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News in Brief

Arizona: In January 2021, two women who worked at an Arizona state prison operated by Florida-based GEO Group pleaded guilty to having sex with inmates there. Melony Petrovffsky, 50, ran the commissary for the private contractor at a prison in Golden Valley, where she was allegedly caught on video surveillance in November 2019 having sex with a convicted child molester identified as I.P. An employee under her supervision, 32-year-old Genevieve Belden, was also filmed about the same time having sex with a convicted child abuser identified as C.W. Mohave County Superior Court Judge Robert Lambert sentenced Petrovffsky to a six-month prison term. Belden, who faced more counts because her affair with I.P. persisted longer, could receive a term up to 18 months, according to a report by the Mohave Valley Daily News. They are not the only female correctional workers in the state who have recently found themselves in criminal trouble. In October 2019, federal Bureau of Prisons employee Jessica Diane Ferrell, 34, received a 5-year prison sentence from U.S. District Judge James A. Soto for providing contraband to an inmate at the Tucson federal prison where she worked in exchange for the prisoner’s help in plotting the murder of her ex-lover.

Arizona: On January 26, 2021, two prisoners employed an air conditioning unit as a ram to break into a closet and steal tools they then used to escape the Arizona state prison in Florence. According to a report by CNN, escapee David Harmon is a convicted kidnapper and burglar serving a 100-year sentence. The other escapee, John Charpiot, is serving a 35-year sentence for a sexual offense conviction. The U.S. Marshals and the state offered a $70,000 reward for information leading to their capture. Ironically, the pair escaped just a year after another inmate at the prison, Doyle Williams, had an approved release thwarted. Gov. Doug Ducey had granted the 70-year-old clemency in November 2019, five decades after his conviction for the 1969 murder of Onnie Hightower. Then a mother’s claim that Williams molested her daughter during a 1989 prison visit resurfaced to keep him locked up while officials investigated. He maintains he is innocent of both that allegation and Hightower’s murder. For most of the time Williams has been in prison, his 19-year-old co-defendant, Herbert Chambers, has been free, having served three years of a 10-year sentence received in a plea deal after he and Williams were found by police in Hightower’s truck shortly before neighbors discovered the 72-year-old’s corpse.

California: On October 7, 2020, Santa Cruz County, California, Sheriff’s Deputy Jenna Baldwin, 35, was charged with introducing contraband to an inmate at the county jail and having an “inappropriate relationship” with him, according to a report by the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Her arrest came one month after a fellow deputy, 31-year-old Jessica Smith, was also charged with having sex with an inmate she was supposed to be guarding at the jail. Smith was placed on administrative leave while her case plays out. Baldwin, a 12-year veteran, no longer holds her job. In between their arrests, on September 23, 2020, another correctional officer in the state was sentenced for contraband activity to a four-month term in prison. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) also fired the guard, 32-year-old Robert Ayala, from Deuel Vocational Institute near Tracy after he pleaded guilty to plotting to accept a $300,000 bribe from an inmate in exchange for smuggling cellphones to him. Two days after his sentencing, CDCR announced the 68-year-old facility would be permanently shuttered at the end of September 2021, saving $182 million in annual operating expenses.

California: On November 30, 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom overruled a state parole panel decision and denied release to Leslie Van Houten, a follower and accomplice of the late convicted murderer Charles Manson. According to a report by the Independent, the 71-year-old Van Houten was 19 when she participated with Manson and other followers in his cult in the brutal 1969 stabbing deaths of Los Angeles grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary. The crime occurred one day after cult followers fatally stabbed pregnant actress Sharon Tate and three others in the Beverly Hills home she shared with director Roman Polanski, who was in London at the time. Manson died in custody in November 2017. None of his convicted accomplices has been granted parole, despite repeated attempts. This is the 23rd time Van Houten’s parole has been rejected.

