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News in Brief

Alabama: Doctors have warned about the toxicity of K2, a common synthetic marijuana smuggled into prisons. Alabama Department of Corrections narcotics dog Jake, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, died after an allergic reaction to the substance found in a July 2019 contraband search at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County. Sergeant Quinton Jones, Jake’s handler, said, “After alerting on the substance, Jake lost his balance and became unresponsive.” The dorm was evacuated and the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Hazardous Materials Unit dispatched. Tests confirmed the substance as K2. Juanita Peavy and Leanne Smith from Stanton’s medical team performed CPR and inserted an IV for stabilizing fluids. Jake was transported to the Auburn University Clinic. Jake was expected to recover, but died three days later, after developing pneumonia. He was honored on July 30, 2019 with a 21-gun salute and commendation from Governor Kay Ivey at a memorial service that took place at the Staton Kennel Complex in Elmore.

Australia: New South Wales police described a “sudden and unprovoked” riot at the Frank Baxter Juvenile Justice Centre, near Sydney in July 2019. Prisoners overwhelmed guards, secured keys and attacked known sex offenders. The siege lasted 21 hours. Prisoners were seen on the roof with makeshift weapons and garden tools from a maintenance shed, hurling items at police below. Several spent the night on the roofs, with temperatures near freezing. It was widely reported that chainsaws were used to open cells, but police reported that this was “a myth.” The six prisoners who sustained stab wounds and other injuries ranged from 17 to 20 years old. Nine prisoners surrendered peacefully, with the rest surrendering when police accessed the roof. Twenty-six prisoners, ages 11-20, were charged. The center has been plagued by violence since 2017, with self-harm incidents on the rise. In October, an internal review was released announcing a major overhaul of all New South Wales juvenile correction facilities. The riot exposed problems that could no longer be ignored.

California: Four prison murders, all unrelated, occurred over two days. At Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, Robert Hargrave, 48, was fatally stabbed by two prisoners on April 30, 2020. Also, at Kern on May 1, Robert Beltran, 50, was knifed to death by three of his peers, as he walked out of his cell. Hargrave and his three suspected attackers are all from Los Angeles. The day Hargrave died, Tuc X. Tran, 75, was found unresponsive in his cell with injuries to his head and face at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. Tran’s cellmate is a suspect. As Robert Beltran was dying, Michael M. Ramadanovic, 65, was being brutally stabbed at High Desert State Prison in Susanville. Prison officials stated that two prisoners repeatedly struck Ramadanovic until the guards fired a warning shot and sprayed them with chemical agents. Both suspects in the slaying are 28 years old.

Chad: Poison is suspected after 44 prisoners, believed to be members of the Boko Haram terrorist organization, were found dead in their N’Djamena prison cell on April 16, 2020. The men were part of a group of 58 suspects rounded up in an army operation ordered by President Idriss Deby at the end of March. Forty bodies were buried and four were given autopsies. Chad Attorney General Youssouf Tom reported on television that a substance was found that caused heart attacks and asphyxiation. Chad Justice Minister Djimet Arabi speculated, “Toxic substances were found in their stomachs. Was it collective suicide or something else? We’re still looking for answers.” Sources told Al Jazeera that the prisoners had been locked in a single cell without water or food for three days. Minister Arabi demurred, “There was no ill-treatment.” One surviving prisoner was taken to hospital. Arabi said he “is faring much better and the other 13 prisoners are still alive and are doing very well.”

Egypt: Activists had already raised the alarm about Egypt’s unsafe and unsanitary mass prison detentions prior to former president Mohamed Morsi collapsing and dying in court in 2019. Shady Habash, 24, had been jailed since March 2018, without trial, in the Tora prison complex, when he died in March 2020. His family cited the cause of death as “health issues not yet specified.” Habash was thrown in prison after he worked on a music video mocking Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The number of young artists in prison without charges for art that is critical of Sisi has grown. Initial concerns arose over the lack of due process, but the rise of COVID-19 ups the ante. Prison visits were suspended in March. Egyptian rock musician Ramy Essam, now in exile in Sweden, was the video’s performer. He has stated, “Shady didn’t have anything to do with the content of the song,” so he should not have been jailed. Essam posted Habash’s final letter from Toro, with the heading, “Prison doesn’t kill, loneliness does. I need your support not to die.”

