Friday, March 30, 2018

Aryan Nations prison gang suspected of sending threat letters


Local media reported on March 16, 2018, that four threatening letters were received at the federal courthouse in Memphis, Tennessee.
Federal authorities have launched an investigation into the letters which included “death threats” to local federal judges, prosecutors and court workers (including the families). The letters also stated there was a bomb in the federal building.
U.S. District Attorney Michael Dunavant said, “we are aware of the threat, and the U.S. Marshals Service and FBI are investigating.” “We take all threats to federal employees and facilities seriously.”
According to the District Attorney, the letters mention various neo-Confederate and white nationalist themes such as “901 Confederates,” “#savethestatues,” “this is a call for Aryan resurgence,” and “they are members of a vanguard of Aryan resurgence and ultimately total Aryan victory.” One letter allegedly mentions, “the inmate is taking every step to recruit anti-government soldiers.” The letters also said that “people are going to kill and torture federal workers and their families.”
The letters are reportedly signed by four identified inmates currently incarcerated at the East Arkansas Regional Unit in Marianna, Arkansas. All four inmates are in prison for committing serious crimes. The name listed on the return address for all four letters is “Arron Lewis.” Lewis, who included his inmate number, was convicted in January 2016 of the 2014 murder of Beverly Carter, an Arkansas realtor. Lewis was sentenced to life in prison without parole on the capital murder charge. The jury also sentenced him to life in prison for the kidnapping charge. Both charges will be served consecutively. Investigators have yet to determine who actually wrote the letters.
District Attorney Mike Dunavant says the U.S. Marshals Service is reviewing and following their normal protocol for heightened security measures for the federal building and personnel. A spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Corrections says they are cooperating with the U.S. Marshals Service, and referred any questions about potential charges against the inmates to the feds.
The Aryan Nations is the largest prison gang operating in Tennessee’s state correctional system. Despite having the same name and using similar hate symbology, it’s an entirely separate organization than the former neo-Nazi group called “Aryan Nations” based in Hayden Lake, Idaho. Further, it’s not affiliated with the Idaho-based group’s prison outreach efforts during the 1980s.
The Aryan Nations prison gang has more than 230 members in Knox County, Tennessee, alone, according to a law enforcement source. Other recent estimates put the group’s size at between 900 and 950 total members throughout Tennessee, as of 2016.
Aryan Nations gang members are known for carrying out violent crimes both inside and outside of prison. For example, Ronnie L. Wilson, an Aryan Nations gang member, is accused of shooting a Knoxville police officer on January 11, 2018, during a traffic stop. Wilson was later captured in Blount County a few days later. Also, in June 2014, five Aryan Nations gang members were charged with attempted murder in the horrific beating of a fellow white supremacist. Other members have been charged with murder, burglaries and firearms violations since 2014.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Prison Education at Harvard


The Prison Studies Project partnership with Boston University’s longstanding prison education program and the Massachusetts Department of Correction marks the first time that traditional college students learn alongside incarcerated students as part of a curriculum for college credit. Never before had Harvard University students and men and women enrolled in BU’s program shared a classroom inside the walls of prison. With a one-year HILT grant in 2013, we were able to include graduate students from Harvard Divinity School, which marks the first time in national history, as far as we know, that post-secondary prison education included, inside the prison classroom, both graduate and undergraduate students from a traditional college campus.
With funding, we will be able to sustain and measure the impact of the work we have begun. We have a powerful opportunity to institutionalize innovative teaching and learning at Harvard. To be an active community citizen is to reach out to people who are often denied educational opportunities; Harvard’s support of prison education is invaluable as is the opportunity for Harvard students to learn from peers who are incarcerated.
In 2009, Catherine Sirois and her classmates wrote to the dean of sociology… “…Reading about prison and the rise in mass incarceration cannot compare to the actual experience of entering a prison […] The class was without a doubt the most transformative, eye-opening course any of us has ever taken at Harvard. You can learn a lot from reading informative articles and books, but you will never truly understand the materials you are studying unless you engage with them firsthand.”
One of the classmates from Norfolk, George, also wrote a letter about his experience after the course was finished. When our class met, he had been incarcerated for nearly 40 years. In his words: “Education in isolation does not have the same impact as in an integrated environment. After all, isn’t that what much of the college experience is built around? Bringing people of varying ethnicities, and social classes together, so that individuals may become more aware of the commonalities that make us ultimately the family of [hu]man!. His greatest learning experiences have taken place in an integrated environment. He writes, these experiences have never failed to leave me with a greater sense of self-worth, along with strengthening my sense of connection to the community at large… “Thank you for your efforts in bringing this course into being,” he writes. “I hope this experience marks a return to greater community involvement in education, and rehabilitation, within the incarcerated community.”
Catherine Sirois, a Stanford PhD student in Sociology, who continues to draw on the lessons that she learned nearly 10 years ago at Norfolk prison, writes:“My experience with prison education sparked a desire to more fully understand incarceration in America and to work for change. More than that, the experience underscored the importance of doing this work in collaboration with those who have been most harmed by the injustice of the American punishment system. As a scholar and an educator, I hope to provide transformative educational opportunities beyond the gates (or the palm trees) of the institutions to which we are so privileged to belong. In my experience, extending the resources of our institutions lifts up those who have for so long been denied those resources and makes all of us better students, teachers, and citizens.”
Check out the Beyond the Gates website to see how Harvard has supported prison education from 1833 to now and what more needs to be done to actualize equal access to education.

