Skip navigation

News in Brief

California: Beyond Prison Walls, now in its eighth year with Playwrights Project partners at San Diego State University, spotlights the works of prisoner playwrights participating in Out of the Yard programs at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, Centinela State Prison and Community Transition Center. This year, San Diego State University Theatre students performed the prisoners’ original plays in late June, over two days, via the online conferencing program Zoom. Billed as pay-what-you-can performances, the proceeds were donated to the Playwrights Project for future programming. Discussions with the cast and prison representatives followed each performance. Cecelia Kouma, executive director of the Playwrights Project, said, “We are honored to give voice to our writers and celebrate the imagination and resilience of these artists creating art within confinement.”

Cameroon: Rampant overcrowding in Africa’s prisons has thwarted efforts to track and contain the spread of the coronavirus. Cameroon’s central prison in the capital city of Yaoundé is at five times capacity with a population of nearly 5,000. Social distancing, self-isolation and adequate hand washing are not possible. Maroua prison, in the north, was built for 350, but holds over 1,450, of which 70 percent are pre-trial detainees. Malnutrition and limited health care, combined with crowded conditions, exacerbate the dangers of COVID-19 across the continent. Governments in South Africa, Togo, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya have reported coronavirus outbreaks in their prisons. But Cameroon has been mum on the subject, despite President Paul Biya’s efforts in April to reduce the spread by releasing nearly 1,800 prisoners, hundreds of who were already infected. The infection rate was believed to have been 58 percent. As of July, Cameroon had about 15,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 350 deaths.

Colorado: The Colorado DOC announced in July 2019 that the state had reached a settlement agreement with transgender prisoner Lindsay Saunders-Velez. Saunders-Velez sued the CDOC in July 2017. [See: PLN, June 2018, p.54] In 2018, she was placed in solitary, commonly referred to as “the hole,” for her protection, after two in-custody rapes at her assigned men’s prison. Her attorney, Paula Greisen, commented, “We believe this settlement signifies that the State of Colorado is committed to continuing its work to hopefully set a national standard for the humane and fair treatment of the LGBTQ community and all of our citizens, especially those in the custody of the state.” The $170,000 settlement monies were held in trust until Saunders-Velez was released in late 2019. A spokesman for Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office told reporters that the state did not admit any liability in the settlement. The state contends that Colorado is a “national leader” in implementing fair and appropriate transgender policies and the settlement prevented extending a costly legal process. Saunders-Velez is now an executive director at the Colorado Justice Advocacy Network.

Connecticut: “Under no circumstance should anybody be giving birth in a prison cell,” said Representative Steven Stafstrom after a federal judge ordered the release of a DOC report on the circumstances that led Tianna Laboy, then 19, to give premature birth in her York Correctional Institution cell toilet in February 2018. The review was completed in July 2018, but the DOC denied repeated FOIA requests. A motion to have it released was granted in December 2019. Laboy and her mother filed a lawsuit in March 2019 alleging denial and delay of care. The Attorney General tried to block the suit, saying Laboy failed to file a grievance after the birth. U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall ruled the suit could proceed, “Under the circumstances of this case, there was no ‘available’ remedy.” The report revealed that there was no OBGYN on call at York and no requirement that medical staff be trained in labor and delivery. Laboy went to medical over several days complaining of stomach pains but was turned away without an exam.

Florida: Few details are available surrounding the July 2020 grand jury indictment in Tallahassee of Phillip Golightly, 38, on two counts of sexually assaulting a female prisoner while on temporary duty at FCI Marianna in November 2019. A jury trial is scheduled for August 24, 2020 in Tallahassee. The charging documents say the alleged victim “was under Golightly’s custodial, supervisory, and disciplinary authority.” It is unclear how long Golightly had been employed by the BOP. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Georgia: Trump crony Roger Stone sought another delay in surrendering to the BOP to begin serving the 40-month sentence on his November 2019 convictions on lying and witness tampering charges. Citing the coronavirus pandemic, Stone, 67, said the sentence was “a death penalty.” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson disagreed and granted a two-week delay in July. She noted that there had been no reported coronavirus cases at FCI Jessup. The Justice Department, which had intervened on Stone’s behalf before his sentencing, agreed that the new July 14 report date was “a reasonable exercise of that court’s discretion based on the totality of the factual and legal circumstances.” The BOP had previously granted one 60-day surrender delay. None of that mattered. President Trump commuted Stone’s sentence days before his report date, erasing Stone’s prison time, two years’ supervised release and $20,000 fine. The grant of clemency press release stated, “Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency.”

