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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Derek Gilna

Guantanamo Bay Prison to Remain Open, Trump Announces

by Derek Gilna

In his State of the Union address in January 2018, President Donald Trump announced that he had signed an executive order to ensure the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, commonly known as Gitmo, would remain open – keeping a promise made during his election campaign to maintain the facility and “load it up with some bad dudes.”

As President-elect, Trump had criticized the administration of former President Barack Obama for reducing the number of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay – of whom most had not been charged with any crime, much less convicted – calling for “no further releases.” The Obama administration resettled 196 detainees from Gitmo to the custody of law enforcement or military forces in other countries, a practice that Trump had mischaracterized as their “release.”

“These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield,” he tweeted in early 2017.

Trump signed his executive order on January 30, 2018. But just four months later, his administration repatriated Ahmed al-Darbi to Saudi Arabia. Al-Darbi’s brother-in-law, Khalid al-Mihdhar, was one of the hijackers of the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Trump’s executive ...

Idaho DOC and Corizon Held in Contempt in Long-standing Lawsuit

by Derek Gilna

The Idaho Department of Correction (IDOC) and its contracted private medical care provider, Corizon Health, were held in contempt of consent orders entered in 1984 and 2014 in a class-action suit. The original November 1, 1984 order required prison officials to adopt a special dietary program for medically infirm prisoners, create 24-hour emergency medical care, hire a full-time physician, provide a properly staffed medical delivery system and establish a psychiatric care program. See: Balla v. Idaho State Board of Correction, 595 F.Supp. 1558 (D. Idaho 1984).

In the decades following the original consent order, numerous court hearings were held as court-appointed monitors and the IDOC clashed over the execution of the order and its progeny. Due to those conflicts, starting in 2011 the federal district court appointed a special master to determine whether there was substantial non-compliance by Idaho prison officials.

As previously reported in Prison Legal News, the special master found the IDOC and Corizon were not in compliance, and the parties agreed to institute a mediation process to avoid the time and expense of a trial in the case. In 2014, “The parties crafted the Modified Compliance Plans (collectively, ‘MCP’) in and after the ...

Kansas Prisoner Who Warned “Something is Eating my Brain” Dies of Untreated Brain Infection

by Derek Gilna

The family of Kansas Department of Corrections (KDOC) prisoner Marques Davis filed suit in federal district court in October 2017, alleging that officials at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility and the prison’s for-profit medical care provider, Corizon Health, failed to treat his fatal brain infection.

Davis died on April 13, 2017 when, after months of unsuccessfully seeking treatment from Corizon employees, he began to exhibit bizarre behavior. Earlier he had told the prison’s medical staff, “It feels like something is eating my brain.”

According to the Denver Post, shortly before Davis’ death, “An MRI done at the facility showed widespread fungal infection throughout his brain. A CT scan conducted later at a hospital revealed it was so swollen that the upper part of Davis’s brain was forced down to the lower part.”

The lawsuit claims that Corizon’s inattention to Davis’ symptoms caused his “staggeringly slow, physically and mentally excruciating death.” It accuses prison officials, Corizon, and three doctors and 11 nurses of negligence and federal civil rights violations.

Prison Legal News has reported dozens of lawsuits and millions of dollars in damages paid by Corizon Health in cases across the country, mostly related to failure ...

Federal Civil Rights Suit for California Jail Beating Settles for $100,000

by Derek Gilna

In September 2017, Derek Connor, incarcerated at the Placer County jail in Auburn, California, filed a federal lawsuit against the county and numerous deputies and jail employees over an unprovoked beating and other civil rights violations. The complaint, filed in the Eastern District of California, claimed that ...

When Prisons and Jails Switch to Video Calling

by Derek Gilna

Although video calls – the term PLN uses to describe video visits, which are far removed from actual visitation – are available at many county jails and some prisons, usually for a fee, more and more facilities are considering using them to replace in-person visits. But prisoners’ family members, advocacy groups and even some public officials are pushing back against the practice. [See: PLN, March 2018, p.46; April 2017, p.22; March 2015, p.1].

An August 2017 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, “Closing the Distance,” noted that “staying connected to loved ones outside of prison is important to the well-being and success of incarcerated people in leading safe and crime-free lives after release.”

The report also found the use of video calling correlated to an increased number of in-person visits for those prisoners whose families used it – meaning the technology may actually help “strengthen people’s relationships to those on the outside.”

Research has long shown that increased contact between prisoners and their family members, particularly through visitation, results in better post-release outcomes and thus lower recidivism rates. [See: PLN, April 2014, p.24].

But because most video calling systems ...

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 ...


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