Teens raped in prison have civil rights, Michigan appeals court rules

The state can be held liable for teens raped in Michigan prisons, after the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled a state law that halted civil rights at the prison gate was unconstitutional.
In a 2-1 decision released Tuesday, a Court of Appeals panel threw out a 1999 law that said the state’s civil rights law, the Elliott Larson Civil Rights Act, doesn’t apply to prisoners.
That 1999 law, aimed at limited the state’s liability in a lawsuit filed by women who had been raped in Michigan prisons, was pushed by then-Gov. John Engler. Engler’s handling of that suit was raised as a concern when he was named interim president of Michigan State University in January, in the midst of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.
The majority opinion, written by Judge Kirsten F. Kelly, also ruled the state is not immune from liability in lawsuits filed by prisoners alleging violations of their civil rights.
The ruling clears the way for a lawsuit involving more than 900 young men  to move forward. A similar lawsuit filed by women assaulted in prison cost the state $100 million.
“Children in Michigan prisons have protections under the civil rights act. We all win,” Deborah LaBelle, the lead attorney representing the prisoners, told Bridge Tuesday. “Once you decide that people in jail are still people, it leads you to say … the state has to be held accountable for their wrongs; they don’t have immunity for violating their citizens’ rights."
The lawsuit was filed in 2013 with seven unnamed prisoners and former prisoners, and has grown into a class action with more than 900 young men who claim they were harmed, sexually or otherwise, while being forced to live in the general adult prison population. In 2013, the Michigan Department of Correction changed its policies and now segregates teens from adult prisoners.
The lawsuit contends prison officials did not take claims of sexual assault seriously, and created a culture of institutional indifference to assaults.
In 2015, Bridge published segments of video depositions of the unnamed prisoners. The stories of the prisoners, who did not know each other, had a grim and graphic similarity that added credence to their claims of sexual assault by older prisoners.
In his dissent, appellate Judge Peter O’Connell said that “allowing plaintiffs to use the (state civil rights law) in this innovative manner places an impossible burden on public service providers and is antagonistic to current state law.”
Megan Hawthorne, press secretary for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, representing the state in the case, said the office is reviewing the ruling. 
“After almost two dozen appeals and stays, we want to get to trial,” LaBelle said. 


Monday, March 26, 2018

Drones delivering contraband to prisons a budding problem

PENSACOLA, Fla. — A package of contraband covered in grass clippings that was dropped by a drone at a Panhandle prison is one of the most recent examples of inmates using advanced technology to smuggle illegal items behind prison walls.
The News-Journal reports that authorities are investigating two confirmed drone drops at Florida prisons in the last 30 days. One of those drops was discovered at a Panhandle prison after correctional officers spotted the drone, which was delivering a cellphone and tobacco.
The Florida Department of Corrections declined to specify at which institution the drop happened and would only confirm it happened at a prison in the Northwest region of the state.
Officials say drones plague prisons across the nation, and most corrections departments are trying to keep up with new technology.
"We know that drones are a real issue," FDC spokeswoman Michelle Glady said, adding that aside from the two confirmed sightings, there have been several other suspected drone-related drops.
A drone incidents factsheet provided by the department says the drone was observed by a correctional officer, who saw it successfully deliver contraband inside of the prison.
The correctional officers immediately responded to the area where the drone was spotted and found the package, which contained a cellphone with accessories such as chargers, earbuds and a SIM card, and several grams of tobacco.
The package was covered with dead grass clipping in an apparent attempt to camouflage or conceal the package.
State Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said he was made aware of the drone issue during recent tours of area facilities.
"It’s really a high-tech operation and the fact they’re obviously coordinating with people outside to drop these items is scary," Broxson said.
Glady said drone usage is plaguing prisons across the nation, and most corrections departments are trying to keep up with new technology. The department foresees some issues in investigating drone smuggling operations because it can be difficult to determine contraband was dropped by a drone unless correctional officers spot the device in action, she said. Also, a drone operator does not need to be close by to work the device.
Glady said any drone-related contraband cases will be investigated by the department’s Office of the Inspector General and forwarded to the State Attorney’s Office.
"We’ve had two confirmed sightings this year, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but in years past, it was completely unheard of," she said.
State lawmakers proposed legislation at this year’s session that would have added prisons and county jails to the list of sites where drone usage is prohibited, but those bills did not pass.


Saturday, March 24, 2018




Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Prison Officials Reach $18.9 Million Deal With Youth Inmate 

By TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The state Department of Corrections reached an $18.9 million settlement Tuesday with a former youth prison inmate who suffered brain damage after she tried to hang herself in her cell.
Sydni Briggs' attorney, Eric Haag, said in a statement that the deal is the largest civil rights settlement the state has ever paid. Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook didn't immediately reply to an email seeking confirmation.
"I am satisfied that this historic settlement will have a real and significant impact on the quality of Sydni's life, for the rest of her life," Haag said. "This was a very preventable tragedy and her life has been needlessly changed forever."
Briggs was 16 in July 2015 when she was sentenced to the state's youth prison outside Irma for theft. She tried to hang herself with strips of her T-shirt in her cell that November.
Guards saved her but she suffered a brain injury and will require round-the-clock care the rest of her life. She filed a federal lawsuit last year alleging staff ignored signs that she was contemplating suicide and failed to protect her.
Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher said in a news release announcing the settlement that outside attorneys conducted a review of the department's actions. They found that responding guards may not have followed existing policies and a proper investigation wasn't conducted at the time the incident occurred. He said internal investigations have resulted in "employee separations."
Andrew Yorde and Darrell Stetzer, the two guards who found Briggs, ended their employment with the Department of Corrections this month, according to the agency.
Haag said in his statement that Briggs suffered from depression and anxiety. Prison psychologists told her to alert staff immediately if she felt like hurting herself and knew Briggs had to be watched closely, Haag said.
On the day she tried to hang herself she activated her cell call light, Haag said. Prison policy required guards to respond as soon as possible but video showed no one responded for 24 minutes, when they found her hanging. Haag went on to say that guards falsified a log to show they had checked her cell every 15 minutes.
Documents that Litscher included with his news release show a federal auditor noted during a facility tour in June 2015 that staff members weren't immediately responding to lit call lights.
The FBI launched a sweeping investigation into allegations of prisoner abuse, sexual assault, intimation of witnesses and victims and record-tampering at the prison in 2015. That probe continues. No one has been charged thus far.
A federal judge last year ordered guards to limit the use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and shackles in response to a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union. Prison workers have said that order has emboldened inmates to act out. One guard vs. inmates clash in October sent five workers to the hospital. Two weeks earlier a juvenile knocked out a teacher.
The state Senate unanimously approved a bill Tuesday hours before the settlement was announced that would close the youth prison by 2021 and replace it with smaller regional facilities. The most serious juvenile offenders would be placed under state control. Other juveniles would be housed in county-run facilities.
The Assembly was expected to pass the bill Thursday and send the measure on to Gov. Scott Walker's desk.
"How do you put a price on the suffering of young teenagers who have been neglected at (the prison)?" Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, a La Crosse Democrat, tweeted Tuesday. "This should have never been allowed to spiral out of control."
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Juneau Republican, said he knew a settlement was coming but it wasn't a factor in the Senate vote. The announcement of the settlement came a couple hours after the vote.


Prison Reform Advisory Board Brings Fresh Perspective

The first meeting of the North Carolina Prison Reform Advisory Board on March 20 was another important step in the endeavor towards improving operations and making prisons safer for employees, the inmates, visitors and ultimately the public.
The meeting brought together the eight-member Board predominantly consisting of experts in the field of corrections — North Carolina, Ohio and the federal system. The Board members will provide ongoing expert advice on best practices for maintaining and improving prison safety. They will look at various topics including operations, training, staffing, technology, facility design, and inmate work and program assignments.
“We never want to be blind to our own blindness,” Secretary Erik A. Hooks said. “We hear about a lot of things that we do well, but you (Board) will bring a fresh perspective and fresh set of eyes to our practices.”
The Board, chaired by retired Army Maj. Gen. Beth Austin, heard from Hooks, Michelle Hall and John Madler of the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission on state sentencing laws, Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter on an overview of the state’s 55 facilities, and Chief Deputy Secretary Pam Cashwell on actions taken following receipt of reports from the National Institute of Corrections and the Governor’s Crime Commission report from the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy.
During the presentation, the Board members raised issues, as well as shared best practices from their own correctional experiences. Austin said she is honored to be the chair and is looking forward to seeing where the Board will go regarding suggestions for state prisons.
“This has been very informative for me,” Austin said after the presentations, “especially for someone outside the prison system. In the next few weeks, we’ll look at where do we go from here.”
Secretary Hooks said he chose Austin to chair the Board for her proven track record of leadership and advisory abilities based on many years of service with the National Guard. In her role as assistant adjutant general, she advised the Adjutant General on plans and policies, as well as recruiting, retention, training, budget issues and personnel readiness.
The other Board members are:
  • Art Beeler, Retired Federal Bureau of Prisons;
  • Stanley Drewery, Retired Office of Staff Development and Training; President SEANC;
  • James French, Retired NCDPS; Former Deputy Secretary Adult Correction and former Department of Correction Prisons Director;
  • Stephanie Hollembaek, Retired Federal Bureau of Prisons;
  • Mike Killmer, Retired Federal Bureau of Prisons;
  • Dorothy Holmes Ledford, Retired former N.C. Department of Correction; and
  • Gary Mohr, Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Mohr told the group, “I appreciate the candor and transparency here today. We have to look at what happened here through the eyes of North Carolina.”
“I am here representing the men and women in the gray and black uniforms,” added Beeler, a retired Federal Bureau of Prisons warden, who pointed toward a North Carolina correctional officer seated in the room. “We want them to go home safely after their shift. I want to do whatever I can do to keep our correctional officers who work for very little money safe.”


Staff keeps quitting at NC’s toughest prisons. ‘It’s critically dangerous.’


Dangerous staff shortages have worsened inside some of North Carolina’s toughest prisons, despite recent state efforts to address the problem.
At Lanesboro Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison that has been plagued by violence, more than one of every three officer positions was vacant in January, new data shows. The vacancies there have climbed sharply over the past year.
Prison leaders have tried temporary measures to maintain order. They’ve required many officers to work overtime, which can lead to burnout and fatigue.
And they’ve even forced some officers to drive 35 miles to work extra shifts at Lanesboro, southeast of Charlotte. But they scrapped that plan after officers at medium-custody Albemarle Correctional Institution complained about having to work at Lanesboro on their days off.

