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News in Brief

Alabama: In February 2021, Huntsville TV station WHNT reported a delay in the trial on theft and ethics charges of Mike Blakely, sheriff of Limestone County, Alabama. According to the report, retired Colbert County Circuit Judge Pride Tompkins, who had been appointed to hear the case at a trial scheduled for late March 2021, recused himself over concerns about contracting COVID-19. Sheriff Blakely, who in his tenth term is the state’s longest-serving sheriff, was indicted in August 2019 on charges he stole $11,000 from his campaign fund, misappropriated sheriff’s office funds for his own use and solicited money from his employees, all in violation of state ethics laws. While under investigation in 2018, he submitted amended ethics disclosures revealing at least $350,000 in previously unreported gambling winnings. In November 2019, his attorneys asked the state Supreme Court to declare the ethics laws unconstitutionally vague. No ruling has been handed down. Blakely lost his wife, Debbie, a retired schoolteacher and coach, in December 2020. Judge Pamela Baschab will take Tompkins’ place on the bench at a trial now scheduled for July 12, 2021.

California: According to a February 2021 report in the Davis Vanguard, no charges had been filed over a month after 25-year-old Braydon Lesseos was fatally stabbed at the California State Prison in Sacramento on Christmas Day 2020. Prison officials announced they had identified a murder suspect: Jordan Greendahl, Lesseos’ 26-year-old cellmate. But no motive was mentioned. Greendahl has been placed in administrative segregation while an investigation is conducted. Lesseos’ mother, Shanna Bianchi, said her son and Greendahl had become friends over the six months they shared a cell, with Lesseos even asking her to buy Greendahl a book for his birthday. Lesseos was serving an 11-year term for a 2018 conviction for assault with a firearm in Yolo County. Greendahl is serving an eight-year sentence for a conviction, also in 2018, on arson and theft charges in Sacramento County.

California: A caravan of more than 100 cars paraded from Oakland, California, around the San Francisco Bay area on January 31, 2021, demanding early release for thousands of elderly state prisoners whose age and underlying health problems leave them at risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. Of 192 prisoners whose deaths to the disease have been reported by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the average age was 63, caravan organizer Courtney Morris told local radio station KCBS. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, CDCR has released 18,000 people from the state’s 35 prisons.

California: After a prisoner was fatally stabbed at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California, on February 1, 2021, two of his fellow prisoners were placed in administrative segregation while their role in his death was investigated. The Associated Press reported that the dead man, 24-year-old Christian Lepe, was serving a nine-year sentence for a conviction in Tulare County on assault charges during a domestic disturbance. Prison guards fired rubber bullets to break up the attack on him, recovering homemade weapons allegedly used by his assailants, Ricardo Palmerin, 26, and David Morales, 27. Palmerin is serving 20 years for a second-degree street-gang murder in Kings County. Morales is on a 24-year sentence for evading arrest, armed assault and vehicular manslaughter after a drunk-driving accident that left one dead in San Francisco County.

Connecticut: A probation request for former New Haven Correctional Center guard Carlos Padro, 55, was denied by a Connecticut Superior Court on September 9, 2020. The New Haven Register reported that Judge Peter Brown decided Padro’s third-degree assault conviction for attacking prisoner Carl Robert Talbot was “too serious.” The 30-year-old Talbot died on March 21, 2019 after a struggle with Padro and other guards when he refused to leave the shower. As a non-violent offender jailed for breach of peace and trespassing, the 400-pound man suffered bipolar disorder with schizophrenic features. His death was later ruled a homicide, but State’s Attorney Margaret E. Kelly announced in March 2020 that investigators couldn’t tie it to anyone’s actions. The only charge filed was one against Padro for using excessive force when he allegedly kicked and pepper-sprayed Talbott after the detainee was already on his back on the floor.

Connecticut: Should worker’s compensation cover mental health treatment for prison guards suffering work-related depression? That question received a loud yes in a January 2021 profile by the Connecticut Examiner of state Sen. Cathy Osten and her effort to augment worker’s compensation benefits for state corrections officers. Before entering politics, Osten worked as a state prison guard for over two decades. Her drive comes just over a year after a state prison guard’s wife told police her husband was suffering work-related depression when he stabbed her and tried to strangle her. The young children she had with 51-year-old Daniel Burke were also at home during the December 2019 attack, which she survived after emergency surgery. Police arrested and charged him with attempted murder and risk of injury to a minor, among other counts. His bond was set at $2 million. He had given notice that he planned to resign his job at the end of the month.