Germany: A Syrian doctor, identified as Alaa M, was arrested in the central state of Hesse in June 2020. Alaa M. is suspected of carrying out crimes against humanity in 2011, at a prison in the city of Homs run by Syrian intelligence services under the Bashar al-Assad regime. Alaa M. has practiced as a doctor in Germany since 2015, after leaving Syria. German prosecutors said in a statement that the doctor is believed to have “tortured a detainee ... in at least two cases.” The victim had taken part in a protest and had an epileptic fit after his arrest. Alaa M. was called to assist. The statement claims Alaa M. beat the victim with a plastic pipe, and that even “after he had gone down, Alaa M. continued the beatings and additionally kicked the victim.” The following day, Alaa M. was accused of beating the man again, this time to unconsciousness and in the presence of another unnamed prison doctor. The victim later died. In Koblenz, also in June, two former Syrian secret policemen were in court for crimes against humanity, at another government-run detention center.

Honduras: Traditionally, gang violence among female prisoners is low in Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). A recent string of gang killings in June at the National Women’s Penitentiary for Social Adaptation — Penitenciaria Nacional Femenina de Adaptación Social (PNFAS) — outside Tegucigalpa suggests this might be changing. In June, a Barrio 18 woman was strangled by her cellmates. Weeks earlier, alleged Barrio 18 women had set fire to PNFAS and stabbed alleged MS-13 rivals. Violence between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gang members has been common in male prisons. Honduras’ National Anti-Gang Force (Fuerza Nacional Anti Maras y Pandillas) in Tegucigalpa has been clamping down on gang extortion of shopkeepers in the Honduran capital. PNFAS is at double capacity this year. Videos circulating in the press, reported to have been filmed inside the prison, suggest the prison director has ignored the uptick in violence. Digna Aguilar, the spokeswoman for Honduras’ National Prison Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario de Honduras), confirmed that the June slaying was the first acknowledged multiple homicides in a Honduran women’s prison.

Indiana: Clark County Sheriff’s Colonel Scottie Maples told reporters that Gerald Kopp Jr.’s credentials as a probation officer recommended him as a credible candidate as a jail culinary instructor for the jail’s food-service provider, but that was the very job that gave Kopp access to women. Gerald Kopp Jr., 49, was arrested in January 2020 on charges of sexual misconduct with two prisoners. A December 2019 letter to the jail initiated the investigation; it alleged that Kopp was having sex with prisoners and had brought sex toys and headphones to them. Court records indicate that Kopp took two women from their housing unit to a probation office after hours, shut off the lights, blocked the door with a cart, and “the three engaged in sex acts.” Hallway surveillance video shows them entering and exiting the office on October 14 and 29, 2019. The first visit lasted three hours, the second about an hour and a half. Kopp denied the allegations but resigned his position in December 2019. Cash-only bond was set at $10,000.

Iowa: Benjamin Schreiber was found guilty of first-degree murder in 1997 and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. In April 2018, he filed for post-conviction relief, citing his hospitalization in March 2015. He arrived at the hospital unconscious from septic poisoning caused by large kidney stones. The hospital administered an IV with lifesaving resuscitation fluids and repaired the kidney stone damage. Schreiber contended that since he had “died” at the hospital, he had fulfilled his life sentence and should be released. The district court found his claim “unpersuasive and without merit.” The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed that decision in November 2019, but the case alarmed Senator Roby Smith, who introduced the “life means life” bill in March 2020. It would define a defendant’s “natural life,” regardless of life-sustaining procedures used during the period of the sentence. Representative Liz Bennett suggested implications if Schreiber had won his case, “Would you have to go back and marry your wife again? Could you get out of paying child support if you are a new person?”

