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Prison Legal News: July, 2020

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Volume 31, Number 7

In this issue:

  1. Mississippi Prisons in Crisis (p 1)
  2. Rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gatti Help Prisoners in Mississippi Sue State Over “Inhumane and Unconstitutional Conditions” (p 8)
  3. From the Editor (p 10)
  4. Florida’s Refusal to Release Prisoners During COVID-19 Resulting in Death Sentences (p 11)
  5. Prison Postcards: A Plea from Kentucky and Dispatches from Texas and Massachusetts (p 12)
  6. Unlike U.S., Many Governments Releasing Large Numbers of Prisoners to Reduce Threat of COVID-19 (p 16)
  7. Status of the Pandemic Heading into Summer (p 18)
  8. COVID-19 Pandemic Leads to Unrest in Prisons Around the Globe (p 20)
  9. $1 Million Payout to Family of Man Who Died After Seizures in Montana Jail (p 21)
  10. Florida Guards and Prisoners Fear COVID-19 Infection (p 22)
  11. COVID-19 and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (p 22)
  12. The Popularity of YouTube Prison Lifestyle Videos (p 24)
  13. Sixth Circuit Vacates Preliminary Injunction Regarding Elkton Prisoner Class Action (p 24)
  14. Man Sentenced to One Year For Shoplifting Dies In Prison During Pandemic (p 25)
  15. L.A. County Sheriff Says Prisoners Intentionally Tried to Catch Coronavirus to Get Released (p 26)
  16. Secret BOP Document Raises Risk Factors, Security Levels of Prisoners (p 26)
  17. New York District Court Judge Denies Preliminary Injunction Against MCC Brooklyn (p 27)
  18. Who’s in SHU? A Survey of Solitary Confinement (p 28)
  19. Reports: COVID-19 More Prevalent Than Reported in Nation’s Prisons and Jails (p 30)
  20. Warden Reassigned From COVID-19 Inundated Louisiana Federal Prison (p 31)
  21. Sale of Clandestine Surveillance Equipment Available to the Government and “Select Clients” (p 32)
  22. ACLU Files Lawsuit Against CoreCivic Prison in Arizona over COVID-19 Failures (p 32)
  23. Michigan Prisoner’s Whistleblowing on GED Test Cheating Survives Summary Judgment (p 34)
  24. U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Texas Federal Judge’s Order Granting COVID-19 Relief to Elderly Prisoners (p 34)
  25. Alabama Should Release Elder Prisoners at Risk for COVID-19 (p 36)
  26. $1.15 Million Settlement After South Carolina Prisoner’s Baby Born, Dies in Toilet (p 36)
  27. With Lives of Immigrant Detainees at Risk to COVID-19, Federal Judge Forces ICE’s Hand (p 38)
  28. 11th Circuit Rules Florida Prisoner Claiming Sexual Assault by Guard Can Proceed With Cruel and Unusual Punishment Claim (p 39)
  29. Lawsuit Over Conditions at BOP’s New York City Prison Continues as COVID-19 Spreads (p 40)
  30. Oklahoma Jail Sued for Mocking Prisoner as He Died (p 40)
  31. Interview: Alec Karakatsanis of the Civil Rights Corps on Money Bail and Debtors’ Prisons (p 42)
  32. Orleans Parish Sheriff, Wellpath, Sued Over Louisiana Jail Prisoner’s Fatal Overdose (p 42)
  33. Policy Change Leads to Gang Riot at Utah Prison (p 44)
  34. Indiana Prisoner’s Suit Alleging Illegal Solitary Confinement Settled for $425,000 (p 44)
  35. Pennsylvania Judge Verdict: A Potential Death Sentence for Shoplifting Conviction (p 46)
  36. Maine Court Rules Prisoner’s Rights Violated by 22 Months in Segregation Without Meaningful Review but Awards No Damages (p 46)
  37. New Jersey Jail Detainee Dies While Reportedly Begging for Water (p 47)
  38. Report: JailCore Left Prisoners’ Data Unprotected Online (p 48)
  39. NaphCare, Oregon Jail’s Private Healthcare Provider, Required to Disclose Records in Detox Death Suit (p 48)
  40. Federal Court Allows Lawsuit Over Sexual Assault of Female Connecticut Prisoner to Proceed (p 50)
  41. Ninth Circuit Announces New Rule on Eighth Amendment Violation Due to Sexual Assault by Montana Prison Staffer (p 50)
  42. Ninth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in California Sexual Harassment Case (p 52)
  43. California Court of Appeal Upholds Dismissal of Challenge to Excessive Jail Phone Rates as Unconstitutional Tax (p 52)
  44. Ex Post Facto Oregon Parole Postponement Claim Not Cognizable in §2254 Proceeding (p 53)
  45. High School Journalists Garner National Attention by Exposing School’s Use of Prisoner Labor (p 54)
  46. Florida’s “Pay-to-Vote” System Struck Down (p 54)
  47. Sexual Assault of Colorado Prisoner Deemed Constitutional Violation; Her Case Can Proceed (p 55)
  48. Delaware Changes Prison Health Care Provider Due to Lawsuits Against Prior Contract Holder (p 55)
  49. Oregon Federal Court: 8th and 14th Amendments Mandate Miller Hearing (p 56)
  50. Texas Attorney General Finds GEO Documents Are Public Information (p 56)
  51. Rhode Island Pays $380,419 to Settle Prison Guard Hiring Discrimination Suit (p 57)
  52. HRDC Prevails in Censorship Suit Against Kentucky Prison System, Wins $104,711 (p 58)
  53. Former Prisoners Shut Out of Coronavirus Loans (p 58)
  54. Connecticut City Settles Suit Over Prisoner’s Suicide for $1,393,000 (p 59)
  55. Former CoreCivic Nurse in Colorado Claims Sex Discrimination, Retaliation After Filing Complaint About Poor Medical Care (p 60)
  56. COVID-19 Changes the Face of Education in the Nation’s Prison Systems (p 60)
  57. Florida Prisoners Win 3.9 Million in Media Credits in MP3 Player Lawsuit (p 61)
  58. Prisoners Replace New Orleans Sanitation Workers Striking for Coronavirus Hazard Pay (p 62)
  59. News in Brief (p 62)

Mississippi Prisons in Crisis

Prisons beset with gang-related violence, overcrowding, understaffing and weak funding.

Between late last year and early April 2020, more than 30 Mississippi prisoners died due togang violence, suicide or illness – over 10 times the average of 3.4 prisoner deaths per year between 2014 and 2018. Prisoner advocates blame budget cutting and mass incarceration policies that have left state prisons overcrowded, deteriorated and understaffed.

Dozen of reports by news organizations cast a pall on the state prison system.

The chaos within the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) began on December 29, 2019, after a conflict erupted between the Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples. It escalated into what officials called a “gang war” after South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) prisoner Terrandance Dobbins, a Gangster Disciples member, was killed and two others were injured.

