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News in Brief

Alabama: On June 9, 2021, a former guard at the Federal Correctional Institution in Aliceville, Alabama, agreed to plead guilty to federal charges that he had sexual intercourse with a prisoner in the laundry room at the women’s prison west of Tuscaloosa. According to the Birmingham News, Eric Todd Ellis now faces up to 15 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine for the June 2020 incident, provided a judge accepts his plea. He faces another 20-year prison term and an additional $250,000 fine for a related charge of witness intimidation over a September 2020 phone call in which he was recorded instructing a co-worker to lie to federal Bureau of Prison investigators and tell them that he was friends with the unidentified woman but nothing more.

Alabama: A former guard trainee caught trying to smuggle contraband into Fountain Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, was sentenced to 135 months in federal prison on July 3, 2021. According to, Tarrence Dramond Tolbert, 40, claimed he was waiting on a relative when a guard supervisor happened upon him stopped on the roadside in his car on the way to work the morning of February 24, 2020. The supervisor became suspicious and ordered Tolbert searched upon his arrival at the prison, where he was found carrying methamphetamine, “ice,” marijuana, earbuds, a cellphone SIM card, cigars, two bottles of liquor and two knives—all bound for prisoners at the 93-year-old, 1255-bed facility.

Australia: A mouse “plague” in Australia forced relocation to begin on June 22, 2021, of 420 men and women imprisoned at Wellington Correctional Center, according to the Washington Post. About 200 staff members were joining the temporary evacuation while authorities attempted to eradicate the problem at the prison 216 miles northwest of Sydney. Drought-ending rains last year brought an abundant harvest that has led to an explosion in the population of the rodents. They invaded the prison, running rampant across ceilings and chewing through cables. Many have been trapped in the walls to die, permeating the air with a fetid stench. Patients in nearby hospitals have been bitten. Farmers fear for their livelihoods, with some catching thousands of mice each night in shipping containers pressed into service as huge traps.

California: In Oakland, California, on June 30, 2021, a former guard at the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin was charged with two counts of sexual abuse of a ward for having sex with two prisoners there. San Francisco TV station KRON reported that 36-year-old Ross Klinger allegedly carried out a sexual relationship with one of the women in a prison storage warehouse between April and October 2020. He kept in touch with her via email using the alias “Juan Garcia” after transferring to another prison near San Diego, investigators say. They also say Klinger had sex with the second prisoner in a storage container—while a third prisoner kept a lookout—and that he stayed in touch with that victim after she was released to a halfway house with visits and Snapchat messages. He also proposed marriage to both women. The day before he was charged, on June 29, 2020, another former California prison guard was sentenced to a seven-month jail term for having sex with one prisoner in front of 11 others. As reported in PLN last month, Tina Gonzalez, 27, resigned from the Fresno County Jail after investigators discovered her affair with the prisoner, to whom she also smuggled alcohol and a cellphone, according to Inside Edition {See PLN, Jul. 2021, pgs. 4, 62.]

California: After admitting in an interview with investigators on April 6, 2021, to having sex with three prisoners at the Kern County Jail in Bakersfield, California, a guard tried to place the blame on understaffing at the lockup. According to a report by local TV station KGET, 21-year-old Brandon Lawrence insisted that he would never would have had sex with the women in late 2020 and early 2021 if there had been sufficient staff to assign him a partner. Before he resigned and was charged, he wrote apologies to all three. He denied abusing a fourth prisoner who also accused him of sexual assault, but investigators said her story checked out. In addition to the women’s testimony, investigators found surveillance video showing one of them spent about 30 minutes with Lawrence in a closet with no cameras inside. They said he also used a Facebook account to communicate with his victims and illegally accessed their information on a law enforcement database. He is free on a $40,000 bail awaiting trial.

Canada: According to a June 2021 report by Global News, a Canadian prisoner has secured surveillance camera footage of a 2012 assault he suffered at the hands of guards at Millhaven Institution in Kingston, Ontario. At the time of the attack he called “unprovoked and vicious,” Christophe Lewis was in the second year of a 15-year sentence for a second-degree Toronto murder conviction. The video shows he was pepper-sprayed by guards and placed in an apparently illegal chokehold. Lewis, who is Black, filed a complaint against the guards, who were not cleared of wrongdoing but also not disciplined. The newly released video has been turned over to Ontario Provincial Police, who will decide whether to arrest and charge any of the guards involved in his beating.

