New York City Council Proposes Taxpayers Bail Some Inmates Out Of Jails

This post was originally published at PrisonProtest.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this post placed the responsibility for changing bail laws at the feet of the New York City Council. In fact, bail laws are set by the State of New York, and would have to be changed by state legislators. I sincerely regret this error and have amended the post accordingly.

At the same time, I would like to reaffirm my central point that a bail fund (while well intentioned) is not bail reform. It may provide some relief to a subset of prisoners, but the proposal does not actually change the situation facing the vast majority of prisoners in the city’s jails. Kalief Browder, the young black prisoner who recently committed suicide after spending 3 years in pretrial confinement on Rikers unable to pay a $3,000, would likely not have been helped by this plan. Bail will likely continue to be a major factor in the prolonged pretrial detention of New Yorkers until the state abolishes the system entirely.

The NYC Council unveiled a proposal this week to create a $1.4 million fund to pay bail for inmates who cannot afford to do so on their own. An estimated 85% of Rikers Island inmates are being held as pre-trial detainees; their inability to afford bail is the reason why some inmates get caught up on the island for years without ever being convicted of a crime.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan, Bronx), who has been a vocal proponent of reforming the city’s criminal justice system, told reporters the fund would “cover bails set at $2,000 or less for low-level misdemeanors [and] will come from City Council coffers. It is meant to help reduce the detainee population on Rikers Island.” Mayor Bill De Blasio, who was alongside Mark-Viverito at the announcement, said, “There will be a screening process to ensure a defendant does not have a history of violent offenses.”

While this might seem like a good idea, it does not actually challenge the money bail system that fills Rikers and other city jails with predominantly poor, black people. The council, which must rely on state lawmakers to actually reform or abolish the bail system, will in a sense institutionalize the charitable work of nonprofits on the outside. This is truly a sad state of affairs that highlights the complexity and depth of the city’s criminal justice crisis.

The city is also creating an opening for inmates with “violent records” to be unfairly barred from the bail fund. First of all, if you are arrested and perceived to be at risk of flight or harm to others, you are typically held without bail. New York State prohibits judges from considering these dangers when imposing bail, but it can be hard to avoid. This could potentially be a problem because of the different way sin which people can acquire “violent records.” Victims of domestic violence sometimes find themselves with violent records after defending themselves from their abusers. Mentally ill inmates — of which there are many on Rikers Island — can sometimes have violent records as well stemming from a lack or mismanagement of their healthcare. It does a lot more to save face for politicians wanting to avoid being perceived as too-soft on crime than it does promote the public safety.

Like so many other Rikers Island reforms, the bail fund is does little more than accommodate the shameful status quo.

Image created by Brian Sonenstein

New Solitary Confinement Unit Plagued by Old Problems on Rikers Island

This post was originally published to PrisonProtest.com.

At the beginning of March, New York City’s Board of Correction released a preliminary report on Rikers Island’s controversial new isolation facility, the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit (ESHU). The $14.8 million ESHU was proposed to house 250 of Rikers’ so-called “most dangerous” inmates– a small minority of the prison population that officials claim is responsible for the majority of inmate violence.

Amid federal, state and municipal investigations and a seemingly endless stream of lawsuits alleging horrendous civil rights violations, city officials vowed to change the abusive and dysfunctional culture of the Department of Correction.

The opening of the ESHU at the beginning of this year is one of the first and only of the proposed reforms to have been implemented so far.

Meet the ESHU

Basic demographic information on the 18 ESH inmates
Basic demographic information on the 18 ESH inmates

Like the rest of Rikers Island, the overwhelming majority of people confined to the ESHU are young black males: the report says that 72% are African American and the average inmate is in his mid-20’s.

Despite promises to divert mentally ill prisoners from the ESHU, 13 of the 18 inmates (72%) living there have been given an “m status.”

28% of ESH inmates came directly from punitive segregation and 6% came from long-term isolation units known as Restrictive Housing Units (RHU).

ESH inmates averaged 192 days in punitive segregation in the past year. The Board notes that “with the recent punitive segregation restrictions of no more than 30 consecutive days or 60 days within any six month period, inmates who have maxed out their time in punitive segregation (which includes RHU) may be transferred to ESH.” They promise to closely watch the flow of inmates from punitive segregation to the ESHU.

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NYC DOC Allegedly Withholds Records on Violence Against Developmentally Disabled Juvenile Inmate

This post was originally published at PrisonProtest.com.

