by Paul Wright
Welcome to the first issue of PLN for the new year, as we enter 2022 and our 32nd year of publication. Last year we published an article in the June edition on the worst sheriffs in America, but like many things, that is a subjective opinion and good or bad depends on the view of the person making the value judgement. This issue’s cover story focuses on sheriffs actually convicted of crimes committed in their positions as law enforcement officers, which means we did not include drunk driving, crimes occurring after they left office or crimes which did not result in a conviction.
The lack of accountability and oversight is one of the amazing things about the American police state that seems to make even very minimal and modest reforms politically impossible to accomplish. Ironically, foreign governments which tend to rely more explicitly on police power to remain in charge seem to have far higher standards of conduct and accountability than their American counterparts, perhaps because the stakes are higher.
For more than a decade now HRDC has challenged censorship policies in jails around the country and we have gone to trial on a number of these cases. Recent years have given rise to what I would call the “politico cop.” Sitting across the courtroom many of these sheriffs come across as very slick, polished, articulate and even likable. Which is how they get elected to office and stay there. Because they have years or decades of experience testifying/testilying in court, they seem very convincing saying whatever they are saying, even when it is 100% untrue. In many, if not most counties in America, the sheriff’s office is the biggest center of power, graft, money and corruption and the sheriff literally runs the show.
A few years ago, HRDC sued the Berkeley County jail in South Carolina because it banned all books and magazines. The sheriff at the time was Wayne Dewitt and we sued him as well. I was on a conference call with our legal team and the sheriff’s counsel, who was very irate over a change.com petition calling on the sheriff to end the ban on publications in the jail. We were totally unaware of the petition, but opposing counsel apparently did not believe this.
When I reached out to the people who had created the petition, they told us about the many abuses by Dewitt both at the jail and by his deputies on patrol. They explained how they had no real voice to effectuate change, and because it was a rural county, none of the lawyers there would risk challenging the sheriff. These were poor people in a rural community who wanted justice and their constitutional rights respected, but they lacked the resources to do anything about it. Alas, all we had the resources to do was challenge the censorship policies at the jail. Dewitt fought our case long and hard, settling literally minutes before he was to be deposed (after postponing his deposition several times) with a total and complete policy change and paying HRDC and our co-counsel $599,900 in damages and attorney fees.
I have long wondered whether Sheriff Dewitt settled because he did not want to be questioned under oath. I don’t know the answer to that. But sometime after the case settled, in December 2015, Dewitt crashed his county-owned pick-up truck and fled from police at speeds of over 108 mph. He was later arrested for drunken driving by the state police. The Hanahan police department who initially chased him when he fled the scene of the accident chose not to arrest him. He resigned a month later, minutes after the county commissioners released documents about two confidential sexual harassment settlements they had paid where Dewitt had harassed female employees during his 20-year tenure with the sheriff’s department.
Dewitt later pleaded guilty to DUI and failing to comply with police. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail, which was suspended on condition he complete three years’ probation and 60 hours of community service. He did not make our list because we excluded drunk driving, which is pretty common among sheriffs and would have vastly expanded the article.
A lot of readers have complained about the delays in getting their magazine. The post office is getting slower and slower with its delivery times and not just with magazines like PLN but with all mail, including media mail, which is how we ship our books. Our printer, which we have used since 2005, is also facing challenges sourcing both paper and ink. In 32 years of publishing, we’ve had supply issues with paper before but never ink.
Just as we have no control over paper and ink supplies, we have no control over what the post office does with the mail once we give it to them to process, but eventually everything seems to arrive. We realize this is a problem as prisoners are moved frequently, but this is also something we have no control over. A reminder to print subscribers, if your address changes please let us know as soon as possible so we can update it in our records.
As we enter the new year, PLN has a new managing editor, Chuck Sharman. Chuck has worked with us updating and writing articles for the past five years and we welcome him aboard as our full-time managing editor.
As this issue of PLN goes to press we are also sending to the printer the much-anticipated book by John Boston, The PLRA Handbook: Law and Practice under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. There are ads for the book in this issue of PLN, and we expect to have copies to ship by the end of January for those who wish to place pre-orders. Anyone who wants to understand the PLRA, its interpretation by the courts and best practices to win cases while dealing with it, this is the book for you. Order now and we will ship it immediately upon receiving it from the printer. And before anyone comments on the fact that the price is higher than any other HRDC book we publish, note that it is almost 700 pages, which is more than twice the size of any of our other titles. Additionally, paper, ink and even glue costs have significantly risen since we published our last book in 2019. Prisoners should encourage their law libraries or libraries to purchase a copy.
Among the exciting projects we have planned for 2022 is launching a criminal justice podcast. Over the decades, I have done hundreds of radio interviews. In the late 1990s, I did a weekly radio show on KPFA in California called This Week Behind Bars. More recently, for several years I did a weekly show on Sputnik radio called Criminal Injustice. It was the most popular show on the network, and HRDC posted the shows on our website, where 15,000 to 20,000 people downloaded each show. We hope to launch our new podcast by the middle of February, and we will let readers know the details when things are more solidified.
I would like to thank everyone who has donated to our annual fundraiser and for any stragglers, it is not too late to donate. While we do one major fundraiser a year, we really need money year-round, and we rely on financial support from individuals like you to do all the advocacy and litigation we do on behalf of prisoners and impacted populations. Every little bit helps, and no donations are too big or too small. Also, for those thinking of bequests, please consider including HRDC in your will.
Enjoy this issue of PLN and please encourage others to subscribe.
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login