Connecticut: A Connecticut Department of Correction (CDOC) guard was fired on May 26, 2021, over a three-year-old Facebook post containing an anti-Muslim meme. According to West Hartford TV station WTIV, the post by former Garner Correctional Institution guard Anthony Marlak showed hanged Semitic-looking men—apparently Muslim—with the caption “Islamic Wind Chimes.” Warden Amoda Hannah said the post “threatens the safety of staff and inmates who are Muslim.” The state chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations had called for Marlak’s firing in January 2021 when the post was first reported in the media. CDOC had just disciplined the guard the month before with a five-day suspension for inappropriate remarks he made during a confrontation with another guard who is Muslim. Since then Marlak said he, his family and business had been the target of hate messages and threats.

Florida: A May 27, 2021, report by the Miami Herald detailed a leaked video of a prisoner’s beating at the hands of guards at Charlotte Correctional Institution the previous October. When 37-year-old Michel Hernandez arrived in a Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) van, his face already appeared bruised. Over the next 10 minutes, the video shows that Hernandez—who was transferred from another state lockup in Miami after allegedly assaulting guards there—was repeatedly punched, tackled and body-slammed by a group of guards, all while his legs were in shackles and his wrists clamped in a “black box” restraint that prevented him from breaking his fall when shoved to the ground. The guards, who called themselves the “welcoming committee,” later wrote official reports of the incident at odds with the video evidence. But even after reviewing the footage, FDOC found no evidence of any policy violation—not even in the fact that Hernandez exited the van wearing no clothes except his undershorts and no face mask despite the Covid-19 pandemic. FDOC even produced an opinion from its Office of the Inspector General that the violence filmed against Hernandez was “approved” due to his “actions,” though it didn’t specify what those were.

Florida: One guard and one former guard at Dade Correctional Institution in Miami were arrested in early June 2021 and charged with accepting bribes to smuggle contraband tobacco, cellphones and SIM cards to prisoners. According to local TV station WFOR, the guard still employed at the prison, Gary Leon Littlejohn, was allegedly paid $1,200 in the scheme. His former co-worker, then-Sgt. Travis Thompson, allegedly received $2,000. As previously reported by PLN, the 26-year-old Thompson was fired in December 2020 after he tried to accept a $3,000 bribe from an undercover Miami-Dade Police officer in exchange for smuggling cocaine into the prison [See PLN, Mar. 2021, p. 62.]

Georgia: After video surfaced showing guards vicously beating a prisoner at a Georgia state prison on June 24, 2021, a watchdog group demanding accountability passed it to the state Department of Correction (GADOC) and Gwinnett County District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gaston. According to Newsweek and Atlanta TV station WSB, the video—apparently shot from inside a cell at Phillips State Prison—recorded the moment a prisoner who had not been fed in eight hours stepped outside his own cell to demand food. He was confronted by guards who warned him to return to his cell, counted down from five and then beat him to the ground. None of the participants has yet been named. The video made its way to the Human and Civil Rights Coalition of Georgia, which then passed it to GADOC and Austin-Gaston’s office. Both have opened an investigation.

Maine: The longtime administrator of the York County Jail in Maine was fired on June 18, 2021, for his lax mask-wearing policy that precipitated an outbreak of COVID-19 the year before. According to the Biddeford-Saco-Oob Courier, Michael Vitiello had served 21 years as the jail’s administrator when county commissioners voted to terminate his employment for failing to require mask-wearing during the pandemic by prisoners and guards anywhere in the jail outside of the intake area. Subsequently, on August 19, 2020, one of the state’s largest outbreaks of the disease began, eventually sickening 48 jail prisoners, as well as 48 staff members and 16 more people residing in their households.

