News

Utah Prisoner Awarded $200 for Violation of Religious Rights

By Prison Legal News

A federal district court awarded $200 to a Utah prisoner who sued on the grounds that prison officials interfered with his right to freely exercise his religion. However, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed part of the prisoner’s appeal because he did not adequately brief some of his claims, and held that another claim was moot.

Danny Lee Warner, Jr. alleged that while he was held at the Utah State Prison, officials denied various requests that he said were necessary to practice his religion. Warner is a follower of Odinism, also known as Asatru and Odhvegr, which is a faith based on Norse mythology.

He asked for accommodations that included a metal or wood thorshammer medallion, wood runes, a wooden bowl and an altar cloth. In denying his requests, prison officials cited security concerns. Warner also alleged that for Winter Nights, an Odinist holiday period lasting several weeks, he was denied break-the-fast boxes (boxed meals to eat after sunset). Further, prison officials refused to allow him access to a publication due to a ban on all materials from the publisher, National Vanguard Press.

Warner filed suit alleging that prison officials had violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, as well as his Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protect and due process. His lawsuit also claimed violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) based on the denial of his request for break-the-fast boxes and the publication ban.

At the time the district court ruled on Warner’s motion for summary judgment he had been transferred to the Florence Correctional Center in Arizona. Nonetheless, he proceeded on the grounds that he would be returned to Utah for incarceration at some point in the future. His lawsuit named the defendants in their official and individual capacities, and sought an injunction to prevent them from continuing to violate his rights.

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Florida Prisoner Awarded $1.2 Million for Burn Injuries

By Prison Legal News

A Florida jury has awarded a prisoner $1.2 million in a negligence suit against the GEO Group, the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison company, following a trial that was delayed more than a year after a juror said he was afraid to reach a verdict.

The case stemmed from an August 28, 2007 argument between prisoners Roy D. Hyatt and Rodney Smith in the dayroom of their unit at the South Bay Correctional Facility. Following the spat, Smith used a microwave to boil a container of water. He then returned to the dayroom and threw the water on Hyatt, who sustained first- and second-degree burns to approximately 30% of his body and lost the use of one eye.

Hyatt sued GEO in state court, alleging the company was aware of other incidents in which prisoners had used microwaves to boil water to assault other prisoners.

Hyatt’s complaint, filed by attorney Philip G. Thompson, claimed that GEO had breached its duty of care by allowing prisoners unrestricted “access to microwaves to boil water which could be used as a weapon against other inmates.” The suit also alleged that it was reasonably foreseeable that the incident involving Hyatt and Smith could occur, since GEO did not remove or restrict prisoners’ access to microwaves.

On May 10, 2011, shortly before the trial in the case was to begin, a juror told Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley that he feared for his safety if he returned a verdict against Hyatt.

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FCC Regulations On Exorbitant Prison Phone Rates Ineffective: Prison Phone Providers Still Cashing In

The families of the more than two million men, women, and children behind bars in America found something to cheer about earlier this year when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set new caps on interstate rates for telephone calls from prisoners, an effort spearheaded by Prison Legal News‘s tireless advocacy.  Whereas contract providers like Global

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PLN Settles Censorship Suit Against Texas County Jail for $175,000

By Prison Legal News

In December 2013, Prison Legal News settled a federal lawsuit against Upshur County, Texas that alleged unconstitutional censorship when PLN’s publications were rejected by jail officials. The suit, filed in October 2012, named the county, Sheriff Anthony Betterton and Sheriff’s Lt. Jill McCauley as defendants.

According to the complaint, the Upshur County jail’s inmate handbook contained “no written criteria explaining when a publication will be rejected,” and the jail’s mail policy did “not provide a sender any notice or explanation when a book is censored.”

PLN mailed copies of its monthly publication to prisoners at the jail, as well as letters, renewal notices, brochures and copies of a book titled Protecting Your Health and Safety. The jail rejected approximately 90 of PLN’s publications over a one-year period, stamping them “No Newspaper,” “Unauthorized Mail,” “Not Approved” or “Refused.” The jail also rejected legal mail sent to prisoners by PLN’s attorneys. No notice was provided regarding this censorship, and PLN was not afforded an opportunity to appeal the rejection of its publications.

“The purpose of jail is to hold the criminally accused for trial, not to punish them,” said Lance Weber, general counsel for the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), PLN’s non-profit parent organization. “Depriving pretrial detainees too poor to afford bail – who are presumed innocent – of access to information that could assist them in enforcing their rights is inexcusable.”

On September 30, 2013, the district court granted PLN’s motion for a preliminary injunction, finding “The evidence suggests that at least some of PLN’s correspondence with prisoners has been withheld from its intended recipients, depriving Plaintiff of its First Amendment rights without due process of law.”

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Prison News in Brief: Alabama through Florida

By Prison Legal News

This installment of Prison News in Brief concerns news from Alabama through Florida and is brought to us by our friends at Prison Legal News.

  • Alabama Prison News

On July 29, 2013 there was a break-in at the Draper Correctional Facility.  According to the Department of Corrections, three sections of the prison were burglarized in the early morning hours, and laptop computers and multiple weapons were discovered missing when employees started arriving around 5:00 AM.  The facility’s farm office, radio shop, and dog kennels, which are located apart from the prison population, were reportedly breached.

  • Arizona Prison News

Newly-hired Maricopa County jail guard Rachel Harris, 22, was attacked on June 24, 2013 by prisoner Bobby Ruiz as she entered his cell at the Lower Buckeye Jail, and during the assault Ruiz bit off part of one of her ears.  Two other prisoners rushed in to help Harris, pulling Ruiz off her and restraining him until other guards arrived.  Sheriff Joe Arpaio told reporters that the missing piece of Harris’ ear could not be found and that Ruiz had presumably swallowed it.

