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News in Brief

Alabama: On March 26, 2023, a former state prison guard at Easterling Correctional Facility was arrested for taking bribes to smuggle contraband into the lockup. The Montgomery Advertiser reported that Quindarius Thagard, 27, was fired and charged with use of office for personal gain and promotion of contraband. He was found with a transparent backpack filled with 32 cellphones, a charger, five earbuds, a golden chain, 18 magnets and paper soaked in what might have been drugs. He then admitted agreeing to accept $10,000 to leave the backpack in a prison guard tower. Thagard, who had worked since April 2019 for the state Department of Corrections (DOC), was booked into the Barbour County Jail on a $7,500 bond. If convicted, he faces up to a decade in prison and a fine up to $15,000.

Arizona: Honolulu Civil Beat reported on February 16, 2023, that a jury in Arizona deadlocked on the death penalty for a Hawaiian man that the same jury convicted of murder in December 2022. Miti Maugaotega, Jr. admitted to the 2010 fatal stabbing of fellow Hawaiian prisoner Bronson Nunuha, 26. [See: PLN, Mar. 2012, p.28.] At the time, they were among some 1,000 Hawaiian prisoners held for that state’s DOC under contract by private prison giant CoreCivic at its Saguaro Correctional Center (SCC), located between Phoenix and Tucson. The death penalty was outlawed in Hawaii in 1954, but not in Arizona, where the crime took place, so prosecutors sought it for Maugaotega, a leader in the USO Family prison gang who carved its three initials in his victim’s chest. That was “especially cruel,” the jury decided, qualifying him for the death penalty. However, those jurors failed to find unanimity when trying to impose it. Pinal County Attorney Public Information Officer Michael Pelton wouldn’t say whether his office will again seek the death penalty in the case. If not, Maugaotega will get a life sentence.

District of Columbia: “Justice for All,” a recording of the National Anthem sung by 20 men incarcerated after storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, was released on March 3, 2023. According to Billboard, the “Jan6 Choir” was taped singing over cellphones from the DC Jail, and a voiceover added in which former President Donald J. Trump (R) repeated the Pledge of Allegiance. About a week later, the track beat out Miley Cyrus’ latest single on the iTunes Store, with 22,500 downloads. Trump was closely involved in the production of the recording with former staffer Kash Patel. The release has performed well on some streaming platforms but not others. Patel associate Erica Knight said sales of a vinyl version at $100 each are significant but declined to provide an actual number. At a presidential campaign rally in Texas on March 25, 2023, Trump placed his hand over his heart as big screens showed footage of the Capitol attack and “Justice for All” rang out over the loudspeakers. Former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade called the song “a disinformation tactic straight out of the authoritarian playbook.”

Florida: A former federal prison nurse pleaded guilty on March 9, 2023, to smuggling drugs into the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami, WTVJ reported. Ruben Montanez-Mirabal, 33, was accused of soliciting and accepting bribes in exchange for bringing in banned items for prisoners. [See: PLN, Jan. 2023; p.63.] The contraband included more than 100 pieces of paper soaked in an illicit synthetic cannabinoid. The prisoners would then resell the sheets to other prisoners for $1,500. The bribes Montanez-Mirabal admitted to accepting included thousands of dollars in cash and free use of a Rolls-Royce and a Lamborghini. At his sentencing on May 16, 2023, Montanez-Mirabal faces up to 15 years in prison.

Florida: WPEC in West Palm Beach reported on March 17, 2023, that two guards quit the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office (PBSO) after they were caught attempting to smuggle drugs into the county jail. Samuel Pierre and Karl Kirkland were originally arrested in April 2021, apparently counting on fellow employees not to search them when entering the lockup. Pierre, 30, was accused of taking $200 to $1,500 for each of his smuggling runs, hiding the narcotics under his shirt. Kirkland, 58, was caught attempting to smuggle marijuana into the jail in a Domino’s pizza box. He also allegedly took $900 to smuggle methamphetamine, obtaining it from an unnamed source who met him at a local McDonalds to make the handoff. Both men relinquished their Criminal Justice Commission Certifications in October 2022.