Read more here:

Read more here:
Dangerous staff shortages have worsened inside some of North Carolina’s toughest prisons, despite recent state efforts to address the problem.
At Lanesboro Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison that has been plagued by violence, more than one of every three officer positions was vacant in January, new data shows. The vacancies there have climbed sharply over the past year.
Prison leaders have tried temporary measures to maintain order. They’ve required many officers to work overtime, which can lead to burnout and fatigue.
And they’ve even forced some officers to drive 35 miles to work extra shifts at Lanesboro, southeast of Charlotte. But they scrapped that plan after officers at medium-custody Albemarle Correctional Institution complained about having to work at Lanesboro on their days off.

Read more here:

Mississippi Warden Testifies on State Prison Conditions 

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A warden testified Tuesday that he saw reports that document what plaintiffs argue are unconstitutionally abusive conditions at a Mississippi state prison.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center are arguing that the state has been aware of dangerous conditions at East Mississippi Correctional Facility. Defense attorneys, however, say the conditions are acceptable, and that some prisoners' harm is self-inflicted.
Located near Meridian, the prison is privately operated under contract by Utah-based Management and Training Corp.
Warden Frank Shaw oversees the day-to-day operations of the notoriously violent prison.
Plaintiffs presented evidence Tuesday of reports compiled by prison staff that documents conditions like inmate deaths and injuries and prison fires. Shaw testified that he sees the reports before they are sent to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
According to most recent reports presented by prosecutors, 78 inmates were injured in June 2017.
Four inmates have died so far in 2018, and one remains in intensive care. When asked whether he considers this a large number of deaths in a year, Shaw said, "Every corrections facility I've ever worked in has had a certain number of deaths."
Fires, qualified as major or minor, are also documented. According to reports presented Tuesday, there were no fires over 11 months.
But several inmates have testified during the three weeks of the federal trial that fires are started by inmates on a daily basis, and plaintiffs have presented video evidence of such. Oftentimes, fires are started in cells to get guards' attention.
Shaw testified that inmate fires are not documented. He said, "disaster fires" would be reported.
When asked if he considers fires started by inmates a "major problem," Shaw said no. Video evidence of fires from 2016 and 2017 presented by prosecutors, he said, is outdated.
Plaintiffs also argued that much of the prison's violence can be attributed to insufficient supervision.
Several inmates have testified that guards were not present during attacks or medical emergencies. Shaw testified he is ultimately responsible for ensuring mandatory security posts at the prison are filled "if at all possible."
If guards leave their posts while on duty, Shaw said they are disciplined "depending on how often it happens and what the type of abandonment may be."
In addition to the reports, plaintiffs showed video evidence of several incidents involving prison guards. In two incidents, they were standing back as an unrestrained inmate assaulted another. Shaw said they did so to protect their own safety.
In other videos, guards used pepper spray to subdue inmates while they were in their cells. The intention is to cause inmates pain, forcing them to subdue. Pepper spray can irritate eyes and induce coughing.
When asked if cells are decontaminated after being sprayed before inmates are put back inside, Shaw said there is not a "blanket policy on how to decontaminate a cell." Sometimes a blower is used to air out the cell, and other times, Shaw said keeping the cell door open is enough.
Shaw is one of the state's primary witnesses for the defense and will testify again once it begins to make its case in the coming weeks.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

CORNELL UNIVERSITY Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, founding member of the Cornell Prison Education Program, and Nolan Bennett, an assistant government professor at Georgetown, discussed their research on prison systems.

US Prison System Is Ripe for Reform, Panelists Say

The term “prison-industrial complex,” which describes the overlap between government institutions, exploitation and imprisonment as a way to address political and economic issues, was coined during President Dwight Eisenhower’s term to describe the connection between corporations and the privatization of prisons in the criminal justice system.
Katzenstein and Bennett’s research seeks to coin a new term that would help spark a desire for research and discovery in the prison system.
“For some, the term is at best too simple; at worst it verges on the conspiratorial,” Katzenstein said. “Our intention here is to recover the terminology of the prison-industrial complex as an investigatory tool or an investigatory narrative.”
Katzenstein and Bennett began researching the experiences of individuals in the prison system after observing racism in the institutions, they said, prompting them to take a narrative-based research approach.
“Racism has a long historical pedigree that is braced by the codification of racist discourse — the ‘savage native peoples,’ the ‘negro is 3/5 of a person,’ the contemporary criminalization of race,” Katzenstein said. “All these historical periods are connected by a narrative thread.”
With different meanings of the phrase “prison-industrial complex,” transcending through different histories and different communities, Bennett and Katzenstein felt it was time to take a different approach to describing the prison system today.
“Inside prisons and jails, the language of the prison industrial complex is often brandish as the all-purpose explanation for all manner of punitive practice,” Katzenstein said. “On the streets, it is generally deployed as the vocabulary of choice to mobilize activists under the banner of prison abolition; in the world of academics, the prison-industrial complex as a language has not enjoyed much scholarly legitimacy.”
The two scholars cited the prison system in California as a motivation for using the new term.
In California, the Orange County’s Inmate Welfare Fund was set up to provide benefits to the inmates, according to Katzenstein. However, the funds are often directed elsewhere and not received by the inmates, Katzenstein said.
“Most of these services are paid for by the mostly poor families of the mostly poor prisoners,” Katzenstein said. “The money generated, though it is mandated to be spent on inmate welfare, is often spent on the bricks and mortar of prison operations.”
In Orange County, the inmate welfare fund had a balance of about $5.3 million in 1999, according to Katzenstein, but a small percentage of that money goes directly to the inmate programs.
“Over the previous three years, 41 percent of the revenue was spent on jail expansion, 59 percent on inmate programs,” Katzenstein said. “But those inmate programs actually involve a lot of spending that [money] on the salaries of people the jail had hired.”
Basing their evidence on examples like California, Katzenstein and Bennett believe the term “jail-industrial complex” more effectively describes the relationship between legal and financial systems that often impact jails.
“We propose the jail-industrial complex, a narrative about the newly formed and increasingly rapacious extraction of resources from the poor by the transformation of the jail into a market actor,” Bennett said.
For Bennett, the commercialization of jails as for-profit institutions is a cause of the lack of basic rights for inmates and their families.
“The financialization of jails does not simply threaten to corrupt corrections officers or degrade the conditions of jails,” Bennett said. “It focuses the purposes of extraction on the survival and growth of the jail system rather than on the rights and humanity of the imprisoned and their families.”
Bennett and Katzenstein have not yet published their research, but they presented at Georgetown to get input from the crowd.
“This is the first time that we’ve talked about our work, and it is a work in progress,” Katzenstein said.
Both Bennett and Katzenstein agree that replacing the term “prison-industrial complex” with “jail-industrial complex” will require a societal shift, but they hope that a new perspective will at least be considered.
“This term is more of a shovel than a magnifying glass,” Bennett said. “We are seeking to illuminate how private and public actors work together; it encourages [people] to look inductively at the most decentralized areas of punishment.”