According to officials, prisoners used cellphones to spread news of the war. Soon after, the riot at SMCI spread to Mississippi State Prison at Parchman and other prisons. Parchman, despite lock downs, was the scene of five murders and two other deaths in 30 days.

“They ran the guards out of the building last night,” a Parchman prisoner wrote about the all-night gang battles ...

Rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gatti Help Prisoners in Mississippi Sue State Over “Inhumane and Unconstitutional Conditions”

Lawyers representing music stars Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Mario “Yo Gotti” Mims, along with Carter’s entertainment company, Team Roc, filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Mississippi on January 14, 2020, on behalf of 24 prisoners held at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. The suit’s named defendants are then-Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) Commissioner Felicia Hall and Marshal Turner, superintendent of the Parchman prison until April 2020.

The suit was filed by Blackmon & Blackmon of Canton and Alex Spiro and colleagues from Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in New York. Prior to filing, Team Roc sent a letter to Hall and then-Gov. Phil Bryant accusing MDOC of operating prisons that are “inhumane and unconstitutional.” Bryant’s term ended in January 2020 when his former lieutenant governor Tate Reeves, was inaugurated.

Spiro said the group was ‘‘prepared to pursue all potential avenues to obtain relief for the people living in Mississippi’s prisons and their families,” and concluded the letter with a warning: “Roc Nation and its philanthropic arm, Team Roc, demand that Mississippi take immediate steps to remedy this intolerable situation.”

Since December 29, 2019, at least 30 men have died in Mississippi prisons, most at ...

From the Editor

by Paul Wright

With COVID-19 still dominating prison and jail related news, it is worth keeping in mind that detention conditions did not miraculously improve because of a pandemic. Rather, already bad conditions have gotten steadily worse, inadequate and negligent medical care systems have been overtaxed, and their already limited capacity has been exceeded.

Meanwhile, releases of convicted prisoners at the state and federal levels due to COVID-19 have been small and slow. It appears the political class in this country, and the managers who run their prisons and jails, have confirmed that prisoners are viewed as expendable. Whatever happens, their jobs are secure, they seem to have concluded. It remains to be seen what the actual mortality rate of COVID-19 will be in prisons and jails, and if officials will accurately report it.

PLN will continue covering COVID-
19 related developments as they occur, and it appears we are in for a long-term period of reporting on the topic. Our news and legal reporting have already begun to reflect that.

Some readers will note that court decisions we reported in the last issue of PLN have already been reversed. The good news is appellate courts are moving quickly on ...

Florida’s Refusal to Release Prisoners During COVID-19 Resulting in Death Sentences

by David M. Reutter

As the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread across the nation, so did the push to release prisoners from the “Petri dish” of close confinement that exists inside jails and prisons. While some Florida jails released non-violent offenders, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) battened the hatches on its 93,000 prisoners to weather the storm.

To cope with its rising prison population in the 1990s, FDOC built human warehouses, or what is officially known as open bay dormitories. That resulted in anywhere from 80 to 200 prisoners living in the same building with double bunks spaced 3 feet apart. That has created a perfect environment for the highly contiguous COVID-19 disease to spread.

As of May 18, 2020, FDOC reported statistics on 65 prisons: 1,106 prisoners at 14 prisons and 237 staff at 43 prisons tested positive for COVID-19. Nine prisoners have died, and three of the deaths were prisoners at Sumter Correctional Institution. Seven hundred ninety-three positive cases were at five prisons with open bay dorms. Those prisons are: Homestead CI (231), Liberty CI (191), Hamilton CI (137), Tomoka CI (132), and Sumter CI (102).

How each prison handled the pandemic varied. For instance, in addition ...

Prison Postcards: A Plea from Kentucky and Dispatches from Texas and Massachusetts

by Ken Silverstein

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, prisoners, their families and advocates have braced for major outbreaks at America’s prisons and jails. It’s still not clear just how bad prisoners are going to be hit, but numbers are climbing at an alarming rate. As of June 9, joint reporting by the Associated Press and The Marshall Project found at least 43,967 people in prison had tested positive – and that was an 8 percent increase from just one week before. On that date, at least 522 prisoners had died of COVID-19.

In early April, Attorney General William Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to speed up early releases to home confinement due to “emergency conditions” created by the coronavirus. Instead, federal prisons – and state prisons and jails – have moved incredibly slowly, leading to multiple lawsuits across the country.

Few social distancing measures have been put into place, while lockdowns and punishment have been employed in place of releases. “COVID-19 has led to an explosion in the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers,” said a report released in mid-June by an advocacy group called Unlock the Box, with research provided by ...

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 ...

Status of the Pandemic Heading into Summer

by Michael D. Cohen, M.D.

Though the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage in the United States and around the world, numerous areas of the country have staged re-openings. They were premature and poorly conceived, so it’s no surprise that half the states have increasing numbers of cases. 

Several states subsequently had their largest single-day case reports, and hospitalizations also are rising. We are still in the first wave of this pandemic. A second wave is anticipated this winter. It is estimated that fewer than 5% of the U.S. population has been infected so far, so the population is largely still susceptible. Widespread disease can occur if uncontrolled community transmission is allowed to occur.

At press time, cases, hospitalizations and deaths continued to decline in New York, New Jersey and other states in the Northeast. It is believed that this is the result of slow and carefully calibrated re-opening of commerce. But numbers may be stabilizing at a plateau of 30 to 50 deaths a day in New York state.

Largest Clusters are
in Prisons and Jails

The New York Times publishes lists ofclusters of cases throughout the U.S. The largest cluster included over 2,000 cases at the Marion Correctional Institution ...

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 ...

$1 Million Payout to Family of Man Who Died After Seizures in Montana Jail

by Kevin Bliss

The family of Roger Lee Wells will receive $1 million in compensation for his death on March 10, 2018, after he suffered several consecutive seizures without ever receiving proper treatment at the Cascade County Detention Center located in Great Falls, Montana.

Wells was arrested a week earlier on a domestic violence charge. He was housed in the medical/geriatric pod of the detention center and slept on the floor of the overcrowded cell with two others. He submitted several written requests to the medical department explaining the need for his anti-seizure medication, yet never received it.

It is the responsibility of the medical staff to address all written requests for medication within a 48-hour period. According to Wells’ attorney, none of his written requests were responded to. His family attempted to drop off his medication at the county jail, but the jail refused to accept it. Wells finally told a nurse while doing her rounds about his medication. After looking into the situation, the nurse ordered the medication for Wells. It arrived at the jail the day after he died.

Wells had his first seizure around 3 a.m. on March 10. His second seizure occurred as jailers were ...

Florida Guards and Prisoners Fear COVID-19 Infection

by David M. Reutter

Much has been made of essential employees as the economy shut down in an effort to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus has been on the bravery of health-care workers in hospitals and nursing homes. One group that has gone ignored are guards and other employees that help run jails or prisons.

