Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Trump Urges Prison Reform, Not Sentencing Overhaul, After Pushback

The White House on Tuesday urged U.S. lawmakers to move ahead with legislation to help prisoners prepare for life after release, but he stopped short of calling for broader reforms such as changing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

Arguing that a wider overhaul lacks congressional support, the Trump administration recommended more prison work programs, more partnerships with businesses to help ex-prisoners find jobs and more funding for programs to reduce state prison recidivism.
No proposal was offered on sentencing reform, an issue that divides the Republican Party between law-and-order hardliners and moderates. That leaves Republican President Donald Trump stranded in the middle.
"The sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done," a White House official told reporters on a conference call. "By doing this in smaller bits and pushing prison reform now, this has a better chance of getting done."
The final outlines of the legislation will ultimately be decided by the Republican-controlled Congress, which may have difficulty passing a politically sensitive bill in an election year.
In his State of Union address last month, Trump pledged to help give former prisoners a second chance, but he also consistently talks tough about handling drug dealers.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has balked at any moves to reduce sentences. He angered Senator Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, when he wrote a letter this month slamming a bill supported by Grassley that would reform sentencing.
"Chairman Grassley is focused on passing sound policy, not the path of least resistance," committee spokesman Taylor Foy said in response to the White House comments on Tuesday.
Foy said Grassley's office continues to have "productive" conversations with the White House on this issue.
Conservative interests, such as Koch Industries, and many of Trump's evangelical Christian advisers support more expansive reforms, but have said they would back a narrower bill to help prisoners if that has a better chance of passing Congress.
The White House arrived at its compromise proposal after almost a year of talks with religious leaders, lawmakers and advocacy groups on criminal justice, according to Reuters interviews with nearly a dozen outside advisers and advocates.

Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner led the effort.
"He's really been the quarterback," said Paula White, pastor of a Florida megachurch and longtime spiritual adviser to Trump.
At a White House dinner in May for religious leaders, Kushner talked with guests about criminal justice reform.
Johnnie Moore, a member of a White House evangelical advisory board, was seated at a table with Kushner and wife Ivanka Trump at the dinner.
"We all started talking about all these other issues we're concerned about. And I think to Jared's and Ivanka's surprise and to our surprise, we found we all cared a ton about this issue," Moore told Reuters.
Evangelicals, who view helping prisoners as a biblical mandate, have pressed the White House for action.
Sources familiar with the discussions said the White House is considering administrative proposals to help prisons partner with churches and other nonprofits on job, housing and mentorship programs to benefit inmates long before they are released.
The American Conservative Union Foundation, which supports criminal justice reform, said it was cautiously optimistic that Congress would move ahead with legislation to help prisoners.
"A lot of hard work has gone into this effort, and the White House principles on prison reform are a meaningful step," said David Safavian, deputy director for the foundation's Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Two Wende correction officers charged with trying to bring drugs into prison

Two correction officers at Wende Correctional Facility were arrested Saturday for allegedly trying to bring drugs into the maximum security prison in Alden, State Police said Monday.
Gregory A. Sulkowski, 38, of Blasdell and James J. Keller, 37, of Buffalo were both charged with first-degree promoting prison contraband and seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance.
Sulkowski and Keller were arrested after the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Office of Special Investigation contacted state police, alerting them that the two officers had been found in possession of Suboxone, which can be used to treat opioid addiction, and other pills following a K-9 search of employees reporting to work, state police said. The correction officers were transported to State Police barracks in Clarence and processed. They were arraigned in Town of Alden Court.
Both have been suspended without pay, according to a state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokesperson.


