Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

News in Brief

California: On March 28, 2020, death row prisoner Lonnie Franklin Jr., 67, aka “Grim Sleeper,” was found unresponsive in his San Quentin cell. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton told reporters, “There were no signs of trauma. They don’t know why he died.” The Marin County coroner’s office will perform an autopsy on Franklin, who was convicted in May 2016 on 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder for deaths in the Los Angeles area from 1985 to 2007. Franklin was arrested in 2010, after familial DNA from his son in a DNA database was similar to genetic evidence in several unsolved LA murders. Franklin got his nickname because of the apparent lapse in activity between 1988 and 2002. The only known survivor was attacked in 1988. After his arrest, police released 180 of the hundreds of photos found in Franklin’s home, in hopes that the public could help identify victims. A police officer posed as a busboy in a restaurant to get a DNA sample from Franklin. Governor Gavin Newsom halted executions in 2019.

China: A human rights defense attorney at the Fengrui Law Firm in Beijing, Wang Quanzhang was arrested in 2015 in a Chinese crackdown aimed at legal workers. Quanzhang’s former cases included defending Falun Gong religious practitioners. At his secret trial in December 2018, which lasted only four hours, Quanzhang was found guilty of “subversion of state power,” a common charge against activists that Chinese authorities believe are organizing challenges to Communist Party rule. In January 2019, he was sentenced to four and a half years in prison and five years’ deprivation of “political rights.” Quanzhang completed his sentence on April 5, 2020 and was released from the Linyi Prison in Shandong province. He was not reunited with his wife, Li Wenzu, and their son in Beijing. Quanzhang was taken to his hometown of Jinan, also in Shandong province, for a 14-day COVID-19 “precautionary quarantine.” Wenzu announced her husband’s release on Twitter.

Connecticut: The Center for Prison Education - Wesleyan University offers courses, taught by Wesleyan faculty in Connecticut prisons. In 2016, the program expanded to include Middlesex Community College courses. Prisoners can take a mix of Wesleyan and Middlesex courses to earn an associate’s degree from Middlesex Community College. December 2019 saw seven York Correctional Institution women graduate with the degrees. WNYC reporter Cindy Rodriguez gave the commencement address. Program manager Allie Cislo said Wesleyan University’s board of trustees voted in 2019 to expand the Center for Prison Education catalogue, enabling them to offer a bachelor’s degree program in fall 2020. Prisoners who finish education programs while doing time are 40 percent less likely to return to prison than their peers. Wesleyan professor of philosophy Lori Gruen said her first prison teaching experience was at FCI Danbury. Now she teaches at York. “The Center for Prison Education has grown so much,” she said. “It’s been exciting. Teaching and motivating is what most of us dreamed about when we went into the field.”

Florida: Columbia County sheriff’s deputies got to the Vegas One Casino in Lake City at 4:50 a.m. after numerous 911 calls on March 3, 2020. Witnesses said three masked men ordered 10 patrons to the floor and demanded cash from two employees. Shots were fired, felling one employee. As police arrived, a gray Saab sped away with police in pursuit, at speeds up to 135 mph. The car stopped in High Springs, and the robbers jumped out and ran. Inside, police found body armor, a loaded AR-15 rifle, and a semi-automatic handgun. After a search of 1½ hours involving at least seven agencies, a K9 tracked the scent of Caleb Na’shon Bowers, 19, the car’s owner, to a backyard. Despite a SWAT team grid search, the other two suspects remained at large as of April 2020. The shooting victim was airlifted to a Gainesville Hospital. Bowers is held at the Columbia County Jail on a charge of armed robbery. He was on probation for a 2018 gun conviction in Alachua County on the day of the robbery.

