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Articles by Kevin Bliss

LGBTQ+ Detainees at Rikers Island Suffer Under Mayor Adams

by Kevin W. Bliss

On June 8, 2023, the New York City Council passed legislation to ensure transgender, gender-nonconforming, non-binary and intersex (TGNCNBI) detainees and prisoners at city lockups are provided with services designed to make their reentry into society easier and more successful.

But nothing comes for free, including these policy changes, which resulted from a five-month investigation by New York magazine that revealed Mayor Eric Adams (D), a former captain in the city police department, pushed out leaders in the city Department of Correction (DOC) who were supportive of sexual minority detainees, drafting a policy directive to assign more TGNCNBI detainees at the city’s Rikers Island jail complex into housing that aligned with their gender identity. That has now been discarded.

But the new legislation is the first passed of three proposals to reverse that reversal. Both of the remaining pending bills will also protect incarcerated TGNCNBI people, who experience some of the highest rates of sexual violence.

Under former Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D), a transgender housing unit was opened at Rikers Island in 2015. Three years later DeBlasio directed DOC to house detainees in units consistent with their gender identity, since “[i]t’s the city’s responsibility to protect ...

Government Watchdog Adds BOP to List at “High Risk” of Mismanagement

by Kevin W. Bliss

In March 2023, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its bi-annual “high-risk list” of federal programs or operations that are susceptible to waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement. Added to the list this year was the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), mainly due to its inability to correct persistent staffing shortages.

GAO comptroller Gene Dodaro recently testified before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that BOP staffing issues have adversely affected the safety of both prisoners and guards, as well as compromising efforts to evaluate BOP programs aimed at reducing recidivism and prison overcrowding. Staffing has consistently run at least 15% below authorized levels for some time, he noted. BOP has changed directors six times in as many years.

In March 2021, GAO labeled BOP management an “emerging high-risk.” At that time, an audit was prepared with 50 recommendations provided to rectify critical issues. Thus far, only 22 of those recommendations have been addressed.

“Enhancing management of staff and resources, and improving the planning and evaluation of inmate programs, would allow BOP to more effectively deliver services, enhance its emergency preparedness and safety, determine if its investments are facilitating inmates’ successful reentry into ...

At Massive and Corrupt Philippine Prison, Contraband Includes Jacuzzis and Horses

by Kevin W. Bliss

In an article published on March 3, 2023, ABS-CBN News said that conditions at the Philippines’ New Bilibid Prison (NBP) – one of the largest prisons in the world – were simply deplorable. Overcrowding and insufficient resources have resulted in abundant contraband, establishing a power hierarchy among prisoners and increasing the potential for corruption at all levels of the Philippine prison system, as well as fostering an unsanitary and violent environment that is killing many prisoners.

The murder of journalist Percival Mabasa at NBP on October 3, 2022, prompted an investigation and an institutional shakedown, during which tens of thousands of contraband items were collected, ranging from the usual weapons, alcohol and drugs, to more extravagant luxuries like air conditioning units and Jacuzzi tubs – even horses and pythons.

In November 2022, prison system chief Gerald Bantag was charged with ordering the hit on Mabasa. But widespread corruption has long persisted at NBP. One prisoner was able to bribe officials into building a sound studio in his cell from which he recorded and sold 15,000 copies of an album of love songs. Mabasa’s murder and Bantag’s arrest have brought attention to this long history of abuses. ...

Second Circuit Affirms $600,000 Punitive Damage Award to New York Prisoner Brutally Beaten by Guards

by Kevin W. Bliss

On July 18, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed an earlier ruling for the federal court for the Southern District of New York by Judge Cathy Seibel, who decided that punitive damages awarded to state prisoner Nicolas Magalios for an unwarranted attack by guards at Fishkill Correctional Facility (FCF) were excessive. That left standing Seibel’s decision handed down on February 10, 2022, granting remittitur to defendant officials with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and reducing Magalios’ punitive damages by $400,000.

On September 3, 2017, Magalios was violently beaten by guards Matthew Peralta and Timothy Bailey as fellow guard Edward Blount looked on. Represented by attorney Edward Sivin of Sivin, Miller & Roche LLP in New York City, Magalios took the issue to the district court. After a four-day trial, the jury ruled in his favor on April 30, 2021, awarding $50,000 in compensatory damages collectively from the three guards and $950,000 in punitive damages – $350,000 from Peralta, $350,000 from Bailey and $250,000 from Blount.

The following year, when Judge Seibel took up Defendants’ motion for remittitur, she called what the guards did reprehensible. It was violently malicious, she said, ...

Maryland Sheriff Charged with Illegally Procuring Machine Guns from ATF

by Kevin W. Bliss

On April 5, 2023, the Sheriff of Maryland’s Frederick County was charged with using his office to order machine guns from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) that were supposed to be used for demonstration and evaluation – but which were later rented out for profit instead. Along with Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, 66, gun shop owner Robert Justin Krop, 36, was also charged with conspiracy and providing false statements to acquire machine guns.

Jenkins has been the county Sheriff for several terms. In 2013, he was lambasted when three of his off-duty deputies serving as movie theater security forcefully removed a 26-year-old man with Downs syndrome from a screening. The man collapsed during the altercation and later died. That incident followed on the heels of the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old by two deputies performing a raid. Jenkins was also named in a racial profiling lawsuit, and he is a vocal proponent of the controversial 287(g)-program, under which local authorities detain suspected undocumented aliens for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Krop, 36, owns the Machine Gun Nest, selling firearms to local residents as well as law enforcement. The indictment charges him with requesting ...