Let inmates vote from prison, N.J. lawmakers say


State lawmakers on Monday announced legislation that would return voting rights to nearly 100,000 people locked up in prison or serving parole or probation in New Jersey.
If passed, it would make New Jersey the third state in the country to allow people to vote while serving prison sentences.  
The charge is being led by members of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus, who say laws prohibiting inmates from voting disproportionately hurt black New Jerseyans. 
"There is no relationship between voting and committing crimes," said state Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, one of the bill's prime sponsors. "To disenfranchise those who have made mistakes and are paying for them is wrong." 
It will likely face opposition from Republican lawmakers, one of whom said Monday that voters "shouldn't trust" inmates to choose elected leaders. 
Currently, New Jersey residents with criminal records are allowed to vote, but only after they have completed their sentence and paid back any restitution or court fees. The proposed law would allow inmates to vote absentee in their home district. 
Research from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which supports the new legislation, shows 94,000 people with criminal convictions are currently denied the right to vote -- a population larger than New Jersey's state capital, Trenton.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Inmate video captures disturbing conditions at infamous Louisiana State Prison 

Corey “C-Murder” Miller has ended his hunger strike against the Louisiana State Penitentiary, but a new video shared with the Daily Dot illustrates the “inhumane” conditions he was protesting against. A source close to his team also tells the Daily Dot that the former rap star is facing retaliation for the strike by being denied visits, and another inmate claims the infamous prison is serving food contaminated with shards of glass.
Miller was on strike for over a week to protest his and other inmates’ living conditions this month. Miller is serving a life sentence after being convicted of murder in 2002, though he maintains his innocence. His story gained national attention when Master P, the well-known rapper and Miller’s brother, said on Instagram that the prison nicknamed “Angola” was a place of “injustice.” C-Murder recorded music on Master P’s No Limit Records.
A source close to C-Murder’s team, who asked to be referred to as Rochelle, shared video footage with the Daily Dot which she said was filmed inside the prison in early February by a “prison guard that wants to report anonymously.” The video shows trash littering the floor and toilets overflowing. Its authenticity has been independently verified by the Daily Dot.
The prisoner’s voice in the video has been altered to maintain his anonymity. He narrates the scene at the prison: “feces all over the sink, everywhere in the cell, all over the hallway, and everybody’s property all soaking wet.”


Friday, February 23, 2018

Community Groups say New Prison is Not Needed


The Wisconsin State Assembly proposed a $350 million plan to build a new prison.  The following is a joint statement from the ACLU of Wisconsin, African-American Civic Engagement Roundtable, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), Black Lives Matter to Wisconsin Unitarian Universalists, EXPO (EX-incarcerated People Organizing), Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT), NAACP Milwaukee Branch, Priceless Incite, Uplifting Black Liberation and Community (UBLAC), Wisconsin Justice Initiative, Wisconsin Transgender Health Coalition, and Youth Justice Milwaukee reacting to the announcement:
Wisconsin does not need a new prison.  It needs to adopt smart reforms in its criminal justice system that reduce prison populations, reduce recidivism and make communities safer and stronger.  Many people are trapped in systems of incarceration because they have committed minor crimes that are often the result of substance abuse problems or mental illness.  Rather than warehousing people in prisons, we must provide treatment in our communities.  Too many people who could be supervised safely in their communities serve long sentences that decrease their chances of successful rehabilitation and reentry.  Similarly, hair trigger revocations of probation and parole send too many people back into the prison system for rule violations. Our groups are committed to creating meaningful reforms in these systems.
During a time when many states are reforming their broken criminal justice systems and closing down unneeded or unsafe prisons, the Wisconsin legislature seems intent on locking up more Wisconsinites.   Building costly new prisons isn't a solution to crime.    
We need a bold plan that follows the lead of states like Texas, where investment in community-based alternatives to prison not only saved taxpayers money but led to a dramatic reduction in the prison population and, at the same time, a decline in the crime rate that was greater than the national average.
Wisconsin needs legislators who are committed to fixing what is broken.  It is past time to address the continued criminalization of people of color, of the homeless, of the chemically-addicted, and of the mentally ill.  We need to provide quality treatment and services.  We need to envision a new criminal justice system—one that is substantially smaller and committed to the personal safety, health, and dignity of every individual as well as the broader community.
We should not be creating new laws that ensnare increasing numbers of people, and then building a new prison to accommodate this costly and ineffective punitive approach to criminal justice.    We can develop effective means of holding people accountable that increase safety in the short and long term; and address the socioeconomic and structural factors that make crime likely in the first place.
Wisconsin spends billions of dollars on a failed system of imprisonment that does not address the root cause of systematic problems.  According to the state’s data, about a third of people who leave the system are convicted and sentenced to a new prison term within three years. 
Wisconsin must do better by following in the footsteps of other states and reducing corrections populations and costs by: expanding approaches that have proven track records for keeping people out of prison; reducing the number of prison admissions that don’t involve new convictions; and reducing recidivism by removing barriers to employment.

