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Articles by Christopher Zoukis

Long-Term Segregation Can Establish Imminent Danger of Serious Physical Injury for PLRA Purposes

by Christopher Zoukis

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a mentally ill prisoner who spent 11 years in solitary confinement and had a history of attempted self-harm could plausibly allege that continued segregation would place him in imminent danger of serious physical injury. The ruling overturned a district court’s order to the contrary, and the case was allowed to proceed.

Maurice L. Wallace, serving life without parole, attacked a guard in 2006. He was placed in solitary confinement, where he continued to remain 11 years later. Wallace is seriously mentally ill and during his time in solitary has been litigious.

The appeal under review by the Seventh Circuit involved allegations that prolonged isolation exacerbated Wallace’s mental illness, increased his risk of suicide and violated his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Because Wallace asked for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, the district court reviewed his litigation history for compliance with the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g).

The PLRA’s “three strikes” provision prohibits a prisoner from proceeding with a civil action in forma pauperis when, on three or more previous occasions, a federal court has dismissed a lawsuit or ...

Wealthy? Upgrade to a First Class Criminal Justice Experience!

by Christopher Zoukis

They say money can’t buy happiness, and more money just leads to more problems. But when it comes to the criminal justice system, wealth can get an accused murderer out on bail, a celebrity a great plea deal and a sex offender an upgraded jail stay.

The money bail system is a classic example of the difference that wealth makes in our nation’s justice system. When real estate tycoon Tiffany Li was charged with orchestrating the murder of her children’s father in 2017, bail was set at $35 million – a record amount for San Mateo County, California. Not a problem – Li, her family and friends are loaded, and quickly came up with $66 million in cash and real estate to make her bond. Li was picked up from jail by a bodyguard and whisked away in a Cadillac Escalade. [See: PLN, Feb. 2018, p.60].

Meanwhile, in New York, there are people who have been accused of petty crimes languishing in jail because they cannot post $1.00 in bail. Literally one dollar.

Having money can get you a better plea deal, too. In Palm Beach, Florida, “Real Housewives of New York” star Luann de ...

Federal Judge Orders Washington Prison Officials to Properly Feed Ramadan Participants

by Christopher Zoukis

In what could be the fastest injunction ever granted in a prison-related case, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton issued a temporary retraining order in favor of Muslim prisoners mere hours after they filed a lawsuit alleging that Washington prison officials were refusing to honor fasting requirements during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The lawsuit, filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) on behalf of four men held at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, said the facility’s rigidly enforced Ramadan sign-up policy resulted in some Muslims not being able to eat. According to CAIR, the four prisoners lost an average of 20 pounds each between the beginning of Ramadan in mid-May and the day the lawsuit was filed on June 10, 2018.

One of the plaintiffs, Jeremy Livingston, said he arrived at the prison after the Ramadan sign-up date at the end of January, and was denied meals despite requesting them when he got there.

Other prisoners who were denied Ramadan meals resorted to “stealing” their regular meals so they could be consumed between sundown and sunrise, as required by their religion. But when guards learned that non-approved Muslims were in possession of ...

$17 Million Payout for Yet Another Wrongful Conviction in Chicago

by Christopher Zoukis

On June 29, 2018, a federal jury awarded over $17 million to a Chicago man who spent 21 years in a maximum-security prison for a murder he did not commit.

Jacques Rivera, now 52, was convicted of the 1988 gangland killing of 16-year-old Felix Valentin. The only evidence tying him to the crime was an eyewitness – 12-year-old Oscar Lopez, who repeatedly failed to identify Rivera as the shooter. According to Rivera’s lawsuit, not only did Lopez fail to identify him, the boy identified the actual shooter. But Chicago cop Reynaldo Guevara manipulated Lopez’s memory and elicited the testimony that resulted in Rivera’s conviction.

Years later, Northwestern University’s Center for Wrongful Convictions took up Rivera’s case. Investigators interviewed Lopez, who admitted that he knew Rivera was not the shooter. Rivera moved for post-conviction relief, and based on Lopez’s testimony a court overturned his conviction. Cook County prosecutors dismissed all the charges and Rivera was released from prison in October 2011.

He then filed suit, alleging that he was framed by multiple Chicago detectives and gang-unit officers. He said Guevara was the main author of the scheme, and the officer had “a long history of engaging in ... investigative ...

Lawsuit by Washington AG Against GEO Group for Wage Violations Proceeds, Granted Class-Action Status

by Christopher Zoukis

In December 2017, a federal judge denied a motion by GEO Group, the private operator of the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington, to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the state’s Attorney General, Bob Ferguson. The suit alleges that GEO violated the state’s minimum wage law by paying NWDC detainees just $1.00 per day for their labor at the facility. Washington’s minimum wage is currently $11.50 per hour.

GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, Florida, provides detention services at NWDC under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The company had requested that the court either add ICE as a co-defendant or dismiss the case. The court rejected both options.

“This is an important step toward holding this multibillion dollar company accountable for exploiting its detainee workers in Washington by not following our minimum wage laws,” Ferguson stated.

