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News in Brief

Alabama: Chanting “not one more,” about 30 carloads of protesters from “Alabamians Who Care” caravanned to the governor’s mansion in Montgomery on August 1, 2020, protesting a plan by Gov. Kay Ivey (R) to build three new “mega-prisons.” According to a report by Montgomery TV station WSFA, the protesters demanded that Ivey instead focus the state parole board’s attention on making its hearings more impartial, which they say would be a more cost-effective way of relieving overcrowding in the state’s prisons. The caravan happened just over a week after the release on July 23, 2020, of an investigative report by the U.S. Department of Justice, which concluded that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) was likely violating the constitutional rights of the prisoners it held through both use of excessive force and unsafe, overcrowded conditions. As previously reported by PLN, relieving overcrowding in DOC facilities was also part of a 2017 consent order granted by federal Judge Myron H. Thompson, in which he called the mental health care afforded state prisoners “horrendously inadequate” (See PLN, Nov. 2017, p.28). On September 3, 2020, in the judge’s latest ruling in that case, he accepted a plan to monitor DOC’s progress – something the state had spent nearly three years fighting.

Arizona: A former guard terrorized by co-workers who were later fired from a privately owned and run Arizona prison filed a lawsuit in late-2019 alleging that management at Red Rock Correctional Center turned a blind eye when he was categorized an “uppity black man,” leading to “intentional mistreatment” that resulted in post-traumatic stress and other injuries. In the suit, filed in Pinal County Superior Court, Jason Pearson names as defendants the state Department of Corrections and Tennessee-based CoreCivic, which owns and operates the 2,000-bed prison in Eloy. In 2018, Pearson had recently been hired as the only Black member of the prison’s Tactical Support Unit when he attended a training session during which a coworker aimed and fired a 37-mm riot-control gun at his chest from close range. He was allegedly threatened with termination if he left to seek medical attention, but he was belatedly given a ballistics vest to wear, providing wound compression that doctors later credited with saving his life. CoreCivic spokesperson Amanda Gilchrist pointed out that Pearson’s doctor had cleared him to return to work and that Pearson himself “stated he was physically fine after the incident,” adding that three supervisors were investigated and terminated.

Australia: In September 2020, according to a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corp., Federal Court Justice Geoffrey Flick ruled that the government’s Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) had erred in granting a temporary protection visa to an Afghan refugee who was appealing an Immigration Ministry order for his deportation due to an assault conviction. However, Flick decided to let AAT’s decision stand and grant a visa to the man, known as PDWL, because Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge took five days after the AAT order came down to decide whether to comply with it, leaving PDWL locked up in Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre in Western Australia. Saying he had “unlawfully deprived” PDWL of liberty by acting as if were “above the law,” Tudge earned the justice’s decision in rebuke. Tudge denied the judge’s characterization of his actions. Home Affairs Department general counsel Pip de Veau said the Commonwealth would appeal Flick’s ruling.

Belgium: A Belgian man’s plot to break his wife out of a Brussels prison in a hijacked helicopter was foiled by a queasy stomach and a critical oversight – his failure to rent the helicopter in a name other than his real one – according to a September 2020 report in the New York Post. Mike Gielen, 24, was in a mixed-gender lockup in 2019 on a drug smuggling conviction when he met the woman who became his wife, Kristal Appelt, a 27-year-old serving time for the fatal stabbing of her former boyfriend during a 2018 street brawl. After Gielen was released, he and two accomplices, ages 18 and 22, chartered a helicopter in Antwerp, pretending to be aerial photographers for a TV program. After circling the prison a few times, they pulled phony handguns and ordered the 35-year-old pilot to land. But she couldn’t find a spot. As she circled around looking for one, Gielen got nauseated and began vomiting. The trio had the pilot drop them off at a waiting getaway car. But because Gielen had rented the helicopter in his own name, police easily tracked down the men, along with their getaway driver, who was Gielen’s 50-year-old adoptive father. All four men were arrested and charged with multiple felonies related to the incident.

Colombia: After 36 years, a national park created on the site of Colombia’s own version of Devil’s Island is seeing an increase in tourism, according to a December 2019 NPR report. Gorgona Island, 21 miles off the country’s Pacific coast, was a penal colony housing 1,200 criminals for about two decades until widespread deforestation – prisoners chopped down the forests for firewood – and reports of abusive guards led to its 1984 closure. The park created in its place struggled to attract tourists afraid of drug-smuggling rebels using nearby shipping lanes – some attacked and killed a police agent in 2014 – until a 2016 truce was reached. Now, after the natural environment has had nearly four decades to flourish, park officials report more eco-tourists are braving the trek to the remote location – and some poisonous snakes – to see what Jorge Ramírez, manager of the island’s only resort, compares to the Pacific islands off Ecuador where Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution, saying it’s “like a mini-Galápagos.”

