News in Brief
Alabama: Two Alabama jail guards were arrested in just two months for allegedly smuggling cellphones to inmates. In February 2021, 27-year-old D’Mario Jones was fired and charged with two counts of promoting prison contraband at the Lee County Detention Center in Opelika where he worked. According to a report by Alabama News Network, authorities said other guards were also involved in the illegal scheme, and more charges were expected. The scandal follows the December 2020 arrest of guard Billie Michelle Hester in Jasper, who allegedly sold cellphones for $250 each to several inmates at the Walker County Jail there. According to a report by TV station WBRL in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the 44-year-old had been employed by the county sheriff’s office for just two months, but during that time investigators found she had received more than 400 calls from prisoners on her personal phone.
Arizona: The Arizona state prison at Eyman was on lockdown for more than two weeks after a November 26, 2020 riot involving hundreds of prisoners in its Cook Unit. Arizona Department of Corrections Director of Communications Judy Keane said no staff or inmate injuries were reported in the uprising, which was put down when tactical response teams “came in with tear gas, flash bangs, pepper spray, and started shooting them at everyone,” one prisoner reported via email, according to a story by Phoenix radio station KJZZ.
California: A prisoner was fatally stabbed on Christmas Day 2020 at the California State Prison in Sacramento. According to a report by the Davis People’s Vanguard, 25-year-old Braydon Lesseos was found dead in his cell. His cellmate, 26-year-old Jordan Greendahl, was placed in segregation while he is investigated for his possible role in the murder. Lesseos was serving an 11-year sentence for assault with a firearm. Greendahl received his eight-year term for arson. The incident follows several recent violent deaths among the 2,250 prisoners at the high-security facility, including that of Johnathan Pereida in October 2019. According to a report by Sacramento TV station KTXL, the 27-year-old was fatally shot by guards while he and fellow inmate Augustine Burgos, 46, were stabbing another unidentified prisoner with a homemade knife. Pereida was serving a life sentence for attempted first-degree murder. Burgos’ 13-year term was handed down for an assault conviction.
California: In July 2020, a guilty verdict was returned in the murder trial of Samuel Santos Fonseca, 20, one of a pair of detainees who escaped to Mexico from a California jail in November 2019 only to be recaptured days later trying to cross the border back into the U.S., according to a report by The Salinas Californian. Fonseca faced over 100 years in prison for the June 2018 executions of Lorenzo Acosta, 37, and Ernesto Cruz, 22, victims he randomly chose and murdered at the behest of his Norteño gang to demonstrate his loyalty. His girlfriend, 20-year-old Alexandra Romayor, had previously pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for her role in Cruz’s death and was sentenced to 17 years in prison in June 2019. Oddly, Fonseca’s fellow escapee, 21-year-old Jonathan Salazar, was a member of the rival Sureño gang. He was still awaiting trial for the fatal shooting in 2018 of 20-year-old Jaime Martinez, also allegedly carried out on the orders of gang leaders to demonstrate loyalty to them. In order to make their escape, Salazar and Fonseca knocked a hole in a bathroom ceiling of the Monterey County Adult Detention Facility, leaving their jail-issued jumpsuits outside the building and fleeing in their own clothes they’d worn underneath. Language and cultural barriers apparently caused them to return from Mexico to the U.S., where both men were born.
California: As of February 6, 2021, four of six prisoners had been recaptured after they escaped the previous month from the Merced County Jail in Fresno, California. According to a report by local TV station KFSN, Gabriel Francis Coronado, 19, was arrested and returned to jail to await trial on his original charge of attempted murder. Police had already apprehended three of his fellow escapees shortly after the group climbed onto the roof of the lockup on January 9, 2021, and then used bedsheets to lower themselves 20 feet to the ground: Fabian Cruz Roman, 22, who is awaiting trial for murder; Andres Nunez Rodriguez, Jr., 21, who is charged with attempted murder; and Edgar Eduardo Ventura, 22, who is facing gang and gun charges. Still at large were Manuel Allen Leon, 21, who is also facing weapons charges, and Jorge Baron, 20, who had been arrested on a probation violation. When the six broke out of the jail, nearly eight hours elapsed before they were reported missing. Sheriff Vern Warnke put part of the blame on a court ruling that prevents deputies from interrupting prisoners while they sleep. But the failure to notice the men were missing, he said, was “not acceptable.”