California: One day before Thanksgiving 2020, an unidentified guard shot and killed an inmate attacking a fellow prisoner at the Folsom State Prison near Sacramento, California. According to a report by the Associated Press, 34-year-old Martin Pacheco died from a gunshot in the back as guards broke up his attack on another prisoner, 37-year-old Paul Solis. He was treated at a hospital for six stab wounds. Three homemade knives were recovered at the scene. Two other prisoners were being investigated for their role in the attack on Solis: Gustavo Reyes, 42, and Angel Torres, 23. Pacheco, Solis and Torres were serving life sentences for attempted first-degree murder, while Reyes’ life sentence was for second-degree murder.

Colorado: A convicted Mississippi drug dealer held since 2007 at a Colorado prison — considered the nation’s most secure — died on September 20, 2020. According to a report by the Pueblo Chieftain, 40-year-old Lamarcus Lee Hillard was found unresponsive at 9:15 a.m. at the “supermax” prison in the Federal Correctional Complex near Florence, Colorado. Officially known as the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, it houses 329 prisoners. Kimberly Gemplar of the federal Bureau of Prisons said that FBI agents were looking into the matter, adding that “no staff or other inmates were injured, and at no time was the public in danger.”

Democratic Republic of the Congo: Only 110 of 1,456 inmates remained at Kangbayi central prisonin the northeastern Congo city of Bunia on October 20, 2020, after the rest were freed during an armed attack that left two prisoners shot dead, according to a report by U.S. News. Mayor Modeste Bakwanamahablamed Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in neighboring Uganda for the attack, which also targeted a nearby base from which the Congolese military had waged a year-long counter-insurgency against ADF. But a local cell of the Islamic State claimed responsibility. Meanwhile, a former United Nations investigator, Dan Fahey, said it actually sounded like the work of local Mai Mai rebels, who attacked the same prison in 2017 and had surrounded it again in early September 2020 to demand release of the men. Later that month, Reuters reported that 52 inmates had starved to death at the prison over the year, where food rations were being delivered for its design capacity despite the fact that it was then holding nearly five times that many prisoners.

Florida: While on outdoor work detail near Orlando with other Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) prisoners in December 2020, Dalton Ayers allegedly struck a guard with a shovel and escaped in his DOC car. According to a report by the Leesburg Daily Commercial, an Orange County Sheriff’s Office helicopter quickly spotted the vehicle and tracked it until it crashed in Okahumpka, where Ayers was recaptured by Leesburg Police. The 23-year-old was less than four months away from his scheduled release from a 14-month sentence handed down after he was caught shoplifting $365 worth of merchandise in Mount Dora and police found a bullet on him. Ayers called it his “lucky round,” but prosecutors used it to tack on a charge of possession of ammunition by a convicted felon. Ayers’ prior convictions include grand theft and burglary of an occupied dwelling. DOC called his temporary escape an “extremely rare” occurrence.

Florida: Bradford County Sheriff’s deputies arrested three people protesting outside the Florida State Prison in Starke on December 6, 2020. According to a report by Gainesville TV station WCJB, Danielle Chanzes, 27, Dami Feral, 43, and Peter Tsolkas, 39, were charged with trespassing and felony mischief after they allegedly incited other protesters to shoot off fireworks, causing an estimated $1,000 in damages to prison property. The three then allegedly resisted arrest, for which they were also charged. All three are activists. Chanzes, an organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, had appeared two days earlier before the Gainesville City Commission as one of just 16 applicants for 11 vacant seats on its Police Advisory Council, encouraging commissioners to reopen the application process with better advertising to minority communities. Feral was filmed in December 2019 attempting to deliver water and juice to juvenile immigrant detainees at a Miramar facility operated for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement when a private security guard threatened him with pepper spray. In an April 2016 profile, the Broward and Palm Beach New Times describedTsolkas as one of South Florida’s “19 best environmentalists.

