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Articles by Edward Lyon

COVID-19 and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice

by Ed Lyon

I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”That’s a famous quote from Luke Skywalker, a character in 1977’s Star Wars, as his Millennium Falcon spacecraft emerges from faster-than-light speed only to find Alderaan, its destination planet, has been destroyed. But this phrase of foreboding was also recently echoed by Dr. Carolyn Salter, former mayor of Palestine, Texas—and for extremely good reason as it turned out.

Located in Anderson County, Palestine is home to five prison units of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), the largest state prison system in the U.S. with over 135,000 people in custody. Palestine’s Beto and Coffield prisons are reportedly TDCJ’s largest prisons, and the total population of all five Anderson County jails hovers around 14,000.

With staff numbering about 2,000, TDCJ is also the largest single employer in the county, just as its 37,000 statewide employees make it the largest employer in Texas. [PLN, November 2015, pp. 56-57]

As early as February 2020, penology experts across the nation were warning that prisons could, and probably would, become huge Petri dishes for COVID-19. The overwhelming majority of prisoners are housed two to a 6-by-8½-foot closet with a tiny sink and ...

Alabama Should Release Elder Prisoners at Risk for COVID-19

by Ed Lyon

The efficacy of states continuing to retain elderly prisoners has been questioned by corrections experts for decades. The problems with continuing to needlessly incarcerate senior prisoners has become even more germane amidst the ongoing coronavirus crisis as activists, along with prison reformists, urge Alabama to release its aged state prisoners.

Statistics compiled from the five largest prison systems in the United States show that about 20 percent of the nation’s prisoner population are elderly – defined as 50 and older in the unique environment of a prison setting, according to many researchers and some state departments of correction. “That’s because people in prison are physiologically seven to ten years older than their chronological age due to a range of factors, including, but not limited to, the conditions and stress of incarceration and—outside of prison—a lack of access to adequate medical care and histories of substance use,” according to an article by the Vera Institute of Justice.

At first glance, Alabama’s statistical data indicates the state’s elderly prison population is well below the national average. The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) warehouses around 22,000 prisoners and operates at a daily average of 170 percent of design capacity.

ADOC’s ...

$1.15 Million Settlement After South Carolina Prisoner’s Baby Born, Dies in Toilet

by Ed Lyon

A $1.15 million settlement was reached on January 31, 2020 in the case of a women who gave birth to premature twins, but one died in a prison bathroom.

In 2012, South Carolinian Sinetra Geter was sentenced to two years in prison for violating parole. She discovered she was pregnant just before sentencing. Her pregnancy was confirmed by the for-profit medical providers at Camille Graham Correctional Institution in Columbia. She was upgraded to a high-risk level when medical staff found she was carrying twins. This was Geter’s first pregnancy. She was not knowledgeable about the childbirth regimen. [See PLN, November 2019, p.52]

Six and a half months into her pregnancy, on October 11, 2012 she began having severe abdominal and lower back pains with cramps. Medical staff told her to rest. Guards forced her to go to work instead. She was seen at medical again at 1 and 4:30 p.m. Despite showing physical signs of being in labor, a doctor was never called.

Around 11 p.m. Geter was in severe pain and left her dorm bed for the restroom. Moving slowly, bent over and in obvious pain, neither of the guards observing her offered any help. ...

Pennsylvania Judge Verdict: A Potential Death Sentence for Shoplifting Conviction

by Ed Lyon

Thirty-six-year-old Ashley Via Menser of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, is battling both cervical and ovarian cancer from prison after being convicted and sentenced in January 2020 for shoplifting $109.63 worth of groceries.

As her case progressed through court, her cancer progressed, too. She was scheduled for an oncology appointment at Hershey Medical Center on the afternoon of January 22, 2020, prior to having a hysterectomy to remove the aggressively encroaching cancer. Without the surgery, Menser’s prognosis was dire: She would be dead inside of a month.

“She has no choice, it’s life or death,” said her mother, Stephanie Bashore. “The doctors sat there and told us this.”

But first Menser had to face a judge for sentencing on her conviction of shoplifting from a Weis Markets store in September 2018. Her lawyer, Robert Scot Feeman, had high hopes that Lebanon County Common Pleas Court Judge Samuel A. Kline would delay or defer sentencing in the case so that Menser could keep her medical appointment

Judge Kline was unswayed, sentencing Menser to state prison for a term of 10 months to seven years. Bashore said the sentence left her daughter in shock.

“She’s just sitting there, all upset because she ...

Alabama Reopens Ancient Prison to Quarantine COVID-19 Prisoners

by Ed Lyon

Prisons are obvious contagion grounds for COVID-19, and conditions in Alabama are among the worst in the nation. Now, it appears, those conditions could get worse even as the coronavirus problem is rapidly spreading at prisons in Alabama and across the country.

On April 16, 2020 the Montgomery Advertiser reported that prisoners were being used to move beds into the ancient Draper Correctional Facility (DCF). DCF was built in 1938, making it 82 years old this year. It was toured by U.S. Justice Department investigators in 2017, during which the stench of raw sewage and toxic fumes the prisoners endured daily made one of the investigators physically ill.

ADOC announced the DCF’s closure a month later. An engineering study from that year estimated it would take at least $30 million to repair and renovate DCF up to minimum standards.

Prior to publication the newspaper queried ADOC, asking if it was planning to resurrect any of its closed prisons as part of its operational plans relating to the coronavirus. On April 8, 2020 ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Banks denied there were any such plans or intentions by ADOC.

