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Articles by Dale Chappell

New York County Pays $35,000 to Settle Retaliation Claim Against Sheriff

by Dale Chappell 

Officials in Rensselaer County, New York approved a settlement on January 8, 2019 to resolve a federal lawsuit against Sheriff Jack Mahar. Mahar was accused of retaliating against the county’s jail chief, who was fired in 2013 for what the lawsuit claimed was her refusal to follow the sheriff’s orders to take part in the firing of an employee and refusal to shred documents tied to a criminal investigation of the sheriff’s “best friend.”

When Ruth Vibert became the Chief of Corrections and Jail Administratorfor the Rensselaer County Sheriff’s Department in 2012, she was brought in to improve jail conditions following a series of scandals and prisoner abuse incidents. She lasted about a year before the sheriff found a way to terminate her based on “not meeting the educational requirements for her position,” according to her complaint.

The friction between Vibert and the sheriff that led to her firing was her refusal to get in the middle of a domestic dispute between Mahar and another jail employee, and for refusing to shred documents that were part of a criminal investigation into a workplace violence incident with that employee and the sheriff’s best friend, who was a ...

Report Shows How Private Equity Firms Profit from Mass Incarceration

by Dale Chappell

A report released by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in February 2019 spotlighted several major private equity firms that invest in and profit from the private prison industry, which the organization says continues to fuel mass incarceration in the U.S.

In addition to private equity firms, many other businesses have invested in the prison market, according to Bianca Tylek, founder of an advocacy group called Worth Rises, which has compiled a list of 3,100 companies that profit from the criminal justice system – some with familiar names like Amazon and General Electric.

“We’ve underestimated the size of the prison-industrial complex,” Tylek admitted. “Every estimate you’ve seen until now is a conservative one.”

The involvement of private equity firms, which manage large investment portfolios, presents a conflict between the financial and social goals of some investors. 

The two largest for-profit prison companies are Nashville-based CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America – with almost 14,000 employees and gross revenue of $1.83 billion in 2018 – and The GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, Florida, with 22,000 workers and $2.33 billion in revenue last year. Both are publicly traded corporations and their stock has found its way into ...

Florida Prisons and Jails Retaliate Against Prisoners Who File Lawsuits by Countersuing for Costs of Incarceration

by Dale Chappell

When 48-year-old Michelle Tierney died of an infected wound on her leg while in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) in October 2014, her family filed a wrongful death suit against the FDOC and its for-profit medical provider, Corizon Health, claiming that proper care could have prevented her death. 

“Apparently, she had cysts everywhere on her body, pneumonia, and septic shock,” said her son, Ryan Tierney. “I don’t know how many competent medical professionals would have let that go.”

However, to the family’s surprise, prison officials filed a countersuit for the full cost of Tierney’s incarceration. See: Tierney v. Jones, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151064 (N.D. Fla. July 26, 2018).

Unfortunately, this happens on a fairly regular basis: Florida prisons and jails routinely countersue prisoners who file lawsuits. Such scare tactics are intended to deter prisoners (and their families) from suing the state, and to provide a way for the state to recover any damage award it might have to pay if it loses in court. And the law is on the state’s side.

Under Florida Statutes § 960.297, the state or local authority may file a counterclaim to seek recovery of the ...

New Jersey Federal Court Approves $1.5 Million Jail Strip-Search Settlement

by Dale Chappell

On January 31, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Noel L. Hillman approved a $1.5 million class-action settlement in a case against Burlington County, New Jersey, where hundreds of people were improperly strip-searched at the county jail.

The case dates back to 2006, when Tammy Marie Haas, nine months pregnant at the time, was booked into the Burlington County jail for failure to pay child support. She was strip-searched, told to “bend over, cough, and spread her buttocks,” then sprayed with a chemical delousing agent. A few hours later she was released after she paid the $900 in child support she owed.

Haas filed suit in federal court in 2008, complaining that the strip search violated her civil rights. Other people filed similar complaints that were consolidated with Haas’ case, and Judge Hillman eventually granted class-action certification.

The suit was sidelined while the U.S. Supreme Court decided Florence v. County of Burlington, 566 U.S. 318 (2012) [PLN, July 2011, p.32], which held that people arrested for even minor offenses could be strip-searched when booked into jail. The defendants tried to have the case dismissed based on Florence, but Haas’ attorneys argued that the ruling didn’t ...

