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News in Brief

California:In June 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) commuted 21 state prisoners’ sentences, a dozen of them were for murder convictions, reported. Seven were committed when the prisoner was 22 or younger. Half of the prisoners are now 59 or older. One commutation went to 62-year-old Thomas Waterbury, who served 39 years of a life-without-parole sentence for the 1983 murder of his wife, Deborah, when he was 22. Her brother, Jeff, strongly objected and said he hoped the parole board would reverse the governor’s decision. The governor had previously issued another 21 commutations in March 2020, nine of them to convicted murderers, including 64-year-old Richard Flowers, who stabbed an elderly Tulare woman to death during a 1994 home invasion. The county’s district attorney, Tim Ward, launched a public campaign to fight a 2018 clemency petition from Flowers to former Gov. Jerry Brown (D). Since taking office in 2019, Newsom has issued a total of 65 commutations, which do not expunge a criminal’s record and must be approved by the state parole board.

California: Prisoners belonging toa Fresno-based drug-dealing gang were involved in 32 brawls in state prisons over a single year ending September 25, 2019, according to the Inspector General’s office of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). As a result, spokeswoman Shaun Spillane said the state had abandoned efforts to stifle violence by integrating members of rival gangs. The decision came after two separate riots on July 17 and 18, 2019, at Pleasant Valley State Prison near Coalinga. The first incident – which ended when guards fired two rifle shots in warning – involved 182 prisoners, from whom 19 homemade weapons were recovered. The second melee involved 41 prisoners and another pair of homemade weapons. No staff injuries were reported. Three prisoners were treated for puncture wounds at a hospital after each brawl. CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton denied an allegation by prisoner advocate Richard Edmond-Vargas that guards had provoked the battles by setting up gladiator-style fights between rival gang members.

California: With the July 21, 2020 death of prisoner John M. Beames, California lost its eighth death-row inmate to apparent complications from COVID-19, The Hill reported. The 67-year-old had been convicted in 1995 of murdering his girlfriend’s 15-month-old daughter. He was one of over 700 condemned men being held at San Quentin State Prison, which has recorded a total of 14 deaths to the disease, including another death-row prisoner, Troy A. Asmus, 58, who succumbed the day before Beams died. On July 22, 2020, U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar ordered officials with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reserve a minimum of 100 beds in each of its 35 prisons to isolate and quarantine prisoners infected with the novel coronavirus that causes the disease. Newsom had already ordered early release for about 10,000 state prisoners – nearly 10 percent of all those incarcerated – as well as relocating 7,000 more to reduce crowding and slow the virus’ spread.

Florida: On July 30, 2019, a fight between prisoners inside a Jacksonville jail cell left convicted child molester David Oseas Ramirez dead and convicted murderer Paul Dixon facing another homicide charge for beating and drowning him in the cell’s toilet. As reported by USA Today, the incident erupted around 11 a.m. on the fifth floor of the Duval County Jail, where convicted prisoners await transfer to other facilities, when the two men argued over the nature of 56-year-old Ramirez’s crime. He was convicted in 2013 of lewd or lascivious molestation of an 11-year-old girl after jury deliberations that lasted just 15 minutes, Newsweek reported. Dixon, 43, was serving a term for a murder conviction he received at age 17. As of August 2020, he was still at the jail awaiting trial for Ramirez’s murder. A third prisoner who allegedly witnessed it refused to answer investigators’ questions. Crime and safety analyst Ken Jefferson said that convicted child molesters find “no peace in jail” and “have to constantly watch over their back.”