Monday, March 19, 2018

Good news, bad news for innocent people in prison

In 2017, Ledura Watkins, 61, was freed after serving more than 41 years in a Michigan prison for a murder he did not commit. This was the longest incarceration before exoneration in United States history. Other than his record-breaking incarceration, Watkins’s case was sadly familiar to students of wrongful conviction, a terrible miscarriage of justice that never should have happened.

Watkins was convicted with just a hair of physical evidence, literally. One hair found on the victim reportedly had 15 similarity points with Watkins’s hair; such forensic analysis later was shown to be unreliable. A witness who said he committed the murder with Watkins later admitted that he lied. Police reports that would have discredited the witnesses against Watkins, reports that identified another suspect who failed a lie detector test, never were disclosed to Watkins’s defense, as required of police and prosecutors.
Watkins is one of 139 innocent defendants who were exonerated in the United States in 2017, according to a new report by the National Registry of Exonerations. That brings the total to 2,161 exonerations since 1989 — and that’s only the visible tip of a much larger mass of wrongfully convicted defendants who are never cleared.

I started learning about wrongful convictions 13 years ago, when I was attorney general of Ohio. I received a phone call from Mark Godsey, a former prosecutor and director of the Ohio Innocence Project. He told me that his client, Clarence Elkins — who was in his sixth year of a life sentence for the murder of his mother-in-law and rape of his niece — did not commit those crimes. I listened but found Godsey’s claim implausible.
Every prosecutor is obliged to consider new evidence of innocence and seek to correct injustices, not just win and defend convictions. But, as a 30-year lawyer who had prosecuted felonies, a legislator who helped craft Ohio’s death penalty law, and an official who supported tough-on-crime policies, I didn’t believe our criminal justice system made mistakes of this magnitude.
I was wrong. After our office examined this case, I became convinced Elkins was innocent. DNA testing of evidence eventually identified the real perpetrator, Earl Mann, a seasoned felon living near the crime scene. Elkins was released and exonerated; Mann pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life without parole.
The Elkins case shook my foundational beliefs about criminal justice. The fact that an innocent man with no criminal record was wrongly convicted of murder astounded me. I thought — I hoped — that Elkins was one in a million. Since then, I’m sorry to report, I’ve learned of many similar cases.
As a former prosecutor, I am most concerned about the behavior of law enforcement. On that score, the exonerations in 2017 include good news and bad news.
The bad news first: Eighty-four of the innocent defendants exonerated in 2017, including Ledura Watkins, were victims of misconduct by police, prosecutors, or both. That’s a record for a single year — a deeply distressing record considering that misconduct, by its very nature, is usually hidden. And it most often remains hidden, especially among the many wrongful convictions that we never discover.
The good news is that an increasing number of elected prosecutors around the country have created “conviction integrity units” in their offices, 33 as of the end of last year. These prosecutorial units are dedicated to identifying wrongful convictions and remedying them (to the extent possible), and preventing these terrible errors. They were involved in 42 exonerations in 2017.
Better yet, 16 exonerations in 2017 included cooperation between conviction integrity units and organizations that represent innocent defendants who have been convicted of crimes — such as the Ohio Innocence Project that approached me about Clarence Elkins in 2005, and dozens of similar groups around the country.
That, too, is a record. But if nothing else happens, these records won’t amount to much. Thirty-three conviction integrity units is a drop in the bucket in a country with thousands of prosecutorial offices. Forty-two exonerations pale in comparison to the thousands of innocent defendants whose wrongful convictions have not come to light.
Let’s hope this is only a start.
There’s a long way to go, but I’m optimistic. The pace of change is accelerating. In 10 or 20 years, these reforms might become the rule for prosecutors across the country. If that happens, we will identify — and free — many more innocent defendants who are in prison. Better yet, we will prevent even more from ever suffering that fate.
Jim Petro, former Ohio Attorney General and co-author of “False Justice – Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent,” is on the advisory board of the National Registry of Exonerations.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