Colorado: After travel restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic prevented the family of a fallen Colorado prison guard from attending a national memorial service in Washington, D.C., officers from police agencies and the state Department of Corrections (DOC) held a salute to the dead man — Sgt. Jason Voth — in the driveway of his family’s Cañon City home in May 2020, according to a report by the La Junta Ag Journal. The 28-year-old was killed in a boiler explosion at Fremont Correctional Facility where he worked on December 4, 2019, leaving behind a wife and three young children. DOC Executive Director Dean Williams and Assistant Director Travis Trani were escorted at the front-yard memorial service by an honor guard from the federal Bureau of Prisons, and a GoFundMe account for the family had raised nearly twice its $15,000 goal.
Florida: On January 25, 2021, the day he turned 52, Eduardo Cabana was released from Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami — “in error,” as officials with the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department later admitted. The “Minimum Custody Level inmate” still faced charges, including a probation violation, “obstruction by a disguised person,” and “shooting or throwing a deadly missile and criminal mischief,” according to a report by local TV station WFOR. He was apprehended and returned to the jail four days later. The error that temporarily freed him was the obverse of another mistake made just over a year earlier and about 78 miles north, when a man was left in jail five weeks too long. As punishment for stranding an inmate in the county lockup in Belle Glade an extra 35 days, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office gave a one-day suspension to 17-year veteran employee Maria Geathers, 51, in November 2019. Prosecutors had emailed Geathers on May 24, 2019, to say they were dropping charges on which Robanson Nicolas had been arrested a month earlier. But when they checked back on June 28, 2019, the 32-year-old was still in jail. He was released the same day. Two months later, when he appeared in court to plead guilty to different charges, he was sentenced to the time he had already served. The following month, Geathers became the subject of an internal affairs investigation during which she took “full responsibility” for the error.
Georgia: A former Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) guard at Valdosta State Prison was sentenced to a 46-month prison term on November 5, 2020, after pleading guilty to smuggling drugs and cellphones into the facility on four occasions in exchange for bribes paid in Green Dot cards. According to a report by the Valdosta Daily Times, 53-year-old Melissa Crawford was stopped when she arrived for work at the prison in January 2019 by prison officials who had been tipped off to her contraband deliveries. They tried to search her vehicle, but she drove off and almost ran over another guard. Later, 27.53 grams of methamphetamine were found in the vehicle, along with marijuana and four cellphones, leading to her arrest. Crawford’s case follows that of another DOC guard who pleaded guilty in October 2019 to accepting bribes and smuggling methamphetamine, crack cocaine, and marijuana to prisoners at Hays State Prison, where he worked. Because Voltaire Peter Pierre, 39, stored the contraband at his family home before delivering it, he was also convicted of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine on premises where a minor resides.
Hawaii: On December 23, 2020, more than 30 people held a candlelight vigil outside the Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC) for prisoners at risk of contracting COVID-19, after the Hawaii Department of Public Safety (DPS) reported that the number of inmates infected with disease had climbed to 1,600 — nearly two-thirds of the approximately 2,500 people incarcerated by the state. According to a report by Honolulu TV station KITV, there also were 189 DPS employees infected. OCCC is the largest of four prisons operated by DPS. The vigil there and another planned for early the following month were organized by the Hawai’i Abolition Collective and Hawai’i Peace and Justice to raise awareness of the fact that “social distancing does not exist inside of a prison,” said organizer Laurel Mei-Singh.
