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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Kevin Bliss

Settlement in Lawsuit Against Missouri DOC’s Selection of Execution Witnesses

by Kevin Bliss

Christopher McDaniel, an investigative journalist for BuzzFeed News, sued the director of the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) for maintaining a policy of selecting witnesses for executions that constructively denied applicants based on their viewpoints. 

Represented by ACLU of Missouri legal director Anthony Rothert, McDaniel sought injunctive relief from the director’s policy of exercising unbridled discretion over the selection of execution witnesses. The case eventually settled, with the DOC agreeing to policy changes.

McDaniel was working for St. Louis Public Radio in January 2014 when he submitted a request to the DOC director to be an observer at an execution. He wrote in his application that he wanted “To ensure that this solemn task is carried out constitutionally.” Since that time, Missouri has carried out 17 executions while McDaniel has still not received a response to his request.

In his lawsuit, McDaniel said he had reported unfavorably about Missouri prison officials several times in the past. He reported on pharmacies selling execution drugs to the DOC without a license; the illegal, mandatory use of sedatives on prisoners prior to their execution; cash-stuffed envelopes changing hands between pharmacies and DOC officials; and execution drug ...

$150,000 Settlement after Michigan DOC Discriminates Against HIV Positive Prisoner

by Kevin Bliss

John Dorn sued the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) for subjecting him to harsher disciplinary penalties than other prisoners simply because he was HIV positive. 

Represented by attorneys Chris E. Davis and Mark A. Cody from Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, Inc. and Kyle A. Palazzolo ...

Mississippi: More Indictments from Former DOC Commissioner Epps Corruption Scandal

by Kevin Bliss

In September 2018, Michael LeBlanc, Sr., Michael LeBlanc, Jr., Tawasky L. Ventroy and Jacque B. Jackson were indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges stemming from a 2014 corruption investigation centered on former Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher B. Epps. The four were accused of exchanging cash and casino chips for preferential treatment in securing contracts for commissary and phone services.

Epps was under investigation for taking more than $1.4 million in bribes and kickbacks when he and former Mississippi state lawmaker Cecil McCrory were indicted on 49 counts. 

Epps immediately began cooperating with the FBI; with his assistance, they were able to bring charges against former state Senator Irb Benjamin, former MDOC insurance broker Guy “Butch” Evans, prison consultant Sam Waggoner, businessman Mark Lonogoria, consultant Robert Simmons, Dr. Cecil Reddix and the wife of former House Corrections Chairman Bennett Malone. Benjamin admitted to bribing Epps to keep certain jails full of prisoners so he could receive greater profits on contracted services at those facilities. [See: PLN, Oct. 2015, p.42].

District Judge Henry Wingate, who sentenced Epps, was amazed at the scope of the corruption. “This is the largest graft operation in the state ...

Tennessee Sheriff, Captain Arrested 
for Improper Use of Prisoner Labor

by Kevin W. Bliss

Sheriff Jimmy Brown and Captain Adam Brewer, with the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, were arrested in May 2018 following an investigation into inappropriate conduct.
At the request of 22nd District Attorney General Brent Cooper, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury began reviewing the activities of the Sheriff’s Office. They discovered that between 2015 and 2017, Sheriff Brown, 71, allowed various county employees to use jail prisoners to perform labor at their personal residences. In addition, he would release detainees without requiring them to post bond as ordered by the court. The sheriff also reportedly violated the law in connection with confiscated illegal moonshine and a still.

Captain Brewer was accused of falsifying timesheets and misleading investigators as to the accuracy of reported hours worked at the Sheriff’s Office.

A local grand jury returned indictments, charging Brown with two counts of official misconduct, one count of misuse of inmate labor for personal gain and one count of tampering with evidence. Brewer was charged with one count of official misconduct.

Brown, who was elected sheriff in August 2010 and re-elected in 2014, lost his re-election bid on August 2, 2018. Both he ...

Virginia DOC Called Out for Use of Solitary Confinement

by Kevin W. Bliss

After releasing a 67-page investigative report in May 2018 on the use of solitary confinement by the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) and the effects of solitary on prisoners, especially those with mental health issues, the ACLU of Virginia called on Governor Ralph Northam to curb the use of segregation.

In its report, “Silent Injustice,” the ACLU said it found that one in every 20 prisoners in state prisons had spent time in isolation, with the average stay lasting 2.7 years. Solitary confinement in the VDOC – officially known as “restrictive housing” – keeps a prisoner in a locked cell 22 to 24 hours a day with few privileges. Officially, solitary is used to punish rule infractions, to hold high-risk prisoners or to protect prisoners from each other. But the ACLU argued it is also used to house the mentally ill and exact retribution against prisoners who file grievances.

The ACLU’s report contends that segregation has especially detrimental effects on prisoners with mental health issues, resulting in feelings of panic, hallucinations and paranoia. For the 15 percent of VDOC prisoners being treated for some type of mental health issue – and the ACLU says ...

