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Articles by Matthew Clarke

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 ...

Rhode Island Pays $380,419 to Settle Prison Guard Hiring Discrimination Suit

In December 2019, the Providence Journal received a requested breakdown of money paid to applicants for prison guard positions with the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (DOC). The DOC sent a spreadsheet of 251 payments of between $286.63 and $3,096.36, totaling $380,419.

The money was part of a September 2017 settlement of a discrimination lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2014. The lawsuit alleged the DOC’s practice of subjecting guard applicants to written and video examinations eliminated minorities at far greater rates than whites. The DOJ said that since 2000, 59 percent of Black, 67 percent of Hispanic, and 33 percent of White job applicants had been screened out.

In court documents, the DOJ estimated “an additional 52 African-American applicants and an additional 55 Hispanic applicants would have been hired by the State as correctional officers … absent the disparate impact of the pass/fail use of the initial and revised written exams and the video exam.”

The Journal found it curious that the number of payments vastly exceeded the number of potential claimants cited in the settlement agreement and that the persons receiving the payments were only identified by their initials.

According to ...

Connecticut City Settles Suit Over Prisoner’s Suicide for $1,393,000

On December 10, 2019, the City of Meriden, Connecticut, settled for $1,393,000 a lawsuit brought by the estate, minor son, and minor daughter of a woman who committed suicide while being held at the Meriden Police Department.

Late in the evening of January 18, 2016, Meriden city Police Officer Mark Novak responded to a complaint about excessive noise. He encountered Erica A. Moreno, 29, and arrested her after he discovered that she had an outstanding warrant. He took her to the police department and searched her, removing her hair ties and shoes laces. Soon after, Officer Margaret Smusz performed a more thorough search of Moreno and took some small earrings from her. Then Officer Jimmy Fong escorted Moreno to a women’s holding cell.

None of the officers confiscated the drawstring to Moreno’s sweatpants or performed a suicide-risk evaluation on her. At about 3:25 a.m., Sgt. Michael Boothroyd found Moreno in her cell hanging from the drawstring. He had her transported to a local hospital. She was flown by helicopter to a larger hospital, where she died a week later. A search of her cell turned up a small metal cylinder in the toilet.

Aided by New Haven ...

Company Hawking Prison Phone Monitoring Technology as Way to Discover Coronavirus Infections

A Los Angeles-based company has been selling to jails and prison systems phone-monitoring technology that searches for keywords, touting it as a way to discover COVID-19 infections early.

LEO Technologies developed the Verus system, which has already been deployed in at least 26 facilities in 11 states, including the Georgia prison system, at least seven Alabama county jails, and at least one facility in California. Some use LEO for non-COVID-19-related purposes.

The prisons implement Verus by asking their prison phone service provider to share call data with LEO, which routes the data though Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud-computing division of Amazon. AWS sends LEO transcripts and the transcripts are read for keywords such as “coughing,” “sick,” “sneezing” or “COVID-19” by LEO staff. Could anything go wrong?

“Obviously, people talking about COVID-19 on the phone does not necessarily mean they are infected with COVID-19. The whole world is talking about the virus right now,” said Shilpi Agarwal, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “It’s not at all clear that any of the monitoring and analysis would be accurate; we know that voice recognition technology is deeply biased. Moreover, we also know ...