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Articles by Christopher Zoukis

The Case of the Disappearing Criminal Jury Trial

by Christopher Zoukis

Every person accused of a crime has the right to a trial by jury. That right is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and is available to anyone charged with a serious criminal offense.

But the number of jury trials is dwindling, replaced by plea bargains.

 “‘12 Angry Men’ is more a cultural concept than a regular happening,” said Daniel C. Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School, referring to the iconic movie about jury deliberations during a criminal trial.

Evidence of the decline in jury trials abounds. In Wisconsin, 1.09 percent of all criminal cases ended with a trial by jury between 2009 and 2013, according to state data. In Santa Cruz, California, the period of 2007 through 2012 saw less than 2 percent of criminal cases go to trial; in 2011, the county didn’t have a single jury trial in a criminal case.

Former Santa Cruz County Judge Jose Lerma expressed shock over those numbers.

“It’s a startling statistic, yes,” he said. “What the reasons for it are, though, is very difficult to say.”

Cecelia Klingele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School Professor and criminal law expert, believes the decreasing number of ...

Bonds Used to Finance Private Prisons, Jails Turn into Junk

by Christopher Zoukis

The promise of safe, humane and less costly prisons has been used for decades by the private prison industry to sell its products. As prison populations skyrocketed, local, state and federal governments became convinced that financing and building more and more correctional facilities was the way to go. So did investors, who picked up municipal bonds used to finance private prison construction in droves.

But lately the bottom is falling out of the prison and jail bond market.

Almost immediately after the U.S. Department of Justice announced plans to discontinue the use of privately-operated Bureau of Prisons facilities in August 2016, S&P Global Ratings downgraded bonds for several private prisons to below junk status. That meant the ratings giant believed they were essentially worthless, as the debt was likely to go into default.

The now junk-status bonds include those used to finance prisons in Garza, Reeves and Willacy counties in Texas. The Willacy facility, which has over $60 million in bond debt, is currently vacant after a February 2015 riot left it uninhabitable. [See: PLN, Dec. 2016, p.20].

Referring to Willacy County in particular, S&P Global Ratings credit analyst Kate Boatright stated, “the ...

Dismissal of Federal Prisoner’s Lawsuit over Improper Solitary Confinement Affirmed

by Christopher Zoukis

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has dealt a blow to the constitutional rights of imprisoned writers.

On December 11, 2012, after serving a lengthy sentence for arson-related crimes in connection with environmental activism, Daniel McGowan was released to the Brooklyn House Residential Reentry Center (RRC) to serve the remainder of his sentence. While a resident of the RRC, McGowan published an article on the Huffington Post’s website, using his own byline (i.e., name), titled “Court Documents Prove I was Sent to a Communications Management Unit (CMU) for my Political Speech.”

That article, published on April 1, 2013, detailed McGowan’s claim that he was placed in a highly restrictive Communications Management Unit in retaliation for publishing political opinion pieces. When Tracy Rivers, Residential Reentry Manager at the New York Residential Reentry Management Office of the Bureau of Prisons, read the article, she issued McGowan an incident report and ordered him remanded to a federal detention facility.

McGowan then spent 22 hours in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) of the Metropolitan Detention Center. That’s how long it took for the BOP to realize that McGowan had been placed in the SHU for ...

California: Condemned Prisoners Smuggle Drugs to Commit Suicide

by Christopher Zoukis

As the 31 states that practice capital punishment struggle to find the chemicals necessary to execute condemned prisoners, in at least one state the prisoners themselves are successfully bringing in large quantities of drugs, which they sometimes use to commit suicide – to cheat the metaphorical hangman’s noose.

This is both ironic and troubling.

California’s death row is extremely crowded. There were 749 prisoners on the state’s death row as of March 30, 2017 – almost three times as many as in Texas. The reason for this is simple: Since 1976, Texas has executed 538 prisoners but California has executed just 13.

In fact, California hasn’t put a single prisoner to death in over a decade.

This is partly due to the difficulty that some states are experiencing in obtaining lethal injection drugs. Large pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer have begun restricting the sale of chemicals to state agencies that intend to use them for executions; as a result, some states are resorting to shady transactions to obtain the necessary drugs. [See: PLN, March 2014, p.46].

Meanwhile, prisoners on California’s death row, who typically spend decades in isolation, are patronizing the robust illicit ...

Prosecutor’s Investigation Results in Release of Illinois Prisoner Convicted in 1957 Cold Case

by Christopher Zoukis

Jack Daniel McCullough, a 76-year-old veteran and former police officer, was convicted in 2012 of the 1957 abduction and murder of a young girl in perhaps the oldest cold case in the nation to go to trial. He was sentenced to life in prison and his murder conviction was affirmed on appeal. See: People v. McCullough, 2015 IL App (2d) 121364, 38 N.E.3d 1 (Ill. App. Ct. 2d Dist. 2015).

But newly-elected Dekalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack was not convinced of McCullough’s guilt. Schmack embarked on a six-month review of the case, including reams of vintage police and FBI reports from the original investigation – most of which were not allowed into evidence during McCullough’s bench trial.