Prison Book Bans: A Matter of Safety or Concern

The New Jersey prison system recently came under scrutiny as a result of its ban on a popular book about mass incarceration.

The book, written by civil rights attorney and legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, raises the prospect that prisons reconstitute a type of “racial caste system” in America. Alexander argues that incarceration makes it legal to discriminate against inmates in much the same way that slavery made it legal to discriminate against African Americans. Although many critics herald the book as being an outstanding contribution to criminal justice reform, New Jersey’s Department of Corrections determined that the book “posed a material danger to the safety of inmates and employees.” However, prison officials lifted their ban after receiving a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, condemning the state’s actions as being misguided, harmful, and unconstitutional.
Prison policies that lead to censorship are becoming more prevalent and problematic across the nation. In Texas, currently 150,000 inmates are subjected to a ban that prohibits access to approximately 10,000 book titles. Last year, it was reported that “inmates at two Mississippi prisons are no longer allowed to receive soft-cover books.” In 2013, prisons in Connecticut banned magazines for “safety and security” concerns. Included in the ban were nine issues of The Coalition for Prisoners Rights and an issue of Slam Magazine, which featured LeBron James on the cover. In 2011, a prisoner at the Kilby Correctional Facility near Montgomery, Alabama was denied access to a book that was sent to him by his attorney. The book, Slavery By Another Name, was deemed a security threat. Therefore, prison officials returned the book to its original sender.
Prison systems often cite safety as the primary reason for censoring reading materials. As in the aforementioned case at Kilby Correctional Facility, the refusal to deny an inmate access to Slavery By Another Name was substantiated by prison regulations. Regulations allow for the banning of written materials that could potentially “incite violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff.” The irony here is that the language used in this “modern day” prison regulation is reminiscent of the following 19-century slaves code:
“Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion, to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State … ”
The problem with slave codes is that they did much more than just prohibit slaves from learning to read. On a much deeper level, these codes established a system of control that extended well beyond physical slavery. Slaves codes created conditions whereby psychological control became possible. The problem with prison regulations that prohibit inmates from reading certain books is that it also creates conditions of control that extend well beyond physical confinement. According to Michelle Alexander, prison systems not only strip inmates of their rights, these systems also strips them of their humanity. Perhaps this is the real cause for concern.


Ex-prison staffer gets jail time for smuggling cellphone into Nebraska State Penitentiary 

Selena Kelly lasted less than 10 months as a correctional officer at the Nebraska State Penitentiary before word made it to investigators she was going to try to smuggle in a cellphone for an inmate.
On Thursday, a Lincoln judge sent her to jail for it.
Kelly, 22, pleaded no contest to unlawful acts by a corrections employee, a felony, for what she did sometime between Dec. 18 and Dec. 23, 2016.
Court records didn't include details about the investigation, but Deputy Lancaster County Attorney Dan Packard said the prison had gotten information that Kelly smuggled a cellphone into the penitentiary and delivered it to an inmate.
Dawn-Renee Smith, communications director at the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, confirmed Kelly worked there from March 7, 2016, until she was fired on Dec. 23, 2016.
The complaint against Kelly was filed seven months later.
"I know she is very remorseful about her actions," her attorney, Bill Chapin, said Thursday, arguing for probation.
But Lancaster County District Judge Darla Ideus said she didn't think probation was appropriate.
"Your actions had the potential to put lives at risk," Ideus told her.
She said Kelly had engaged in incredibly dangerous behavior that risked Kelly's co-workers at the time, other inmates and the community at large.
Kelly also had six offenses since then. While minor perhaps, the judge said, that's a lot and shows a disregard for the law.
Ideus gave Kelly a year in county jail. With "good time" she'll have to serve 190 days, and she can apply for work release.
Contraband cellphones have been a growing problem in prisons and jails across the country and have allowed inmates to continue to commit crimes while locked up.
In Nebraska, DCS employees recovered 320 contraband cellphones at the state's prisons between January and September 2016, the most recent numbers available Thursday.
Of those, 114 were discovered at the State Penitentiary.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ex-Arkansas judge faces prison term in sexual favors case