Florida: In December 2020, a guard employed by the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) at its Dade Correctional Institution near Miami was arrested for attempting to deal cocaine in the prison. Sgt. Travis Thompson, 26, a five-year DOC veteran, was charged with felony cocaine trafficking after agreeing to accept $3,000 from an undercover Miami-Dade Police officer to bring an undisclosed amount of the drug into the prison with the intent of dealing it there, according to a report by Miami TV station WSVN. His bond was set at $25,000. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office also participated in the sting operation.

Georgia: On October 15, 2020, former Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) guard Lakeisha Lashea Harden, 23, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison with five years of supervised release for her conviction a year earlier of possession with intent to distribute marijuana and methamphetamine at Wheeler Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Alamo where she was employed. The prison is privately operated for DOC by Tennessee-based CoreCivic. According to a report by the AtlantaJournal-Constitution, Harden was found with the drugs in her home in April 2018 when Dublin Police officers and agents from the state Department of Community Supervision arrived to arrest her boyfriend, 30-year-old Tremayne Linder, for violating his probation. He was also convicted in the drug-dealing plot at the prison and sentenced to ten years in federal prison with three years supervised release.

Illinois: Edsel Aaron Badoni, 37, an inmate at the U. S. Penitentiary in Thomson, Illinois, died November 27, 2020, after a fight with an unidentified prisoner. A second prisoner was treated for injuries after the confrontation, which occurred around 2:30 a.m. No other injuries were reported, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation was placed on notice. Baldoni had arrived in November 2019 at the high-security facility, which holds 1,366 men, according to a report by He was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Arizona to serve 166 months for assault charges after his habit of shooting his gun around the neighborhood left a bullet wound in the chest of another member of the Navajo Nation, on whose land they both lived.

Indiana: A 22-year-old inmate on his way from Texas to face a murder charge in East Chicago, Indiana, escaped a privately operated prisoner transport van on December 14, 2020, according to a report by Green Bay, Wisconsin, TV station WBAY. The prisoner, Leon Taylor, asked the driver of the van, operated by REDI Transports of Green Bay, to remove his protective mask when they stopped for a meal at a McDonalds in Gary, Indiana. The driver said Taylor then fled through the vehicle window, despite being shackled with a belly chain, handcuffs and a leg brace. But surveillance video revealed Taylor actually opened the unlocked van door and stepped out wearing only a leg brace he had to struggle with. He eluded capture until Sheriff’s deputies from Lake County, Indiana, finally caught up with him over two weeks later on December 30, 2020. Taylor is suspected of killing Daniel Nitzsche in an East Chicago alley in November 2020. Before he died, the 52-year-old Nitzsche told police he had been robbed and shot. REDI Transports President Crystal Cook announced her firm was conducting its own investigation of the escape.

Israel: The largest COVID-19 outbreak of the pandemic in an Israeli prison was reported in January 2021 by the newspaper Haaretz. After 150 inmates tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes the disease in the second week of the month alone, Ketziot Prison was placed on lockdown and dozens of sickened Palestinian prisoners there transferred to Ramon Prison, where guards — known locally as “wardens” — were infected and then spread the disease to about 30 Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners, one of whom was hospitalized. As a result, the nation’s Prison Service announced plans to send several dozen prisoners from Ramon to makeshift
Covid-19 wards set up in several cellblocks of Saharonim Prison. Ohalei Keidar Prison was also closed after 160 prisoners and staff members were infected there. Neveh Tirza women’s prison was closed for two days after three of its inmates tested positive for the disease. Public Security Minister Amir Ohana said almost half of his 9,500 staff members had been vaccinated, though he only recently relented to Health Ministry orders to vaccinate prisoners aged 60 and over. Israel, considered by many to be an apartheid state, has vaccinated much of its population while up until press time denying treatment to Palestinians in territories it illegally occupies.

