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Articles by David M. Reutter

Settlement in Class-Action Suit Over SMU Conditions at Georgia Prison

by David M. Reutter

A Georgia federal district court has approved a settlement agreement in a class-action lawsuit challenging conditions and practices in the Special Management Unit (SMU) at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison.

The suit was filed pro se in 2015 by prisoner Timothy Gumm, and the district court appointed Sarah Geraghty with the Southern Center for Human Rights to represent him. After two amended complaints and 18 months of discovery, the parties agreed in December 2018 to certify a settlement class and resolve the injunctive and declaratory claims in the complaint.

The case challenged conditions in the SMU and procedures that kept prisoners there. It alleged that solitary confinement, which was defined as 22 hours or more each day without meaningful human contact, presented a substantial risk of serious psychological harm to the class members. Pursuant to the settlement, prison officials will provide a minimum of four hours of out-of-cell-time per day, Monday through Friday. One hour will be in an outside recreation cage and another three will occur “using restraint tables.”

The class members will receive computer tablets that contain “educational materials, games, books, and similar activities.” Prisoners can obtain materials from the Georgia Diagnostic Library, ...

Former Missouri Sheriff Gets Prison Time for Illegal Cell Phone Tracking

by David M. Reutter

A former Missouri sheriff who campaigned on getting tough on drug dealers was sentenced to six months in prison plus four months on house arrest after pleading guilty to identity theft and wire fraud.

The fall from grace of Cory Hutcheson, 36, the former sheriff of Mississippi County, came as a result of a federal investigation into his practice of tracking cell phones without a warrant. Beginning in 2014, Hutcheson, who was then a deputy, applied for thousands of searches and illegally accessed information on 200 mobile phone users, according to federal prosecutors.

He abused a service provided by prison telecom company Securus Technologies that allows law enforcement agencies to obtain the GPS coordinates of cell phones. That service requires search warrants, which Hutcheson never obtained. Instead, he uploaded fake documents that he sometimes notarized himself.

“Further, the defendant had the audacity to upload entirely irrelevant documents including his health insurance policy, his auto insurance policy, and pages selected from Sheriff training manuals,” prosecutors wrote in a court pleading. This went on for three years, even after he was interviewed by FBI agents.

Hutcheson became sheriff in January 2017. In the first four months on the ...

Award in Massachusetts Prisoner’s ADA Case Includes Over $410,000 in Attorney Fees, Costs

by David M. Reutter

Following a March 10, 2017 jury award totaling $250,000, a Massachusetts federal district court awarded $410,116.87 in attorney fees and costs in a prisoner’s lawsuit raising Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claims.

Prisoner William Cox, 57, who is mentally disabled, was awarded a verdict against Steven J. O’Brien, a prison superintendent with the Massachusetts Department of Correction (MDOC). The jury found that MDOC officials had failed to provide Cox with meaningful access to “(1) procedures to obtain medical care (2) procedures to report and resolve grievances (3) procedures to report physical or sexual threats or assaults and (4) use of telephones.” It awarded $50,000, $25,000, $150,000 and $25,000, respectively, on those claims.

In a post-trial order in March 2018, the district court found Cox’s claim related to use of phones was not supported by the evidence and dismissed that portion of the verdict. Further, it remitted the claim for reporting problems and resolving grievances to $1,000, reducing the total judgment to $201,000.

Cox’s attorneys, Rosemary Scapicchio and Amy Codagnone, moved for $731,307.50 in attorney fees plus $5,039.37 in costs. The MDOC objected and sought a reduction. The court reduced the amount of hours spent on failed ...

DOJ Probe Finds Alabama Men’s Prisons Overcrowded, Plagued by Ongoing Violence

by David M. Reutter

In April 2019 the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released the results of a three-year investigation into men’s prisons operated by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), finding that conditions in the facilities violate prisoners’ guarantee of protection from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

“The violations are severe, systematic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies” in virtually every area of prison operations, the DOJ reported.

The investigation, which began in 2016, focused on whether the ADOC adequately protects prisoners from physical and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners, and from the use of excessive force and sexual assaults by guards. Also at issue was whether prisoners are provided with sanitary, secure and safe living conditions.

The DOJ found that due to a toxic combination of overcrowding and understaffing, ADOC facilities are “inadequately supervised, with inappropriate and unsafe housing designations, creating an environment rife with violence, extortion, drugs, and weapons.”

In 2014, the homicide rate in U.S. prisons averaged seven per 100,000 prisoners. In fiscal year 2017, the ADOC reported a rate eight times higher, tallying nine homicides among a prison population that was then 16,000. The actual murder rate may be higher, ...

Florida DOC Attorney Resigns After Posting Racially-Charged Comments

by David M. Reutter

Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) assistant general counsel Eric Giunta resigned after making “absolutely unacceptable” comments on Facebook about a video portraying systematic racism.

The video was posted by Providence College assistant theology professor Holly Taylor Coolman. It blamed the challenges facing black people and communities on “systematic racism” by whites.

After he viewed a friend’s Facebook post of the video, Giunta wrote that “black people need to stop raping, murdering, stealing, and vandalizing, and quit having children out of wedlock.”

“That’s how literally every other once-despised ethnic group broke the cycle and entered into the middle class mainstream,” he added. In one comment, he said he saw nothing in the video “that even remotely took into account black lifestyle choices and their impact on black poverty.... Nope, it’s all the fault of the white devil!” 

His comments created an outcry. In a follow-up post, Coolman told Giunta it was hard to know how to respond to his Facebook posts.

“I’ll just say briefly that I don’t think your comment reflects an understanding of the important differences between the history of the black community and of ‘every other once despised ethnic group,’” she said.

