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Articles by Benjamin Tschirhart

Fourth Circuit: South Carolina Prisoner’s Bivens Claim Must Detail Unconstitutional Acts of Each Defendant

by Benjamin Tschirhart 

The Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) recognized a limited cause of action for money damages against agents of the federal government in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bur. of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). But on March 3, 2023, the U.S. Court ...

St. Louis City Jails Director Under Fire, County Jail Director Leaves After Nearly $2.7 Million in Legal Payouts

by Benjamin Tschirhart

When you’re arrested in St. Louis, it doesn’t much matter whether you end up in the city’s jail or the lockup in adjacent St. Louis County; both are mired in controversy. But in a letter defending city Jail Commissioner Jennifer Clemons-Abdullah, Mayor Tishaura O. Jones (D) took ...

Condemned Arizona Prisoner Reprieved

by Benjamin Tschirhart

On June 22, 2023, the chief prosecutor in Arizona’s Maricopa County dropped a suit filed to force the state to execute condemned prisoner Aaron Gunches. As previously reported by PLN, the state Supreme Court issued a death warrant on March 2, 2023, authorizing the execution of Gunches, ...

New York Jailhouse Lawyer Wins Resentencing, Release

by Benjamin Tschirhart

At 28 years old, drug addicted and semi-homeless, Kelly Harnett was nobody’s idea of a model citizen. So when implicated along with boyfriend Thomas Donovan in a July 2010 murder in a public park in Queens, New York, she knew it was bad. But she didn’t expect ...

Former Illinois Guards Sentenced for Prisoner’s Fatal Beating

by Benjamin Tschirhart

On March 16, 2023, Judge Sue Myerscough of the federal court for the Central District of Illinois sentenced former state prison guards Alex Banta, 31, and Todd Sheffler, 54, to 20 years in prison for the fatal beating of a handcuffed and helpless prisoner, Larry Earvin, at Western Illinois Correctional Center (WICC) in 2018.

A third co-defendant, former guard Willie Hedden, 44, cooperated in prosecution of the other two and received a shorter prison sentence of six years on March 22, 2023. All three were also ordered to serve five years of supervised release. Banta and Sheffler each must also pay a $500 special assessment. Hedden’s special assessment is $300. See: USA v. Sheffler, USDC (C.D.Ill.), Case No. 3:19-cr-30067.

“Forget what you learned at the academy. We do things differently here.” That’s what Banta recalled hearing on his first day of work at WICC in 2014, from Internal Affairs officers giving new recruits a lesson in reality. “Things will happen that you might need to ignore,” they reportedly continued. “If things happen with an inmate, aim for the body and not the face.”

Banta learned that lesson and put it into practice with Earvin, a 65-year-old ...

New York City Stops Reporting Rikers Island Deaths Amid Rampant Guard Misconduct

by Kevin W. Bliss, Chuck Sharman and Benjamin Tschirhart

On May 31, 2023, Luis Molina, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction (DOC), announced his agency would no longer make public reports of in-custody deaths. Why? Molina blamed the federal monitor overseeing a long-running class-action lawsuit to improve conditions at the city’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex, claiming Steven J. Martin was weaponizing the data to make DOC look bad.

Molina’s ire was apparently piqued a day earlier, when Martin reported to the federal court for the Southern District of New York that Molina had mischaracterized five detainee deaths in ways that made them appear less preventable than they were. There were 19 deaths at the jail in 2022, and three more by May 2023.

The gloves then came off as Martin accused Molina and DOC of “inaccuracies and a lack of transparency” in another filing in the case on June 8, 2023. In a third filing on June 12, 2023, Martin told Judge Laura Taylor Swain that “it is difficult for the Monitoring Team to keep the Court appropriately apprised of matters when the City and [DOC] take positions and actions that shift day to day and ...

$500,000 Settlement for Texas Man Wrongly Imprisoned for Child Sex Abuse

by Benjamin Tschirhart

In 2013, Greg Kelley was a 17-year-old high school football star from Cedar Park, Texas. A good student, he already had a full scholarship to play football for the University of Texas in San Antonio. His coaches believed he might go on to the NFL. Instead, the teenager was about to witness the methodical and deliberate destruction of his whole life.

Kelley’s parents both had serious medical problems. So for a portion of his junior year of high school, he stayed with the family of his friend, a look-alike teammate named Jonathan McCarty, whose parents, Shama and Ralph, ran a daycare out of their home.

On July 13, 2013, about four weeks after Kelley had left the McCarty family home, a four-year-old boy who attended the daycare told his mother he had been sexually assaulted there. The parents of the boy, identified later in court as “H.M.,” reported the allegations to Cedar Park Police. Then-Chief Sean Mannix and Detective Chris Dailey suspected Kelley and set about securing his conviction. 

When Dailey swore a probable cause affidavit against Kelley, he dated the offense “on or about December A.D. 2012 to June A.D. 2013” – not based on H.M.’s ...

70 Months for Former Warden of BOP ‘Rape Club’ in California

by Benjamin Tschirhart

Ray Garcia was warden for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Dublin, California. He served as supervisor at the lockup for regular audits conducted under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). But after his sentencing before U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers on March 23, 2023, Garcia is now a felon, sex offender and a prisoner himself. Before putting him behind bars for 70 months, Judge Gonzalez Rogers chided the disgraced prison official:

“You entered a cesspool and did nothing about it. You just went along for the ride and enjoyed the cesspool yourself…You should have done something about it.”

In December 2022, Garcia, 55, became the fourth FCI-Dublin staffer convicted out of five charged with sexually abusing prisoners. Former chaplain James Theodore Highhouse, 49, began a seven-year federal prison term on November 2, 2022. A 20-month prison sentence was handed to former prison cook Enrique Chavez, 49, on February 9, 2023. See: USA v. Chavez, USDC (N.D. Calif.), Case No. 4:22-cr-00104. That same month, former technician Ross Klinger, 37, pleaded guilty. [See: PLN, Feb. 2023, p.62.] He is expected to be sentenced in June 2023. See: USA v. ...

BOP Hits Back Hard After Federal Prisoner in Arizona Brandishes Gun

by Benjamin Tschirhart

As of mid-January 2023, almost 100 minimum-security prisoners from the Federal Prison Camp (FPC) in Tucson were still being held in segregation at the nearby U.S. Penitentiary (USP) in Tucson, six weeks after a fellow prisoner somehow got a gun and attempted to shoot his wife when she visited him.

The shooting attempt unfolded on November 12, 2022, in the visiting area at FPC-Tucson. Despite a guard pat-down before entering, a prisoner identified only as “Jaime” produced a gun and aimed it at his wife, pulling the trigger. The gun jammed four times. The prisoner dropped it and fled the building. Guards cornered and captured him in a maintenance shed a short time later. He was taken to the nearby USP-Tucson and placed in isolation.

Amid the many BOP lockups notorious for violence, camps like FPC-Tucson seem like peaceful oases. They were originally established near penitentiaries – like this one near USP-Tucson – to ease the comings and goings of low-security prisoners assigned to work details in the higher-security lockups nearby. With few fences and plentiful work-release programming, the worst problem is contraband, prisoners say. Not gunfire.

But if the incident left the federal Bureau of Prisons ...

Former Prison Guard Hit With $2.5 Million Judgment in Suit to Force Painter to Acknowledge Painting He Did Not Create

by Benjamin Tschirhart

Over 10 years ago, when former prison guard Robert Fletcher heard from a friend that a painting he owned was an early untitled work by artist Peter Doig, Fletcher was understandably elated; Doig is a renowned artist whose paintings normally sell for millions of dollars.

Fletcher had ...