Like a nursing home, a jail or prison crams a lot of people into a small, confined spaces. “The social distancing is next to impossible when you’re on top of each other,” said Kevin Gay, who runs the nonprofit Operation New Hope in Florida, which helps prisoners reacclimate to society upon release. “You’ve got a formula for disaster.”

By design, jails and prisons are isolated from society. That means the only way for COVID-19 to enter lock-ups is for it to be brought in by a someone from the outside. The Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) acted in mid-March 2020 to prevent its entry by suspending visits and volunteers from entering its prisons and by halting transfers or reception of prisoners from jails. Yet it failed to take other steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus. As of June 12, 2020, ...

COVID-19 and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice

by Ed Lyon

I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”That’s a famous quote from Luke Skywalker, a character in 1977’s Star Wars, as his Millennium Falcon spacecraft emerges from faster-than-light speed only to find Alderaan, its destination planet, has been destroyed. But this phrase of foreboding was also recently echoed by Dr. Carolyn Salter, former mayor of Palestine, Texas—and for extremely good reason as it turned out.

Located in Anderson County, Palestine is home to five prison units of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), the largest state prison system in the U.S. with over 135,000 people in custody. Palestine’s Beto and Coffield prisons are reportedly TDCJ’s largest prisons, and the total population of all five Anderson County jails hovers around 14,000.

With staff numbering about 2,000, TDCJ is also the largest single employer in the county, just as its 37,000 statewide employees make it the largest employer in Texas. [PLN, November 2015, pp. 56-57]

As early as February 2020, penology experts across the nation were warning that prisons could, and probably would, become huge Petri dishes for COVID-19. The overwhelming majority of prisoners are housed two to a 6-by-8½-foot closet with a tiny sink and ...

The Popularity of YouTube Prison Lifestyle Videos

With prison reform a hot topic that has gained nationwide attention over the last decade, prison lifestyle videos on YouTube offer a window into the prison experience for many Americans.

Collectively, the four most popular prison channels on YouTube have more than 2.1 million subscribers. The most popular with 1.2 million is the After Prison Show, hosted by Joe Guerrero, which features videos about reintegrating into society and what it was like in prison. What started out as grainy amateurish vlogs has been going strong for three years now.

After 700 videos, Guerrero now earns a six-figure income from his social media presence and was able to quit his job as a laborer in a concrete factory.

About seven months after he started, he posted a video about how to make a prison tattoo gun, which racked up 2.3 million views. Before prison, Guerrero’s social media experience was limited to MySpace. “Until now, my life has been a constant failure,” said Guerrero. “I told myself that if I’m going to make it this time or if I’m going to fail, I want to show people what it’s like. A lot of people have no idea ...

Sixth Circuit Vacates Preliminary Injunction Regarding Elkton Prisoner Class Action

On June 9, 2020, the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a split decision, vacated a preliminary injunction issued by a district court that directed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to determine which prisoners at Elkton Federal Correctional Institution Elkton were eligible for transfer or release because of a serious COVID-19 outbreak at that facility in Lisbon, Ohio.

Although the appeals court agreed that the district court had the authority to consider the matter under 28 U.S.C. 2241, and the complaint was not foreclosed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, it agreed that the BOP had responded “reasonably” to the outbreak and that its actions did not give rise to an Eighth Amendment claim for “deliberate indifference.”

As noted in the June 2020 PLN, prisoners had won initial class certification after they argued that there was a “significant level of infection” of the virus at Elkton.

Attorney General William Barr directed federal BOP Director Michael Carvajal on April 3, 2020 to “move with dispatch” to save vulnerable prisoners, using “appropriate transfers to home confinement.”

Another similar lawsuit filed against the BOP regarding the infectious disease at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, which did not ...

Man Sentenced to One Year For Shoplifting Dies In Prison During Pandemic

A New Jersey man who was sentenced to one year in prison died on May 10, 2020, while in custody at the Central Reception and Assignment Facility in Trenton, where prisoners go before they are sent to a regular prison. 

According to court records, Ricardo Williamson was given a one-year sentence on a single charge of fourth-degree shoplifting for stealing watches and perfume totaling about $200 from the Macy’s at the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, New Jersey. Williamson said he committed the crime to support his drug addiction.

Williamson agreed to a plea deal stipulating to a one-year sentence, but James Sheehan, his court-appointed attorney, asked the court to consider time served (he had already spent four months at the Passaic County Jail) because Williamson, 62, suffered from multiple chronic illnesses that required intensive medical care.

The prosecutor, Melissa Simsen, countered, arguing that there were “services (in prison) where the defendant can get medical treatment, so I don’t think it will be a hardship.”

‘‘You continue to engage in criminal activity with this condition, so to say, ‘Well judge, I shouldn’t have to go to jail because my medical health is fragile and I could get ...

L.A. County Sheriff Says Prisoners Intentionally Tried to Catch Coronavirus to Get Released

by Dale Chappell

After seeing surveillance video of a group of prisoners drinking hot water from the same cup – allegedly attempting to raise their body temperature before it was checked by a nurse – and then sharing sniffs of a face mask, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said at a press conference on May 11, 2020, that prisoners were “deliberately [trying] to expose themselves to COVID-19.”

It’s a story that sounds like it should come plastered with a “Don’t try this at your jail” warning: In that housing unit at North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, 21 prisoners subsequently tested positive for coronavirus – almost 40 percent of the unit’s population. From the end of April 2020, the county jail saw its number of coronavirus cases triple to 357.

“So, in this environment, and then considering the fact that the 21 tested positive out of that module, shows what their intention was,” Sheriff Villanueva said.

While it’s clearly a bad idea to infect yourself with the coronavirus to try to get released from jail, the sheriff made it just as clear that he wasn’t releasing anyone because of a positive coronavirus test.

“Somehow there was some mistaken belief ...

Secret BOP Document Raises Risk Factors, Security Levels of Prisoners

A secret Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) document, obtained by ProPublica, is being used to evaluate the security levels of prisoners, leaving some who qualified for release to home confinement stuck in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic with little explanation of how they were evaluated.

The First Step Act of 2018 required the BOP to create a risk assessment tool and publicly post it on its website for public comment. The tool, dubbed “PATTERN” (Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs) by the BOP was posted on its website and public feedback raised concerns about racial bias and lack of transparency, BOP spokesman Justin Long acknowledged. But the feedback from the public did not call for categorizing prisoners under a harsher standard.

The secret 20-page document adopted by the BOP in early 2020 includes a method that sets a security level for all prisoners. Factors like age, classes completed in prison, and any history of violence increase or decrease a prisoner’s score, classifying them as either minimum, low, medium, or high risk.

The previously unpublished document does not appear to be finalized by the BOP and its existence surprised prison reform advocates and lawyer. “It really tanks the ...

New York District Court Judge Denies Preliminary Injunction Against MCC Brooklyn

by Derek Gilna

Federal District Court Judge Rachel P. Kovner on June 9, 2020, denied a “preliminary injunction that would release all MDC inmates whose age or medical condition places them at heightened risk from the virus and would manage almost every aspect of the facility’s COVID-19 response,” according to her opinion.