A lawsuit filed on March 12th in the Eastern District of New York claims the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) withheld important records from a federally-mandated disability advocate after they learned guards had brutally attacked a developmentally disabled juvenile inmate at the Robert N. Davoren Complex on Rikers Island.

Disability Rights New York is suing the Department of Corrections for records on a young inmate known only as “AB,” who told the group during a monitoring visit that he was “physically assaulted by corrections staff on or about December 9, 2014.”

As the lawsuit explains:

A.B. reported to DRNY that, on or about December 9, 2014, a corrections officer told A.B. that he was speaking disrespectfully.

A.B. reported to DRNY that he was led to a room, and he was punched and kicked by one or more corrections officers.

A.B. reported to DRNY that he was seen by medical staff at RNDC and was transferred to Elmhurst Hospital for evaluation and treatment of injuries to his face and elbow, and was hospitalized overnight.

DRNY requested AB’s medical records, security camera footage and incident reports from the Depts. of Health and Mental Hygeine (DOHMH) and DOC, the complaint states. DOHMH promptly provided the documents, but the DOC allegedly refused, claiming they could not be released while an internal investigation was still ongoing.

As DRNY notes, “neither federal nor state law prohibited DRNY’s access to the requested documents during the pendency of a DOI investigation.” The group is seeking the complete, un-redacted documents it requested and a court order for the DOC to provide all future documents in a timely fashion.

Rikers Island and the city’s Department of Correction have come under intense pressure in recent months to end the violent and abusive conditions facing inmates — particularly juveniles and those with mental and developmental disabilities. The DOC has not yet been served with the complaint and did not respond to requests for comment by publication. I will update the post if they respond. Attorneys for DRNY declined to comment.


Private Contractor “Deliberately Ignored Medical Needs” of Kentucky Inmate: Lawsuit

In a lawsuit filed on February 24th, the mother of Brandon Clint Hacker claims that a “continuing policy, pattern, custom and/or practice of … willfully and deliberately ignoring the medical needs of inmates of the Jail” contributed to the death of her 35-year-old son at Kentucky’s Madison County Detention Center (MCDC).

Charlotte Diana Winkler is suing private inmate medical contractor Advanced Correctional Healthcare, Inc. (ACH) and their employees: Dr. Nadir H. Al-Shami, Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner Layla Troutman and Licensed Practical Nurse Arlene Johnson. She is also suing Madison County, Jailer Doug Thomas, Capt. Tom Jones, Capt. Cory Dunning, Deputy J. J. LaGrange, Capt. Keith Trickler, and Deputy Whitney Bratcher.

ACH is in the midst of a $222,000 contract to provide healthcare at MCDC. According to their website, the Illinois-based contractor oversees inmate medical care in 17 states and works with “adults, juveniles, and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees on behalf of jails, juvenile detention centers, work release centers, methadone clinics, and more.”

Hacker started to feel sick at MCDC a few days after he was arrested for failing to appear at child support hearings, the complaint states. He filled out a medical request form, writing “Very sick, stomach, meds.” Records indicate that one of ACH’s nurses who visited Hacker, LPN Johnson, described him as “sick, shaky, chills, upset stomach.” He had high blood pressure and “active tremors, body aches, sweating.” Johnson noted that day that his symptoms were consistent with “Possible W/D [withdrawal] from heroin.”

For the next two days, the lawsuit says, Hacker went without medical attention because no healthcare workers were stationed at the facility over the weekend. “Mr. Hacker and his cellmates repeatedly requested that he be seen by a doctor or taken to a hospital, to no avail,” it states. By Sunday, Hacker’s pain had become unbearable. He filled out another medical request form, writing: “Blood Pressure. Need to see A.S.A.P. Having trouble breathing. Stomach problems.” (more…)

Lawsuit: Corizon Doctor Tells New York City Inmate to Throw Severed Finger in Garbage

On January 26, 2015, Rudolph Richardson sued the city of New York, prison healthcare contractor Corizon Health Services and Dr. Landis Barnes for allegedly delaying and denying him emergency medical care following an incident in which his cell door slammed shut on his fingers.

According to the complaint filed in the District Court of the Southern District of New York, Richardson was hanging out in a common room at the Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC) in June, 2014 when he asked a guard if he could return to his cell to use the bathroom. The guard approved, and another officer in charge of operating the mechanical door to his cell allowed Richardson to enter.

The toilet was positioned next to Richardson’s cell door, and while he was using the bathroom, the lawsuit states that the guard “suddenly and negligently closed the door to Mr. Richardson’s cell, causing the fingers of Mr. Richardson’s hand to get caught in said door.”