Cuba: A COVID-19 vaccination plan was underway at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, when former President Donald J. Trump (R) left office in January 2020, according to a report published early the following month by Politico. By then, however, an outcry from GOP congressmen had led the incoming administration of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D) to “pause” the vaccine rollout. Chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said none of the approximately 40 prisoners — most of them international terror suspects — still detained there had received a dose. But vaccinations continued for some 1,500 U.S. military personnel at the prison and the military base on which it sits. Meanwhile, in the surrounding province of Guantánamo, Cuban scientists began Phase 3 trials in March 2021 of their Abdala vaccine, one of five candidates being developed in the country. Some 12,000 people will be involved in the trial. The country plans to begin mass vaccinations of its entire population of 11.33 million by June 2021.

Florida: In January 2021, after a video clip went viral of a Florida school resource officer body-slamming a 16-year-old girl and handcuffing her while she lay unconscious on the ground, Osceola County Sheriff Marcos Lopez opened an investigation and placed the officer, Deputy Ethan Fournier, on paid leave. According to a report by, the 33-year-old Fournier, who is White, claimed he was breaking up a fight involving the Black student, Taylor Bracey, at Liberty High School in Kissimmee, where he also coaches the girls flag football team. He has been employed by the Sheriff’s department for 10 years. Allegations of racism in the department also surfaced in 2018 when two other deputies were sanctioned for failing to perform required checks on a Muslim detainee, Luis Zayas, and then lying about it after the 34-year-old hanged himself in his cell at the county jail. The two deputies, Keith Lynch and Glenroy Huggins, were suspended without pay for one day. Four years before Zayas’ death, Lynch had received a three-day suspension for exchanging racist anti-Islamic email with a civilian co-worker, Randy Kinsky, who was fired for his role in the incident.

Georgia: After a Georgia viewer concerned about the spread of COVID-19 sent a photo to a Macon TV station showing maskless prisoners at the Bibb County Jail, Sheriff David Davis invited a team from WMAZ to tour the lockup in late January 2021. Many prisoners remained mask-free, but Davis said some actually had improvised them with “T-shirts or socks or whatever.” He also defended his decision to charge prisoners 50 cents for disposable masks because giving them out for free would only encourage their misuse. Sheriff Brad Freeman in neighboring Monroe County agreed that prisoners were likely to abuse the masks by “making a slingshot out of them” or “flushing them down the toilet and backing up the toilet trying to flood their cells.” But he said his deputies would give a mask to any prisoner who asked for one. After the report aired, Davis said his jail received additional donated masks.

Indiana: Three Indiana women were charged with giving drugs to prisoners between November 2019 and August 2020. The last, 22-year-old Mya L. Walker of Portland, Indiana, was sentenced in January 2021 to a six-year prison term for handing out methamphetamine to fellow prisoners at the Jay County Jail, according to a report by the Muncie Star-Press. Other drug-possession charges on which she had been picked up were dropped. Earlier, in June 2020, 23-year-old Breanne Perkins was sentenced to a two-year prison term for mailing photos laced with Suboxone to a pair of prisoners at the Hancock County Jail outside Indianapolis in October 2019. According to the Greenfield Reporter, her plea deal will result in suspension of her sentence if she continues cooperating with prosecutors until they make a successful case against prisoners Grant Hoefener, 33, and Matthew Scott Norman, 31. Both were recorded on phone calls instructing Perkins how to smuggle the drug. The third case is still pending against 41-year-old Jessica Frost, a contract nurse at the Kosciusko County Jail charged in November 2019 with smuggling drugs to a prisoner with whom she was allegedly involved romantically. According to a report by South Bend TV station WBND, she allegedly passed several tablets of the narcotic pain reliever Gabapentin to 39-year-old Jonathan Fry and also let him use her cellphone.

Louisiana: A 16-year veteran guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola was arrested on January 17, 2021, after she was caught trying to smuggle 314 grams — just over 11 ounces — of marijuana into the prison inside a container of disinfectant wipes. According to a report by Baton Rouge TV station WBRZ, 52-year-old Master Sgt. Janice Coney was placed on leave by the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections and charged with both introduction of contraband into a penal institution and possession of schedule 1 narcotics.

