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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Kevin W. Bliss

Prisoner Who Inspired First Step Act Is First Released

by Kevin W. Bliss

Federal prisoner Matthew Charles, 52, was released in January 2019 after serving over 21 years of his 35-year sentence for selling crack cocaine in 1996. He was one of the catalysts for, and the first beneficiary of, the First Step Act which was recently signed into law by President Trump. [See: PLN, Feb. 2019, p.18; Jan. 2019, p.34].

Charles was convicted before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which was passed to rectify the disparate sentencing between federal defendants convicted of powder cocaine vs. crack cocaine offenses – which led to egregious racial disparities.

Yet the Act did not apply retroactively in all cases; Charles’ prior convictions classified him as a “career criminal,” which made him ineligible for a reduced sentence.

Still, he was initially released early in 2016 after serving 21 years. Charles seemed to adjust well: He obtained a job, volunteered at a food pantry, and made positive connections with family and friends. Regardless, federal prosecutors appealed his release and Charles was forced to return to prison in May 2018.

Georgetown associate law professor Shon Hopwood – himself a former prisoner – heard about Charles’ case and used it to push ...

Free Phone Calls for Juvenile Offenders Jailed in Memphis, Tennessee

by Kevin Bliss

In November 2018, Shelby County, Tennessee – which includes the City of Memphis – renegotiated its contract with Global Tel*Link (GTL), the phone service provider for around 5,000 prisoners at the county’s four detention facilities. The new contract eliminates charges for all calls between juvenile offenders and their families or guardians. 

The contract change fulfilled a campaign promise by newly elected Mayor Lee Harris not to support government fleecing of the public. County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, chair of the Law Enforcement, Fire, Corrections and Courts Committee, said she was also reviewing the county’s contracts with companies that provide food services and goods sold to prisoners, to find ways to improve them and make them more affordable.

“It goes towards how we’re humanizing criminal justice in Memphis, so that kids can not succumb to depression or isolation and continue to stay in touch with their families – which is a big part of reducing recidivism,” Sawyer said.

Shelby County and New York City are now the only two jurisdictions in the United States that provide free phone calls to some of their jail prisoners; New York made all jail phone calls free last year ...

$100,000 Settlement for Preventable Suicide in Virginia Department of Corrections

by Kevin W. Bliss

Dai’yaan Qamar Longmire, a 19-year-old from Virginia Beach, was serving a four-year sentence at the Indian Creek Correctional Center (ICCC) in 2014 when he committed suicide in his cell using a sheet tied to a ceiling vent.

Represented by Michael Hill, Longmire’s mother filed ...

County Detainees Protest Food Served at New Hampshire Jail

by Kevin W. Bliss

In mid-2018, prisoners at the Bristol County House of Correction (HOC) in Massachusetts participated in a hunger strike to protest inadequate food and medical care. Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson said those were the same complaints prisoners have always made, which were without merit. He blamed outside groups for inciting the protest, which he opined “could set off a riot in a matter of a minute.” 

“They are exposing my officers, my staff, and the inmates that we have care and custody of to either being seriously hurt or killed as a result of their stirring up these inmates inside our facilities,” Hodgson added.

No riot or injuries occurred, though.

Val Ribeiro, an immigration attorney, said the lack of sufficient medical treatment has been “a consistent problem” for her clients, who are ICE detainees held at the jail.

“We kind of have to move mountains to get [Bristol County] to acknowledge it, number one, and to provide them with the proper medication and treatment if necessary,” Ribeiro noted.

“We have a nurse in that facility everyday, almost the entire day,” Hodgson countered. “We have doctors if somebody needs a doctor.”

The ...

New Sheriff Ends Juvenile Solitary Confinement at North Carolina Jail

by Kevin W. Bliss

Elected in May 2018 and sworn in seven months later, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina Sheriff Garry McFadden has already made good on campaign promises to restore in-person visits at the local jail and to withdraw the county from the 287(g) program, which included running prisoners’ names through a federal database to determine if they were in the country illegally. In January 2019, McFadden announced another reform: he ended solitary confinement for juvenile offenders at the county jail.

A December 2016 article in the Charlotte Observer documented the use of solitary confinement under former Sheriff Irwin Carmichael, who held juveniles aged 16 to 17 in the jail’s Disciplinary Detention Unit (DDU) for 23 hours a day in 70-square foot, windowless cells without access to visits, phones, televisions or any meaningful contact. They were not even allowed library books.

Former President Barack Obama ended the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody in 2016, citing segregation’s “devastating, lasting psychological consequences.” North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety followed suit the same year, banning solitary for juveniles in state prisons. The state was one of just two – along with New York – that automatically prosecuted ...

City of Philadelphia Sinks $5.6 Million into Prison Software Upgrade it Can’t Use

by Kevin W. Bliss

The Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP) has terminated a contract it established in 2014 with an information technology company, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), to design a new Integrated Jail Management System (IJMS).

After investing $5.6 million of the $7.2 million contract total, PDP decided the software would not serve the necessary functions. Additionally, the city’s Information and Technology Officer, Mark Wheeler, who took office in January 2018, discovered that annual licensing fees for the program would exceed $1 million.

PDP, which has an annual budget of $259 million, has used a system called Lock and Track since 1995 to manage its 5,200 prisoners and 2,300 employees. The system was created by Rick Evans, who ran the company, Lockworks, out of his ranch in Colorado where he also trained horses and gave riding lessons. He was the lone support tech for the entire system.

“If this guy, Rick, gets butted by a goat, they’re done,” said one person familiar with the Lock and Track system, who called PDP’s reliance on the expertise of just one person like Evans “a recipe for disaster.”

PDP first contracted with SAIC to develop a ...

Alabama DOC Ordered to Remedy Overcrowded, Understaffed Prisons in Mental Health Suit

by Kevin W. Bliss

A U.S. District Court has ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) to come up with an acceptable solution to address deplorable living conditions in the state’s prison system before the federal government steps in and does it for them. Alabama prisons have long been plagued with violence and overcrowding. [See: PLN, Aug. 2018, p.30; June 2017, p.51; Dec. 2015, p.42].

In June 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP) filed a class-action suit against the ADOC, claiming the poor level of mental health care provided to prisoners violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The lack of treatment and resulting violence was due in large part to systemic overcrowding and understaffing. The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women alone went from 60 percent of open staff positions filled to 35 percent over a six-year period. A report prepared by the ADOC showed a correlation between the decrease of prison staff and increase in prisoner violence.

Under a March 2016 partial settlement in the lawsuit, the ADOC said it would ensure that prisoners with disabilities received services and programs required under the Americans with ...


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