Richardson’s hand was crushed. One of his fingers was cut off. He went into shock and was bleeding profusely. The complaint states that he ran back to the common room for help. There was supposed to be a guard posted there, but the station was empty. After noticing he was severely injured and in distress, some of the inmates in the room tried to help Richardson find a guard. They eventually reached an officer at another station, who then tried to contact the clinic. Richardson allegedly waited for more than 10 minutes before someone showed up to escort him.

Once he got to the clinic, he was brought before a doctor working for Corizon Health Services. Dr. Landis Barnes allegedly took a quick look at Richardson’s hand and told him the finger could not be saved. According to the complaint, Dr. Barnes then instructed Richardson to throw his detached finger in the garbage. (more…)

Lawsuit: Corizon Doctor Tells New York City Inmate to Throw Severed Finger in Garbage

On January 26, 2015, Rudolph Richardson sued the city of New York, prison healthcare contractor Corizon Health Services and Dr. Landis Barnes for allegedly delaying and denying him emergency medical care following an incident in which his cell door slammed shut on his fingers.

According to the complaint filed in the District Court of the Southern District of New York, Richardson was hanging out in a common room at the Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC) in June, 2014 when he asked a guard if he could return to his cell to use the bathroom. The guard approved, and another officer in charge of operating the mechanical door to his cell allowed Richardson to enter.

The toilet was positioned next to Richardson’s cell door, and while he was using the bathroom, the lawsuit states that the guard “suddenly and negligently closed the door to Mr. Richardson’s cell, causing the fingers of Mr. Richardson’s hand to get caught in said door.”

Richardson’s hand was crushed. One of his fingers was cut off. He went into shock and was bleeding profusely. The complaint states that he ran back to the common room for help. There was supposed to be a guard posted there, but the station was empty. After noticing he was severely injured and in distress, some of the inmates in the room tried to help Richardson find a guard. They eventually reached an officer at another station, who then tried to contact the clinic. Richardson allegedly waited for more than 10 minutes before someone showed up to escort him.

Once he got to the clinic, he was brought before a doctor working for Corizon Health Services. Dr. Landis Barnes allegedly took a quick look at Richardson’s hand and told him the finger could not be saved. According to the complaint, Dr. Barnes then instructed Richardson to throw his detached finger in the garbage. (more…)

Corrections Corp. of America Reaches Settlement in Idaho Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Idaho Correctional Center, Screenshot from Google Maps
Idaho Correctional Center, Screenshot from Google Maps
On February 23rd, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) settled a lawsuit brought by a former nurse at the Idaho Correctional Center (ICC) named Michelle Pierce, who claimed she had been fired in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment and abuse by her colleagues. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Pierce’s disturbing story is one of several to have come out in the wake of Idaho’s decision to take back control of the facility last year. Under CCA’s watch, ICC was nicknamed “gladiator school” for its high levels of violence. When Idaho began the process of transitioning the facility back to the state last year, investigators and three whistleblowers revealed that IDOC employees had potentially manipulated prisoner medical records to cover up neglect and mismanagement that took place while it was still under CCA’s control. Pierce’s story provides an additional perspective on the atmosphere permitted, and sometimes encouraged, by CCA leadership within ICC.

Pierce was hired as a Licensed Practical Nurse at ICC in 2012 when CCA was running the facility. Her primary job was to run the medication cart, conducting rounds in the housing units to distribute prescriptions to prisoners. Guards were required to accompany her on those rounds as a safety measure.

On the night of September 13, 2012, Pierce went into a housing unit to collect “kites,” which are forms that prisoners fill out when they want to see medical staff or report a health issue. Pierce encountered three male CO’s in the unit: Officers Spurgess, Vasquez and Omerevich. (more…)

Corrections Corp. of America Reaches Settlement in Idaho Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Idaho Correctional Center, Screenshot from Google Maps
Idaho Correctional Center, Screenshot from Google Maps
On February 23rd, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) settled a lawsuit brought by a former nurse at the Idaho Correctional Center (ICC) named Michelle Pierce, who claimed she had been fired in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment and abuse by her colleagues. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Pierce’s disturbing story is one of several to have come out in the wake of Idaho’s decision to take back control of the facility last year. Under CCA’s watch, ICC was nicknamed “gladiator school” for its high levels of violence, and allegations have surfaced indicating the private prison contractor may have manipulated prisoner medical records to cover up neglect and mismanagement. Pierce’s story provides an additional perspective on the atmosphere permitted, and sometimes encouraged, by CCA leadership within ICC.

