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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Christopher Zoukis

Former Georgia DOC Official Charged for Embezzling Public Funds

A former deputy director of operations for the Georgia Department of Corrections has been indicted on 35 counts of identity fraud, after admitting he used his state purchasing privileges to buy electronic items and make other unauthorized purchases for his personal use.

Benjamin Hopkins, 42, was indicted by a Fulton County grand jury on July 16, 2013. His allegedly improper purchases came to light when a vendor for the Department of Corrections, Global Government Education Solutions, flagged an order for an Xbox gaming system and two iPods in November 2010 and contacted corrections auditors. An internal investigation was launched and 35 unauthorized purchases were discovered. A two-year spending spree worth at least $20,374.91 in public funds was attributed to Hopkins.

When investigators confronted Hopkins with evidence of the purchases, he reportedly admitted having made them and was terminated. A warrant for Hopkins’ arrest was issued by the Fulton County Superior Court.


Missouri: Arrestees Billed for Cost of Police Tasers

Police officers in St. Joseph, Missouri have successfully recouped payments from defendants for the cost of “tasing” them during an arrest. It costs $24.99 for a Taser cartridge and about $1.05 in battery use each time an officer tases a suspect, according to the police department’s Taser instructor, Brendan McGinnis.

Between March and December 2012, the department sought restitution in 64 cases where Tasers were used, representing approximately $2,000 in costs and resulting in payments totaling about $700. Within the first five months of 2013, 28 Taser deployments resulted in another $790 in restitution being requested by prosecutors, who petition the courts to impose the sanction. A state law allows police departments to recover general arrest costs, said McGinnis.

While there have been numerous civil actions alleging wrongful deaths related to Taser use by law enforcement officers [see, e.g.: PLN, Feb. 2013, p.46; Jan. 2012, p.42; Oct. 2011, p.40], McGinnis sees no conflict in viewing Taser deployments in the same light as DWI cases, in which restitution for police expenditures also has been sought.

“We’re spending about $4,000 a year for Taser usage, a cost we will never recover,” he ...

Oklahoma’s DNA Law Means Post-Conviction Testing Available in All 50 States

On May 24, 2013, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed into law a comprehensive post-conviction DNA review process for defendants in cases involving violent felonies or resulting in sentences of 25 years or more. Oklahoma thus became the final state to pass a post-conviction DNA testing statute.

Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which has championed DNA testing as a forensic tool, hailed the Oklahoma law as a victory. “Two decades ago, when we founded the Innocence Project, no state in the nation had a law on the books to help wrongfully convicted people access DNA testing to prove their innocence. Today, every state in the country now has a law allowing wrongfully convicted people the legal means to request DNA testing.”

At least 310 people have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA tests since 1989, when such testing became forensically feasible. Larry Peterson, for example, spent 16 years in New Jersey prisons after being falsely convicted of murder. Following the passage of New Jersey’s DNA testing statute in 2002, Peterson was released when he was able to prove he was not the perpetrator of the crime.

Most recently, in Laramie County, Wyoming, charges of first-degree sexual assault and aggravated ...

500 Escape from Abu Ghraib and Taji Prisons in Iraq

On July 21, 2013, military-style assaults at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison and another prison in Taji resulted in the escape of more than 500 prisoners, including an unknown number of al-Qaida members. Many of the prisoners were captured or killed the same day, said Hakim al-Zamili, an Iraqi lawmaker. Authorities believe an attack on the Taji prison was a diversion intended to facilitate the escape of hundreds of prisoners from Abu Ghraib, including al-Qaida leaders who had been sentenced to death.

Abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib became a source of international outrage after photos of the maltreatment became public in 2004. The Abu Ghraib and Taji facilities were operated by American military personnel until U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011. Since then, prison escapes have been common. [See: PLN, Jan. 2013, p.23].

One year prior to the violent July 2013 jailbreak, al-Qaida’s Iraqi arm, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, launched a campaign called “Break the Walls” to free its incarcerated members.

“The first priority in this is releasing Muslim prisoners everywhere, and chasing and eliminating judges and investigators and their ...

Utah DOC Ends "English Only" Visitation Requirement

Utah DOC Ends "English Only" Visitation Requirement

by Christopher Zoukis

As of August 1, 2013, Utah state prisoners are able to talk to their visitors in languages other than English, reversing a longstanding policy.

The change puts an end to the nation's only state prison system rule that forbids foreign languages during visits, according to Chesa Boudin, a federal public defender in San Francisco and co-author of a Yale University study on prison visitation. [See: PLN, May 2013, p.1].

According to the Utah Department of Corrections (DOC), approximately one-fifth of the state's prison population is Hispanic. John Mejia, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said that for many years his office had received a steady stream of complaints about the English-only visitation policy. Utah has many Spanish-speaking prisoners as well as others whose families speak Pacific Islander and Native American languages, he noted.

The policy change was initiated by the Utah DOC's new director, Rollin E. Cook, who took over in April 2013 and agreed to make the change after meeting with ACLU officials. The English-only rule had been in place for decades as a "safety measure" so guards could monitor prisoner-visitor ...

