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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Derek Gilna

New York Federal District Court Allows Prisoner’s § 1983 Action to Proceed

by Derek Gilna

A New York state prisoner’s civil rights case proceeded to trial in federal district court after the judge denied the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s motion for summary judgment in part on March 15, 2018, while dismissing some of the plaintiff’s claims.

Michael Gonzalez had filed his pro se lawsuit in 2014, alleging that while confined in the Adirondack Correctional Facility’s Special Housing Unit (SHU), prison officials denied him the right to practice his Native American religious beliefs.

Gonzalez’s complaint alleged a First Amendment free exercise claim, an Eighth Amendment claim, an equal protection claim under the Fourteenth Amendment and a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). After the district court had preliminarily dismissed most of the defendants named in the initial complaint, it appointed counsel for Gonzalez and discovery was reopened.

The remaining defendants then moved for summary judgment, arguing that Gonzalez had not exhausted his administrative remedies prior to raising his equal protection claim. The court rejected that argument, finding the defendants had received fair notice of Gonzalez’s claims that he had been denied the right to wear beads with religious significance, to build a religious ...

Report: Homelessness and Housing Insecurity are Hurdles for Former Prisoners

by Derek Gilna

More than a half-million Americans are homeless on any given day, and for the five million ex-prisoners in the U.S., the rate of homelessness is almost 10 times higher than among the general population. According to a report issued by the Prison Policy Initiative in August 2018, “up to 15% of incarcerated people experience homelessness in the year before admission to prison,” and that problem only gets more difficult to solve following their release from custody.

The report, which was based on 2008 survey data, found that “rates of homelessness are especially high among ... people who have been incarcerated more than once, people recently released from prison, [and] people of color.” Former prisoners are frequent users of homeless shelters, motels, hotels and other forms of temporary housing, the report stated.

Unfortunately, the rate of homelessness increases the more times someone has been incarcerated. First-time offenders are homeless seven times more often than the general public, but for those jailed more than once the homeless rate rises to 13 times that of the public.

Homelessness is statistically more of a problem for black women, who have a rate nearly four times higher than white men ...

Brookings Institute Study Finds Direct Connection between Poverty and Crime Rates

by Derek Gilna

The Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, has published a study that demonstrates, through empirical data, what many have long suspected: That extreme poverty leads to increased crime rates. The same study, “Work and Opportunity Before and After Incarceration,” published on March 14, 2018, also confirms that a criminal record “imposes impediments to employment” despite tax incentives for businesses that hire former prisoners.

Most criminal justice experts contend that “successful reintegration requires employment and economic opportunities,” and that high recidivism rates are often caused by lack of meaningful employment. Since 2012, the federal Bureau of Prisons and state prison directors were tasked with providing incarceration data and identifying information for prisoners to the Internal Revenue Service – a process that accumulated data on 2.9 million prisoners, making an analysis of post-incarceration employment possible.

However, the Brookings report focused not only on the challenges faced by reintegrating former prisoners, but also on policies that might improve the lives of young children and keep them off the criminal justice treadmill.

According to the study, for individuals living in lower-income areas, “Three years prior to incarceration, only 49 percent of prime-age men are employed ...

New York City Council Passes Ordinance to Make All Jail Phone Calls Free

by Derek Gilna

On July 18, 2018 the New York City Council passed Introduction No. 741-A, which ended the practice of telecom companies profiting from providing phone services for prisoners at inflated rates. Instead, all domestic calls made from the city’s jail system, including the Rikers Island complex, will be free for both prisoners and those receiving the calls.

For over a decade, prisoners’ rights advocates have fought against the exorbitant costs of prison and jail phone calls. [See, e.g.: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.1; Dec. 2013, p.1; April 2011, p.1]. A percentage of the revenue generated from prisoner calls is typically returned to the corrections agency that contracts with the telecom company. That was the arrangement New York City had with its jail phone service provider, Securus Technologies, which gave the city $5 million in annual “commission” kickbacks, resulting in inflated phone rates.

The legislation passed by the City Council states: “The city shall provide telephone services to individuals within the custody of the department in city correctional facilities at no cost to the individuals or the receiving parties for domestic telephone calls. The city shall not be authorized to receive or retain any revenue for ...

New Jersey Federal Court Certifies Class-Action Suit Against Global*Tel Link

by Derek Gilna

The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey has certified a class-action lawsuit against Global Tel*Link (GTL), one of the nation’s largest prison telecom companies. According to the court, the plaintiffs – including prisoners and their family members – alleged violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, the Federal Communications Act, the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the New Jersey Public Utilities statute, as well as unjust enrichment.

Prison Legal News has extensively reported on the abusive arrangement whereby correctional agencies and telecom service providers enter into kickback-based monopoly contracts that result in inflated phone rates charged to prisoners and their families. [See, e.g.: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.1; Dec. 2013, p.1; April 2011, p.1].

The district court noted that in 2005, the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) sought bidders to provide Inmate Calling Services (ICS) at all state prisons. AT&T won the bid and assigned the contract to GTL.

