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Articles by David Reutter

Prisoners in Flint, Michigan Lied to About Water Crisis; Lawsuit Settles

by David M. Reutter

As the lead-tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan developed in 2015 and 2016, detainees held at the Genesee County Jail (GCJ) were told the water they drank, cooked with and bathed in was safe. [See: PLN, March 2016, p.22]. That lie was the subject of a class-action federal lawsuit that resulted in a quick settlement.

In October 2015, the Genesee County Health Department declared a public health emergency, telling residents that Flint’s water had dangerously high levels of lead. The mayor declared a state of emergency two months later, saying the city’s pipes were still leaking lead.

While residents avoided tap water, between October and December 2015 the prisoners at GCJ received only nine days of bottled water. Once the bottled water was discontinued, they “were required to drink, to bathe in, and consume food prepared with tap water from the City of Flint,” the class-action complaint stated.

GCJ again began to distribute bottled water on January 23, 2016, but prisoners were only given two 12-ounce bottles twice a day.

“Prior to this, they had already started handing out bottles of water when this first broke out in October, and they stopped, saying that ...

Michigan Court Forced to End “Pay or Stay” Policy

by David M. Reutter

A Michigan state district court judge was ordered to end a “pay or stay” policy that he used to toss poor defendants in jail for their inability to pay fines, fees and court costs. 

The ACLU of Michigan assigned interns and fellows to watch the court proceedings of 38th District Court Judge Carl F. Gerds III, the only district judge in Eastpointe, Michigan. Time and again, the ACLU’s court watchers “routinely witnessed Judge Gerds impose sentences that required the defendant either immediately to pay the full amount of the fines, fees, and costs assessed or be sent to jail for a specified number of days.”

That statement came from Charlotte Bershbeck, a part-time, unpaid civil liberties fellow. “When imposing such sentences, Judge Gerds did not inquire into a defendant’s ability to pay,” she added.

The ACLU’s complaint was filed on behalf of Donna Elaine Anderson, who faced sentencing on a contempt charge for failure to license her dogs and appear in court on the dog license tickets. She was indigent and unable to pay $455 in fines, fees and costs, which subjected her to a near certainty of jail time under Gerds’ “pay ...

The Fight to Restore Ex-felons’ Voting Rights in Virginia

by David M. Reutter

By an executive order signed on April 22, 2016, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe restored the voting rights of more than 206,000 convicted felons. The order not only allowed former prisoners the right to vote in the November 2016 election, it also let them run for public office, serve on a jury and become a notary public.

The order fulfilled one of McAuliffe’s campaign promises; the state’s constitution disenfranchises all convicted felons unless the governor restores their right to vote.

However, Virginia’s Republican lawmakers made McAuliffe’s executive order short-lived by filing suit to have it rescinded. In addition to arguing the governor lacked authority to issue the order, they complained that he had restored voting rights to 132 sex offenders who were still in custody and to several convicted murderers on probation in other states.

“Governor McAuliffe’s flagrant disregard for the Constitution of Virginia and the rule of law must not go unchecked,” said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment.

The state Supreme Court ruled against the governor, finding he could not restore voting rights in a blanket manner, and threw out the executive order on July 22, 2016. By that time some 13,000 ex-felons ...

Georgia Prison Contraband Investigation Nets 130 Arrests, Guilty Pleas

by David M. Reutter

About 130 people have been arrested following a joint two-year investigation by the FBI and the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC). Indictments for 75 of the arrestees were announced in September 2015; another 46 indictments, all involving current or former prison employees, were reported in February 2016. [See: PLN, March 2017, p.38].

Known as “Operation Ghost Guard,” the investigation targeted contraband in GDOC facilities and crimes perpetuated by prisoners through cell phones and outside accomplices.

“The indictments allege that inmates managed and directed a number of fraud schemes that victimized citizens from across the country from within the Georgia prison system using contraband cell phones,” said John A. Horn, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.

State prisoner Kevin Patterson, reportedly a member of the Ghost Face Gang who trafficked meth and heroin prior to his incarceration, was busted after state and federal law enforcement officials, relying on a confidential source, recorded him directing the sale of tens of thousands of dollars in drugs from his cell in July 2015, using a cell phone.

“The unfortunate common denominator to this criminal conduct,” Horn noted, “is the pervasive availability of contraband ...

Missouri Has Difficulty Retaining Provider for Execution Drugs

by David M. Reutter

The Missouri Department of Corrections ran afoul of the state’s public records laws when it tried to withhold its source of propofol, a lethal injection drug, a state court judge ruled. That’s when the drug’s supplier found out how it was being used – and demanded it back.

Missouri officials then announced they would switch to pentobarbital, which is commonly used to euthanize pets. But its supplier turned out to be a compounding pharmacy cited for numerous regulatory violations, which quit providing the drug.

After that, the state turned to an unnamed source for its lethal injection drugs and obtained a court order allowing it to keep the source secret – only to have a judicial error reveal that the drug is manufactured by a company that disallows its use in executions.