At the end of the review, Schmack concluded that McCullough’s alibi was legitimate and he could not have committed the crime. Noting that the state was “ethically compelled and constrained to admit the existence of clear and convincing evidence” establishing a defendant’s innocence, Schmack joined McCullough’s attorneys in seeking his immediate release.

Despite the rare agreement of both prosecutor and defense counsel, Judge William Brady initially refused to free McCullough in late ...

Healthcare and Handcuffs: BOP Assigns Medical Staff to Security Positions

by Christopher Zoukis

The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), facing chronic guard shortages, has resorted to either paying overtime to officers who work additional shifts or assigning nurses and other healthcare staff to security positions. In the latter case, one major shortcoming is that medical employees have minimal security training.

The Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General deemed the staffing shortage a “crisis,” with the BOP experiencing a medical staff vacancy rate of 40 percent or higher. For a corrections system struggling to provide healthcare for almost 190,000 prisoners, there were 656 medical job vacancies as of March 2016.

The nurses assigned to guard duty by the BOP were, for the most part, members of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), which has around 900 members working in federal prisons. PHS nurses, clinicians and therapists have “routinely been pressed into patrolling prison recreation yards, securing cell blocks, transporting inmates to and from maximum security zones, [and have] pulled regular shifts monitoring inmate telephone calls and correspondence,” USA Today reported on April 27, 2016.

Further contributing to the BOP’s questionable reassignment of nurses and other medical staff is a conflict between BOP staff members, who ...

BOP Settles Prisoner Retaliation Claim for $7,350

by Christopher Zoukis

The Bureau of Prisons settled a claim of retaliation brought by prisoner Kevin L. Shehee for $7,350.00 in December 2000.

Shehee was serving a 262-month sentence at Federal Correctional Institution Manchester, Kentucky when he filed his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim in federal court ...

Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Denies Use of Solitary Confinement in Testimony before Congress

by Christopher Zoukis

Numerous federal prisoners have voiced strong condemnations of the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Charles Samuels, after Samuels told a Senate committee that the BOP does not use solitary confinement at a hearing on August 4, 2015.  The inmates dispute Samuels' comments as false, and part of a continuing pattern of lies, corruption and misuse of public funds, all while treating large numbers of prisoners "like dogs," as one prisoner put it.

Giving sworn testimony as to the BOP's difficulties in operating its prisons on what he characterized as limited resources, Samuels told the committee, "We do not, under any circumstances, nor have we ever had the practice of putting an individual in a cell alone," when discussing the use of Special Housing Units (SHU), commonly described as "the Hole" by staff and prisoners alike. "We do not practice solitary confinement," he said under oath.

Samuels' comments on the subject angered some prisoners, and one accused the Director of committing perjury. "How can he get away with saying such a bald-face lie?" said Jay Martt, confined at FCI Terre Haute, IN. "All that one of the senators needs to do is subpoena any log-book ...

Mentally Ill, Disabled CDCR Prisoner Dies Following Use of Force Incident

by Christopher Zoukis

On September 7, 2013, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) prisoner Joseph Duran, 35, a mentally ill inmate who breathed through the use of a tube in his throat, died following a use of force incident. He had been pepper-sprayed in the face for refusing to remove his hands from a food slot in his cell door.

Following guards' forcible entry into Duran's cell, medical staff repeatedly requested for Duran to be removed from the cell and decontaminated. They refused. Over the next seven hours he ripped out his breathing tube and allegedly forced spaghetti and feces into the hole in his throat from a 2006 tracheotomy. While the Amador County coroner deemed his death a suicide, a subsequent CDCR review determined that it was an accidental death and that Duran had been attempting to "soothe" the burning in his throat from the chemical irritant.

On September 4, 2014, Duran's parents, Steven and Elaine Duran, filed a wrongful death suit in federal court in Sacramento. Attorney Stewart Katz represents the family. Among the allegations are that CDCR staff used excessive force and engaged in a cover-up. The lawsuit names 13 CDCR officials, including Mule ...

American Institute of Architects Rejects Petition to Protect Human Rights

by Christopher Zoukis

The leading organization for the nation's architects has rejected a call from some of its members to reject employment that would involve the design of certain prison facilities, such as execution chambers and Special Housing Unit cells.

In February 2014, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) was faced with a very troubling ethics petition. Proposed by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), the petition proposed modifying the AIA's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to "prohibit the design of spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." More specifically, the petition singled out "execution chambers," "super-maximum security prisons," and "solitary confinement facilities for juveniles and the mentally ill." The petition was denied.

According to Helene Combs Dreiling, AIA's former president, "It's just not something we want to determine as a collective. Architects self-select, depending on where they feel they can contribute best." Raphael Sperry, ADPSR's architect who led the petition, disagrees with allowing the profession to continue building such facilities. If he had his way, those who do build such facilities should be censured. In his view, architects have a social responsibility to act in the public interest, projecting ...


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Disciplinary Self-Help Litigation Manual



Prisoners Self Help Litigation Manual