Michigan: A Michigan prison guard claims she was forced to resign after another guard outed her as a lesbian in front of prisoners, who then began taunting and threatening her, according to a June 21, 2021, report by the Detroit Free Press. The former guard, Bridgett Cadena, had worked for the Michigan Department of Corrections (MIDOC) for three years when she resigned in 2017, right after the agency completed a two-month investigation into her claim and found insufficient evidence to support it. Cadena then filed suit in February 2020 claiming sex discrimination. In December 2020, a judge refused to dismiss the case, though he acknowledged that there were other ways news of her sexuality may have reached prisoners at Parnall Correctional Facility, where she worked. MIDOC lost an appeal of that decision in April 2021, clearing the way for Cadena to have her day in court.

Michigan: The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) proposed $8,000 in fines for the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) on July 2, 2021, for lapses in workplace safety that left a guard murdered in September 2020. According to a report by the Detroit News, Cpl. Bryant Searcy and a partner had split up to check that cell doors were secured at the county lockup when the 50-year-old guard failed to note that the cell holding Deandre Williams was unlocked. The prisoner then stepped out, beating and choking Searcy to death. Williams, 28, is now facing a first-degree murder charge. MIOSHA wants WCSO to implement retraining and other measures to redress its failures. The president of the Wayne County Deputy Sheriffs Association, Reginald Crawford, blamed chronic short-staffing for the security breach. But WSCO’s chief of courts and jails, Robert Dunlap, denied there was any lapse, saying that all of MIOSHA’s recommendations were already in place. WCSO has the right to appeal the findings and proposed fines.

Mississippi: A federal grand jury in Mississippi indicted a deputy warden at the state penitentiary in Parchman on June 29, 2021, charging him with felony violation of a prisoner’s civil rights during a brutal beating five years before. According to Tupelo TV station WTVA, 49-year-old Melvin Hilson was a member of the prison’s K-9 unit at the time he allegedly punched the unnamed prisoner repeatedly during the 2016 assault, knocking him onto the floor and injuring him. Hilson then allegedly lied in his written report on the incident and gave false answers during a subsequent investigation into the matter. He was not ordered detained while awaiting trial, currently set for late August 2021.

Missouri: A former Missouri state prison guard filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections (MODOC) on June 23, 2021, alleging that she was the victim of sexual harassment from male co-workers and that she was ultimately fired in retaliation for complaining about it, all in violation of the state’s Human Rights Act. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the former guard, Patricia Lawson, alleges that she was propositioned for sex acts and subjected to sexist vulgarity primarily by fellow guards Martin Rodriguez and Bernie Snyder throughout her tenure at Potosi Correctional Center from July 2007 to June 2019, when she was terminated. She also alleges that guards Christopher Mesger, Derek Payne and Dustin Motely occasionally joined in the harassment and that Warden Richard Jennings did nothing about it when she complained. When Director Anne Precythe took the helm of MODOC in 2017, she promised a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment, which had by then cost the state millions of dollars in payouts to settle claims from female employees like Lawson.

New York: A wrongful death lawsuit was filed against the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) on June 23, 2021, by the mother of man who died a year earlier at BOP’s Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. According to a report by cable TV station Revolt, Donna Mays’ suit says that after guards pepper-sprayed her son, Jamal Floyd, they “stood by while he slowly died.” She alleges that after being placed in solitary confinement for three days, Floyd—who had schizophrenia, high blood pressure and asthma—began to suffer “a severe medical or mental health crisis.” Guards ignored him until he broke his cell sink and window, allegedly to get their attention. It worked. A group of 20 guards armed with riot shields stormed his cell, discharging “several canisters” of pepper spray on Floyd before strapping him into a chair, where he died.

North Carolina: Sheriff’s deputies in Pasquotank County, North Carolina, arrested a state prison guard on June 2, 2021, according Elizabeth City Daily Advance. The 32-year-old guard, Spencer P. Schaan, was charged with two counts of misdemeanor assault on an unidentified female and another count of interfering with emergency communication. Schaan has worked since August 2020 for the state Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) at Bertie Correctional Institution, a 1,400-bed men’s prison opened in Windsor in 2006. He has been reassigned from guard duty while the alleged crime is investigated, NCDPS said.