Louisiana: A complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) with the federal Department of Homeland Security in August 2020 alleges that guards at a rural Louisiana detention center used excessive force against immigrant asylum-seekers detained there when they pepper-sprayed an entire dormitory full of men under quarantine for COVID-19. According to a report by the Huffington Post, the incident occurred on August 2, 2020, when some Winn Correctional Center detainees protested because they were still being held by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as long as a year after receiving deportation orders. SPLC filed its complaint on behalf of five non-protestors injured in the pepper-spraying. The 1,500-bed facility has been operated for ICE since May 2019 by LaSalle Corrections, a private prison operator. A similar protest there over prolonged detentions in December 2019 resulted in the pepper-spraying of about 50 detainees, which ICE spokesman Bryan Cox defended as “a calculated use of force, consistent with agency protocol.”

Maine: In February 2021, a settlement was reached in one of two use-of-excessive-force suits filed by former prisoners against county lockups in Maine. The Portland Press-Herald reported that John Katula, who is no longer in custody at the Cumberland County Jail, received $41,000 for the suit he filed after being repeatedly punched in the face and tackled to the ground without provocation by guard Vinal Thompson after an arrest on drug charges in July 2020. Thompson remains on leave while Maine State Police continue their investigation into the incident. Another lawsuit filed against the York County Jail by former prisoner Brian Dunnigan in October 2019 remains unresolved. Dunnigan alleges he was subjected to use of excessive force by a trio of guards who tasered him for a full minute after a 2018 arrest for disorderly conduct.

Michigan: In June 2020, for the third time in less than three years, a Michigan prisoner filed suit alleging he was tasered while handcuffed at a county lockup. According to a report by MLive, Bryon Clemons, 30, was allegedly subjected to the excessive use of force by Sgt. Aaron Miller at the Clare County Jail in Harrison after a January 2018 arrest. Clemons was sentenced in November 2018 to a term of two-to-20 years for third-offense domestic violence and other charges. His suit comes just six months after that of another Michigan man picked up for domestic violence who was allegedly tasered while restrained at the Macomb County Jail. That suit was filed in December 2019 by Brian Paul Hyde, 38, against the county and six sheriff’s deputies attempting to take a blood sample that might tie him to urine thrown on one of the deputies. An earlier suit was filed in January 2018 against nine deputies at the jail by former prisoner Charles Dedes, 37, who claims he also was tasered while handcuffed after being sentenced to serve weekends there on drug charges in 2016. A federal judge in May 2020 ruled his case may proceed against one of the deputies, Steven Marschke, who retired on disability after an off-duty auto accident in 2017.

Missouri: A group of 13 prisoners attacked guards at Southeast Correctional Center (SECC) in Charleston, Missouri, on January 26, 2021, sending eight of them to the hospital. Missouri Department of Corrections (MODOC) Spokeswoman Karen Pojmann told Springfield TV station KYTV three days later that one remained hospitalized with a head injury and the rest had been treated for minor injuries and released. No cause was given for the violence. But nearly 100 of 300 guard positions are vacant at the 1,658-bed maximum security facility, an anonymous SECC guard told Riverfront Times, which also reported that this was the second MODOC prison disturbance of the month. A riot on New Year’s Day involving 25 prisoners at Maryville Treatment Center caused $30,000 in damage to the 561-bed minimum security facility, which provides people with behavioral training and substance abuse treatment.

New York: On November 10, 2020, after a brutal prisoner beating the previous day at the Schenectady County Jail in upstate New York, Sheriff Dominic Dagostino fired a guard and his supervisor. According to a report by the local Times Union, Sgt. Timothy Bruce, 34, was terminated for failing to reign in guard Eugene Sellie, 28, who was fired for viciously beating prisoner John Mannarino in the changing area of the lockup — where there are no security cameras — before his release. A parole officer found Mannarino wounded outside the jail. He was hospitalized with fractured ribs, a punctured lung and a broken collarbone. The terminations by the Sheriff stood in stark contrast to the continued employment of guard Peter Welkley by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DCCS), four years after the agency first sought to fire him for sexually harassing the girlfriend of prisoner George Wishart at Orleans Correctional Facility (OCF). Wishart is suing DCCS and four OCF guards whose subsequent beating put him in the hospital, claiming it was in retaliation for complaining about Welkley. Wishart has since completed his sentence for a robbery conviction and been released.

North Carolina: After just over seven months working as a detention officer at the Forsyth County Jail in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 39-year-old Paris Monique Crowell was fired on January 26, 2021, and charged with selling marijuana from her home. According to a report by the Winston-Salem Journal, her 22-year-old son, Amari Lamont Crowell — a former high school honor student and football star — was also arrested and charged with drug offenses, as was Christopher Maurice Washington, 38. He is the father of Crowell’s minor child, whom she was also charged with exposing to drugs and unsecured firearms. Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough, Jr., said he is still investigating whether the trio managed to get any drugs into the lockup. Just over a year before their arrest, in October 2019, Durham County sheriff’s deputies picked up Eric Lamont Perry, 40, and charged him with selling marijuana and other drugs to prisoners at prisons overseen by the state Department of Public Safety, which caught him while monitoring prisoner phone calls at several facilities across the state.

