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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Derek Gilna

Wrongful Death Case Against New York Jail Settles for $101,500

by Derek Gilna

Lucky Lee Wilkins, Jr., who suffered from depression, committed suicide while in the custody of the Schenectady County jail in New York on May 28, 2014. His family filed suit alleging civil rights violations, and the case settled in July 2017 for $101,500.

Wilkins, who was 29, had told his family and friends that he “unsuccessfully sought help from medical staff on multiple occasions, but was denied,” according to the complaint. “Other inmates also reported that [he] was severely depressed prior to his death, [and] had threatened to commit suicide on multiple occasions, and was being denied medical treatment.”

Gail Helijas, who was appointed administrator of Wilkins’ estate, alleged the jail and Ellis Hospital were “deliberately indifferent” to his serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment. She also accused the jail’s medical provider, Correctional Medical Care (CMC), as well as Ellis Hospital and staff members Emre Umar and Maria Carpio, of implementing unconstitutional policies and practices.

In addition, Helijas argued that “the actions of the Defendants ... represent a claim for conscious pain and suffering under the law of the state of New York ... [and] grossly so.”

Finally, the complaint stated that ...

Pro Se Rhode Island Prisoner Wins First Amendment Settlement

by Derek Gilna

Edward McCable, a Rhode Island prisoner housed in the High Security Center (HSC) at the state’s Adult Correctional Institution, successfully sued the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RI DOC) for restricting his access to religious publications. Without the benefit of an attorney, McCable obtained a settlement on May 16, 2017 that allowed him to receive the publications while establishing a procedure for appealing the exclusion of reading materials that prison officials find objectionable.

As stated by McCable in his handwritten complaint, “This is a Section 1983 action ... alleging violation of [my] Constitutional Rights to receive publications and seeking injunctive relief and money damages....”

McCable described how prison staff banned 13 publications that were primarily directed at African American prisoners who were followers of Islam, which appeared to contradict the RI DOC’s own policy. According to policy, “A publication may not be rejected solely because its content is religious, philosophical, social, or sexual, or because its content is unpopular or repugnant.”

As McCable wrote in his complaint, according to the RI DOC’s policy on publications, “Incoming non-privileged mail is disapproved only to prevent interference with facility goals of security, order, discipline, rehabilitation, or [that] might facilitate ...

Federal Lawsuit Filed Against Oklahoma Sheriffs – All of Them

by Derek Gilna

A federal lawsuit was filed in November 2017 against every sheriff in the state of Oklahoma, along with judges, court officials and the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, challenging a scheme that turned unpaid court fees and fines into a collection “extortion” racket. Most of the people targeted by the scheme were poor criminal defendants who, as a result of their poverty, often ended up in jail due to their inability to pay. The suit seeks class-action status and the class members could number in the tens of thousands.

The complaint was filed in Tulsa, Oklahoma by seven plaintiffs including Ira Lee Wilkins, who pleaded guilty to a criminal charge in 2015 and failed to pay court costs. A bench warrant was issued; he was arrested and sent to state prison.

Wilkins and other people convicted of criminal offenses, his attorneys said, “are victims of an extortion scheme in which the defendants have conspired to extract as much money as possible ... through a pattern of illegal and shocking behavior.” Dan Smolen, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, added, “In the United States of America you can’t put people in jail because they’re too poor, and that’s what’s happening here ...

The “Qualified Immunity” Doctrine Needs to be Reexamined

by Derek Gilna

According to criminal justice expert and University of Chicago professor William Baude, “The doctrine of qualified immunity prevents government agents from being held personally liable for constitutional violations unless the violation was of ‘clearly established law.’”

Unfortunately, this doctrine has resulted in a lack of accountability for prison and jail officials who engage in misconduct, Baude said in his article, “Is Qualified Immunity Unlawful?,” published in the California Law Review in February 2018.

Prison employees can be negligent in the performance of their duties, even to the point of being reckless, and still escape responsibility when sued. Qualified immunity is often justified as shielding government employees from the threat of litigation when they were unaware that their actions or inactions were unconstitutional.

Qualified immunity is frequently raised in litigation involving publicly-operated prisons and jails. Employees of privately-run facilities are not entitled to raise a qualified immunity defense. See: Richardson v. McKnight, 521 U.S. 399 (1997).

In Texas, a federal appellate court issued an opinion in the case of Ezmerelda Rivera, who was sexually assaulted in 2014 after being arrested for public intoxication and taken to the Hale County Jail. There, guard Manuel Fierros took ...

Former Pennsylvania Guards Settle FMLA Lawsuits for $110,000

by Derek Gilna

In March 2017, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania settled two federal lawsuits filed by former guards who alleged violations of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In the first case, the county agreed to pay $90,000 to settle a suit brought by six guards – Allen Joyce, Matthew ...

New York Law Gives Reformed Offenders an Opportunity to Seal Convictions

by Derek Gilna

A 2017 New York law, CPL 160.59, gives certain nonviolent offenders an opportunity to have their state convictions sealed, according to attorneys Ed Kratt and Frank Rothman. One of their clients, Joel Figueroa, a former drug dealer convicted in 2001 who graduated from college and now works as a counselor for Catholic Charities of New York, was the first to take advantage of the new statute that was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo and went into effect on October 7, 2017.

