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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by David Reutter

Innovative Use of Peanut Butter by Alabama Prisoners

by David M. Reutter

When prisoners tire of the same fare they are given to eat, day after day, they become creative to make it more palatable. A dozen pre-trial detainees at the Walker County Jail (WCJ) in Alabama, for example, found a new way to use peanut butter – they turned it into an escape tool.

The crafty July 30, 2017 escape from WCJ involved prisoners ages 18 to 30; they faced charges ranging from disorderly conduct and domestic violence to drug possession and attempted murder.

A new guard who was overseeing about 140 detainees while working in the control room at WCJ was faulted for making a “human error,” said Sheriff James E. Underwood. “The young man, he was a weak link and they knew it ... that’s it in a nutshell.”

Presumably no pun was intended.

“They changed the number over the [cell] door with peanut butter” to match a door to the outside, the sheriff continued. “[Then] they hollered, ‘Hey, open door’ so-and-so, but [the number] was the outside door. And unknowingly to him, he hit that lock and out the door they went.”

The escape plan included throwing blankets over a 15-foot ...

Challenge to Three-drug Execution Protocol Revived by Eleventh Circuit

by David M. Reutter

On September 1, 2017, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals revived civil rights claims brought by four Alabama death row prisoners. Their lawsuits challenged the state’s current three-drug execution protocol, arguing that the use of midazolam as the first drug would subject them to “intolerable pain” when the next two drugs, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, are injected.

Before the appellate court was a consolidated appeal from the four prisoners, who alleged violations of the Eighth Amendment. Their complaints were drafted by John A. Palombi, Assistant Federal Defender for the Middle District of Alabama. The district court had ruled in favor of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and various prison officials, concluding the prisoners had failed to present probative evidence creating “a genuine dispute of material fact as to [the existence of a feasible and implementable] alternative method of execution.”

The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, finding issues of material fact existed. It also found the district court had improperly weighed the creditability of the evidence and testimony.

When Alabama introduced lethal injection as its means of execution, it adopted the three-drug protocol used by “virtually every other state that executes its death row inmates by ...

Louisiana Prison Officials Sued for Trying to Block Investigation into Abuse of Disabled Prisoners

by David M. Reutter

Alleging a “culture of cover-up and excessive force,” the MacArthur Justice Center and the Advocacy Center of Louisiana (ACL) filed a class-action lawsuit in February 2018 against officials at the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (LDPSC) and the David Wade Correctional Center (DWCC).

The suit followed a contentious investigation by ACL, which was itself the subject of litigation that settled in August 2017, after the New Orleans-based non-profit accused DWCC staff of interfering with and impeding its efforts to investigate alleged abuse of disabled prisoners.

ACL is Louisiana’s designated advocacy organization for individuals with disabilities under the federal Protection and Advocacy system.

Prior to filing its initial suit in June 2017, ACL received “alarming reports of serious abuse of people with disabilities incarcerated in the lockdown units” at DWCC. A review of written complaints from prisoners and interviews led the organization to conclude that probable cause existed to investigate DWCC.

ACL then set up an appointment to tour the facility and interview prisoners. But when its investigators arrived at DWCC on June 21, 2017, they were not allowed to enter cells or recreation areas; they also were prohibited from asking staff or prisoners ...

Corruption Among Prison Guards in North Carolina Spurred by Low Pay

by David M. Reutter

A “dirty staff gang” of corrupt employees in North Carolina’s prison system is circumventing security measures by smuggling contraband that creates dangers not only for prisoners and staff members, but also for people in the community who have been the victims of criminal plots.

North Carolina has about 8,000 prison guards, of whom 1,800 to 2,000 are new hires in any given year. The high turnover rate is driven at least in part by low wages. The national average pay for a guard is $47,000, but thanks to the rural locations of most North Carolina prisons, guards average $32,000 annually at minimum-security facilities and $35,000 at maximum-security facilities.

“These officers are broke,” said Troy Person, who served 20 years on multiple counts of forgery at the Scotland Correctional Institution (SCI). “That’s why there are so many cell phones in prison.”

Person said he paid two guards to smuggle him cell phones, liquor, condoms, pornography and marijuana, all of which he sold to other prisoners.

The contraband trade can be lucrative inside prisons, where a pound of marijuana is worth more than $9,000 and a smartphone can go ...

Major Scabies Outbreak at CoreCivic Facility in Tennessee

by David M. Reutter

Three lawsuits, filed in June and July 2017, allege corrections officials ignored an outbreak of scabies at the Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility (MDCDF) in Nashville, Tennessee. Affecting 89 prisoners, the outbreak also spread to at least 17 members of the jail staff and 16 courthouse workers and attorneys. The facility’s private operator eventually paid for scabies treatment for 55 county employees.

With 1,348 beds, MDCDF is operated under a five-year, $100 million contract by CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a company headquartered in the affluent Nashville suburb of Green Hills.

Scabies, a skin infestation caused by parasitic mites, is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact and exposure to clothes and bedding. It typically results in rashes and intense itching, and is treated with prescription ointments strong enough to kill not only the mites but also their eggs.

A lawsuit related to the scabies outbreak was filed by four courthouse employees and lawyers in June 2017. Another claim was filed in July 2017 by 17 CoreCivic employees at MDCDF, and a suit on behalf of 39 female detainees was filed the same month.