Michigan: The Alger Correctional Facility in Munising received drug shipments from Mexico, coordinated by deported convicts and prisoners in the Upper Peninsula. DEA agents did not explain how the heroin, cocaine and crystal meth got into the prison. They did say the Alger prison probe began in 2019. A federal wiretap was initiated after a JPay account was discovered to be the communication conduit with a drug supplier in Mexico. In May 2020, MDOC guards raided the Alger cell of Dontay McMann, 40. Federal agents say McMann dealt drugs with Juan Mejia. Mejia messaged deported cocaine dealer Hector Plascencia-Rolon from a contraband phone, “I need the windows that you sold me one day for my car.” Investigators say “windows” is dealer slang for methamphetamine. Phone record analysis pointed to Alger. The DEA agent explained, “One confidential source that has spoke(n) directly to McMann about his drug trafficking confirmed that McMann works on behalf of Mejia.” A MDOC spokesperson has stated, “There has been nothing found to suspect staff involvement at this time and no staff have been suspended/disciplined/fired.”

Massachusetts: The Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center (MASAC) in Plymouth is run by the MDOC. Former MASAC nurse Julie Inglis-Somers pleaded guilty in June 2019 to supplying two civilly committed patients five doses of her own prescription Suboxone pills, for opioid use disorder, to ease their sleeplessness due to opioid withdrawal in November and December 2018, before the medication was approved for use at MASAC. She was unaware that one of the patients was a DOC informant, facilitating a sting operation. Inglis-Somers had been offered $1,000; she declined it. Used to treat heroin addiction, Suboxone is sought after contraband in New England prisons for getting high. The former nurse was arrested in December 2018 in Jacksonville, Florida, after sneaking out of Massachusetts. Inglis-Somers was sentenced to time served and three years’ supervised release in November 2019. She is barred from future nursing. The first three months of her sentence were served under house arrest. MDOC began offering Suboxone at MASAC as medication-assisted treatment in April 2019.

Mississippi: Arthur Lestrick, 40, had tired of serving his life sentence for murder at the Mississippi State Pen in Parchman since his sentence for a capital murder in November 2009. Lestrick was confirmed missing from Unit 28, a work camp, on July 5, 2020. Few details were released about how he managed his escape, but the MDOC offered $2,500 for information leading to his capture and a Crime Stoppers alert was issued. Two days later, the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force and the Metro Nashville Police Department captured Lestrick in a wooded area off Brick Church Pike in Nashville, according to Metro Police. It had been widely reported that Lestrick was found in a Tennessee hotel room. Lestrick was returned to the Mississippi State Pen. July 2019 saw three prison escapes in Mississippi, one from Parchman and two from the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl.

Missouri: Pevely Police Department (Jefferson County) surveillance video from April 2019 shows Ryan Bossum being booked into the jail for violating a court order. Former Corporal Robert Watson gets up, walks around the desk, and grabs Bossum by the neck from behind with both hands. Bossum is dragged off the seat and shoved through an open holding-cell door across from the desk. Watson slams the door It all takes less than a minute. Watson had worked for the department for three years. Former Officer Wayne Casey sits across the desk with no apparent reaction. Watson was suspended without pay in May 2019 before the Peverly Board of Aldermen voted to fire both officers. Watson initially said his actions were justified, because Bossum ignored his commands. Watson pleaded guilty to depriving a prisoner of his right to be free from unreasonable force in January 2020. He was sentenced in July to five years’ probation, 150 hours of community service, a $9,000 fine and cognitive-behavioral treatment. He also must surrender his license to be a police officer.

