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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by David Reutter

Prison Food and Commissary Services: A Recipe for Disaster

by David M. Reutter

Food plays an integral role in our lives. It not only provides the nutrition necessary to sustain our existence, it feeds the sense of community we all crave. Social bonds are made as we break bread with those who sit and dine with us at the meal table. It may sound trite, but food feeds not just the body but also the soul.

The role of food is more pronounced for prisoners than for those who are not incarcerated. A primary reason for that difference is the fact that prison and jail schedules revolve around meal times. Another is that prisoners are limited to eating the fare provided in the dining hall (commonly called the chow hall or mess hall), or what they can buy from the commissary; they lack the food choices that most people take for granted.

The answer to the question “what’s for chow?” is often determinative of whether a prisoner goes to the dining hall or eats out of his or her own pantry. The latter occurs only if the prisoner has money to buy food items from the commissary or can hustle up something to eat. The poorest prisoners are ...

Virginia Parole Board Changes “Three-Strikes” Interpretation

by David M. Reutter

Virginia’s parole board is changing a policy under which the state’s “three-strikes” law was used to deny parole to 262 prisoners who previously had never been incarcerated before their current charges. The change came on the heels of an investigative report by the Virginian-Pilot, which found that state officials had abused the three-strikes law and “converted young men from first-time offenders to three-strikers in one swift motion.”

In 1982, Virginia passed a three-strikes law to deny parole to anyone convicted of three separate crimes involving murder, rape or robbery with a deadly weapon – with the term “separate” defined as “lacking a common act, transaction or scheme.”

“The idea of a three-strikes law is that you committed a crime, sat in jail and should have realized the wrongs of your ways, but then you go out and do it again,” said Washington, D.C. attorney Evan Werbel, adding that after the third conviction, “the three-strikes law basically says, ‘Enough is enough, and he’s never going to be rehabilitated.’”

Virginia abolished parole in 1995 for the types of crimes covered by the three-strikes law – but it was still used to deny parole ...

Tennessee Judge Ends Sentence Reductions for Prisoners Who Agree to Sterilization; Receives Reprimand

by David Reutter

A Tennessee state court judge has reversed course on a controversial sentence reduction program following an uproar from civil rights and prisoners’ rights advocates. He later received a public letter of reprimand from the Board of Judicial Conduct.

White County General Sessions Judge Sam E. Benningfield, Jr. said his only agenda in cutting the sentences of male and female prisoners who voluntarily agreed to undergo long-term birth control procedures was to address the problem of unwanted and drug-addicted babies.

Activists, however, said his May 15, 2017 order establishing the program was an unconstitutional infringement on the right to procreate. The incentive program cut 30 days off the sentences of male prisoners who had vasectomies and women who received a birth control implant called Nexplanon. Forty-two men agreed to vasectomies while 32 women agreed to the implants, which are intended to prevent pregnancy for up to four years. None of the male prisoners actually received vasectomies.

The ACLU of Tennessee said the program was an unconstitutional, coercive intrusion on the rights of vulnerable people.

“Offering a so-called ‘choice’ between jail and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional,” the organization said in a statement. Judge Benningfield was “imposing ...

Retaliatory “Rough Ride” by Prison Guards States Eighth Amendment Claim

by David Reutter

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Virginia state prisoner had stated a claim for violation of his constitutional rights when guards gave him a “rough ride” in a prison van in retaliation for filing grievances and lawsuits.

Paul C. Thompson was placed in handcuffs, leg irons, shackles and a black box restraint device, then loaded into a prison van on April 8, 2010 for transport to the Mecklenburg Circuit Court for a proceeding. Prison guards Diming and Cooper refused Thompson’s request to secure his seat belt.

The van then made an uneventful ride down a “windy, sharply-curved road for about an hour and a half.” The guards stopped at a convenience store and turned back in the direction of Deep Meadow Correctional Center after they received a call saying the court proceeding had been canceled.

According to Thompson, Cooper drove “erratically, exceeding the speed limit and crossing the white and yellow traffic lines.” Not seat-belted, Thompson was thrown from one side to the other, and sudden stops and accelerations caused him to be thrown forward and backward. In response to Thompson’s pleas to stop driving dangerously, Cooper and Diming allegedly laughed and ...

Numerous Deaths, Sealed Settlements in North Carolina Jails

by David M. Reutter

After two North Carolina prisoners died in county jails, lawsuits filed by their families resulted in settlements. Under state law, the details of those agreements should have been public record; in fact, in the absence of accepted standards for jail health care or strong regulatory oversight, such information may provide the best measure of the quality of medical care provided to prisoners held in county jails.

Yet state court judges sealed the settlements in both cases.

North Carolina’s public records law allows an exception if a court finds “the presumption of openness is overcome by an overriding interest” that “cannot be protected by any measure short of sealing the settlement.” Yet Jonathan Jones with the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and Sunshine Center at Elon University called the decision to seal the settlements in the jail death cases “incredibly disappointing.”

“We’re talking about spending taxpayer dollars on claims of wrongdoing by the government, and often these are settled without an admission of guilt,” he said. “But even though there’s no admission of guilt or responsibility, there’s a transfer of funds, and citizens need to know whether or not their government bodies are being ...

Guards Sentenced for Beating Prisoners at Kentucky Jail

by David M. Reutter

Three Kentucky River Regional Jail guards have been sentenced to federal prison terms for beating prisoners in two separate incidents – including one where a prisoner died.