Idaho: An Idaho Department of Correction (DOC) librarian was arrested on January 15, 2021, and accused of conducting a year-long sexual affair with an unidentified prisoner at Idaho State Correctional Center. Sandra Faye Riggs, 52, was charged with felony sexual contact with an adult inmate for her role in the affair, which lasted from July 2019 to June 2020, according to a report by Boise TV station KTVB. She no longer works for DOC. Prosecutors noted her lack of criminal history in agreeing to a release on her own recognizance while awaiting trial.
Illinois: A guard at the Coles County Jail in Charleston, Illinois, was placed on leave after he was arrested on December 31, 2020, and charged with custodial sexual misconduct. According to a report by the Decatur Herald and Review, OfficerAnthony Golding is accused of having sex with an unidentified female prisoner at the jail earlier in the month. His arrest followed an investigation by state police that found “independent witnesses outside of the alleged victim,” according to State’s Attorney Jesse Danley. He added that there was no evidence the sexual encounter was forced. But under state law, a prisoner cannot consent to sexual intercourse with a corrections officer. Golding’s charge is a felony offense.
Israel: In January 2021, after Israeli Public Security Minister Amir Ohana announced that vaccinating Palestinian detainees against COVID-19 was “not a priority,” the Commission of Detainees and ex-Detainees Affairs — an advocacy group affiliated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization — condemned the remarks as a “racist” violation of international law. According to a report by the Daily Sabah, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit also said that Ohana’s threatened action was “lacking in authority” and “not valid.” But Ohana refused to back down, reiterating that Palestinian prisoners and detainees would not be vaccinated until after their Israeli counterparts. The Palestinian Prisoners Society said that 188 Palestinian prisoners had tested positive for the disease since the pandemic began. An estimated 4,400 Palestinians are held in Israeli prisons, including some 380 people incarcerated under Israel’s administrative detention policy, which allows Palestinians to be held without charge or trial. Over 50 percent of the Israeli population had been vaccinated as of mid-February 2021, according to a database maintained by The New York Times, a higher percentage than any other country in the world.
Louisiana: A Louisiana prison transport bus crashed on a Baton Rouge freeway the morning of October 12, 2020, according to a report by Monroe TV station KNOE. Four vehicles were involved in the wreck, which shut down a section of eastbound I-10 in the city for an hour. No serious injuries were reported, and an inmate who fled the scene was recaptured by city police the same day. The crash followed another involving a prison transport bus in the metropolitan area a year earlier, in which a teenage driver was killed. On October 22, 2019, a car driven on state highway 68 by 19-year-old Austin Dixon veered into the path of a bus carrying two dozen prisoners from Dixon Correctional Institute to work on the grounds of the state capitol. Dixon died in the head-on collision. Four serious injuries were reported among the list of passengers on the bus, which also included six guards, three trustees, and two correctional officers.
Maryland: On November 30, 2020, former Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) guard Janel Griffin, 41, was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for smuggling drugs, flash drives and cellphones into Maryland Correctional Institute where she worked, according to a report by Washington, D.C., radio station WTOP. She had pleaded guilty in October 2019 to federal racketeering charges for her role in a scheme that involved 20 people who worked or served time at the prison in Jessup, which houses about 1,100 men. One month after her plea, in November 2019, another former DPSCS guard, 29-year-old Darryl Floyd, was sentenced to three years in state prison for taking a $1,200 bribe to smuggle suboxone into the Metropolitan Transition Center, a pre-trial detention facility in Baltimore where he had worked. Still another DPSCS guard at another state prison was arrested on September 9, 2020, after officials monitoring a phone call between an Eastern Correctional Institution prisoner and his sister discovered that guard Maurice Bull was taking bribes to smuggle drugs into the prison. He had worked there for 17 months when he was then arrested carrying heroin, tobacco and suboxone strips that he admitted were bound for an inmate in exchange for $5,400 in cash that was also found on him.