With 141 prisons and detention centers in operation worldwide, GEO’s gross revenue exceeded $2.26 billion in 2017. It has owned the 1,575-bed NWDC since 2005, operating it for ICE under a contract valued at $57 million annually. The facility houses immigrant detainees awaiting resolution of deportation cases, which are civil rather than criminal ...

Defy Ventures Founder Steps Down Amid Accusations of Misconduct

by Christopher Zoukis

Catherine Hoke used to work on Wall Street, employed by a private equity firm. She left the world of high finance to start the Prison Entrepreneurship Program for Texas prisoners in 2004. But after five years Hoke was forced out and banned from all Texas prisons, after she admitted to having relationships with program graduates following their release.

Hoke is a big believer in second chances, though, so she gave herself one. In 2010 she founded Defy Ventures, a nonprofit dedicated to helping former prisoners stay out through training and mentorship to help them start their own businesses. Defy, based in New York City, now has programs in over 20 prisons and jails in Nebraska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, New York and – as of October 2018 – at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State. It also has a large Internet presence, teaching business classes via online lectures. [See: PLN, Feb. 2018, p.20].

According to the organization, the recidivism rate for program graduates is less than five percent over a three-year tracking period, based on March 2018 data.

Defy Ventures, whose tagline is “Transforming your hustle,” has become a Silicon Valley darling, receiving grants from ...

Censorship in Prisons and Jails: A War on the Written Word

“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” — Ray Bradbury

by Christopher Zoukis

In its landmark ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) – which held political campaign spending is a form of protected speech – the U.S. Supreme Court noted the First Amendment is “[p]remised on mistrust of governmental power.” The Court has also held that such mistrust extends to bans on books and other reading materials, since “freedom of speech is not merely freedom to speak; it is also freedom to read.” See: King v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 415 F.3d 634 (7th Cir. 2005).

In addition to the many other privations prisoners experience, they are often subjected to censorship of books, magazines and even correspondence by prison officials. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit wrote, “The simple opportunity to read a book or write a letter, whether it expresses political views or absent affections, supplies a vital link between the inmate and the outside world, and nourishes the prisoner’s mind despite the blankness and bleakness of his environment.” See: Wolfish v ...

Surprise Shutdown of Maine Prison Leads to Controversy, Court Order

by Christopher Zoukis

In a sudden move that local residents called a “Gestapo tactic,” Maine Governor Paul LePage ordered the closure of a small prison in rural Washington County. The Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF), with a capacity for up to 148 prisoners, was shuttered at 4:30 a.m. on February 9, 2018. The 63 prisoners housed there at the time, many of whom were employed in the local community in a work-release program, were transferred to the Mountain View Correctional Facility.

Located in Machiasport, DCF had 46 employees and cost the state about $5 million a year to operate. Governor LePage had previously threatened to close the prison, which his communications director, Peter Steele, called “expensive and inefficient to run.” According to a statement from Le­Page, the legislature was not going to fund the facility in its 2018-2020 budget, thus it made sense to shutter it early.

“The Legislature did not fund for the total two-year biennial, and at some point it was going to close,” the governor said. “I saw today as an ability to save the state a little bit more money.”

Jim Mackie, a staff representative for the American Federation of State ...

More Legal Cases Involving Transgender Prisoners in Multiple States

by Christopher Zoukis

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), about 34 percent of transgender people held in prisons or jails reported being subjected to at least one incident of sexual violence while incarcerated. That’s eight times the rate for prisoners overall – and a large number of the 3,200 transgender prisoners the BJS counted in 2012.

In most jails and prisons, self-professed gender identity is not considered when determining whether to place a prisoner in a men’s or women’s facility. This leads to situations like that of Jane Doe – a 52-year-old Massachusetts prisoner who filed a November 2017 lawsuit challenging the Department of Correction’s policy in that state, which placed her in a prison for males despite the fact that she transitioned to female more than 40 years ago.

Lawsuits like Doe’s – along with a recent increase in political pressure – have coincided with incremental changes in the way the needs of transgender prisoners are addressed by prison officials. [See: PLN, June 2018, p.54].

Connecticut recently enacted what might be the most sweeping changes to the way transgender prisoners are treated. SB-13, which went into effect on July 1, 2018, gives those prisoners the ...

Ninth Circuit: Prisoner’s Disciplinary Appeal Exhausted Claim of Having to Work on Religious Holiday

by Christopher Zoukis

On May 18, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s order dismissing a prisoner’s complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The Ninth Circuit held the prisoner’s claim, which alleged a violation of his right to religious liberty under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), could proceed.

Michael Ray Fuqua, a Christian prisoner held in an Arizona state prison, was scheduled to work in the kitchen on September 24, 2014, a religious holiday. When he learned of the schedule, which would require him to work on the Feast of Trumpets, he wrote a letter outlining his concerns and offering to switch shifts or pick up other shifts to cover the day off. Fuqua tried to give the letter to Sergeant Starnes, who told him “we don’t do that shit here” and refused to accept the letter.

The day before the holiday, Fuqua spoke with kitchen manager Clark about the issue. Clark told him to “do what you have to do,” but warned that Fuqua “will not have a job here” if he didn’t show up on the religious holiday. The day ...