Colorado: Colorado police captured escapees from the Custer County jail in January 2020 after they attacked a sheriff’s deputy guarding them, locked her in a cell and fled in a minivan belonging to the local Rotary Club, which stores its keys at the jail. The deputy “got an elbow in the face” from Jerry Williams, 39, and Bryan Webb, 30, but she was not seriously injured, according to Undersheriff Chris Barr. Denver TV station KCNC reported that Williams was arrested at a home in Walsenburg on January 23, 2020, ten days after he and Webb escaped. Webb was arrested three days later at his home in the same town, about 75 miles from the rural jail. Williams had been jailed on suspicion of first-degree attempted murder, assault, domestic violence and illegal possession of a handgun. Webb had been locked up on drug charges, as well as charges that he assaulted a police officer and smuggled contraband into a detention facility. Barr said neither man was returned to the six-cell jail.

Florida: After working over 17 years as visitation clerk for the DeSoto County Jail in Arcadia, Florida, 61-year-old Patricia Torres was fired and arrested for embezzling from the jail commissary fund, according to a January 2020 report by Sarasota TV station WWSB. Sheriff James F. Potter said jail surveillance video recorded Torres stuffing her purse with bank bags of deposits from inmates and their families that were intended for the fund. When the money never showed up in the fund’s bank account, Potter fired Torres and put her in a cell at the jail on theft charges. He said no inmates lost money. Torres apparently acted alone, Potter added.

Florida: Friends of a 76-year-old retired choral director and college professor jailed for assault in Ocala, Florida, say he is mentally ill and may have been off his medication when he allegedly tried to hire another inmate to murder four people and feed their remains to animals. According to a January 2020 report by Sarasota TV station WWSB, Gary Bangstad’s altercations with his former housemate and her boyfriend had already landed him in jail twice – in 2017 and 2018 – before a fight with a new housemate and her three children returned him to jail on a third battery charge in October 2019. Two months later, another jail inmate reported that Bangstad had offered him $4,000, a car and a detailed map of the mobile home where his intended victims could be found, along with written instructions to “leave no evidence behind” by feeding the remains to “pigs or alligators.” Bangstad initially insisted he had written “kids” in his note to the would-be assassin, but he later admitted he had written “kill.”

Georgia: Georgia Department of Corrections officials announced in January 2020 that five prisoners had been charged in a waterboarding attack on a rival gang member at Al Burrus Prison in Monroe County. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the five men are allegedly members of a gang, with whom the victim had outstanding debts. Davante Parks, 21, along with Jamel Brewer and Rayveon Thomas, both 31, are all serving time for aggravated assault. Thomas Farley, 20, is in prison for burglary, and Dayonn EC Davis, 19, is serving a sentence for robbery by force. During the November 2019 incident, they allegedly belted the victim around his neck, hands and feet before kicking him, punching him and pouring water over his face and into his nose. All five now face additional charges of false imprisonment and aggravated assault, as well as criminal street gang activity.

Georgia: A federal prisoner at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, will serve an extra three months that were added to his term by a federal judge in March 2020 after the prisoner used a contraband cellphone to film himself in his cell the previous year. According to a report by AllOnGeorgia, 32-year-oldBrian J. Wilson was just a year into his 10-year sentence for possessing a stolen gun when he began shooting selfies he posted to Facebook in May 2019. He later filmed video and put it on a GoFundMe page set up for his cellmate, even adding warnings that the federal government “ain’t playin’” and “will lock your *** up.” Chris Hacker, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Atlanta regional office, said Wilson had not “learned from his past transgressions” because he continued “to break the law while incarcerated.”

Illinois: In November 2020, a “model inmate” who escaped the Grundy County Jail in Morris, Illinois, only to be captured less than 24 hours later, pleaded guilty to the burglary charge that had landed him in the lockup, according to a report by radio station WCSJ. Between his arrest in June 2019 and his escape six months later, Andrew J. Viles, 35, had “earned the role of jail trustee,” allowing him privileges that included “assisting with meal service,” said the office of Sheriff Ken Briley. Viles buzzed in the evening meal delivery and walked out the door in street clothes purloined from other jail inmates upon their arrival. He was caught near a rural intersection about four miles away. Viles had been sentenced for burglary before, in 2012, and released on parole in 2018. He was still on parole at his latest burglary arrest, adding an additional charge of parole violation. Another felony charge also followed his escape, but it was dropped when Viles agreed to cooperate. After he was captured, a review by Briley found no need for improved policies or procedures, but three jail employees resigned and a fourth was disciplined.