Ohio: In July 2020, a guard at the Cuyahoga County Jail in Cleveland was suspended for a week without pay after he “unnecessarily” pepper-sprayed a prisoner already pinned to the floor by other guards. According to a report by the local Plain Dealer, Frederick Barthany was also removed from the jail’s Special Response Team — known as the “Men in black” — after his attack on prisoner Deonte Jones the previous October. In the interim, Barthany had also let prisoner Melissa Baer nearly escape the jail in January 2020 when he opened a locked door for her without first identifying her. Another pepper-spraying at the Montgomery County Jail in Dayton struck 10 prisoners in December 2019. But in that incident, the pepper spray was swiped from a deputy’s belt and fired by another prisoner, Maxamillion Z. Thomas, allegedly as part of a plot hatched in conjunction with some or all of his victims to gain attention. Thomas was charged with 10 counts of misdemeanor assault, according to local TV station WHIO.

Ohio: Two men suspected of being part of a Cleveland-area gang were indicted on January 25, 2021, on charges they used a drone to drop contraband into Warren Correctional Institution in Lebanon. According to a report by the Cincinnati Enquirer, Michael Eugene Russell Williford, Jr., 28, and Bryan Douglas Shepherd, 27, were arrested in August 2020 at a motel near Monroe after police tracked a drone there that had been spotted over the prison. They are suspected of dropping off a package of drugs and cellphones that was found camouflaged with turf to blend into the prison yard. The package was allegedly intended for incarcerated members of the Heartless Felons gang, to which Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said the two men also allegedly belong.

Pennsylvania: In a November 2020 video statement, exiled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick added his voice to those calling for release of Pennsylvania prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal, according to a report by The Nation. Sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, the 67-year-old Mumia, who was born Wesley Cook, has been in the general population of the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy since January 2012, one month after his sentence was changed to life without parole over constitutional concerns about his original conviction. That was irreparably flawed, believe many fellow political activists — including, now, Kaepernick —by his attorneys’ decision not to rely on a 1999 sworn statement by Arnold Beverly that he murdered Faulkner in a hit contracted by crooked Philadelphia cops, whose graft the policeman was working to expose. As a result, that testimony can never be used by Mumia.

Pennsylvania: A guard at the Indiana County Jail in western Pennsylvania was indicted on November 16, 2020, on charges he smuggled “multiple” cellphones to a prisoner from June to August 2019. According to a report by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, guard Alex Lewis, 25, earned $400 for passing the contraband to Rashon Richardson, 30, a federal detainee who has pleaded guilty to 2016 weapons and drug offenses. In addition to the new charges of conspiracy and bribery he faces along with Lewis, Richardson is also charged with extortion.

Tennessee: A pair of smuggling incidents at Tennessee lockups in early 2021 resulted in the arrest of four people, including two guards. According to a report by Chattanooga TV station WTVC, three people were arrested March 9, 2021, for smuggling contraband to prisoners at the Bradley County Jail in Cleveland, Tennessee. Former guard David Branson was one of those charged in the alleged scheme. He was fired in August 2020 after an investigation by the sheriff’s Drug Unit that led to the charges against him and two civilians, Hailey Strickland and Jesus Tyler Teague. Less than two months earlier, guard Joseph Blayde, Jr. was placed on leave from Trousdale-Turner Correctional Facility (TTCF) in Hartsville by its contracted operator, private prison giant CoreCivic, after he was stopped on suspicion of DUI by Westmoreland police on January 16, 2021. An X-ray scan revealed a package of marijuana taped to his body under his guard uniform, according to a report by Nashville TV station WKRN. Blayde, who has been employed at TTCF over four years, is free on bail awaiting trial.

Tennessee: A year and a day after detainee Nathaniel Manning was severely beaten by some of the 35 other prisoners in his holding cell at the Cocke County Jail in Newport, Tennessee, a $60 million federal lawsuit was filed against Sheriff Armando Fontes. According to a report by Knoxville TV station WBIR, the January 11, 2021, suit seeks class-action status, claiming the lockup is unable to “protect the safety and security” of any prisoners due to chronic overcrowding and understaffing. In October 2019, a grand jury indicted former guard Kelton Townsend, 29, for beating 60-year-old prisoner Jerry Miller at the jail the previous February. Miller has also sued the jail for $5 million. Decertified in 2017 for understaffing as well as inadequate training and healthcare, the jail allegedly makes it a practice to release injured prisoners like Manning, the new suit claims, in order to avoid paying medical bills like the one he is now stuck with for $58,000.

