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Articles by Matthew Clarke

Unlike U.S., Many Governments Releasing Large Numbers of Prisoners to Reduce Threat of COVID-19

by Matt Clarke

Around the globe, governments are releasing prisoners in an attempt to mitigate the threat of COVID-19-related mass deaths in their jails and prisons. However, Third World countries are far ahead of most of the so-called “advanced” nations. They have released torrents of prisoners compared to a trickle in most Western countries, including the United States—where little is being done to ensure mass incarceration doesn’t become mass interment.

 

Iran

As of this writing, at 85,000, Iran is a leader in the number of prisoners released due to the pandemic. In a January 2020 report to the Human Rights Council, Iran reported holding 189,500 prisoners. Some estimates had put the number of Iranian prisoners at closer to 240,000.

On March 9, 2020, Iran announced it would temporarily release 70,000 prisoners in response to the pandemic. None of them were political prisoners and all were serving sentences of five years or less. Later, the judiciary spokesman said 85,000 prisoners had been released, including “about 50% of the security-related prisoners,” code for political prisoners.

Javaid Rehman, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, urged Iran to release all political prisoners from its “overcrowded and disease-ridden jails” to reduce ...

COVID-19 Pandemic Leads to Unrest in Prisons Around the Globe

by Matt Clarke

The COVID-19 pandemic, or rather government officials’ inept reaction to the pandemic, has led to unrest in prisons around the world—especially in South America and the Middle East. This has resulted in the escape of hundreds and the death of dozens of prisoners.

The typical initial response to the pandemic was for prisons to suspend visitation. Americans might see this as a minor inconvenience in an era of social isolation outside of prisons, but, in many poorer countries, visitors are a literal lifeline—bringing their loved ones food, clothing, and medicine. For those prisoners, suspension of visitation is life-threatening. It also causes the prisoners high levels of anxiety about the welfare of their families while simultaneously making the families worry about their incarcerated loved ones.

Often accompanying the suspension of visitation is a ban on phone calls (if they were available to begin with) and a slow down or stoppage of mail as guard shortages cause the prison administrations to shift staff away from the mail room and to higher priority areas or limit the personnel entering the prison to essential positions. This lack of communication, along with a frequent failure of prison administrations to inform prisoners about ...

Warden Reassigned From COVID-19 Inundated Louisiana Federal Prison

by Matt Clarke

On May 22, 2020, Rodney Myers was removed from his position as warden of a federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, after severe criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The former warden’s failure to isolate prisoners with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and requiring staff to work without adequate protection and after exposure to a confirmed case led to the prison being inundated with COVID-19 cases.

As of May 26, 185 prisoners at FCC Oakdale were known to have had confirmed cases of COVID-19. At that time, seven had died and 87 had recovered, leaving 91 active cases. Oakdale alone accounted for 12% of the 59 federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) prisoners who had perished due to COVID-19 by then.

At the same time, 23 members of the FCC staff had confirmed cases of COVID-19, 10 of whom had recovered and 13 of whom had active infections.

The former warden’s failure to address the pandemic led prisoners, assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and Katten Muchin Rosenman, LLP, to file a federal class-action civil rights lawsuit seeking release of the prisoners who are at high risk for serious illness or death due to age ...

U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Texas Federal Judge’s Order Granting COVID-19 Relief to Elderly Prisoners

by Matt Clarke

On May 14, 2020 the United States Supreme Court rejected a class-action lawsuit filed by two elderly Texas prisoners that would have forced the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to provide masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies to prisoners in an effort to combat the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

On April 16, U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison had ordered TDCJ to provide prisoners at Wallace Pack Unit with equipment to protect them from contracting the coronavirus. The agency was also ordered to initiate “social distancing” and other practices to prevent the spread of the disease, which five days earlier had claimed the life of Pack Unit prisoner Leonard Clerkly, 62.

But on April 22, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled in favor of TDCJ and overturned Ellison’s preliminary injunction.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote separate opinions agreeing with the Appeals Court, though both noted they found “disturbing” issues in the case.

“Just a few nights ago, respondents revealed that numerous inmates and staff members at the Pack Unit are now COVID-19 positive and the vast majority of those tested positive within the past ...

Orleans Parish Sheriff, Wellpath, Sued Over Louisiana Jail Prisoner’s Fatal Overdose

by Matt Clarke

The mothers of three children of a prisoner who died of an overdose of fentanyl while incarcerated at the Orleans Justice Center, the Parish’s jail, have filed a lawsuit against employees of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office (OPSO) and Wellpath (the jail’s contract provider of prisoner medical and mental health services), alleging they caused the prisoner’s death.

According to court documents, Edward Patterson was arrested on attempted murder charges in January 2015 and booked into the jail. On November 26, 2018, while still at the jail awaiting trial, he engaged in “abnormal behavior” after he was seen smoking an “unknown substance” and was taken to University Medical Center. By the time he arrived at the hospital, he had stopped displaying symptoms, so he was returned to the jail and to the same tier where he had obtained the drugs.

Five days later, another prisoner told jail staff that Patterson was unconscious on the floor of his cell. Instead of calling an ambulance, staff administered naproxen and performed CPR for a half-hour. Finally, they summoned emergency medical transportation. It was too late. He was pronounced dead after arriving at the hospital.

Aided by Metairie, Louisiana attorneys Wesley J. ...