Alabama Sheriff Pockets Excess Jail Food Funds, Buys Beach House, Loses Re-election Bid

by Kevin W. Bliss

In June 2018, Sheriff Todd Entrekin withdrew from his re-election campaign in Etowah County, Alabama, conceding to his only opponent, Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathon Horton. Entrekin will serve out the rest of his second term and hand over the position in January 2019. He withdrew under a cloud of suspicion, with a lawsuit pending against him and 48 other county sheriffs, filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice in January 2018, for failure to produce public records.

Entrekin refused to produce documents showing how money from his jail’s food account was being spent, stating only that prisoners are fed balanced, nutritious meals that are well above minimum calorie counts and respectful of religious restrictions. However, he also reported on ethics forms that he personally earned $250,000 in each of the past three years – in addition to his salary – by keeping excess funds not spent on food for prisoners’ meals.

Under a 1939 state law, a number of Alabama counties still turn the unused portion of their jail food account over to the sheriff for their personal benefit. [See: PLN, March 2018, p ...

Family of Wrongfully Convicted Missouri Prisoner Receives $14 Million

by Kevin Bliss

The family of former Missouri prisoner George Allen received a $14 million settlement in a wrongful conviction suit filed against the state, the City of St. Louis and others responsible for his illegal imprisonment.

Mary Bell was raped and murdered in her LaSalle apartment in 1982. Police focused on Kirk Eaton, a known sex offender, as a possible suspect. George Allen was picked up several weeks later because he was walking through the neighborhood and resembled Eaton. According to the complaint, it was readily apparent that Allen was mentally ill and that police officials, including Terry James and Mark Burford, “saw an opportunity to close what had become an emotionally charged case.”

The complaint alleged that Allen’s confession was coerced and crucial forensic evidence was withheld. It added that Allen was fed information by James and Burford about the crime scene that only the perpetrator would know; the officers then had Allen repeat that information in his taped confession to make it appear he was guilty. They also suppressed semen found at the crime scene because it did not match Allen’s blood type.

Allen was convicted and spent 30 years in prison while asserting his innocence ...

Sentenced to Prison Slavery

by Kevin W. Bliss

Most Americans were taught that slavery was banned in 1865 with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But prisoner rights advocates note that the amendment’s exception clause actually allowed slavery to persist – in prisons.

The Thirteenth Amendment prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Following the Civil War, states in the vanquished Confederacy worried that their war-torn economies would be overwhelmed by the increased cost of production incurred by plantation owners forced to pay market wages for labor since they could no longer own slaves.

But under the Thirteenth Amendment, with a workforce composed of prisoners not entitled to wages, the Southern states realized they could lease prisoners to plantations at low cost, saving them money while generating revenue for prison coffers. To this day, prisoners harvest crops at gunpoint in facilities like the Angola prison in Louisiana and the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

A 2014 survey for the National Center for Education statistics found that 61 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million state and federal prisoners were employed – mostly in low-paid institutional support ...

BJS Report Finds Prisoner Sexual Abuse Allegations Continue to Rise

by Kevin W. Bliss

A July 2018 report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found the number of alleged incidents of sexual victimization among state and federal prisoners increased 180 percent from 2011 to 2015. However, the number of substantiated claims grew just 63 percent during that same time period.

The Sexual Victimization Report by Adult Correctional Authorities was first authorized in 2003 with the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). But the standards that govern which incidents are reported took until 2012 to be adopted by the U.S. Department of Justice. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.1; Sept. 2013, p.1].

Part of the lengthy delay could be attributed to PREA requirements that prisons and jails create partnerships with local rape crisis centers, which are supposed to provide support services to incarcerated victims of sexual assault – from a rape crisis hotline to in-person counseling. Correctional facilities also had to develop programs to educate staff and prisoners about sexual victimization. Other sections of PREA address such issues as prevention planning, responsive planning, collecting data and conducting audits.

The PREA standards require detention facilities to give prisoners multiple ways to report sexual victimization, which includes ...

Dismissal of Pro Se Prisoner’s Sexual Assault, Excessive Force Case Reversed

by Kevin Bliss

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania state prisoner Gregory L. Ricks against Paul Keil and D. Shover, guards at SCI Graterford, after his case was dismissed by a district court for failure to state a claim.

Ricks was on his way to Graterford’s law library during morning movement when he was stopped and subjected to a pat-down search by Keil. Ricks stated that Keil pressed his erect penis against his buttocks during the search, and claimed it could be seen on the surveillance tapes of that area.

Ricks said he immediately stepped away and turned to Keil’s supervisor, Lt. D. Shover, who was overseeing the pat-down. He told Shover that Keil had just sexually assaulted him. Shover became belligerent and slammed Ricks against the wall, resulting in a black eye, busted nose and lips, and injuries to his head, neck and back. Ricks said Shover then cuffed him and returned him to his cell.

The district court held that one incident of minor sexual touching did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation. Further, Shover’s failure to intervene did not constitute participation in the incident, and Ricks’ allegations of ...


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