In 2013, guards Damon Wayne Hickman and William C. Howell entered the cell of Larry Trent, 54, to remove a mattress. As they opened the door, Trent ran from the cell. Howell used a stun gun to subdue him, and Trent was prone on the floor when Hickman kicked him in the ribs, prosecutors said.

Trent was dragged back to his cell and the beating continued. “Both deputies, without justification, punched, kicked and stomped on Trent,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement. “Witnesses further testified that, before closing the cell door, Howell stepped into Trent’s cell and kicked Trent in the head while Trent was on the floor and posing no threat. After the assault, Hickman and Howell had other inmates clean up Trent’s blood from the floor and walls outside of his cell.”

Trent, who was awaiting trial on a DUI charge, died from internal bleeding caused by a displaced pelvic fracture and blunt force trauma to his head, torso and extremities ...

Coast Guard's Detention Based on Ethnicity Violates Fourth Amendment

by David M. Reutter

 The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that removal proceedings against an alien must be terminated because Coast Guard officers committed an egregious Fourth Amendment violation, plus violated an immigration regulation when they seized him based on his Latin ethnicity alone.

Louis E. Sanchez, 45, entered the United States without inspection in 1988 at age 17. He has lived in Ventura County, California. He was granted Family Unity Benefits and Employment Authorization on May 11, 2004, which expired two years later. His subsequent applications were denied due to three misdemeanor convictions for violations of California's Vehicle Code.

Sanchez and two adult Latino friends, and one of the friend's 14-month-old son, took a fishing trip on February 25, 2010, in Sanchez's pleasure boat. About 30 minutes into the trip, the Coast Guard responded to a 911 request for a tow back to the harbor.

Upon arrival at the Channel Islands Harbor, about eight Coast Guard officers awaited on shore for Sanchez and his companions. Once they disembarked the boat, they were frisked and detained. The officers requested their names and asked for identification; Sanchez handed over his driver's license. The Coast Guard could ...

Judge Threatens Arizona Officials with Contempt Over Inadequate Prisoner Medical Care

by David M. Reutter

On October 10, 2017, a federal district court in Arizona issued an order requiring officials with the Department of Corrections (DOC) to show cause why they should not be held in contempt of a 2014 court-enforced settlement agreement. U.S. Magistrate Judge David K. Duncan also threatened the DOC with sanctions of $1,000 per incident of noncompliance with its agreement to improve medical care for the state’s 33,000 prisoners.

Thirteen prisoners filed suit against the DOC in 2012, alleging deliberate indifference to their medical, dental and mental health care needs, as well as unconstitutional conditions of confinement within the DOC’s segregation units. The case was certified as a class-action and the parties eventually entered into an agreement in 2014 to remedy the constitutional deficiencies. [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.56; Sept. 2012, p.34].

Under the settlement, the DOC agreed to guidelines and benchmarks that both the plaintiffs and Magistrate Judge David Duncan said hadn’t been met. Instead, the agency has run an “understaffed” health care system, according to a summary of investigative findings published by Courthouse News, in which “an inmate died with infected lesions swarmed by flies, a man who ate his ...

2 Georgia officers forced out over racist Facebook posts targeting black motorists

By David Reutter

Two white Georgia law enforcement officers were forced out of their positions after racist and sexist remarks they exchanged on Facebook were uncovered.

            The officers were McIntosh County Sheriff deputies when the comments were exchanged. One joke referee to "colored people" and the other used the "n" word. Another showed an image of Martin Luther King and other post from former deputy Brant Gaither said, "I have a dream. That one day my people will not act like animals."

            "Lol. That'll never happen," responded former deputy Jeremy Owens.

           Owens left the sheriff's department to become a police officer in Darien, the county seat.

           The exchanges between Gaither and Owens were discovered when Owens' old computer was issued to another deputy. The computer contained access to Owens' Facebook account, said Sheriff Stephen D. Jessup.

            One comment referenced policing the highways. "It's supposed to rain tomorrow. Might not get too many n**s," Owens wrote. "I hope we get a few but (expletive) if we don't," Gaither replied.

            Jessup said the comments were offensive. "There was never any question of what ...

Reason for Missing Deadline Did Not Reach Level of Excusable Neglect

by David Reutter

The First Circuit Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff’s failure to oppose the defendant’s motion for summary judgment in a timely fashion could not be considered excusable neglect.

Patrick Skrabec was arrested in December 2012 for threatening to commit a crime and disturbing a school assembly. After a trial by jury, Skrabec was acquitted of both misdemeanors.

Patrick and his parents, Neil and Mary Ann Skrabec, filed suit against North Attleboro, Mass., and others (the Town) for violating Patrick’s constitutional rights, negligence, and depriving the parents of consortium with their son.

The Massachusetts federal district court overseeing the case ordered both parties to file dispositive motions by October 31, 2016, and any opposition to these motions by November 30, 2016.

The Town filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming probable cause existed for the arrest, the defendants were entitled to immunity, conduct of the defendants wasn’t outrageous enough to warrant unintentional emotional distress, and loss of consortium was not recognized under Massachusetts law.

Patrick Skrabec died, and his parents’ attorney e-mailed the Town’s attorney to discuss the developments. The Town’s attorney agreed to meet, but no additional communication occurred until well after the November 30 deadline ...


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