The detainees’ lawsuit states that some of the women who suffered scabies while ...

Two Georgia Prison Transport Guards Slain

by David M. Reutter

On June 13, 2017, a pair of Georgia prisoners being transported from the Baldwin State Prison near Milledgeville to the state’s Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson breached a partition on the prison bus. Within seconds they overpowered and disarmed two transport guards before killing them. A manhunt ensued, ending when the prisoners surrendered 260 miles away in Tennessee; during the 60-hour escape, they allegedly stole four vehicles, burglarized two houses, tied up an elderly couple in their home and led police on a high-speed chase.

Donnie Russell Rowe, 44, and Ricky Dubose, 24, were serving sentences for separate armed robbery and assault convictions. Dubose had been sentenced to up to 20 years, while Rowe was serving life without parole. The pair were once cellmates, and officials speculated that’s when they planned their escape.

The transport bus was carrying 33 prisoners. According to video recovered from the vehicle, Rowe and Dubose quickly went through the door that separated the prisoners from the guards. It appears the door was unlocked, or the pair was able to unlock it or had surreptitiously wedged it open when they boarded the bus. Both appeared to be out of their leg ...

Florida Prisoners with Disabilities to Receive Accommodations Under Settlement

by David M. Reutter

In July 2017, Disability Rights Florida, the state’s federally-funded Protection and Advocacy organization that advocates for disabled individuals, settled a historic lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections over the FDOC’s systematic failure to comply with federal measures intended to protect prisoners with physical disabilities.

The FDOC has a long history of classifying disabled prisoners to facilities that are ill-equipped to handle their needs. Once there, they face serious obstacles to obtaining even basic accommodations, leaving them unable to function in the prison environment or disconnected from family and friends.

For example, prisoner David Belle was born with severe birth defects and is missing both feet and most of the fingers on his right hand. Prison officials at the Gulf Correctional Institution assigned him to a second-floor cell and told him he could either keep his prosthetic legs or use a wheelchair. It took a fall down the stairs to convince staff to move him to the bottom floor and give him a wheelchair. The warden and an assistant told Belle they would have someone “take care of him” if he did not stop filing grievances.

The 43-page settlement agreement changes how prisoners with disabilities are ...

Two Cellmates Die at Private Louisiana Jail

by David M. Reutter

A bizarre incident that resulted in the deaths of two pretrial detainees at the Richwood Correctional Center (RCC) in Louisiana reflects how understaffing and inadequate training at privately-operated jails can have life-changing consequences.

Following a traffic stop, Vernon Ramone White, Sr., 28, was arrested on charges of having no license, no insurance and an outstanding bench warrant for an unpaid traffic ticket. Two days after his October 10, 2015 arrest, White was involved in a fight with another prisoner. Guards placed him in a lockdown cell – “an isolation cell for problematic inmates” – with Erie Moore, who was in isolation due to his “erratic and violent” behavior.

Despite the fact that Lt. Hardwell and Capt. Douglas learned on the morning of October 13, 2015 that White and Moore were involved in an altercation, they were not separated. At 5 p.m., Moore was observed on video gesticulating wildly, pointing and pacing. A few minutes later he was seen creating a mask from a Styrofoam tray and holding it to his face.

At 5:13, White banged on the cell door but guards did not respond. A minute later Moore grabbed White, who unsuccessfully tried to ...

Class Action Suit Over Private Probation Company's Illegal Fees

by David M. Reutter

The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a class action lawsuit against Sentinel Offender Services, a private probation company, on behalf of persons in Atlanta who were forced by Sentinel to pay illegal fees while on "pay-only" probation for traffic violation.

Georgia law allows for courts to place defendants on "pay-only" probation when they are "unable to pay the court imposed fines and statutory surcharges when such defendant's sentence is imposed." The courts typically impose a jail sentence that is suspended in lieu of the probation.

If a violation is alleged, the defendant can be jailed, with limited procedural safeguards, for failure to pay.

Because Georgia criminalizes traffic offenses and many other low-level offenses, it has a higher rate of people on probation than any other state, and the highest number of people on probation, in absolute terms," the complaint states.

That created a huge market for Sentinel to operate within, and it had contracts to supervise people on probation in over 70 courts throughout Georgia. Corporate greed is at the root of the recent class action. Similar motivation resulted, as PLN reported, in other lawsuits against Sentinel. See PLN ___.

The class action suit ...

Public Records in Private Accounts Subject to PRA Disclosure

The Vermont Supreme Court held that “public records” under the Public Records Act (PRA) include any documents generated in the course of public agency business, even if the record is stored in a private account. The court held that failure to ask an employee to search a private account for public records, per PRA request, requires reversal for an adequate search.

On December 11, 2015, Brady Toensing filed a revised PRA request with the attorney general’s office (AGO) seeking records generated from January 1, 2011 forward. The request named nine employees and their communications with 27 individuals across three domains. The request specifically applied to records in employees’ private accounts, as well as agency accounts.    

The deputy AG denied the request, arguing that PRA does not extend to private accounts, the legislature never intended that the agency search private accounts, and Toensing did not provide sufficient justification to search a private account and violate privacy interests.

On appeal, Toensing moved for a declaration that records related to an individual’s employment with the agency are public records, and PRA requires a good faith search for records located even in private accounts. He moved for reversal of the denial where no ...


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