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Articles by Douglas Ankney

“Be Christian or Be Penalized”: After Fourth Circuit Revives Muslim Prisoner’s Challenge, Virginia Jail Settles Suit for $30,000

by Douglas Ankney

On May 22, 2023, a $30,000 settlement was reached between officials with a Virginia jail and a Muslim prisoner who objected to its broadcasts of Christian religious programming, which he claimed violated the First Amendment prohibition against any government action “respecting establishment of religion.”

The agreement between Middle River Regional Jail (MRRJ) Authority and the prisoner, David Nighthorse Firewalker-Fields, came on the heels of a decision in his favor by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on January 17, 2023. Declining to be “a court of ‘first view’ and not ‘a court of review,’” the Court revived and remanded to the district court the question of whether the programming violated the Establishment Clause.

However, the Court said that a companion challenge failed under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, since the comparative lack of Muslim programming at the jail where Firewalker-Fields awaited transfer to the state Department of Corrections reflected restrictions “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests,” as laid out in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987).

During nearly three months at MRRJ in 2017, Firewalker-Fields was unable to engage in Jumu’ah prayer services. One reason was his placement in maximum ...

Soaring Number of Detainee Deaths Spotlights Ongoing Crisis at Harris County Jail

by Douglas Ankney

In 2022, at least 28 detainees died while awaiting trial in the custody of the Harris County Jail (HCJ) – the highest number of deaths at the Texas facility in nearly two decades. Already 11 more have died in HCJ custody from January 1 to July 13, 2023. This article briefly examines: (1) the history of the jail’s substandard conditions, (2) staff abuses of detainees – including charges of manslaughter – and scandals, (3) the current and continuing substandard conditions, (4) the identified causes of these conditions and (5) the proposed solutions to end the deadly crisis.

History of Substandard Conditions

HCJ consists of three individual jails: the “1200 Jail” located at 1200 Baker Street; the “701 Jail” located at 701 North San Jacinto; and the “1307 Jail” located at 1307 Baker Street. The HCJ system also is separate and distinct from two City of Houston jails. The three HCJ lockups may hold nearly 10,000 people at any given time, including those convicted and serving jail sentences for Class B and Class C misdemeanors and those awaiting trial on felony and misdemeanor charges. That’s enough beds to let the county’s entire population – all 4.7 million of ...

Fourth Circuit Revives Virginia Prisoner’s Challenge to DOC Policy Restricting His Religious Headwear


by Douglas Ankney

On November 7, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that a district court erred in finding that Virginia prisoner David A. Richardson failed to present evidence that a policy of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) substantially burdened the exercise of his religious beliefs. Also, the Court said, the federal court for the Eastern District of Virginia erred in granting Defendants summary judgment on an issue they hadn’t raised without giving Plaintiff notice and a reasonable time to respond.

Richardson is a prisoner at Deerfield Correctional Center, where DOC policy required him to remove his religious head covering while in the dining hall, visiting room and administrative buildings. He sued DOC Director Harold W. Clarke and Wardens Eddie L. Pearson and Tammy Williams, alleging, inter alia, that the policy substantially burdened the exercise of his religious beliefs. As an adherent of the Nation of Islam faith, he claimed, he is required to wear a kufi headcovering at all times, and preventing him from doing so violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000(1)(a) et seq.

After Richardson filed suit, DOC changed its ...

Seventh Circuit: Cook County Jail Grievance Procedure An “Incomprehensible Trap”

by Douglas Ankney

On March 16, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the grievance procedure in Chicago’s Cook County Jail is an “incomprehensible trap,” making it effectively unavailable to a detainee and so excusing his failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e.

While incarcerated at the jail, Gerald Hacker was found standing in a doorway by guard D. Sandoval, who ordered Hacker to return to his bed. Hacker is almost entirely deaf, with just 10% hearing in his right ear and none in his left. Unable to hear the guard, he did not comply. Sandoval responded by shoving Hacker, knocking him unconscious. Hacker later awoke at Cermak Health Services, handcuffed to a bed.

Hacker filed an administrative grievance with the jail. That same day, he received a written notice informing him that his grievance had been referred to the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), as per jail policy, as well as to the Divisional Superintendent. The notice said Hacker could follow up on the investigation by contacting either OPR or the Divisional Superintendent. Attached to the referral notice was a form allowing Hacker ...

Wellpath Sanctioned for Discovery Violations After Stonewalling in Prisoner Lawsuits

by Douglas Ankney

A review of court records by PLN has found repeated sanctions for discovery violations against private prison healthcare provider Wellpath in suits across the country blaming the firm’s dismal care for prisoner deaths – including four since 2020.

