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Articles by Douglas Ankney

Record Number of Laws Passed Reducing Barriers for People With Criminal Records

by Douglas Ankney  

Forty-three states, along with the District of Columbia and the federal government, passed “consequential legislation” in 2019 aimed at reducing barriers faced by people with criminal records.

The 152 laws significantly or completely eliminated obstacles to societal reintegration in areas of employment, housing, voting, jury duty and other areas of daily life. According to a February 2020 report by the Collateral Consequences Resource Center (CCRC), last year was “an extraordinarily fruitful period of law reform in the United States.”

The CCRC, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates for the removal of “legal restrictions and societal stigma that burden people with a criminal record long after their criminal case is closed,” has tracked legislative progress in this area since 2013.

Approximately one in three American adults — or 77 million people — had a criminal record, according the data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures in 2018. The 152 laws passed in 2019 ranged from facilitating the expungement of criminal records for marijuana possession, the elimination of barriers to occupational licensing, and lifting restrictions on public housing.

The record number of laws passed in 2019 set in place a “reform trajectory [that] makes us optimistic that ...

New York Prisoner Prevails in Lawsuit, Freed from 23 Years in Solitary Confinement

The announcement followed a March 12, 2020, ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York which denied, in part, a motion for summary judgment by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DCCS) in a 2017 suit brought by H’Shaka related to his combined 23 years of solitary confinement – 13 years in a DCCS Special Housing Unit (SHU) and a decade in Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg).

After several arrests as a minor, H’Shaka was committed to DCCS at age 18 in 1991 upon conviction of second-degree murder and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. In 1996, he used a razor to slash the faces of two guards. He was tried in Greene County Court and received an additional 15-year term for the assaults. He also received a sentence of 15 years of disciplinary confinement in SHU from a DCCS internal tier hearing. That sentence was later reduced to 10 years.

In 2010, H’Shaka was released ...

Court Approves $1,250,000 Settlement in Suit Against Tennessee County for Fair Labor Violations

On July 2, 2019, Natasha Grayson – an employee of the Madison County Criminal Justice Complex (“MCCJC”) – filed a collective action lawsuit on behalf of herself and other similarly situated current and former employees seeking to recover unpaid wages, attorney’s fees, and statutory penalties for violations of the FLSA. “Grayson and other employees worked over 40 hours per week but were not paid for their overtime work,” said an article in The Jackson Sun. “The sheriff’s office required CJC employees to show up to work 15 minutes before their eight-hour shift and continue working 15-20 minutes after the shift ended.”

On December 2, 2019, the parties submitted a proposed settlement to the Court. The settlement required Madison County to pay $1.25 million to the Plaintiffs with a condition that 40% of that amount ($500,000) be paid to Plaintiff’s counsel, Michael L. Weinman, for fees and expenses. Plaintiffs had agreed ...

U.S. District Court Says Rhode Island Department of Corrections Violated “Morris Rules”

Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. also found the DOC had violated another provision of the consent decree by hearing appeals of solitary confinement decisions with a one-man panel instead of the three-member panel required under the terms of that 1972 order, known as the “Morris Rules” after the Morris v. Travisono case from which it stemmed.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed the motion to challenge the DOC’s amended rules on behalf of prisoner Richard Lee Paiva. The 47-year-old, who is serving a life sentence for the 2009 stabbing death of his mother, Rita, had been held in disciplinary segregation for 60 days following an offense in 2014.

“We think that long terms in isolation are bad for everyone,” said Lynette J. Labinger, who teamed with Sonja L. Deyoe to argue Paiva’s case.

They presented Judge McConnell with an ...

San Quentin Had Zero COVID-19 Cases Until California Officials Sent Infected Prisoners, Triggered Wildfire

CDCR officials would argue that they didn’t deliberately transfer infected prisoners to San Quentin. But of the 121 prisoners transferred from CIM, not a single one had been tested within the three weeks before the transfer. Indeed, the reason the prisoners were transferred was to halt the spread of coronavirus at CIM, where nearly 700 prisoners were infected and nine had died. When they arrived at San Quentin, their temperatures were checked, but again, none were tested. For days, the new arrivals used the same showers and ate in the same dining hall as other San Quentin prisoners.

At a hearing before the state Senate, Ralph Diaz, secretary of the CDCR, said, “We care about ...

Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign Files Suit Seeking to Sever University’s Financial Ties With Prison Industrial Complex

On February 25, 2020, student members of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign (HPDC) filed suit in the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County, Massachusetts, seeking to force the university to divest its charitable trust investments from entities that directly or indirectly profit from the “prison-industrial complex” (PIC) – a sprawling group of privately owned firms that provide management and staffing, as well as food and health services to American prisons and jails.

Prompted by a similar student action in 2015, New York City’s Columbia University became the first American institution of higher education to restrict its PIC investments. Since then, the University of California system, Georgetown University, and more than a dozen other prominent universities have followed suit.