A former Arkansas judge who's set to be sentenced Wednesday for giving lighter sentences to male defendants in return for sexual favors had been investigated for similar crimes while a part-time prosecutor more than two decades ago, but federal prosecutors decided not to charge him because he agreed to step down, according to court records filed ahead of a hearing.
After leaving a prosecutor's office, Joseph Boeckmann later became a district judge at Wynne in eastern Arkansas. The federal government said he deserves a 37-month prison term for preying on men who had the misfortunate of having their cases come across his desk.
Boeckmann had faced up to 260 years behind bars if convicted of all charges in the 21-count indictment. He pleaded guilty last year to mail fraud and witness tampering for behavior that occurred while he was a judge.
Still, government lawyers want U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker to consider his actions as a deputy prosecutor when weighing a sentence. An FBI agent is prepared to detail two investigations into Boeckmann's having at least seven young men pose for him — some nude — in return for a reduced bond or the outright dropping of criminal charges.
"The similarity between the accounts given by the young men who the FBI interviewed in the previous case and the young men interviewed as part of the (current) case are striking and demonstrate the defendant's clear and continuous pattern of abuse dating back at least 20 years," the government lawyers wrote. They said it appeared Boeckmann ran for the bench so he could again have access to "young men in vulnerable positions."
The ex-judge's lawyer, Jeff Rosenzweig, said it would be unfair to cite the older claims because Boeckmann's failing health and memory would make it impossible to refute them. He said home detention would be appropriate for "an elderly, broken, ailing man."
Boeckmann, 72, left the bench in 2016 after an Arkansas panel that disciplines judges investigated complaints against him. While negotiating his removal, the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission demanded that the judge agree to never seek any elective office again.
"We were aware that he had been forced out of the prosecutor's office from a previous investigation," the commission's executive director, David Sachar, said Tuesday. "We were surprised to note that, it appeared, the public was not made aware of that and that made it possible for him to run for judge."
In 2016, as it investigated Boeckmann's behavior as a judge, The Associated Press filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking documents related to the previous investigations. The FBI denied the AP's request, citing a right to privacy. The AP was denied again on appeal.
Prosecuting Attorney Fletcher Long told an AP reporter in 2016 that his office did not have a copy of Boeckmann's letter of resignation. When asked about the previous investigation, he said he did not recall allegations involving Boeckmann. Long was traveling Tuesday and did not return a call to his office seeking comment.
The government's filing said the U.S. attorney's office declined to prosecute Boeckmann in the 1990s because he had agreed to resign as deputy prosecutor.
The U.S. attorney at Little Rock then was Paula Casey, who recently retired as dean of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock law school. She said Tuesday she didn't recall the previous Boeckmann investigations but that any decision in her office to bring a civil rights or public integrity case — or to decline one — would have also gone through the U.S. Justice Department. A message left with the current U.S. attorney's office was not returned.


