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Articles by David Reutter

Prison Rodeos: A Bunch of Bull?

Rarely does the public find anything entertaining about a person who has been convicted of a crime and sent to prison. That is not the case with prison rodeos, however, which draw people from all over the U.S. and even other countries.

Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas have all operated prison rodeos in modern times. The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola hosts the nation’s longest-running rodeo, which began in 1965 as a way to entertain prisoners and guards. The event was opened to the public in 1967 with a 4,500 seat arena, and a new stadium completed in 2000 increased the capacity to 7,500. The rodeo has been closely associated with longtime Warden Burl Cain, who retired in early 2016. [See: PLN, June 2012, pp.1, 10].

The Angola rodeo runs twice each year – once in the spring and every Sunday in October – under the salacious tag line, “Guts or Glory.” Between these combined events, the rodeo raises a substantial sum – $5 million in 2013, for example. In 2015, CBS Sunday Morning projected $4 million in revenue from the October rodeo alone.

While lucrative, controversy surrounds such events.

“A lot of people go to see the inmates ...

Colorado’s “Make My Day” Law No Longer Applies to Prisoners

by David Reutter

On the heels of the dismissal of murder charges against two Sterling Correctional Facility (SCF) prisoners under the state’s “Make My Day” law, lawmakers quickly rolled back the self-protection statute’s applicability to prisoners.

Prosecutors charged SCF prisoners Antero Alainz and Aaron Bernal with second-degree murder in the 2011 death of prisoner Cleveland Flood, who was classified as a habitual offender and serving a 48-year sentence on a burglary charge.

In December 2014, a Colorado judge dismissed murder charges against Alainz, and Bernal was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in the killing of Flood in July 2015. The courts cited the state’s “Make My Day” law in both cases. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.63; Dec. 2015, p.63].

According to Alainz, Flood entered the cell he shared with Bernal uninvited while armed with a shank, and Alainz claimed that he and Bernal had acted in self-defense. An autopsy found Flood had 90 stab wounds all over his body.

Under Colorado’s “Make My Day” law, enacted in 1985, any “occupant of a dwelling” may use “any degree of physical force” against a person who breaks into the dwelling and poses a threat, no matter ...

Preliminary Injunction Granted in Class-action Suit Challenging Private Probation Services in Tennessee

Another victory in the fight against debtors’ prisons was achieved with the grant of an injunction by a Tennessee federal district court. The preliminary injunction, issued in a class-action lawsuit in December 2015, prohibits a private probation company from jailing probationers because they are unable to pay fees related to their supervision.

The suit “addresses one aspect of the growing privatization of the criminal justice system,” the court wrote. Rutherford County contracted with Pathways Community Corrections, previously known as Providence Community Corrections (PCC), which operates in 45 states, to provide misdemeanor probation services.

The payment of “all required supervision fees, court fines, and court costs” is a rule of probation, and a probationer who is unable to make payments is technically in violation of his or her supervision conditions. Other conditions, such as community service work, drug tests and various offense-related classes, may also be required and incur fees.

PCC charged probationers $45 a month for simply being on probation plus $20 for each drug test, which could be administered at a PCC employee’s whim. It also charged set-up fees, community service fees and even a “picture fee.” Those required to participate in trash removal as community service work ...

Alaska Prisons and Jails Filled with Mentally Ill Prisoners

Correctional facilities in Alaska are confronted with a record number of prisoners with mental illnesses. In February 2016, KTUU reported that 65% of Alaskan prisoners suffered from some form of mental health problem while 80% had drug or alcohol addictions. The lack of resources to properly treat those prisoners has resulted in disastrous, even deadly consequences.

According to the Alaska Department of Corrections (ADOC), 42% of state prisoners have a diagnosable mental illness or cognitive disability. Of those, 20% are considered “severely and persistently” mentally ill.

Many prisoners with mental health problems are confined for crimes that were committed due to their mental illness. In June 2016, Alaska Dispatch News reported ongoing discriminatory treatment in the parole process for prisoners with mental health issues, including violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act. Treatment for mental illness is not easily obtainable, and prisons and jails have become de facto mental health facilities. In fact, there are three times as many beds in Alaska’s jails as there are at the state’s psychiatric hospital, which focuses mainly on people having mental health emergencies.

The 50 beds available at the Alaska Psychiatric Institution (API) are designed for short-term placement ...

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Upholds Death Penalty Moratorium

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in early 2015; predictably, the move was lauded by opponents of capital punishment and despised by those in favor of the death penalty. State prosecutors petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn the moratorium but were unsuccessful.

Governor Wolf’s decision to implement the moratorium on February 13, 2015 involved the case of Terrance Williams, who was convicted of murder and robbery in 1984 and sentenced to death. Having exhausted his appeals and facing execution, Williams was granted a reprieve by Wolf, who extended the reprieve to all death row prisoners. [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.44].

Wolf took office in January 2015 after defeating Governor Tom Corbett, a former prosecutor who signed 48 death warrants during his four-year stint as governor. During the gubernatorial campaign, Wolf had declared his support for a moratorium on capital punishment. Pennsylvania has not executed a prisoner since 1999 and carried out only three executions since 1978. There were 175 prisoners on the state’s death row as of November 1, 2016.

In announcing the moratorium, Governor Wolf noted that around 150 people sentenced to death have been exonerated nationwide, including three from ...