Louisiana: Three former corrections officers pleaded guilty in January 2020 to federal criminal charges stemming from the April 2014 death of detainee Nimali Henry at the St. Bernard Parish Jail in Chalmette, Louisiana. According to reports by Baton Rouge TV station WBRZ, those entering guilty pleas were former deputies Debra Becnel, 58, and Lisa Vaccarella, 56, as well as former Cpt. Andre Dominick, 59. An FBI investigation led to the charges filed against the three and a fourth former jail guard, 39-year-old Cpl. Timothy Williams, who pleaded guilty in September 2018 to civil rights violations for his role in Henry’s death. The 19-year-old Henry suffered a blood disorder for which she required medication. But after she was arrested and booked into the jail on charges of battery, disturbing the peace and unauthorized entry – following a fight with the father of her 4-year-old daughter when she was trying to pick up the child – her pleas for medication were ignored for 10 days until she died in an isolation cell. Her bond had been set at $25,000. As previously reported by PLN, Dominick – the acting medical officer at the jail when Henry died – shot himself during his November 2018 trial, and he remained in a hospital until January 2019 (See PLN, Sept. 2019, p.63).

Massachusetts: A corrections officer with the Sheriff’s Office in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, pleaded not guilty in January 2020 to charges he stole from the personal accounts of inmates at the county lockup. The alleged scam came to light in June 2019, when a Middlesex Jail and House of Correction prisoner who had moved to different facility requested the unused funds from his personal “canteen” account at the jail. But the officer in charge of the accounts, 50-year-old Ronald Moloney, had already refunded the money, using a debit card that had already been spent. Moloney claimed it was a mix-up. But an investigation revealed that 101 debit cards worth a total of $6,229.62 had been fraudulently issued in the second quarter of 2019 alone. In December 2019, District Attorney Marian Ryan charged Moloney with larceny over $1,200, as well as filing a false report by a public employee. That same month, he was arrested, indicted by a grand jury and released on his own recognizance by Superior Court Justice Rosemary Connolly.

Michigan: In January 2020, a former guard at a Michigan state prison was sentenced to a prison term of 23 to 240 months for smuggling contraband to inmates. Acting on a tip, state police arrested James Parr, 29, when he showed up for work at Chippewa Correctional Facility in April 2019 with heroin, marijuana and a cell phone in his possession, attempting to bring the items inside the lockup. He pleaded guilty in November 2019 to charges of possession of a controlled substance and conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance.

Michigan: A Detroit man imprisoned 32 years for a murder he didn’t commit has won his freedom, but he won’t get any money from Michigan’s depleted Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation (WIC) fund. According to a February 2020 report by the Detroit News, 52-year-old Danny Burton won released from prison the previous December with help from the National Capital Crime Assistance Network. As previously reported by PLN, he had been convicted in 1987 of murdering Leonard Ruffin, a drug dealer for whom Burton managed a crack house, based on a confession coerced by Detroit Police Department Detective Ronald Sanders (see“Detroit’s Hidden Crack Casualties,” April 3, 2017). PLN has also documented the depletion of the $10 million WIC fund, which distributed its last checks – totaling $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment – in December 2019 (See PLN, Apr. 2020, p.20).

Michigan: The December 2019 death of a Michigan inmate when he jumped from a jail transport van was ruled a suicide, Ingram County Sheriff Scot Wrigglesworth announced on New Year’s Eve. Marquis Oliver, 21, was wearing leg shackles and chains when he opened the van door and jumped onto U.S. 127 in Lansing, sustaining a head injury that later proved fatal. The sheriff said rear doors cannot usually be opened from the inside of police vehicles, but the new van was designed not only for transporting inmates but also personnel. According to Lansing TV station WILX, Oliver was facing numerous charges, including fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, aggravated indecent exposure, assault, aggravated assault, assault of a prison employee, as well as resisting, obstructing or assaulting a police officer. After an investigation into the incident, Wigglesworth said one of his employees had been disciplined. The county’s prosecutor declined to press any charges.