The judge noted the “high bar” that had to be met to obtain such sweeping relief, and she refused to find that the response of Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officials at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) constituted “deliberate indifference” under the Eighth Amendment.

The judge noted that of the four original plaintiffs, two had already been granted compassionate release by their sentencing judges, and said that evidence at the preliminary hearing had revealed “several deficiencies in the MDC’s implementation of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines that both parties have treated as authoritative. Those shortcomings merit a swift response from MDC officials — the institutional actors charged in the first instance with ensuring that their facilities are managed in accordance with appropriate standards of care.”

However, the court went on to say, “the facility’s aggressive response to a public health emergency with no preexisting playbook ...

Who’s in SHU? A Survey of Solitary Confinement

https://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/2020/05/25/compliance-or-critical-thinking/

By Terry A. Kupers, M.D., M.S.P.

(Many thanks to Willow Katz and Dolores Canales for support and editing)

Prisoners consigned to solitary confinement or Security Housing Unit (SHU) are derided as “the worst of the worst.” But when I enter SHUs around the country in preparation for expert testimony in class action litigation, I find very ordinary people, with some exceptions. There are very bright people, and there are not so bright people, just as in the community. There are mean and ornery people and there are peaceful and very caring people, just as in the community (and in prison the peaceful and caring are much more numerous).

The exceptions include the fact that: 1. A disproportionate number of prisoners in solitary suffer from serious mental illness (SMI) — either they were diagnosed before entering solitary or they developed emotional problems on account of the harsh conditions — and that’s why, when I started touring supermax solitary confinement units in the ’80s and ’90s, I found that 50% of SHU-dwellers suffered from SMI; 2. A disproportionate number are people of color — the racism that permeates the criminal “justice” system does not stop at the prison walls; and 3. ...

Reports: COVID-19 More Prevalent Than Reported in Nation’s Prisons and Jails

by Kevin Bliss

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report May 6 based on data gathered from 54 state and territorial health departments, claiming about 5,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among prisoners in state and federal prisons, jails and detention centers.

Two weeks later, Reuters prepared an independent study surveying only 13% of the nation’s incarcerated population and found 17,300 confirmed cases, already more than three times the number reported by the CDC. The Reuters report stated that facilities that performed mass testing of their detained population have reported as much as a 65% infection rate.

The United States holds more than 2 million people in some form of incarceration, either serving a sentence or awaiting trial, more than any other nation in the world.

Scant testing and inconsistent reporting have resulted in a massive understating of the people inside the system who are infected with COVID-19. Aaron Littman, professor at the University of California School of Law in Los Angeles, said of the dramatically low CDC tally, “We don’t have a particularly good handle” on cases of COVID-19 in our prison systems and jails, “and in some places we have no handle at all.” ...

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 ...

Sale of Clandestine Surveillance Equipment Available to the Government and “Select Clients”

by Kevin W. Bliss

Special interest groups are becoming more concerned with the government surveillance equipment provider, Special Services Group (SSG). As of early 2020, it had about $2.6 million in contracts with over a dozen U.S. agencies, including the FBI, CIA and ICE, selling covert surveillance equipment such as concealed cameras in vacuum cleaners, children’s car seats and tombstones.

CEO Cliff Emery also sits on the board of directors of the nonprofit national security focus group, the National Defense Industrial Association. His company’s website states that it does not advertise nor place product information on the website. Law enforcement, government agencies and “select clients” can contact the company for more information on any product in their brochure, titled the Black Book.

SSG’s logo is the pyramid with the floating eye seen on the back of the $1 bill. Government transparency advocates have expressed concern that others besides law enforcement can purchase its items.

Freddy Martinez, policy analyst for Open the Government, said, “I think one of the biggest concerns I have is the cost/size/capabilities of these devices. They keep getting cheaper, smaller and more capable all the time, and it’s unlikely that only law enforcement will be the ...

ACLU Files Lawsuit Against CoreCivic Prison in Arizona over COVID-19 Failures

by Dale Chappell

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a federal lawsuit against a private prison run by CoreCivic in Florence, Arizona, claiming that staff has failed to protect its prisoners and the community from the coronavirus, according to a story in The Appeal and court records.

According to papers filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on May 9, 2020, CoreCivic has made it impossible for prisoners to adhere to state-mandated “social distancing” because of overcrowding, failed to properly quarantine prisoners suspected of having the coronavirus and new prisoners coming into the prison, failed to test prisoners who have shown symptoms for coronavirus, lied to prisoners about there being no COVID-19 cases in the prison, refused to give prisoners masks and made them share masks, and continues to use prison labor to run CoreCivic’s factory without any precautions.

The five prisoners who filed the lawsuit said they have numerous medical conditions putting them at high risk of death from COVID-19. Some also have cancer that CoreCivic has left untreated since their incarceration months ago, putting them at further risk of serious illness. Some of the prisoners are sitting in jail on minor charges, ...

Michigan Prisoner’s Whistleblowing on GED Test Cheating Survives Summary Judgment

by David M. Reutter

A Michigan federal district court found on January 6, 2020 that allegations by a prisoner tutor that prison officials retaliated against him for blowing the whistle on GED test cheating were sufficient to survive summary judgment.

Munin Kathawa, a prisoner at Michigan’s G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility (JCF), is a lifer who decided to use his talents as a tutor to help other prisoners earn their GEDs. “There is no dispute that Kathawa was an excellent tutor,” the court found.

From July 2016 to September 2017, Kathawa worked in non-party Laura Bendele’s classroom to help prisoners with learning disabilities and those who struggled to pass the GED. He was reassigned to Spencer Kinney’s classroom by Principal Brian Friedman after the latter received a report on concerns regarding Kathawa and Bendele.

Shortly thereafter, Kathawa was asked to help a prisoner who was due to go home in November. When the student passed with a 169 score, Kathawa was surprised. After questioning the student, he realized he could not have fairly passed the exam.

The student told him that Kinney and others had provided him with the exam answers. Kathawa documented eight other instances of cheating. Kathawa complained ...

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 ...

Alabama Should Release Elder Prisoners at Risk for COVID-19

by Ed Lyon

The efficacy of states continuing to retain elderly prisoners has been questioned by corrections experts for decades. The problems with continuing to needlessly incarcerate senior prisoners has become even more germane amidst the ongoing coronavirus crisis as activists, along with prison reformists, urge Alabama to release its aged state prisoners.

Statistics compiled from the five largest prison systems in the United States show that about 20 percent of the nation’s prisoner population are elderly – defined as 50 and older in the unique environment of a prison setting, according to many researchers and some state departments of correction. “That’s because people in prison are physiologically seven to ten years older than their chronological age due to a range of factors, including, but not limited to, the conditions and stress of incarceration and—outside of prison—a lack of access to adequate medical care and histories of substance use,” according to an article by the Vera Institute of Justice.