Prison death highlights challenges of assigning cellmates


This undated booking photo provided by the Idaho Department of Correction shows Glenn Arthur Cox. Cox who was serving time on a drunken driving charge was beaten to death at an Idaho prison, and officials say his cellmate, who was convicted of killing his three small children more than a decade ago is a suspect in the case. (Idaho Department of Correction via AP)
This undated booking photo provided by the Idaho Department of Correction shows Glenn Arthur Cox. Cox who was serving time on a drunken driving charge was beaten to death at an Idaho prison, and officials say his cellmate, who was convicted of killing his three small children more than a decade ago is a suspect in the case. (Idaho Department of Correction via AP) 
BOISE>> Glenn Cox went before the parole board with a plan and a bandage on his forehead.
He had already been accepted into a live-in substance abuse treatment center. For the first time in a long time, he was hopeful about the future.
And the bandage? He’d slipped on a freshly mopped prison bathroom floor, he told parole commissioners. No big deal.
After reviewing his case, including his criminal history of 12 drunken driving arrests, the board sent him back to prison with a tentative parole date two years out.
Five days later, Cox was dead.
Prison workers found him in his cell: He was stabbed in the neck with a pencil, beaten with a cane and strangled, according to Idaho Department of Correction records obtained by The Associated Press. His cellmate — a triple murderer — is the only suspect.
Cox’s death highlights the difficulties faced by prison officials across the U.S. in determining housing assignments for an ever-evolving population of inmates.
“I get it when people say, ‘Man, how can a DUI inmate live with a convicted murderer?’” Corrections Director Henry Atencio said. “On the surface you wonder — like, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of weird.’”
Actually, the drunken driver and the triple murderer were only a few points apart on their risk assessment score, a complex number system Idaho and other states use to classify prisoners as minimum-, medium- or maximum-security risks. The system scores inmates in categories such as the crimes they committed, how long they’ve been behind bars and whether they’ve broken any prison rules.
Sometimes, however, the numbers lie.
Cox was a longtime alcoholic and had tried and failed to quit drinking before, said attorney John Stosich, a family friend who represented Cox in some of his legal proceedings. But he also was recently diagnosed with a mental illness, and believed treating the illness and alcoholism simultaneously was the key to staying sober.
“Glenn suffered from his own mistakes and understood the consequences were related to his own decisions,” Stosich said after Cox’s September death. “But he also realized, maybe for the first time, he could change his decision making and improve his future.”
Cox began his latest prison stint in 2015, after police caught him trying to get a friend’s vehicle out of a privately owned field, where it was stuck. That was both a probation violation — he wasn’t allowed to drive because of a previous drunken driving conviction — and a new crime, because he was drunk.
“We did a plea agreement for Glenn, and he went to jail and never bonded out,” Stosich recounted.
Cox was designated a minimum-security offender but was sent to the Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise — a medium-security facility — to wait for a minimum-security bed to open up. Idaho’s 10 prisons have been filled to capacity since last year, holding about 8,300 inmates.
The state routinely has about 900 more minimum-security inmates than it has beds.
Prison officials try to manage the shuffle the best they can, an effort Idaho State Correctional Institution Warden Keith Yordy says is like assembling a new 1,000-piece puzzle every day.
“One day there’s 1,100 pieces in the box. The next day there’s 900 pieces in the box. And they don’t always fit,” he said. “At my facility, we do 15,000 moves a year — and that’s a conservative estimate.”
James Junior Nice was moved from another Idaho prison to the cell he shared with Cox on July 23.
He was 12 years into his life-without-parole sentence and had only four relatively minor rule violations on his prison record. He even had a prison job as a “companion inmate,” helping monitor prisoners on suicide watch.
“Those are inmates who are well-behaved, for the most part. They covet that position,” Atencio said.
In fact, Nice was at the low end of medium in Idaho’s security rating system. He will never reach the minimum security rating because of the horrific nature of his crimes: Nice poisoned his three young children to death, murders a judge said he committed, in part, out of vindictiveness toward his ex-wife.
Deputies found Nice and the bodies of his twin 6-year-old boys and 2-year-old daughter four days before Christmas in 2005. The children were killed with rat poison and over-the-counter medication; authorities said Nice also tried to poison himself but survived.
He was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without the chance of parole. The judge cried.
The day before Cox’s parole hearing, a prison staffer noticed his head injury. Cox told her the same thing he later told the parole board: He’d slipped on the wet floor.
He never mentioned his cellmate, but the staffer worried Cox was assaulted and reported her concerns to the head of the cellblock, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP from the parole board and Correction Department through a public record requests.
The wound was never formally documented, department investigators said. The agency is investigating, though whether Nice caused the injury may never been known.
Some experts say prison confrontations are inevitable, especially when medium- and minimum-security prisoners are housed together.
“Look, 70 percent of people in prison are in for violent offenses, so the likelihood of something happening is of course going to increase,” said Dan Pacholke, a corrections consultant and prison safety expert. “The question is, are you doing all the things you can to mitigate or reduce that kind of behavior?”
Pacholke advocates placing minimum-security offenders in “discrete housing units” within medium-security prisons.
“Because mentally, they’re all gearing up for release,” he said. “They’re all kind of moving in the same direction.”
The same can be done for units made of military veterans who struggle with loud noises or have other PTSD symptoms, or inmates 65 and older, who might prefer earlier bedtimes and quieter shared areas, Pacholke said.
Five months after Cox’s death , the homicide investigation also continues.
Only two people were in the room when Cox died in the wee hours of Sept. 22. By that afternoon, the county coroner confirmed Cox died of injuries related to an assault.
The Ada County Sheriff’s Office confirmed Nice is the only suspect, but no charges have been filed.
Nice is already serving a life sentence and has since been moved to a maximum-security cell. His previous court records are sealed, and since he has not been charged, he has not been assigned an attorney in Cox’s death. The AP attempted to reach Nice for comment, but prison officials declined to forward emails and said he wasn’t receiving mail. Nice was not reachable by phone.
“The No. 1 thing is the public is safe from him. He is in custody,” sheriff’s spokesman Patrick Orr said. “These types of cases demand a thorough investigation. That can take a long time.”
Ryan Labrecque, a Portland State University assistant professor and former correctional officer, noted a lot can be learned when inmate housing decisions end in adverse outcomes. His research examines how prison management, personality factors and even the physical condition of prison facilities can impact inmate behavior.
In most states, inmate classification is based on “static” factors such as behavior and criminal history, he said. But emerging practice shows there are also many “dynamic” factors, such as inmates’ attitudes, associates and work experience.
“Across the board, institutions focus a little too much on the static factors, when focusing on these criminogenic needs is the way to go,” he said. “It’s a science but also a little bit of an art, and we can never stop learning on how we improve how we place offenders.”