Washington – Benton County Jail

First, the firm was twice sanctioned in a suit alleging that the death of Marc Moreno at Washington’s Benton County Jail was caused by employees of a Wellpath corporate predecessor, Correctional Healthcare Companies (CHC).

Plaintiffs sought discovery in 2018 of documents related to prior complaints about healthcare at the jail, as well as audits of the jail’s medical services and electronically stored information (ESI). The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington granted a motion to compel discovery on April 9, 2019, giving Wellpath 14 days to comply. But months later, on January 8, 2020, the Court found CHC in contempt of its earlier order, and it levied a sanction for $7,290 in fees to pay Plaintiff’s attorneys from Budge & Heipt PLLC in Seattle and the Law Office of George Trejo in Yakima. CHC was also ordered to execute a search plan to locate the missing ESI, including emails of all ...

L.A. County Watchdog Takes Aim at “Deputy Gangs”

by Douglas Ankney

In a letter sent to 35 deputies withtheLos Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) on May 12, 2023, county Inspector General Max Huntsman demanded they report for questioning about their involvement in deputy “gangs,” including showing their gang tattoos and giving up the names of other gang members.

Huntsman said that LASD “conducted incomplete internal affairs investigations” into two of the groups, the Banditos and Executioners, “failing to identify all members.” But he added that “California’s new gang law addresses discrimination based on race and gender and gives inspectors general enhanced authority to collect evidence.”

“We’re using that authority to complete the investigations by directing deputies to show their tattoos and tell us who else has them,” he said.

An anonymous survey of LASD deputies found that 16% had been asked to join one of the gangs. Huntsman’s letter follows the creation of a new Office of Constitutional Policing in LASD by recently elected Sheriff Robert Luna. [See: PLN, May 2023, p.1.].

A February 2023 report from county Civilian Oversight Commission’s (COC) Special Counsel counted more than a half-dozen illegal gangs or cliques of LASD deputies, which also include such colorful names as the Regulators, Spartans, Gladiators, ...

Fourth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of North Carolina Prisoner’s ADA Claim for Failure to Show Deliberate Indifference

by Douglas Ankney

In an instructive case for prisoners making claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch.126 § 12101, et seq., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held on October 5, 2022, that a North Carolina prisoner failed to create a genuine issue of material fact that could demonstrate deliberate indifference to his serious medical need by prison officials.

Rodney A. Koon is an “ADA-assigned” prisoner in the state Department of Public Safety (DPS). Injuries sustained in an automobile accident prior to incarceration left him with chronic pain in his hips, his right knee and his left ankle. He is “not able to go up and down steps without difficulty,” the Court noted. Officials at Lanesboro Correctional Institution (CI) determined Koon’s ADA accommodations to be, inter alia, “no climbing permitted.”

While held there, Koon did not seek a “handicap pass” because he was able to access everything he needed. But when later transferred to Pender CI, Koon found it difficult and painful to climb up two flights of stairs to the general population library. There was a handicap library at the prison, accessible without using the stairs, but it required a handicap pass. ...

California Appeals Court Affirms Rate Caps and Fee Limitations for Prison Telecoms

by Douglas Ankney

On February 1, 2023, the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate Division, affirmed the denial by the state Public Utility Commission (PUC) of challenges to rate caps and fee limitations brought by Securus Technologies LLC (Securus) and Network Communications International Corporation (NCIC) over their contracts in the state’s prisons and jails.

In 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began regulating incarcerated person calling services (IPCS) due to the lack of competition among providers. By 2016, the FCC had adopted regulations capping per-minute rates at 13 cents in prisons and in jails a range of 19-31 cents, depending on the average daily population (ADP). Caps were also placed on automated payment fees – at $3.00 per transaction – and “live-agent” fees at $5.95 per transaction, as well as fees for paper statements at $2.00 each. IPCS providers were also prohibited from adding any fee to that charged by third-party financial institutions for processing single-call transactions, usually when the recipient of a collect call from a prisoner does not have an account with the IPCS provider at that facility.

However, the caps on intrastate calls were voided when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled the ...

Federal Court Holds Illinois DOC in Contempt for Failing to Remediate Substandard Healthcare

by Douglas Ankney

On August 5, 2022, Judge Jorge L. Alonso of the U.S. District Court for Northern Illinois held the state Department of Corrections (DOC) in contempt, after repeated failures to draft a plan to complete agreed-upon remediation of a prison healthcare system that an appointed monitor told the ...

$14,000 Paid by California to Mentally Ill Prisoner Who Alleged Repeated Maulings by Guards

by Douglas Ankney

How blatant is a violation of rights when a prisoner who is both mentally ill and proceeding pro se wins his case? The answer for California prisoner Benjamin Justin Brownlee arrived in the form of two settlement checks from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), ...