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Articles by Kevin W. Bliss

Death Rate of Prisoners in Michigan Much Higher than Reported

by Kevin W. Bliss

An investigation by the Detroit Free Press into the Michigan Department of Corrections’ (MDOC) reporting of prisoner deaths revealed major discrepancies. 

Since 2013, the total number of deaths reported by the MDOC to the U.S. Department of Justice differed from the total reported to the state legislature. In addition, 2018 had the highest death rate in the MDOC since 1994, yet the legislature was not initially made aware of that spike due to policy changes regarding which deaths were included in a “critical incident” report.

In October 2018, the Free Press contacted MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz and asked how many prisoner deaths had occurred thus far that year at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV), which was already under scrutiny for a scabies outbreak, overcrowding, leaky roofs, mold buildup and poor health care. [See: PLN, June 2019, p.32; April 2019, p.58].

Gautz stated that WHV had experienced five deaths as of October 2018. However, Carol Jacobsen, a professor at the University of Michigan and director of the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project, informed the Free Press of four other deaths at WHV that year. On May 1, 2019, Gautz confirmed the ...

Former Florida Senator Now Employed by Private Prison Company He Helped While in the State Senate

by Kevin W. Bliss

After Florida Senate President Joe Negron stepped down from his office in the legislature, he was immediately hired by the same private prison company that he helped secure $6.9 million in state funding over the past two years.

The Boca Raton-based GEO Group announced on November 29, 2018 that Negron would fill retired John Bulfin’s post as the company’s general counsel, a position that pays $400,000 annually for a “continuous ‘rolling’ two-year term” with renewal options for up to the next 10 years, according to an SEC filing. Bulfin’s annual salary was over $500,000 and he had an overall compensation package of $2.5 million. When asked what Negron’s compensation package would be, GEO spokesman Pablo Paez refused to comment.

GEO Group had supported Negron and the senate committees he controlled since 2013, making more than $300,000 in political contributions. In addition, financial records show the company donated over $100,000 to Negron’s wife, Rebecca, and to Conservative Congress Now! – a super PAC that supported her failed 2016 congressional bid.

GEO Group operates five of Florida’s seven private prisons, for which the current state budget – which Negron had a hand in shaping – included a $4 ...

New Jersey Jail to Pay $1.2 Million for Strip Searching Detainees

by Kevin W. Bliss

Richard Wright and April Wedding were awarded $10,000 each as representatives in a class-action suit filed against Ocean County, New Jersey for its practice of strip searching everyone booked into the Ocean County Correctional Facility (OCCF), including arrestees held on non-indictable offenses such as traffic violations, contempt of court, civil violations, failures to appear or misdemeanors.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, Carl D. Poplar and William Riback, argued that OCCF’s strip search policy violated the Fourth Amendment, the New Jersey Constitution and New Jersey statutes. They filed suit against the Ocean County Department of Corrections, Warden Theodore J. Hutler and Chief Sandra Mueller for maintaining a policy of blanket strip searches for incoming detainees. They requested certification of a class that consisted of any person in the custody of OCCF between November 28, 2005 and December 28, 2007, held on a non-indictable offense, who was strip searched during the booking process.

Wright was searched after he turned himself in for an open child support warrant in October 2007. Wedding was arrested in August 2007 for failure to pay a traffic fine, and strip searched at the jail. Another plaintiff, Edward Bizzarro, was searched following his arrest in ...

Iowa Prisoners Say Law Banning Publications Containing Nudity Too Broad

by Kevin W. Bliss

In February 2019, Polk County, Iowa District Court Judge Scott Rosenberg denied the state’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by prisoners at the Anamosa State Penitentiary (ASP) challenging the Iowa Department of Corrections’ (IDOC) denial of access to publications that feature nudity.

Pro se plaintiff Jack Leonard Hays and 11 other prisoners at ASP sued over a law enacted by the state legislature in 2018. The statute, Section 904.310A, was crafted using language modeled after a federal law regulating sexually explicit material in the Bureau of Prisons, known as the Ensign Amendment. [See: PLN, March 1997, p.11]. The statute states that “funds made available to the department shall not be used to distribute or make available any commercially published information or material to an inmate when such information or material is sexually explicit or features nudity.”

The complaint filed by the ASP prisoners alleges that this definition is so broad and sweeping as to include constitutionally protected speech, including publications related to art, literature and even medical journals. It also states the plaintiffs believe the legislation encouraged the IDOC to confiscate property already in the possession of prisoners, including property that was purchased ...

New Bill Restricts Use of Solitary Confinement in New Mexico

by Kevin W. Bliss

In April 2019, newly elected New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed House Bill 364, which limits the use of solitary confinement for certain prisoners housed in New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) facilities and requires more transparency when solitary is used. 

Former NMCD Secretary Gregg Marcantel had insisted that solitary confinement – a practice defined as detention in a cell for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful and sustained human interaction – was a needed tool to safely control prisoners. Placement in segregation could be for disciplinary, administrative or medical reasons, as well as for the prisoner’s own protection, with no limit on the amount of time he or she could be held. 

Due to these differing classifications and a lack of reporting requirements, reliable data on the NMCD’s use of solitary confinement was scarce. The agency cited statistics on the proportion of the prison population held in solitary that varied from 4% to 16% depending on who asked, according to the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (CLP) and the state chapter of the ACLU, which accused prison officials of misreporting the data. 

The NMCD said its reliance on ...