Kansas: KAKE in Wichita reported that a former prison guard in El Dorado suddenly requested a new attorney during his sentencing hearing on March 6, 2023. Kaleb Hogan worked for the state DOC when he called 911 on March 23, 2021, to report that his three-month-old son, Malykai, had stopped breathing. The child died three days later, and Hogan was arrested for child abuse and first-degree murder. A child abuse specialist testified that Malykai sustained injuries consistent with child abuse, and Hogan was convicted in January 2023. The infant’s mother, Savannah Arnett, Hogan’s ex-girlfriend, said she hoped he got a life sentence without parole. Hogan’s request for new counsel pushed his sentencing date to the end of April 2023.

Kansas: On March 30, 2023, a former guard at the Sedgwick County Jail was sentenced to 68 months in prison for unlawful sexual relations with detainees and official misconduct, both felonies. KWCH in Hutchinson reported that Dustin Burnett, 22, entered an Alford plea, which allowed him to maintain innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to win a conviction. Burnett admitted sexual contact with two jail detainees and soliciting a third for sex before being terminated. Sheriff Jeff Easter said after four detainees punched a hole in a window with a stolen pipe and held a sheet outside, collecting contraband cellphones and marijuana delivered there, more contraband drops were planned, including one to smuggle a handgun into the jail. Before that could happen, a detainee informed a guard of the plot. Burnett, who was working in the housing pod at the time, admitted turning a blind eye to the vandalism and not reporting the smuggling. He also withheld information from the investigators when questioned. He worked for the jail from January to July 2022 and was fired after his arrest.

Kentucky: WAVE in Louisville reported on March 29, 2023, that a former detainee at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections pleaded guilty to multiple drug-related charges. Toni Fisher, 34, caused 20 overdoses with fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine she trafficked while incarcerated in 2021, hiding the contraband inside body cavities. Fisher was also accused in another indictment of possessing drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine while on home incarceration during September 2021. She admitted guilt to fourteen different counts, including possessing a handgun while a convicted felon. She will spend 22 years and one day in prison, according to the Office of the Commonwealth Attorney.

Louisiana: A guard at the East Baton Rouge Parish jail was arrested and charged with assaulting a prisoner on March 26, 2023. WAFB in Baton Rouge reported that Aaron Johnson, 26, was charged with aggravated second-degree battery and malfeasance in office. Johnson allegedly hit a detainee in the face with a folding metal chair during an altercation between the detainee and another guard. The detainee was treated in a local hospital for multiple facial fractures. Johnson denied the charges and claimed not know to how the detainee was injured. Despite those denials, three witnesses reported seeing him hit the detainee. He was fired later the same day. Johnson had worked for a little less than a year when relieved of his duties.

Mexico: On March 27, 2023, a fire devastated a migrant facility in Ciudad Juarez, just south of the U.S. - Mexico border from El Paso, killing 40 people. Another 21 were injured. The Washington Post reported that the fire erupted around 10 p.m. in the men’s detention facility. The National Immigration Institute in Mexico City reported there were 68 men detained in the one-story, government-run facility. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador claimed the fire was started by detainees who were protesting their possible deportation. Surveillance video soon surfaced showing two guards ignoring and walking away from a fire raging in an inhabited cell, as a detainee tried to kick down the door. Those who died came from Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The detainees included men apprehended while moving through Mexico and others ejected from the U.S. by border patrol agents under Title 42 pandemic-era provisions. On April 11, 2023, the federal Attorney General’s Office in Mexico City announced that the country’s top immigration official will face criminal charges for the fire, NPR reported. Prosecutors allege that Francisco Garduño did nothing to prevent the fire despite clear indications of problems at his agency’s detention centers.