Lawsuit: Louisiana prison brutally punishes suicidal inmates


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A Louisiana prison brutally punishes suicidal and mentally ill inmates by isolating them for months or even years, chaining them to wooden chairs and opening windows to expose them to extreme cold, a federal lawsuit claims.
The class action, filed Tuesday, asks the court to rule that prison officials are subjecting inmates at David Wade Correctional Center in Homer to unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment.” It also seeks a court-ordered end to the “extreme, abusive conditions” at the north Louisiana prison.
Prisoners who ask for mental health care instead are placed on suicide watch, stripped of their clothing and held in solitary confinement on a disciplinary tier for weeks, the 53-page suit alleges. Some prisoners have cut themselves or attempted suicide to escape the conditions, it says.
“Virtually no mental health care is provided to prisoners on extended lockdown, aside from scattershot, poorly administered and inconsistent medication,” the suit says.
A spokesman for the corrections department didn’t immediately respond to an email and phone call seeking comment.
Attorneys from the Advocacy Center and MacArthur Justice Center filed the suit. In July, they sued for access to the prison so they could interview inmates and staff members.
The new lawsuit claims there is a “culture of cover-up and excessive force” at Wade Correctional Center. Prison staff members respond to symptoms of mental illness by using chemical spray on inmates in their cells; taking away mattresses and clothes so prisoners must sleep on concrete in paper gowns; and opening windows to make it even colder in suicide watch cells, the suit claims.
“The use of extreme cold to punish behavior on the tier is not a single isolated incident and occurs so frequently that prisoners have a word for it, ‘bluesing’ or ‘getting bluesed,'” the suit says.
Staff members sometimes restrain suicidal inmates in a wooden chair for days at a time rather than provide them with mental health care, according to the suit.
Prisoners cooperating with the lawyers’ investigation were threatened with retaliation or moved out of the prison, the suit claims.
“Defendants have offered promises of putting in a ‘good word’ toward a transfer to another facility in exchange for individual cooperation to cease participating in the investigation,” the suit says.
Last summer’s lawsuit included a claim that mentally ill prisoners were forced to kneel or bend down and bark like dogs to get food. That allegation isn’t made in the class action.
The state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, corrections secretary James LeBlanc, Wade Correctional Center warden Jerry Goodwin and six other prison staff members are named as defendants in the class action.
Two prisoners, Anthony Tellis and Bruce Charles, are named as plaintiffs. Tellis has been on extended lockdown at the prison since February 2016 and only developed a mental illness after his incarceration; Charles was diagnosed with bipolar disorder before his incarceration and has remained on extended lockdown since June 2016, according to the suit.
Another mentally ill inmate mutilated his genitals, cut his wrists and tried to kill himself by jumping over barbed wire and onto concrete. The man received a disciplinary write-up for “general disobedience” as a result of the suicide attempt, the suit says.
Most of the prisoners serving disciplinary time on extended lockdown are mentally ill, confined in cells for 23 to 24 hours per day and only get one 10-minute phone call per month, the suit says.
“Due to the lack of human contact and uncontrolled mental illness, many will scream, laugh and talk to themselves. Others rock in place or deteriorate to more severe manifestations of their conditions, such as smearing blood or feces,” the suit says.
Wade Correctional Center opened in 1980 and can house up to 1,244 inmates, including hundreds in the compound where the lockdown units are located.

Advocacy group sues Justice for prison policy files

 WASHINGTON (AP) — An advocacy group is suing the Justice Department for not turning over records sought under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. The group says the records could shed light on the Trump administration's dealings with private prison companies in forming new policies on incarceration.

The Democracy Forward Foundation, partly funded by Democratic party donors, wants to know whether the administration's plans on prison reform may be influenced by donations and lobbying by private prison firms. Since March 2017, Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and adviser, has led White House efforts to develop criminal justice policy, including changes to the prison system.
President Barack Obama's administration had lessened the government's reliance on private prisons, but a February 2017 memo by Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned of a growing prison population.

