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Articles by Joe Watson

Increasing Number of Cities and States Enact Bail Reform – but is it Enough?

by Joe Watson

Bail reform did not happen soon enough to save the life of Walter Scott, a forklift operator whose fatal shooting by a police officer intensified a national debate not only on the use of excessive force by the police but also on the unnecessary jailing of nonviolent, non-serious offenders.

In April 2015, Scott was pulled over – purportedly for a broken tail light – by police officer Michael T. Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina. Scott, a father of four, was aware that he was behind on child support by more than $18,000.

“He had trouble keeping up with the payments, that’s all,” said Walter’s older brother, Rodney Scott. “He knew he would go to jail.” [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.1].

More importantly, Walter Scott would have likely stayed behind bars, unable to bail himself out, just like hundreds of thousands of other people jailed in the U.S. each year. Having been arrested three times since 2008, Scott feared the upheaval that even a short stint in jail can create: the potential loss of his job, as well as separation from his family.

So after he was pulled over, an unarmed and desperate Walter Scott bolted ...

Feds Impound Illegally Imported Execution Drugs in Arizona, Other States

by Joe Watson

Arizona's Department of Corrections (ADC) imported a drug used for executions, but federal agents seized and impounded the illegal shipment at the Phoenix airport before it could be used for lethal injections.

The ADC reportedly paid $27,000 for 1,000 vials of sodium thiopental, which is typically the first of three drugs administered during lethal injections. That potent anesthetic, however, which was mailed to prison officials in July 2015, is no longer made by companies approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“[The] FDA has determined that this shipment should not be allowed to destination at this time and thus will not be requesting that [customs officials] lift its detention,” the agency wrote in an August 24, 2015 letter to ADC Director Charles L. Ryan, finding the lethal injection drugs were misbranded and unapproved.

The FDA was acting pursuant to a 2012 federal court ruling that prohibited the agency from allowing the importation of sodium thiopental into the U.S. for the purpose of executions.

After Ryan and ADC officials appealed to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), they were again rebuffed when the agency informed them in a written statement that, according to the FDA, there was no ...

Medical Provider Blamed for Deaths at New York Jail Replaced by Another Contractor ... Then Another

by Joe Watson

For three years, elected officials in Niagara County, New York refused to give the families of Tommie Lee Jones and Daniel Pantera the satisfaction of terminating the county jail’s contract with for-profit healthcare provider Armor Correctional Health Services.

Instead Armor left on its own terms, refusing a new deal with the county when local officials denied the Florida-based company’s demands for more money and negotiated a new contract with a different for-profit medical provider.

“There is no firing. They don’t want it anymore,” said Niagara County Attorney Claude A. Joerg, referring to the jail’s healthcare contract. “It’s not a response to the report from the state.”

The report to which Joerg referred was released in 2014 by New York’s Commission of Correction and blamed the December 2012 deaths of Jones, 51, and Pantera, 46 – both just two weeks after Armor entered into a three-year contract with the county – on Dr. Steven C. Gasiewicz, the company’s medical director at the Niagara County Jail. The report found the pair of deaths were due to “grossly inadequate medical and mental health care,” and recommended that the county consider severing its relationship with Armor.

Pantera, who reportedly suffered from ...

Illinois Governor Threatens Prison Closure, Gets New Budget

by Joe Watson

Nothing inspires politicians to scour under the seat cushions for change like a threat to close prisons.

Following months of tense discourse and panic, the Illinois legislature extended its session in November to reach a new budget deal that would thwart Governor Pat Quinn’s plans to close seven state-run facilities, including the Logan prison complex in Lincoln and three psychiatric hospitals.  A revamped budget, according to Quinn’s office, should keep the facilities open until at least the end of June.

“We are prepared to move ahead,” Quinn senior adviser Michael Gelder told the Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) on Nov. 10, when the panel voted 9-2 against the governor’s plan to close Logan.

Quinn’s plan, which was unveiled in September, would have relocated Logan’s 1,980 prisoners and packed most of them into prison gymnasiums around the state.  That prompted concerns within the prison system that crowding gym floors – which Illinois tried to do once before – would result in increased violence.

“I can’t tell you the numerous fights, (prisoner) assaults, and staff injuries when this did take place,” said Randy Hellman, who worked as a guard in the 1980s and currently works at ...

A Prison Closes in Upstate New York, but Employees Continue to Show Up and Get Paid

by Joe Watson

Who does a doctor care for, or a teacher teach, at a prison without prisoners? What do employees do to earn a paycheck when the prison closes and the prisoners are gone? For at least several months in 2014, apparently all anyone had to do to get paid at the Mount McGregor State Prison in upstate New York was show up.

Mount McGregor transferred the last of its prisoners to other facilities around the state in April 2014 after the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) announced the closing of the prison.

The announcement prompted reporters at WNYT-News Channel 13 to call DOCCS and inquire about the costs of closing a state prison. But according to WNYT, nobody from DOCCS responded to any of their questions until five months later.

WNYT reports that Mount McGregor employees—including a doctor, a dental hygienist, a senior radiological technician, an education supervisor and a teacher—were still on the payroll and reported to work at the prison "for months after the inmates were gone."

In mid-September, only after all of the prison's employees were officially ex-employees, DOCCS finally responded—albeit abruptly—to WNYT's inquiries. The only thing DOCCS provided, according to ...