Under the agreement, GTL was to pay the DOC “site commissions,” defined as “a straight percentage of all originating billable revenue.” Those fees, the court said, led to “higher calling rates, and incentivized GTL ...

Investigation of Central New York Central Psychiatric Center Turns Up Drugs

by Derek Gilna

 The Central New York Psychiatric Center, located near Syracuse, New York, which houses sex offenders, already roiled by claims of employee misconduct and mismanagement, was hit with new charges of illegal drugs, unreported violent assaults and sexual misconduct.

            New York state troopers were searching all employees entering the high-security facility for drugs and contraband, as part of their probe of the troubled institution, prompting widespread employee backlash.

            The investigation was launched at the behest of the New York state Office of Mental Health (OMH), who responded to labor union allegations in February 2018 that there have been about 210 criminal incidents there. However, the OMH itself did not escape criticism.

            “Unfortunately, OMH policy and procedures have failed to keep our members safe from anything,” said guard union leader John Harmon. ”To be honest with you, it’s a complete failure at Central New York Psychiatric Center. Harmon said OMH had not done proper background checks before hiring, which contributed to the center’s drug problem. “Obviously they didn’t do something right if they’ve got drug dealers in the facility,” he said. “If you’ve got management that doesn’t properly vet candidates for jobs, then your ...

Over-Incarceration a Worldwide Problem, Report Finds

by Derek Gilna

Earlier this year, London-based Penal Reform International and the Thailand Institute of Justice issued a report on incarceration worldwide that draws heavily on research funded by the United Nations.

The 60-page report not only identifies areas of concern, as well as data that explores international incarceration trends, but also includes recommendations for reforms. According to the authors, “over 10.35 million prisoners [were] living in prisons around the world in 2016, either in pre-trial detention or having been convicted and sentenced,” indicating that over-incarceration is not a practice confined to the United States.

“The growth of the world prison population has exceeded the rate of general population growth since 2000, and, in many countries, this increase has led to more overcrowded prisons,” the study states. “Data suggests that the number of prisoners exceeds official prison capacity in at least 120 countries.”

It also appears that other nations face many of the same problems that exist in the U.S., including abusive police tactics, excessive pre-trial detention, over-sentencing, over-use of life imprisonment, arbitrary imposition of the death penalty and too much emphasis on non-violent drug crimes.

Criminal justice systems examined in the report include those ...

Oklahoma County Pays $150,000 to Settle Suit Over Jail Suicide

by Derek Gilna

Nathan Daniel Bradshaw, 32, hung himself at the Tulsa County, Oklahoma jail, five days after his arrest on a bench warrant for a larceny charge, and died shortly thereafter in a Tulsa hospital. Last year, county commissioners approved a payout of $150,000 to his family in ...

Exonerated Prisoner Invests Portion of $20 Million Settlement to Start Barber School

by Derek Gilna

No one appreciates the challenges of re-entering society like a former prisoner, especially one who was wrongfully convicted.

For exonerated ex-prisoner Juan Rivera of Illinois, his experiences led him to invest some of his multi-million dollar wrongful conviction settlement into training low-income students at a barber’s school in Chicago’s South Side, according to a March 2018 news article.

Rivera was convicted three times for the 1992 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl and sentenced to life, even though DNA evidence excluded him as the perpetrator. Then 19 years old with an IQ of 79, he signed a confession written by police officers after three days of questioning. Rivera’s conviction was overturned by the Illinois Appellate Court in 2011 and the charges were dismissed the following year. He was stabbed twice during the two decades he served in prison.

The number of known wrongful convictions in the United States has risen to almost 2,300, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, with most of those who have been released serving over 10 years, like Rivera and Kristine Bunch. Bunch spent 17 years in prison for the arson death of her young son before she was exonerated ...

Justice Sotomayor Slams Solitary Confinement, but Supreme Court Declines to Accept Colorado Solitary Case

by Derek Gilna

The U.S. Supreme Court receives thousands of petitions for writ of certiorari from federal appellate rulings each term and denies the vast majority of those applications, generally with a one-sentence rejection.

However, the Court’s October 9, 2018 order denying the petitions of Colorado state prisoners Jonathan Apodaca, Donnie Lowe and Joshua Vigil, who challenged the Colorado DOC’s solitary confinement practices, was accompanied by a withering concurrence by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“A punishment need not leave scars to be cruel and unusual...,” Justice Sotomayor wrote, adding, “Courts and corrections officials must accordingly remain alert to the clear constitutional problems raised by keeping prisoners like Apodaca, Vigil, and Lowe in ‘near-total isolation’ from the living world ... in what comes perilously close to a penal tomb.” (citation omitted).

The consolidated cases arose from a now-discontinued practice in the Colorado DOC where prisoners held in solitary confinement were allowed just one hour of exercise a day, five days a week in a 90-square-foot room containing only a chin-up bar. That constituted their entire out-of-cell recreation for periods ranging from 11 to 25 months.

Apodaca, Vigil and Lowe filed suit in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § ...


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