Voting Rights Restoration for Virginia Ex-Felons Once Again Subject to Governor’s Whim

by Kevin W. Bliss

In a letter to Virginia lawmakers on March 22, 2023, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) took executive action to roll back voting rights restoration to ex-felons. It is the fourth time since 2013 that a governor has modified procedures. State Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon) said the move makes restoration “a secret process with secret criteria in the complete absolute discretion of the Governor,” setting the state “back to 1902-era policy.”

In 2013, former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) announced that all nonviolent offenders would be granted voter rights restoration upon completion of their sentence, including any period of probation or parole. In 2016, his successor, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), expanded that policy to include all ex-felons. And his successor, former Gov. Ralph Northam (D), expanded that again in 2021, scrapping the requirement to complete any probationary period after release from prison. It became almost automatic that an ex-offender had voting rights restored as soon as he or she was released from prison.

But while campaigning for office that year, Youngkin pointed to the moves to criticize his opponent, McAuliffe, who was running for office again. (Virginia does not allow governors to serve consecutive terms.)

Prisoner rights ...

Prison Profiteer Who Chairs Christian Seminary Board Called Not Very ‘Christlike’

by Kevin W. Bliss

Members of Princeton Theological Seminarians for Peace and Justice (SPJ) sent a letter on March 14, 2023, calling for resignation of seminary Board of Trustees Chairman Michael Fisch. After learning Fisch’s hedge fund, American Securities, owns prison telecom giant ViaPath, the group complained that the way the firm profits off exploiting prisoners – many people of color – runs counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ, which their group should be exemplifying.

Dozens of seminary alumni signed the letter, including Rev. J. Amos Caley, leader of New Jersey’s Reformed Church of Highland Park; Pastor Erich Kussman of St. Bartholomew Lutheran Church in Trenton; as well as SPJ moderator and seminarian Angel Nalbega. They demanded seminary President Jonathan Walton ensure more transparency and greater accountability for Board members, finding it especially concerning that what Fisch and other members do appears contrary to SPJ’s mission.

“We are appalled,” read the letter, “that the board of trustees is chaired by someone who makes profit from conditions we have been taught to work against and have been trained at the Seminary to mitigate in our roles as pastors, chaplains, and social workers.”

ViaPath is a privately held company known until ...

Menstruation Weaponized Against Women in Prison

by Kevin W. Bliss

Writers Victoria Law and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff penned a Time magazine article on March 29, 2023, collecting accounts from female prisoners about difficulties dealing with menstruation while in prison. They found the current criminal justice system has weaponized menstruation, using it as a means to punish and oppress female prisoners.

Approximately 10% of the U.S. prison population – 170,000 people – is incarcerated in women’s prisons across the country, 90% of them under age 55. Almost all of these women have to cope with a monthly period behind bars, where insensitivity and even harassment from guards add humiliation to this natural body function.

In 2017, U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D–N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) submitted a bill requiring the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to supply menstrual care products free of charge in prison. BOP made the change voluntarily shortly thereafter, and it became law with passage of the First Step Act in 2018. [See: PLN, Jan. 2019, p.34.]

But this bill affected only the federal prison system; more than 35 states lack similar menstrual care protections in their laws. A Texas prisoner named Kwaneta said she was allotted just one pack of pads and ...

Idaho Revives Firing Squads

by Kevin W. Bliss

On March 24, 2023, Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) signed HB 186, making his the fifth state to adopt a firing squad as a means of execution. Taking effect July 1, 2023, the law allows the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to use a firing squad whenever the state is unable to obtain drugs necessary for lethal injection.

Idaho follows Mississippi, Utah, Oklahoma and South Carolina in allowing firing squads to supplement execution procedures, prompted by pharmaceutical companies denying sales of their products for the purpose of taking lives. [See: PLN, Nov. 2022, p.20; and Feb. 2023, p.52.] The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) allows the same option at prisons in the five states.

The Idaho bill was sponsored by Rep. Bruce Skaug (R) and Sen. Doug Ricks (R), who said the difficulty in obtaining lethal injection drugs could continue indefinitely, and execution by firing squad is still humane. “This is a rule of law issue,” Ricks said. “Our criminal system should work, and penalties should be exacted.”

Some states have refurbished defunct electric chairs in the wake of the lethal injection drug scarcity. Others have begun experimenting with new drug cocktails. Nebraska’s DOC executed ...

Pennsylvania Jail Hit With Over $1.5 Million in Overages for Guards, Healthcare

by Kevin W. Bliss

On April 24, 2023, the board of Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County Prison unanimously recommended requiring extended shifts for five sergeants who supervise guards at the jail. That’s because after county lawmakers ended the hiring of part-time prison guards in 2021, mandated overtime for full-time guards cost more than $1.38 million the following year.

The following month, on May 22, 2023, county Controller Jeffrey Balzer questioned $175,000 in cost overruns on the prison’s contract with new healthcare provider PrimeCare Medical. The $20.9 million five-year agreement nearly doubled what the county was paying Wexford Health Sources before its contract ended in August 2022. PrimeCare’s contract caps outside services like doctor or hospital visits and prescription drug costs at $300,000 annually, but the prison blew through that in just six months.

Staffing levels at the lockup in Hempfield have been running around 80% since the change, forcing guards to work exorbitant amounts of overtime, including back-to-back eight-hour shifts. The overtime has nearly tripled some salaries. Senior guard Joseph Cueno earned $101,500 on top of his $59,134 base salary. Six of the county’s top 10 highest overtime earners in 2022 were prison guards.

County Human Resources Director Alexis Bevan said the ...