Sunday, February 18, 2018

Group calls for change after transgender woman killed at hotel

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A transgender advocacy group is calling for change in the way transgender people are identified by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
This comes after authorities identified 36-year-old Celine Walker as Cedric Walker after she was found shot to death earlier this month at an Extended Stay America hotel near the St. Johns Town Center.

"I'm here to be the voice for her and all of the rest of the transgender women who don't have a voice that have been murdered," transgender activist Paige Mahogany Parks said.
Walker's supporters gathered at a vigil Saturday at Friendship Fountain to remember her life.
Walker's friends said she was outstanding.
"She lived her life as a woman. She lived her life in peace," Parks said. "From what I gathered, she was a decent person."


Saturday, February 17, 2018

Alabama Reaches New Record High Number of Prison Homicides

On February 9, 2018, 25-year-old Travis Wilson was stabbed to death at St. Clair Correctional Facility, becoming the ninth person killed in an Alabama prison in less than a year. 
Alabama has the highest prison homicide rate in the country. At more than 30 homicides per 100,000 incarcerated people, the state's rate is more than six times the national average (five per 100,000) and more than double the rate of the next most violent state. Many of the victims are lower security prisoners, like 33-year-old Cedric Jerome Robinson, who was killed at Bibb County Correctional Facility in Brent, Alabama, on September 8, 2017, while serving a six-year sentence for fraudulent use of a credit card and possession of a forged instrument; he was scheduled to be released this month.
Mr. Wilson was in his assigned dorm when he was attacked by a prisoner who was not assigned to that dorm. How prisoners are able to gain entry into unauthorized areas of the prison and what the prison is doing to control unauthorized movement are central questions in EJI’s investigation at St. Clair. EJI alleged in a lawsuit filed in 2014 that St. Clair is one of the most dangerous prisons in the nation. Homicides, sexual assaults, stabbings, and robberies occur on a daily basis, and the majority of these incidents involve inmates in unauthorized areas. 
EJI’s lawsuit was filed after the Alabama Department of Corrections failed to address dangerous conditions and the extraordinarily high rate of violence at St. Clair, including six homicides in the preceding 36 months. EJI's investigation revealed a shocking level of serious and chronic violence, including sexual assaults, deadly violence, and daily stabbings. Correctional staff and prisoners consistently reported that a majority of the population is armed for protection, officers do not feel safe entering dorms and living areas, and stabbings are a daily occurrence. Former Warden Carter Davenport described the access to weapons as a "security nightmare." 
Expert Steve Martin observed that "the frequency of assaults resulting in life-threatening injuries is quite simply among the highest I have observed in my 43-year career in corrections." Pursuant to an agreement reached in the lawsuit in November 2017, ADOC has agreed over the next two years to implement crucial reforms and engage nationally recognized experts to reform practices. The recent homicide underscores the urgency of these reforms.
Through the lawsuit, EJI worked with national experts to identify remedies for the patterns of uncontrolled movement and violence at the facility. Experts identified video surveillance equipment as a critical tool for monitoring and tracking inmate movement and reducing violence. The experts found that the few cameras that did exist at St. Clair were thoughtlessly positioned, virtually all were broken, and none was connected to a recording surveillance system. ADOC agreed to submit a proposal to the legislature to fund installation of this equipment in the 2018 legislative session. At Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama, EJI revealed, and the Justice Department confirmed, widespread sexual abuse of incarcerated women by prison staff. Resulting reforms included the installation of a prison-wide video surveillance system, which demonstrates that these systems are achievable and advance the safety of staff and prisoners.
ADOC also agreed to request assistance from the National Institute of Corrections to address contraband interdiction and detection. Experts found that contraband weapons are a significant contributor to violence at St. Clair and that a majority of incarcerated people were armed to protect themselves. EJI alleged that knives were so widespread that prison leadership, including Warden Dewayne Estes, acknowledged that the prison did not have the capacity to separate and discipline inmates found with knives. EJI calls on the legislature to support the Commissioner in this request for assistance from NIC and to fund reforms identified by NIC. NIC was instrumental to advancing reforms at Tutwiler Prison and can play a crucial role in Alabama’s men's prisons.
EJI has recently reached an agreement with ADOC to retain an expert to conduct an independent audit addressing compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) at St. Clair. EJI found that many of the problems identified at Tutwiler Prison also exist at St. Clair, where a culture of sexual violence is tolerated. EJI agreed to donate funds to hire a PREA auditor to conduct an independent audit this spring. 
EJI has called on the legislature and ADOC to replicate the remedies implemented at Tutwiler, including new leadership, cameras, and PREA consultations. EJI believes these remedies can reduce or eliminate much of the violence, and these solutions can be implemented without the costly expenses and payments to private firms that litigation entails.
EJI has donated 100 percent of its legal fees to experts for monitoring and implementing reforms at Alabama prisons.
EJI has agreed to serve as a monitor at St. Clair. Anyone with information can contact our monitoring staff by sending an email to or calling (334) 269-1803.