Florida: The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office worked with Crime Stoppers and offered a reward up to $3,000 for information in July 2019, after four teens staged a fight and escaped the Jacksonville Youth Academy program run by contract provider TrueCore Behavioral Solutions, formerly known as G4S Youth Services. When staff moved to break up the fight, the kids turned on them, broke into the control room, released the front door and escaped in an employee’s car after dumping a purse and grabbing the keys and a facility-issued cellphone. Tyjuan Monroe, 16, was turned in by his mother and Marcus Ledbetter, 17, was caught the next morning walking along a road; Davionne Baldwin, 17, surrendered later that night. Tajah Bing, 16, was found two weeks later, on a tip, hiding under blankets in a bedroom in Avon Park. Two additional teens were arrested with Bing, after guns and marijuana were also found in that house. Admissions to the Jacksonville Youth Academy were suspended. The facility is mandated to provide one youth service care worker for every eight youth. An anonymous worker there said that to avoid paying overtime, the facility is often short-staffed.

Florida: A caravan of vehicles headed to Tallahassee April 13, 2020. “We decided that it was time for a more deliberate action to be taken to demand the decarceration of inmates here in the state of Florida who are at a particularly high risk of contracting COVID-19 due to the negligence and essentially the inhumanity of the Department of Corrections,” stated Capital City Mutual Aid spokesperson Pearson Bolt. The group drove a circuit past the old Capitol, the DOC building and the new Capitol, playing music, honking horns and demanding via bullhorn that Governor Ron DeSantis free the DOC prisoners. Placards included: “COVID in jails = mass murder,” “Prisoner lives matter,” and “Detention = Death.” Four prisoners at Blackwater River Correctional Facility, run by GEO Group Inc. in Milton, died after testing positive for COVID-19, the Orlando Sentinel reported April 17, 2020. “A total of 63 FDC staff have tested positive at 24 prisons, including Blackwater, Tokoma and Sumter, as well as in three probation regions, according to the FDC.” Florida’s DOC reported that in two facilities 35 prisoners and 45 employees and contract staff had tested positive for COVID-19; 33 of those prisoners are housed at Blackwater. The other two were at Sumter Correctional in Bushnell. The FL DOC has declined to reveal how many tests have been done or how many prisoners are in medical isolation.

Georgia: Fulton County Solicitor General Keith Gammage, 48, established a misdemeanor expungement division in 2017. Expungement means that a person’s arrest or conviction is sealed from public view and is only accessible to law enforcement. To date, Fulton County has expunged the records of more than 3,000 people. Gammage said, “Some of the people whose records we expunged were in their 70s who couldn’t get into senior housing for an arrest 20 years earlier for a $15 bad check or stealing a loaf of bread. People have said it has been removing a yoke from around their necks.” The record of Martin Luther King Jr., which University of Texas professor Peniel E. Joseph says is “a matter of political and legal ethics,” is slated to be expunged. King was arrested for trespassing at an Atlanta department store dining room sit-in in 1960. Bernard LaFayette, another civil rights protestor of the King era, doesn’t want his record expunged, “That is part of my history as a civil rights worker.” Gammage says he will not expunge King’s record without the support of King’s family.

Illinois: In December 2018, Strawberry Hampton, a pre-operative male-to-female transgender prisoner was moved from Dixon Correctional to Logan Correctional Center, a women’s prison. [See: PLN, March 2019, p. 42]. Hampton was scheduled for release in February 2019, but her sentence was extended by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). She petitioned for clemency stating the extension was IDOC retaliation. Hampton was finally released in July 2019, after the IDOC approved her request for good time restoration. In September, three IDOC guards were placed on leave after Injustice Watch reported that John Merck, Joseph Dudek, and Gary Hicks posted offensive posts and memes on their Facebook pages. All three posted Islamophobic content. Merck and Dudek also allegedly posted anti-LGBTQ content. Both are named in a lawsuit by Hampton as having assaulted her at Pinckneyville. IDOC spokesperson Linda Hess said, “The employees are on leave pending active IDOC investigations into these posts.” Hampton, now 28, was arrested in November 2019 on suspicion of residential burglaries in Elmhurst. She was held at the DuPage County Jail on $100,000 bail. Hampton was released in March 2020.