El Salvador: President Nayib Bukele believes that 77 murders over four days in April were planned by gang members inside prisons. He ordered a lockdown of all prisons on April 25, 2020, declaring a “maximum emergency in every detention facility holding gang members.” Photos are dramatic, showing masked prisoners in undershorts, sitting on the floor spread-legged, skin to skin, shoulder to shoulder, row upon row. Gang member cells were sealed, preventing prisoners from seeing out. Opposing gang members were moved in together, increasing the likelihood of more violence. Osiris Luna, prisons director and Deputy Justice Minister, said that “not even a single ray of sunlight will enter any of these cells.” A March lockdown had supposedly been lifted to reduce COVID-19 spread. The April lockdown violates international human rights standards. Bukele also authorized lethal force “against the terrorists who are carrying out imminent threats against the physical integrity of the population,” referring to gang members. Critics of Bukele said he is exploiting the virus crisis to weaken democratic institutions and empower his family.

Florida: Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons activist Jordan Mazurek, 28, chained his arms inside horizontal PVC pipes that were embedded in two concrete-filled 55-gallon plastic drums placed in front of the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee on April 18, 2020. The drums showed messages, “Stop the massacre” and “Free prisoners now.” Mazurek wore a surgical mask. Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons spokesman Mei Azaad told reporters that the group did not organize the action, but they did know about it. In a press release, activists stated, “This action is not being claimed by any individual or organization, but rather was taken on behalf of free world people in solidarity with incarcerated people during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will continue to escalate until action is taken to stop this preventable disaster from worsening.” Mazurek was noticed at 6 a.m. and jackhammered out by 10:30 a.m. The governor was in Fort Lauderdale. Tallahassee police spokesman Kevin Bradshaw said, “He refused to let go so we ended up having to use heavy equipment.”

Illinois: It wasn’t until Quintin Henderson, 28, approached the Cook County Jail discharge desk on May 2, 2020, that authorities realized they had released a $50,000 D-bond prisoner using the identity of a personal recognizance I-bond prisoner. Henderson claimed he had fallen asleep and had not heard his name called. Cook County sheriff’s spokeswoman Sophia Ansari disagreed. She told reporters that Jahquez Scott, 21, promised Henderson $1,000 in exchange for his personal information, then traded hoodies with another prisoner, before approaching the discharge desk, wearing a COVID-19 mask and claiming to be Henderson. According to a statement, Scott was arrested for “an unlawful use of a weapon charge and was ordered to electronic monitoring if bond was posted.” Henderson now faces an aiding and abetting the escape of a felon charge and $25,000 bond. The FBI offered a $2,000 reward, and Scott was located at a house in Chicago on March 9. He says he offered Henderson $500. Scott is being held without bond.

Japan: In normal times, many Japanese prisoners produce leatherware and carpentry goods. During the coronavirus pandemic, at least 100 prisoners in Aomori, Kyoto, Osaka, Kakogawa, Yamaguchi, Iwakuni and Takamatsu are sewing 66,000 cloth masks per month to fill private-sector orders. Prisoners in Kyoto and Osaka are producing 4,600 sets of protective gear each month. The city of Mine received 1,800 cloth masks made by eight first-time offenders at the Mine Rehabilitation Program Center in Yamaguchi Prefecture, which were given to city children. Mine Rehabilitation is the first public-private cooperation prison in Japan. A senior Justice Ministry official noted, “Production of protective items will raise awareness about social contributions by inmates and have the effect of keeping them from re-offending.”