Michigan: At a May 2020 virtual meeting of the Board of Commissioners in Kalamazoo County, Michigan, lawmakers tussled over how to rein in overspending by Sheriff Richard Fuller, according to a report by Mlive. In the end, commissioners agreed to retain reporting authority over a new financial administrator to be housed in the Sheriff’s office, which went $400,000 over budget in 2019. That was also the year a Sheriff’s employee, Marcie Copeland, admitted to embezzling $20,162 from accounts maintained for inmates at the county jail. The 47-year-old was fired and forced to make restitution from her retirement fund. She was sentenced to one year of probation by a county circuit judge in November 2019. County Commissioner John Gisler said he had “lost patience over the years with the lack of financial oversight in the Sheriff’s Office.”
Mississippi: As of February 1, 2021, prisoners held by the Mississippi Department of Corrections (DOC) may legally smoke cigarettes, according to a report by Jackson TV station WLBT. Burl Cain, DOC’s commissioner, said that reversing the state’s 10-year-old smoking ban in prisons will accomplish two things: eliminate a temptation for guards to smuggle tobacco to prisoners and reduce the price prisoners have to pay for it. Prisoners pay up to $500 a pound for tobacco when it is smuggled contraband, said DOC Deputy Commissioner Jay Mallet. Cigarettes will now be sold in prison commissaries, with proceeds used to fund remedial education for inmates earning a GED or beginning college courses as well as re-entry programs that provide job training to prisoners slated for release.
Montana: In February 2021, a Montana jury ruled the death of inmate Laurence Alan Stewart the previous April at the state prison was a suicide, according to a report by the Helena Independent Record. At the time, the 32-year-old — who was serving a life sentence for throwing pipe bombs at law enforcement officers during a 2013 pursuit — was embroiled in a lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections (DOC) over sexual assaults in 2017 by guard Lucas Griswold. The guard wasn’t placed on leave or the charge against him investigated until 2018, six months after Stewart filed a complaint under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. As a result of that delay, the state’s Human Rights Commission awarded Stewart $3,000 in 2019, and DOC also admitted liability for Griswold’s misconduct. But it continued fighting Stewart’s lawsuit. Another guard involved in an illegal relationship with a state prisoner was arrested in December 2019. Diana Baker, 45, and prisoner Joshua Schied, 33, were also charged with conspiring to smuggle drugs into Crossroads Correctional Center, a private facility in Shelby owned and operated by CoreCivic. Schied’s fellow inmate, Jason Hoomalu, was charged in the scheme as well, along with his wife, Ariana. Schied is serving a 50-year term for beating a Billings man with a baseball bat during a 2008 home invasion. Hoomalu was sentenced to 15 years for a 2017 shooting in Great Falls. Their scheme unraveled when the two women contacted a confidential informant, who then sold fake methamphetamine to Baker.
Nebraska: Nebraska Department of Corrections officials presented state lawmakers with a $230 million proposal for a new prison in December 2020. According to a report by Lincoln TV station KOLN, the proposed 1,512-bed facility would alleviate overcrowding in the state’s prisons, which currently hold 5,540 inmates in facilities designed for just 4,050. The proposal arrived one year after a December 2019 petition signed by 800 prisoners at the state penitentiary— over half of its population — demanding an end to modified lockdowns that had bern instituted in response to crowding, resulting in suspension of programming and meetings of self-improvement organizations. Prisoner access to the law library had also been curtailed, impeding their ability to exercise their legal rights, the petitioners said.
New Zealand: After torching part of Wakeira Prison on December 30, 2020, a group of 17 prisoners ended a six-day protest of its allegedly substandard conditions when they surrendered on January 3, 2021, according to a report by Radio New Zealand. Minister for Corrections Kelvin Davis said the prisoners should have protested through official channels, such as the Office of the Ombudsman. But prisoner advocates pointed to an August 2020 Ombudsman’s report, which concluded the high-security prison is in such poor shape that it is no longer fit for its purpose. Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt said his office would wait before acting for the ombudsman to conduct an inquiry into the prisoner’s allegations. Meanwhile, rioting charges were handed down to the 17 men during a video appearance in Hamilton District Court on February 5, 2021.