Minnesota: KMSP in Minneapolis reported on March 11, 2023, that a state prisoner at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Oak Park Heights was charged with first-degree assault of a prison guard. Dominique Antoine Jefferson, 36, was accused of partially blinding a female guard during the altercation on January 15, 2023. That day Jefferson had requested to speak with someone on the crisis intervention team. After a brief conversation, the guard instructed Jefferson to return to his cell. Jefferson goaded her to “ring the bell” for help and added, “I’ve been waiting for you.” When she moved to call for assistance, Jefferson punched her in the eye with his closed fist, knocking her to the floor. He was then restrained by other guards. Jefferson is serving a 25-year-sentence for a second-degree murder in 2004 and has been imprisoned since 2005. The victim suffered “significant” retinal damage to her right eye, causing its permanent vision loss. She has undergone several surgeries, but more are needed to repair fractured facial bones. Jefferson could face up to 25 years in prison if found guilty.

Minnesota: On March 23, 2023, KMSP in Minneapolis reported that a state prison guard in Shakopee had been accused of engaging in an inappropriate romantic relationship with a prisoner. Daniel Vasquez Pichardo was charged with criminal sexual conduct with a prisoner at the Minnesota Correctional Facility. The criminal complaint says Vasquez Pichardo admitted the charge to investigators. He allegedly talked with the prisoner using a bogus JPay account, the app prisoners use for money services and communication. He also allegedly grabbed her by the buttocks in off-camera areas of the prison and sent her photos of his genitals via SnapChat. The two also occasionally exchanged “love letters” since December 2022, prosecutors alleged.

Missouri: On March 28, 2023, a detainee escaped the Ray County Jail and went on the run. But Justin Robinson was recaptured on April 3, 2023, KSHB in Kansas City reported. He was taken back into custody in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after Facebook appeals provided successful tips to local law enforcement. Robinson and another detainee escaped from the jail by attacking a guard. Prior to his escape, Robinson was being held on suspicion of stabbing his pregnant girlfriend on January 30, 2023. In a statement after his recapture, Sheriff Scott Childers indicated that Robinson would be moved to a more secure area.

Missouri: On April 3, 2023, a former guard pleaded guilty to assaulting a handcuffed detainee at the City Justice Center in St. Louis in July 2019. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the former jail processing clerk, Edward L. Barber, 42, watched a detainee identified as “M.J.” punch another guard, so he pepper-sprayed the detainee in the face and took him to the ground to handcuff him. But he then allegedly took M.J. into a cell and knocked him to the ground again, causing fracturing the detainee’s orbital socket and nose. In a plea agreement, Barber confessed to deprivation of rights under color of law. He now faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000, though under federal sentencing guidelines he could receive only three years.

New Jersey: A Cumberland County grand jury produced a superseding indictment against a jail guard in late February 2023 in the suicide of a detainee at the county jail. New Jersey Advance Media reported that Richard A. Cotto, 45, had already been charged in connection with the death of Gregory Kubiak, 32, on November 17, 2018. Cotto was accused of neglecting to make a routine check on Kubiak and then falsely noting in the records that he did. The detainee was then found hanging in his cell and died three days later at a hospital. Cotto was first charged in 2019 with public record tampering, endangerment, and official misconduct. [See: PLN, Oct. 31, 2022; p.52.] The new indictment dropped the endangerment charge but added another record-tampering charge. Cotto has been on unpaid leave since 2019.

New Jersey: The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey reported that a guard at the Essex County Correctional Facility and his girlfriend were arrested in March 2023 for scheming to smuggle contraband into the jail. Efrin Wade, 34, allegedly began communicating with an FBI informant in January 2023, agreeing to smuggle cellphones and tobacco into the lockup. On February 1, 2023, Wade arranged for his girlfriend, Yairisa Lizardo, 29, to meet the informant, picking up a $10,000 bribe and a large amount of tobacco. Wade then brought the contraband into the prison several times during February and hid it for prisoners to retrieve. However, prison officials quietly intercepted it. Wade agreed to accept more tobacco and a cellphone during a meeting with the informant on February 8, 2023. The two met one more time in March 2023, and Wade agreed to accept more contraband for smuggling, also proposing a $30,000 scheme to smuggle additional phones. He was then found on duty with cigarettes and cigars. He and Lizardo were arrested on March 14, 2023. If found guilty of extortion under color of official right, each faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000.

