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Articles by Bill Barton

Massachusetts Supreme Court Orders DOC to Free Terminally Ill Prisoners After DOJ Investigates Mistreatment

On January 28, 2020, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) voided several regulations used by the state Department of Correction (DOC) to justify denying 29 petitions by prisoners for medical parole, also known as “compassionate release.” The ruling came in a case by one of a number of prisoners who alleged prison officials wrongfully rejected their applications for medical parole. 

The SJC ruling followed the start of an investigation by the civil rights unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston that is focused on abuse of elderly and ill prisoners, and abuse of solitary confinement, in the state’s prisons. The ruling came two years after the state legislature provided for the release of terminally ill or permanently incapacitated prisoners.

DOC and Governor Charlie Baker “have embraced a policy of what we call delay, deny until they die,” said Ruth Greenberg, an attorney for a number of plaintiffs, who specializes in post-conviction releases.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruling provides immediate relief to 73-year-old Joseph Buckman, who was convicted of his wife’s 1997 murder and now suffers metastatic lung cancer. Greenberg’s other client in the case, Peter Cruz, died at age 61 of renal disease before the ruling ...

Former Captain at Louisiana Private Prison Sentenced for Conspiracy to Violate Ban on Cruel and Unusual Punishment

by Bill Barton

Roderick Douglas, 38, of Monroe, Louisiana, was sentenced to serve 60 months in prison for his role in a conspiracy with five other guards at Richwood Correctional Center (RCC) to violate the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Douglas was sentenced June 5, 2019, by U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty of the Western District of Louisiana, for his actions in the October 2016 incident at RCC, a privately run federal prison near Monroe.

“Correctional officers deserve our respect for the jobs they do, but we must also hold them accountable when they willfully break the law and cover up the abuse of inmates,” U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph said. “The defendant in this case ignored his role as a caretaker for prisoners and violated the rights of those he was sworn to protect. My office is committed to upholding the laws of our land and the rights of all.”

Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who joined Joseph in making the announcement, said, “This blatant abuse of power will not be tolerated by the Department of Justice. Today’s sentencing demonstrates the commitment of the Civil Rights Division to vigorously prosecute those who inflict cruel and unusual ...

Virginia Governor Suspends Policy After Eight-Year-Old Strip Searched During Prison Visit

On December 6, 2109, Governor Ralph Northam suspended a Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) policy that authorized strip searches of minors.

An 8-year-old girl had been subjected to a strip search November 24, 2019, at Buckingham Correctional Center (BCC) in Dillwyn, before authorities allowed the child to visit her father.

“I am deeply disturbed by these reports — not just as governor but as a pediatrician and a dad,” Northam told a local newspaper. “I’ve directed the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security to suspend this policy while the department conducts an immediate investigation and review of their procedures.”

Even under then-existing rules, it appears that the incident in question was not allowable.

DOC Director of Communications Lisa Kinney wrote, “It is deeply troubling and represents a breach of our protocol. We sincerely apologize to this child and her family and will be taking immediate disciplinary action against the person responsible. Our procedure states that only a parent or legal guardian can approve the strip search of a minor; in this case, the adult visitor who signed the consent for the minor to be strip searched wasn’t the minor’s parent or legal guardian. The staff member ...

California’s New “Progressive” Governor Seeks to Halt Parole for Some Murderers and “Serious” Offenders

Then convicted Newport Beach sex offender Trenton Veches won parole in mid-March 2019, it was granted despite opposition by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has otherwise displayed a progressive criminal justice reform position, including his controversial death penalty moratorium announced in March. But since taking office in January 2019, the governor has attempted to stop at least 33 parole cases wherein a “serious offender” has been granted release, according to documents provided by the governor’s office.

“Parole hearings usually take place in front of a two-person panel,” explained Newsom’s spokesman, Brian Ferguson. “The governor can’t revoke these paroles but can ask the state’s 15-member Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) to review them.”

Newsom has also stopped 46 paroles for murderers using “a different process that allows him to act unilaterally through executive powers,” Ferguson added.

“Each case that comes before the governor is evaluated on its own merits and receives careful review and consideration,” he said.

The 45-year-old Veches was convicted by a jury in a high-profile 2007 case – while working as a supervisor in a municipal youth recreation program, he “liked to suck on the toes of young boys” – and sentenced to two concurrent ...

Illinois Prisoner Locked Up Decades Without a Conviction or Sentence

On October 11, 1982 Terry Allen was arrested and charged with sexual assault, after he allegedly forced a woman he’d just met at the McDonalds where she was employed to drive him in her car to a secluded spot and perform oral sex on him.

But in lieu of facing a criminal trial, he was offered civil commitment by prosecutors. Allen’s attorney told him if he underwent civil commitment “it would likely only last six months to a year.” Instead, Allen has remained in prison in Illinois for 36 years without a criminal conviction, or a release date specified, and — as of publication time — he is still incarcerated.

In their efforts to have him civilly committed, prosecutors hired two psychiatrists to determine if Allen met the criteria of being a “sexually dangerous person” (SDP). They then relied on what Allen told those doctors to move toward civil commitment instead of a criminal trial. Believing he needed to convince the psychiatrists that he was an SDP in order to avoid being locked up for a lengthy sentence, Allen told the psychiatrists that he’d forced a number of women to perform sex acts with him – something ...