Ohio: Death-row prisoner Romell Broom died on December 28, 2020, but he was not executed — Ohio had zero criminal executions that year. Instead he was the state’s 124th inmate likely killed by COVID-19. According to a report by NBC News, the 64-year-old had survived a 2009 execution attempt when no suitable vein could be found to administer a lethal injection. He was convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of Tryna Middleton after he kidnapped the 14-year-old while she walked home from a football game with friends in East Cleveland. He was identified and captured three months later after a botched attempt to abduct an 11-year-old girl. Broom had been scheduled for another execution attempt in March 2022.
Ohio: On February 9, 2021, U.S. Marshals and police from Portsmouth, Ohio, recaptured Hobart Roark, who had escaped the Brown County Jail in Georgetown — twice, from the same cell and through the same window. Sheriff Gordon Ellis blamed a court backup caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing him to hold felony detainees like Roark longer. The 41-year-old was originally arrested for burglary and grand theft, with additional charges added after his first escape on November 17, 2020. He was recaptured the next day and returned to his cell, from which he broke free again on December 29, 2020, stealing a van from a neighboring home’s driveway to flee. He was found just over six weeks later hiding in the basement of a house belonging to his girlfriend, Desiree Phillips, 39. She was arrested on obstruction charges and taken to the Scioto County Jail. Roark was returned to the Brown County lockup, where Sheriff Ellis promised to add more bars and “make it look a lot more like a prison and a lot less like a county jail.”
Rhode Island: On November 6, 2020, local activists blockaded all roads to the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island, protesting the city-owned facility’s contract with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigrant detainees there. By that time, 18 percent of the prison’s 537 detainees had been infected with
COVID-19, according to a press release by one of the groups, the FANG Collective. For over a year before the pandemic began, the groups called on Atlanta-based Invesco and Wyatt’s other bondholders to force the city to sever ties with ICE. But when the city attempted to do so in April 2019, bondholders sued, and a federal district court ordered the ICE contract reinstated. During an August 2019 protest outside the facility, former Wyatt guard Thomas Bloodworth drove his pickup into the crowd, allegedly injuring five demonstrators. He subsequently resigned to avoid being fired. In October 2019, a grand jury refused to indict him on criminal charges related to the incident.
Spain: A Spanish inmate held at a Cadiz prison sliced off his own penis on Christmas Day, 2020, after his wife refused a conjugal visit. According to a report by EuroWeekly, the unidentified man was found covered in his own blood at Puerto III Prison by guards, who immediately alerted medical staff. They treated the prisoner, who suffers mental health issues. The “mega prison” holds over 2,000 inmates.
Tennessee: When guard William Chamberlain reported to work at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville on January 15, 2021, he was searched and found trying to smuggle tobacco, marijuana and money into the prison, according to a report by local TV station WKRN. Officers with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) arrested him on felony contraband charges. He is free on a $25,000 bond to await trial and is no longer employed by DOC. Just over a year earlier, in December 2019, another guard at the prison was caught using a food container to smuggle cellphones to an inmate there. Evelissee Erika Maas, 22, then admitted the scheme to DOC investigators. She was arrested, charged and freed on bail to await trial.
Ukraine: Over three painstaking weeks in July and August 2020, Britain’s Daily Mail reported, a 51-year-old Ukrainian woman using shovels and pick axes dug a 35-foot-long tunnel underground to a prison in the country’s Zaporizhia region in an apparent attempt to free her son, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence at the lockup. Trying to avoid detection, the unidentified woman conducted her dig at night from a field beside the prison, using a nearby garage to dump nearly three tons of dirt she excavated from the 10-foot-deep tunnel. A prison guard noted that she had used an electric scooter to silently commute back and forth from a rented house to the adit of the shaft, as well as a homemade “trolley” to transport the earth she removed to the garage. Her tunnel was discovered only when she reached the prison walls.