Florida: A fight at the U.S. Penitentiary in Coleman, which left prisoner Troi Venable dead and five other prisoners hospitalized, broke out between rival gangs of Black prisoners and white supremacists, according to the local guards’ union leader. Joe Rojas also said that prior to the melee on August 4, 2019, prisoners had brawled in the recreation yard and refused commands to return to their cells at the penitentiary, part of a massive federal prison complex holding nearly 6,700. No staff injuries were reported, according to USA Today. Venable, 39, who was serving a 17-year sentence for assault and weapons convictions, had previously been charged with assault on a fellow prisoner in 2014 while housed at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Penn. The Coleman prison once housed mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, who was murdered in a federal prison in West Virginia in 2018, as well as former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Jacksonville), who was released in April 2020 after serving time for a fraud conviction. Still in the prison are former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, convicted of molesting underage athletes, as well as Amine El Khalifi, whose plot to bomb the U.S. Capitol was foiled in February 2012.

Florida: A Florida group organized to protest mistreatment of female prisoners at Lowell Correctional Institution (LCI) near Ocala has turned its efforts to collecting personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies for use at the prison during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a July 2020 interview with Orlando National Public Radio station WMFE, Debra Bennett of Change Comes Now said her group was motivated by spread of the coronavirus at LCI and the nearby Florida Women’s Reception Center. Together the two prisons have reported more than 1,200 infections among incarcerated women, as well as more than 50 infected staff members. The group was formed by Bennett and other former LCI prisoners outraged by the July 2019 beating of Cheryl Weimar, a prisoner left quadriplegic after her attack by LCI guards. No arrests have yet been made in that incident. The $9,000 worth of soap, bleach, hand sanitizer, gloves and toilet paper the group delivered, along with five TV sets, were all purchased with funds donated by formerly incarcerated women or their loved ones.

Florida: A Florida sheriff’s deputy whose violent assault on a detainee detoxing from drugs was caught on videotape in March 2019 was never arrested, never charged with more than a misdemeanor and then allowed a plea deal to avoid jail. It was nearly three months after the attack inside a padded cell in the medical unit of the Manatee County Jail in Bradenton when the guard, Tyler Michael LeMond, was finally charged by State Attorney for the 12th Judicial Circuit Ed Brodsky with one count of simple battery. In August of that year, the 21-year-old’s attorney negotiated a deal to let him plead no contest to the charge in exchange for a 12-month sentence to probation, though as soon as he completed a six-week anger management course and paid a $25 fine he would be free. Two other Manatee deputies were also charged with battery against different inmates earlier the same year.

Florida: As reported by Tampa TV station WTVT, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) announced on July 31, 2020, that its Secretary, Mark Inch, had tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, along with Deputy Secretary Ricky Dixon. Both men had visited Columbia Correctional Institution, where 1,300 prisoners and 72 guards have been infected. They are self-isolating and their contacts being traced and tested, Inch said. He has experienced mild symptoms of the disease, while Dixon remains asymptomatic. As of the date FDC announced their infection, it reported 8,126 of its 87,700 prisoners had tested positive for the virus, along with 1,675 staff members. Fifty prisoners had already died from COVID-19.

Georgia: A riot broke out at Georgia’s Ware State Prison August 1, 2020, leaving two guards and three prisoners injured. Officials with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) said none of the injuries was life threatening. Minor damage was reported from the incident, which began around 10:45 p.m. and was brought under control just over two hours later by guards using “non-lethal ammunition,” Jacksonville TV station WJAX reported. The prison remained on a lockdown begun two weeks prior, following a fight between two prisoners on July 17, 2020, that killed one of them, Robert Wilson, said a spokesman for the Human and Civil Rights Coalition of Georgia, Corey Jackson. He added that tensions were also stoked by the deaths of two prisoners to COVID-19. The coronavirus that causes the disease had infected 32 staff members and 22 of the prison’s 1,500 prisoners, who are managed by 15 guards on a typical shift.

Honduras: On July 18, 2020, COVID-19 claimed the life of jailed Honduran journalist David Romero Ellner. The director of Radio Globo had been imprisoned since March 2019, charged with defaming President Juan Orlando Hernández by questioning whether he was involved in drug trafficking for which his brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, was tried and convicted in New York that same year. An investigation Romero published in 2015 had previously exposed another fraudulent scheme to illegally divert money to Hernández’s election campaign from the national social security system. The defamation law under which Romero was jailed was invalidated by a new law that took effect in June 2020, but he wasn’t released from prison, where he apparently contracted the disease that killed him. Hernández was diagnosed with COVID-19 in June 2020 and released from Tegucigalpa hospital the same month that Romero died. Former President Manuel Zelaya called his death “a murder by the regime” of Hernández.