In an abrupt turnabout eight days later, ADOC announced it had, ...

Number of California Prisoners Falling; Lifer Population Declines Slightly as Well

As of April 1, 2020, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) counted just over 122,000 prisoners in custody, more than 25 percent lower than its 2006 peak, continuing a downward trend that began after a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that capped the state prison system’s population at 137.5 percent of capacity. The current population represents 130.6 percent of capacity.

To reduce its prisoner population, the state has made increasing use of diversionary programs for nonviolent offenders and reclassifying other prisoners so they can serve sentences in county jails.

CDCR’s Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) has also revamped its policies and procedures, making the process more transparent as it implements a 2008 state Supreme Court ruling that parole decisions need not be based solely on the seriousness of the crime. “I’m not sure that there are really any other places in life where somebody is scrutinized so much in such a public way by people they don’t know,” observes BPH Executive Officer Jennifer Shaffer.

During the first 11 months of 2019, BPH granted release to 1,074 California prisoners serving an indefinite term. That still left CDCR with over 38,000 “lifers,” a number higher than the ...

Deplorable Conditions at South Carolina Prisons Prompt Call for UN Intervention

Despite settling a landmark prisoner civil rights case in 2016, and after a bloody 2018 riot led to a nationwide prisoner work strike that same year, conditions in facilities run by the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDOC) remain so bad that prisoner advocates in late-2019 appealed directly to the United Nations (U.N.) to intervene.

The appeal was delivered October 23, 2019, to U.N. offices in New York, London, Washington, D.C., and Kingston, Jamaica, by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC). Citing alleged violations by SCDOC of the U.N.’s Mandela Rules – a list of requirements for the ethical treatment of prisoners named after former South African President Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 imprisoned for fighting the country’s Apartheid system of racial segregation and discrimination – the appeal demanded opening sealed cell windows, restoring outdoor recreation and improving nutrition for prisoners, as well as a Special Rapporteur to “investigate the torturous, cruel, and inhumane punishment of prisoners in South Carolina.”

Prisoner rights advocate and writer Jared Ware said the appeal was delivered because IWOC and allied activists groups believed official inaction left “no other path to redress” conditions in SCDOC prisons, which he said “have been specifically ...

Sign the Papers! Alabama Prisoners Get Masks for COVID-19 but With Strings Attached

As the threat of COVID-19 contagion has become tangible to prison populations across the United States, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has implemented risk management and mitigation protocols throughout its prison system.

Among these is the cessation of accepting new prisoners from county jails and transfers except in cases of medical necessity and emergency. During the second half of April, masks were made available to prisoners — but with dubious conditions.

To obtain a mask, the prisoner must sign a two-page form. Ominously printed at the top of the first page is the warning, “Use this mask at your own risk. The ability of this mask to protect its user and the effects of its use on health are unknown. The mask is not guaranteed to be effective against the spread of any illnesses or viruses, including COVID-19 virus.”

The second page of the form provides “mandatory” instructions for mask maintenance. This involves daily cleaning in warm water with detergent or alternatively allowing the prison’s laundry to clean it.

Prisoners report that in most dormitory housing there are not enough sinks to meet everyone’s usual needs, much less adding daily mask maintenance cleaning to the regimen. ...

Innocence Project Working to Prove Arkansas Executed Innocent Man

On January 23, 2020, the family of an Arkansas man who was executed three years earlier, filed a lawsuit to obtain evidence from the scene of the murder for which he was convicted, hoping to finally submit it for DNA testing.

“My family has been unable to rest…knowing that my brother was murdered by the state of Arkansas for a crime we believe he did not commit,” said Patricia Young, the surviving sister of the executed convict, Ledell Lee.

If she succeeds in clearing her dead brother’s name, his will be at least the 368th posthumous exoneration in the U.S., according to the Innocence Project.

Lee was put to death for the February 9, 1993, murder of Debra Reese in Jacksonville, Arkansas. Reese was found in her home, strangled, kicked in the face and bludgeoned to death with a small wooden bat called a “tire thumper,” which are used by truck drivers to beat their vehicle’s tires to make sure they are properly pressurized. Based on the accounts of two eyewitnesses, Lee was arrested about two hours after Reese’s body was discovered.

But at trial, Lee’s jury was presented with weaknesses in the eyewitnesses’ accounts: One ...

Early Prison Release for Gangsta Rapper Sped Up by Coronavirus

Daniel Hernandez was a Brooklyn rap artist who managed to achieve no small measure of fame. To his fans he was Tekashi 6ix9ine. He decided to live the gangsta life and rapped about his time as a member of New York City’s Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods. He also became known to the feds as a co-conspirator, amongst a few unpleasant legal monikers.

Hernandez was 23 years old when the feds arrested him in November 2018. Seeing the error of his ways (not to mention a probable 47 years to life sentence) Hernandez quickly decided to cooperate against his former fellow gang members as a government witness.

In September 2019, Hernandez’s rap turned into a canary’s song. His testimony was instrumental in securing racketeering conspiracy convictions against two fellow gang members, Anthony Ellison and Aljermiah Mack, during a three-day trial.

While testifying, Hernandez pegged fellow rappers Jim Jones and Cardi B as Nine Trey Gangsta Blood members.

Jones’ spokesperson declined to answer questions on the matter while Cardi B denied she had been s member of Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods. However, in a 2018 interview with Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine, Cardi B admitted to prior gang involvement, stating, “I ...