Indiana: Porter Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Clymer heeded a grandmother’s plea in April 2020. Deborah Vivian begged the judge not to release her daughter, Alysha Ramos, 29, from jail for the safety of her unborn grandchild. Vivian told the judge that Ramos’ history of methamphetamine addiction and abuse threatens the baby’s life. Vivian told the court, “That baby will end up dying, I guarantee it.” Vivian further testified that Vivian had custody of Ramos’ other two children, for whom Ramos has shown little interest or concern. Judge Clymer ordered that Ramos stay in jail on a probation violation for testing positive for methamphetamine. Ramos’ lawyer unsuccessfully argued that his client had tested clean on other repeated drug tests. In January 2019, the same judge had drastically reduced Ramos’ bond from $4,500 to $250, even after it was revealed in court that Ramos’ then 6-year old son had tested positive for heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepine and methamphetamine in a hair follicle test.

Japan: The country, with its aging population, is experiencing an unexpected crime wave. Pensioners who have run out of money are committing petty crimes to get put into jail. Toshio Takata, 69, who was in a halfway house in Hiroshima, tells his crime story, “I reached pension age and then I ran out of money. So, it occurred to me — perhaps I could live for free if I lived in jail. So, I took a bicycle and rode it to the police station and told the guy there: ‘Look, I took this.’” Takata was 62-years-old at the time; it was his first offense. He was sentenced to one year. When he was released, he pulled a knife out at a public park – second offence. In 1997, the elderly made up one in 20 convictions; in 2017 it was one in five. Of those, one third have at least five offenses. One woman told a BBC reporter, “Even women in their 80s who can’t properly walk are committing crime. It’s because they can’t find food, money.”

Louisiana: Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola Warden Darrel Vannoy replaced Burl Cain in 2015, after he abruptly resigned his position after getting caught “in a series of unethical practices.” Cain was never charged. In March 2020, Warden Vannoy reported an incident, concerning “certain Angola staff and department payroll administration rules,” which placed him on leave while officials looked into Angola’s payroll. A week later, Vannoy was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, according to department spokesman Ken Pastorick. Nevertheless, the undefined investigation continues. Vannoy was the only employee placed on leave.

Maine: A panel of judges in Boston were scheduled to hear arguments in April 2020 on the appeals of Malcolm French, 58, and Rodney Russell, 56, the Maine pot farm masterminds convicted by a jury in 2014. Their “pot plantation” was discovered in September 2009 in Township 37. During the police raid, undocumented workers fled, and a supervisor set the cash crop ablaze. Notwithstanding, 2,943 mature marijuana plants were seized. Both men had more than five years left to serve on their original sentences. U.S. District Judge John Woodcock allowed the two to be released on $5,000 unsecured bail on April 1, 2020, citing his belief “that the First Circuit will vacate Mr. French and Mr. Russell’s convictions and order a new trial, and the First Circuit’s delay in deciding the appeal is related to the current COVID-19 crisis; they should not be in prison awaiting the resolution of the COVID-19 crisis.” The two are on home probation, pending a subsequent order from Woodcock.

New York: White-collar guys tried using the COVID-19 crisis as a Get Out of Jail Free card. In March 2020, one of the first to use this gambit was Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer. Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, argued that the Bureau of Prisons is “demonstrably incapable of safeguarding and treating BOP inmates who are obliged to live in close quarters and are at an enhanced risk of catching the virus.” Cohen was seeking a one year and one day reduced sentence or to complete his term under home confinement. U.S. District Judge William Pauley III rejected Cohen’s bid in March. In April, convicted “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli's attorney said his client wanted out for three months to research treatments for coronavirus. Shkreli said in a research proposal, “I am one of the few executives experienced in ALL aspects of drug development. I do not expect to profit in any way, shape or form from coronavirus-related treatments.” Skreli was sentenced in 2018 to seven years for defrauding investors in a drug company.