New York: A former jail guard with the New York City DOC was sentenced to 10 years in prison and five years of supervised release after pleading guilty to an attempted burglary that resulted in a violent assault on his estranged wife. The Mid-Hudson News reported on March 6, 2023, that Jonathan Harris, 41, violated a protective order when he broke into his estranged wife’s home on July 16, 2022, physically preventing her from calling 911 and stabbing her in the chest. Police caught up with him as he fled the residence.

New York: A jail guard at the Erie County Correctional Facility was arraigned in Alden Town Court on April 4, 2023, on three misdemeanor charges of promoting prison contraband, according to the District Attorney’s Office and WGRZ. Jason Cross, 38, of East Concord, was allegedly caught at the facility with a vape pen, a lighter and a cell phone. He pleaded not guilty and was released on his own recognizance. The sheriff’s office announced that Cross resigned after his arrest on March 8, 2023. He will be decertified, the sheriff’s office added.

New York: The Times Union reported that a Saratoga County Jail guard was arrested on March 24, 2023, when he was accused of giving a detainee sensitive information. For that, Michael Millington, 23, was charged with reckless endangerment and official misconduct. He allegedly revealed the unspecified “confidential” information to the detainee, creating a “substantial risk of injury” to others at the county jail. Millington was released on an appearance ticket and suspended from the sheriff’s office pending a disciplinary hearing, according to Sheriff Michael Zurlo, who vowed he will not tolerate any amount of misconduct from his employees.

New York: The Brooklyn Reader reported that a former federal prison guard at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn pleaded guilty to contraband smuggling on March 20, 2023. Jeremy Monk, 35, was charged with accepting bribes to sneak illicit items into the lockup on several occasions, including April 15, 2022, when he brought marijuana into a staff bathroom for prisoners to retrieve in exchange for a $10,000 payoff. He resigned three days later, on April 18, 2022. [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.64.]Monk had worked for the federal Bureau of Prisons at MDC since May 2020. He now faces up to 15 years in prison.

New York: On March 30, 2023, a jail guard at the Nassau County Correctional Center was arraigned on contraband smuggling charges. Javel Welch, 38, was accused of sneaking K2 into the facility by concealing it in a Bible. He was caught on March 29, 2023, while trying to bring a cellphone into the jail along with a Bible whose pages tested positive for K2 residue. Welch’s firearm was also found unsecured in his vehicle console. He was charged with two counts of promoting prison contraband, as well as failing to properly store a firearm. Smoking drug-laced Bible pages has become a common diversion since detainees are allowed to have Bibles bought from the commissary in their cells, according to county District Attorney Anne T. Donnelly.

Ohio: A former guard at both a federal prison in Ohio and a nearby prison privately operated by CoreCivic for the federal government was charged on February 28, 2023, with accepting bribes and smuggling drugs into the lockups. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Nasher Algahim was charged via bill of information, which normally indicates the defendant is willing to cooperate with prosecutors. He worked at both Elkton Federal Correctional Institution and the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, which is operated under contract by CoreCivic for the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), between March 6, 2017, and January 16, 2021. Court documents did not specify how much he took in bribes nor who paid them, but the former guard allegedly “smuggled in marijuana, vodka, tequila, tobacco and a device that looked like a regular pen but was actually a recording device that allowed the inmate to record and save videos.”