Senate Approves Budget With Prison Funding Boost 


By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama prison system would get a $51 million funding increase in October, under a budget approved Tuesday by the Alabama Senate, as the state attempts to comply with a federal court order to improve mental health care to inmates.
Senators voted 26-2 for the proposed general fund budget. It now moves to the Alabama House of Representatives.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled last year that mental health care in state prisons was "horrendously inadequate" and ordered the state to improve conditions. Gov. Kay Ivey said Tuesday morning that the funding increase, as well as an additional $30 million proposed for this year, was critically important to complying with the order.
"The court has ruled quite clearly that we need more staff and correctional officers. We need better mental health care and mental health professionals. The judge is dead serious about getting this situation corrected," Ivey said.
The Senate has not yet voted on the additional $30 million for this fiscal year.
Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Maria Morris, who is representing state inmates in the lawsuit over prison health care, said the additional money for this year is a "first step to address needed facility upgrades, staffing increases, and the cost of prisoner healthcare." But she said it was unlikely to "fully address unconstitutional staff shortages or the provision of care."
She also said the discussion on the ADOC budget and how taxpayer money is spent should be accompanied by a discussion of sentencing reform.
:Targeted and evidence-based sentencing reform will ensure we are not unnecessarily incarcerating non-violent Alabamians who pose no threat to public safety or Alabamians who need treatment for mental health issues or substance abuse," Morris added in the emailed statement.
Senators delayed a vote on a proposed three percent pay raise for state employees. While state employees have seen merit raises, they have not had an across-the board increase since 2008.
Senate Finance and Taxation Committee Chairman Trip Pittman said there are ongoing negotiations because some senators also want a cost-of-living increase for state retirees. Pittman, R-Montrose, said he had concerns about the affordability of expanding the raise to retirees.
"If you want to do something, you need to give a one-time bonus," Pittman said.

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.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

As federal prisons run low on guards, nurses and cooks are filling in

When Kristan Morgan joined the U.S. Bureau of Prisons three years ago, the 30-year-old nurse expected to spend her days caring for the chronically sick and injured inside the nation's largest correctional system.
What she didn't expect: Being abruptly plucked from the busy medical unit in Tallahassee to pull guard duty in cell blocks — including a wing for solitary confinement.  
"We get a radio and set of keys, and we don't know which keys fit which doors," said Morgan, who often reports to guard duty in scrubs and running shoes because there are no extra officer uniforms.
Hundreds of secretaries, teachers, counselors, cooks and medical staffers were tapped last year to fill guard posts across the Bureau of Prisons because of acute officer shortages and overtime limits, according to prison records reviewed by USA TODAY and staff interviews.
The moves were made despite repeated warnings that the assignments placed unprepared employees at risk. And the practice has continued for years even though the agency has been rebuked by Congress and federal labor arbitrators.
"It puts inmate safety at risk and our own security at risk. When we play officer, we are not equipped," said Morgan, a local union official. "We are not familiar with the housing units. The inmates know exactly who we are and what our limitations are."
Still, Morgan continued, "I've been ordered to do it. I have no choice."
Morgan's extraordinary account also is an alarmingly common one.
As recently as July, a House panel directed the agency to “curtail its over-reliance” on the extraordinary deployments known as augmentation, once reserved only for emergency operations.
Instead, officials said, the practice has become commonplace at some institutions where even some plumbers, electrical workers, budget analysts and commissary staffers have been patrolling prison yards and filling officer vacancies in maximum-security units.
"While BOP reports that there is a higher incidences of serious assaults by inmates on staff at high and medium security institutions than at the lower security facilities, to meet staffing needs the BOP still routinely uses a process called augmentation whereby a non-custody employee is assigned custody responsibilities," a Senate Appropriations Committee report concluded in July. 
The Bureau of Prisons, in response to written questions, did not dispute the large numbers of civilians drafted for guard duty. Prison officials have contended that all employees are regarded as "correctional workers first." Indeed, all staffers are provided basic officer training as a condition of employment, but few civilians have been required to put that training into practice before they are tapped to plug security gaps.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Lawrence man given probation in beating of transgender woman

A Lawrence man will serve probation rather than jail time after he entered guilty pleas in Essex County Superior Court in Salem on Monday to charges he beat and kicked a transgender woman who was dancing with his wife at a Lawrence social club, the Lawrence Eagle Tribune reported.
Benjamin Espino, 43, of Boxford Street in Lawrence, faced three counts of assault and battery, one with a dangerous weapon, and a civil rights violation. A plea deal worked out between his defense attorney and prosecutors meant Espino will be on probation for five years, including wearing an alcohol monitoring bracelet.
The conviction on the charge of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, a shod foot, means Espino could serve 10 years in prison if he violates his probation. 
A charge of violating the victim's civil rights was continued without a finding for five years. If Espino stays out of trouble for that period of time, the charge will be dismissed.