New York: The REFORM Alliance announced in April 2020 that it had donated surgical face masks to prisons, less than three weeks after unveiling its S.A.F.E.R Plan with the tagline, “In a pandemic safer jails and prisons will make all of us safer.” REFORM, which was co-founded by luminaries such as Jay-Z and Meek Mill, donated 50,000 masks to Rikers Island and 2,500 more to the Rikers medical facility, 40,000 to the Tennessee DOC, and 5,000 to the beleaguered Mississippi State Prison in Parchman. REFORM posted a picture of the mask pallet on its Twitter feed. Two days later they donated 36,000 masks to the South Carolina DOC, after it requested help. Van Jones, CEO of REFORM Alliance, said, “We’re in danger of seeing prisons coast-to-coast turn into morgues. It is important to get medical supplies in, and it is equally important to get more human beings out.”

North Carolina: Former Columbus Correctional Institute guard Ricky Graham was stabbed in the face and neck with a shank while doing paperwork at the prison in August 2017. In a February 2020 plea deal, Keenan Lynard Jones, 27, pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to 22 to 28 more years in prison. In his victim impact statement, Graham, 57, said he continues to “struggle with the emotional consequences of the attack” and that he has been unable to go back to work. Jones had been at Columbus on a parole violation. He attacked Graham just two days before his release date.

North Carolina: Former Rivers Federal Correctional Institution guard Arlinda Hendrix Lee, 47, was sentenced to one year and one day in prison, plus one year of supervised release, in March 2019. CI Rivers is a contracted correctional institution in Hertford County operated by GEO Group. Lee pleaded guilty in July 2018 to accepting bribes and helping smuggle contraband to prisoners. Lee was active in the scheme from 2012 to 2016. Investigators uncovered Lee’s involvement through the cellphone records of a prisoner’s contraband cellphone. She received $7,350 in wire transfers from “known associates of Rivers FCI inmates in exchange for helping to smuggle contraband into the prison,” according to a DOJ Eastern District of North Carolina press release. The FBI and the BOP Office of Inspector General investigated.

Ohio: Billy McFarland, the convicted Fyre Festival scammer, launched a new scheme in April 2020 while serving at FCI Elkton. McFarland promised his new venture is not a scam: “I’m launching an initiative called Project-315 to bring together and connect in-need inmates and their families who are affected by coronavirus. We’re going to pay for calls for as many incarcerated people across the country as possible.” Soon after launching the project, the BOP announced free calls for prisoners and McFarland is taking credit on the project’s website. “The administration has listened to us throughout the past week, and our actions were heard,” the site said. McFarland promised to announce a new “mission” in the coming weeks. His website includes a long apology letter that claims that, through being in prison, he has learned what is important in life while also boasting of his “years building brands.” Now that the BOP is waiving phone fees during the crisis, the Project-315 website promises, “All third-party donations will be returned.”

Oklahoma: Federal prisoner Joe Maldonado, 57, known as “Joe Exotic” and “Tiger King” by most of the world, filed a $94 million federal lawsuit in Oklahoma City in March 2020. The filing coincided with the release of the Netflix documentary miniseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, which focuses on the former Oklahoma G.W. Zoo owner and became an obsession of Americans trapped at home because of the coronavirus pandemic. Maldonado was sentenced to 22 years in prison in January 2020 on counts of murder-for-hire, falsifying wildlife records and violating the Endangered Species Act. His lawsuit targets the assistant U.S. prosecuting attorney, several witnesses who testified against him, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Maldonado claims that tigers were placed on the exotic species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to target commercial businesses that use tigers. He claims he is discriminated against as “an openly gay male with the largest collection of generic tigers and cross breeds.” Asked at a press briefing about pardoning Maldonado, President Trump said he would “look into it.”