Pierce was hired as a Licensed Practical Nurse at ICC in 2012 when CCA was running the facility. Her primary job was to run the medication cart, conducting rounds in the housing units to distribute prescriptions to prisoners. Guards were required to accompany her on those rounds as a safety measure.

On the night of September 13, 2012, Pierce went into a housing unit to collect “kites,” which are forms that prisoners fill out when they want to see medical staff or report a health issue. Pierce encountered three male CO’s in the unit: Officers Spurgess, Vasquez and Omerevich. (more…)

Judge Decides FBI, Justice Department May Keep Records on Investigation Into WikiLeaks Secret

A federal judge has determined the government does not have to release records related to its investigation into WikiLeaks. The judge indicated the court was “persuaded” there is a “criminal investigation.” The government had provided “sufficient specificity” as to the investigation’s status and a “sufficient explanation as to why the investigation is of long-term duration.”

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for records on “individuals targeted for surveillance” for their support or interest in WikiLeaks. They requested records of any lists of names of people placed on lists for their support or interest in WikiLeaks. They requested records of communications with Internet or social media companies on any lists of individuals who have shown support for WikiLeaks.

The organization also requested records on any communications with financial services companies, including Visa, MasterCard and PayPal, on lists of individuals who have donated money and shown support for WikiLeaks.

When EPIC failed to obtain the records, the organization sued the FBI and the Justice Department’s National Security Division (NSD) and Criminal Division (CRM).

Even though there were records released related to Twitter litigation involving “customer account information” for Chelsea Manning, a WikiLeaks spokesperson, Jacob Appelbaum and WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, EPIC is not entitled to the release of records with “investigatory techniques” similar to techniques in the Twitter litigation. That may “reveal information regarding the scope of this ongoing multi-subject investigation.” [PDF]

The records are exempt from release, according to Judge Barbara Rothstein, because they were related to the “unauthorized release of classified material on the WikiLeaks website.” Such files are “obviously related” to the FBI and CRM’s duties to “enforce criminal laws and to protect against national security threats.”

Defendants FBI and CRM have filed seven declarations in this case, three of which were filed ex parte and in camera. David Hardy from the FBI states that “responsive records are contained in files pertaining to the FBI’s investigation of the disclosure of classified information that was published on the WikiLeaks website.” Similarly, John Cunningham from CRM states that “the responsive records in the possession of the Criminal Division are all part of the Department of Justice’s investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information that resulted in the publication of materials on the WikiLeaks website.” [emphasis added]

Rothstein adds that defendants’ search for documents “has not produced documents” because “there are no surveillance records for individuals, who ‘simply support’ or have interest in WikiLeaks.” (more…)

Thousands of Immigrant Prisoners Moved to Undisclosed Locations After Protesting Conditions

Nearly three thousand immigrant prisoners are being transferred to undisclosed federal facilities after a two-day demonstration against indecent living conditions and medical care left the Willacy County Regional Detention Facility in need of repairs.

Willacy is a private prison operated by the Management and Training Corporation (MTC), where thousands of inmates are housed in khaki-colored Kevlar domes. Located less than an hour north of the Mexico border in the town of Raymondville, Texas, the tent-city prison has been given the nickname Ritmo for its oppressive conditions and resemblance to Guantanamo Bay. It is one of thirteen private Criminal Alien Requirement facilities in the country receiving millions in taxpayer dollars to incarcerate immigrant offenders on behalf of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

The demonstration began on Friday morning when prisoners refused to leave their housing units for breakfast, telling guards they would not work or do their chores. “After speaking with the inmates, we learned some were unhappy with the medical services and were demonstrating to make their concerns known. The warden and other facility leaders met with the offenders to attempt to resolve their concerns and provide a resolution,” an MTC spokesperson later told reporters.

At 12:15pm, prison officials ordered the facility be put on lock-down. At 1:40pm, inmates were breaking out of their housing units and into the recreation yard. Small fires were set inside 3 of those units soon after. Thousands of prisoners were in the yard in the span of 20 minutes.

By this point, according to the Valley Morning Star, around 40 law enforcement vehicles had parked on the other side of the fence. Guards were firing tear gas into the yard. A helicopter hovered overhead carrying an officer brandishing an assault rifle.

Concerned families of Willacy prisoners gathered outside seeking more information. They watched as medical and law enforcement vehicles rushed past them towards the facility. (more…)