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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Dan Pens

Federal Religious Freedom Law Passed

On July 27, 2000, Congress unanimously enacted Senate Bill 2869, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), which was signed into law by president Clinton, as a public law 106-274. The bill passed congress in two weeks and tries to reverse the supreme court ruling in City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997)[PLN, Sep. 1997].

In Boerne the court held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb, was unconstitutional as applied to state and local governments (the RFRA still applies to the federal government). The court held that in enacting the RFRA congress exceeded its authority under section 5 of the 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution. The RLUIPA attempts to correct this.

The RLUIPA applies to all government programs that receive federal financial assistance, which includes all state governments and virtually all-local governments. The RLUIPA prohibits government imposition of land use regulations that burden religious exercise (the underlying issue in Boerne) unless the government can show a compelling interest and the regulation is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

While the RFRA applied to prisoners, the RLUIPA specifically states its application to prisoners ...

South Carolina Prison Chief Fired as Scandal Widens

Governor Jim Hodges angrily fired South Carolina's prisons chief January 11, 2001 after two guards were charged with allowing four minimumsecurity prisoners (2 male, 2 female) to have sex inside the governor's mansion.

The charges deepened a prison scandal that began last summer when Susan Smith, the state's most famous female prisoner, told investigators that she had sex with two prison guards. Since the investigation began, a total of 13 guards and prison employees have been criminally charged for illegal actions involving sex, drugs and contraband smuggling [See accompanying article: "South Carolina Rapes Exposed"].

The allegations involve four minimumsecurity prisoners, two men and two women, who handled maintenance and housekeeping chores around the governor's mansion. Prisoners told investigators that they did not use the governor's bedroom or have sex while his family was home.

"I'm mad as hell, for the sanctity of my home has been violated," Hodge said. He added that he had decided to terminate the prisoner work program at his residence.

Cato, who had headed the state's prison system since 1998, was the target of increasing criticism as his department took mounting hits from an everwidening scandal.

On December 13 ...

Bag'm, Tag'm and Bury'm; Wisconsin Prisoners Dying for Health Care

[The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ( published an investigative series titled: "Wisconsin's Death Penalty," by Mary Zahn and Jessica McBride, October 22-24, 2000. Wisconsin doesn't have capital punishment, but the Journal Sentinel revealed the routine "execution" of state prisoners by a Department of Corrections health care system, which seemingly places little value on prisoners' lives. The series sparked public outrage and led to immediate and substantive prison health care reforms. Portions of the following article are excerpted by permission from "Wisconsin's Death Penalty"]

Food Strike Puts Washington DOC on Spin Control

Prison food sucks. That's no big secret. And it should come as no surprise that for any given meal only a fraction of prisoners may bother to show up at the chow hall. Turkey A'la King? Good luck! But when 640 out of 700 prisoners fail to attend all three meals two days in a row it's gotta be more than a crappy menu.

That's what prison volunteer Linda Coleman tried to relate to newspaper reporters who contacted her for information about the July 20-21, 2000 food strike at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe.

Coleman, a participant in volunteer programs at the prison for three years, was the only person other than "official DOC sources" that Everett Herald reporters Warren Cornwall and Cathy Logg could find to comment on record about the strike. Prison administrators, of course, put their customary spin on the story.

"It's business as usual," WSR associate superintendent Willie Daigle told The Herald. "It's just that they're not eating," referring to the fact that (except for the food strike) there had been no disturbances or violence at the prison.

As to what caused the protest, Daigle portrayed the ...

Fraud Charged by Washington DOC Whistleblower

An employee of the Washington Department of Corrections Office of Correctional Operations contacted the state auditor's office in August 1997 pursuant to the State Whistleblower Act. The unnamed whistleblower [we'll call him/her "Doe"] told the auditor that the DOC used improper and illegal methods to award a $560,000 contract to an inept and unqualified software vendor to develop a custom "Inmate Banking System." Doe also alleged that a $21,500 contract for a digital "Inmate Badging Intake System" was awarded to the same company without soliciting competitive bids.

After an eight-month investigation, the state auditor dismissed the most serious allegations related to the $560,000 banking system contract, and concluded that procedures used to acquire the badging intake system were improper but not illegal.

In documents obtained by PLN, Doe describes how in early 1995 the DOC put out bids for a new Inmate Banking System that would not only modernize the mainframe system then in use, but would also include certain additions and modifications needed to comply with newly-enacted legislation. [The 1995 Offender Accountability Act mandated a plethora of new deductions from prisoner accounts including: recreation fees; medical co-payments; education fees; and automatic deductions from ...

CMS Fined Nearly $1 Million in Virginia

Correctional Medical Services (CMS) contracts with the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) to provide medical care to some of its 30,000 prisoners. In a 13-month period starting in January 1999 the VDOC levied nearly $1 million in fines against CMS for failing to live up to its contract, according to a Virginia state auditor's report.

From July 1998 to December 1999, the state of Virginia paid CMS $28 million to provide medical services at six of the state's prisons. The fines were levied for violations such as poor record keeping, failing to triage prisoners correctly (i.e. denying medical treatment to some prisoners), failing to properly assess prisoners' medical conditions and failure to provide timely referrals.

