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Articles by David Reutter

Federal Judge Keeps Heat on Florida to Implement Amendment 4 Voter Restoration for Ex-Felons

On April 7, 2020, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and its GOP-dominated legislature lost another round in their battle to limit a voter-approved amendment to the state constitution providing automatic restoration of voting rights to most convicted felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.”

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that his earlier decision in October 2019 to block the state from making the payment of fines, fees and restitution owed to courts and victims a condition of re-enfranchisement covers all individuals in the state, not merely the 17 named plaintiffs who originally sued the governor. Hinkle said he would grant the suit class-action status to cover all of the state’s former felony prisoners contemplated by the amendment.

Almost 71 percent of state voters approved Amendment 4 in November 2018. But the Republican-dominated state legislature moved quickly to define the amendment’s prerequisite to re-enfranchisement – “completion of all terms of sentence” – to mean “any portion of a sentence that is contained in the four corners of the sentencing document,” including “full payment of LFOs (legal financial obligations) ordered by the sentencing court as part of the sentence.” [SeePLN, ...

Lawsuit: Release Prisoners in Virus Tinderbox to Home Confinement

Patrick Jones first federal prisoner to die after judge rejects plea

by David M. Reutter

A non-violent federal drug offender who pleaded for early release in the months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting America died of the disease. Patrick Jones, 49, was the first federal prisoner to die of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Jones was serving a 27-year sentence at Federal Correctional Institution Oakdale in Louisiana.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a letter to a federal court that the prison, which houses about 1,800 prisoners, is a virus tinderbox “ready to explode.” The court is overseeing a lawsuit the ACLU filed in early April that alleged the conditions at FCI Oakdale violate prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights. On April 22, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit.

As of April 11, 2020, FCI Oaksdale reported that 38 prisoners and 17 staff had tested positive for coronavirus. Since March 21, six of those prisoners died. The ACLU urged a federal judge to release hundreds of FCI Oakdale prisoners to home confinement.

Attorney General William Barr instructed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) on April 3, 2020, to increase home confinement releases. “We have to move with dispatch ...

Emergency Cancellation of Attorney Visits Subject to Court Oversight

On March 20, 2020, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit challenging the cancellation of lawyer-client visits at the Metropolitan Detention Center-Brooklyn (MDC). The court urged a quick resolution in the district court with a mediator to deal with access to counsel during “ongoing and future emergencies, including the COVID-19 outbreak.”

MDC houses more than 1,600 persons, most of whom are pretrial detainees. It is operated by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). In January 2019, a series of events resulted in limited access to MDC detainees by the Federal Defenders of New York.

First, visitation was canceled for seven days due to a government shutdown. Then, a fire at the facility resulted in visit cancellation from January 28 through February 2. Four hours after visitation was restored on February 3, it was canceled due to a confrontation with BOP officials and persons in MDC’s lobby. BOP “stonewall[ed]” the Federal Defenders’ requests to seek information on conditions within MDC and the reasons for the visitation cancellation.

The Federal Defenders filed suit on February 4, 2019, alleging the suspension of attorney visitation violated the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and the Sixth Amendment. The ...

Undisclosed Settlement in Kentucky Case a Textbook Case of Negligent Privatized Prison Medical Care

The provision of medical care is an expensive proposition regardless of whether a citizen or prisoner is in need of care. Tight budgets have pushed many jails and prisons to turn to prison profiteers to provide medical and mental health care to detainees and prisoners. When privatization is adopted, it is hailed as a means to save taxpayer dollars by setting a cap on the costs and moving liability to the private vendor.

The human suffering that medical privatization causes is highlighted only when there is a huge settlement or someone dies. As PLN has chronicled over nearly three decades, privatization is wrought with understaffing, a lack of basic treatment, and the avoidance of referrals to specialists or an outside hospital. For private vendors, every dollar saved is another dollar in profits. Lawsuits and the few cases that result in a settlement are just the cost of doing business.

An August 2019 undisclosed settlement in a lawsuit at Kentucky’s Grant County Detention Center (GCDC) is a perfect case study in all that is wrong with privatized prison medical care. In 2009, GCDC entered into an agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to remedy unconstitutional conditions ...

Alabama Grandma Sentenced to Life on Drug Charge Finally Paroled

In recent years many states have made changes to their criminal codes in an effort to reduce their prison populations. Those amendments, however, are rarely retroactive and leave those already imprisoned to serve out lengthy sentences that are no longer imposed.

Alabama is one state that exemplifies the injustice of leaving in place sentences from the “tough on crime” era. In 2018, it eliminated sentences of mandatory life in prison without parole for drug trafficking based on quantities, making life with the possibility of parole the maximum sentence.

There are 1,532 Alabama prisoners serving life without parole. Of those, 534 are for crimes other than murder or capital murder, and 20 more have non-parolable life sentences for drug trafficking. The lowering of the maximum sentences has no effect for those prisoners under the statutes.

That fact has not dissuaded some determined lawyers. “The Eighth Amendment hangs its hat on these evolving standards of what is proportional punishment, and we could say now that understanding has changed,” said attorney Courtney Cross, Director of the Domestic Violence Law Clinic at the University of Alabama.

