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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Kevin Bliss

Mississippi: Former Jailer Acquitted of Criminal Charges in Prisoner’s Death

by Kevin Bliss

Victor Smith was found not guilty of aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, stemming from an incident when he was employed as a jailer with the Adams County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) in Mississippi. He is also being sued by the family of Joseph “Joey” Sturdivant in connection with Sturdivant’s hanging death.

Smith was passing out lunch trays on March 17, 2016 with the assistance of jail trustees Jerome Harris and Kelcey Watson, without a second guard present as required by ACSO protocol. He found that he was a tray short and left to retrieve one without locking the cell doors. When he returned he saw Harris in the cell with Sturdivant, but testified there did not appear to be any type of altercation at that time.

Later, surveillance video footage showed Harris in his cell giving a thumbs-up sign to someone outside his door. Smith testified that was him; he was concerned because Harris was prone to asthma attacks, and was checking on him. Harris was simply letting Smith know that he was OK, he said.

At about 1 p.m., a prisoner walked past Sturdivant’s cell and saw him hanging from a noose made ...

California Prisoners Seek to Enforce Settlement Provisions in Ashker Litigation

by Kevin Bliss

On March 29, 2018, a federal magistrate judge in California held that prisoners in a class-action lawsuit over long-term solitary confinement, who entered into a settlement agreement with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), had not proven a material breach of the agreement. That decision was subsequently overruled in part by the district court.

CDCR prisoners held in Secure Housing Units (SHUs) stay on lockdown 23 hours a day and have limited programming opportunities or privileges. A large number of those prisoners have remained in SHUs for years or even decades due to alleged gang affiliations.

On behalf of a class of prisoners in administrative SHU, California state prisoner Todd Ashker and other plaintiffs entered into a September 2015 settlement with the CDCR that included a requirement that all class members eligible for release under the agreement would be transferred to a “General Population level IV 180-design facility, or other general population institution consistent with [their] case factors.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.1; Oct. 2014, p.30].

The CDCR transferred over 200 SHU prisoners to other facilities, where in some cases conditions were no better than in segregation units. Many class members asserted ...

The Secret World of Missouri DOC Internal Death Investigations

by Kevin Bliss

The Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) has been accused of not being transparent or competent when it comes to conducting investigations into deaths that occur in state prisons. The DOC is responsible for the care and treatment of numerous dangerous and mentally ill prisoners, yet death reviews are handled internally. The release of information is carefully controlled; even the names of staff members involved do not have to be released. Nor does video footage taken within the prison system.

“It’s a secret world,” observed Jim Bruce, a Missouri civil rights attorney. “Only the people who are in charge have control of the records.”

Around 100 Missouri state prisoners die each year, mainly due to natural causes. But some deaths result from acts of violence, such as the 2013 case of Jose Benitez, who was fatally assaulted by fellow prisoner Terry Volner.

Volner was serving life without parole for killing a child in 2011. After murdering Benitez, he received a second term of life without parole. Other deaths were the result of actions taken by prison staff, such as an incident involving prisoner Michael Lorenzo King at the Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center (ERDCC).

King ...

Humanism to be Recognized as Approved Faith in North Carolina Prisons

by Kevin Bliss

On March 28, 2018, a federal district court entered a summary judgment order that held Humanism was in fact a faith group that must be recognized by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS).

Kwame Jamal Teague, incarcerated at the Lanesboro Correctional Institution, continually asked prison ...

Lawsuit Over Prisoner Assault at Tennessee Jail Results in Settlement, Dismissal

by Kevin Bliss

A civil rights complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee on behalf of a pretrial detainee who was severely beaten by his cellmate at the Rutherford County jail, was dismissed in May 2018 following a settlement by the county defendants.

Robert Johnson was in jail awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges. Due to overcrowding and understaffing he was celled with Guy Mitchell, Jr., a mentally ill convicted felon serving four years for theft and aggravated assault.

Mitchell’s mother, Carrie Harrell, had contacted the director of Rudd Medical Services, PLC, Ken Tucker, to warn him of Mitchell’s mental disorder and propensity for violence. Rudd was the contracted medical provider at the Rutherford County jail. Harrell requested on multiple occasions that Mitchell be transferred to a special needs unit for his own safety. Tucker responded that he could do nothing until Mitchell proved himself a threat.