South Carolina Woman Arrested, Jailed for Overdue Jennifer Lopez Movie Rental

by Joe Watson

Spending good money to rent the movie "Monster-In-Law," starring Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda, is bad enough. Not returning it after nine years is downright criminal, at least in Pickens County, South Carolina, where sheriff's deputies actually arrested Kayla Michelle Finley on February 13, 2014, for not taking back the VHS tape she rented in 2005.

Finley, 27, was dealing with an unrelated matter at the sheriff's office when a warrant for her arrest issued by a Pickens County judge years before was discovered. The owner of Dalton Videos—which now, in the age of Netflix and Amazon Prime, is out of business—actually persuaded the judge to issue the warrant when Finley did not return the J-Lo flick.

According to Pickens County Chief Deputy Creed Hashe, Finley was sent several certified letters asking her to turn herself in to police. But Finley said in a post on the Fox Carolina News Facebook page after her arrest that she had moved out of state because of her husband's job, forgot about the rental and never received any letters from the sheriff's office.

What's even more ridiculous is that Finley was forced to spend a night in jail to wait ...

Jail Time for Overdue Library Books Trending Nationwide

by Joe Watson

When police in Copperas Cove, Texas, enforced a city ordinance in 2013 criminalizing the failure to return public library books on time, they illustrated perfectly the perpetuation of misspent tax dollars. In October 2013, after being called to 22-year-old Jory Enck's apartment in Copperas Cove—about 70 miles northwest of Austin—to check out an unrelated disturbance, police arrested him after discovering Enck had a warrant for not returning a GED study guide he checked out from a local library three years prior.

Enck had to explain that he had not returned the book sooner because he checked it out just before beginning a three-year prison sentence for robbery. He then paid a $200 bond to get out of jail, returned the book and asked the court to sentence him to time-served.

"I think [next time] I will probably just purchase a book from Amazon," Enck told the Killeen Daily Herald after his arrest.

Copperas Cove mandated in 2002 a $200 fine for each library item that remains unreturned 20 days after a written notice is sent to the library patron demanding its return. If the fine then goes unpaid, the municipal court issues an arrest warrant. Similar laws have ...

California Corrections Spending At an All Time High Despite Dramatic Decrease in Prison Population

by Joe Watson

Compelled by court-ordered reductions in its prison population and voter initiatives reducing penalties for drug and property offenses, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) incarcerates almost 30,000 fewer people in state prisons today than it did five years ago. Yet, Californians are spending nearly $500 million more annually than they did then, and the state’s costs of mass incarceration are, in fact, at an all-time high, according to a nonpartisan think tank.

Apparently, it costs significantly more to fulfill California’s constitutional obligations to prisoners. “The state has had to increase spending on healthcare in prisons,” said researcher Magnus Lofstrum of the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).  “That has contributed to a high level of expenditures.”

And Matt Cate, a former secretary of the CDCR, believes the costs will continue to rise until California’s prison population falls even more drastically.

“The state’s not able to manage the population in an efficient way,” Cate said.  “The only way to save money in prisons is to close prisons, and we’re opening prisons.”

According to a PPIC report published in September 2015, California’s prison population has fallen by 27,400 people since 2011, the year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld ...

GM Hides Defect that Killed 124 People, but No One Goes to Prison

by Joe Watson

Not one executive or employee of General Motors Corporation (GM) will face jail time despite an admission by the company that it concealed an ignition switch defect that resulted in the deaths of at least 124 people and injured hundreds more.

“Unfortunately, it’s the same old story,” said Lance Cooper, a Georgia attorney. “If you have enough power and money, you can always buy your way out of truly being held accountable.”

While representing a GM victim in a lawsuit, Cooper discovered the company’s concealment of the defect, which caused crashes by suddenly shutting off the engines in moving vehicles, disabling the power steering and braking. Court documents eventually revealed that although GM engineers were aware of the defect as early as 2004, the company rejected a simple fix and instead opted to mislead the public and government regulators for years.

With the public disclosure of the defect and its cover-up, GM faced a public relations nightmare. Its CEO was called to testify before Congress. In September 2015, the company entered into a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for $900 million to resolve federal criminal charges.

A separate agreement reached at the same time ...

Fee Award in Arizona Prison Healthcare Suit Helps Fund Legal Services for Immigrant Detainees, ACLU

by Joe Watson

A law firm that helped represent Arizona prisoners pro bono in a lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections (ADC) over substandard medical treatment is using the attorneys’ fees it was awarded to further other social justice initiatives. In related news, two years after reaching a settlement in the case, the state was still in violation of its terms, leaving many prisoners without adequate healthcare.

The law firm of Perkins Coie, LLP joined with the California-based Prison Law Office and the ACLU’s National Prison Project to represent 33,000 Arizona prisoners in a federal class-action suit, Parsons v. Ryan, that sought improved medical, mental health and dental care in the state’s prison system. The parties reached a settlement in October 2014. [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.56; Sept. 2012, p.34].

However, a Phoenix TV station reported that prisoners still were not receiving adequate care from Corizon, the ADC’s contracted medical provider. KPNX News 12 broadcast interviews with Dr. Todd Wilcox and Dr. Pablo Stewart, who identified a number of Arizona state prisoners requiring urgently needed healthcare to avoid imminent harm or even death.

Perkins Coie and the ACLU returned to federal district court, accusing ADC officials of failing to ...