  • Arkansas Prison News

Steven Mitchell, 39, died in a crash on July 30, 2013 after leading police on a chase through the state of Missouri.  He had escaped from the Jacksonville County Detention Center in Arkansas two days earlier with another prisoner.  A Nissan Sentra driven by Mitchell’s wife, Jessica, with Mitchell as a passenger, was pulled over.  When the officer asked Jessica to step out of the car, Mitchell jumped into the driver’s seat and sped away.  Sheriff David Lucas told ABC News that “During the pursuit, Mitchell wrecked his vehicle and sustained fatal injuries.”

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PLN Challenges Postcard-only Policy

By Prison Legal News On October 10, 2013, Prison Legal News filed a federal lawsuit against Sullivan County, Tennessee, the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff J. Wayne Anderson, alleging that the county jail unconstitutionally censored books, magazines, letters and other correspondence sent to prisoners and failed to provide due process to the sender of

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PLN Files Censorship Suit Against Nevada DOC

By Prison Legal News On June 27, 2013, Prison Legal News filed suit in U.S. District Court against Nevada Department of Corrections (DOC) Director James G. Cox and other defendants, seeking to enjoin unconstitutional censorship by state prison officials. The lawsuit contends that the Nevada DOC has engaged in “unlawful censorship of books, magazines and

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Prison Watchdog Demands Info On CCA

By CAMERON LANGFORD of Courthouse News

AUSTIN (CN) – Prison Legal News sued the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison contractor, for records about its contracts in Texas and lawsuits filed against CCA there.

Prison Legal News, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center, sued CCA in Travis County Court.

“Privately operated prisons and jails are notorious for their abhorrent conditions,” Prison Legal News says in its complaint. “Although they perform a government function, they are driven by a profit model that cuts costs for the benefit of shareholders and to the detriment of basic services, security, and oversight. Prison Legal News seeks to enforce its rights under the Public Information Act to investigate details about these facilities in Texas.”

Prison Legal News “publishes a 64-page monthly magazine with cutting-edge review and analysis of prisoner rights, court rulings and prison issues,” the complaint states. “Its circulation is approximately 7,000 hardcopies per month, and includes subscribers in all 50 states and abroad.

“The information offered by Prison Legal News enables prisoners, civil rights advocates, and organizations to protect prisoners’ rights at the grass roots level. It is in a unique position to investigate, document, and publicize the nationwide abuses of a corporation like CCA.

“Prison Legal News has sought and received public records from CCA in others states using those states’ open records laws, including in CCA’s home, Tennessee.”

The nonprofit claims that CCA blew off its March 1 public records request for records about “Contracts between CCA, the state, and local counties and municipalities … Petitions from lawsuits filed against CCA in Texas … Settlements, verdicts, and injunctive orders entered against CCA in Texas.”

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Prison Legal News Files Public Records Suit Against CCA in Texas

By Prison Legal News

Autumn Miller, the mother of the deceased baby, who was named Gracie, filed a federal lawsuit against CCA on March 8, 2013. See: Miller v. CCA, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Tex.), Case No. 3:13-cv-01022-L.

According to an investigative report by CBS 11, at least eight prisoners have died at the Dawson State Jail since 2004. One of those deaths involved diabetic prisoner Pam D. Weatherby, 45. An internal CCA document indicated that jail staff “did not follow proper procedures, in that they did not call a medical professional and advise them of the offender vomiting, prior to the medical staff arriving” at the facility. Weatherby died in July 2011; she was serving one year for drug possession. Her family has since filed a wrongful death suit against CCA. See: Alfano v. CCA, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Texas), Case No. 3:11-cv-01006-P.

“Private prisons siphon public taxpayer dollars into corporate profit,” noted PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann. “They slash [medical] services to funnel money to their shareholders and executives, and people die. Even when we don’t need these for-profit prisons, they are rarely shuttered until the scandals reach critical mass.”

“Prisons and jails operated by CCA and other profit-making corporations have been responsible for dozens of scandals around Texas,” added Bob Libal, director of Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit organization that opposes prison privatization. “In the last ten years alone, there have been instances of medical neglect, sexual abuse and preventable suicide in private facilities in Austin, Bartlett, Beaumont, Big Spring, Bronte, Dallas, Del Rio, Eden, Encinal, Falfurrias, Fort Worth, Henderson, Liberty, Littlefield, Pearsall, Pecos, Raymondville, Spur, Taylor, Texarkana and Waco.”

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PLN Prevails in Challenge to Postcard-only Policy at Oregon Jail

By Prison Legal News

On April 24, 2013, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon held that a postcard-only policy at the Columbia County Jail, which restricted mail sent to and from detainees at the facility to postcards, was unconstitutional. The court therefore permanently prohibited enforcement of the policy – the first time that a jail’s postcard-only policy has been struck down following a trial on the merits.

The ruling, by federal judge Michael H. Simon, was entered in a lawsuit against Columbia County and Sheriff Jeff Dickerson filed by Prison Legal News. PLN sued in January 2012 after Columbia County jail employees rejected PLN’s monthly publication and letters sent to detainees. Further, the jail had failed to provide PLN with notice or an opportunity to appeal the jail’s censorship of its materials. [See: PLN, March 2013, p.50].

The rejection of PLN’s publications and letters was attributed to the jail’s postcard-only policy and a policy or practice that prohibited prisoners from receiving magazines. PLN contended that such policies violated its rights under the First Amendment, and that the lack of notice and opportunity to appeal was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

During the litigation the defendants admitted “that inmates have a First Amendment right to receive magazines and inmates and their correspondents have a Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process.” However, the jail defended its postcard-only policy and claimed there was no official policy that banned magazines at the jail.

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