New Mexico: Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid dependency, is not prescribed to prisoners in New Mexico facilities because it is too easily misused. A Summit Food Service employee, working at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility, was booked into the Doña Ana County Detention Center in October 2019 under suspicion of supplying Suboxone to a prisoner. Julian Velasco, 25, was charged with a single felony count of bringing contraband into a prison. State police officers found 196 Suboxone strips secreted around Gerald George Cuellar’s cell. Prisoner Aaron Charles Lujan signed a confession and gave it to a NM State police investigator, claiming Velasco gave him 300 Suboxone strips, which Lujan passed on to Cuellar. It is unclear whether the discovery of the strips or the confession came first. Surveillance footage shows Velasco handing Lujan something on October 27; Velasco claimed it was probably gloves. The video shows a box of nylon gloves on a desk, but neither man takes any gloves. Bond information and court dates were unavailable.

New York: The Rikers Island jail complex has 10 facilities and sits in the East River between Bronx and Queens. In June, while the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the city, prisoner Arthur L Brown, 37, held at the George R. Vierno Center on an assault charge, broke loose, scaled a razor-wire fence and jumped into the surrounding water. K-9 unit guards Larry McCardle and Gregory Braska leapt into the river to retrieve him. Three days later, Brown was at it again. This time he made it onto a roof for a 30-minute standoff. Brown had to be lowered to the ground in a basket-style stretcher. DOC spokesman Peter Thorne, who was full of praise for staff after Brown’s first attempt, said, “This detainee was quickly apprehended and returned to custody. The incident is under investigation and there will be immediate staff suspensions if warranted.” Dominique Peters, another Rikers prisoner, told reporters that Brown had to try to escape, “because measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic have made Rikers intolerable.”

New York: A federal judge’s order July 23, 2020 allowed President Trump’s former attorney and “fixer” Michael Cohen to be transferred from federal prison to home confinement to serve the remainder of a three-year sentence for tax evasion, lying to Congress and violating campaign finance laws. In May, Cohen had received a medical furlough from the prison camp at Otisville due to coronavirus concerns. In July, Cohen and his attorney Jeffrey Levine went to the Lower Manhattan courthouse expecting that Cohen would be fitted with an electronic ankle monitor. However, Cohen balked at signing a document that required “no engagement of any kind with the media, including print, TV, film, books, or any other form of media/news,” The New York Times reported. The prohibition was to “avoid glamorizing or bringing publicity to your status as a sentenced inmate serving a custodial term in the community,” according to the document. Cohen declared in a lawsuit that the government was retaliating against him for wanting to exercise his First Amendment right to publish a book about Trump. Federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein sided with Cohen.

North Dakota: On March 16, 2020 Robert Eugene Johnson, 72, was sentenced to four months in prison for federal tax evasion; just one week later, he lied about his conviction while attempting to buy a semi-automatic weapon. It is unclear why Johnson wanted to purchase the gun. U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley characterized it as a ‘lie and try case.” Johnson’s lie was quickly revealed, and the sale scuttled when the store consulted the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Johnson was arrested again in June, pleaded guilty to making a false statement about his criminal record while buying a firearm and was sentenced to five more months in prison with a further year of supervised release. Johnson will have to pay a $100 special assessment for the Crime Victims’ Fund. The case was investigated by the IRS and the ATF in Fargo.

Oklahoma: In 1984, Donna Haraway was abducted and murdered in Ada, Oklahoma. Karl Fontenot and Tommy Ward were tried together, convicted and sentenced to death. The Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned those convictions. They were tried separately, convicted again in 1989 and sentenced to life in prison. Fontenot and Ward’s convictions appeared as subplots in John Grisham’s 2006 book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, and later in the 2018 Netflix docuseries based on that book. In November 2019, a court order from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma stated Karl Fontenot should be released or granted a new trial, based on new evidence uncovered by Tommy Ward’s legal team. Fontenot was released in December 2019. Attorneys for Ward filed a brief and a motion for summary disposition in March 2020: “Newly discovered, undisputed evidence vindicates Mr. Ward’s position that the State suppressed exculpatory evidence while soliciting false testimony to obtain Mr. Ward’s 1989 robbery, abduction, and murder convictions, all in violation of his constitutional rights.”

