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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Steve Horn

Under Pressure, Some Politicians Return Private Prison Campaign Cash

by Steve Horn

The 2018 election cycle saw a surge in the number of candidates and lawmakers promising to forego campaign donations from private prison operators such as Nashville-based CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and The GEO Group, headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida. The catalyst appears to have been public backlash to the Trump administration’s controversial policy, implemented in the summer of 2018, that resulted in the forced separation of parents and children held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which contracts with private companies to operate detention facilities.

Making the Pledge

Of ten members of the U.S. House of Representatives who pledged not to take private prison money, eight were Democrats. U.S. Rep. John Conyers, who returned $1,000 in donations, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, who gave back $5,000, were retiring members of Congress, who usually return unused funds contributed to their campaigns or to an aligned political action committee (PAC). Oklahoma U.S. Senator James Lankford was the only Republican not retiring to return a private prison contribution – in his case, $2,500. 

During June 2018 alone, four GOP politicians or their aligned PACs accepted donations from private prison firms: Missouri ...

Drafting Error in First Step Act Delays Application of Good Behavior Credits

by Steve Horn

The newswire service Reuters has reported that, due to a drafting error in the First Step Act, the increased good behavior credits included in the bill will not be applied until at least July 2019 or until the error is fixed. The First Step Act – landmark legislation which many see as a positive, albeit limited, effort towards federal prison reform – was signed into law by President Trump on December 21, 2018. [See: PLN, Jan. 2019, p.34].

Compounding the issue is the recently ended partial federal government shutdown; thus, it remains unclear when the problem will be addressed. [See article on p.36].

“Potentially thousands of inmates could be affected by the error in the First Step Act,” explained Reuters. “The law required the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP), among other measures, to retroactively recalculate good behavior credits, a step that had been expected to reduce some inmates’ sentences by as many as 54 days per year. Previously, inmates could only earn up to 47 days per year toward early release for good behavior.”

The existence of the drafting error first came to light via a letter sent to federal prisoners by ...

HRDC Files Suit Against Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority

by Steve Horn

The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which publishes Prison Legal News, has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority for censoring publications, books and other materials sent to prisoners.

The case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia on March 28, 2018, centers around the jail’s 18-month refusal “to deliver hundreds of HRDC’s mailings to incarcerated persons, directly violating HRDC’s First Amendment right to free speech and communication.”

Since September 2016, the complaint contends, the Regional Jail Authority returned over 222 issues of PLN plus books, annual reports, letters and other materials published by HRDC, labeling them “NOT ALLOWED,” “REFUSED” and “UNAUTHORIZED” correspondence. HRDC has also raised a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim because in most cases no notice was given of the censorship. The few times that notice was provided, HRDC had only 10 days to appeal – and the notices did not provide the reason for the rejection.

In its complaint, HRDC says the mail policy enforced by the Regional Jail Authority, which operates four facilities that serve 10 jurisdictions in Virginia, is contrary to the public interest.

“When the Jail ...

First Step Act Passes – Includes Federal Sentencing, Prison Reforms

by Steve Horn

On December 21, 2018, President Donald Trump signed into law the 56-page First Step Act (S. 756), a bill that will usher in an array of reforms within the federal criminal justice system. The bill went to the president’s desk just days after passing the Senate on an 87-12 vote.

Seen by its proponents as a major policy victory, others have cautioned that – while a positive step in the right direction – the legislation still leaves much to be desired. From the most sinister lens, critics point out it will likely benefit the private prison industry while excluding certain prisoners from some of its beneficial provisions.

The First Step Act has 36 distinct sections which address many aspects of federal sentencing and prison-related policies. They range from placing prisoners in facilities closer to their families to sentencing reform and de-escalation training for guards, plus creating a risk and needs assessment system. The bill also calls for studies on medication-assisted opioid addiction treatment for prisoners, and an expansion and accompanying audit of Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR), the Bureau of Prisons’ industry work program.

“Everybody said it couldn’t be done,” Trump said at the bill’s signing ceremony ...

Thurgood Marshall, Jr.’s Controversial Position on Board of Private Prison Firm

by Steve Horn

He’s the descendant of a slave and the son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was the lead attorney in the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated U.S. public schools. An attorney who served as White House Cabinet Secretary during President Clinton’s administration, Thurgood Marshall, Jr. also sits on the board of directors of CoreCivic, the nation’s largest for-profit prison company.

Marshall, Jr. has held a board position with CoreCivic – formerly Corrections Corporation of America – since 2002, though that has seldom been mentioned in the mainstream media. One criminal justice-focused news outlet, The Marshall Project – named after Thurgood Marshall – has only once reported on Marshall, Jr.’s affiliation with CoreCivic, burying it at the very bottom of an article titled “What You Need to Know About the Private Prison Phase-Out.”