Oregon: The Oregon DOC hired Linda Gruenwald, a full-time nurse practitioner in 2001. The Oregonian, in a report of Oregon government salaries, shows Gruenwald’s 2017 salary as $110,423 base pay and $58,143 miscellaneous pay. In November 2019, the Oregon State Board of Nursing proposed suspending Gruenwald’s license after she was accused of starving Steven Fox, 54, causing him to collapse and sustain a critical spine injury while he was a prisoner at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla. In 2018, Oregon settled a 2016 lawsuit filed by Fox, awarding him $1.5 million. Medical director Steve Shelton, now retired, was also named in the lawsuit. Fox had a disability that interfered with swallowing. In May 2015, Gruenwald placed him on a “clear liquid diet” with milk for six months but failed to monitor Fox’s weight. He passed out in July 2015 and spent three weeks at OHSU Hospital. He had lost 60 pounds over the year. Gruenwald requested a nursing board hearing, which was held on April 22, 2020. The board suspended her licence for 90 days.

Pennsylvania: Former Fairview Township cop Tyson Baker, 45, who was convicted in 2017 for stealing drug money in 2015, is currently serving his 42-month sentence at FCI Gilmer in West Virginia. Baker’s lawyer Jack McMahon filed an emergency petition in March, claiming Baker is vulnerable to COVID-19 because he has an autoimmune deficiency and high blood pressure. His lawyer states that the pandemic offers an “exceptional reason” to release Baker early. Baker lost his appeal in 2019. In March, Pennsylvania Congressman Fred Keller called for the BOP to stop moving prisoners after a COVID-19 positive prisoner was transferred to FCC Allenwood and two other transfers from FTC Oklahoma City got to Allenwood with elevated temperatures. Brian Hart, president of Local 477 of the American Federation of Government Employees at the Allenwood penitentiary, stated, “There’s a lot of staff concern.”

Pennsylvania: Montgomery County Judge Risa Vetri Ferman sentenced Keenan Jones, 31, to 25 to 62 years in prison in January 2020. Jones was convicted in October 2019 on charges of aggravated assault, attempted murder, recklessly endangering another person, possessing an instrument of crime, carrying a firearm without a license and resisting arrest, stemming from the August 2018 shooting of five people in a Cheltenham Walmart. Judge Ferman said, “This was an active shooter situation…The defendant’s actions terrorized a community and wreaked havoc.” Acknowledging that, “There’s no doubt Mr. Jones has real mental health challenges,” the judge ordered treatment for Jones while in prison. The judge said she did not believe Jones went to the Walmart to kill, but once there his actions were intentional. Jurors did not accept the defense argument that Jones was psychotic at the time and should be acquitted by reason of insanity. Assistant District Attorney Tonya W. Lupinacci told the jury, “Shootings like this rock a community.” At trial, Jones stated, “I have no explanation why this happened or how it happened.”

South Carolina: Former McCormick Correctional Institution guard Breanna Alexandria Rouse, 23, was charged with misconduct in office and providing contraband to a prisoner. South Carolina Correctional Department officials say Rouse gave sexually explicit photos that showed her genitals to the unnamed prisoner on a cellphone. She is also accused of giving the prisoner sunflower seeds and Jolly Rancher candies. The offenses occurred between January and March of 2020. The SCDC has a no-tolerance policy that requires the firing of any personnel arrested. It is unclear whether the prisoner will be charged. McCormick is a high security prison in McCormick County that houses “violent offenders” and prisoners with “behavioral issues,” according to the SCDC. If found guilty of providing contraband, Rouse could face a 10-year sentence and a $10,000 fine. The misconduct charge could result in a one-year sentence.

South Carolina:  Corrections Director Bryan Stirling wants the FCC to change anti-jamming laws, so he can jam cellphone signals. In January 2020, McCormick Correctional Institution guards confiscated 32 smartphones, 33 chargers, 31 USB plugs, 17 sets of earbuds, 5 pounds of marijuana, 27 pounds of tobacco, 47 lighters, and a half-gallon of liquor hidden behind a secret panel in a piece of construction equipment on its way into the prison. The stash was valued at $60,000. The prisons have resorted to high fence netting to discourage toss-over contraband. Stirling says, “I think the people trying to sneak in contraband are looking for other avenues. That’s why we check all vehicles coming in through the facility’s gates thoroughly.” It is unclear who, if anyone, would be charged. Cellphone-detecting devices in South Carolina prisons have increased cellphone seizures by more than a third since 2016, Stirling said, “but the easiest way to stop it is to let us block cellphone signals.”