Cuomo Includes Prison Reform In 30-Day Amendment

An amendment to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $168 billion spending plan would reform how the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision disciplines employees accused of safety and security violations.
The addition to the budget is aimed at strengthening the employee disciplinary process and streamlines hiring for correction officers.
“New York’s correction officers work day in and day out ensure the security of our communities,” Cuomo said. “The current system, however, makes it difficult to hold bad actors fully accountable. The bottom line is that those who break the law and abuse their positions of power must be held responsible for their misconduct, and this proposal will help to ensure accountability and promote safety in the correctional system.”
The changes to the disciplinary process include having an arbiter issue a disciplinary recommendation and have the DOCCS commission make the final determination in cases that involve serious acts of misconduct, including the use of excessive force, false reporting, failure to report excessive force or the use or possession of drugs or an inappropriate sexual relationship.
Cuomo’s budget includes several criminal justice system changes, including an elimination of bail for people who face misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges.


Former female prison guard accused of sex with inmate

A former guard at Lebanon Correctional Institution is facing four counts of sexual battery alleging she engaged in sexual conduct with an inmate.
Erica R. Douglas, 26, of Franklin allegedly engaged in sexual conduct with the unidentified inmate from November through December, according to a list of indictments issued Monday by the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office.

Did a Judge Cut a Pedophile’s Prison Term Because He Claimed a 3-Year-Old ‘Asked’ to Be Raped?

