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Articles by Matthew Clarke

Spokane County Settles Class-Action Suit Over Jailing; Those Unable to Pay Fines

by Matt Clarke

On September 19, 2014, a Washington State federal court signed off on the preliminary settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought against Spokane County for routinely jailing people with court-ordered fines or other legal financial obligations who were unable to pay them without first holding a hearing on ...

Fifth Circuit Holds Court May Compel Attorney to Represent Indigent Prisoner

In a November 13, 2015 ruling, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held a district court may compel a lawyer to represent an indigent prisoner challenging prison conditions.

Mario Naranjo was incarcerated at the Reeves County Detention Center in Texas when he filed a lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging conditions of confinement at the prison. The facility is owned by Reeves County but operated by GEO Group, a Florida-based private prison company. Naranjo’s suit complained of overcrowding and deficient fire safety and sanitation; the facility was the site of major riots in December 2008 and January 2009. [See: PLN, Feb. 2010, p.22].

With no legal training, Naranjo was hampered in prosecuting the suit. For example, he filed for discovery which the GEO Group defendants refused to give him, citing security concerns. Instead they sent the discovery to the district court, where it was placed under seal.

Naranjo filed a motion for appointment of counsel, which the court found “would expedite the lawsuit, promote judicial economy, and was ultimately justified under the circumstances.” However, the motion was denied with the court explaining that it could not find a qualified attorney in the area willing to ...

Prisoner Suicides and Attempts Increasing in Texas

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) reported a 40% increase in suicides between 2008 and 2014. As of September 2015, the average number of suicide attempts in Texas prisons each month had jumped 28% from 81.7 attempts per month in 2014 to 104.5 attempts per month during the first eight months of 2015.

Nearly one-third of the 134 TDCJ prisoner suicides from January 2011 to September 2015 occurred in administrative segregation (ad seg) units, yet prisoners in ad seg account for only 4% of the overall state prison population.

Most of the attempted and completed suicides happened in the TDCJ’s largest facilities and units dedicated to the treatment of prisoners with mental health issues.

TDCJ officials responded to the surge in prisoner suicides by increasing the amount of mental health training for staff members. New guard cadets receive over 33 hours of mental health training at the TDCJ academy, while current officers receive monthly sessions. The training includes recognition of prisoners in mental health distress and procedures for dealing with them.

TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said around 23,000 of the department’s 148,000 prisoners receive outpatient mental health treatment, while over 1,400 are ...

Fifth Circuit: Staff Misleading Prisoner about Grievance Process Excuses Failure to Exhaust

On August 17, 2015, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Texas prisoner’s failure to fully exhaust administrative remedies was excused because jail staff had misled him about grievance procedures.

Grady Allen Davis was being held at the Dallas County Jail when guards allegedly used excessive force against him. He filed a first-step grievance but did not file the second-step grievance after the first step was denied. Davis claimed jail staff had misled him by falsely telling him there was no second step to the grievance procedure.

He then filed a civil rights action against Sheriff’s Department employees F. Hernandez and Cody Hill pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The defendants moved for summary judgment, alleging Davis failed to exhaust administrative remedies. The magistrate judge recommended dismissal of the case.

Davis’ complaint argued that jail staff had misled him by telling him there was no second step in the grievance process. However, the complaint was not signed under penalty of perjury and thus the magistrate judge did not consider it. When Davis filed objections to the magistrate’s report and recommendation, he reasserted the same factual allegations, this time declaring them under penalty of perjury ...

Defense Attorneys Seek Access to DNA-Matching Software’s Source Code

TrueAllele DNA testing software has been employed in hundreds of criminal cases around the country since 2009. The software is used to analyze evidence containing mixtures of genetic material and determine whether it contains a match to a suspect or DNA archived in a database. A similar DNA testing program, STRmix, has also been used in some criminal cases, including by the California Department of Justice.

While prosecutors, and even some defense attorneys, have hailed TrueAllele, some contend that in order for defendants to have a fair trial, the core “engine” of the software – its source code – must be open to scrutiny and validation. Both prosecutors and TrueAllele’s creators have consistently fought to prevent such scrutiny.

The software is a product of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania-based Cybergenetics. The company was founded by its chief scientist and executive officer, Dr. Mark Perlin, when he was a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University.

Perlin, a computer scientist, has refused defense attorneys’ requests for access to the program’s source code, claiming it’s a patented trade secret. Defense lawyers maintain that without access to the source code, they cannot check the program for errors to ensure its results are accurate. Dr. Perlin has ...

Texas District Attorney and Prosecutor Accused, Cleared of Misconduct

In June 2015, the State Bar of Texas initiated disciplinary actions against Fort Bend County District Attorney John Francis Healey, Jr. and Assistant District Attorney Mark Harold Hanna. The disciplinary petitions filed by the State Bar Commission for Lawyer Discipline alleged Healey had delayed notifying Jacob Estrada, a state prisoner who had pleaded guilty to possession of PCP in a “drug free zone,” that the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) had concluded the forensic scientist who analyzed the drugs in Estrada’s case was unreliable.