Pennsylvania: A vial of fake urine and handwarmers tipped off Adams County Prison officials that Kody Fuller, 25, was up to no good. Fuller was a drug counselor at the prison in April 2020, when a search of his backpack revealed two pocket knives and the fake pee. Surveillance video from a counseling session a week earlier showed Fuller handing contraband to prisoner Terrence Pearsall, 24. Thirteen strips of Suboxone were found in Pearsall’s cell. Fuller told police that Pearsall threatened to tell staff that Fuller smoked pot, if he didn’t bring him drugs in exchange for $200. Pearsall’s girlfriend, Greta Hashani, 24, who was also charged, admitted to providing the drug package for delivery. A police report reveals that Pearsall was selling Suboxone strips to fellow prisoners for $100 to $120 each via a phone cash app. All three were charged with Introduction of Contraband, Delivery of a Controlled Substance, Criminal Use of a Communication Facility, and Criminal Conspiracy.

Pennsylvania: U.S. Middle District Judge Matthew W. Brann sentenced Tony Liesenfeld, 49, a former Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary guard, to a year and a day in prison on a wire fraud charge in June 2020. The former treasurer of the Local 148 of the American Federation of Government Employees from March 2011 to September 2015 admitted to stealing $77,716 from the local during his term. Liesenfeld was promoted to president of the local and served in that capacity for three months, until the financial discrepancy was discovered in an audit. His year and a day sentence left him eligible for “good time” credit. He also will have two years’ supervised release with drug and mental health treatment mandatory. Liesenfeld pleaded guilty in October 2019 and admitted that he used the union credit card for personal benefit and forged signatures on fraudulent checks. He blamed his behavior on alcoholism and prescription painkillers. Liesenfeld was ordered to pay $100,000 restitution to cover the union’s losses. His report date was set for August 7.

Scotland: The Scottish Prison Service efforts in June to alleviate feelings of isolation among youth at the Polmont Young Offenders jail backfired spectacularly. Mobile phones were distributed in a £1 million initiative to help the prisoners keep in touch with family, while in-person visits were prohibited due to COVID-19 concerns. Each handset was loaded with 310 free minutes. The 400 Polmont prisoners were limited to 12 pre-vetted contacts. The Scottish Prison Service did not foresee the scores of calls to The Samaritans, a suicide hotline, and to “999” – the local version of 911. A prison source told reporters, “One of the prisoners was telling his pals that he’s called to complain that he was locked up in a building with a bunch of dangerous pedophiles. There could obviously be a serious side to this. If scores of prisoners are jamming 999 lines at the same time, it could stop ambulances attending real emergencies.” Staff at the facility are embarrassed that it had not anticipated the mischief, which is likely to delay phone privileges for the rest of Scotland’s 7,000 prisoners.

Texas: “The day I received clemency was like I was born again. It was like getting a brand-new birth certificate,” exclaimed Jason Hernandez, now 42. Hernandez was 20 when he was convicted on federal drug charges and sentenced to life plus 320 years in 1998. “The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why,” continued Hernandez. “For me, it was the day that I thought I wasn’t born to be a prisoner.” Hernandez was released in 2015, after he was granted clemency as a non-violent drug offender by President Obama. Hernandez will launch Aspire Texas Latinos Achieving and Succeeding Together (AT LAST) in the fall of 2020. Hernandez is from McKinney and has returned to the town to help kids veer away from the path that led him to prison. He teaches mindfulness and yoga, skills he learned in prison. In June, he released his book, Get Clemency Now: A Guidebook to Everything A Person in Prison Needs to Know About Clemency and How Families Can Help. Hernandez has helped at least seven prisoners gain presidential clemency since his release.