South Africa: Times Live reported on March 29, 2023, that four guards at G4S’s private Mangaung Correctional Centre in Bloemfontein were fired for aiding the escape of a prisoner known as the “Facebook Rapist.” One of the four, Senohe Matsoara, showed up for a shift despite not being scheduled on the night of May 3, 2022, when a cell fire appeared to kill Thebo Bester, a prisoner serving time for murdering and raping victims lured via Facebook. The flames did not kill Bester, though; his DNA proved not to match a sample from the corpse found in the cell, which officials say was smuggled in to create the ruse. Even before that, prison staff questioned Bester’s relationship with Matsoara, after the guard moved Bester into the “safety section” of the prison despite concerns that he was a suicide risk. When Matsoara bought a new car with a price tag far above what his pay grade permits, bragging on social media he was the richest person in South Africa, officials suspected he had been bankrolled by Bester in a “jail-stay-for-pay” for better conditions, as well as help with his escape. Bester was captured Aril 8, 2023, at the home of girlfriend and celebrity plastic surgeon Dr. Nandipha Magudumana. She and her father, Zolile Cornelius Sekeleni, are charged with abetting his escape.

Tennessee: USA Today reported that four Knoxville Police Department (KPD) cops were under investigation after the death of a hospital patient they’d been called to remove on February 6, 2023. Lisa Edwards, 60, had sought treatment for “severe abdominal pain” at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center on February 4, 2023. But she refused to leave when discharged a day later. Hospital staff called KPD to remove her as a trespasser, and Officers Adam Barnett, Danny Dugan, Timothy Distasio and Brandon Wardlaw responded. Footage from their body-worn cameras showed a 30-minute struggle to load Edwards into a transport van. She told them she could not move her legs due to a stroke. They responded by calling her “dead weight.” After providing an inhaler to help her breathe, the cops mockingly asked if she wanted a cigarette too. She continued complaining of difficulty breathing; they continued accusing Edwards of faking her symptoms. She eventually became unresponsive and was returned to the hospital, where she died the next day. She had suffered another stroke, but the medical examiner claimed police treatment did not provoke it. No charges were filed, but Edwards’ family is pursuing a wrongful death suit against the hospital and KPD.

Texas: A private prison guard in Karnes City was arrested on March 24, 2023, for allegedly smuggling drugs into the Karnes County Detention Center (KCDC). KSAT in San Antonio reported that Dexter Obryan Sistrunk, 40, was accused of accepting bribes to sneak tobacco, methamphetamine and heroin into KCDC, which is run by private prison giant the GEO Group, Inc., under contract to hold both federal and state prisoners. The FBI, DEA and USMS are investigating. Sistrunk faces a fine up to $250,000 and up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

United Kingdom: LBC reported on March 24, 2023, that a former prison guard at HMP Forest Bank pleaded guilty to an improper romantic relationship with a prisoner. While her parents watched from the public gallery, Joanne Hunter, 27, admitted starting the relationship in December 2020, just two years after beginning work as a guard in December 2018. She pleaded guilty to bringing or conveying cannabis into the prison and conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office. But Hunter pleaded not guilty to bringing or conveying an unauthorized mobile phone into the prison. The judge told Hunter that “immediate custody is inevitable in cases like this,” though “the sentencing judge will decide what sentence is appropriate in this case.”

United Kingdom: A former prison guard found with a remote-control vibrator in her jacket at HMP Guys Marsh admitted to an “intimate” relationship with a prisoner, the U.S. Sun reported on February 28, 2023. Rachel Martin, 25, was sentenced to 16 months in prison after confessing to the relationship with Raymond Abraham, 41. From November 1, 2020, to March 8, 2021, they exchanged “thousands” of messages, prosecutors said, some of a sexual nature. Martin also admitted sending Abraham packages, some of which included designer clothes. Abraham was serving 10 years for his role in a gang that blew up and robbed ATMs. From him Martin took bribes totaling thousands of pounds, and a search at one point also uncovered the vibrator. Within days Abraham’s cell was searched and his contraband cellphone was found, along with an SD card containing sexually explicit photos of the guard. Prison staff also found a pair of women’s underwear underneath the prisoner’s pillow. Martin resigned and was arrested two months later on April 1, 2021. Her defense claimed that Abraham was insistent in “grooming” her, taking advantage of the young guard during a particularly vulnerable period in her life.