Illinois: In January 2020, Rhonda G. Keech was sentenced for the crime of public indecency after deputies at the Macon County Jail in Decatur caught the 64-year-old private investigator performing oral sex on her client, detainee James D. Jones. The 37-year-old, who was being held on drug charges in violation of his parole, had hired Keech and met with her privately at the jail, where their behavior aroused deputies’ suspicions. A review of security camera footage from July 5, 17 and 24, 2019, found Keech attempting to hide behind a file folder while Jones stood with his back to the camera as she performed fellatio on him during each visit. At a subsequent meeting on July 31, 2019, Sgt. Roger Pope said she was “caught in the act.” Prior to sentencing, Keech had been free on $1,000 bail. In a plea deal, she received one day in jail with credit for time served and 100 hours of community service.

Indiana: Two Indiana jailers found themselves on the other side of the law in late 2019 after they were convinced by the same woman to smuggle contraband to a Ripley County Jail inmate who was her boyfriend. When Courtney Miller wanted to get notes and then a contraband cellphone into the jail to Eric Schott, she found not one but two willing accomplices who worked there. Former guard Darin S. Laird, of Versailles, received a two-year sentence in September 2019. Former guard William “Tiny” Dreyer was arrested and charged the following month for the same crime committed with the same detainee for the same woman. Prosecuting attorney Ric Hertel said the men had placed “other jail staff, inmates, law enforcement officers, and the community in jeopardy.” Sheriff Jeff Cumberworth used the crimes as a teaching moment to warn his other employees at the jail. Laird, 42, told the court, “I made the worst mistake of my life.”

Iran: After assurances from Iranian authorities in April 2020 that none of the country’s prisoners had died from COVID-19, letters leaked to Amnesty International from officials at the national Prisons Organization indicate that three months later at least 20 Iranian prisoners had been killed by the disease. The jailers’ letters also showed that requests for personal protective equipment – millions of masks and gloves, along with hundreds of thousands of liters of disinfectant and hand sanitizer – had been ignored by the national Ministry of Health. Since the beginning of the pandemic caused by the coronavirus, about 29,000 prisoners have been furloughed. But that leaves nearly 220,000 imprisoned in facilities designed for 80,000. As a result, even prisoners exhibiting symptoms of the disease are ignored, and if their symptoms get worse, they are thrown into solitary confinement cells. Diana Eltahawy, the deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said that “overcrowding, poor ventilation, lack of basic sanitation and medical equipment, and deliberate neglect of prisoners’ health problems, are making Iranian prisons a perfect breeding ground for COVID-19.”

Louisiana: In what authorities called a “large-scale” smuggling operation at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, 22 people were indicted on conspiracy and drug trafficking charges in August 2019. Among them were seven prisoners: Anthony Basaldua, 41; Deanthony Ford, 32; Nelson Tippen, 39; Kevin Narcisse, 34; Dudley Melancon, 31; Joshua Gonzalez, 35; and Jared Graham, 30. Five others were among 40 former staff members – guards and one nurse – arrested in the preceding year for smuggling drugs, smuggling contraband and having inappropriate relationships with prisoners. They are Tommy Carter, Jr., 31; Precious Shelvin, 33; Jeffery Day, 34, who resigned after his July 2018 arrest for trying to smuggle drugs into the prison inside a Subway sandwich; April Mathews, 25, who resigned after a May 2017 arrest for trying to smuggle drugs into Angola and then led police on a high-speed chase in April 2019 after she was caught trying to smuggle more contraband into Elyan Hunt Correctional Center; and Tichina Williams, 24, who resigned after an April 2018 arrest for smuggling drugs in exchange for $4,000 to an Angola prisoner whom she admitted kissing and whose name was tattooed on her arm.