Ohio: The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) placed four employees on paid leave on June 7, 2021, as an investigation expanded into the death of a 55-year-old state prisoner, Michael McDaniel, at the Corrections Reception Center in Pickaway County on February 6, 2021. According to a report by the Columbus Dispatch, guards Joey Lemaster, Jason Roberts and Jerry Perkins, along with nurse Jamie Dukes, join three other guards—Kristy Judd, Lt. Bruce Brown and Heath Causey—who were placed on leave on May 1, 2021, all for their roles in the “altercation” that killed McDaniel. ODRC at first claimed that McDaniel had collapsed and died after a struggle with two female guards who were injured while trying to extract him from his cell for a medical evaluation. But an autopsy by the Franklin County coroner found McDaniel had multiple fractured ribs, huge bruises on his knees and abdomen, as well as a one-inch gash near his eye among other injuries to his face and body. His death was ruled a homicide caused by “stress induced sudden cardiac death,” prompting the ODRC investigation.

Pennsylvania: Former Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center guard Haneef Lawton was indicted on federal charges of accepting bribes to smuggle contraband into the prison, the U.S. Attorney’s office announced on May 28, 2021. The 13-year veteran of the city’s Department of Corrections had resigned the day before, according to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is accused of accepting $11,000 in bribes to smuggle $69,000 worth of cellphones and Suboxone into the prison between September 2020 and April 2021. Prisoner Kennard Murray, 36, and his girlfriend, 42-year-old Charlene Stallings, were also indicted in the scheme. At the time, Murray was being held on $500,000 bail to face charges of attempted murder, aggravated assault and illegal gun possession. Stallings, who was not imprisoned at the time, faces additional charges for an 11-ounce rock of crack she was found with. Her indictment follows the fatal shooting in Philadelphia of her 18-year-old son, Rafeek Griffin, on May 1, 2021.

Pennsylvania: On July 6, 2021, a guard was found unresponsive after an apparent on-duty drug overdose at the Luzerne County Correctional Facility in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. According to a report by the local Dallas Post, the unnamed guard survived the incident at the minimal offender building, which holds 126 prisoners. Though a 2006 employee drug-testing program yielded seven positive tests in its first year—requiring offenders to undergo counseling as part of a “last chance” contract to retain their jobs—the program petered out, initially due to budget constraints and then the COVID-19 pandemic. The county’s Correctional Services Division Head, Mark Rockovich, and District Attorney Sam Seguedolce have both opened investigations into the latest incident.

South Africa: After fires broke out at a South African lockup on July 12, 2021, some prisoners tried to break out, too—until the flames forced one of them to jump from the prison’s roof and die. According to a report by local radio station KZN, the attempted escape from Umzinto Correctional Center in KwaZulu-Natal was thwarted by police, and the other would-be escapees were returned to cells. It was unclear if a prisoner had set the blazes, but a Correctional Services spokesperson said the dead man was one of several prisoners who decide to “take advantage” of the fire by using it as cover for their escape attempt.

South Carolina: The South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDOC) arrested and fired a prison guard on July 1, 2021, after she was found trying to smuggle drugs into work that she had hidden inside Rice Krispie treats. According to Newsweek, another guard grew suspicious when 43-year-old Marcy T. Shaffer showed up for work at Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution with the confections repackaged in plastic baggies. A search then found a half-dozen tablets of Shaffer’s own prescription amphetamines hidden inside the food, apparently bound for resale inside the 511-bed, medium-security women’s prison in Columbia. Her arrest follows that of another SCDOC guard in May 2021 who tried to smuggle amphetamines hidden inside Blo-Pops into Ridgeland Correctional Institution, where she worked. According to Columbia TV station WIS, a sloppy attempt to repackage the candy by the 39-year-old guard, Dana Fisher, raised suspicions of her co-workers, too. She was also fired and now faces the same charges that Shaffer faces. If convicted on all counts, each could spend up to 16 years in prison.

