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Articles by Derek Gilna

Sixth Circuit Vacates Preliminary Injunction Regarding Elkton Prisoner Class Action

On June 9, 2020, the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a split decision, vacated a preliminary injunction issued by a district court that directed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to determine which prisoners at Elkton Federal Correctional Institution Elkton were eligible for transfer or release because of a serious COVID-19 outbreak at that facility in Lisbon, Ohio.

Although the appeals court agreed that the district court had the authority to consider the matter under 28 U.S.C. 2241, and the complaint was not foreclosed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, it agreed that the BOP had responded “reasonably” to the outbreak and that its actions did not give rise to an Eighth Amendment claim for “deliberate indifference.”

As noted in the June 2020 PLN, prisoners had won initial class certification after they argued that there was a “significant level of infection” of the virus at Elkton.

Attorney General William Barr directed federal BOP Director Michael Carvajal on April 3, 2020 to “move with dispatch” to save vulnerable prisoners, using “appropriate transfers to home confinement.”

Another similar lawsuit filed against the BOP regarding the infectious disease at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, which did not ...

New York District Court Judge Denies Preliminary Injunction Against MCC Brooklyn

by Derek Gilna

Federal District Court Judge Rachel P. Kovner on June 9, 2020, denied a “preliminary injunction that would release all MDC inmates whose age or medical condition places them at heightened risk from the virus and would manage almost every aspect of the facility’s COVID-19 response,” according to her opinion.

The judge noted the “high bar” that had to be met to obtain such sweeping relief, and she refused to find that the response of Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officials at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) constituted “deliberate indifference” under the Eighth Amendment.

The judge noted that of the four original plaintiffs, two had already been granted compassionate release by their sentencing judges, and said that evidence at the preliminary hearing had revealed “several deficiencies in the MDC’s implementation of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines that both parties have treated as authoritative. Those shortcomings merit a swift response from MDC officials — the institutional actors charged in the first instance with ensuring that their facilities are managed in accordance with appropriate standards of care.”

However, the court went on to say, “the facility’s aggressive response to a public health emergency with no preexisting playbook ...

COVID-19 Cases Soar at Federal Prisons in California; Half at Lompoc Have the Coronavirus

As of May 12, 2020, the number of COVID-19 infections had exploded at a trio of federal prisons in southern California, placing one at the top of all 142 facilities operated by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Lompoc, located in Santa Barbara County, holds 1,162 low-security prisoners, of whom 911 had tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes the disease. That was the highest number of cases in any BOP prison. Another 16 positive cases have also been reported among prison staff. So far just 25 prisoners and 3 staff members had developed symptoms and recovered. None had died.

But at the adjacent U.S. Penitentiary (USP) Lompoc, there had been two prisoner deaths. The medium-security facility holds 1,044 prisoners, of which 114 had tested positive for coronavirus, along with 22 staff members.

The virus had also hit FCI Terminal Island in San Pedro in Los Angeles County. Of the 1,042 low-security prisoners there, 702 had tested positive for the virus, along with 15 staff members. There have been seven deaths, all among prisoners.

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, whose staff began testing for the virus at FCI Terminal ...

Prison Officials Limit Prisoner Communications During COVID-19 Crisis

Prisoners struggling to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic — often without masks, sufficient cleaning supplies or the ability to social distance — are crying for help to the outside world by any means possible. Some prison authorities have responded by cutting off their access to phones and email.

At the San Diego County Jail, prisoners held up a homemade sign that said, “We Don’t Deserve 2 Die,” during a prisoner’s video chat. Three of those prisoners were sent to solitary confinement shortly thereafter.

In the Pine Prairie, Louisiana ICE detention center, contact between prisoners and members of the media via video chat included inmate complaints about the lack of protective equipment and the possibility of conflict between prisoners and staff. The result? Future video contacts were canceled by the institution.

On the federal level, those suspected of being infected with COVID-19 are often quarantined in special housing or solitary, during which time they are often without access to anything but irregularly delivered mail from the U.S. Post Office.

At the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), California facilities at Terminal Island and Lompoc, where over half of the prisoners tested positive when the Los Angeles County Board of Health ...