With nearly $40 billion invested, Harvard University holds the nation’s largest endowment for a learning institution. Students have been able to uncover specifics related only to about $400 million of that amount, but it includes at least $3 million invested in an equity fund that owns shares in the country’s two largest private prison operators, Florida-based GEO Group, Inc. and Tennessee-based CoreCivic, with 2019 revenues of $2.48 billion and $1.98 billion, respectively.

“Both my own parents have been incarcerated,” ...

Indiana Prisoner’s Suit Alleging Illegal Solitary Confinement Settled for $425,000

by Douglas Ankney

Taxpayers of the state of Indiana will pay $425,000 to prisoner Jay Vermillion as the result of an agreement reached on October 21, 2019, between him and employees of the Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC). This agreement settled Vermillion’s § 1983 lawsuit alleging the IDOC employees unlawfully placed Vermillion in solitary confinement for 1,513 days; illegally confiscated, lost or destroyed all of his personal property, and denied his due process rights at three prison disciplinary hearings.

According to Vermillion’s suit, in July 2009, he was incarcerated at the Indiana State Prison (ISP) when investigators from the IDOC Internal Affairs Office informed him they were going to have criminal charges filed against him because they believed he was involved in the escape of three men from ISP that occurred earlier that month. Vermillion then exercised his constitutional right to cease answering the investigators’ questions. Ten minutes later, at the behest of the investigators, Vermillion was placed in ISP’s punitive segregation unit because of his refusal to answer their questions.

Two days later, Vermillion received a conduct report charging him with the offense of “trafficking” with ISP Counselor Don Bates in the Honor Housing Unit (where Vermillion was housed ...

New Jersey Jail Detainee Dies While Reportedly Begging for Water

by Douglas Ankney

Forty-one-year-old Atlantic County jail detainee Mario Terruso, Jr. died after coughing up blood and begging for water, according to a report in in September 2019.

Alan Wright, who knew Terruso for about 15 years, was working as a jail runner delivering food trays and cleaning carts when he saw Terruso in the admissions area.

Wright said Terruso was sweating profusely and “heaving every 30 to 60 seconds” while begging two nurses for water. The nurses were laughing and accusing Terruso of feigning illness in order to be taken to the hospital, the story said. One of the nurses asked Wright if Terruso “acts like that on the street.” According to Wright, Terruso went about an hour without receiving medical attention.

Then Terruso was suddenly placed into an ambulance. After learning that Terruso had died at the AtlanticCare Regional Medical Center around 1 a.m., Wright contacted his wife to post what he’d witnessed on Facebook. Wright also stated he heard jail guards bragging afterward that they had repeatedly punched Terruso in the face.

Wright was later contacted by the Office of the Attorney General. A spokesman from that office confirmed that the death was being investigated but ...

High School Journalists Garner National Attention by Exposing School’s Use of Prisoner Labor

by Douglas Ankney

Amherst-Pelham Regional High School (APRHS) English teacher Sara Barber-Just was rubbing sleep from her eyes at 5:30 a.m. while reading the June 28, 2019, online edition of The New York Times. Then her jaw dropped in amazement when she saw the story about her journalism class’ article exposing the school’s use of prisoner labor. “I think that’s a wonderful recognition for a student newspaper to have The New York Times call you and say they want to talk about your high school journalism,” Barber-Just said.

APRHS student Spencer Cliche had overheard in a conversation that the school was using prisoners from Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Norfolk to reupholster chairs in the auditorium. Cliche approached Barber-Just with the idea of investigating and reporting the story in The Graphic (APRHS’ quarterly paper).

After confirming with APRHS Superintendent Michael Morris that the school was using prisoner labor, Barber-Just encouraged Cliche and the rest of the class to not simply condemn the practice, but to investigate and write a story.

The class contacted Cara Savelli, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Savelli said prisoners perform work for schools, nursing homes, veteran’s agencies, and other public service providers with a dual purpose ...

Kansas County Jails People for Unpaid Medical Bills

by Douglas Ankney

A county in rural Kansas is jailing people over unpaid medical debt, CBS News reported in February 2020. The county is Coffeyville, Kansas, which has a poverty rate twice the national average.

It’s also the place where attorneys such as Michael Hassenplug have built a successful law practice assisting medical providers to collect debt owed by their neighbors.

Coffeyville has a policy that requires people with unpaid medical bills to appear in court every three months. In what is termed a “medical exam,” the debtors must swear they are too poor to pay. The policy was put in place through Hassenplug’s recommendation to the local judge. “I’m just doing my job,” Hassenplug insisted. “They want the money collected, and I’m trying to do my job as best I can by following the law.”

But the policy also provides for the arrest of anyone who misses two debtor’s exams. Bail is set at $500, which in most jurisdictions is refunded once the bailee appears in court. But in Coffeyville, it goes to attorneys and to the medical companies.

Tres Biggs’ son has leukemia and his wife suffers from Lyme disease. Working two jobs, he missed two exams. “You ...