Massachusetts: U.S. District Court Judge William Young ruled on May 7, 2020 that Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) showed deliberate indifference and “likely” violated the constitutional rights of prisoners being exposed to COVID-19 in the immigration unit. Young ordered that all ICE transfers to the North Dartmouth facility be halted and the 82 detainees in custody and staff be tested. The Lawyers Committee initiated the lawsuit. Executive Director Iván Espinoza-Madrigal said, “This is a major victory because we all know based on CDC, medical and public health guidance, that testing is the first step in making sure that we can avoid COVID-19 infection, illness and death.” Hodgson disagreed, stating, “Bristol County and ICE strongly believe that this judge’s order has far exceeded his authority and that his order directing staff to undergo invasive and unnecessary testing in order to keep their jobs is unconstitutional and plainly not right.”

Michigan: Former owner of Michigan Hematology-Oncology in the Metro Detroit area, Farid Fata, 55, was sentenced to 45 years in 2015, after pleading guilty to health-care fraud, conspiracy to pay and receive kickbacks, and money laundering. Fata convinced 553 people to receive chemotherapy treatments they did not need. He was ordered to pay $26.5 million in restitution. Now Fata is concerned with his own health and is seeking a COVID-19 release. “With Fata’s medical conditions and age, contracting COVID-19 could very well prove fatal,” Jeremy Gordon, his lawyer, wrote in a 13-page brief. Fata tried for “compassionate release” in 2019, too. Warden Bryan Dobbs, at FCI Williamsburg in Salters, South Carolina, rejected the request in February 2020. Attorney Brian McKeen represented dozens of Fata’s victims in a malpractice lawsuit. He commented, “What a joke! The man got what he deserved. He had no compassion for the lives of his patients. He caused unspeakable suffering and pain, and deserves to be where he is for the rest of his life. People went through living hell because of Dr. Fata.”

Minnesota: At least one anonymous letter prompted an internal investigation into now-former Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Sarah Walker. Walker resigned before the investigation was made public in July 2019 and denied that the investigation precipitated her resignation. Concerns were raised that she used her state position to advocate for appropriation funds for the Veterans Defense Project, a nonprofit operated by her husband. The fund had received $450,000 in state money since 2017. The charity had applied for $800,000 more. In September 2019, Minnesota legislators asked the Office of the Legislative Auditor to look into the charity’s operations. Walker is also suspected of leaking the name of a sexual assault victim to a reporter. The woman’s lawyer sent a letter to Walker’s attorney advising that a lawsuit would be filed if Walker did not silence herself about the woman’s assault. Walker denies the lobbying allegations and alleges she felt marginalized after raising concerns “regarding ethics and flagrant mismanagement.” Walker had been a capital lobbyist prior to taking the DOC job.

New Mexico: The federal investigation, Operation Atonement, began in 2015. It concerned Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico, a prison gang whose members were allegedly plotting to kill the state DOC cabinet secretary. During the investigation, numerous plots to kill FBI agents, prosecutors, government witnesses and informants were uncovered. Leroy “Smurf” Lucero, 48, was one such informant. A former gang leader, he had testified in pre-trial hearings and had been a federal trial witness in a May 2018 trial against seven men implicated in the 2001 strangulation deaths of two Southern New Mexico Correctional prisoners. The evening of Lucero’s birthday in July 2019, a car pulled into his driveway, drawing Lucero outside. Shouts were heard and shots fired, waking the neighbors as Lucero bled to death. Local police ignored as “rumors” a possible SNM connection, but a recently unsealed FBI affidavit in September 2019 showed FBI certainty about the motive behind Lucero’s killing. The case has been turned over to the FBI. Witnesses named three men as possible suspects; none have been charged in Lucero’s death, but all three are in federal custody on unrelated charges. 

New York: “With inmate visits suspended during this pandemic, more and more contraband is coming in through mailed packages,” said Mark Deburgomaster, western region vice president of NYS Corrections Officers and Police Benevolent Association. Scanning prisoner mail on April 13, 2020, at Five Points Correctional Facility, a guard detected a head of lettuce. Tests confirmed two ounces of synthetic marijuana, 43 assorted prescription pills, and 15 grams of cocaine powder hidden in the fingertips of a latex glove stuffed inside the lettuce. The origin of the package was an address in Hempstead, Long Island. An investigation is underway. The union has urged the DOC to use a program that only allows approved vendor-purchased items to go to prisoners. In the past, prisoner advocacy groups have complained such programs are too restrictive and reduced family communication.