Italy: Immigrant refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea from the Middle East and Africa are being captured and detained in Italy on cruise ships idled by the
COVID-19 pandemic, according to a November 2020 report by American socialist quarterly Jacobin. Hundreds of cruise vessels around the globe have been docked since the February 2020 debacle aboard the Diamond Princess, a British-flagged vessel stranded for a month at the onset of the pandemic in port in Okinawa, Japan, during which time one-fifth of its 4,000 vacationers were infected with the disease and 14 died. Mass outbreaks followed on other cruise ships, including the Greg Mortimer, believed to be responsible for half of Australia’s cases. In May 2020, Italian authorities sequestered the ferry liner Moby Zazà to quarantine several hundred African migrants aboard. Two firms — GNV and SNAV — have since won contracts to quarantine hundreds more migrants for about €100 ($121 USD) each, netting each ship over €1 million ($1.21 million USD) every month.

Lebanon: On November 21, 2020, after a group of 69 inmates broke out of Baabda Prison — a Lebanese detention center near Beirut — five of them fled in a vehicle and died when it crashed. According to a report by Reuters, another escapee was injured and hospitalized, though it was unclear if he was in the vehicle with the dead men. Four other escapees surrendered themselves to authorities, who recaptured 15 more. Later the same day, police were still searching for the remaining 44 escaped prisoners. An unidentified source with the national Internal Security Forces said that none of them was being held on terrorism-related charges.

Louisiana: On September 25, 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Dee Drell in Louisiana sentenced a former guard at the Rapides Parish Jail to 11 months in federal prison and a year of supervised release for the unprovoked beating of a naked detainee in his cell in June 2018. According to a federal Department of Justice press release, the former guard, Dominic Davidson, 27, had pleaded guilty in June 2020 to a misdemeanor violation of the civil rights of an inmate in his custody, identified in court documents as K.F. It was the second high-profile use-of-force case in the state since the March 2019 death at B.B. “Sixty” Rayburn Correctional Center of 55-year-old inmate Anthony Carl Smith, who suffocated on his own vomit inside a restraint mask. For causing that, and for doctoring evidence in an attempt to cover up what they had done, the state Department of Corrections fired five guards in August 2019, including Capt. Brink Hillman, 43, Sgt. Gary King, 38, and Sgt. John Crain, 25. A Washington Parish grand jury indicted the three former officers in November 2019 on felony counts of malfeasance and obstruction of justice. Smith’s family also filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in March 2020 accusing the state, prison Warden Robert Tanner and other current and former employees for Smith’s wrongful death.

Massachusetts: The Washington Times reported that an elderly convicted mobster was granted compassionate release from prison on November 4, 2020, by a federal court in Boston. Judge Denise Casper said 75-year-old Robert DeLuca’s poor health not only rendered him harmless but also put him at increased risk of death should he contract COVID-19. DeLuca was indicted in 2016 for murdering Boston nightclub owner Steven DiSarro, whose body had been found that year buried behind a mill in Providence, R.I. He had been missing since 1993. Federal prosecutors claimed DeLuca and Patriarca family mob boss Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme arranged to hide the body, but after catching DeLuca in lies about DiSarro’s disappearance, they wrested a guilty plea from him in 2018 for making false statements and obstructing justice. His release was ordered about two years into the five-year federal prison sentence he received.

Michigan: Six people have now been implicated in a smuggling conspiracy at Lakeland Correctional Facility (LCF) in Coldwater, Michigan. State Police arrested two adults and a juvenile on September 19, 2020, following a lengthy investigation that began when a package containing drugs and a cellphone arrived for a prisoner at LCF in February 2019. According to a report by Coldwater AM radio station WTVB, one of those arrested, Amber Duren, pleaded guilty on November 16, 2020, to attempting to furnish contraband to prisoners. In exchange for her plea, prosecutors dropped three other charges against the 32-year-old. A case against her 15-year-old daughter was being handled in Family Court. Duren’s alleged accomplice, 20-year-old James Bellamy, had remained in the Branch County Jail, along with two Detroit-area women arrested in December 2020 for their role in the smuggling ring. Their names were not immediately released. An unnamed 25-year-old prisoner was transferred from LCF and also charged.