New ACLU Study Says COVID-19 Deaths in Prison Will Soar Without More Releases, Fewer Arrests

An April 22, 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, with the collaboration of researchers from Washington State University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Tennessee, shows that COVID-19 deaths in jails, prisons and the communities where they are located will skyrocket unless there are fewer arrests and more releases of more low-level offenders.

According to the ACLU, “Models projecting total U.S. fatalities to be under 100,000 may be underestimating deaths by almost another 100,000 if we continue to operate jails as usual.”

On May 28, 2020, the total U.S. death toll stood at more than 102,000, lower than some original projections, apparently brought about by extensive lock-downs and stay-at-home orders in many states and municipalities. People have been cautioned to “social-distance,” wear masks and avoid unnecessary travel to avoid spreading the virus. However, those who run America’s over-crowded jails and prisons have not gotten the message.

This potential disaster has come about for a variety of reasons, first of which is that the United States continues to lock up individuals at the world’s highest rate. With 5% of the world’s population, it detains approximately 20% of the globe’s prisoners.

These prisoners are still ...

Sandoval County, New Mexico Settles Public Records Lawsuit with Human Rights Defense Center

Sandoval County, New Mexico on February 24, 2020, settled a public records lawsuit with the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent corporation of Prison Legal News, which alleged that the county had refused to provide records that were required to be released under the state’s Public Records Act. As part of the settlement, the county provided the requested records and paid HRDC’s $52,500 in legal fees, but was not required to admit wrongdoing.

HRDC had sought records as part of its ongoing mission to investigate and publicize payouts made by the county to settle lawsuits brought against local law enforcement authorities accused of wrongdoing. Although some records had initially been produced, HRDC alleged that $3,784,704.70 had been paid out from public funds without proper disclosure of the details, as required under state law.

New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act provides that it is the “public policy of this state, that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public officers and employees .... (and) that to provide persons with such information is an essential function of a representative government.” 

Nonetheless, despite numerous requests, ...

HRDC Settles California Jail Censorship Suit for $143,500, Consent Decree

On May 13, 2020, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent organization of Prison Legal News, settled a federal civil rights action concerning California’s Tehama County Jail censorship of prisoner publications like PLN in violation of the First Amendment.

The complaint, filed February 14, 2020 in the Eastern District of California, Sacramento federal court, alleged that Tehama County and its sheriff, Dave Hencratt, had refused to accept books and publications at the jail unless they were mailed “directly from the publisher” or from online services such as Amazon, and banned books “published or distributed by HRDC and other neutral publishers and distributors other than those listed in Defendants’ Mail Policy.”

The lawsuit noted that “HRDC publishes and distributes books, magazines, and other materials containing news and analysis about prisons, jails and other detention facilities, prisoners’ rights, court rulings, management of prison facilities, prison conditions, and other matters pertaining to the rights and/or interests of incarcerated individuals. HRDC’s publications contain political speech and social commentary, which are core First Amendment rights and are entitled to the highest protection afforded by the United States Constitution.”

HRDC further alleged that there was no legitimate reason for the jail ...

Minnesota Sheriff Hit with Attorney Fees Award in Civil Rights Case

by Derek Gilna

Martin County, Minnesota Sheriff Jeffrey Markquart has been ordered to pay $6,075 in attorney fees to former prisoner Erik Daniel Christianson in a federal civil rights action where the district court found Christianson was the “prevailing plaintiff.” 

As noted in the court’s July 19, ...

Lawsuit Against New York Jail, CCS Survives Motion to Dismiss

by Derek Gilna

A federal civil rights complaint brought by the estate of deceased Monroe County, New York pre-trial detainee Pedro Sanchez, Jr. has survived a motion to dismiss filed by the county jail’s medical provider, Correct Care Solutions (now known as Wellpath), and several of the company’s medical staff, ...

PLRA Attorney Fee Award Discussed after Oklahoma Jail Prisoner Awarded $35,001

by Derek Gilna

James Jordanoff, a former pre-trial detainee at the Cleveland County Detention Center in Oklahoma, won a $35,001 judgment following a jury trial based on a First Amendment retaliation claim against ex-guard Josh Coffey. 

The May 9, 2018 judgment included $1 in nominal damages plus $35,000 ...