In 2007, Estrada was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. On October 11, 2011, the trial court granted the prosecution’s routine motion to have the evidence in the case destroyed. However, it was not immediately destroyed.

On April 26, 2012, the DPS Crime Lab emailed Healey and Hanna, informing them that the DPS had “discovered errors with the analysis of drug evidence conducted by one forensic scientist in our Houston Regional Laboratory.” That analyst was Jonathan Salvador, and the DPS was investigating all the cases handled by Salvador since he began analyzing evidence at the lab in 2006. The email included a list of those cases, and Estrada’s was among ...

Jailers in California, Georgia Acquitted of Abusing Prisoners

In unrelated cases, jail guards charged with abusing prisoners were acquitted of the most serious charges filed against them in California and Georgia.

Former jail deputies Christopher Johnson and Robert Kirsh were acquitted by a federal jury on the most serious charges stemming from an assault on prisoner Charles Alonzo Owens on June 17, 2013, at the Santa Barbara County Jail. Owens, 25, has since been convicted of several crimes and sentenced to life without parole.

A grainy, jumpy surveillance video of Kirsh beating the handcuffed Owens was shown during a week-long trial. In September 2015, the deputies were acquitted of aiding and abetting and deprivation of rights under color of law, but Johnson was convicted of the lesser offense of obstruction of justice for failing to report Kirsh. That was the deputies’ second federal trial; the first resulted in a hung jury.

In January 2016, Johnson was sentenced to six months on house arrest, three years of probation and 100 hours of community service.

In February 2016, Santa Barbara County settled Owen’s lawsuit related to the assault for $60,000. Kirsch and Johnson had both filed suit against the county as well, contending the county should have provided ...

Tragic Justice: Wrongfully Convicted Prisoners Die Shortly After Exoneration

For many people who are wrongfully convicted, being arrested for a crime they did not commit is just the first in a series of tragic events. If the arrest is traumatic, then their conviction and often lengthy incarceration is heart-rending.

But such events merely set the stage for what happens after the joyous day when an innocent prisoner is finally exonerated and released – typically years or even decades after they were sent to prison. That is when they face the consequences of the inadequate medical and mental health care they received while incarcerated. It is also when they discover that their work skills have become obsolete, making it hard for them to find jobs to support themselves, while they are frequently overwhelmed by their return to the outside world.

Thirty states and the federal government have compensation statutes that provide financial aid to wrongfully convicted prisoners, but that takes time – and 20 states provide no financial assistance. Exonerees have to apply for compensation, which must be approved by state officials; it may take months, or even years, before the first payment is made. Exonerees usually do not receive even the pittance given as “gate money” to other released prisoners. Nor ...

Federal Court Certifies Class in Texas Prison Excessive Heat Lawsuit

On January 22, 2016, a federal district court in Texas certified a class and two subclasses, and appointed class counsel, in a lawsuit challenging excessive heat at a state prison.

Keith Cole, Ray Wilson, Jackie Brannum, Dean Mojica, Richard King, Fred Wallace and Marvin Ray Yates are Texas prisoners incarcerated at the Wallace Pack Unit, a medical and geriatric facility run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). All but Mojica suffer from physiological conditions or take medications that make them especially sensitive to excessive levels of heat.

They filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2014 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act (RA), alleging that TDCJ’s policies and practices of exposing Wallace Pack prisoners to excessive heat during the summer months endangered their health and lives, and constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The plaintiffs also argued the TDCJ had failed to make reasonable accommodations for prisoners with disabilities who are especially sensitive to heat in violation of the ADA and RA. They sought class certification and a preliminary injunction; their case was one of several challenging excessive levels of heat ...

Escape is Latest Problem at Troubled Privately-run Texas Jail

In October 2015, Phillip Henry Freeman disappeared from the Liberty County Jail near Houston, Texas. He was recaptured living in a wooded area in Arkansas in late January 2016. His escape was the latest in a slew of problems at the 281-bed facility, which is operated by New Jersey-based Community Education Centers (CEC). In recent years the Liberty County Jail has experienced three prisoner deaths, including two suicides; two top jail administrators were fired amid allegations of sexual misconduct; one administrator was found to lack a state jailer’s license and the facility has failed a number of state inspections. [See: PLN, July 2014, p.47].

Freeman, 38, was last seen working in the jail’s kitchen prior to his disappearance. Jailers searched for four hours before declaring him an escapee; they remain uncertain how he absconded.

The escape “seems to encapsulate all of the problems of turning a jail over to a for-profit prison corporation,” stated Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a civil rights group that is outspoken in its opposition to prison privatization. “Including incentivizing high rates of incarceration, staffing at a very low level to maximize profits, which lead to operational outcomes like you’ve ...


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