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Articles by Joe Watson

California Pays for Transgender Prisoner’s Sex Reassignment Surgery

by Joe Watson

The rights of transgender prisoners are in the throes of a major transition.

In August 2015, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) made the unprecedented decision to pay for sex reassignment surgery (SRS) for Shiloh Quine, 57, a transgender woman incarcerated since 1980. Seventeen months later, in January 2017, Quine became the first U.S. prisoner to receive state-funded SRS.

The decision to pay for the surgery resolved a lawsuit filed on Quine’s behalf by the Transgender Law Center, which argued that denying the procedure would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

A settlement in Quine’s lawsuit also resulted in California prison officials agreeing to provide toiletries and clothing specific to the preferences of transgender prisoners or those diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” – a recognized medical condition. See: Quine v. Beard, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:14-cv-02726-JST.

The CDCR’s original position, that SRS was not medically necessary in Quine’s case, was undermined by the department’s own expert.

“[SRS] is medically necessary to prevent Ms. Quine from suffering significant illness or disability, and to alleviate severe pain caused by her gender dysphoria,” wrote Richard Carroll, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Quine ...

ACLU Exposes Debtors’ Prisons Across New Hampshire

by Joe Watson

In a September 2015 report, the ACLU of New Hampshire revealed that judges across the state were jailing impoverished defendants due to their inability to pay fines, a practice the ACLU-NH called “unconstitutional, financially unsound and cruel.”

A year-long investigation revealed that nine judges in ten circuit courts across New Hampshire were sending people to jail essentially for being poor, without appointing them counsel or a meaningful hearing to determine their ability to pay.

“The practice of jailing individuals who are too poor to pay a fine needlessly places an extra financial burden on counties by requiring them to house poor individuals who are no danger to society,” the ACLU-NH said in the report. “Beyond its illegality and cost, this practice creates additional hardships for men and women in New Hampshire who are already homeless, unemployed, or just too poor to pay.”

After receiving reports of quasi-debtors’ prisons across the state, the ACLU-NH spent the next year poring over records and court documents in each of New Hampshire’s ten counties. The organization determined, based on those records, that there were at least 289 cases in 2013 in which defendants were jailed in lieu of a fine or ...

Site of Gruesome Prison Riot Becomes New Mexico Tourist Attraction

by Joe Watson

New Mexico corrections officials said “the possibilities are endless” for a dilapidated prison that has become a tourist attraction and occasional movie studio 35 years after it was the site of one of the most violent riots in U.S. history.

In February 1980, dozens of state prisoners were brutally murdered at the “Old Main” Penitentiary of New Mexico, 15 miles south of Santa Fe, after a group of convicts – reportedly “drunk on hooch and high on prescription meds” – gained access to blowtorches, hatchets and power tools left unattended by construction workers.

A day and a half later the National Guard took control of the bloody scene, where 33 prisoners were killed – many of them tortured and dismembered – and over 100 others were seriously injured or had overdosed on drugs stolen from the prison pharmacy. A dozen guards were taken hostage during the incident; some were beaten and raped.

A New Mexico attorney general’s investigation into the riot later concluded that it was caused by prison overcrowding, understaffing, poor training and a so-called “snitch game,” in which guards “would sometimes put a snitch jacket on a prisoner just because they didn’t like them ... ...

California Prisoners Provide Cheap Labor to Fight Dangerous Wildfires

by Joe Watson

As a five-year drought has turned California into a tinderbox, wildfires are being fought with the help of a decades-old program that supplies cheap prison labor.

Proponents of statewide prison firefighting crews – including many prisoners themselves – say they not only save taxpayers millions of dollars annually, but also offer a sense of purpose rarely afforded to those behind bars.

“It was so physically demanding – but I have to say, it was an honor, a privilege, and a gift to be doing it,” said Jacques D’Elia, who battled wildfires for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for nearly three years until he completed his sentence in November 2013. “And it made me understand how much good I could do and how proud of myself I could be at the end of the day, which never happened in prison.”