More States on Track to Restore Voting Rights to Felons, but Not Without Hurdles

by Dale Chappell

In late May 2019, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak signed into law a bill that granted automatic restoration of voting rights to former prisoners. State law had already allowed voting by those released from prison for first-time, non-violent felony convictions, including those still on community supervision, and the law applied to Nevada residents convicted in other states, too. The new legislation aims to clear up confusion that left many eligible voters with felony convictions convinced they could not vote.

“This is a very significant change,” said Corey Goldstone, spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, who estimated that over 77,000 state residents would have their voting rights restored, effective in 2020. “Nevada is about to go from being one of the most complicated states in the country to navigate to being one of the most straightforward and fair.”

According to The Sentencing Project, 6.1 million Americans were barred from voting during the 2016 election cycle due to a felony conviction, including around 1.3 million held in state or federal prisons. Due to higher incarceration rates, disenfranchisement disproportionately affects blacks. In 2016, over 20 percent of black voters were barred from casting ballots in Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia due ...

Federal Judge Holds Bivens Not Applicable to Prison Workplace Discrimination Claims

by Dale Chappell

Refusing to extend Bivens to cover a prison workplace discrimination claim, last year the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey held that a remedy for such a claim would have to come from Congress, not the judiciary. 

While the decision was a defeat for federal prisoner Kendell Charles Alexander, Sr., it was instructive on when Bivens could be applied to claims arising outside the limited scope the Supreme Court has placed on Bivens remedies.

The claim filed by Alexander alleged racial discrimination by staff at the UNICOR factory at FCI Fort Dix, which he said violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment. He also claimed retaliation by UNICOR staff in violation of his First Amendment rights for filing grievances. 

Specifically, Alexander said he was employed in a UNICOR textile program, fixing sewing machines for $0.46 per hour. Although he should have received pay raises, he said the factory manager, Robert Ortiz, refused to increase his pay grade while giving promotions to white and Hispanic workers. After Alexander filed a grievance, Ortiz allegedly refused to pay him overtime, and other black workers received very little overtime. Ortiz ...

Nevada: Jail Death Due to Excessive Force Leads to $175,000 in Settlements

by Dale Chappell

An excessive force death at the hands of Washoe County, Nevada sheriff’s deputies ended in settlements totaling $175,000. It was the third excessive force death in a two-year period for the Sheriff’s Department.

When 38-year-old Thomas Purdy, Jr. began acting erratically at the Peppermill Casino in Reno in 2015, security forcefully escorted him from the property. He was found lying on the ground in the parking lot, and security guards used handcuffs to restrain him until the police arrived. During his arrest, Purdy was hog-tied using a RIPP restraint.

At the Washoe County Jail, he kept telling sheriff’s deputies that he couldn’t breathe. Purdy remained hog-tied for 40 minutes until they removed the restraints in a holding cell. By then he had stopped breathing, and died shortly afterward.

Purdy’s family filed a federal lawsuit arguing that Washoe County deputies, as well as Peppermill security guards and Reno police officers, had violated his civil rights. The suit focused largely on the use of the RIPP restraint to hog-tie him. The manufacturer of the device, the lawsuit claimed, provided training to Reno police and expressly warned them to “never hog-tie a prisoner” and “never place any subject in a ...

Former Rikers Island Prisoner Awarded $500,000 Plus Attorney Fees

by Dale Chappell

On August 6, 2018, a New York federal district court awarded a former Rikers Island jail prisoner $500,000 in damages after he was assaulted by a police officer and another prisoner.

Former NYPD officer Jamel Brown and Rikers prisoner Christopher McFadden were ordered by the U.S. ...

Warden Turns Whistleblower, Claims Misconduct, Retaliation by Colorado’s DOC Director

by Dale Chappell

In October 2018, a warden who blew the whistle on an illegal hazardous-waste dumping scandal involving the head of Colorado’s prison system filed a lawsuit to compel the state to share the results of its investigations. 

Angel Medina, former warden of the Cañon Minimum Centers – ...

Middlesex County, New Jersey Settles Solitary Confinement Suit

by Dale Chappell

In September 2018, Middlesex County, New Jersey agreed to settle a civil rights lawsuit and give prisoners held in a secure housing unit more freedom. 

“It’s no longer possible to lock someone in solitary confinement and throw away the key,” Deputy Public Defender Fletcher ...