Skip navigation

Articles by Christopher Zoukis

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 related ...

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 ...

Prison Work Programs: “Cost-Effective Labor Pool” or “Slave Labor of Yesterday”?

by Christopher Zoukis

According to a 2017 survey by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), of the more than 2.2 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails across the United States, 61 percent hold some form of job.

In marketing materials prepared for Federal Prison Industries ...

Class-Action Suit Against CoreCivic ICE Detention Center Allowed to Proceed

by Christopher Zoukis

A lawsuit alleging that private prison operator CoreCivic violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) by forcing immigrant detainees to work at one of the company’s detention centers will proceed in federal court. The class-action claim withstood a motion to dismiss on August 17, 2018.

CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, operates the Stewart Detention Center – an immigration facility in Stewart, Georgia. The detention center has nearly 2,000 beds and is one of the largest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)-contracted facilities in the country. It also has a notorious reputation.

CoreCivic makes use of a “voluntary work program” at Stewart. Pursuant to that program, detainees who agree to perform various jobs maintaining the facility are paid between $1 and $4 per day. They also are afforded upgraded living conditions, which consist of showers with hot water, a toilet shared with one person (instead of 66 people) and a two-person cell instead of a dorm unit known as “the Chicken Coop.” Further, workers are able to earn money to purchase toilet paper and soap, which the CoreCivic-operated facility does not adequately provide.

Multiple detainees at Stewart filed a class-action suit alleging the company violated ...

Second Circuit: Prisoners Have the Right Not to Snitch

by Christopher Zoukis

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has held that the First Amendment protects both a prisoner’s right not to snitch and his or her right not to provide false information to prison officials. The May 9, 2018 opinion established new precedent in the Second Circuit; even though the plaintiff lost the case on qualified immunity grounds, future prisoners who are similarly situated will likely prevail.

New York state prisoner Mark Burns was working in the commissary at the Coxsackie Correctional Facility when a can of spaghetti fell on his head. He suffered a scratch and bruises on his neck. He reported the incident to prison staff, resulting in the filing of an Inmate Injury Report that detailed the accident and his injuries.

The next day, Sergeant Noeh and Captain Shanley approached Burns and told him his wife had called the institution to report that Burns had been “cut” by a fellow prisoner. He denied any such altercation, and suggested that his wife had not called the prison. He also told the guards he was injured by a falling can, the injury was witnessed by one of the commissary guards and an Inmate Injury ...

Report Highlights Shortcomings of New York’s Parole Board

by Christopher Zoukis

An investigative report issued in August 2018 by two advocacy groups, Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) and the Parole Preparation Project (PPP), found significant problems with the New York State Board of Parole’s (BOP) policies, practices and political dynamics that have led the board to deny release to a majority of parole-eligible offenders.

New York currently has about 22,000 prisoners serving indeterminate sentences. Of those, around 12,000 appear before the BOP each year for parole eligibility determinations. Although 19 positions are authorized, the BOP operates with only 12 commissioners, each appointed by the governor to a six-year term. Overworked commissioners with large caseloads make hasty and uninformed parole decisions, the report said, with “devastating consequences for people in prison and their loved ones.”

Finding that the BOP “systematically fails to properly consider the age and rehabilitation” of prisoners eligible for parole, the report noted the board instead focuses almost exclusively on the nature of the prisoner’s crime in making parole decisions – disregarding “the many accomplishments of the applicant and their often categorically low risk for recidivism,” and instead denying their freedom “based on a single, unchanging moment that occurred decades ago ...

Alaskan Native American Company Profits from Immigrant Detention

by Christopher Zoukis

Under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), guards at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas are provided by Ahtna Support and Training Services – a subsidiary of Ahtna, Inc., which is one of 13 Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) created by Congress for the benefit of Alaskan Native peoples. [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.38]. But with the Port Isabel facility holding some immigrant parents forcibly separated from their children by ICE under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration, Ahtna finds itself trapped in a public relations quandary.

Parallels between the administration’s policy and the federal government’s historic forced separation of Native Americans, both children from their families and tribes from their ancestral lands, are problematic for Ahtna.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) released a statement strongly condemning the Trump administration’s “forced separation of immigrant children from their families,” calling the policy a reminder of “a dark period for many Native American families.”

“For decades, the U.S. government stole Native children from their parents and forced them into boarding schools hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away,” NCAI president Jefferson Keel said in a June ...

Federal Prisons Use Nurses and Cooks as Guards While Officials Push to Fill Private Prisons

by Christopher Zoukis

The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) houses over 181,400 prisoners in more than 120 facilities nationwide. As a rule, federal prisons are overcrowded and understaffed. With the Trump administration demanding a 12 to 14 percent workforce reduction – which equates to 5,000 to 6,000 BOP job positions, including an estimated 1,800 guards – the Bureau has become more reliant on two controversial practices: augmentation and privatization.

BOP policy states that all employees are regarded as “correctional workers first.” As such, when a required security post is vacant, civilian workers may be forced into what the Bureau calls “augmentation.” In practice this means nurses, secretaries, teachers and other non-security staff are given keys, handcuffs and a radio, and directed to fill guard posts. [See: PLN, May 2017, p.12].

Kristan Morgan, a nurse practitioner at a federal prison in Tallahassee, said she has been required to report for guard duty in scrubs and running shoes.

“We get a radio and set of keys, and we don’t know which keys fit which doors,” she related.

Augmentation is supposed to be reserved for emergency situations. But an article in USA Today reported increasing ...

Ninth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in Favor of Jail Where Three Detainees Died

by Christopher Zoukis

In an unpublished June 7, 2018 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit partially reversed a district court’s ruling that Cowlitz County, Washington was entitled to summary judgment in a case that alleged county jail officials violated the civil rights of three detainees who died within a nine-month period.

The estates of Stephanie Deal, Jenny Lynn Borelis and Daniel D. Bush filed claims against Cowlitz County and Corrections Director Marin Fox Hight in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They argued the policies and customs at the jail posed a substantial risk of serious harm, which resulted in the deaths of the three detainees.

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, citing a failure by the plaintiffs to present evidence to support their claims. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit partially reversed that order. In doing so, it cited a recent decision that compelled that result – Gordon v. County of Orange, 888 F.3d 1118 (9th Cir. 2018) [PLN, Oct. 2018, p.48].

According to the appellate court, Gordon changed the individual liability standard for medical-needs claims involving a pretrial detainee. Because it was now possible that “reckless ...