed locks will be added and staff numbers will be boosted to facilitate any emergency evacuation that might arise. The VADOC is working with the fire marshal’s office to assess emergency requirements.
Virginia: A federal grand jury in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in Roanoke returned a superseding indictment in June 2019, adding 15 charges against John Marshall Higgins, the former Rockbridge County Regional Jail superintendent. The August 2018 indictment (See PLN, February 2019, p.41) included counts against Higgins and former RCRJ head nurse Gary Andrew Hassler. The new mail fraud charges allege that Higgins accepted prescription drugs, without charge, for personal use from a pharmaceutical company contracted with the Rockbridge Regional Jail. The pharmaceutical company provided the drugs as a perk to keep the jail contract. The new charges in the superseding indictment also allege that Higgins agreed to accept items of value from a Rockbridge Regional Jail prisoner’s family in exchange for providing preferential treatment. Higgins’ federal jury trial has been rescheduled to April 2020. Hassler was found guilty on one count of falsifying medical documents at his July 2019 trial. He was sentenced to one year in federal prison. Higgins continued on the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors through 2019.