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Articles by Dale Chappell

California Court of Appeal Reverses Convictions for Possession of Marijuana in Prison

by Dale Chappell

Overturning the convictions of five defendants, the Third Appellate District Court of Appeal in Sacramento, California held on June 11, 2019 that Proposition 64’s decriminalization of possession of less than an ounce of marijuana also applied to possession in a state prison.

The five defendants, separately convicted ...

Court Grants Compassionate Release After BOP Says Prisoner Wasn’t Dying Fast Enough

by Dale Chappell

In a case that demonstrates exactly why the First Step Act included much-needed changes for compassionate release for federal prisoners, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana granted immediate release to a terminally ill, wheelchair-bound prisoner after the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) rejected his request by saying he wasn’t dying fast enough.

Shortly after Steve Alan Brittner was sentenced to 48 months in federal prison for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He filed for compassionate release but was denied by the BOP because his life expectancy exceeded his remaining sentence. In October 2018, just seven months after his diagnosis, doctors told Brittner his prognosis was “poor,” and the following month they advised him to stop treatment and start end-of-life care with hospice.

When Brittner submitted another request for compassionate release, BOP officials again said his cancer wasn’t spreading fast enough; additionally, they claimed he could still care for himself. His request was denied.

But the First Step Act, enacted a month later, allowed Brittner to seek compassionate release from the sentencing court. The federal district court had no problem finding that he qualified for compassionate release.

In its objections, the ...

Colorado DOC Settles Lawsuit, Agrees to Treat Thousands of Prisoners with HCV

by Dale Chappell

The Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit by providing lifesaving treatment to thousands of prisoners with hepatitis C (HCV), which will cost the state at least $41 million. [See: PLN, June 2019, p.44].

The suit, filed by the ACLU of Colorado in federal court, alleged the CDOC “intentionally and systematically delays and denies necessary medical care” to prisoners with HCV. The pleadings in the case detailed the prison system’s policy of severely restricting treatment to just dozens of the thousands of state prisoners infected with the disease. Such inaction, the lawsuit said, evidenced the CDOC’s “deliberate indifference to prisoners’ serious medical needs,” in violation of their constitutional rights.

To understand how serious of a problem HCV is in prison, the complaint provided some sobering facts. An estimated 3.2 million people are infected with HCV in the U.S., which in 2013 caused more deaths than 60 other infectious diseases combined. In 2017, over 11 percent of the CDOC’s approximately 20,100 prisoners were known to be HCV-positive.

Treatment for HCV used to consist of a combination of drugs that caused major side-effects with less than a 60 percent success rate. In 2013, ...

First Step Act Update: Over 1,600 Sentences Reduced, 3,000 Prisoners Released

by Dale Chappell and Douglas Ankney

As of late July 2019, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had released over 3,000 prisoners under the First Step Act, a landmark criminal justice reform measure signed in December 2018 by President Trump. [See: PLN, April 2019, p.1; Jan. 2019, p.34]. The law also resulted in the reduction of 1,691 federal prison sentences, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC).

The largest group of those released were drug offenders like Norah Yahya. The 40-year-old spent 18 years in prison after her first conviction at age 22 for dealing marijuana. Along the way she earned a college degree and even held a job before her second imprisonment for selling crack cocaine.

“I just fell right back into the same stream of choices. I wanted to be released, but I had no preparations upon release,” said Yahya, adding that now, “I want to live.”

The reduced sentences were for federal prisoners left out of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act (FSA). The FSA was not applied retroactively, but the First Step Act explicitly extended its provisions to pre-2010 sentences. The USSC said 25 percent of those sentence reductions were granted to prisoners whose cases originated ...

Sleeping Guard Who Allowed Suicidal Prisoner to Hang Himself Prompts $507,500 Settlement

by Dale Chappell

A sleeping guard at the Lancaster County jail in South Carolina, who was supposed to be watching a suicidal prisoner who killed himself, prompted the county to settle a wrongful death suit for $507,500.

When Randy Stevens’ friend called 911 in May 2014 because Stevens was suicidal, Lancaster County Sheriff’s deputies responded along with EMS. Instead of allowing Stevens to be transported by EMS for an evaluation, deputies D. Dailey and A. Lloyd, who did not have any medical training, took Stevens to jail. Only after he complained of chest pain was he taken to a hospital.

Two hours later, Stevens, who according to toxicology reports and security video footage was “grossly intoxicated,” refused treatment at the hospital and was transported to the jail, according to court pleadings.

During an intake medical screening, deputies Dailey and Lloyd kept harassing and inciting Stevens to the point he was uncooperative, and the screening was never completed. Stevens was placed not in a suicide watch cell or even the “drunk tank,” but in a cell down a hallway that did not have direct observation by guards. Dailey and Lloyd also reportedly neglected to tell jail staff that Stevens was suicidal.

There was ...

Mississippi County Pays $27,500 to Settle Lawsuit by Prisoner “Jumped” by Other Prisoners

by Dale Chappell

A man held at the Lauderdale County jail in Mississippi for failure to register as a sex offender settled a federal lawsuit over permanent injuries he received when he was “jumped” by other prisoners while guards failed to stop the attack.