United Kingdom: When British prisoner John Taylor died at Doncaster prison in South Yorks on September 4, 2020, authorities quickly identified the cause: A lethal mix of fentanyl and “spice,” a synthetic cannabinoid blamed for dozens of prisoner deaths since it was made illegal in the U.K. in 2016. Taylor, 31, was just days away from his scheduled release, after serving a six-month stint at the privately operated jail for attacking his grandfather while high, according to a report by the Daily Star. Another 31-year-old prisoner, identified only as “N,” died in September 2018 at Hewell prison in Redditch when he set himself afire while smoking “spice,” which then rendered him so inert that he might not have noticed he was in flames, prison officials said. The drug mix that killed Taylor, known as “man down,” is often sprayed onto underwear and smuggled into the prison, where inmates cut up the material and smoke it to achieve a zombie-like state. Erlestoke prison guard Hannah Gaves, 27, was arrested in August 2020 attempting to smuggle drugs inside her underwear into the Wiltshire facility, where she worked.
United Kingdom: In February 2021, a luxury hotel was slated to open in a former prison in southwestern England, according to a report by Fox News. Parts of Bodmin Jail date to 1799, and it remained in use until just after the British Crown Jewels were stored there for safekeeping during WWI. In addition to 63 guest rooms and two restaurants, the development also includes an interactive experience to educate guests about the history of the jail, where 55 people were executed.
Vermont: In December 2020, the Vermont Labor Relations Board (VLRB) rejected an appeal from the State Employees’ Association challenging a decision the previous March by the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to fire James Frank, a long-serving corrections officer at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans. After he was called in over the July 4 holiday in 2019 to cover for another guard assigned to supervise a transgender inmate on suicide watch, Frank took to Facebook to post a drunken rant slurring the prisoner’s gender identity and mental health. Many of his Facebook “friends” who saw the post were fellow DOC employees. He apologized, blaming alcohol for causing him to forget the training he had received on treatment of transgender prisoners. After DOC then-Commissioner Michael Touchette stepped down that year — under fire for reported sexual misconduct and employee drug abuse at the agency — interim Commissioner James Baker picked up the case and terminated Frank. VLRB agreed that the former guard’s post was both public enough and egregious enough that he “just can’t walk back from a statement like that.”
Virginia: Two guards and a K9 dog were injured responding to what Virginia Department of Corrections officials described as a “riot” by six unnamed prisoners at Sussex I State Prison in Waverly on January 10, 2021. The male sergeant and the female K9 officer who responded were also unidentified, according to a report by Richmond TV station WRIC. The K9 officer was reported to be recovering at home from unspecified injuries received in the melee. Her K9 survived emergency veterinary surgery and, along with the sergeant, was recovering from multiple stab wounds inflicted by the prisoners, who eventually took over two dormitories at the maximum-security facility, which can hold up to 1,139 inmates. They also broke off cell door locks during the hours-long uprising before being subdued by a strike-force team.
West Virginia: Twoinmates died of suspected overdose at the North Central Regional Jail in Greenwood, West Virginia, on December 5, 2020, according to a report by Pittsburgh TV station KDKA. State Department of Homeland Security spokesman Lawrence Messina identified the deceased prisoners as David Eugene Smith, 40, and Jeremy Imani Carter, 31. A third prisoner who also overdosed and survived was not named. The three men were being held in a quarantine cell at the jail. Carter had been incarcerated on a parole violation, while Smith was being held on an unspecified charge from Marion County. While still in the lockup there, he had provided lurid testimony in the 2019 trial of Melissa McAtee, who was convicted of fatally shooting her partner and Smith’s friend, David Cotrill, in front of their children the year before.
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