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Articles by Christopher Zoukis

Coronavirus in Prison: The Cruel Reality

As Numbers Rise, Some Prison Systems Admit Defeat, Others Try to Ignore Death Toll

While tracking the number of infections and deaths is an important indicator of coronavirus’ impact, this fails to view the toll on individuals. Numbers can’t explain the impact this pandemic has had on the personal psyche of prisoners, their families, or their communities. What makes this even worse is prison officials’ lackluster response.

It would be comforting to think that prison administrators and city governments would care more about the human cost of this crisis than the economic or political cost, but this has largely proven to be a false hope.

Lives continue to be lost as prison officials downplay coronavirus’ impact inside their institutions. They treat guards humanely while dealing with prisoners as untrustworthy animals. All the while, political pundits and tough-on-crime groups call foul when governors, judges, and ...

With Lives of Immigrant Detainees at Risk to COVID-19, Federal Judge Forces ICE’s Hand

by Christopher Zoukis

As a result of a ruling June 5, 2020, hundreds of immigrant detainees held by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in south Florida may have to be released. That day a federal judge for the Southern District of Florida agreed the agency was likely “[shuffling] people around the country to make (its) population statistics…look better on paper” and said she remained skeptical that ICE’s commitment to protect them from COVID-19 “has meaningfully shifted since the start of the pandemic.”

The order by U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cooke came a month after she appeared to walk back a two-week deadline she had given ICE to release 1,000 detainees in her original ruling April 30, 2020. The detainees were held in three detention centers in southern Florida: the Krome Detention Center (Krome) in Miami, the Broward Transitional Center (BTC) in Pompano Beach, and the Glades County Detention Center (Glades) in Moore Haven. In her April 30 ruling, Cooke excoriated the agency for a “deliberate indifference” to detainees’ risk of contracting the disease that “amount(s) to cruel and unusual punishment.”

However, in a clarification of that initial order issued May 5, 2020, Cooke allowed ICE instead to transfer ...

Federal Court Slams Michigan Jail for Bungling COVID-19 Pandemic, Demands Names of Vulnerable Prisoners for Release

On April 17, 2020, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the Oakland County Jail due to its mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Plaintiffs filed a class action complaint against the Oakland County Jail seeking immediate release of all current and future Oakland County Jail detainees and three distinct subclasses:

• All pre-trial defendants;

• All post-conviction detainees; and

• All medically vulnerable defendants and detainees (i.e., those 50 or older or who otherwise have an underlying medical condition which would place them at particular risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19.)

Plaintiffs also sought an emergency motion requiring Oakland County Jail to undertake specific measures to improve hygiene and safety at the jail.

Judge Linda V. Parker issued the TRO. As PLN was going to press, attorneys for the plaintiffs were pushing for the release of medically vulnerable prisoners and an order guaranteeing that strict safety measures were put in place for all who remained at the jail.

On May 20, Judge Parker ordered the jail to provide a list of medically vulnerable inmates and their criminal histories soshe could determine who should ...

Silence: The Bureau of Prisons’ Pathetic Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The silence is deafening. Over a week in mid-May, Prison Legal News tried to contact public information officers at seven federal prisons seeking an answer to a straightforward question: What are you doing to protect prisoners at your facility from COVID-19?

The answer?

As of press time, not a single public information officer responded. This includes public information officers from FCI Elkton, FCI Terminal Island, FCI Butner Medium I, FMC Fort Worth, FCI Oakdale I, FCI Milan, and USP Lompoc. These facilities may sound familiar because they were the top seven federal prisons in terms of prisoner deaths due to COVID-19.

To be fair, PLN left voicemails with only three public information officers. No one picked up the phone at the other four. That’s right: At institutions with inmate populations ranging from 660 to 1,955, no one bothered to answer the phone.

Families Fear for their Loved Ones

“It’s as if they are just locking them in their cells and making them fend for themselves,” said the mother of a federal prisoner who asked not to be identified due to potential retaliation against her son. “I’m just so scared. I don’t want him to die.”

