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Articles by David Reutter

$140,000 Settlement in Ohio Jail Beating, Retaliation Case

Corrionne Lawrence was booked into CCJ on September 16, 2018, for a probation violation.

When he answered a booking guard’s question in Spanish, the officer insisted he was “just giving [them] a hard time.” The officer told others, “He’s bullshitting, put him in the chair.” Lawrence was strapped into a restraint chair and placed in a “freezing-cold room.”

After going four hours without being checked on, Lawrence responded in English and was removed from the chair.

Upon completing booking, Lawrence requested to remain separated from a Stacy Norris, who was charged with murdering Lawrence’s cousin. Lawrence, however, had his housing assignment switched on October 17, 2018, and was moved to a cellblock with Norris. The next morning, Norris stood at Lawrence’s cell door taunting him as a guard prepared to open the cell door.

In preparation to defend himself, Lawrence urinated in a milk container. He claimed that he threw it on Norris as a preemptive strike, splashing some on the guard. Once the attack ...

Jewish Michigan Prisoners Win Injunction for Religious Sabbath and Holiday Meals

An October 2019 settlement in this class action lawsuit required MDOC to provide Jewish prisoners with kosher meals. The lead plaintiffs were Gerald Ackerman and Mark Shaykin, both of whom were raised Jewish and identified as same upon entering MDOC.

The court held a bench trial on the issue of Ackerman and Shaykin’s belief that they “consume meat and dairy products on the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shavuot.” After hearing the evidence, the court had “no trouble” finding these were sincerely held beliefs, and that the quantity of meat and dairy the plaintiffs consume must be part of a “‘meal’ — ‘a joyful meal.’”

The court also was “convinced that it must accept plaintiffs’ assertion that eating cheesecake on Shavuot is a Jewish ritual” that must be followed ...

Mississippi Prisons in Crisis

Prisons beset with gang-related violence, overcrowding, understaffing and weak funding.

Between late last year and early April 2020, more than 30 Mississippi prisoners died due togang violence, suicide or illness – over 10 times the average of 3.4 prisoner deaths per year between 2014 and 2018. Prisoner advocates blame budget cutting and mass incarceration policies that have left state prisons overcrowded, deteriorated and understaffed.

Dozen of reports by news organizations cast a pall on the state prison system.

The chaos within the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) began on December 29, 2019, after a conflict erupted between the Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples. It escalated into what officials called a “gang war” after South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) prisoner Terrandance Dobbins, a Gangster Disciples member, was killed and two others were injured.

According to officials, prisoners used cellphones to spread news of the war. Soon after, the riot at SMCI spread to Mississippi State Prison at Parchman and other prisons. Parchman, despite lock downs, was the scene of five murders and two other deaths in 30 days.

“They ran the guards out of the building last night,” a Parchman prisoner wrote about the all-night gang battles ...

Florida’s Refusal to Release Prisoners During COVID-19 Resulting in Death Sentences

by David M. Reutter

As the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread across the nation, so did the push to release prisoners from the “Petri dish” of close confinement that exists inside jails and prisons. While some Florida jails released non-violent offenders, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) battened the hatches on its 93,000 prisoners to weather the storm.

To cope with its rising prison population in the 1990s, FDOC built human warehouses, or what is officially known as open bay dormitories. That resulted in anywhere from 80 to 200 prisoners living in the same building with double bunks spaced 3 feet apart. That has created a perfect environment for the highly contiguous COVID-19 disease to spread.

As of May 18, 2020, FDOC reported statistics on 65 prisons: 1,106 prisoners at 14 prisons and 237 staff at 43 prisons tested positive for COVID-19. Nine prisoners have died, and three of the deaths were prisoners at Sumter Correctional Institution. Seven hundred ninety-three positive cases were at five prisons with open bay dorms. Those prisons are: Homestead CI (231), Liberty CI (191), Hamilton CI (137), Tomoka CI (132), and Sumter CI (102).

How each prison handled the pandemic varied. For instance, in addition ...

Florida Guards and Prisoners Fear COVID-19 Infection

by David M. Reutter

Much has been made of essential employees as the economy shut down in an effort to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus has been on the bravery of health-care workers in hospitals and nursing homes. One group that has gone ignored are guards and other employees that help run jails or prisons.

Like a nursing home, a jail or prison crams a lot of people into a small, confined spaces. “The social distancing is next to impossible when you’re on top of each other,” said Kevin Gay, who runs the nonprofit Operation New Hope in Florida, which helps prisoners reacclimate to society upon release. “You’ve got a formula for disaster.”

By design, jails and prisons are isolated from society. That means the only way for COVID-19 to enter lock-ups is for it to be brought in by a someone from the outside. The Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) acted in mid-March 2020 to prevent its entry by suspending visits and volunteers from entering its prisons and by halting transfers or reception of prisoners from jails. Yet it failed to take other steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus. As of June 12, 2020, ...

Michigan Prisoner’s Whistleblowing on GED Test Cheating Survives Summary Judgment

by David M. Reutter

A Michigan federal district court found on January 6, 2020 that allegations by a prisoner tutor that prison officials retaliated against him for blowing the whistle on GED test cheating were sufficient to survive summary judgment.