Michigan: A 67-year-old Michigan prisoner imprisoned 24 years after a marijuana sale will not be eligible for release before he is 85 – if he lives that long. In August 2020, Michael Thompson was transferred to a medical facility after testing positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Because he suffers from diabetes and other exacerbating conditions, Thompson’s attorney has sent a clemency petition to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). An earlier petition sent to her predecessor, former Gov. Rick Snyder (R), was denied in 2018 – the same year Michigan legalized recreational marijuana use. For the three pounds of pot found on Thompson, he could have completed his sentence no later than 2011, said the state’s attorney general, Dana Nessel (D). She is pushing for his release, CNN reported. Because Thompson was also found with 14 guns in his home – and though his wife testified most were hers – the judge at his trial handed down the longer sentence, one enhanced by his prior convictions, none of which was for a violent crime. The state parole board was scheduled to take up his case in August 2020, but the process will likely take months, according to Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz.

New Hampshire: A former chaplain at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Berlin, N.H., is now himself a prisoner after he was caught smuggling drugs and contraband into the medium-security prison where he worked from 2015 until he was questioned by investigators with the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in November 2018. As reported by the New Hampshire Union Leader, Joseph Buenviaje, 55, then admitted to bringing Suboxone, synthetic cannabinoids, marijuana, tobacco and cellphones into the prison, selling enough to earn $52,000 in bribes from prisoners he was supposed to be ministering to. Some of the loot and money was funneled through his personal ministry, Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors. Buenviaje pleaded guilty to bribery and possession of contraband charges in April 2019, receiving a 40-month sentence in August of that year for what U.S. Attorney Scott Murray called “a massive breach of trust.” He is scheduled for release from the U.S. Penitentiary in Tucson, Ariz., in January 2022.

New Jersey: A New Jersey jury has convicted a former prison guard of smuggling drugs and other contraband into Southern State Prison, where he worked before his arrest in August 2017. After receiving the guilty verdict in July 2019 on second- and third-degree charges — including conspiracy, misconduct and bribery, as well as possession of oxycodone and distribution of marijuana — Steven B. Saunders, 51, was sentenced that September to a seven-year prison term by Burlington County Superior Court Judge Gerard H. Breland. An accomplice in the scheme, Tasha N. Swain, pleaded guilty to passing the prohibited items and cash to Saunders. The 40-year-old was sentenced to probation in July 2019. Her boyfriend, Lakovian Shepherd, a 44-year-old inmate at the prison, pleaded guilty February 2019 to distributing the contraband. At his sentencing that August, he received an additional three years added to the 10-year sentence he was serving for narcotics distribution.

New Mexico: In August 2020, three weeks after a prisoner uprising at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center in New Mexico, a group of detainees at a privately operated federal prison in the state launched another protest against their “quarantine status” during the COVID-19 pandemic. The protest ended without incident, according to Amanda Gilchrist, public affairs director for CoreCivic, the private firm managing the Cibola County Correctional Center (CCCC). The prison, which houses federal detainees – including migrants held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – had recorded 320 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of August 18, 2020. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said she was applying as much pressure as possible on federal authorities to control the spread of the disease at CCCC and three other prisons in the state where federal detainees are held, which together have recorded another 483 cases. At one of those, the Torrance County Detention Facility, guards in May 2020 pepper-sprayed detainees during another protest over crowded conditions putting them at increased risk of contracting the disease.

Oregon: A hunger strike began August 17, 2020, at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute, with prisoners demanding reforms in the use of solitary confinement as well as hospitalization for one of their own – Steven Corbett – whose Crohn’s disease had advanced to the point that his organs began to bleed from his body into his colostomy bag. In an email, Southwestern Law School student E. Rose Harriot added that Corbett suffered seizures resulting in injurious falls. Though nurses suspected he was “faking it,” Portland TV station KATU reported that Corbett’s fellow prisoners thought he was dying. Allowed just a bar of soap and baking soda when entering solitary confinement, prisoners can get additional hygiene supplies like toothpaste, more soap, and cleaning supplies only after a month. With the threat of COVID-19, inmates argue that this treatment is life-threatening.