The same ...

New York Judge Orders Release of 18 Rikers Island Detainees Due to COVID-19 Risk

On April 6, 2020, New York Supreme Court Judge Mark Dwyer ordered the release of 18 pre-trial detainees held at Rikers Island in response to a lawsuit brought by attorneys Lauren Gottesman and Mary Lynne Werlwas of the Legal Aid Society, and Robert Briere. The lawyers had sought the release of 32 detainees they said were at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

In considering the case, the Court relied upon traditional due process black letter law. Citing among other cases Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493, 508-09 (2011), Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832-33 (1994), and Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976), the Court asserted that jail officials are required to “provide effective medical care for inmates.” While these cases concerned convicted prisoners, the Court stated that the “Due Process protections of the 5th and 14th Amendments and … the New York Constitution provide comparable protections to pretrial inmates.”

The Court held that the COVID-19 pandemic posed “a deadly threat to inmates,” and its presence at the prison equates to an “unsafe, life-threatening condition” endangering detainees’ “reasonable safety.” Based on this, “and the absence of a viable alternative, a court ...

Coronavirus: A Nationwide Survey of the Push for Early Release as Pandemic Fears Grow

by Christopher Zoukis

“Mother Nature is a serial killer. No one’s better. More creative. . . . She’s a bitch.”

– World War Z

Between January and August of 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services played a game, a simulation of sorts. The exercise was called Crimson Contagion, and it was designed to help the U.S. prepare for a viral pandemic. 

During the simulation, as reported by The New York Times, a group of 35 tourists from the United States, Australia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Thailand, Britain and Spain visited China. While there, they became infected with an unknown virus, flew home, and became their respective countries’ Patient Zeros. The World Health Organization declared a pandemic seven weeks later. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines for social distancing and state governments directed the workforce to stay home. Nonetheless, the simulation predicted, the pandemic would ultimately infect 110 million Americans and kill 586,000.

Coronavirus: The Origins

On December 31, 2019, the Chinese government acknowledged the treatment of citizens in Wuhan, China, for pneumonia. Within a few days, Chinese researchers identified a new virus that had sickened dozens of people in Asia.

On ...

California Three-Judge Court Denies Emergency Motion to Reduce Prison Population During Pandemic

On April 4, 2020, a three-judge court in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California denied a motion seeking an order requiring the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to immediately release specific categories of inmates due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision came 5 days after California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would grant early release to 3,500 prisoners to try to check the spread of coronavirus among prisoners and employees at the state’s 35 prisons. Lawyers representing the governor told the court that Newsom was already taking “extraordinary and unprecedented protective measures” to fight COVID-19.
“He feels like he’s in a Nazi Germany death camp,” the daughter of one prisoner told the Los Angeles Times. “They basically locked them all in the ‘sick’ dorm and are only taking guys out with a high fever…An inmate in his dorm of 150 men just tested positive, so they put his entire dorm on lockdown. He can’t get bandages he needs for open sores from an autoimmune disease. He’s 72 and due out in August.”

The Emergency Motion to Modify Population Reduction Order, filed on March 25, 2020 by attorneys for the ...

GEO Group Produces Litigation Documents After HRDC Files Public Records Suit

by Christopher Zoukis, MBA

The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent organization of Prison Legal News, prevailed in a lawsuit seeking to force private prison contractor GEO Group to comply with Vermont’s public records law. 

The complaint, filed in a Vermont Superior Court, sought to obtain records ...

The Second Step: Invest in Prison Education Programs, Reinstate Pell Grants

by Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Aaron Kinzel is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Jose Bou is the manager of Equity, Family and Community Partnerships in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Sean Pica is the executive director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison. Aminah Elster is a proud ...

Former Prisoners Become Attorneys: From Breaking the Law to Practicing Law

by Christopher Zoukis

“A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,” the old adage goes. But Isaac Wright, Jr. knew he was innocent, so he represented himself at his 1991 trial on charges under New Jersey’s “drug kingpin” law. Unsurprisingly, he was convicted and sentenced ...