Friday, March 16, 2018

Department Announces Additional Steps Taken to Improve Prison Safety 

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety today announced additional action steps taken to improve prison safety. The prison reform measures involve security policies and practices, training and hiring.
“DPS has moved forward swiftly to provide a safer working environment for our employees,” Judge Reuben Young, Interim Chief Deputy Secretary of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice stated. “We realize there is still much work to be done and the department’s leadership and prison managers are committed to the ongoing effort. We focus on these improvements every day and are continually working to enhance operations."
The department implemented the reforms following two tragedies that resulted in the deaths of five prison employees in 2017.
The latest list of action steps implemented to help improve prison safety include:
  • Started situational awareness training for Correction Enterprises employees, which improves employee knowledge of what’s happening around them and how to identify risks in a changing environment.
  • Requested sheriffs include prison perimeters on their regular patrols by deputies in an effort to reduce contraband and throwovers at prisons. Directed Community Corrections officers to patrol prison perimeters when in a prison’s vicinity. These measures will enhance similar efforts already underway by the State Highway Patrol.
  • Initiated a plan to remove close custody inmates from Correction Enterprises assignments involving cutting and/or impact tools, effective June 1, 2018. The National Institute of Corrections is currently reviewing and will make recommendations regarding inmate work assignment policies.
  • National Institute of Corrections provided technical assistance and training for state prison staff on best practices for conducting audits to improve prison security. The Prisons’ Security Accountability Unit (SAU) staff and facility staff who participated in the training will serve as trainers for other auditors. When fully staffed, the SAU will have 14 auditing positions that will continue to review prison safety, identify risks and recommend improvements.
  • Developed a strategic plan framework for future prison safety reforms and established five workgroups, following review of the Governor’s Crime Commission December 2017 report and the National Institute of Corrections report in January. Workgroup focus areas include: Enhance Security Policies and Procedures, Reduce Contraband in Facilities, Improve Training for New and Veteran Employees, Increase Hiring and Retention, and Improve Communication with Internal and External Stakeholders. Workgroup meetings are scheduled to begin the week of March 19.
  • Approximately 300 correctional officers have been selected and are being trained to serve as Field Training Officers (FTO) to provide on-the-job training for new correctional officers. FTOs will help train and work alongside new hires in the facility before new correctional officers are assigned to work a post independently. More than 100 FTO facility coordinators were trained in February.
  • Largely eliminated a backlog of correctional officers on the job who had not yet attended basic training. All available certified officers will be trained by the end of March. Fewer than 50 officers remain on a backlog because they cannot be scheduled due to sick, military or some other type of leave and will be trained upon return to work.
  • To streamline correctional officer hiring, assessed the hiring process with the assistance of a process engineer from the Department of Revenue. A recommendation to allow new correctional officers to complete their physical abilities test after starting the job rather than before hire has already been implemented. Newly hired correctional officers will now take the Correctional Officer Physical Abilities Test (COPAT) during Basic Correctional Officer Training. If they do not successfully complete the COPAT, they will be given two other attempts during their probationary employment period. Successful completion of COPAT is required to remain employed.
  • To enhance correctional officer recruiting efforts, four correctional employees were redeployed to Human Resources on March 1 to work full-time on correctional officer recruiting.
  • To recruit more correctional officers, hosted a career fair for military service members, veterans, spouses and dependents of service members on March 1 as a joint project of DPS and the NC National Guard. A DPS job fair is scheduled for April 18 at in the Kerr Scott Building at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh.
  • Partnered with the Community College System to host situational awareness training for Correction Enterprises and for Field Training Officers. In addition, development and implementation of management training is a component of the strategic plan workgroup focusing on training new and veteran employees.
A more comprehensive list of all the completed prison safety action steps, and those initiated, may be found on the Prison Reform webpage. Other important information – including the NIC report – can be found online at