New Jersey: In February 2020, a former guard at New Jersey’s Northern State Prison in Newark was sentenced to a four-year term for smuggling drugs to a prisoner in exchange for bribes paid by the prisoner’s girlfriend. According to a report in the Union Daily Voice, prison officials caught up with 30-year-old Roberto Reyes-Jackson after finding fentanyl and marijuana in the cell of prisoner Aaron Copeland in December 2016. Copeland admitted that for smuggling the drugs, Reyes-Jackson was paid hundreds of dollars in bribes by Copeland’s girlfriend, 34-year-old Tyeesha Powell. In addition to his prison sentence, Reyes-Jackson was fired and permanently barred from public employment in the state. Copeland, who prison officials said resold the drugs inside the prison, had three years added to his sentence for his part in the scheme. Prosecutors recommended probation for Powell in exchange for her guilty plea.

New Jersey: On February 27, 2020, former federal prison guard Paul Anton Wright, 34, was scheduled to be sentenced for up to 15 years in prison himself, after his conviction three months earlier in federal court when he pleaded guilty to accepting bribes to smuggle tobacco, synthetic marijuana and suboxone — a drug used to treat opioid addiction — into the Federal Correctional Institution at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he worked. According to a report by Philadelphia TV station KYW, Wright was also ordered to surrender $50,000 he had earned in the 2015 scheme. Federal prosecutors say that Wright, who was employed at the prison from 2014 to 2018, used the money to support a gambling habit at Atlantic City casinos.

New Mexico: In February 2020, prosecutors in Albuquerque, New Mexico, asked a judge for a harsher sentence than the one he handed down to a former Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputy found guilty of aggravated battery while apprehending a crime suspect. In March 2018, after pulling over Christopher Lucero in the car he had stolen and placing him under arrest, David Priemazon kicked the suspect in the face. A fellow deputy reported the incident, and a jury convicted Priemazon of aggravated battery in 2019. But at his sentencing in December of that year, District Judge Daniel Gallegos decided that Priemazon “would be better able to provide for his family and to be an asset to the community by remaining out of custody.” He gave the former deputy a three-year deferred sentence and ordered him to complete 300 hours of community service and anger management in addition to paying restitution. As reported by TV station KRQE, the district attorney’s office objected because the sentence allows Priemazon – who now works as a private security guard – to carry a gun legally while on probation. Priemazon’s attorney, Sam Bregman, dismissed those objections as “sour grapes.”

New York: At the same federal lockup where guards were allegedly sleeping and browsing online while billionaire sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide last year, a guard was arrested in September 2020 and charged with extorting sex from a woman whom he allowed to smuggle contraband into the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), New York City. According to the Associated Press, 39-year-old Robert Adams pleaded not guilty to bribery and blackmail charges at his arraignment September 28, 2020. His bail was set at $100,000. Adams allegedly discovered the unidentified contraband during a July 2019 visit the woman made to an inmate at the jail. Prosecutors said he then followed her to a local pizza parlor, where he successfully intimidated her into accompanying him to a motel and having sex. After that, he allegedly allowed her to bring more contraband into the facility. Neither the woman nor the prisoner she visited was named.

New York: A convicted car thief on Long Island, New York, tried to fake his own death to avoid jail, according to a July 2020 report in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The office of Nassau County, New York, District Attorney Madeline Singas alleged in court filings that 25-year-old Robert Berger fled the state after his October 2019 conviction and had his fiancée pass a forged death certificate from New Jersey to the court via his unwitting attorney in an attempt to convince authorities he had committed suicide. In reality, he had made it only to Pennsylvania before being arrested again on theft and fake-ID charges. Berger was sentenced there to a year in jail in January 2020. A New York judge ordered him back to jail in that state, too, after Singas’ office easily demonstrated that Berger’s death certificate was a forgery: He’d misspelled the New Jersey Department of Health, Vital Statistics and Registry as “Regsitry.”

Pennsylvania: According to a January 2020 report by Philadelphia TV station WTXF, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections was finally releasing David Sheppard after 27 years in custody. Last year, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) commuted the rest of a life sentence Sheppard earned for his role in the robbery and murder of Philadelphia pharmacy owner Thomas Brannan. But as the 54-year-old walked out of a state prison in December 2019, he was arrested again – on a 1992 shoplifting charge resurrected by outgoing District Attorney Katayoun Copeland, who claimed to be upset that Wolf hadn’t consulted Brannan’s family before issuing Sheppard’s commutation. When Copeland’s replacement, Jack Stollsteimer, took office the following month, he dropped the charges, calling them “a political stunt,” and cleared the way for Sheppard to be freed.