On December 20, 2014, Mitchell began screaming that he was going to kill Johnson. Guards Gregory McNeil and Danny Cobb took several minutes to respond. In that brief time, Mitchell reportedly assaulted Johnson and left him lying unresponsive on the cell floor; he was later charged with ...

$35,500 affirmed by Sixth Circuit in Michigan guard retaliation, free speech case

by Kevin Bliss

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the jury finding against Lewis Condon, Joseph Downard, and Gary McMurtrie, guards at Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, Michigan, was proper and that the three violated Randle Griffin’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by retaliating against him for ...

Former district attorney in Maine sued for misconduct

by Kevin Bliss

Former Assistant District Attorney Mary Kellett was sued by Vladek Filler for allegedly withholding and editing exculpatory evidence and advising police not to comply with subpoenas in relation to a 2009 conviction of a sexual assault against Filler, which had been overturned.

Ligia Filler, Vladek’s wife, was involuntarily committed in 2007. While there, she made a series of allegations of abuse by her husband. He had earlier initiated a separation, retaining custody of their two children and had believed the allegations to be in retaliation.

Kellett indicted Vladak Filler on a total of eight different counts on two separate occasions, of which only a misdemeanor assault charge was upheld.

One charge was overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct in which Kellett was reprimanded by the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar for editing a taped statement of Ligia Filler telling her friend in the absence of police presence that she was only doing this to retain custody of her children.

Kellett also advised police not to comply with the defense’s subpoenas.

Filler later filed a sprawling civil suit against 18 individuals, including Kellett.

She responded with a request for summary dismissal based on an absolute immunity, which ...

$280,000 settlement after family files wrongful death suit against New Jersey jail, health providers

by Kevin Bliss

A civil action lawsuit was filed against Burlington County Jail (DCJ), CFG Health Systems, Corizon Health, Inc. and others on behalf of Jerome Iozzia after he died due to improper medical treatment and lack of medication for an abscess developed from a pulled tooth.

Iozzia was in ...

Ninth Circuit rules on 'pattern of behavior' issue in Corizon Health case

by Kevin Bliss

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Corizon Health Inc. acted as a state agency when providing health care to Arizona prisoners, and established a policy of neglect that violated constitutional rights and, as such, was vulnerable to civil action.

Ronald Edward Oyenik, represented by the Prison Law Office, alleged that he had been denied or delayed cancer treatment for nearly a year. He sued and Corizon asked for summary judgment on the basis that Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York applied to a state agency’s private contractor. Summary judgment was granted and Oyenik appealed.

The court held that Monell, a decision by the Supreme Court that exempted a government from being sued unless the injury was due to the policy or custom of that government, applied to a state agency’s private contractor. Subsequently, they were also responsible if the injury was due to their policy or custom. In addition, contrary to the District Court’s findings, a pattern of deliberate indifference could be established from a single individual and that Oyenik had shown a sufficient number of incidents to claim this pattern as a policy of Corizon’s. They held that ...

Missouri federal appeals court affirms mental health department employees hold qualified immunity

by Kevin Bliss

A federal court of appeals held that employees of the Missouri Department of Mental Health (DMH) were entitled to summary judgment against a claim filed by Dwayne Andrews on the basis of qualified immunity.

On August 9, 2003, Andrews experienced an episode of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and fired a rifle in the direction of two police officers. No one was injured, and he was charged with assault.

Dr. Michael Armour evaluated Andrews for the purpose of trial. He found Andrews competent to proceed but not criminally responsible for his actions. Andrews’ attorney entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The prosecution agreed, and the court committed Andrews to the DMH for treatment.

In September 2010, Andrews underwent a conditional release evaluation performed by Dr. Jeffrey Kline. Kline found Andrews unlikely to be dangerous or to commit another crime, and his symptoms were in full remission and had been for several years.

Previously, Andrews filed three motions for conditional release, none of which were supported by the DMH. Due to Kline’s evaluation, the DMH filed a cross-petition for conditional release in Andrews’ case. It was opposed by the prosecution.

In June 2012, Andrews and ...


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