Utah: A former state prison guard in Eagle Mountain was sentenced on February 28, 2023, for sex crimes involving a minor. KSL in Salt Lake City reported that Victor Smith, 56, entered a guilty plea on December 12, 2022, to enticing a minor over internet or text and attempted sodomy on a child. He acknowledged engaging with an undercover police officer online, whom he thought was a 13-year-old girl. He also talked with and attempted to meet other minors. Smith was on administrative leave before the charges were filed. He was sentenced to concurrent terms of six years to life in prison for the sodomy charge and 15 years to life for enticement.

Vermont: A detainee at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans died on March 10, 2023, three months after he was brutally beaten by his cellmate. Seven Days reported that Jeffrey Hall, 55, was assaulted by Mbyayenge Mafuta, 21, on December 22, 2022. The beating occurred while guards conducted a headcount. The two had been housed together for only a few days at the time. Hall was awaiting trial for driving a vehicle without consent from the owner and giving false information to the police. Mafuta was awaiting trial for allegedly vandalizing more than 30 houses. He had been on mental health watch and segregated from the general population before being brought back in to share a cell with Hall. But other prisoners said Mafuta reported the voices in his head persisted after his return to the lockup’s general population. An autopsy was scheduled to determine Hall’s cause of death. Mafuta was arraigned on attempted murder charges, though more serious charges are likely now after Hall’s death.

Virginia: The New York Times reported that a detainee died at Central State Hospital in Petersburg after being crushed by jail guards and healthcare staff. Irvo Otieno, 28, had been arrested for stealing solar lights from a neighbor’s yard just three days before his death on March 6, 2023. He was then taken to the Henrico County Jail, where surveillance footage showed Otieno was naked in his cell with his hands shackled when he was pepper-sprayed in the face by guards, who also beat him, a lawyer for the family reported. Otieno, who had been brought to the U.S. from Kenya at age four, was an aspiring musician and former high school football star who had found friends with a Bible study group after developing mental health issues that ended a college career in California on a football scholarship. The family’s lawyer claimed that Otieno had been denied medications when guards found him in his cell, surrounded by his own feces. They carried him out by the limbs, claiming he was “unruly,” and sent him to the state mental hospital. There he died of asphyxiation, still shackled, as 10 people piled atop him. Seven guards and three hospital staffers have been charged with his second-degree murder so far.

Virginia: ABC News reported that two detainees at the Newport News Jail Annex were recaptured on March 21, 2023, after digging a hole through the wall and escaping. Arley Nemo, 43, and John Garza, 37, reportedly used a piece of metal and a toothbrush to carve the hole. Nemo was awaiting trial for larceny, grand larceny, credit card fraud, possession of burglary tools and contempt of court, while Garza was held for probation violations and contempt of court. The two were found and arrested at a nearby IHOP the day after the escape. The Sheriff’s office said it opened an investigation into “construction design weakness” at the jail.

Wisconsin: Two jail guards in Milwaukee were charged on February 24, 2023, in the death of a newly arrested detainee. NBC News reported that Marco Lopez and Donald Krueger were accused of contributing to the overdose death of Keishon D. Thomas. Court filings indicated that Thomas began sweating and throwing up during the booking process. He told the guards that he had drugs in his system. Kreuger allegedly said that he would call an ambulance, but he didn’t. When Lopez then took over, he was supposed to perform cell checks every 15 minutes, but that didn’t happen either. However, he allegedly falsified records to show it did. In a briefing on April 8, 2023, Milwaukee police shared facts gleaned from bodycam footage and surveillance video: After a traffic stop, Thomas ingested a substance twice, also admitting he had used drugs in his car before being pulled over. During the booking process after his arrest, Thomas said he thought he needed medication. A guard offered multiple times to take him to the hospital for medical care, but Thomas insisted he would be okay. By 6 p.m. the next day he was found unresponsive in his holding cell. However, the video released by police does not show anything that happened during the 15-hour stretch that Thomas was in the cell before he died.

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