Jarrett R. Nelson was booked into the jail on March 16, 2015 and placed in a common area with numerous other prisoners. Less than 24 hours later, he was attacked and beaten by at least 10 prisoners who were likely gang members. He suffered several injuries, including a broken back, broken ribs, a closed head injury and other wounds needing treatment at a hospital. Nelson was released two weeks later and, on April 20, 2016, filed a notice with the county that he planned to sue the jail.

Nelson’s lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on November 15, 2017, claimed that jail staff failed to do what a “reasonable, prudent” person would have done in the same situation. Specifically, he argued that the guards’ “blatant failure” to prevent the attack and their delay in stopping it “proximately caused” his injuries.

Nelson’s suit also detailed problems at the Lauderdale County ...

Seventh Circuit Holds Indiana’s Sex Offender Treatment Program Unconstitutional

by Dale Chappell

In a class-action habeas petition challenging the Indiana DOC’s Sex Offender Management and Monitoring (INSOMM) program as being unconstitutional, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held on April 25, 2019 that INSOMM’s requirement that prisoners admit to crimes they had not been charged with violates their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Under INSOMM, which all prisoners in Indiana convicted of sex offenses must complete before their release, if a prisoner refuses to admit or is deceptive about past sex-related crimes for which he was never charged, the state takes previously-earned good conduct time (GCT). Some prisoners have lost all of their GCT for refusing to admit to past offenses.

Yet INSOMM doesn’t allow confidentiality or immunity. Prisoners are made aware that whatever they admit to in the program can be used against them to file new charges. That applies to admissions discovered through testing, such as polygraphs. [See: PLN, July 2018, p.46; Nov. 2016, p.20].

The question before the Seventh Circuit was whether taking a prisoner’s earned GCT constituted “compelled” speech under the Fifth Amendment intended to induce a confession that could incriminate the prisoner. The appellate court held it did.

Pursuant to the Fifth ...

Jackson, Mississippi Pays $300,000 to Settle Jail Wrongful Death Suit

by Dale Chappell

The City Council in Jackson, Mississippi approved a payment of $300,000 on October 4, 2018 to settle a wrongful death claim after the family of a man who died in the city jail filed a lawsuit in federal court.

The case involved Jamaal Mallard, who was booked into the Jackson City Jail in October 2015 for allegedly stealing a lawnmower. Just hours later he was found in his cell, dead from a cocaine overdose.

Nanette Mallard, Jamaal’s mother, sued on behalf of her son and his heirs. Jamaal was 29 years old when he died. After he turned himself in to police, he was shackled and handcuffed, and his hands chained to his waist. He was then placed in a holding cell and left for hours. That was just before 4 a.m.

About two hours later, the oncoming shift saw Mallard facedown on the floor in a “sleep position,” according to jail records. Nobody attempted to check whether he was actually sleeping. At just after 7 a.m., guards went to get Mallard to be released. They then discovered he was unresponsive; 15 minutes later, staff called for an ambulance.

The lawsuit claimed the guards “negligently failed ...

Build it and They will Come: Officials Claim Spokane, Washington Needs Bigger Jail

by Dale Chappell

Despite millions of dollars in grant money to reduce the population at Washington State’s Spokane County jail, the sheriff and police chief say the county requires a newer and larger facility to hold an ever-increasing number of prisoners.

The need for more jail beds in Spokane is nothing new. In 1967, voters approved the replacement of the 70-year-old, overcrowded county jail facilities, also combining the city’s detention center into a new city-county jail. The $7 million Public Safety Building opened next door to the courthouse in 1970.

Within five years, however, the jail reached capacity with an average population of 355 prisoners, taking only half the time predicted by county officials. Operational costs nearly doubled, from $600,000 in 1971 to $1 million in 1976. The county decided to build another, larger facility, unveiling plans for Spokane’s current six-story jail in 1982. The 460-bed facility was completed in 1986 at a cost of $22 million. With a new design that allowed prisoners more out-of-cell time, there was a sharp reduction in the number of assaults.

Nine years later, though, the jail held an average population of 555. Voters approved a temporary sales tax increase to retrofit a ...

Should Private Companies Exploit Prisoners Through Exclusive Government Contracts?

by Dale Chappell

A recent article in the journal Criminology & Public Policy posed the question of whether private, for-profit companies should be allowed to contract with government agencies to be the sole provider of criminal justice-related services, without public transparency or oversight of the prices or fees set by those companies.

While the focus of privatization in our nation’s corrections system is often on companies that operate prisons and rake in billions of dollars in revenue, another lucrative market exists for businesses that provide other criminal justice services the government would rather farm out. Private companies then effectively become substitutes for public agencies, but are able to hide behind a veil of secrecy that only corporations enjoy.

Parolees, probationers and other people on supervised release typically have numerous court-ordered stipulations they must follow, such as home detention, electronic monitoring, ignition-interlock devices on their vehicles, substance abuse treatment, payment of fines, fees and restitution, and various other requirements.

Private businesses often provide such services, which come at a price – and the parolee, probationer or defendant is usually the one who pays.

For example, in Seattle, Washington, companies install and manage court-ordered ignition interlock devices for DUI offenders. The cost ...