TransCor May Face Punitive Damages for Prisoner's Death

TransCor America, LLC, a for-profit prisoner transportation company and subsidiary of Corrections Corporation of America, may be held liable for punitive damages if it is found responsible for the death of a prisoner who died while being transported in a TransCor van.

U.S. District Court Judge James F. Holderman, Chief Judge for the Northern District of Illinois, wrote in a March 29, 2012 ruling that while federal prisoner Joseph Curtis, 66, had died during a trip from a prison in Kansas to a facility in Indiana, actions taken by TransCor staff at the company's headquarters in Tennessee made the application of that state's punitive damages statute appropriate.

According to the district court's recitation of facts in the case, on June 23, 2009, a TransCor van with a non-working air conditioner in the prisoners' compartment picked up Curtis at USP Leavenworth and took him and several other prisoners on a circuitous route through Kansas, Missouri and into Illinois before heading to USP Terre Haute in Indiana.

Curtis, who was serving a 60-month sentence for possession of child pornography, died in the unairconditioned TransCor van due to heatstroke. The outside temperature on the day he died reached 95 ...

Oklahoma: Hospital Sues Sheriff over Unpaid Medical Bills, for Third Time

For the third time in the past eight years, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel has been sued for damages by a local hospital, which accuses him of releasing dozens of jail prisoners to avoid having to pay their medical bills.

Prior lawsuits involving Whetsel's handling of detainee medical costs have resulted in county officials paying more than $8 million in settlements. The latest action, filed on April 5, 2013 in Oklahoma County District Court, alleges that the sheriff's office has run up at least $924,085 in medical bills at Oklahoma University Medical Center (OUMC) since March 2011, excluding interest, while paying only $52,402 to the hospital.

OUMC officials contend that Sheriff Whetsel has deliberately circumvented a state law that requires counties to pay the medical costs of prisoners held in their custody. "The county and the sheriff have developed a practice of ... purporting to 'release' inmates from custody before, and even after transporting them to the hospital, and then deny liability for the necessary medical care by saying the inmate is no longer in the county's custody," the lawsuit alleges. "This practice ... is a blatant effort by the county and the sheriff to absolve themselves ...

Maryland Repeals Death Penalty

On May 2, 2013, Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish the death penalty, and the 18th state – along with the District of Columbia – that has rejected capital punishment. Maryland is the first Southern state to forgo executions in nearly half a century, joining West Virginia, with its 1964 repeal, as the only states below the Mason-Dixon Line without capital punishment on the books.

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who has been fighting the state's death penalty with legislative efforts since 2007, and who signed the repeal bill, said in a press release, "Maryland has effectively eliminated a policy that is proven not to work. Evidence shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent, it cannot be administered without racial bias, and it costs three times as much as life in prison without parole." He added, "Furthermore, there is no way to reverse a mistake if an innocent person is put to death."

The death penalty repeal, which goes into effect on October 1, 2013, does not explicitly apply to the five men currently on Maryland's death row. The state's last execution took place in 2005 when Governor Robert Ehrlich was ...

Oklahoma Escapee Surrenders to Police after 14 Years on the Run

On April 26, 2013, David Lee Kemp, 43, turned himself into the Comanche County, Oklahoma Sheriff's Office. He was actively being sought by the FBI, U.S. Marshals and other law enforcement agencies for escaping from the Comanche County Jail 14 years earlier. "He said that he was just tired basically of running and it was affecting his health," said Sheriff Kenny Stradley.

Kemp was being held in the Comanche County Jail in 1999 for the shooting deaths of Christine Frances Kemp, his ex-wife, and Robert Wayne Miller, her new boyfriend. Kemp allegedly went to their apartment, pushed open the unlocked front door, and shot Miller four times and his ex-wife three times.

He then fled the area. Police later located a man who claimed he had sold Kemp a .45 caliber handgun. Subsequent testing of spent bullet casings confirmed that the gun was the one used in the murders. The California Highway Patrol located Kemp's Dodge Ram pickup truck abandoned by the side of the road several days later, and commenced a search. They located Kemp, who was eventually cornered in a junkyard, where he held the .45 up to his head and threatened to kill himself ...

Pennsylvania: No Prison Time for Guards Convicted of Abusing Prisoners

A former Pennsylvania prison guard who was convicted on 27 counts of abusing prisoners will serve no prison time of his own, after a state court sentenced him to five years’ probation and six months on house arrest.

Harry Nicoletti, 61, was convicted of numerous counts of official oppression, simple assault, criminal solicitation and terrorist threats, as well as three counts of indecent exposure. He was acquitted of more serious charges of involuntary deviant sexual intercourse and institutional sexual assault.

The jury reached its verdict after deliberating three days following an 11-day trial that included 58 witnesses, some of them prisoners who recanted their earlier statements against Nicoletti. Charges against four other prison guards had previously been dropped.

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge David Cashman could have sentenced Nicoletti to up to 18 months in prison, but instead told him, “I’m sparing you from the danger you posed to the individuals you were in charge of.”

Nicoletti was originally indicted on 117 criminal charges following his arrest in September 2011. He was accused of being the ringleader of a group of six guards at SCI Pittsburgh who targeted sex offenders and homosexual prisoners for abuse that included ...


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