The ...

Permanent Injunction for Hepatitis C Treatment Entered for Florida Prisoners

by David M. Reutter

A federal district court chastised the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) for its “long and sordid history of neglecting” prisoners infected with hepatitis C (HCV). Finding a “risk of such deliberate indifference reoccurring in the future,” the court entered a permanent injunction that requires the FDOC to treat all prisoners with the disease.

PLN previously reported that the district court had issued a preliminary injunction on November 17, 2017. [See: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.24].In the 15 months since that order was entered, the FDOC screened 55,348 prisoners for hepatitis C, identified 7,185 as having chronic HCV, and began or completed treating 4,901 prisoners with direct-acting antivirals (DAAs).

The court was presented with cross summary judgment motions that sought a permanent injunction. The FDOC wanted the relief restricted to that contained in the preliminary injunction, while the class members sought additional relief. 

The district court sided with the prisoners and added additional requirements. It noted the FDOC had admitted it “was not adequately monitoring all inmates with chronic HCV prior to the preliminary injunction,” and that failure “was due to a lack of funding.” Prison officials acknowledged and the court found that chronic HCV is ...

Audit Determines Georgia’s State Prisons More Cost Effective than Private Prisons

by David M. Reutter

A legislative audit, released in December 2018, concluded that it costs Georgia about 10 percent more to house comparable prisoners in private prisons than in state-run facilities. The audit, completed as part of a study on criminal justice reforms, found that it costs $44.56 per diem for prisoners housed in state prisons compared to $49.07 per diem at private prisons.

The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) has an average population of about 50,000 prisoners and an annual budget of around $1.2 billion. The state pays GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) nearly $140 million a year to house about 15 percent of its prison population – some 7,800 prisoners – at four privately-operated prisons: the Coffee County Correctional Facility, Jenkins Correctional Facility, Wheeler Correctional Facility and Riverbend Correctional Facility.

The audit found that across all categories of prisoners, the GDOC spends an average of $65.58 per diem when medical and maximum-security units are included. The auditors screened for  prisoners’ gender, facility size and risk classification in private and state prisons when making a comparative analysis of housing costs.

Georgia House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England said he wanted to examine the ...

Over $488,000 Awarded to Former Michigan Prison Warden in Retaliation Suit

by David M. Reutter

A federal district court awarded $488,111.78 to Jeffrey P. Larson, formerly a warden with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). He alleged that he was subjected to retaliation for defending and supporting the promotion of his administrative assistant, Larriann Ludwick.

Larson was asked to “right the ship” at the Central Michigan Correctional Facility in February 2013. He said Ludwick was instrumental in overhauling the prison in a timely manner. Larson’s superior, MDOC assistant deputy director Michael Curley, however, “was locked in the 1950s when it came to women in prison administration.” He “viewed women as objects of sexual gratification only and refused to believe that women, including Ludwick, could contribute to the institutional mission.”

Rather than accepting that Ludwick was doing a great job, Curley frequently insisted that Larson “must be having sex” with her based on Larson’s praise of her work, because Curley believed “no woman can be that good.”

Larson supported Ludwick’s several attempts to be promoted to deputy warden, which caused the relationship between Curley and Larson to deteriorate. Their prior friendship became blatantly antagonistic. Larson’s complaint listed seven specific instances of Curley’s “unbridled gender bias,” yet MDOC officials refused to address or ...

Michigan: $9,750 in Damages and Costs in Prison Ramadan Violation Suit

by David M. Reutter 

A Michigan federal district court awarded costs in a case that alleged prison officials violated the religious rights of four Michigan prisoners during their observance of Ramadan – a holy month for Muslims.

The case went to trial and the jury awarded each plaintiff $150 in compensatory damages plus $500 in punitive damages for each Ramadan observance at issue. Prisoners Lamont Heard and Anthony Nelson each received $1,300 for 2011 and 2012 violations, while prisoners Jamero T. Moses and William Johnson were awarded $650 each for 2012 Ramadan violations. All were members of the Nation of Islam.

After the district court denied defendant Brad Purves’ motion for judgment as a matter of law and the plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial on damages, the prisoners moved for costs.

That motion sought recovery of costs while the plaintiffs litigated the case pro se and when they were later represented by the Michigan State University College of Law Clinic, which acted pro bono but sought reimbursement for $6,117.84 in costs.

Purves did not argue that the Law Clinic’s costs were not recoverable. Rather, he claimed that such expenses were capped at $5,850 under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(2), by ...

GEO Group Under Pressure from Shareholders on Human Rights Policy

by David M. Reutter and Kevin Bliss

An activist investor organization has forced Boca Raton, Florida-based GEO Group, which operates or manages almost 75,000 for-profit detention facility beds across the U.S., to adopt a shareholder resolution requiring the company to issue a report on implementation of its human rights policy.

Under pressure from the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), GEO Group adopted its first human rights policy in 2013 after reports surfaced in the news media – including in PLN – of deaths and poor conditions in the company’s facilities due to understaffing and cost-cutting. ICCR began buying small amounts of stock in GEO with the intent of guiding it toward a more responsible position regarding human rights for prisoners and detainees.

Originally founded to force businesses to divest from South Africa during apartheid, ICCR is a coalition of asset managers, unions, pensions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and faith organizations with over $400 billion in managed assets that invests in corporations to influence their practices and increase accountability.

Citing ICCR’s “ongoing engagements with GEO around human rights concerns for seven years,” Father Bryan Pham, S.J., of Jesuits West – one of the ICCR coalition members – said the group ...