At first glance, Alabama’s statistical data indicates the state’s elderly prison population is well below the national average. The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) warehouses around 22,000 prisoners and operates at a daily average of 170 percent of design capacity.

ADOC’s ...

$1.15 Million Settlement After South Carolina Prisoner’s Baby Born, Dies in Toilet

by Ed Lyon

A $1.15 million settlement was reached on January 31, 2020 in the case of a women who gave birth to premature twins, but one died in a prison bathroom.

In 2012, South Carolinian Sinetra Geter was sentenced to two years in prison for violating parole. She discovered she was pregnant just before sentencing. Her pregnancy was confirmed by the for-profit medical providers at Camille Graham Correctional Institution in Columbia. She was upgraded to a high-risk level when medical staff found she was carrying twins. This was Geter’s first pregnancy. She was not knowledgeable about the childbirth regimen. [See PLN, November 2019, p.52]

Six and a half months into her pregnancy, on October 11, 2012 she began having severe abdominal and lower back pains with cramps. Medical staff told her to rest. Guards forced her to go to work instead. She was seen at medical again at 1 and 4:30 p.m. Despite showing physical signs of being in labor, a doctor was never called.

Around 11 p.m. Geter was in severe pain and left her dorm bed for the restroom. Moving slowly, bent over and in obvious pain, neither of the guards observing her offered any help. ...

With Lives of Immigrant Detainees at Risk to COVID-19, Federal Judge Forces ICE’s Hand

by Christopher Zoukis

As a result of a ruling June 5, 2020, hundreds of immigrant detainees held by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in south Florida may have to be released. That day a federal judge for the Southern District of Florida agreed the agency was likely “[shuffling] people around the country to make (its) population statistics…look better on paper” and said she remained skeptical that ICE’s commitment to protect them from COVID-19 “has meaningfully shifted since the start of the pandemic.”

The order by U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cooke came a month after she appeared to walk back a two-week deadline she had given ICE to release 1,000 detainees in her original ruling April 30, 2020. The detainees were held in three detention centers in southern Florida: the Krome Detention Center (Krome) in Miami, the Broward Transitional Center (BTC) in Pompano Beach, and the Glades County Detention Center (Glades) in Moore Haven. In her April 30 ruling, Cooke excoriated the agency for a “deliberate indifference” to detainees’ risk of contracting the disease that “amount(s) to cruel and unusual punishment.”

However, in a clarification of that initial order issued May 5, 2020, Cooke allowed ICE instead to transfer ...

11th Circuit Rules Florida Prisoner Claiming Sexual Assault by Guard Can Proceed With Cruel and Unusual Punishment Claim

by David M. Reutter

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment for defendants in a civil rights action alleging a guard sexually assaulted and used excessive force upon a prisoner.

The ruling, on January 7, 2020, came in an appeal brought by Kirstin Sconiers. His lawsuit concerned events that occurred at Florida’s Marion County Jail on February 12, 2014. Sconiers was serving a sentence for a misdemeanor offense of exposure. On the day in question, he met with his attorney via video conferencing.

Upon completing the conference, guard Fnu Lockhart arrived to escort Sconiers back to his cell. According to Sconiers, Lockhart toyed with him like a yo-yo, telling him to sit and stand three times. When Sconiers questioned Lockhart about the treatment, he was pepper-sprayed and slammed to the floor.

Once on the ground, Sconiers says Lockhart pulled his pants down. Lockhart then forcefully penetrated Sconier’ anus with his finger. An investigation ensued, but Sconiers hesitated before telling others about the sexual assault due to being embarrassed and an assumption that jail administrators were in league with the guards.

After Sconiers sued, acting pro se, the defendants moved for summary judgment. The district court ...

Lawsuit Over Conditions at BOP’s New York City Prison Continues as COVID-19 Spreads

by David M. Reutter

A prison health expert report found that Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) is “not prepared to effectively contain any outbreak of COVID-19 and its practices put detainees and staff at grave risk of infection, serious illness, and even death.”

The April 3, 2020 report was a factor in a criminal defendant facing bank fraud conspiracy charges being sentenced to home confinement.

Dr. Homer Venters toured the 1,700-bed lock-up, interviewed 17 detainees and reviewed prison records. Venters, a medical doctor and epidemiologist, is the former chief medical officer for New York City jails. He was pegged to investigate conditions at MDC, a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility, to inform a federal court overseeing a proposed class-action civil rights lawsuit challenging conditions at MDC.

That lawsuit was filed after a January 2019 fire took out the jail’s power and heat. Prisoners were left in frigid conditions for a week. The jail also canceled all visits, including attorney visits. That spawned an ongoing lawsuit by the Federal Defenders of New York. See: Federal Defenders of New York Inc. v. Federal Bureau of Prisons et al., USDC (E.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:19-cv-00660.

Venters found numerous problems in the administration of ...

Oklahoma Jail Sued for Mocking Prisoner as He Died

by Dale Chappell

Surveillance video released in January 2020 from the Ottawa County Jail in Miami, Oklahoma, provides graphic evidence of the neglect and abuse suffered by detainee Terral Ellis at the hands of jail staff in the days leading up to his death from septic shock and pneumonia in October 2015. The new video and audio evidence corroborated details provided to an attorney for Ellis’ family by at least 16 former prisoners who were in jail at the time he died and agreed to testify on his behalf.

“It’s a horrific, horrific death,” said Dan Smolen, an attorney specializing in jail death cases who is representing the Ellis family. “It’s jarring.”

Smolen filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Ellis family in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma in 2017 against the county, the sheriff’s office and the jail’s nurse contractor. See: Burke, et al v. Ottowa County, U.S.N.C. (N.D. Okla), Case No. 17-cv-00325-JED-FHM.

Using descriptions from Ellis’ fellow inmates written two days after his death, the suit lays out its gruesome details.

On October 10, 2015, the 26-year-old Ellis took his grandfather’s advice and turned himself in to the jail on an ...

Interview: Alec Karakatsanis of the Civil Rights Corps on Money Bail and Debtors’ Prisons

by Ken Silverstein

Alec Karakatsanis is the founder and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Civil Rights Corps. He previously worked as a civil rights lawyer and public defender with the Special Litigation Division of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and as a federal public defender in Alabama, representing impoverished people accused of federal crimes. He also co-founded the nonprofit organization Equal Justice Under Law.

When was the Civil Rights Corps founded and what are its main goals?

Civil Rights Corps was founded in 2016, and its main goals are to use innovative litigation, advocacy, and storytelling to dismantle the criminal punishment bureaucracy. The goal is to desensitize people to the everyday brutality of the system and to highlight that the system is set up to serve the interests of white supremacy and wealth.

How big of a national problem is the money bail system? Can you briefly describe a particularly egregious case CRC is challenging?

The money bail system detains about 400,000 human beings in cages every single night, solely because they cannot make a monetary payment. Millions more each year are released, but their families have to pay billions to for-profit commercial bail-bond companies ...

