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Articles by David Reutter

$731,000 Jury Award to Illinois DOC Prisoner Held 23 Months Beyond Release Date, Over $210k in Fees Awarded As Well

by David M. Reutter

An Illinois federal district court found that a prison records clerk deprived a former prisoner of his liberty and caused him to serve 721 days beyond his sentence. A federal jury awarded the former prisoner $721,000 in compensatory damages and $10,000 in punitive damages.

That result was reached in a lawsuit by former Illinois prisoner Walter Brzowski, which he filed on December 28, 2017. According the complaint, in 2010 Brzowski was convicted and sentenced in two separate criminal cases. In the first case, he received two concurrent one-year sentences and four years of mandatory supervised release (MSR). In the second case, he was sentenced to two concurrent terms of three years and four years MSR. The two sentences were run consecutively for a total of four years and four to eight years of MSR. Brzowski completed his sentences on September 10, 2013 and was released.

Brzowki was arrested on October 1, 2013, for violating his MSR and he returned to the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) on November 29, 2013. He was found not guilty on October 10, 2014, of the offense that triggered his MSR violation. He then filed a habeas corpus petition stating that ...

Forced Shaving of Muslim Colorado Prisoner’s Beard Unconstitutional

by David M. Reutter

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a Colorado prisoner’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging a guard violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by forcing him to shave off his beard. The court found the prisoner’s complaint stated a claim and the guard was not entitled to qualified immunity.

The Court’s August 10, 2021 opinion was issued in an appeal by prisoner Tajuddin Ashaheed. He has practiced Islam for decades, following the Sunnah practice of leaving one’s beard to grow. He believes that shaving his beard would violate a core tenet of his faith.

The Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) was well aware of Ashaheed’s beliefs. While serving a sentence in 1993, he signed a declaration of religious affiliation documenting his faith. He was allowed to grow a beard while serving that sentence. He was also allowed to wear a beard while serving a sentence in 2014 until his March 2016 parole.

He arrived at CDOC’s Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center to serve a short sentence for a parole violation. An intake officer verified Ashaheed’s religious affiliation and updated his file to reflect Muslim adherence. Once the intake process was complete, ...

PREA: Tackling the Nightmare of Prison Rape

by David M. Reutter

Movies and television often dramatize prison for entertainment purposes, and just as often the dramatizations are unrealistic. One aspect of prison life that cannot be overly dramatized—and is a reality for many of the imprisoned—is the prospect of being raped. For decades now, PLN has chronicled incidents of this human rights violation and the lawsuit settlements that come at taxpayer expense to compensate the victims that succeed in prosecuting such claims.

Rape inside the confines of a prison can come from predatory prisoners preying on the weak or mentally ill. Juveniles are the most vulnerable, and Congress found that they “are 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult rather than juvenile facilities—often within the first 48 hours of incarceration.” The culture is such that rape is viewed as part of doing time, so guards are often indifferent to preventing prison rape. As PLN has reported over the years, guards are more often the problem because they are also perpetrators. PLN editor Paul Wright has noted, prison rape is such a pervasive and common issue nationally that it has to be seen as an integral part of modern American prison management.

“It forever changed ...

Georgia Enacts Massive Probation Reform Bill

by David M. Reutter

A bill that went into effect on July 1, 2021, allows individuals to access termination of felony probation after three years if they meet certain requirements. The bill impacts up to a quarter of Georgia’s current probationers, creating a huge savings for taxpayers.

Before the bill went into effect, Georgia had 191,000 people serving probation sentences. That is more than any other state. Georgia’s probation system has serious racial inequalities. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to be serving a probation sentence in every county in Georgia. In some counties, Blacks are eight times as likely as whites to be serving a probationary sentence.

The new law aims to make a huge change in those statistics. “Despite all the work we have done as legislators to reform and rethink the criminal justice system, Georgia still has the largest number of individuals serving probation in the country,” said Sen. Brian Strickland, who introduced the bill. “SB 105 addresses this problem by allowing individuals who have proven their rehabilitation through good behavior the ability to access early termination.”

SB 105 applies to persons convicted of a felony offense but have no prior felony convictions. It is limited ...

Protective Order Issued in Florida Solitary Confinement Lawsuit

by David M. Reutter

A Florida federal district court granted a protective order to protect “putative class members from retaliatory, chilling, or harassing conduct” and to prohibit “Defendants from improperly communicating with putative class members about th[e] lawsuit.” The court’s February 8, 2021, order was issued in a lawsuit challenging the Florida Department of Corrections’ (FDC) practice of placing prisoners in isolation or solitary confinement.

The court previously entered a protective order on January 28, 2020, to prevent retaliation from being taken against prisoner Johnny Hill. [See PLN, June 2020, p. 59]. The allegations and testimony at the hearing on the current motion were similar to that alleged by Hill with the exclusion of physical assault.

The current motion alleged guards tried to intimidate prisoners who spoke to class attorneys, deprived them of meals, made them languish while restrained in showers and holding cells for hours as they awaited the chance to speak to the attorneys, and invaded the privacy of legal calls and conversations with counsel.

After holding a hearing and considering the testimony and evidence, the court found that “actual overt retaliation by prison officials, as well as threats of retaliation” existed. It said that prisoners “deserve the ...

