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Articles by Derek Gilna

Seventh Circuit Remands Lawsuit Over Book Confiscation at Cook County Jail

by Derek Gilna

In an August 23, 2018 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed in part and remanded a district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a former Cook County, Illinois prisoner who alleged jail officials had confiscated books and magazines sent to him by a friend.

Gregory Koger, who was held at the Cook County jail for 300 days in 2013, and his friend, Barbara Lyons, alleged that jail officials had “violated the First Amendment ... by limiting inmates to three pieces of reading matter (plus religious material) at a time,” and by confiscating more than 30 books from Koger. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.40].

The jail argued – and the district court agreed – that Lyons lacked standing to sue, that her donations of books all ended up in Koger’s hands (even though they were later confiscated) and that the jail’s policy did not affect any of her legal interests. The jail also argued that since Koger had been released, he lacked justiciable claims for an injunction; further, he could not raise a damages claim due to the rulings in Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527 (1981) and Hudson ...

Lawsuits Filed Over South Dakota Replacing Prison Law Libraries with Tablets

by Derek Gilna

Two federal lawsuits were filed by South Dakota prisoners in May and June 2018 against the state Department of Corrections (DOC) over the introduction of tablet computers to replace prison law libraries and paralegals and attorneys who assist prisoners. Billed as a cost-saving measure, the tablets are prone to malfunctions, one lawsuit complained, while the other alleged the use of the tablets resulted in a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In September 2017 the DOC closed its prison law libraries and canceled its legal assistance contracts when the state’s 3,000 prisoners each received a free tablet computer – one that provides access to legal research services through Lexis/Nexis. The tablets also allow longer phone calls and text messaging with people on the outside, and permit prisoners to purchase subscriptions to movies and music.

One of the lawsuits, filed by prisoner Rex Gard, argued that the Lexis/Nexis access has been, “despite frequent assurances that repairs were underway, only intermittently active since 2017, leaving many inmates with no access to the case law and statutes theoretically available on the tablets.” See: Gard v. Fluke, U.S.D.C. (D. SD), Case No ...

Seventh Circuit Vacates ADA Summary Judgment Against Cook County Sheriff

by Derek Gilna

On July 30, 2018, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a partial summary judgment order issued by a district court that found the Sheriff of Cook County, Illinois liable for various violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

After holding an evidentiary hearing on the issue of liability and injunctive relief, the district court had referred the remaining issues to a jury to determine damages. [See: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.56]. The appellate court set that order and the jury verdicts aside, and remanded the case for a trial on the merits.

As noted in the Seventh Circuit’s opinion, the five plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit “contend that Cook County and Thomas J. Dart, the Sheriff, failed to provide reasonable modifications with respect to two structural barriers at the courthouses: ramps and bathroom facilities. In order to access the courthouses for their monthly appearances, the [incarcerated] plaintiffs had to traverse steep entrance and exit ramps in their wheelchairs. Once inside, they waited in holding cells until their cases were called, which could take several hours. The holding cells contained bathroom facilities – typically a combination sink and toilet, set off by a ...

Secret Settlement Resolves Unlikely Lawsuit Against Northwestern Innocence Project

by Derek Gilna

In a strange twist to a case that eventually led to the abolishment of the death penalty in Illinois, Northwestern University’s Innocence Project and other defendants have settled on undisclosed terms a $40 million federal lawsuit filed by a man who said he was coerced by an ...

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 ...