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. ...

Policy Change Leads to Gang Riot at Utah Prison

by Kevin W. Bliss

On January 11, 2020, a group of about a dozen protesters gathered outside the administrative offices of the the Utah Department of Corrections (UDOC) in Draper. They were there to express their anger over a policy change, one that ended a five-year-old effort to segregate members of the rival Sureño and Norteño gangs in the state prison system and resulted in a bloody riot at Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF) on November 6, 2019.

Roni Wilcox helped to organize the protesters, all of whom are related to prisoners at the Gunnison facility. After the November riot left her loved one stabbed nine times, she and Sue Steel, the wife of another prisoner, reached out to 30 politicians to discuss the policy change that put prisoners’ lives in jeopardy. Of the 30, only UDOC Public Information Officer Kaitlin Feldsted responded, issuing a statement that said UDOC constantly works to increase the security and safety of prisoners while helping them move away from gang activity and toward successful reentry.

Feldsted’s statement included a list of measurements to be implemented, which included new conflict resolution programs and new security equipment for better contraband and weapons controls. But Wilcox and ...

Indiana Prisoner’s Suit Alleging Illegal Solitary Confinement Settled for $425,000

by Douglas Ankney

Taxpayers of the state of Indiana will pay $425,000 to prisoner Jay Vermillion as the result of an agreement reached on October 21, 2019, between him and employees of the Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC). This agreement settled Vermillion’s § 1983 lawsuit alleging the IDOC employees unlawfully placed Vermillion in solitary confinement for 1,513 days; illegally confiscated, lost or destroyed all of his personal property, and denied his due process rights at three prison disciplinary hearings.

According to Vermillion’s suit, in July 2009, he was incarcerated at the Indiana State Prison (ISP) when investigators from the IDOC Internal Affairs Office informed him they were going to have criminal charges filed against him because they believed he was involved in the escape of three men from ISP that occurred earlier that month. Vermillion then exercised his constitutional right to cease answering the investigators’ questions. Ten minutes later, at the behest of the investigators, Vermillion was placed in ISP’s punitive segregation unit because of his refusal to answer their questions.

Two days later, Vermillion received a conduct report charging him with the offense of “trafficking” with ISP Counselor Don Bates in the Honor Housing Unit (where Vermillion was housed ...

Pennsylvania Judge Verdict: A Potential Death Sentence for Shoplifting Conviction

by Ed Lyon

Thirty-six-year-old Ashley Via Menser of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, is battling both cervical and ovarian cancer from prison after being convicted and sentenced in January 2020 for shoplifting $109.63 worth of groceries.

As her case progressed through court, her cancer progressed, too. She was scheduled for an oncology appointment at Hershey Medical Center on the afternoon of January 22, 2020, prior to having a hysterectomy to remove the aggressively encroaching cancer. Without the surgery, Menser’s prognosis was dire: She would be dead inside of a month.

“She has no choice, it’s life or death,” said her mother, Stephanie Bashore. “The doctors sat there and told us this.”

But first Menser had to face a judge for sentencing on her conviction of shoplifting from a Weis Markets store in September 2018. Her lawyer, Robert Scot Feeman, had high hopes that Lebanon County Common Pleas Court Judge Samuel A. Kline would delay or defer sentencing in the case so that Menser could keep her medical appointment

Judge Kline was unswayed, sentencing Menser to state prison for a term of 10 months to seven years. Bashore said the sentence left her daughter in shock.

“She’s just sitting there, all upset because she ...

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, ...

New Jersey Jail Detainee Dies While Reportedly Begging for Water

by Douglas Ankney

Forty-one-year-old Atlantic County jail detainee Mario Terruso, Jr. died after coughing up blood and begging for water, according to a report in nj.com in September 2019.

Alan Wright, who knew Terruso for about 15 years, was working as a jail runner delivering food trays and cleaning carts when he saw Terruso in the admissions area.

Wright said Terruso was sweating profusely and “heaving every 30 to 60 seconds” while begging two nurses for water. The nurses were laughing and accusing Terruso of feigning illness in order to be taken to the hospital, the story said. One of the nurses asked Wright if Terruso “acts like that on the street.” According to Wright, Terruso went about an hour without receiving medical attention.

Then Terruso was suddenly placed into an ambulance. After learning that Terruso had died at the AtlanticCare Regional Medical Center around 1 a.m., Wright contacted his wife to post what he’d witnessed on Facebook. Wright also stated he heard jail guards bragging afterward that they had repeatedly punched Terruso in the face.

Wright was later contacted by the Office of the Attorney General. A spokesman from that office confirmed that the death was being investigated but ...

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 ...

NaphCare, Oregon Jail’s Private Healthcare Provider, Required to Disclose Records in Detox Death Suit

by Mark Wilson

An Oregon federal court in January 2020 compelled NaphCare, Inc., the private medical care provider for the Washington County Jail (WCJ) in Hillsboro, to disclose lawsuits and financial records in a wrongful death action stemming from the June 2017 detox death of a detainee.

County officials terminated a jail health-care contract begun in 1998 with Corizon Health, Inc., following a $10 million damage award against the county and the Tennessee-based firm for the 2014 withdrawal-related death of a jail detainee. [PLN, May 2019, p.35]. Since then, the contract has been awarded to Alabama-based NaphCare, Inc., a private, family-owned company providing health care to more than 80,000 prisoners in 53 city and county jails and federal prisons throughout the nation.

On June 25, 2017, Dale Thomsen was booked into the WCJ, and NaphCare registered nurse Kathy Dement conducted an intake medical screening. She did not identify any signs of alcohol abuse or possible detox, court records show. But that evening Tammy Thamsen, wife of the 58-year-old, called the jail to warn that her husband had previously suffered a brain injury and currently suffered from a seizure disorder and alcoholism.

Tammy Thomsen made additional attempts to warn ...

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. ...

Ninth Circuit Announces New Rule on Eighth Amendment Violation Due to Sexual Assault by Montana Prison Staffer

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit announced a new rule on January 16, 2020 concerning what constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment when a prisoner alleges a sexual assault by prison staff.

The new rule was established after Dewayne Bearchild took his federal lawsuit to a jury trial, alleging that Montana State Prison Sergeant Larry Pasha sexually assaulted him during a pat-down search. He claimed that Pasha groped and touched his groin area, and made inappropriate comments about his body.

During the two-day trial before a six-member jury, the district court instructed the jury to use the Ninth Circuit Model Civil Jury Instruction dealing with excessive force claims. The court told the jury that Bearchild could establish an Eighth Amendment violation only if he could show: (1) that Pasha “used excessive and unnecessary force”; (2) that he “acted maliciously and sadistically for the purpose of causing harm”; and (3) Pasha’s actions “caused harm” to Bearchild.

Bearchild, who acted pro se throughout the entire trial, failed to object to the use of excessive force jury instruction to establish a sexual assault claim. Nevertheless, the Ninth Circuit ruled that ...