Mississippi: Lt. LaShawn Lynette Coleman, a 26-year-veteran employee of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, was arrested September 28, 2020, charged with possession of alcoholic beverages within a prison and trafficking in a controlled substance. As soon as the 53-year-old reported for work as a guard supervisor at South Mississippi Correctional Institution, a search found $600 cash on her and 20 small packages of a “green leafy substance,” according to a report by Jackson TV station WLBT. A Clorox bottle allegedly filled with alcohol was also confiscated. Coleman was booked into the Greene County Jail and her bond set at $60,000.

Ohio: A guard at Columbiana County Jail in Lisbon, Ohio, was arrested October 17, 2020, and charged with illegal conveyance of prohibited items into the facility. According to a report by Youngstown TV station WKBN, county correctional officer Jordan Z. Thurmond, 29, was caught attempting to smuggle amphetamines, Oxycodone and marijuana in his backpack. He posted bond and was released to await trial.

Oklahoma: After winning the hearts of children and becoming the unofficial song of the Washington Nationals’ 2019 World Series victory, the tune Baby Shark found a disturbing use in the Oklahoma County Jail in Oklahoma City. According to a report by The New York Times, on at least five occasions in November and December 2020, two former guards handcuffed inmates to a wall and forced them to listen to the song for periods up to two hours, sometimes in the middle of the night. The song was apparently a joke between the guards, Christian Miles and Gregory Butler, both 21. But county District Attorney David Prater didn’t think it was funny. He charged both men, who have since resigned, with cruelty to prisoners and other misdemeanors. Because their supervisor at the time, Christopher Hendershott, 50, failed to reign in his employees’ misbehavior, he was also charged. Hendershott has since retired, according to the county sheriff, P.D. Taylor.

Pennsylvania: A prisoner transport bus carrying 38 Pennsylvania Department of Corrections inmates crashed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on October 30, 2020. No other vehicles were involved, but eastbound lanes were closed briefly in Dauphin County, according to a report by Pittsburgh TV station KDKA. A guard and 11 inmates were injured and treated at a local hospital, where the rest of those involved in the accident were also medically evaluated and cleared, according to state police.

Pennsylvania: In December 2020, CBS Pittsburgh reported on a virtual visit with a prisoner at Allegheny County Jail that ended with charges. A woman allegedly got semi-naked and put on a sexual performance — while a toddler was in the room. Jail officials who screened the video visit observed Natika Maddox, 23, “performing sex acts while nude below the waist” as she participated from a tablet at home while inmate Justin Henderson, 27, watched on a tablet at the jail. Maddox was arrested on charges, including sexual abuse of children and corruption of a minor. The same charges have been added to the drug charges for which Henderson was in jail and awaiting trial.

Pennsylvania: A “massive” police and fire response was credited with putting down a riot on October 3, 2020, at the Cambria County Prison in Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, according to a report by the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Tribune-Democrat. Warden Christopher Smith said the riot began around 12:50 p.m. in one of the prison’s dormitory-style housing units. The uprising was contained there, he added, but it grew to include 31 prisoners. The unit guard was rescued, and negotiations were begun with the rioters around 3:30 p.m. Meanwhile responders were arriving from Ebensburg’s Dauntless Volunteer Fire Company, the county’s Emergency Management Agency and its Sheriff’s Department, along with county detectives, Pennsylvania State Police, Ebensburg and Cambria Alliance Emergency Medical Services, STAT MedEvac and police from nearby towns. The housing unit was back under control by 6 p.m. after sustaining “considerable damage,” said Smith, who added that the search for what sparked the riot is part of an ongoing investigation.