Lawsuit: Angola prison guards ordered transgender visitor to strip


A transgender woman who tried to visit her incarcerated brother claims Louisiana prison officers ordered her to remove her underwear and told her she would have to reveal her genitalia before she could leave the facility.
China Nelson, a 48-year-old New Orleans resident, said in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that officers at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola insisted on searching her vehicle after she refused to take off her pants and underwear.
Nelson, who sued under her given name Donald, filed the federal suit against the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections. It accuses several unnamed prison guards of violating her Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Department of Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick said the department doesn't comment on pending litigation.
The suit seeks unspecified punitive damages and compensation for Nelson's "emotional distress." It also asks the court for an order barring prison officials from engaging in similar discriminatory conduct.
Nelson's suit says guards stopped her from entering the maximum-security prison last September after a body screening machine detected an "unknown object" in her pants.
"When an unknown guard stated that she saw 'something' in Ms. Nelson's pants, Ms. Nelson acknowledged that she was born a male as indicated on her driver's license in an effort to explain the 'something' the guard stated she saw," the suit says.
One of Nelson's attorneys, Galen Hair, said his client should have been treated the same as any man who is screened for a prison visit.
"Surely, the (prison) is not strip-searching every man who goes through the machine," he added.
Dylan Waguespack, board president of Louisiana Trans Advocates, said mistreatment of transgender inmates is a pervasive problem in the state's prisons and jails. Transgender prisoners are often "housed incorrectly," subjected to dehumanizing conditions and aren't adequately protected from violence from other inmates, he said.
"That's a big concern of ours," Waguespack said. "It is a widespread problem."
After two guards escorted her to a men's restroom and instructed her to remove her pants and underwear, she refused and said she would forego the visit and wait in her vehicle while her mother and a brother visited her other brother, the suit says.
A supervisor and approximately nine other guards insisted on "shaking down" the vehicle and told Nelson that she "would have to reveal her genitalia before being permitted to leave the premises," the suit says. Nelson said she consented to the search of her vehicle but again refused to remove her pants and underwear. Prison officials ultimately canceled the visit by Nelson, her mother and brother.
Nelson had been on the prison's "approved visitor list" for 14 years before the Sept. 10, 2017, visit, and had never been asked to submit to a strip search during many previous visits, according to Hair.
"I think this was a new machine or a new screening process," he said.
In a letter to Nelson last September, a deputy warden informed her that she was suspended from visiting the prison for at least six months. The letter, which was provided to The Associated Press by one of Nelson's lawyers, mentions the "unknown object" seen on the screening machine and said Nelson "refused to be strip searched due to being transgender."
"Security advised you of the shakedown policy and the strip search would be based on your driver's license," the deputy warden wrote.
The letter says Nelson insinuated that officers harassed her because she is transgender.
"Security tried to explain but you continued to interrupt," it adds.
Security officers cancelled their visit after Nelson's brother began recording the encounter at the vehicle and swore at officers, the deputy warden wrote.
Hair said his client "definitely denies the version of the story they sent out" in the letter. Nelson hasn't tried to visit the prison since the day in question, he added.

After transgender inmate was raped, beaten, Texas agrees to clarify LGBT prisoner policies 

AUSTIN — Texas will clarify its policies regarding the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inmates as the result of a settlement with a former prisoner.
Passion Star, a transgender woman housed in men's prisons, filed a civil rights complaint in 2014 alleging she was repeatedly brutalized during her time behind bars. Star said she asked to be housed separately for a decade before Texas prison officials put her in safekeeping. 
The state of Texas and Star recently reached a settlement that was "agreeable to all parties," the LGBT law group Lambda Legal announced Wednesday.
"For years, I was raped and beaten in prison and when I asked for help I was ignored," said Star, who was released last year. "I was hurt, scared and thrown in solitary in hopes that I would be forgotten, but today I can be proud that I never gave up."
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice was and is in full compliance with federal law, and any changes to LGBT inmate policies were in the works before the settlement, an agency spokesman said. He added that the American Correctional Association has awarded the state for its prison standards.
"TDCJ did modify policy to provide further clarity that our practices and policy are officially in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act [PREA]," spokesman Jeremy Desel said. "They are changes that were already underway."
The state has two years to retrain staff on the changes, he added.
Advocates provided more details about its terms.
"The first one is improvement to the intake process to help ensure that vulnerable people like LGBT people are identified and steps can be taken early in the process to protect them," said Lambda Legal's transgender project attorney, Demoya Gordon. "The new policies also, hopefully, will make it such that TDCJ does a better job of getting vulnerable people into safekeeping where they are separated from people who may seek to abuse them" while still having access to full services.
Star will also receive an undisclosed amount of money as a result of the settlement. Gordon said Star hopes to use that "to launch this phase of her life." Now 34, Star was charged with aggravated kidnapping when she was 18 after she and her then-boyfriend made off with a car with the salesman still inside. They let the salesman out after about 40 miles. Both accepted a 20-year plea deal. 
During her time in prison, Star said, she was sexually assaulted and beaten up by inmates and alleges that prison staff told her to "fight" or to stop "acting gay" if she did not want to be raped. Studies show LGBT inmates are far more likely to be the targets of violence and rape than the average inmate in the general prison population.
As of September, there were 573 inmates who self-identified as transgender in Texas prisons, according to TDCJ. This number represents an eightfold increase from three years earlier, when the department first began asking inmates about their gender identities during intake.
In 2015, TDCJ expanded transgender inmates' access to hormone therapy. Transgender inmates in state prisons in Texas are housed according to their sex at birth. This policy is different in federal prisons, where trans inmates can petition to be moved to a prison that conforms with their gender identity. The Trump administration has indicated that may change soon.
Gordon called the Star settlement a small step toward better treatment for LGBT people behind bars, and thus better conditions for all Texas inmates.
"What we've been able to achieve in this case, and what Passion has been able to achieve, by fighting back and speaking out, is really significant," she said. "It's a civil rights issue. It's an LGBT rights issue. It's a human rights issue."