Class-action Certified in Challenge to Treatment of Mentally Ill Mississippi Prisoners

In September 2015, a Mississippi federal district court certified as a class-action a lawsuit challenging the treatment and conditions afforded mentally ill prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF). The court further held that the plaintiffs’ mental health experts could testify as to the methodologies used to formulate their opinions.

The seven claims raised in the civil rights action seek to “eliminate the substantial risks of serious harm” that result from alleged inadequate medical and mental health care, unsanitary environmental conditions, use of excessive force by EMCF staff and use of solitary confinement. [See: PLN, Jan. 2014, p.24]. The facility is operated by private prison firm Management & Training Corp.; it was previously operated by GEO Group before the company discontinued its contracts in Mississippi in 2012. [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.30].

The defendants moved under Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharms., 509 U.S. 579 (1993) to exclude the expert reports and testimony of the plaintiffs’ medical and mental health experts, Dr. Terry A. Kupers, Dr. Marc Stern, Dr. Bart Abplanalp and Nurse Practitioner Madeline LaMarre. Under Daubert, an expert’s opinion must be assessed to determine “whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid ...

Hungry Prisoners Dread Privatized Food Services

Privatizing prison and jail services has become a popular avenue for correctional bureaucrats to utilize in the never-ending battle to cut costs to accommodate shrinking budgets and larger populations

Food service is an essential, daily service that has been subject to privatization. The two biggest players, Aramark Correctional Services and Trinity Services Group, have been all too happy to provide this service. They charge jails and prisons as little as 75 cents to $2 per meal.

For some jurisdictions, that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings a year. Some report their costs being cut in half. While privatizing food services may save some money in food costs, little attention is placed on the service actually provided and whether prisoners are being properly fed.

Georgia’s Gordon County Jail contracts with Trinity to provided meals for its residents. It houses about 278 persons daily; between July to November in 2014, the jail received 85 grievances about food. One prisoner filed several grievances with a single word: “Hungry”.

Several prisoners claimed they had lost 20 or more pounds in a few months. The grievances were deemed as unfounded. Trinity has little regard for what prisoners think about the meals ...

Alabama Public Service Commission Enacts Prison, Jail Phone Reforms

Over the past several years, the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) has issued a series of orders that revise an October 2013 order related to rule changes for Inmate Calling Services (ICS). The PSC issued its most recent directive in February 2016, adopting rate caps set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

For decades, phone calls made by prisoners have posed a financial hardship for their friends and family members who pay for the calls, while providing huge profits for the telecom companies that hold monopoly prison and jail ISC contracts. “Commission” kickbacks paid to the government agencies that award the contracts have helped drive higher phone rates. [See: PLN, April 2011, p.1].

The PSC’s new rules considerably change the ICS landscape in Alabama.

In February 2014, the FCC implemented interim interstate rate caps, causing several ICS providers to inform prison and jail officials that they were ending commission kickbacks for interstate calls. Before the rate caps, a 15-minute interstate call from a state prison in Alabama cost $17.30 while an intrastate (in-state) call cost $6.75. The FCC’s rate caps limited interstate collect calls to $0.25/min. and prepaid/debit calls to $0.21 ...

Federal Court Finally Ends Oversight at Fulton County Jail

Three years ago, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) moved to dismiss its federal contempt of court proceeding that cited staff shortages, broken locks and an overcrowding problem that resulted in prisoners sleeping on the floor at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, Georgia. Since that October 2013 filing, the jail has “come into compliance” on two of the three issues, stated SCHR attorney Melanie Velez.

The county replaced all the faulty locks and outsourced prisoners to other facilities. This decreased the number of staff needed at the jail, but county officials acknowledged they still had to hire additional guards. The dismissal of the contempt proceeding required the county to submit a plan to address staffing needs, and the federal district court continued to monitor the jail.

The court had previously found inhumane conditions at the facility and approved a consent decree in 2006; those conditions included inadequate medical care, violence, severe overcrowding, understaffing and problems with the mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems. [See: PLN, Sept. 2007, p.36; March 2005, p.22].

The case was finally terminated on May 12, 2015 after 11 years of litigation and court oversight, at an estimated cost to county taxpayers of more ...

New Orleans Sheriff Ends Oversight of Electronic Monitoring Program

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office’s (OPSO) administration of New Orleans’ Electronic Monitoring Program (EMP) was an almost “total failure,” according to the city’s Inspector General, Ed Quatrevaux, who found deficiencies in the program compromised public safety and wasted money.

OPSO Sheriff Marlin Gusman took control of the EMP in 2010 despite having submitted a higher bid during a competitive bidding process. Prior to OPSO’s administration of the program, from 2007 to 2009 defendants subject to electronic monitoring were overseen by a private contractor, Total Sentencing Alternatives Program (T-SAP). T-SAP lost its contract following criticism that it failed to timely respond to violations.

OPSO’s management of the monitoring program came under scrutiny in September 2014 following the murder of Richard “Chris” Yeager, a Domino’s Pizza driver. Authorities put two teens with ankle monitors at the scene; one had missed curfew the night before by 90 minutes, and during that time committed a carjacking. A deputy never followed up on the curfew violation.

The Inspector General’s Office examined the EMP and issued its report in two parts. The first determined that “neither the City nor OPSD implemented effective financial controls or ensured the program’s ...


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