New York: Kayleigh M. Tuttle, 24, was hired as a cook at the Niagara County Jail in January 2019, making $30,000 per year. She was a civilian employee. Now Tuttle has been suspended and was arrested in May 2020 after a two-week investigation into drug smuggling by the cook. She was charged with one count of promoting prison contraband, a Class A misdemeanor. Tuttle was released with a court appearance ticket for July 7, 2020 in Lockport. Acting Sheriff Michael J. Filicetti also expects to charge the prisoners that received the contraband.

New York: Former state prison investigator Todd Johnson’s sloppy handling of evidence in 2018 derailed at least 52 criminal narcotics investigations of prisoners and their visitors in four counties. Concern was piqued in January 2019, after Johnson directed a Washington Correctional subordinate to adjust the date he took possession of prescription drugs and other evidence that had been seized. It was found that Johnson compromised “chain of custody” by storing evidence in his home the previous weekend to postpone the drive from the Office of Special Investigation field office in Dannemora to Albany. The discovery led to an audit of Johnson’s evidence filings from 2017 to 2019, which revealed two other weekend discrepancies. No evidence had been tampered with. Johnson was arrested in July 2019 on charges of forgery and offering a false instrument for filing and misdemeanor charges of petit larceny and official misconduct. Johnson retired during the investigation and pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor, with a sentence of a conditional discharge, in November 2019.

Northern Ireland: By the end of April, no prisoners in Northern Ireland had tested positive for coronavirus, but five prison guards were positive. Justice Minister Naomi Long said precautionary isolation had been instituted for new committals and personal protective equipment provided to staff. On a grim note, a temporary mortuary had been prepared on Ministry of Defense property in Kinnegar. In March, prison chiefs were considering a “doomsday” coronavirus plan for Northern Ireland’s three prisons, which included isolation quarters for infected staff. At least 200 staff were self-quarantining, placing strain on the system. To cope, Long announced the “Rule 27” release program, which was to begin in April, expecting 200 prisoners to be released, “In the context of the pandemic we are facing, and to ensure as far as possible the safety and well-being of staff and those in our care, it is I believe an appropriate and reasonable step.” Those released would be banned from contacting victims and could be returned to jail at any time.

Oklahoma: District Attorney Allan Grubb says, “We have got a rampant problem statewide with inmates being smuggled drugs and cell phones, which defeats the purpose of having people in DOC custody, or federal custody or state custody.” Former Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center guard Braiden Vaj Hardwick, 22, is accused of being part of the problem. Hardwick was arrested on the Fourth of July 2019 after a few days off. Investigators were waiting, and he had brought along three cellphones, tobacco, meth and other items. In his car, investigators found notes from prisoners. Hardwick is alleged to have had four clients that were federal prisoners housed at the local jail. It is believed Hardwick was paid at least $1,600 in Green Dot cards by the prisoners. Grubb said, “It appears he had his own drug problem, and that was a motivating factor in this instance.” The former guard has three felony charges pending.

Pennsylvania: Mario Matthew Gatti, 30, was on the run, with an outstanding warrant for criminal homicide in Arnold, Pennsylvania. He is suspected of the January 16, 2020 murder of Michael Coover Jr. in Westmoreland County, near Pittsburgh. On April 19, two days after the beaches in Jacksonville, Florida were opened for exercise only, Gatti was spotted by police wearing American flag surfer shorts and lounging by the dunes. An identity check revealed the warrant. Gatti was taken to a Duval County jail, ending a three-month manhunt. Gatti faces other charges: burglary, illegal possession of a firearm and multiple counts of recklessly endangering another person and terroristic threats, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gatti faces charges in Duval County of giving false information to law enforcement and possession of an unscripted legend drug (a drug approved by the FDA, requiring a physician prescription). Gatti will be extradited to Westmoreland County.