7 Prison Guards in Pennsylvania Charged With Sexually Abusing Inmates


Six correction officers and one former officer have been charged with sexually abusing female inmates, some for more than a decade, at a long-troubled county prison in Pennsylvania, the authorities said on Thursday.
The seven men created a culture of fear and coerced sex inside the Lackawanna County Prison in Scranton, using their positions of power over the inmates to force them into sexual acts in cells and utility closets, officials said.
The sexual abuse was common and widely known within the prison, where guards alerted one another if supervisors were approaching while they were having sex, Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general, said.
“This was not one rogue prison guard,” Mr. Shapiro said at a news conference on Thursday announcing the charges. “They took advantage of them for their own sick gratification. Then they threatened to make these inmates’ lives worse if they told anyone about the abuse.”
The seven correction officers, one of whom left the prison in recent years, were arrested on Wednesday and each faces various charges, including sexual assault. If convicted, they could face decades in prison, the authorities said.
The charges were a result of a yearlong investigation by the attorney general’s office and a statewide grand jury. Mr. Shapiro said that many of the women who came forward with abuse allegations were reluctant to talk, leading him to believe there may be other women who are afraid to tell their stories.

The attorney general’s office took the case over from the Lackawanna County district attorney’s office, which cited a potential conflict of interest as its reason for handing over the investigation. Mr. Shapiro did not elaborate about the possible conflict, though he said that prison officials had been aware of assault allegations but that there was no evidence they had been fully investigated.
Mr. Shapiro said the state’s investigation remained open and hinted that investigators were looking into whether Lackawanna County officials ignored the abuse allegations.
“Whenever you see this kind of scope, whenever you see this kind of pervasive culture that was allowed to exist, you have to wonder how far up the chain this goes,” Mr. Shapiro said. “I want this community to know we are continuing to work to answer that question.”

Several female inmates told the grand jury that the guards offered them cigarettes, commissary goods and additional time on the phone in exchange for sex, according to court documents. While some guards took the inmates into closets to have sex, others showed little fear of getting caught and propositioned inmates in their cells.
At least one guard, who worked at the Lackawanna County Prison from 1999 to 2013, devised a system with other officers to alert one another if they were about to be caught, officials said. If the sexual acts inside the jail cell needed to be cut short, the court documents said, guards inside a jail monitoring room would remotely “click” the cell lock to alert the guard.
Some of the allegations are from more than a decade ago, a period during which several other Lackawanna correction officers were accused of assault. A former guard pleaded guilty in 2015 to sexually assaulting five inmates from 2002 to 2011. Several female inmates filed a lawsuit in 2016 claiming that they had been sexually abused by guards.
In the lawsuit, one of the inmates claimed that she reported allegations of sexual abuse to an assistant warden at the prison, who “sent officers into her cell to destroy her complaints.” Some guards named in the lawsuit were among those charged on Thursday.
A county spokesman told The Associated Press that many of the allegations “occurred many, many years ago,” and that the prison was safe.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Prison sentencing bill advances over Sessions objections

Legislation to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders advanced in the Senate Thursday despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions strongly urging the committee to vote it down.
In a 16-5 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
The bill has bipartisan support and was also approved by the committee in the last Congress, but failed to get to the floor for a vote. 

