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Articles by David Reutter

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 ...

President of New York City Guards’ Union Faces Corruption Charges

by David M. Reutter

Federal officials are pursuing corruption charges against Norman Seabrook, former president of the New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA).

The charge of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud stemmed from Seabrook’s alleged acceptance of bribes to steer $20 million in union investments to Platinum Partners, a Manhattan hedge fund. Thanks to a cooperating witness identified by the New York Times as real estate investor Jona Rechnitz, the FBI was able to uncover the kickback scheme.

Seabrook served as COBA’s president for 21 years and was a 24-year veteran guard employed at the Rikers Island jail complex. PLN has published multiple articles about rampant corruption at Rikers, which has seen numerous employees arrested for trafficking contraband, having sex with prisoners and engaging in physical abuse. [See, e.g.: PLN, July 2015, p.1]. According to the federal indictment, Rechnitz paid for Seabrook to take trips to Las Vegas, California and Israel, and at least twice to the Dominican Republic.

On “either the November or December 2013 trip to the Dominican Republic,” Seabrook complained to Rechnitz that he “worked hard to invest COBA’s money and did not get anything personally from it.” Apparently forgetting ...

Reform of Florida’s Criminal Justice Laws Urged

by David M. Reutter

Florida taxpayers spend around
$2.3 billion annually on the state’s Department of Corrections – twice what they spend on Florida’s 28 public colleges combined. At least five other states also led by Republican governors and GOP legislative majorities – Alabama, Idaho, Mississippi, Nebraska and Utah – have enacted criminal justice reform measures projected to save $1.7 billion over the next two decades. But not Florida.

State lawmakers in Tallahassee debated several criminal justice reforms during the 2017 session. The most significant were included in a series of measures supported by the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform (FCCJR), composed of more than a dozen organizations working to improve Florida’s justice system. The results of those measures were:

• A proposed task force on criminal justice reform was not created; its 28 members would have included elected officials as well as members of the judiciary, law enforcement, academia, faith groups, advocacy organizations and former prisoners.

• A measure to give judges more discretion to make exceptions to mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent and drug possession offenses – and to choose alternatives to incarceration by expanding eligibility for non-prison sanctions and diversion programs – also failed ...

Victim-centered Sexual Abuse Investigations Abandon Concept of Neutrality

by David Reutter

Criminal justice reform advocates are pushing back against a new trend to “always believe the victim” in sexual assault cases, which has given rise to “victim-centered and offender-focused” investigations.

The victim-centric trend has led to a 20-point manifesto called the “You Have Options” law enforcement program, which encourages a departure from traditional police investigative techniques.

One of the points allows the “victim or other reporting party [to] remain anonymous” – which makes it hard for the accused to address the claims of their unknown accuser. Another allows victims to “report using an online form or a victim may choose to have a sexual assault advocate report on their behalf.”

Disturbingly, another point requires investigators to “collaborate with victims during the investigative process and respect a victim’s right to request certain investigative steps not be conducted.” For example, the alleged victim may ask that witnesses not be interviewed.

The University of Texas (UT) created a new blueprint to train campus law enforcement officers when conducting sexual assault investigations. According to Samantha Harris of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the most egregious directive in the blueprint is that traditionally “neutral” investigators should actively work to ...


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