Eighth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of HRDC Postcard-Only Suit Against Arkansas Jail

by David M. Reutter

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the postcard only policy of the Baxter County, Arkansas Jail and Detention Center (BCJ) constituted a de facto permanent ban on the First Amendment rights of publishers.

The Court’s June 8, 2021 opinion was issued in an appeal by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), publisher of Prison Legal News. BCJ in January 2012 initiated a policy to limit incoming detainee mail, except legal or privileged mail, to postcards. Between August 2016 and May 2017, HRDC sent three batches of materials to multiple BCJ detainees. Pursuant to its policy, BCJ  censored the materials.

HRDC sued, claiming the postcard-only policy violates its First Amendment rights to communicate with BCJ detainees and that BCJ violated its due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to notice an opportunity to appeal BCJ’s decisions. The district court granted partial summary judgment to HRDC, concluding the rejections were a “technical violation” of HRDC’s due process rights. It awarded $4 in nominal damages. The court also found there was no First Amendment violation. HRDC appealed both rulings.

The BCJ has one of the most draconian mail policies HRDC has encountered. Prisoners are not allowed ...

Eleventh Circuit Holds No Qualified Immunity on Deliberate Indifference in Heat Exhaustion Case

by David M. Reutter

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found a Georgia Sheriff’s Deputy employed excessive force by detaining a pretrial detainee “in a hot, unventilated, and unair-conditioned transport van for approximately two hours” and was deliberately indifferent to the detainee’s serious medical needs. The court concluded the deputy was entitled to qualified immunity on the excessive force claim but not on the deliberate indifference claim.

The court’s August 11, 2020, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Nilesh S. Patel. He appealed from the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Lanier County Sheriff’s Deputy James Smith. He was tasked with transporting Patel from the Cook County Jail, where he was being held due to overcrowding, to the Lanier County Courthouse to be processed for release on bond.

Smith stopped at the Lowndes County Jail to pick up Brittney Grant, another pretrial detainee who was being taken to Lanier County to be released on bond. Upon arrival, Smith parked in the enclosed sally port and left Patel in van while he went to retrieve Grant. The conditions that day were “very hot” within the sally port and the van, with the outdoor temperature at around ...

Colorado Jail Blows Through $16 Million in COVID Relief Money, Has Outbreak Anyway, Settles ACLU Conditions Suit

by David M. Reutter

Colorado’s El Paso County Jail, the state’s largest jail, received almost $16 million in federal funds to cover costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It used most of those funds in jail renovations that were part of a longstanding wish list. Meanwhile, staff and detainees were not provided face masks, which led to an outbreak of COVID-19. The Colorado ACLU filed suit to force the jail to comply with basic COVID prevention protocols such as actually giving prisoners masks to wear.

Jail officials sought out money under the federal CARES Act after Deputy Jeff Hopkins, a 19-year veteran, died on April 1, 2001. He contracted COVID-19 while working at the jail’s intake and release.

“Losing that sheriff’s deputy so early on… was incredibly impacting as we were thinking about making decisions down the road,” said former El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller.

“The CARES Act provides that payments from the Fund may only be used to cover costs that are necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019,” guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department states. The guidance also states the money should only be used for costs that ...

Local Pennsylvania Voters Ban Solitary Confinement and No-Knock Warrants

by David M. Reutter

Residents of Allegheny County voted to restrict the use of solitary confinement. The ballot measure was overwhelmingly approved during a May 18, 2021 election.

PLN has previously reported on the brutalizing by guards and the improper use of solitary confinement within the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). [See PLN, Sept 2016, p. 27]. Voters apparently decided it was time for a change. Nearly 70% of them, or more than 166,000 people, supported the ballot measure to ban the use of solitary confinement within ACJ except in certain circumstances. Voters said such confinement may be used only in cases of lockdowns, medical or safety emergencies, and protective separation requests.

Officials used solitary confinement as punishment whenever a detainee violated jail rules. “It’s inhuman,” said Brandi Fisher, who heads the Alliance for Police Accountability (APA) in Pittsburgh.

On the same day as the vote on ending solitary in the county, Pittsburgh voters banned no-knock warrants in the city. About 81% of voters, or more than 49,000 people, supported the measure. That approval amends the city charter to ban police from serving a search warrant without announcing themselves.

The measure is similar to laws enacted in other jurisdictions in ...

Absent Expert Medical Testimony, Deliberate Indifference Tough to Prove in Medical Cases

by David M. Reutter

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment for the defendants in a civil rights lawsuit alleging they were deliberately indifferent to a prisoner’s serious medical needs. This case highlights the need for expert medical testimony to win in such cases.

The court’s June 7, 2021, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Iowa prisoner Elvin Redmond. He reported on March 27, 2017, that he had a swollen and painful fifth toe on his right foot. As he has diabetes and hepatitis, he required ongoing treatment. He was examined by Nurse Practitioner Jana Hacker at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility (FDCF). She prescribed pain medication and ordered a follow up in two days.

After she saw a blister had formed, she prescribed an antibiotic injection, a daily oral antibiotic, and a twice-a-day topical cream. After the blister opened, Redmond ran a temperature. Hacker sent him to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC) emergency room on March 31, 2017. He was evaluated and an x-ray was taken. A doctor prescribed an oral antibiotic, which a prison doctor substituted for a different antibiotic, and he was returned to FDCF the same ...