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Articles by David M. Reutter

More States Restore Felony Voting Rights

In 2019, Colorado, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Nevada enacted legislation to restore voting rights to felons who have been released from prison but are still under such supervision, the latest of 24 states to make similar moves since 1997. Still, a 2016 estimate by the nonprofit Sentencing Project pegged the number of Americans disenfranchised by such laws at about 6.1 million.

“When we start carving people out just because of a crime they committed that had nothing to do with voting, we start stripping them of their humanity,” said New Jersey state Rep. Shavonda Sumter, the sponsor of legislation that restored voting rights to 80,000 formerly incarcerated felons.

In announcing Nevada’s move to re-enfranchise its 77,000 released felons in July 2019, Attorney General Aaron Ford agreed that voting is a vital part of a former prisoner’s successful re-entry into the larger society. The shift to restore voting rights is part of the reaction to the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s, which resulted in mass incarceration that left the U.S. with the largest prison population in the world.

Every state, except Maine and Vermont, strips felons of their voting rights in prison. On the other ...

PLN Awarded Injunction in Arizona Prison Censorship Suit

by David M. Reutter

In November, 2019, PLN was awarded injunctive relief in a lawsuit challenging the Arizona Department of Corrections’ (ADC) “policy prohibiting sexually explicit material” as a violation of the First Amendment.

As we previously reported, ADC censored the October 2104, April 2017, May 2017 and June 2017 issues of PLN. [See PLN, November 2019, p. 50.] The complaint argued that ADC’s policy did not “contain an exception permitting delivery of publications that describe sexual acts in a non-salacious way as part of an article reporting facts of a court case or published legal decision. As a result, ADC blocked issues of PLN from being given to prisoners throughout its prison system.

Arizona federal district judge Roslyn O. Silver on March 8, 2019 granted and denied in part both parties’ motion for summary judgment. She found ADC’s policy prohibiting sexually explicit material violated the First Amendment and ordered the parties to submit proposed injunctive relief, but they could not reach an agreement.

After considering the respective submissions, the court on November 11, 2019, entered injunctive relief that required ADC to revise its policy “to establish bright-line rules that narrowly define prohibited conduct in a manner consistent ...

$850,000 Settlement in Florida DOC Prisoner’s Gassing Murder

by David M. Reutter

The Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) agreed to pay $850,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging guards murdered a prisoner at Franklin Correctional Institution (FCI).

The suit stemmed from the September 19, 2010, death of Randall Jordan-Aparo. His death was initially covered up by guards, but Aubrey Land, an Investigator with FDOC’s Inspector General’s Office, uncovered it while investigating another matter. [See PLN. February 2016, p. 1.]

Aparo was sentenced to serve 599 days for multiple counts of credit card fraud and was classified by FDOC as a minimum security prisoner. He was known to suffer Osler-Weber-Rendu disease, a hereditary congenital blood disorder.

After his arrival into FDOC, gang members at Jefferson Correctional Institution tried to recruit Aparo to help guards smuggle contraband, including cell phones, into the prison. Aparo and another prisoner provided information that resulted in the arrests of several guards, and FDOC created a report accessible to all its employees that detailed Aparo as an informant. That action resulted in a transfer to FCI.

On July 21, 2010, Aparo declared a medical emergency, stating blood was coming from his mouth and penis. A nurse “reviewed the entire medical record” and concluded he was faking ...

18-Month Prison Sentence for Former Alabama Sheriff in Food Bank Scam

by David M. Reutter

The former sheriff of Alabama’s Pickens County was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for a scam to defraud a food bank and his church, and pocketing leftover funds to feed detainees.

David Abston was sheriff for 32 years. As allowed by Alabama law, he was allotted a budget each year to feed the persons housed in his jai, and any monies leftover at year’s end was his to keep. The scam that put him in prison aimed to lower the cost of feeding prisoners and fatten his pockets.

Abston submitted an application with the West Alabama Food Bank (WAFB) to become a partner, and he convinced his church to create a bank account for a food pantry and to partner with WAFB. The application claimed the “general program” of the church pantry was to help feed “children from disadvantaged and poor neighborhoods.”

WAFB’s charges a nominal fee for the cost of food maintenance and storage and requires its partners to certify the food they receive serves only the ill, needy, or infants. Abston, however, used the partnership to reduce the costs of feeding the poor souls who landed in his jail.

The scam began ...

$250,000 Settlement in Assault Upon Luzerne County Detainee

by David M. Reutter

A former Pennsylvania pretrial detainee who sustained serious injuries from a guard’s use of excessive force received a $250,000 settlement.

As guard Christopher Refner was making rounds at the Luzerne County Correctional Facility on June 28, 2016, he smelled marijuana and began to investigate. He determined its source came from the cell occupied by pretrial detainee Edward Hernandez and his cellmate.

To corroborate his suspicions, he decided to have them and another detainee undergo urinalysis drug testing, which was done in another part of the jail.

As Refner was escorting them to that location, Hernandez and Refner “engaged in back-and-forth banter” about Hernandez’s use of marijuana. As the exchanges continued and became more heated, Refner decided it was necessary to handcuff Hernandez, and he ordered him to put his hands on the wall.

According to the civil rights complaint, Hernandez was successfully handcuffed.

Refner then pulled Hernandez’s “arms up towards the middle of the back,” causing him “extreme pain as a result of a prior shoulder injury.” After Hernandez complained about this treatment, Refner “unleashed a violent assault” upon Hernandez.

Refner allegedly wrapped his arms around Hernandez, proceeded to lift him in the air, and slammed ...