The company was fined $162,471 during the four month period from October 1999 to January 2000 for deficiencies cited at just one "supermax" facility, Wallens Ridge State Prison. State auditor Walter J. Kucharski noted that CMS failed to provide Wallens Ridge prisoners with a dentist for three months and has never had an optometrist on duty there, resulting in more than 130 prisoners awaiting eye-care services.

In the report released in July 2000, Kucharski urged the state to increase its ...

Death as a Salesman: Benneton Ad Campaign Comes to Death Row

By Dan Pens

In January, 2000, Italian fashion conglomerate Benetton Group kicked off a worldwide "issue advocacy" ad campaign titled "Looking Death in the Face." The ads, featuring images of death row prisoners, sparked outrage among U.S. death penalty advocates. Which is, of course, exactly what Benetton expected. The company says that it intended the $12 million ad campaign to foster debate on capital punishment.

But controversial Benetton ads are nothing new. Throughout the 1990s the company has become notorious for politically provocative advertising. The tactic even gained a name: "shockvertising," to denote the Italian company's use of jarring images to sell its clothing: a gaunt-faced AIDS patient on his deathbed, a stallion mounting a mare, an actor and actress dressed as a priest and a nun kissing, victims of genocide and Mafia vendettas.

Benetton creative director and photographer Oliviero Toscani selected state-sanctioned murder as the theme for his latest shockvertisement. Over a two-year period he visited prisons across the United States, accompanied by Massachusetts-based freelance journalist Ken Shulman. The pair interviewed and photographed 26 condemned men in Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, and North Carolina. Together, they produced a 96-page "photo essay" that appeared as an insert in ...

Illinois Supermax Hunger Strike

By Dan Pens

Displaying remarkable solidarity while encaged under unimaginably oppressive conditions, more than half of the 273 prisoners at the Tamms Supermax prison in downstate Illinois began a hunger strike by refusing their breakfast on May 1,2000. Prison officials said 173 prisoners joined the action. Alan Milks, a lawyer who represents Tamms prisoners, pegged the number at 200.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the strike gamered more media attention than any previous Tarnms protest. The Tribune's Christi Parsons reported two weeks into the strike that: "Media coverage--relayed to inmates via radio, television and conversations with their lawyers--has inspired more participation than the usual hunger strikes, prison officials say."

Published reports of the number of strikers mostly relied on "official" numbers: by lunchtime on May 3,128 prisoners were still refusing to eat and as of May 4, 61 prisoners were still on the hunger strike, said a spokesman from the State's Attorney's Office.

"This is quite a wonderful and amazing thing," said Jean MacLean Snyder, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center who has filed a class action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of mentally-ill Tamms prisoners. "I don't know when there's ...

Whistle-blowing Doctor Shakes Up Nebraska DOC

I have a story to tell--about how a doctor can be used to kill patients. I will talk to anybody you want me to. I spent twelve years of my life, and these people push me around and turn me into something horrible. I am ashamed of what I have become, I really am... For the first time, I stood up and said, "I can't kill any more. Too much. These are human beings, for crying out loud."

-- Dr. Faisal Ahmed interview with Nebraska Ombudsman's Office, September 15, 1998.

On September 10, 1998, Nebraska state prisoner Robert Zolper died of a heart attack--and needlessly so. According to Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) doctor Faisal Ahmed, Zolper died because prison medical workers failed to perform cardiac life support. Equipment and supplies that could have been used to save Zolper's life were not even taken out of locked cabinets. By the time Dr. Ahmed was summoned to the scene, 20 minutes had elapsed and Zolper was by then essentially beyond saving.

Ahmed was suspended for his actions during Zolper's medical emergency. Supervisors criticized him for "speaking forcefully to medical staff" at the time of Zolper's heart ...

Corcoran Show Trial Ends with Acquittals

Corcoran Show Trial Ends With Acquittals

The saga of Corcoran's infamous SHU shootings ended June 8, 2000 when a jury acquitted eight California prison guards of federal charges that they entertained themselves by staging gladiator-style fights among prisoners from rival gangs.

Between 1989 and 1994 seven unarmed prisoners were fatally shot by guards for fighting while confined in tiny concrete exercise yards of Corcoran's Security Housing Unit (SHU). The killings were described to PLN by a Corcoran prisoner like "shooting fish in a barrel."

Federal charges against the eight Corcoran guards were brought when two of their colleagues blew the whistle to FBI officials after SHU prisoner Preston Tate was fatally shot on April 2, 1994.

The eight were indicted in February 1998 for conspiracy and for violating the civil rights of SHU prisoners by failing to keep them safe from harm. Combing through prison reports, the prosecutors alleged that 84 fights took place during the defendants' shift during one five and a half month period--300% more than in other Corcoran SHU units or on other shifts.

The prosecution focused on two of the fights. Corcoran Sgt. Truman Jennings and guards Timothy Dickerson, Michael Gibson and Raul Taverez ...


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