Maine Court Rules Prisoner’s Rights Violated by 22 Months in Segregation Without Meaningful Review but Awards No Damages

by Matt Clarke

On September 24, 2019, a Maine state court found that a state prisoner’s rights were violated when he was held in segregation for 22 months without “meaningful periodic review.” However, the court denied the prisoner’s request that it impose limitations on the Maine Department of Correction (DOC) concerning the duration that prisoners can be subjected to segregation, nor did it award him damages.

In September 2014, at the behest of Maine State Prison Deputy Warden Troy Ross, prisoner Douglas Burr was placed on Emergency Observation Status in the Special Management Unit—essentially the most restrictive form of segregation in the DOC. Over a month later, a disciplinary hearing was held during which he was accused and convicted of smuggling drugs into the prison.

There were numerous irregularities in the disciplinary process. The disciplinary infraction was not written within the time limits of DOC Policy 20.1. No evidence was presented, and no witnesses testified at the hearing.

The hearing officer did not receive the training required by Policy 20.1. The hearing was not held in a timely manner. Nonetheless, Burr was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in disciplinary segregation, loss of 20 days of good conduct time, ...

Report: JailCore Left Prisoners’ Data Unprotected Online

by Matt Clarke

On February 10, 2020, cybersecurity research team vpnMentor reported the discovery of an unsecured cloud storage server containing data from JailCore, an online management and compliance application used by jails to streamline functions like logging prisoner checks. While some of the information generated is public, other information is potentially sensitive or protected by federal medical information privacy laws.

The vpnMentor team, led by Noam Totem and Ran Locar, discovered the data security breach on January 3, 2020, while conducting a large web-mapping project. What it came upon was a data “bucket” on an Amazon-hosted S3 server that was “completely unsecured and unencrypted,” containing just over 36,000 files generated by JailCore software. Anyone browsing the web who happened upon the right URL could access all of the bucket’s contents.

This included nonpublic logs noting dates and times prisoners used the bathroom, received a meal tray or were given prescription medications, along with the name and dosage of each drug, as well as the name – and sometimes the signature – of the jail staffer administering it. Much of the information is covered by federal medical information privacy protection laws. The files also contained public information on prisoners, such ...

Federal Court Allows Lawsuit Over Sexual Assault of Female Connecticut Prisoner to Proceed

by Matt Clarke

On October 8, 2019, a federal court denied summary judgment on some claims against seven Connecticut Department of Corrections (DOC) supervisory personnel who Cara Tangreti, a former prisoner at the state’s only women’s prison, alleged placed her in danger of repeated sexual assaults. Four guards were fired and three prosecuted for the sexual assaults, but none were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

“Cara was addicted to opiates and wrote bad checks against her stepfather’s account. She was in a minimum security drug treatment program trying to get help,” said Providence attorney Antonio Ponvert III, who represents her. “For that, she received what amounts to a life sentence.”

In February 2014, Tangreti was incarcerated at the York Correctional Institution, which has 425 acres containing numerous buildings. She was housed in the Davis Building, a stand-alone, minimum-security 85-bunk building. Three guards were assigned to Davis at all times—one upstairs, one downstairs, and one “rover.”

According to her complaint, soon after she arrived at Davis, guard Jeffrey Bromley sexually assaulted and raped her numerous times. These sexual assaults occurred in blind spots, areas not covered by cameras at Davis, frequently in the building’s laundry, his office, or the basement. ...

California Court of Appeal Upholds Dismissal of Challenge to Excessive Jail Phone Rates as Unconstitutional Tax

by Matt Clarke

On April 28, 2020, a California court of appeal affirmed the judgment of a lower court sustaining the demurrer of nine counties that were sued by jail prisoners and their families as a challenge to excessive jail phone rates as an unconstitutional tax under Proposition 26.

The counties contracted with telecommunications providers that are not parties to the lawsuit to have an exclusive right to provide prisoner telecommunications services in exchange for a percentage — generally over half — of what the companies charge for the calls. Los Angeles County is typical in that it receives the greater of 67.5% of the charges, or $15 million annually. The rates are exorbitant but, under Penal Code § 4025, the counties are required to deposit their commissions in an inmate welfare fund.

Plaintiffs alleged the commissions were an unlawful tax that violated the California Constitution because none of the commissions had been approved by voters. Proposition 26 (Art. XIII C, § 2, Cal. Const.) makes all taxes imposed by local entities subject to voter approval with seven exceptions.

The defendants filed a challenge to the legal sufficiency of the complaint called a demurrer. The basic premise was that the ...

Texas Attorney General Finds GEO Documents Are Public Information

On May 1, 2020, the Texas Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion holding that all records related to a private prison contractor’s operations in the state were public information subject to the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA). The opinion bars an effort by the GEO Group to shield some of its Texas records from scrutiny by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the Florida-based nonprofit that publishes PLN and its sister publication, Criminal Legal News.

In January 2020, TPIA was amended with language to clarify that “public information” from a “government body” includes records from a “confinement facility operated under a contract with any division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice” (Texas Government Code § 552.003(l)(A)(xii)).

HRDC filed its request February 6, 2020, seeking information on any payments totaling at least $1,000 that GEO Group had made since 2010 on claims or lawsuits related to its operation in the state, now totaling more than a dozen jails and prisons.

But GEO Group refused the to honor the request for records predating the 2020 TPIA amendment, arguing that before that time it was not considered a government body and so it did not have to comply with ...