Ninth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in California Sexual Harassment Case

by David M. Reutter

On January 31, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment in a civil rights action alleging a guard at California’s Kern County Jail (KCJ) made sexual comments to a female juvenile detainee, groomed her for sexual abuse, and looked at her inappropriately while she was showering.

Samantha Vazquez entered KCJ in January 2015 and was placed in the juvenile unit. She was assigned to work details that included laundry, kitchen, and cleanup. Her complaint contended that guard George Anderson, 45, purposely selected her to work “details” with him.

In a deposition, Vazquez said Anderson inappropriately called her “babe” and told her she had a “big butt.” He also “grabbed [her] face,” “touched her shoulders” and talked with her about her shower gown.

She described one incident while she was in a room alone with Anderson and he described a “rated R” dream. He told her that in his dream, she “grabbed him by his T-shirt,” “gave him a kiss,” and “after that [they] ended up going to a room and, like, having fun and stuff.” Subsequently, Anderson told her “to get close to him,” and he “wanted his dream to ...

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 ...

Ex Post Facto Oregon Parole Postponement Claim Not Cognizable in §2254 Proceeding

by Mark Wilson

On October 31, 2019, an Oregon federal court held that a claim that extended parole postponement pursuant to the retroactive application of a new law violates the ex post facto clause and is not cognizable in a 28 USC § 2254 federal habeas corpus proceeding. Such a claim may be brought instead in a federal civil rights action pursuant to 42 USC § 1983.

Oregon prisoner Shayne Martin Jacobs was convicted of two counts of murder in 1981. The Oregon Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision ultimately established a July 7, 2009 release date for Jacobs.

During a 2008 hearing, the Board applied the law in effect in 1981 to postpone Jacobs’ release to the maximum possible, two-years, upon finding that he suffered from a present severe emotional disturbance that rendered him a danger to the health or safety of the community. This postponed his release to July 7, 2011.

During a 2010 hearing, the Board again found that Jacobs suffered from a present severe emotional disturbance, rendering him a danger to the community. This time, however, the Board retrospectively applied a 2009 law that purported to authorize the Board to postpone release up to ten years. ...

High School Journalists Garner National Attention by Exposing School’s Use of Prisoner Labor

by Douglas Ankney

Amherst-Pelham Regional High School (APRHS) English teacher Sara Barber-Just was rubbing sleep from her eyes at 5:30 a.m. while reading the June 28, 2019, online edition of The New York Times. Then her jaw dropped in amazement when she saw the story about her journalism class’ article exposing the school’s use of prisoner labor. “I think that’s a wonderful recognition for a student newspaper to have The New York Times call you and say they want to talk about your high school journalism,” Barber-Just said.

APRHS student Spencer Cliche had overheard in a conversation that the school was using prisoners from Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Norfolk to reupholster chairs in the auditorium. Cliche approached Barber-Just with the idea of investigating and reporting the story in The Graphic (APRHS’ quarterly paper).

After confirming with APRHS Superintendent Michael Morris that the school was using prisoner labor, Barber-Just encouraged Cliche and the rest of the class to not simply condemn the practice, but to investigate and write a story.

The class contacted Cara Savelli, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Savelli said prisoners perform work for schools, nursing homes, veteran’s agencies, and other public service providers with a dual purpose ...

Florida’s “Pay-to-Vote” System Struck Down

by David M. Reutter

A Florida federal district court declared portions of Florida’s felon voting system unconstitutional. It issued injunctive relief that orders a new process put in place for indigent persons who owe financial obligations as part of a criminal sentence.

In 2018, 64.55% of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which restored the voting rights of some convicted felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” It specifically excluded persons “convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.” [See PLN, October 2018, p. 32.]

The Florida Legislature responded by enacting a law that defined “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation” to mean all legal financial obligations (LFOs) “contained in the four corners of the sentencing document.”

That legislation was challenged in a class action lawsuit. The district court granted a preliminary injunction that prevented action against the named plaintiffs registering to vote or voting. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that Florida cannot prevent an otherwise eligible felon from voting just because the felon failed to pay LFOs the felon is genuinely unable to pay. Then, the Florida Supreme Court held that “all terms of sentence including parole ...

Sexual Assault of Colorado Prisoner Deemed Constitutional Violation; Her Case Can Proceed

Delaware Changes Prison Health Care Provider Due to Lawsuits Against Prior Contract Holder

by Jayson Hawkins

March 2020 brought sweeping changes to the way people lived and worked as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country. Prisons, where social distancing was often difficult or impossible to practice, proved especially vulnerable to COVID-19, yet the Delaware Department of Correction pushed ahead with a switch to a new health-care provider. Centurion of Delaware LLC accepted responsibility for the medical and behavioral health care of the state’s prisoners effective April 1.

“It’s tough enough to transition to a new medical and behavioral health [provider] in 30 days,” commented Claire DeMatteis, Delaware DOC commissioner, “but doing so in the middle of a health pandemic is remarkable.”

The sudden switch reflects a loss of confidence in the state’s previous provider, Connections Community Support Programs, which agreed to void its annual $60 million contract three months ahead of schedule. Connections was facing lawsuits from two hospital systems after amassing nearly $10 million in unpaid bills for services provided to Delaware prisoners. Connections was also under investigation by the state Justice Department.

Jason Miller, spokesman for the Delaware DOC, said ample preparation and planning had taken place over March for the change in providers to proceed despite ...

Oregon Federal Court: 8th and 14th Amendments Mandate Miller Hearing

An Oregon federal court held that a sentence that prohibits a juvenile offender’s possible release until he is 88 years old violates the Eighth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause because it denies a “meaningful opportunity” for release.

The Eighth Amendment requires a state to hold a hearing for a juvenile serving a life sentence at which the person’s youth at the time of the offense must be treated as a mitigating factor and his rehabilitation considered in light of the transient immaturity and impulsivity at the time of the offense. The hearing must be held early enough in a person’s lifetime that it affords the juvenile a chance for a meaningful life outside of prison, not geriatric release. (See: Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012); and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S._, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). This hearing is commonly known as a “Miller hearing.”

When Oregon prisoner Sterling Ray Cunio was 16 years old, he and another teenager committed a double homicide. Cunio was convicted of two counts of aggravated murder, two counts of kidnapping and two counts of robbery. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences and a consecutive ...

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 ...

HRDC Prevails in Censorship Suit Against Kentucky Prison System, Wins $104,711

A Kentucky federal district court awarded the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) and its co-counsels $104,711.37 in attorney fees and costs in a lawsuit alleging the Kentucky Department of Corrections (KDOC) censored books sent to prisoners.

The court’s May 15, 2020, order resolves all issues in a lawsuit HRDC brought in July 2017 that alleged KDOC violated First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The complaint challenged KDOC’s policy and practice of banning books sent by HRDC and other publishers “because the books were not purchased by prisoners, but rather were sent to them as gifts, and/or because the sender was not on a pre-approved vendor list.” It also alleged KDOC failed “to provide senders of censored mail constitutionally adequate notice and an opportunity to appeal the censorship of the mail to the intended prisoner.”