Most ex-prisoners face significant challenges when they reenter society and try to obtain employment, due to their criminal record. Governor Cuomo agreed, saying, “Law-abiding New Yorkers should not be forever branded with the stigma of a nonviolent criminal conviction when they have turned their lives around.”

According to Kratt, “[Figueroa] came from a pretty tough neighborhood and clearly had some challenges in his life. It wasn’t surprising he got into drugs.” Kratt and Rothman said their client is now “dedicated to helping less fortunate children and families in the City of New York.”

According to the petition to have his record sealed, Figueroa has had no new arrests since ...

Mother-Son Team Sentenced for Tax Fraud, Obstruction of Justice

by Derek Gilna

Debra Skipper, a 61-year-old Ohio woman, was sentenced on October 31, 2017 in federal district court in Clarksburg, West Virginia to a split sentence of six months in jail and six months of home detention on a charge of tax fraud. Her co-defendant and son, Tyree Skipper, pleaded guilty to two counts of felony aggravated identity theft after stealing tax identification numbers from fellow prisoners at FCI Gilmer. He was sentenced on May 30, 2017 and will serve two additional years in prison.

Incarcerated fraudsters have engaged in similar schemes for many years, using stolen Social Security numbers to file false tax returns. Prison Legal News has reported that such scams have cost the Internal Revenue Service hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past – and resulted in numerous prisoners being prosecuted. [See: PLN, Dec. 2014, p.46; Aug. 2011, p.10; May 2007, p.22].

Debra Skipper, a first-time federal offender, had declined to plead guilty, which would have yielded a potential sentencing range of four to 10 months. She instead opted to go to a jury trial, where she was found guilty of two counts of aiding and abetting wire fraud and one count ...

New Mexico Jail Sued by HRDC for Censoring Book Orders

by Derek Gilna

The Santa Fe County Correctional Facility in New Mexico, already cited by the U.S. Department of Justice for shoddy medical care and poor management, has been sued by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), publisher of Prison Legal News, for rejecting books sent to detainees at the jail.

The complaint, filed in federal district court on April 2, 2018, claims the defendants “unconstitutionally prohibit delivery of Plaintiff’s books to prisoners housed in the Santa Fe [jail] ... in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

PLN’s monthly publication apparently has been delivered to prisoners without being censored, but not so for book orders – which are sent back marked “return to sender.” According to the complaint, books rejected by jail officials have included The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel, Protecting Your Health and Safety, Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook: A Guide to Correspondence Programs in the United States and Canada, and other titles related to vocational training.

As noted in the complaint, “The purpose of HRDC is to educate prisoners and the public about the destructive nature of racism, sexism, and the economic and social costs of prisons to society. HRDC accomplishes its ...

Despite Class-action Settlement, Mental Healthcare Problems at CA Jail Persist

by Derek Gilna

The parties to a May 2015 class-action settlement between prisoners at the Monterey County jail in California, county officials and the jail’s medical provider – which was supposed to address issues of poor medical and mental healthcare, inadequate staffing, accommodations for disabled prisoners and serious safety problems – were back in court in September 2017 to monitor compliance with the settlement agreement.

California Forensics Medical Group (CFMG), the county’s current medical and mental healthcare provider, was criticized by the judge monitoring the settlement over the quality of the company’s mental health treatment for prisoners.

The terms of the 2015 settlement included a payment of $4.8 million in attorney fees and costs, and a requirement that the county employ a full-time psychiatrist and have another on call at all times in an effort to reduce the increasing number of prisoner suicides at the jail. [See: PLN, April 2016, p.18]. However, CFMG admitted that it had only recently hired an on-site mental health professional due to difficultly in filling the position.

U.S. District Court Judge Beth L. Freeman was unsympathetic. “Maybe you need to offer a better salary,” she said, and indicated she was less ...

U.S. Sentencing Commission Report: Racial Disparities Persist

by Derek Gilna

In a November 2017 report, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) found that despite the avowed purpose of the federal sentencing guidelines to promote sentencing uniformity across geographic and socio-economic lines, black defendants continue to receive longer sentences for similar offenses than whites. The report controlled for factors such as criminal history, age, education and citizenship.

According to the Commission, “Black male offenders received sentences on average 19.1 percent longer than similarly situated White male offenders during the Post-Report period (fiscal years 2012-2016), as they had for the prior four periods studied.”

A 2010 USSC report using similar metrics also found sentencing disparities: “Among other findings, the analysis showed that Black male offenders received longer sentences than White male offenders, and that the gap between the sentence lengths for Black and White male offenders was increasing.”

The Commission has conducted similar studies since the 2005 Supreme Court decision in Booker v. Washington, which made a judge’s adherence to the sentencing guidelines advisory rather than mandatory.

The 2017 report, which was based on “multivariate regression analyses,” noted that one source of racial disparities in sentencing was the federal government itself, due to how it ...


 

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