South Carolina: South Carolina Department of Corrections (DOC) prison guard Ashley Nickole Williams, 33, was arrested and fired from her job at McCormick Correctional Institution on November 2, 2020, three days after a search of her belongings when she reported for work at the high-security prison found four packages that tested positive for methamphetamines and marijuana, as well as cocaine hidden with food in containers. According to a report by The State in Columbia, he is charged with drug trafficking. Williams was at least the third DOC employee nabbed on contraband charges in a year. In December 2019, Faith Gerena Weston, 37, was arrested and fired from her job as a mental health worker at Lieber Correctional Institution when she allegedly attempted to smuggle alcohol disguised in water bottles to a prisoner there. She is charged with providing contraband to an inmate. The third DOC employee was arrested and fired from his job at Broad River Correctional Institution in November 2019, when a surprise search by prison officials found 57 grams of tobacco and rolling papers inside his protective vest. Guard Anthony Karras, Jr., 27, was charged with introducing contraband into a prison. The three fired employees also face other charges including criminal conspiracy and official misconduct.

Sri Lanka: A large group of inmates clashed with armed police on November 30, 2020, at Mahara prison just outside the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, leaving eight of the prisoners dead and at least 50 injured, according to a report by CNN. A senior police official said that “most of the deaths and injuries appear to be due to gunshots.” The protest erupted when prisoners infected with Covid-19 were transferred to Maraha from other facilities in the country. Sri Lankan prisons are notoriously overcrowded, conditions which encourage the spread of the disease. A recent surge in cases has brought the island country’s infection rate to 2.92 per 1,000 people, similar to Japan’s rate but far less than the U.S. rate of 78.67 per 1,000, according to a database maintained by The New York Times.

Tennessee: After an inmate was stabbed on December 2, 2020, at the Silverdale Detention Center in Hamilton County, Tennessee, sheriff’s deputies identified and charged eight other prisoners involved with aggravated rioting and possession of contraband, for the homemade knives used to stab the victim, 23-year-old Jonathan Conyers, according to a report by Chattanooga TV station WRCB. The jail is privately operated for the county by Nashville-based CoreCivic. Those facing charges were: Andre Dewon Blocker, Jr., 19;James Allen Costlow, Jr., 32;Britian Tracey Crutcher, 28; Tracy Lebron Freeman, 51; Gerald Farris Green, III, 21; Dedrick Lamont Lindsey, Jr., 27;Maurice Lamont Thurman, Jr., 20;and Patrick Lavar Watts, Jr., 20.

Washington: A Washington woman with a history of mental health issues and alcoholism was shot dead inside the lobby of the Spokane County Jail on the evening of December 4, 2020. Though the jail was closed at the time Nancy King began pounding on the front door, an unidentified sheriff’s deputy opened it for her. When the 70-year-old waved a knife, she was asked to disarm and when refused, the deputy shot and killed her. According to a report by The Washington Post, even her family had no idea why King was at the jail, but a nephew wondered how a 110-pound woman posed a lethal threat to a jail guard. Her death — one of at least 1,300 nationally resulting from a police shooting of a mentally ill person in just six years — also caused an uproar. The local NAACP chapter issued a letter to county officials declaring that its officers “are equipped with stun guns and should be well-trained in de-escalation techniques and prepared to use them before firing shots.”

Washington: When the number of prisoners infected with COVID-19 at the Washington State Penitentiary (WDP) reached 803 at the end of 2020, demonstrators called into question the response to the pandemic by the state Department of Corrections (DOC). According to a report by the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, protests were organized in early January 2021 in several cities around the state by a group called The Truth Is Inside Out to demand an end to DOC’s policy of using solitary confinement of infected prisoners to combat the spread of the disease. Relying on that, rather than isolating all of those at high risk of serious illness or death from the disease, meant that DOC’s pandemic protocols weren’t working, said Walla Walla demonstrator Loretta S. Pedersen, whose husband is serving a life sentence at WSP. The demonstrations occurred one day after DOC reported a second prisoner had died of COVID-19 at WSP. 

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