Ohio: Former Cuyahoga County Jail guard Marvella Sullivan pleaded guilty on July 23, 2020, to charges of attempted bribery and trafficking drugs into the facility with another guard, Stephen Thomas. He pleaded not guilty to the two same charges – originally filed in August 2019 – along with nine others in an indictment unsealed on July 21, 2020. A pretrial hearing was scheduled for August 19, 2020. Thomas and Sullivan resigned after the first charges were filed. The guards were accused of smuggling heroin, fentanyl, marijuana and cellphones into the jail under the direction of prisoner Lamar Speights, who also pleaded guilty on the same day as Sullivan to charges of bribery and obstructing justice. His sentencing will be set at a later date. Another prisoner, Alexander Foster, pleaded not guilty to the same charges. His pretrial hearing was set for August 6, 2020.

Pennsylvania: In February 2020, Jamie Lynn Brownlie, 37, was sentenced to a term of 24 to 48 months after pleading guilty in August 2019 to hiding methamphetamine in a body cavity when she entered the Luzerne County Prison in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., the previous January. She was one of four female prisoners who had been charged in March 2019 with smuggling and dealing drugs at the jail. Aubreana Hosey, 21, pleaded guilty in November 2019 and received an additional sentence of 10 to 22 months. Linzy Chodnicki, 31, also pleaded guilty and was still awaiting sentencing in early 2020. Joleen Gambardella, 38, pleaded guilty but filed a motion to withdraw her plea. Four more women in Scranton – 20 miles away – were charged in 2019 with similar crimes committed the previous year at the Lackawanna County Prison. In that scheme, 48-year-old contract employee Brenda Cruise admitted to smuggling tobacco, marijuana, synthetic marijuana (“Spice”) and suboxone into the prison. She was scheduled for sentencing in federal court in December 2019.

Pennsylvania: After a September 2019 domestic dispute, Upper Allen Township police arrested Scott K. Lewis, 48, charging the Dauphin County Prison guard with assault, reckless endangerment and making terroristic threats after he allegedly threw a metal object at a woman, pushed her to the ground and pointed his loaded gun at her head, the Pennsylvania Chronicle reported. The incident occurred in Mechanicsburg, not far from the Harrisburg prison where Lewis held the rank of sergeant. He was suspended and freed on a $9,000 bail bond.

Tennessee: On July 29, 2020, Jerry Lawler tweeted respects to his son on the second anniversary of his death. Brian Lawler, 46, who was also a professional wrestler known as Brian Christopher, died by suicide on July 29, 2018, after a drunken-driving arrest landed him in jail in Hardeman County. Jerry Lawler told that he drove to the jail and personally advised Sheriff John Doolen of his son’s two previous suicide attempts, receiving assurances that he would be guarded while also receiving addiction treatment. A $3 million wrongful death suit filed in July 2019 by the 70-year-old wrestling star alleges that his son was never treated in over three weeks of custody, by the end of which he had been injured in a fight and placed in solitary confinement. There, he used his shoelaces to kill himself. A supervising deputy allegedly ignored his cries for help “for four to six hours,” chalking them up to pretending

Tennessee: On the day an inmate died in the Warren County Jail in McMinnville, two guards did not conduct a required walk-through and then falsified jail logs to cover up their failure. That was the substance of two indictments returned by a county grand jury on September 6, 2019, against the men. Zechariah Jacob Clark, 22, and Steven Thomas Mason, 28, both faced counts of destroying and tampering with government records in the incident, which occurred on January 14, 2019. Neither man continued to work at the jail, Nashville TV station WSMV reported. Agents with the state Bureau of Investigation discovered the crime when they were called in to investigate the inmate death by 31st District Attorney General Lisa Zavogiannis. The name of the deceased inmate was not reported.