Texas: A Mexican asylum seeker who was a key witness in an FBI investigation into alleged sexual assaults and harassment by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) guards at an El Paso detention center was abruptly deported in September 2020. According to a report by the Texas Tribune, the 35-year-old woman had pointed investigators to security-camera blind spots where she was subjected to unwanted kissing and groping during her 18-month stay at the facility. It is operated for ICE under contract by Bering Straits Native Corporation subsidiary Global Precision Systems. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security initially instructed ICE not to deport the woman. When it reversed course, the agency said she could provide her testimony via video link from Mexico. At another Texas detention center a year earlier, in September 2019, a five-year-old boy was allegedly assaulted by a guard employed by CoreCivic, which is under contract to operate the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley for ICE. According to a report by The Guardian, the boy and his mother were scheduled for imminent deportation.

Texas: In November 2020, a federal judge in Texas handed down a four-year prison sentence to an attorney convicted of smuggling methamphetamine to clients he represented at the Cass County Jail in Marshall. According to a report by Tyler TV station KLTV, 50-year-old Bryan Lee Simmons delivered the drugs in July and August 2019. A few months later, in November 2019, drugs bound for prisoners were also intercepted at the Harris County Jail in Houston, this time found on a teenage guard reporting to work. The Houston Chronicle reported that sheriff’s deputies acting on a tip conducted surveillance on the guard, Jason Flores, who was caught carrying methamphetamine, Xanax and Ecstasy. He was 19 at the time. Flores is longer employed at the jail.

Washington: An employee of the Snohomish County Jail in Everett, Washington, was arrested on December 3, 2020, and charged with smuggling drugs to prisoners. The local Herald reported that after two prisoners were found hiding buprenorphine in May 2020, surveillance led investigators to the employee, 45-year-old Alexis Wafstet. She claimed that after getting involved with a prisoner to help him reach his runaway daughter, the man blackmailed her into delivering drugs to the jail with threats against her 24-year-old son. Her arrest comes just over a year after another 45-year-old guard received a ten-year prison term in October 2019 for smuggling drugs to a prisoner at the Grant County Jail in Ephrata. When 34-year-old Derek Batton overdosed and died in August 2019, prosecutors added a homicide count to the trafficking charges filed against the guard, Jordan Delbert Tebow. He was arrested three more times while out on bail awaiting trial. His defense attorney blamed Tebow’s heroin addiction, requesting treatment instead of a prison sentence. The court declined.

Washington: A former guard at Clallam Bay Correctional Center (CBCC) in northwestern Washington, who once told co-workers complaining about his ethnic and homophobic slurs to “get on the Trump train,” is headed to prison as a sex offender, according to a February 2021 report by Peninsula Daily News. John Russell Gray, 52, was on call at CBCC and working at the city jail in Forks when he had sex with four prisoners there between June and October 2019. The longtime guard, who is married with two adult children, had worked at CBCC since 1997. He was called back to work there in April 2020 and was arrested the following month for assaulting the women he had guarded in Forks. He pleaded guilty December 15, 2020, to four counts of custodial sexual misconduct and was fired from CBCC in January 2021. Clallam County Superior Court Judge Lauren Erickson sentenced him to a 20-month prison term on February 2, 2021.

West Virginia: A former guard at the Federal Correctional Institution in Hazelton, West Virginia, is facing a federal prison sentence himself after pleading guilty in federal court on February 5, 2021, to sexual abuse of a prisoner. According to a report by WV News, 33-year-old Scott Douglas Born admitted the woman once performed a sex act on him, though U.S. Attorney Brandon Flower was prepared to present evidence it happened multiple times from September 2018 to January 2019 at the prison, nicknamed “Misery Mountain.” Born resigned from the federal Bureau of Prisons in spring 2019.

Wisconsin: A former sheriff’s deputy in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, was sentenced to a two-year prison term on January 16, 2021, for a string of home break-ins. According to a report by Milwaukee TV station WITI, Janelle Gericke committed the off-duty robberies at the homes of three co-workers while they were out and four other people who were attending funerals, after reading their names in obituaries. She was fired from the Jail Division in July 2019 and initially charged the following December. Her last charge on February 25, 2020, included a count for jumping bail to commit a burglary the previous day, when she broke into a home and emptied a bottle of hydrocodone. 

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