As previously reported in PLN, states have increasingly experienced difficulty in obtaining lethal injection drugs after domestic manufacturers, such as Pfizer, restricted their use and foreign manufacturers prohibited their export to the United States. [See: PLN, July 2016, p.58; March 2014, p.46]. To fill the void, states have started using compounding pharmacies to produce execution drugs. [See: PLN, April 2015, p.40 ...

DOJ Applauds Pennsylvania’s Commitment to Treatment for Mentally Ill Prisoners

by David M. Reutter

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has ended its investigation into the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ (PDOC) use of solitary confinement for prisoners with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities (SMI/ID).

PLN reported the January 5, 2015 settlement of that investigation after the DOJ found prison officials had subjected prisoners with SMI/ID to solitary confinement under conditions that violated their constitutional rights and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. [See: PLN, Nov. 2015, p.30].

The DOJ’s post-settlement April 14, 2016 letter to Governor Tom Wolf said the PDOC had made “significant improvements” by showing a “commitment to reforming its use of solitary confinement on prisoners with SMI/ID.”

The PDOC’s willingness to work with the DOJ’s “experts to change policies and procedures that lay the groundwork for protecting prisoners with SMI/ID from inappropriate and harmful solitary confinement,” its implementation of initial reforms and its receptivity to the DOJ’s concerns about implementation of those reforms indicated it was headed in the right direction.

The DOJ’s letter highlighted five points which convinced them “that the same pattern or practice of violations we found early in our investigation does not ...

The Elusive Dream: Closing Rikers Island

by David M. Reutter and Matt Clarke

New York City’s Rikers Island, one of the nation’s largest jails, has a notorious history of violence – both by guards and prisoners. City leaders have long sought to solve the problem that Rikers poses, but resistance by local residents to housing prisoners in other locations in New York has hampered those efforts.

In March 2017, a blue-ribbon panel headed by former state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman was set to call for Rikers’ closure, according to the New York Post. Just before that announcement, though, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his vision for the 200-acre jail complex: To close Rikers within 10 years and replace it with a system of smaller facilities located in each of the city’s five boroughs.

The plan marked an about-face for the mayor, who just a year earlier had rejected calls from Governor Andrew Cuomo and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to shutter the facility. In part, the decision was due to the high cost of operating the jail complex; the city reportedly spent over $132,000 per prisoner to run Rikers in fiscal year 2016, with a total corrections budget of $1.29 billion.

In June 2017 ...

Wiccan Prisoner Wins Injunction to Wear Medallion; Case Settles on Remand

by David M. Reutter

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held an Illinois prisoner was entitled to a preliminary injunction permitting him to possess and wear a religious medallion.

Gilbert Knowles, incarcerated at the Pontiac Correctional Center, brought suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and moved for a preliminary injunction to allow him to wear a religious pendant called a “pentacle medallion” – a five-pointed star set in a circle less than an inch in diameter.

The district court denied the motion, finding Knowles “had not clearly demonstrated that he lacked an adequate remedy at law, did not face ‘irreparable harm’ (because he was being denied ‘only one aspect of his ability to practice his religion while his litigation is pending’), and was asking for injunctive relief that would require the defendants to act, rather than just preserving the status quo.”

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit held that courts have recognized “The Church of Wicca occupies a place in the lives of its members parallel to that of more conventional religions.” Knowles asserted a belief that the pentacle medallion protects his body and spirit against “harm, evil entities, and negative energy.” The ...

Alabama DOC: Partial Settlement on ADA, Mental Health Claims; $1 Million in Attorney Fees Awarded

by David M. Reutter

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has agreed to a partial settlement to ensure prisoners with disabilities receive treatment and services under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The settlement resolves portions of a class-action lawsuit that also raises claims related to medical and mental health care provided to prisoners.

ADOC prisoners with disabilities are often housed in facilities that cannot safely accommodate them, the lawsuit argued. Some offenders have been placed in units with higher security classifications for no reason other than their disabilities.

The June 2014 complaint described how a wheelchair-bound prisoner was forced to maneuver deeper into the prison – against the flow of prisoners – to access a wheelchair ramp. The partial settlement, filed on March 15, 2016, resolved Phase 1 of the bifurcated litigation, which dealt with ADA violations. [See: PLN, May 2016, p.1].

The agreement requires the parties to develop a plan “to provide for care, services, accommodations, programs, and activities” for disabled prisoners. It also provides that such prisoners will be placed in housing “that is fully accessible and compliant with the ADA” to meet their “particular disability or disabilities.” Prisoners may be subject to “clustering,” ...

Florida Prisoners Denied Hernia Surgery Reach $2.1 Million Settlement

by David M. Reutter

A $2.1 million settlement has been reached in a class-action lawsuit alleging the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) and Corizon, the department’s former private medical provider, denied hernia operations to prisoners to save money. 

Groin hernias are very common; it is estimated that the ...


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