In December 2014, Kevin Jonas Rojano-Nieto was convicted of one felony count of sexual intercourse or sodomy of a child 10 years or younger, and one felony count of lewd acts upon a child under the age of 14. The events in Santa Ana, Calif., that led to his conviction were described as follows, per local broadcaster ABC7:
On June 4, 2014, Rojano-Nieto was playing video games in the garage of his home when a 3-year-old girl he is related to wandered into the area. At some point, he became sexually aroused by the toddler, pulled her pants down and assaulted her, according to officials at the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
During the assault, the girl’s mother was looking for her and attempted to get into the garage, but it was locked. The mother then searched for her daughter in a neighbor’s home. Rojano-Nieto is said to have put his hand over the girl’s mouth to keep her from crying for her mother. He then made the toddler touch his penis.
Rojano-Nieto then unlocked the garage door and let her into the home where her mother found her. Moments later, her mother found out what happened when her daughter complained of pain.
Rojano-Nieto was convicted, yet controversy arose in the sentencing phase because of a state mandate for severe punishments for sex offenders. In 2006, 70 percent of California voters approved Proposition 83 to increase penalties for sex offenses, which meant Rojano-Nieto’s “crime carried a mandatory 25-years-to-life sentence,” according to The Orange County Register. However, judge Marc Kelly felt that imposing the mandatory sentence would have been tantamount to “cruel and unusual” punishment, in part because Rojano-Nieto “almost immediately” stopped assaulting the toddler. Kelly sentenced Rojano-Nieto to ten years in prison instead. The Register reports:
Kelly agreed that under most circumstances the [25-year mandatory] sentence would be appropriate.
“However, in looking at the facts of Mr. Rojano’s case, the manner in which this offense was committed is not typical of a predatory, violent brutal sodomy of a child case,” Kelly said. “Mr. Roiano did not seek out or stalk (the victim). He was playing video games and she wandered into the garage. He inexplicably became sexually aroused but did not appear to consciously intend to harm (the victim) when he sexually assaulted her.”
The defendant “almost immediately” stopped and “realized the wrongfulness of his act,” Kelly said.
“Although serious and despicable, this does not compare to a situation where a pedophilic child predator preys on an innocent child,” Kelly said. “There was no violence or callous disregard for (the victim’s) well-being.”
The judge also noted the defendant “has shown extreme remorse for his actions and has been willing to accept the consequences,” Kelly said. “Mr. Rojano was born into and raised in a dysfunctional familiar environment.”
Pointing to a doctor’s report, the judge said that while growing up the defendant suffered “a great deal of family disruption and abuse, making him an insecure, socially withdrawn, timid, and extremely immature young man with limited self-esteem.”
Unfortunately, the notorious Your News Wire fake news site opted to turn this tragic story into clickbait, publishing a (mostly accurate) summary of the case under the false headline “Judge Cuts Pedophile’s Prison Term Claiming 3-Yr-Old ‘Asked’ to Be Raped,” and including the following fabricated statement in the middle of their article:
[Judge Kelly] also backed the claim from child rapist Kevin Rojano that the young girl initiated the act of sodomy. Rojano said in his own defense that “she asked me to do it.“
This false notion that the defendant claimed the victim “asked me to do it,” and that the judge “backed” his claim, appeared nowhere in any reporting on the case, nor in the judge’s sentencing analysis.
Rather, the judge held that he was recommending a lesser sentence because Rojano-Nieto had acted on a momentary impulse, had promptly recognized its wrongfulness, and had stopped almost immediately:
Sodomy of a 3 year old child is a horrific crime, and imposition of harsh punishment will ordinarily not give rise to constitutional concerns.
However, in looking at the facts of Mr. Rojano’s case, the manner in which this offense was committed is not typical of a predatory, violent brutal sodomy of a child case:
Mr. Rojano did not seek out or stalk his sister. He was playing video games and she wandered into the garage. He inexplicably became sexually aroused but did not appear to consciously intend to harm [her] when he sexually assaulted her; as noted by defense, in an instant, he reacted to a sexual urge and stopped almost immediately after he put his penis in [her] anus.
Within seconds of commencing his offense, he realized the wrongfulness of his act and stopped without ejaculating.
Although serious and despicable, this does not compare to a situation where a pedophilic child predator preys on an innocent child. There was no violence or callous disregard for [the victim’s] well-being.
Per Dr. Apodaca: Mr. Rojano is not a sexual predator and is not a pedophile, nor a sexual deviant. As the defense has noted, he is a confused young man who acted inappropriately in an instant with immensely damaging ramifications for the victim, his family, and himself.
As a result, a mandatory term of 25 years to Life in state prison for Mr. Rojano’s offense is grossly disproportionate to his individual culpability, and thus would amount to cruel and unusual punishment in this Court’s eyes.
Kelly’s decision sparked protests and nationwide calls for him to be removed from the bench, and for his sentence ruling to be overturned.
In a unanimous decision, the 4th District Court of Appeal held that there was nothing cruel or unusual about imposing the mandatory sentence in Rojano-Nieto’s case because his offense was not significantly different from other cases of sodomy on a child under 10. The appellate court ordered that Rojano-Nieto be returned to Orange County to be re-sentenced, as the prosecution had argued he should be:
We do not agree with the trial court’s assessment of the significance of Rojano’s actions. Although the trial court minimized the serious nature of Rojano’s molestation of [the victim] by characterizing it as happening “in an instant” and stopping “within seconds” when Rojano “realized the wrongfulness of his act,” the trial court ignored important undisputed evidence about the entire scope of Rojano’s actions. Crucially, Rojano was charged with and convicted of two separate criminal acts against [the victim], namely (1) sodomizing her, which was the factual basis for count 1; and (2) making her touch his penis and masturbate him, which was the factual basis for count 2. During the interview with the social worker, [the victim] stated that Rojano made her touch his penis after he sodomized her. Therefore, it is simply not accurate to characterize the evidence as showing that Rojano acted momentarily and impulsively, and then immediately stopped the molestation when he recognized that it was wrong. Instead of ceasing the molestation after sodomizing [the victim], Rojano continued to molest [the victim] by committing a second sexually predatory criminal act. Further, the evidence shows that rather than being based on a momentary impulse that occurred in an “instant,” Rojano’s molestation of [the victim] was something upon which he had time to reflect before acting. Specifically, Rojano locked the garage door and spoke with [the victim] about buying [her] Cheetos before commencing his wrongful acts.
For the reasons we have set forth … we conclude that Rojano committed a grave and serious offense when he sodomized [the victim]. Therefore, a sentence of 25 years to life is not grossly disproportionate to the crime and does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
If Rojano-Nieto had claimed his 3-year-old victim had “asked to be raped,” that element would surely have been cited by the prosecution as a factor supporting a harsher sentence. But again, no such claim was mentioned anywhere in their brief to the court.