Turkey: Osman Kavala is one of Turkey’s most high-profile political prisoners. Imprisoned since 2017 on various coup and terrorism charges, Kavala is a target of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on dissent. In June 2020, Opera Circus, a British performing-arts company, released a 10-minute YouTube video opera, Osman Bey and The Snails, which chronicles an event during Kavala’s solitary confinement in a high-security prison outside Istanbul. Kavala rescued two snails from a salad and nurtured them as companions. The snails star in the opera, “In some kitchens, we’d end up in a pot with garlic butter and seasoning. Our luck to be here with Osman, a man of such honor and reason.” Composer Nigel Osborne infused the piece with elements of Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic, and Balkan music. Kavala’s creative friends from across genres collaborated without pay. Kavala’s attorney took charge of the snails, after Kavala was told he was moving to a new prison. At least the snails are free.

United Kingdom: The Home Office in the UK is responsible for immigration, security and policing. Since 2000, the Home Office has tracked what are deemed to be “terror offenses” in the UK. Although Islamist extremists make up the greatest number of prisoners, there has been a marked increase in far-right cases. Three years ago, there were only nine “extreme rightwing” prisoners; in 2019 there were 33 and this year there are 44. Conor McGinn MP, the opposition “shadow security minister” (Labor Party), said: “This significant rise shows the very serious and dangerous nature of far-right extremism.” In 2016, the UK government banned the far-right group National Action, the first such group to be banned since World War II. In June, thousands gathered for a far-right “unity demonstration” in central London’s Parliament Square in reaction to graffiti defacing a Winston Churchill statue the week before. A Home Office Conservative Party spokesperson said it is “increasing funding for counterterror policing by £90m this year and creating new powers and tougher sentences via the counterterrorism and sentencing bill.”

Vermont: Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont-based ice cream brand, is known for its strong progressive identity. Over the years it has released “Limited Batch” flavors to advocate for change and donate to progressive causes. It released Justice ReMix’d in September 2019, in partnership with the Advancement Project National Office, to highlight racism and support work in criminal justice reform. The announcement coincided with a planned Miami-Dade County School Board meeting addressing issues impacting the school-to-prison pipeline. The flavor features “cinnamon and chocolate ice creams, gobs of cinnamon bun dough, and spicy fudge brownies.” In June 2020, Ben & Jerry’s posted a statement under the title “Silence Is Not An Option.” One sentence stood out, “The murder of George Floyd was the result of inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy.” The post outlined a four-point plan to dismantle white supremacy: A call for reconciliation, not aggression; a call to Congress to pass H.R. 40; a task force to increase police accountability; and a call on the DOJ to reinvigorate its Civil Rights Division.

Washington: Convicted child rapist Robert Munger, 70, was sentenced to a minimum of 43 years in prison by Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Michael Evans in December 2019, after he was found guilty in several child sex abuse cases. He served less than one year of his sentence at Airway Heights Correctional Center, just west of Spokane, before he was bludgeoned to death by fellow prisoners in June. It is unclear how many prisoners were involved in his beating or what prompted the attack. A fractured skull sent him to Sacred Heart Hospital, where he died three days later. The Spokane County Medical Examiner ruled Munger’s death a homicide. The assault investigation is ongoing. Munger had four separate trials over two years before sentencing. His attorney had said Munger was planning to appeal.

Washington: August 4, 2020 may be another landmark date for Tarra Simmons, who won a Supreme Court fight in 2017 to sit for the Washington state bar exam, despite her prior criminal conviction. [See: PLN, Feb. 2019, p.1]. Simmons announced her bid to run as a Democrat for Representative Sherry Appleton’s open House seat in the 23rd Legislative District. The district includes Bainbridge Island and parts of Kitsap Peninsula. Appleton served the district for eight two-year terms and recruited Simmons to run for her seat, when she announced she would retire at the end of her term in January 2021. Simmons is director of the Civil Survival Project at the Public Defender Association in Seattle. Simmons had not planned for public life — “I never felt like it was something I wanted to put myself or my family through based on my background” — but her lawyer’s life became fodder for political hits during supporter Emily Randall’s 2018 state Senate campaign. But Simmons found unexpected support in the community, which paved the path for her current run.