Sessions objected to the bill in a letter to committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Wednesday.
In the letter, obtained by The Hill, Sessions said the bill “would reduce sentences” for a “highly dangerous cohort of criminals,” and that passing it “would be a grave error.”
Grassley admonished Sessions during the markup, saying the former Alabama senator should have run for his old job if he wanted to legislate.
“Certainly we value input from the Department of Justice, but if [Attorney] General Sessions wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama,” said Grassley, who broke from his prepared comments to note that the Sessions seat is now held by a Democrat.
Grassley said he was “really irritated” that Sessions sent the letter because of his own defense for the embattled attorney general. Grassley alluded to his work in the Sessions's confirmation hearing, and the confirmations of others in the Justice Department, as well as what he said was his defense of Sessions when President Trump wanted to fire him.
“I don’t think that’s something somebody should do to friends,” he said of the letter.
The legislation approved by the panel reduces mandatory minimum penalties for nonviolent repeat drug offenders, eliminates the three-strike mandatory life in prison rule and gives judges discretion to sentence certain low-level offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum. 
It creates new mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving interstate domestic violence and those charged with providing weapons and other defense materials to prohibited countries and terrorists. It also creates a new five-year sentencing enhancement for trafficking heroin laced with fentanyl.
Grassley and Sens. Dick Dubin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) spearheaded the legislation.
But a contingent of conservatives may again keep the bill from ever getting to the floor for a vote.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who co-sponsored the legislation in 2015, voted down the bill in committee Thursday.
Cornyn said there appears to be a better path forward for prison reform under the current administration than sentencing reform.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

Arrests Made in Lackawanna County Prison Sex Abuse Investigation

SCRANTON -- State police arrested seven people Wednesday in connection with a state attorney general's investigation into sexual abuse and public corruption at the Lackawanna County Prison.
The arrests follow months of investigation by the state police and the state attorney general's office, but it's been years since sexual abuse allegations were lodged at the Lackawanna County Prison.
Troopers arrested seven men who all have ties to the prison, either current or former corrections officers.
One by one, they were led out of the state police barracks in Dunmore and taken to be arraigned at a magistrate's office in the borough.
After being processed and interviewed, the men were taken to their arraignments.
They are James Walsh Jr., Mark Johnson, Paul Voglino, George McHale, John Schnipes, George Efthimiou, and Jeff Staff who was still in his corrections officer uniform.


 Sweep targets street gang directed from California prison


Authorities arrested 31 people Wednesday who they said are connected to a violent, drug-running multi-state street gang directed from inside one of California's most notorious prisons.
The massive sweep by more than 750 law enforcement federal, state and local officers netted 29 suspects on drug and weapons charges across 10 Northern California counties.
Two others were arrested in Pittsburgh and the Medford, Oregon, area.
The operation was directed by two inmate members of the Northern Structure prison gang who used smuggled cellphones to communicate from inside Pelican Bay State Prison, federal and state officials said.
The inmates directed a subgroup of the Norteno street gang that grew in Woodland, west of Sacramento, in recent years. Both are affiliated with the Nuestra Familia gang.
Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig called it "a violent criminal street gang that has plagued much of the region and frankly reached across the nation."
"Guns, drugs and violence are the trademarks of this gang, and members of this gang have used those guns and weapons to assault and kill their enemies and even to kill innocent civilians," he said.
Two members of the Varrio Bosque Norteno gang were recently sentenced to life in prison for fatally stabbing 41-year-old Ronald Antonio in 2016 when they mistook him for a rival gang member as they rampaged through a Woodland mobile home park, he said. They were convicted separately from Wednesday's crackdown, in which suspects were charged with trafficking mostly in methamphetamine and heroin and with illegally possessing weapons as ex-felons.
Many of those charged were selling drugs and weapons using social media sites, said U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott.
Pelican Bay inmates Patrick Botello, 31, and Ricardo Villa, 39, are charged with drug trafficking and using a cellphone to direct drug trafficking in and out of prison.
Thirty-four weapons were seized Wednesday, along with $71,500 in cash and several hundred pounds of marijuana. Scott said authorities also seized a lab used to make butane honey oil from marijuana, a dangerous operation that often leads to explosions.
No one was injured as law enforcement officials served 69 search, parole and probation warrants backed by aircraft and the FBI's hostage rescue team.
Eighteen of those arrested Wednesday, including the two inmates, were named in newly unsealed federal indictments. Eleven others were swept up on various charges during Wednesday's raids and it is unclear where they will be prosecuted, Scott said.