Tennessee: A pair of Tennessee teenagers charged in the shooting death of 24-year-old Nashville musician Kyle Yorlets will be tried as adults, Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Cheryl Blackburn announced in July 2020. At the time of the crime in February 2019, Decorrius Wright and Diamond Lewis were 16 and 15, respectively, TV station WKRN reported. Wright was part of a quartet of teens who escaped the Davidson County Juvenile Detention Center on November 30, 2019, following what Juvenile Court Administrator Kathy Sinback called “critical oversights” by the contractor that staffs and operates the facility, Youth Opportunity Investments. On the night they escaped, the four were left unsupervised outside their cells and then allowed to ride an elevator to the unsecured basement from which they walked away. Two of them, Wright and 15-year-old Calvin Howse, were captured three days later at a condo 10 miles away, where Wright’s 15-year-old girlfriend was also arrested and charged with abetting him while he was on the lam. Another escapee, 17-year-old Morris Marsh, was captured three days after that following a brief police chase. The last of the four, 17-year-old Brandon Caruthers, was captured December 12, 2019, in an Antioch apartment, where police also found an AR-15 assault rifle and ammunition. Howse still faces November 2019 charges of auto theft and illegal firearms possession. Marsh is charged with the fatal shooting in April 2019 of 19-year-old Charles Easley. Caruthers is charged in a 2018 armed robbery and now faces additional charges related to the rifle found with him in the apartment of Brandon Calderon-Sotelo, 20, and his girlfriend, Catherine Woods, 19, who were also charged with facilitating Caruthers’ escape.

Texas: After a tip from a Huntsville prisoner found with contraband chewing tobacco, investigators with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) in December 2019 tailed maintenance supervisor Fefiloi Asi and his prisoner work crew to the home of a prisoner’s mother, Denise Rogers, where methamphetamine was reported found. Both were arrested, the Houston Chronicle reported. A six-year veteran of TDCJ, the 45-year-old Asi was charged with abuse of official capacity. Rogers, 58, was charged with felony drug possession. She has had no criminal convictions for 25 years. TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel said the agency was seeking to fire Asi. His four-man crew may also face charges related to the incident.

Texas: In what Gregg County, Texas, Sheriff Maxey Cerliano called a “systematic failure of the system,” a prisoner escaped his county’s jail on December 23, 2019 – and wasn’t missed for 57 hours. According to a January 2020 report in the Longview News-Journal, 34-year-old Jace Martin used pieces of a wall mirror from an empty adjacent cell to slowly carve bricks from the wall of his own cell. The process took 60 days, and then the 6-footer had to squeeze through a maze of ductwork, but he finally reached the roof and then the street below, using makeshift ropes and injuring an ankle along the way. Three days later, when a man from whom Martin sought help contacted authorities, Sheriff Cerliano’s deputies moved into action and captured Martin the next day. In addition to a 40-year sentence for assaulting two police officers in September 2018, he faces charges of evading arrest in a separate incident that same month, to which have now been added additional charges related to his escape.

Texas: In December 2019, Law Officer reported with that the national Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) had objected to an appearance rapper Kanye West made before several hundred Houston jail inmates the previous month at the invitation of Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales. Two days before performing at the 16,800-seat Lakewood Church in Houston pastored by evangelical star Joel Osteen, West shared with the prison crowd selections from his new album, Jesus Is King, according to a report by TMZ. He also said that, following his recent conversion to Christianity, his job was “to spread the gospel,” drawing FFRF’s complaint. West was not the only celebrity making a religiously inspired appearance before Texas prisoners. The month before West’s concert, former University of Florida Gators quarterback and Heisman Trophy Winner Tim Tebow accompanied the Waco chapter of a prison ministry called Discipleship Unlimited to visit prisoners at the state’s maximum-security Alfred D. Hughes Unit in Gatesville, according to a report by the Huffington Post.

West Virginia: Vowing that “this kind of behavior will not be tolerated on my watch,” West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) fired 34 corrections officer trainees on New Year’s Eve 2019 after they were photographed giving a Nazi salute to their instructor, Karrie Byrd, who was also fired. A state investigation revealed that Byrd forced recalcitrant members of Academy Class 18 to join in the salute, ignoring warnings from two fellow instructors alarmed by it. Four other instructors who looked the other way were disciplined. When pressed to explain the photo, Byrd reportedly replied, “because I’m a hard ass like Hitler.”

West Virginia: In December 2019, U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin sentenced former West Virginia guardJames Edward Roach II to a 46-month prison term for accepting a $2,000 bribe to smuggle tobacco into the state’s South Central Regional Jail and for attempting to smuggle in methamphetamine in exchange for another bribe promised in a sting set up to catch him in April of that year. A 22-year veteran, the 47-year-old had pleaded guilty in August. He blamed his crime on money woes related to a gambling addiction, saying he was “in desperation.” With his conviction, he lost employee benefits, including his pension. 

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