South Dakota: The South Dakota Women’s Prison got a new interim warden on March 24, 2020. Darren Berg took over for Wanda Markland, who resigned after nine prisoners fled the Pierre Community Work Center, the facility’s minimum-security unit. Berg had been deputy warden. Markland had been warden since August 2018. The prisoners walked away after the state announced that a prisoner there had tested positive for COVID-19. Prison staffing has been an ongoing challenge system wide, causing extra-long shifts for the guards that do show up. Three escapees fled to the Crow Creek Reservation. Three more were picked up in Pierre. One was picked up on her own and was booked into the Pennington County Jail, leaving Philomene Boneshirt, 25, and Sylvia Red Leaf, 25, still on the lam as of April 10. South Dakota DOC says the positive COVID-19 case is in isolation and doing well. The DOC Twitter feed shows pictures of prisoners at Durfee State and the State Penitentiary sewing PPE masks, face shields and gowns destined for South Dakota prisons.

Tennessee: In February 2020, all federal prisoners were moved out of the troubled Silverdale Detention Facility run by CoreCivic. Eight women were moved to the Bradley County Jail and an unspecified number of male prisoners were moved to the Hamilton County Jail, which does not house women prisoners. Sheriff Jim Hammond said, “In order to allow enough room for the transfer of inmates to occur, an equal number of non-federal male prisoners were moved out of the downtown Hamilton County Jail and transferred to the Silverdale facility.” A CoreCivic spokesman simply said Silverdale is closely monitored to “ensure there is an appropriate standard of living for all inmates.” In July 2019, seven people at Silverdale were charged with smuggling illegal drugs after prisoners Summer Wright and Destiny Mikel overdosed. CoreCivic employee Alixzadra Kesley also went to Erlanger East Hospital for incidental exposure. The three and four others were indicted on charges of possession of contraband in a penal institution, conspiracy to possess contraband in a penal institution and reckless endangerment.

Thailand: The crowded Buriram Provincial Prison, 240 miles north of Bangkok, was the site of a riot on March 29, 2020. The prison houses 2,100 inmates. One hundred prisoners, fearing COVID-19 would infect the facility, set fire to the furniture workshop, sleeping quarters and canteen. Five prisoners attempted escape. One was immediately caught, but police had to search the neighborhood for the other four. Police shot two prisoners to regain control. By April 15, Thailand had 2,643 coronavirus cases, with 43 deaths. Shut-downs and social distancing efforts have cut Thailand’s sex tourism industry in half. King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 67, also called Rama X, reportedly left his luxury lockdown with a “harem” of concubines and servants at the Grand Hotel Sonnenbichl in Germany following online protests. He then traveled to Bangkok to attend a Chakri Memorial Day banquet marking the birth of his royal dynasty in 1782.

Vermont: Now-former Northern State Correctional guard Grant Vance was sentenced by U.S. District Judge William K. Sessions III in August 2019 to three months in federal prison for smuggling buprenorphine into the prison. Gregory Paradis, his prisoner accomplice, was sentenced to 15 months. Vance had pleaded guilty in March 2019. The investigation began in the summer of 2017 after confidential informants tipped off investigators that Vance brought buprenorphine into the prison on Thursdays, inside a hollowed-out marker like the markers used by NSCF staff. Vance received the buprenorphine strips in his personal P.O. Box from former prisoners and prisoner families. A single strip might sell for as much as $600 at NSCF. Over that year, Vance received seven packages at the P.O. Box. Vance would pass the strips to Paradis for distribution. Vance also reportedly smuggled in marijuana and cigarettes. Vance was sentenced to three months, while Paradis was sentenced to a year and three months. 

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login