Project Hope Fights to End the Death Penalty ... from Death Row

by Bill Barton

The executive director of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, Esther Brown, is a former psychiatric social worker who has been called “the most loyal person I’ve ever met” by a prisoner on Alabama’s death row.

Brown, 85, has been the public face of the organization for 19 years, speaking at conferences, writing grant proposals, maintaining the website and keeping the books. She will soon be stepping down.

Anthony Tyson, the group’s chairman, said in a recent letter: “There are no rich people on death row. If you fit the bill they’re looking for and you are broke, then you receive the death penalty.”

Tyson and other prisoners on death row at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility comprise Project Hope. The non-profit organization’s mission is “to work together with friends and other supporters to educate the public and to bring about the abolition of the death penalty in Alabama.”

Tyson teaches a law class, referred to as an “enlightenment group,” that provides information on how to navigate the state and federal appellate processes to a number of death row prisoners. Over the past 11 years, two of Tyson’s students, Montez Spradley and William Ziegler, have ...

Many “Violent Offenders” Actually Committed Non-Violent Crimes

by Bill Barton

The conservative Heritage Foundation said in December 2018 that “our federal prisons house thousands of low-level offenders and America must do better.”

According to a survey of laws in all 50 states by The Marshall Project, there are more than a dozen states where people can be charged and convicted as a violent criminal if they enter a dwelling that is not theirs. Burglary is deemed a violent crime.

In North Carolina, trafficking a stolen identity and selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or playground are both considered violent offenses. A July 2018 analysis by The Marshall Project found that a significant portion of prisoners – 7,532 of approximately 35,700 total – were incarcerated for crimes deemed violent under North Carolina’s habitual violent offender law.

In Minnesota, aiding an attempted suicide and marijuana possession (depending on the quantity) are classified as violent crimes. The July 2018 analysis found that about 3,092 prisoners out of 9,849 in Minnesota’s prison system were locked up for crimes that might not seem violent to an objective observer.

Other “violent” crimes in various jurisdictions include purse snatching, embezzlement, theft of drugs and, in New York, possession of a gun with ...

South Carolina: Lawsuit Alleges Medical Staff, Guards Negligent in Baby’s Death

by Bill Barton

Sinetra Geter Johnson discovered she was pregnant just two days before she was required to report to prison on a parole violation. In October 2012, she began serving a two-year sentence at the Camille Graham Correctional Institution in Columbia, South Carolina. Twenty-four years old at the time, it was her first pregnancy. She was carrying twins: a girl, Karmin, and a boy, Kamrin.

Kamrin was born successfully in an ambulance parked on prison grounds. Tragically, however, Karmin was born preceding Kamrin, while her mother was sitting on a toilet in a prison bathroom. The baby girl did not survive; the twins were born 14 weeks early.

According to April 2019 news coverage of the incident, Karmin’s death could have been prevented if prison officials “had responded to Johnson’s calls – and later screams – for help” while she was in labor. Johnson filed a lawsuit in state court.

“I knew something was wrong,” she said. A nurse checked her vital signs, but she did not receive a vaginal exam and was not seen by an OB/GYN. Instead, Johnson, still in pain, was sent to work at the prison’s clothing plant. Hours later, she returned to the medical ...

Missouri Sheriff Tells Judge that County Won’t Pay for Prisoners’ Food, Medical Care

by Bill Barton

In April 2019, Clay County Sheriff Paul Vescovo sued the Missouri county’s three-member commission, claiming that it slashed his operating budget by over 40 percent “in retaliation for a criminal referral made two years ago.”

That referral involved assistant county administrator Laurie Portwood, who was accused of directing a subordinate to tamper with public records by removing the name of Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte. Sheriff Vescovo passed the investigation of the allegation to the Missouri Highway Patrol. Portwood, the county’s top budget official, then entered into a deferred-prosecution agreement to resolve the criminal investigation. She retained her job and later received a salary increase from $107,000 to $140,000 annually.

Meanwhile, the sheriff’s department ran out of money to pay contractors that provide food and medical services to some 300 prisoners at the county jail.

Vescovo requested $2.8 million in 2018 to fund the jail and administrative costs but received only $1.79 million upon a recommendation by Portwood, down from $2.58 million received in 2017 when the sheriff had requested $3 million.

When Vescovo’s lawsuit went to trial in August 2019, Portwood struggled to defend her budget recommendation to state Circuit Court Judge Darren Adkins. The county’s other ...

Why Not Let Prisoners Vote While Incarcerated?

by Bill Barton

During an Iowa event in March 2019, U.S. Senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren spoke about felon disenfranchisement, saying that while giving former felons the right to vote is the correct thing to do, extending that right to prisoners is “something that we could have more conversation about.”

“Once someone pays their debt to society, they’re out there expected to pay taxes, expected to abide by the law, they’re expected to support themselves and their families,” Warren noted. “I think that means they’ve got a right to vote. While they’re still incarcerated, I think it’s a different question.”

South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttegieg, another Democrat running for president, agreed that “when you are convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated ... you lose certain rights; you lose your freedom. And I think during that period, it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote.”

But in an opinion piece in The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie asked, “Why not let prisoners vote – and give the franchise to the roughly 1.5 million people sitting in federal and state prisons? Why must supposedly universal adult suffrage exclude people convicted of crimes?” ...