New Mexico Riot Raises Questions About Private Prison Company’s Competence

by Kevin W. Bliss

The police department in Clayton, New Mexico and the state police are investigating a September 23, 2017 incident at the Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility (NENMCF), which grew into the state’s most dangerous prison uprising in the past 20 years.

“What happened that evening was unacceptable,” admitted the state’s Corrections Secretary, David Jablonski. “There were major security breaches. It wasn’t safe.”

Matt Shriner was a guard at NENMCF employed by the GEO Group, the Florida-based private prison company that runs the 625-bed medium-security facility, when serial killer Clifton Bloomfield talked the inexperienced 22-year-old into opening his cell door in the Restrictive Housing Unit, used to hold prisoners who pose the greatest security risk.

“When you’re dealing with violent inmates you always have a two-man escort,” Jablonski said.

But Shriner was the only guard on duty. He did not restrain Bloomfield, who is serving sentences totaling 195 years for five murders. Shriner also had no backup, nor a radio, and when Bloomfield attacked the guard with a shank, he took possession of keys to every cell in the unit. Shriner got away, but Bloomfield began releasing the other prisoners who then took over the cell block. [See: ...

New Indianapolis Jail Will Not be Run by a Private Prison Company, but is Being Built on Contaminated Land

by Kevin W. Bliss

The Indianapolis City-County Council has approved a proposal to enter into a 40-year lease to build a new 3,000-bed criminal justice center in the Twin Aire neighborhood of Indianapolis. The facility is expected to be completed by 2022 and will combine the Marion County courts, a mental and physical health assessment and intervention center, and detention facility. 

For-profit prison company CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, has run the Marion County Jail II for the past 20 years. JPMorgan Chase & Company, one of the banks that finances CoreCivic, has been criticized for supporting the private detention industry, and announced in March 2019 that it would stop lending to such companies. JPMorgan said it would underwrite Indianapolis’ new jail, which is a piece of Mayor Joe Hogsett’s signature criminal justice reform plan seeking to address the issues of overcrowding and recidivism. 

The city is seeking $610 million in bond financing for the project, and will pay the Indianapolis-Marion County Building Authority to lease the criminal justice center over 40 years. The new facility will not be privately operated, and the city’s contract with CoreCivic will end once the new jail opens. [See: PLN, ...

Canada: Long-Term Segregation of Mentally Ill Prisoners Unconstitutional; $20 Million in Damages

by Kevin W. Bliss

Recently, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) violated the nation’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms by placing mentally ill prisoners in administrative segregation for extended periods of time, causing them to experience hallucinations, paranoia, self-inflicted abuse and suicidal tendencies.

Represented by attorney James Sayce, lead plaintiffs Christopher Brazeau and David Kift, both of whom suffer from mental health issues, filed a class-action suit against the CSC for practices that violated Section 7 of the Charter – protection from arbitrary state actions – and constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of Section 12. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.48]. 

In March 2019, Superior Court Justice Paul Perell found in favor of Brazeau and Kift, and ordered the Canadian government to correct its solitary confinement practices by April 30 as well as pay $20 million in constitutional damages.

“For decades, academic research, commissions, inquiries, inquests, court cases, domestic and international organizations, and the correctional investigator have recommended that the Correctional Service change its policies and practices with respect to the treatment of seriously [mentally] ill inmates placed in administrative segregation. The vindication of the class members’ charter rights requires that ...

Over $980,000 in Damages, Fees Awarded in Deliberate Indifference Case Against Wexford

by Kevin W. Bliss

Private prison medical care firm Wexford Health Sources, Inc. filed a motion in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, asking for judgment as a matter of law after being found liable for policies that created an atmosphere of deliberate indifference to the medical needs of Stateville Correctional Center prisoner Lamont Hall. Wexford contended that it could not be held responsible when the physician it employed at Stateville, Arthur Funk, was not held liable for the same claims.

Hall suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his penis, which required surgery. The first surgery left a hole in the underside of his penis which needed constant medical attention and treatment. Before Hall was able to receive follow-up surgery, he was incarcerated on unrelated charges. He stated that upon his arrival at Stateville he received inadequate medical care and was denied the second surgery. He was forced to perform self-catheterization four times a day without the aid of a numbing agent, and sometimes went a week without proper medical supplies. Hall said his condition required that he sit while urinating. All of this subjected him to embarrassment and the ridicule of other prisoners.

Represented by attorney ...

California Jail Prisoners Claim Sleep Deprivation; Court Issues Injunction

by Kevin W. Bliss

In March 2019, Judge James Donato of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction that prohibited Alameda County’s jail system from depriving prisoners of their constitutional right to sleep. Judge Donato ordered jail officials to revise their practice of 3 a.m. medication calls and 4 a.m. breakfast, and directed the parties to work out the rest of the details to resolve the prisoners’ claims.

Attorneys Yolanda Huang and Dennis Cunningham represented two classes of plaintiffs who were allowed to combine their complaints addressing excessive sleep deprivation, which they argued violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 

The lead plaintiffs in one of the cases, Tikisha Upshaw and Tyreka Stewart, filed a complaint against the Santa Rita Jail challenging its practices of keeping cell lights on 24 hours a day, hourly security checks requiring guards to wake prisoners to ensure they are alive and uninjured, night drills for new employees practicing forced relocation of prisoners to other areas of the jail, and early medication and meal calls.

All of those factors limited the prisoners – who were pre-trial detainees not yet convicted of a crime ...