Texas: In July 2019, Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) Regional Director Wayne Brewer was forced from his job after a tip about illegal pill-pushing at the Huntsville Unit led investigators to employees who admitted to buying prescription amphetamines the previous month from Brewer’s mother-in-law, 58-year-old Kathy Lindley. She was arrested on felony drug-dealing charges. The two TDCJ employees, Karen Prestwood and Lonna Britt, were also fired. Both are married to high-ranking officials with the prison system, according to reports in the Houston Chronicle. Brewer’s 45-year-old wife, Melinda, also lost her job at TDCJ. She allegedly said her mother planned to accuse her of stealing a TDCJ computer and burning it on a trash pile at home. Lindley told investigators the accusation was false and that her crime was a setup in retaliation for claims of unpaid work at her daughter’s food truck, Chasin’ Tail.

Texas: Reality Winner, a former Air Force intelligence contractor imprisoned in 2018 for leaking a report on Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, has contracted the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, The Verge reported. The 28-year-old whistleblower is currently asymptomatic, her sister said. But her attorney cited underlying medical conditions that put her at greater risk of dying from the disease in seeking compassionate release from the Federal Medical Center at Carswell, Texas, which had recorded five prisoner deaths to the disease as of August 18, 2020. Winner is not currently scheduled for release until 2021.

Texas: In late July 2020, a former U.S. Congressman imprisoned at the Federal Correctional Complex in Beaumont tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As reported by local TV station KDFM, Steve Stockman is one of 28 infected prisoners in his unit. The 63-year-old suffers diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure, putting him at higher risk of dying from the disease, according to his wife, Patti. On August 2, 2020, loved ones of “at-risk inmates who are non-violent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism and who might be safer serving their sentences in home confinement” staged a protest outside the prison, demanding that the federal Bureau of Prisons follow language quoted from the memo sent them March 26, 2020, by U.S. Attorney General William Barr. In 2017, Stockman pleaded guilty to diverting over $1 million in campaign funds to his personal use. He is serving a 10-year sentence for the crime.

Ukraine: At the same time that he announced the government would attempt to sell off its notoriously old and decrepit prisons, Ukrainian Justice Minister Denys Malyuska said in August 2020 that his agency would begin offering certificates for “luxury” holding cells, which wealthy pre-trial detainees can buy. The certificates are nonrefundable and valid for only six months, Mayluska said, emphasizing that anyone convicted would be treated equally to all other prisoners. But as reported by BBC News, his jokes about the planned sales – including “reduced chances of contracting COVID-19” – fell flat with opposition Member of Parliament Iryna Friz, who dubbed Malyuska “Mr. Troll.” Businessman Yevhen Chernyak dryly called the certificate plan “convenient” for corrupt officials, noting that money they have embezzled could end up buying them upgraded prison cells. Over the next decade Malyuska said the country would sell 120 of its 130 prisons, which house 51,000 prisoners, using the proceeds along with funds from certificate sales to build new and better facilities.

United Kingdom: Like many restaurants whose dining rooms have been shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic, a south London eatery called the Clink has turned to home delivery. What’s unusual about this restaurant is that it is located inside a prison. As reported by BBC News, Chief Executive Chris Moore said the switch to “take-aways” – delivered within a five-mile radius by van – will allow Clink charity to continue using the restaurant to train Brixton prisoners for jobs after their release. Ministry of Justice research has found that those graduating from the program have a significantly lower rate of recidivism, which it says costs British taxpayers £18 billion (about $23.75 billion) annually. After starting the delivery service during the last week of July 2020, clink@home reported all of its delivery slots already taken for the week ahead. The most popular items have been jerk chicken and katsu curry, though the menu also features gourmet items like “sun-dried tomato and parmesan arancini with rocket pesto.” 

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