Of course, there are also critics who say the warm afterglow of working on the fire crews does not alter the fact that prisoners are an expendable “slave labor” force used to perform dangerous jobs.

“Pshh, this might be beyond slavery, whatever this is,” CDCR prisoner and firefighter Demetrius Barr told Buzzfeed. “They don’t have ...

Oklahoma DOC Chief Gets Bullet-Resistant SUV After Botched Execution, Threats

Oklahoma's Department of Corrections director Robert Patton has been provided with a team of bodyguards and a bullet-resistant SUV in the wake of purported death threats following the botched execution of a death row prisoner.

Threatening emails and phone calls to Patton followed the April 29, 2014, execution of Clayton Lockett, according to DOC officials.

Witnesses say Lockett's execution was stopped after he began writhing, mumbling and trying to get up from his gurney. Preliminary autopsy results indicate that Lockett—who was convicted in the murder of Stephanie Neiman— died of an apparent heart attack and that the IV carrying the lethal drugs used to execute him was not properly inserted. The state is reportedly still conducting an investigation into Lockett's death.

According to records provided by Oklahoma's Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES), DOC spent $32,627 on a bullet-resistant SUV with tinted windows and ballistic panels to protect Patton when he travels. After purchasing a light package and a radio, the total cost of the vehicle was $40,587.

Members of DOC’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) will serve as Patton’s security detail and drive the SUV. Four staff members were given security training, and the costs for travel ...

Prop 47 Makes Thousands of Drug, Property Offenders Eligible for Release

The passage of California's Proposition 47 in November 2014—which reduced many felony drug-possession and property crimes to misdemeanors— might be a harbinger of criminal-justice reform nationwide. But for now, reform advocates will gladly accept the imminent release of as many as 10,000 California state prisoners and thousands more in county jails across the state who are now eligible to go home.

More than 58% of California voters approved Prop 47 in last year's midterm elections, choosing to rethink the tough-on-crime approach that has defined the state's criminal-justice system for decades and overpopulated California's prisons using three-strike laws and harsh mandatory minimums.

The legislation—known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act—reduces the number of people sent to prison for non-serious, nonviolent crimes and redirects money currently spent on financing California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to support crime-prevention programs.

State taxpayers spend $11 billion annually on California's prisons, which have been so overcrowded that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the CDCR in 2011 to reduce its prison population by tens of thousands.

"The fact that (Prop 47) passed by such a wide margin sends a strong message to policymakers across the country that people are sick and tired of the ...

Colorado: Demonstrators Clash with Police over Seizure of Jury Nullification Pamphlets

Occupy Denver and other local activists have been engaged in a long-term campaign of jury nullification education outside Denver’s Second Judicial District courthouse. The activists’ attempts to exercise their First Amendment rights have resulted in repeated clashes with police and prosecutors, and more than 20 arrests.

In August 2015, Denver ...

Study: 95 Percent of Elected Prosecutors are White

A recent study illustrates just how racially skewed the U.S. criminal justice system is with respect to its most powerful participants: prosecutors.

Of 2,437 elected state and local prosecutors holding office in 2014, 95 percent were white and 79% were white men, according to data released by the San Francisco-based ...

Securus Phone Rates Spark Uprising at Alaska Prison

A riot at an Alaska prison “kind of blew up” because, according to prisoners, the phone service provided by Securus was shoddy and the company charged unreasonable rates.

Sparked by a widespread disconnection of phone calls one Monday night in October 2015, prisoners housed in E Dorm at the Lemon ...

Ohio Prison Guards Use JPay System to Illegally Download Thousands of Copyrighted Songs

Ohio’s top watchdog has recommended that the use of state owned computers by employees of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) should be heavily restricted to prevent prison guards from again illegally downloading music or other copyrighted material onto their work computers.

The recommendation comes after Ohio’s Office ...