Munin Kathawa, a prisoner at Michigan’s G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility (JCF), is a lifer who decided to use his talents as a tutor to help other prisoners earn their GEDs. “There is no dispute that Kathawa was an excellent tutor,” the court found.

From July 2016 to September 2017, Kathawa worked in non-party Laura Bendele’s classroom to help prisoners with learning disabilities and those who struggled to pass the GED. He was reassigned to Spencer Kinney’s classroom by Principal Brian Friedman after the latter received a report on concerns regarding Kathawa and Bendele.

Shortly thereafter, Kathawa was asked to help a prisoner who was due to go home in November. When the student passed with a 169 score, Kathawa was surprised. After questioning the student, he realized he could not have fairly passed the exam.

The student told him that Kinney and others had provided him with the exam answers. Kathawa documented eight other instances of cheating. Kathawa complained ...

11th Circuit Rules Florida Prisoner Claiming Sexual Assault by Guard Can Proceed With Cruel and Unusual Punishment Claim

by David M. Reutter

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment for defendants in a civil rights action alleging a guard sexually assaulted and used excessive force upon a prisoner.

The ruling, on January 7, 2020, came in an appeal brought by Kirstin Sconiers. His lawsuit concerned events that occurred at Florida’s Marion County Jail on February 12, 2014. Sconiers was serving a sentence for a misdemeanor offense of exposure. On the day in question, he met with his attorney via video conferencing.

Upon completing the conference, guard Fnu Lockhart arrived to escort Sconiers back to his cell. According to Sconiers, Lockhart toyed with him like a yo-yo, telling him to sit and stand three times. When Sconiers questioned Lockhart about the treatment, he was pepper-sprayed and slammed to the floor.

Once on the ground, Sconiers says Lockhart pulled his pants down. Lockhart then forcefully penetrated Sconier’ anus with his finger. An investigation ensued, but Sconiers hesitated before telling others about the sexual assault due to being embarrassed and an assumption that jail administrators were in league with the guards.

After Sconiers sued, acting pro se, the defendants moved for summary judgment. The district court ...

Lawsuit Over Conditions at BOP’s New York City Prison Continues as COVID-19 Spreads

by David M. Reutter

A prison health expert report found that Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) is “not prepared to effectively contain any outbreak of COVID-19 and its practices put detainees and staff at grave risk of infection, serious illness, and even death.”

The April 3, 2020 report was a factor in a criminal defendant facing bank fraud conspiracy charges being sentenced to home confinement.

Dr. Homer Venters toured the 1,700-bed lock-up, interviewed 17 detainees and reviewed prison records. Venters, a medical doctor and epidemiologist, is the former chief medical officer for New York City jails. He was pegged to investigate conditions at MDC, a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility, to inform a federal court overseeing a proposed class-action civil rights lawsuit challenging conditions at MDC.

That lawsuit was filed after a January 2019 fire took out the jail’s power and heat. Prisoners were left in frigid conditions for a week. The jail also canceled all visits, including attorney visits. That spawned an ongoing lawsuit by the Federal Defenders of New York. See: Federal Defenders of New York Inc. v. Federal Bureau of Prisons et al., USDC (E.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:19-cv-00660.

Venters found numerous problems in the administration of ...

Ninth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in California Sexual Harassment Case

by David M. Reutter

On January 31, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment in a civil rights action alleging a guard at California’s Kern County Jail (KCJ) made sexual comments to a female juvenile detainee, groomed her for sexual abuse, and looked at her inappropriately while she was showering.

Samantha Vazquez entered KCJ in January 2015 and was placed in the juvenile unit. She was assigned to work details that included laundry, kitchen, and cleanup. Her complaint contended that guard George Anderson, 45, purposely selected her to work “details” with him.

In a deposition, Vazquez said Anderson inappropriately called her “babe” and told her she had a “big butt.” He also “grabbed [her] face,” “touched her shoulders” and talked with her about her shower gown.

She described one incident while she was in a room alone with Anderson and he described a “rated R” dream. He told her that in his dream, she “grabbed him by his T-shirt,” “gave him a kiss,” and “after that [they] ended up going to a room and, like, having fun and stuff.” Subsequently, Anderson told her “to get close to him,” and he “wanted his dream to ...

Florida’s “Pay-to-Vote” System Struck Down

by David M. Reutter

A Florida federal district court declared portions of Florida’s felon voting system unconstitutional. It issued injunctive relief that orders a new process put in place for indigent persons who owe financial obligations as part of a criminal sentence.

In 2018, 64.55% of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which restored the voting rights of some convicted felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” It specifically excluded persons “convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.” [See PLN, October 2018, p. 32.]

The Florida Legislature responded by enacting a law that defined “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation” to mean all legal financial obligations (LFOs) “contained in the four corners of the sentencing document.”

That legislation was challenged in a class action lawsuit. The district court granted a preliminary injunction that prevented action against the named plaintiffs registering to vote or voting. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that Florida cannot prevent an otherwise eligible felon from voting just because the felon failed to pay LFOs the felon is genuinely unable to pay. Then, the Florida Supreme Court held that “all terms of sentence including parole ...