In 2018 The Marshall Project received a $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, a multi-million dollar philanthropic organization that acts as a major funder of criminal justice reform in the United States. As it turns out, that same year Marshall, Jr. was finishing up his second of two six-year terms on the Ford ...

PLN Files Cert Petition with Supreme Court Over Florida DOC Censorship

by Steve Horn

On September 14, 2018, Prison Legal News submitted a petition for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving censorship by the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC), which has banned PLN statewide since 2009.

In October, eight friend of the court (amicus) briefs, on behalf of over 100 organizations and individuals, were filed on PLN’s behalf in support of its petition.

The cert petition followed an adverse May 17, 2018 ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, authored by Judge Ed Carnes, which upheld the district court’s judgment in favor of the FDOC on a First Amendment censorship claim, and in favor of PLN on a due process claim. The suit was filed against Florida prison officials in 2011 following an earlier, unsuccessful round of litigation over a similar issue. [See: PLN, Dec. 2011, p.32; Nov. 2005, p.29; Feb. 2004, p.27].

The appellate court found the FDOC’s censorship of PLN’s monthly publication was justified based on security concerns related to certain advertisements, including ads for pen pal services, businesses that purchase postage stamps and third-party phone services. The ruling was despite the fact that no other ...

HRDC Sues Oklahoma County Jail for Censoring Books

by Steve Horn

The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which publishes Prison Legal News, filed a lawsuit on May 9, 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma against Pontotoc County and Sheriff John Christian, for blocking the distribution of HRDC books sent to prisoners at the county jail.

HRDC alleges that beginning in April 2017, jail staff began rejecting two books – the Habeas Citebook and Protecting Your Health and Safety.

“Defendants censored these books and did not deliver them to the intended prisoner recipients at the Jail. Since April 2017, HRDC separately sent thirty of the books ... to various prisoners at the Jail,” the complaint states. “Twenty-nine of the books were returned to HRDC in their original packaging with writing on the outside stating simply ‘Refused.’”

HRDC contends that the censorship policy at the Pontotoc County jail violates both its First Amendment rights as a book publisher seeking to distribute reading materials and its due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Fourteenth Amendment applies because jail officials “failed to provide HRDC any notice or opportunity to appeal these censorship decisions,” the complaint notes. HRDC is seeking injunctive and declaratory ...

Washington: Jail Detainee Obtains $1 Million Settlement for Spinal Injury

by Steve Horn

Bryan Telford, who was held as a pretrial detainee at the King County Correctional Facility in Seattle, Washington in September 2016, recently obtained a $1 million settlement in a lawsuit filed against the county.

Telford suffers from frequent fainting – known as syncope – and suffered a ...

Podcast Produced by Wisconsin Prisoner Tackles Criminal Justice Topics

by Steve Horn

A Wisconsin state prisoner is leading the way in getting a new podcast out to the public that covers issues faced by people behind bars. Podcasts are radio-style audio series that can be downloaded and played on computers or smartphones.

Dant’e Cottingham, held at the Jackson Correctional Institution in Black River Falls, co-founded a podcast called Incarcerate US with his fiancée, Julie Cottingham. Julie, who is not in prison, serves as creative producer for the show; she told Prison Legal News that they both hope the podcast can shine a light on major issues in carceral facilities, which can eventually lead to reforms.

“[Dant’e] believes wholeheartedly that there is a way to prevent other teens from following in his footsteps and he knows through experience that there is a more effective way for the criminal justice system to deal with teens/other citizens,” Julie stated, noting that the 40-year-old Dant’e had been imprisoned since age 17. “He’s a passionate prison reform activist who believes that telling the stories of mass incarceration is vital to prison reform.”

In an interview with PLN, Dant’e said a major part of his motivation for starting Incarcerate US is ...

Washington State: Jail Phone Rates Increase as Video Replaces In-Person Visits

by Steve Horn and Iris Wagner

A comprehensive set of public records obtained by Prison Legal News from the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) and most of the state’s county jails indicates that the average cost of local and in-state phone calls made by Washington prisoners has steadily increased in recent years.

The records also demonstrate an ongoing shift toward video-based calling in county jails, which in some cases has resulted in the elimination of in-person, face-to-face visits. PLN uses the term “video calling” because “video visits” implies people are actually visiting each other rather than seeing their images on a screen. The records procured by PLN further indicate that some of the money generated from phone and video calling revenue at county jails, which is placed in Inmate Welfare Funds, is used to pay the salaries and benefits of jail employees instead of benefiting prisoners.

These developments have occurred despite the state’s proclaimed desire to lower phone rates for prisoners and, ironically, are partly due to a cap on interstate (long distance) prison and jail phone rates imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Using Washington’s Public Records Act, PLN obtained and reviewed telecom contracts for the Washington Department ...


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