From July 2016 to the filing of the complaint, HRDC sent 158 soft-cover books to prisoners. It identified 26 books HRDC sent to prisoners “which were censored by Defendants.” More may have been censored, but since KDOC “failed to provide HRDC any notice or opportunity to appeal these censorship decisions” it had to rely on prisoners informing it of the censorship. Thus, how ...

Former Prisoners Shut Out of Coronavirus Loans

The first phase of economic relief stemming from the COVID-19 crisis included $350 billion in loans aimed at keeping U.S. small businesses afloat. The CARES Act, as approved by Congress, offered hope of surviving the pandemic to any business with fewer than 500 employees.

The Small Business Administration (SBA), which was tasked with distributing the loans, included a provision that seemed to target a specific demographic. A question on the loan application asked if any of the owners of the business had been convicted of a crime.

No statistics were available as to the number of small-business owners with criminal histories, but because individuals with past felonies are barred from many jobs it is common for them to open their own business. The SBA reports over 30 million small businesses nationwide, and with The Sentencing Project estimating that up to 100 million people in the U.S. have past convictions or arrests, the portion of business owners who have been entangled in the criminal justice system is believed to be significant.

Under previous administrations, the SBA had taken into account criminal convictions of those applying for loans, and the banks that distribute loans do regular background checks on ...

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 ...

Former CoreCivic Nurse in Colorado Claims Sex Discrimination, Retaliation After Filing Complaint About Poor Medical Care

A former CoreCivic nurse who worked at the private, for-profit company’s Bent County Jail in Colorado filed a federal lawsuit March 18, 2020, claiming sex discrimination by her supervisors after she filed complaints about the lack of medical care to prisoners.

CoreCivic workers at the Bent County Jail go by pseudonyms to protect their identity. When it was revealed that Danette Karapetian, who went by “DJ,” was using her old stage name from when she was a Hawaiian Tropic bikini model 25 years ago, her supervisor harassed her about it, her lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado says. Within the next four months, nurse Supervisor Angie Turner reportedly set on a path to get Karapetian fired, and when that happened she sued.

Karapetian’s lawsuit raised three inter-related issues that she says were the bases for her termination: (1) “sex discrimination” by supervisors; (2) “retaliation for engaging [in] protected activity in opposition to sex discrimination”; and (3) “wrongful discharge in violation of public policy” after Karapetian filed complaints about poor medical care at the jail.

The first claim stemmed from Turner’s admission to coworkers that she was “angered and upset” about Karapetian’s ...

COVID-19 Changes the Face of Education in the Nation’s Prison Systems

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced prisons across the country to alter the educational programs they offer. The change has highlighted the inequality in available technology between different state prison systems and revealed that many educators are concerned not only with education, but also with the prisoners’ emotional and social well-being.

Maine Correctional Facility, for example, offers education via the video meeting application Zoom, using the internet from an administrative computer. Officials at Saginaw Correctional Facility in Michigan waived a ban on communication between volunteers and prisoners so that Delta College professors could instruct pupils via email. “At Great Meadow Correctional Facility in New York, college classes are postponed and graduation is cancelled,” The Marshall Project reports.

According to Mia Armstrong, writer for Slate.com, just as the U.S. education system inherently has glaring inequalities based on the individual’s financial means, so too there are disparities among prisons. “Many college administrators say corrections officials have bent over backwards to make sure college classes continue, but without laptops, tablets or an easy way to securely access the Internet, many college programs have had to put their semesters on pause. With classes on hold, some incarcerated students won’t be eligible ...

Florida Prisoners Win 3.9 Million in Media Credits in MP3 Player Lawsuit

The Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) agreed to place 3.9 million Tablet Media Credits into the accounts of prisoners who bought songs through the now-defunct digital music player program.

In 2011, FDOC allowed prisoners to purchase MP3 programs through a contract with Access Corrections. Over the six-year life of the contract, prisoners bought 30,299 players at around $100 apiece, plus 6.7 million songs for $1.70 each. FDOC received $1.7 million in commissions from Access. [See PLN, February 2019, p.26].

A “widely distributed advertisement” promised prisoners who participated in the digital music program that, “Once music is purchased, you’ll always own it!” Songs that could not be stored on the player due to memory space would go on a “cloud-based library” by connecting to a kiosk. Then, in 2017, FDOC terminated the program to enter into a contract with JPay, Inc., for a Tablet Program. Prisoners were required to turn over their MP3 players by January 23, 2017.

A class action lawsuit filed on February 19, 2019, alleged the confiscation of the MP3 players and loss of music was a violation of the Takings Clause under the Fifth Amendment. The parties reached a settlement on May ...

Prisoners Replace New Orleans Sanitation Workers Striking for Coronavirus Hazard Pay

Waste disposal workers, called “hoppers,” of Orleans Parish went on strike May 5, 2020, demanding the city of New Orleans provide them with better personal protective equipment (PPE) and hazard pay due to the coronavirus outbreak, according to Pay Day Report. People Ready, contracted through Metro Disposal to provide workers, fired the strikers and replaced them with prison laborers from a nearby work-release center in Livingston Parish.

Striking sanitation workers continued to protest outside Metro Service Group’s New Orleans East headquarters, wearing signs that read “I AM A MAN.”

Workers demanded that the company have trucks repaired, provide proper PPE daily (such as masks and gloves), sick leave during the pandemic, hazard pay of $150 a week and a pay increase from $10.25 per hour to $15 per hour. The company has a $10.7 million annual contract to collect trash in Orleans Parish north of Interstate 10.

Sanitation worker Jerry Simon stated that People Ready staffing services fired the entire crew after they went on strike. They then contracted with Lock5, LLC to provide prison workers at a rate of $9.25 per hour. Lock5 receives 64% of those wages for expenses. Prisoners end up retaining about ...

News in Brief

Arizona: A Maricopa County grand jury indicted Daniel Davitt, 60, on January 14,  2020 on charges of second-degree murder in the death of Lower Buckeye Jail guard Gene Lee on October 30. Buckeye Jail video shows Davitt talking to Lee on October 29, then suddenly grabbing Lee by the throat and pushing him backward, using his right leg to knock Lee off his feet. Lee sustained a head injury that put him in a coma; he died the next day. Davitt was moved to the Pinal County Jail on Halloween. The Arizona Republic uncovered records that Davitt had filed a civil rights complaint against Lee over a December 2018 incident, that Davit characterized as sexual harassment and voyeurism. It was dismissed on October 22, 2019 for failure to “state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Davitt was notified of the complaint’s dismissal the day before the attack. Pinal County records show Davitt is being held without bond.

Australia: The British Medical Journal Case Reports published a story in October 2019 on the first case of a “prison-acquired marijuana-based rhinolith.” A rhinolith is a calcium and magnesium stone that forms around a foreign body in the nose. ...