Veteran Dies After Beating by Guards at North Carolina Jail

by David M. Reutter

Guards at North Carolina’s Wayne County Detention Center (WCDC) abused and beat to death a mentally ill veteran who was arrested for breaking the window out his neighbor’s truck in May 2017, a civil rights complaint alleged.

Graydon “Jerry” Parker, III, 54, served two years in the Army with the 182nd Airborne division. On the morning of May 20, 2017, he was arrested for breaking the truck window, telling the deputy he did it “because God told me to.”

During transport to WCDC, a deputy heard Parker singing and mumbling while observing he had a “thousand-yard stare.” He was charged with injury to personal property and resisting an officer, both misdemeanors.

The civil rights complaint filed last May alleged it was obvious, even to lay persons, that Parker was in the throes of an “acute manic state and experiencing a psychiatric emergency.” Yet he was not rendered treatment or even screening for mental-health issues upon booking. Guards, instead, “misperceived him as a disruptive inmate or an intoxicated inmate beyond reasonable comprehension levels.” That led them to pepper spray him several times in the face and drag him to the shower area.

Once there, Parker was sprayed ...

Fulton County Ordered to Clean Up Repulsive Jail Conditions for Mentally Ill Women

by David M. Reutter

A Georgia federal district court ordered the Fulton County Sheriff to give more out of cell time and to provide sanitary confinement conditions for women at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail.

The court’s order came in a lawsuit brought by the Georgia Advocacy Office, a nonprofit serving Georgians with disabilities, and the Southern Center for Human Rights. The 88-page complaint, which sought a preliminary injunction, was filed on April 10, 2019.

According to the complaint, over 200 women are held at the jail, and it is estimated that 60 percent to 80 percent of them experience psychiatric disabilities. The jail responded by confining them “in isolation cells for months on end.” Most of the women were jailed for minor offenses, but they remained in solitary confinement because the jail was understaffed and guards were not trained to deal with them.

The complaint contained 29 pictures that illustrated the deplorable conditions of confinement the women endured. It alleged that during tours women were “found lying on the floor and with feces or food smeared on their bodies and cells.” Trash was found strewn across cells, urine was pooled on the floor, toilets were broken and overflowing, ...

Florida Prison Isolation Suit Survives Dismissal Stage

by David M. Reutter

A Florida federal district court denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that the Florida Department of Corrections’ (FDOC) policies and practices related to isolation are unconstitutional.

As PLN reported, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed this suit on behalf of five prisoners, and it intends to seek class-action status. The complaint alleged Florida has a statewide policy of isolation of over 10,000 prisoners for at least 22 hours per day in a cell no bigger than a parking space.

The conditions of that confinement are alleged to cause “a substantial risk of serious harm to (prisoners’) mental and physical health.” It also alleged FDOC discriminates against people with disabilities via these same policies. [See PLN, March 2018, p. 44.]

FDOC moved for dismissal. Among other issues, it argued the complaint was a “shotgun pleading.” The court’s order denying that motion shows that FDOC broke out the shotgun in its effort to dismiss the action. The court found the complaint provides it and FDOC “with a sufficient roadmap” to state the claims and it is not a pleading that runs afoul of rules of procedure.”

The court also rejected FDOC’s position that allegations that ...

Alabama Jail Guards Face Liability for Inaction to Methadone Withdrawal Symptoms

by David M. Reutter

In an unpublished opinion, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of qualified immunity to guards in a civil rights action alleging they were deliberately indifferent to a pretrial detainees health issues stemming from methadone withdrawal.

The lawsuit was filed by Whitney Foster, who was booked into Alabama’s Madison County Jail (MCJ) on April 4, 2014. The guards and medical staff at MCJ were aware Foster had been taking 80 milligrams of methadone per day at a methadone clinic.

Within a week of her incarceration, Foster began showing visible signs of methadone withdrawal, as well as elevated blood pressure. Nursing staff with MCJ’s medical vendor, Advanced Correctional Healthcare (ACH), “did nothing to help her.” Instead, guards and nurses accused Foster of “faking” as she slurred her speech, bit her tongue, and exhibited limited control of her body.

By April 21, her condition became “desperate,” and she continued to deteriorate until sent to a hospital on April 23. The complaint alleged that the nine defendant guards and nurses “harassed and ridiculed” her “rather than provide her comfort or adequate medical care.”

On April 22, Foster was found on the floor under her bunk, and a ...

Riots At South Carolina Prison Spark Wave of Lawsuits

by David M. Reutter

The April 15, 2018, riot at South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Institution (LCI) illustrates the consequences of prison understaffing. That riot was the worst in America’s prisons in 25 years. The toll was seven dead and 22 injured. The aftermath is at least 18 lawsuits.

LCI, like many prisons in America, was understaffed when hundreds of competing gang members were transferred to the prison before the riot, “exacerbating an already dangerous environment,” the lawsuits allege. Insufficient staff is caused by meager pay in a volatile environment, which causes guards to move on to better employment prospects.

Low pay scales result in guards trafficking in contraband, which creates turf wars and extortion inside prisons. As violence increases, prisoners arm themselves for self-protection. Add a lack of medical and mental health care, and the prison becomes a powder keg.

“It’s a recipe for bad things to happen,” said attorney Carter Elliott, who has filed 10 of the 18 lawsuits related to the riot. “If these things keep happening and people keep dying, they are going to get sued.”

South Carolina has seen an increase in prion-related lawsuits in recent years. Between 2013 and May 2019, its insurer paid out ...