Tennessee: A former “trusty” at West Tennessee State Penitentiary was sentenced to life without parole on June 14, 2021, for murdering a prison administrator. According to reports by Memphis TV station WMC, as well as Salt Lake City TV station KUTV, 46-year-old Curtis Ray Watson also received a 25-year sentence for raping and robbing the administrator, Debra Johnson, before he killed her. A warden supervisor, she had been employed by the state Department of Corrections (TNDOC) for 38 years. Watson had been entrusted with keys to lawn maintenance equipment at the minimum-security annex of the prison 60 miles north of Memphis when he broke into Johnson’s home on prison grounds on August 7, 2019, fatally strangling the 64-year-old with her cellphone charging cord before he escaped on a TNDOC tractor. He was captured four days later after a manhunt. At the time, Watson was serving a 15-year sentence for a 2012 attack on his wife with an aluminum baseball bat. He also had a prior conviction for aggravated child abuse. TNDOC Commissioner Tony Parker said afterward that it was “worth looking into” installing surveillance cameras in homes on prison grounds.

Tennessee: On June 17, 2021, federal prosecutors in Tennessee announced the sentencing of two former state prison guards convicted of assaulting a prisoner in violation of his civil rights. As previously reported in PLN, Nathaniel Griffin, 31, and Tanner Penwell, 24, were among five guards who pleaded guilty to their roles in the February 2019 attack on the unidentified prisoner in the mental health unit of the Northwest County Correctional Complex in Tiptonville [See PLN, Nov. 2020, p. 62]. The other three former guards—Carl Spurlin, Jr. 44, Cadie McAllister, 23, and Jonathan York, 35—have also been sentenced. Griffin and Penwell will each spend a year and one day in prison, followed by three years of supervised release.

United Kingdom: A Liverpool judge handed down a ten-month sentence on June 25, 2021, to a former guard who admitted to an inappropriate relationship with a prisoner at Her Majesty’s Prison in Altcourse—putting her behind bars despite the fact that she now has a ten-month-old child that he fathered. According to a report by the Guardian, 28-year-old Lucy Thornton initially denied her affair with prisoner Aaron Whittaker when she was first questioned by prison officials in May 2019. That same day, however, they found a note with her phone number in his cell. Subsequent searches found cellphones in his cell and in the cell of his brother, Haden, who was also held in the prison. Thornton was suspended in June 2019 and arrested the following month when Aaron Whitaker’s number was found stored in her cellphone contacts under “my baby.” Though there was no evidence the pair had sex inside the prison, they did so after he was released on parole. For that violation, sentencing judge Neil Flewitt said that “appropriate punishment can only be achieved” by a jail term for Thompson. She and Whittaker have now broken up.

Vietnam: Shortly after recording its first case of COVID-19 on June 28, 2021, a prison in Vietnam’s largest city tested its entire population and uncovered 81 more cases, including 45 infected staff members. According to Radio Free Asia, that led to a prisoner uprising at Ho Chi Minh City’s Chi Hoa Detention Center, apparently on June 29, 2021, when it was reported by Tuoi Tre, the country’s largest newspaper, which then scrubbed the report from its website the next day. A prisoner who was transferred from the facility to Bo La Detention Center in nearby Binh Duong province on June 23, 2021, became that prison’s first recorded case of the disease five days later. A database maintained by the New York Times recorded 30,478 total cases in Vietnam from the beginning of the pandemic to early July 2021, a rate less than three-tenths of one percent of the U.S. rate of 10,172 cases per 100,000 people. But that same database said new Vietnamese cases had spiked 312% since the end of the previous month.

Washington: A former guard who admitted smuggling drugs into a Washington prison has received a two-month sentence, according to a June 11, 2021, report by the Centralia Chronicle. That’s far lighter than the five-year minimum term recommended for the federal charges to which 46-year-old Michael Mattern pleaded guilty in January 2021. It’s also much less than the 30-month sentence handed to co-conspirator Brandy Lorentzen, 46, who supplied the drugs: 200 Suboxone strips, 14.6 grams of methamphetamine and 2.9 grams of heroin, all hidden in a tobacco tin inside a lunchbox Mattern carried to work at Airway Heights Correction Center in July 2020. He claimed he was aware only of the Suboxone, which a third co-conspirator, 34-year-old theft and robbery convict Joseph Burnett, resold for $250 per strip to other prisoners. Someone then tipped off the state Department of Corrections (WADOC), which worked with the FBI to catch the smugglers. Burnett received a 56-month sentence. After his short prison stay, Mattern faces six months of home confinement, 300 hours of community service and a lifetime of supervised release. But he is not barred from re-employment with WADOC. 

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