Cross took on the case of Geneva Cooley, who was serving a non-parolable life ...

Kentucky Governor’s Executive Order Restores Voting Rights for Felons

by David M. Reutter

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order that restored the voting rights of over 140,000 convicted felons. The order was signed just days after Beshear was sworn in in December 2019, and it upheld a campaign promise.

“My faith teaches me to treat others with dignity and respect. My faith also teaches forgiveness,” Beshears said during his inaugural speech. Those reasons are why he signed “an executive order restoring voting rights to over a hundred thousand men and women who have done wrong in the past but are doing right now. They deserve to participate in our great democracy.”

This is not the first time an executive order has been signed to restore Kentuckians’ voting rights. Just before he left office in 2015, Beshear’s father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, issued an order restoring voting rights to people who had felony convictions that were not classified as “violent offenses,” sexual crimes or election-related bribery.

That order lasted only a few days. Just days after succeeding Steve Beshear, Governor Matt Bevin suspended the order. “While I have been a vocal supporter of the restoration of rights, it is an issue that must be addressed through the legislature ...

Arizona Court Denies Emergency COVID-19 Motion

The Arizona federal district court overseeing the Stipulation in a class action that challenged the medical care within the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC) denied an emergency motion to require ADOC to develop a comprehensive COVID-19 plan. The court also issued an order on performance measure (PM) protocols.

Class counsel made a prison tour on March 11-12, 2020 and found it did not appear ADOC had a plan in place to address the COVID-19 crisis. Their concerns led them to file an emergency motion. It requested the court to require ADOC to develop and implement a plan to address patient education; screening, testing and housing of class members; provision of hygiene and cleaning supplies; and coordination with community hospitals and among ADOC’s 10 prisons.

“Plaintiffs’ concerns are well founded. Defendants’ past performance, coupled with an unprecedented public health crisis, does not inspire confidence in their ability to meet this moment,” the court said.

ADOC was found to be non-compliant and sanctioned by the court “for their contemptuous refusal to meaningfully address” performance measures in the Stipulation. The court, however, found that did not empower it “to exercise general control over matters such as prisoner education or ...

Chatham County Jail Reverses On Book Ban But Limits Number of Publications

Following a letter from the ACLU of Georgia, the Chatham County sheriff rescinded a jail policy that banned detainees from receiving books and magazines from outside sources. The ACLU still took issue with a revised policy that limits the number of publications detainees can possess.

The sheriff implemented a policy that prohibited detainees from receiving “books, magazines or other publications, by subscription, or directly from the publisher, a family member or any other person.” The policy took effect on March 3, 2019. It made books and magazines available only by means of a book cart, and detainees could only check out one book or magazine each week.

“We have never before encountered a policy that so completely restricts detained persons’ access to books and publications,” the ACLU wrote in an April 10, 2019, letter to Chatham County Sheriff John T. Wilcher. “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment encompasses the right of people to receive books in jail. As one federal appeals court has recognized, ‘Freedom of speech is not merely freedom to speak; it is also freedom to read. Forbid a person to read and you shut him out of the marketplace ...

Third Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Pennsylvania Prisoners’ Dry Cell Suit

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgement alleging prison officials lacked a penological interest in extending a prisoner’s duration in a dry cell. On January 15, 2020, it affirmed the grant of judgment on the claim related to the conditions of that confinement.

Pennsylvania prisoner Briaheen Thomas was receiving a visit on May 31, 2015, at SCI-Rockview when a guard saw his friend hand him a bag of M&Ms. He ate one and quickly took a drink of soda. The guard believed Thomas had ingested contraband, so he handcuffed him and immediately removed him from the visit room.

Thomas was placed in a “dry cell,” which is a cell that has been drained of water and its water sources are turned off. To expedite his release from the dry cell, Thomas was offered and accepted laxatives. Over the next four days, he had 12 bowel movements. No evidence of contraband was found and an X-ray of his abdomen revealed a clear gastrointestinal tract.

On the fourth day in the dry cell, the prison’s Program Review Committee (PRC) decided to continue Thomas’ dry cell confinement for five more days.

After he exhausted ...

Health Care Services Killing Women at Virginia Prison

With four deaths in five months at Virginia’s Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW), a federal district court began moving its focus from care for individual prisoners to systematic change in July 2019.

The Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) was party to a 2016 settlement in a lawsuit alleging the provision of medical care at FCCW violated prisoners’ constitutional rights. (Scott et al v. Clarke, U.S.D.C. (W.D. VA), case No. 3:12-cv-00036.) The agreement required VDOC to meet 22 health-care standards.

VDOC failed to fulfill its end of the deal and by January 2019 twelve prisoners had died while in FCCW’s custody since the settlement was approved. “Some women have died along the way,” said federal district Judge Norman K. Moon. VDOC vowed to hire 78 more nurses at that hearing.

That order is significant but not enough, said Shannon Ellis, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “The judge’s order did not specify what level of qualifications the nurses need to have, and a historic problem at Fluvanna and at prisons across Virginia is very underqualified medical professionals,” Ellis said.

Margaret Breslau, head of the Coalition for Justice in Blacksburg, related a story ...