Pennsylvania: A detailed description of a scheme to smuggle K2, or synthetic marijuana, by passing soaked and dried papers during hearings at the Westmoreland County Courthouse and in legal mail, was left in the Westmoreland County jail library. Finding the detailed plans prompted investigators to listen to prisoner phone calls and stake out court hearings. One of the first stakeouts was in July 2019. Papers passed tested positive for synthetic marijuana. Initial arrests were made in April 2020. Another five were arrested in May, bringing the total to 10 arrests. In June 2018, the jail began photocopying prisoner mail, so the plan shifted to legal mail, which is “privileged” and not photocopied. The prisoners involved, contacted wives or girlfriends to arrange a drop. The return address on the suspect mail was for a Pittsburgh attorney, with no clients at the jail. Two prisoners at SCI Greene and one from SCI Albion were implicated.

Scotland: Rudimentary cellphones are being provided to Scottish prisoners during the pandemic, since April 2020. The phones have no text or internet capability and can only call out, not receive calls. Previously, mobile phones were banned in the prisons, over concern that outside criminal activities were being directed from inside the institutions. Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf says the move will aid in protecting the mental health of prisoners, while in-person visitation is suspended. Scottish Prison Service Interim Chief Teresa Medhurst added, “The provision of phones for those in custody is a crucial way in which we can help support and maintain family contact during this time of uncertainty.”

South Carolina: Raymond Wade Whitmire, 50, was arrested in July 2019 and charged with criminal sexual conduct with a minor in the first degree. The former Pickens County Detention Center guard was booked into his former workplace. A records search revealed that Whitmire is still in custody on an “unspecified warrant” with no bond, under the authority of the South Carolina Enforcement Division. His location is unspecified. Whitmire was suspected of raping an 8-year-old child in February 2019. According to the arrest warrant, the victim gave an abuse statement and a medical examination indicated supporting evidence. A witness also gave a statement supporting the sexual abuse claim by the victim. If convicted, Whitmire could face 25 years in prison with no option for parole. In South Carolina, a judge is also allowed to impose a life sentence for this crime.

Texas: Just hours before the onset of this year’s holy month of Ramadan, Dr. Akbar Shabazz, 70, died after battling COVID-19 for three weeks. Shabazz had served as a chaplain for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Regional Area chaplain for four decades. He began as a volunteer in 1977, helping to implement Islam in the prison system. He served as spiritual adviser to Charles Brooks Jr., the first Texas prisoner executed by lethal injection in December 1982.

Texas: Grisly photos were released after a Harris County crash killed a prisoner and injured two Harris County Sheriff’s deputies in a head-on collision in July 2019. The patrol car was transporting an unnamed 42-year-old male DWI suspect eastbound on the Westpark Tollway to the county jail. As the patrol car neared the off-ramp, a Lexus accelerated in the wrong direction up the ramp and crashed head-on into the police vehicle. The prisoner was pronounced dead at the scene. Both deputies sustained fractures. The driver, Patrick M Njogu, 39, was intoxicated and suffered a broken leg. He has five prior DWI arrests with convictions in Illinois and Missouri. Njogu was charged with felony murder and intoxication assault on a police officer. Prosecutors requested $150,000 bond with conditions: no alcohol or drug use, no weapons carrying, and no driving without an ignition interlock.

Wisconsin: Warden Susan Novak and several other staff at Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage were on paid leave pending an investigation into how Thomas Deering, 46, and James Newman, 37, escaped on April 16, 2020. Deering and Newman were re-arrested the next day, after they were recognized at Miss Carly’s homeless shelter in Rockford, Illinois. Both are prior absconders. Deering was on the lam for two months in 2002, escaping from Waupun and found in Los Angeles in a stolen Illinois car [See PLN, April 2003, p.30]. Newman was at large for nine days in 2012. He was re-arrested in Hollywood, Florida. Two women were arrested as accomplices in the pair’s recent caper. CCI kitchen employee Holly Zimdahl claims she received threatening notes against herself and her family that directed her to buy tools for the escape. She was on unpaid leave; bond was set at $10,000, with a pre-trial conference set for June. Another 46-year-old woman, unnamed and from Madison, was arrested under suspicion that she picked up the escapees from a Piggly Wiggly in Poynette.