Thursday, June 28, 2012

Family Sues TDCJ Over Heat-Related Death

by Emily Foxhall - 

Update: This story has been updated to include response from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
If her father had survived his time in jail, Stephanie Kingrey said, he would have been returning home from his 11-month sentence this week.
Kingrey’s father, Larry Gene McCollum, suffered heat stroke last July at the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas and died. This morning, the Texas Civil Rights Project and Austin attorney Jeff Edwards filed a wrongful death lawsuit Tuesday against Texas prison officials on the family’s behalf.
As summer temperatures rise, annual worries about high temperatures in Texas jails have returned. Only 21 of the 111 Texas Department of Criminal Justice units are fully air-conditioned, TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said. The remaining 90 are partially air-conditioned, usually in the medical or education area of the unit rather than the housing area.
Clark declined to comment specifically on McCollum's case due to the pending litigation.

McCollum, who was 58 when he died, had served one month in the McLennan County Jail after being convicted of forgery. He was then transferred to the Hutchins facility. Kingrey and her brother Stephen McCollum said their father had heard that conditions there would be bad, and he was worried about the heat.
“He didn’t want to go but he didn’t have a choice,” Kingrey said.
Scott Medlock, director of the TCRP's prisoners’ rights program, said the Hutchins facility was not fully air-conditioned and the temperature inside the jail last summer was nearly the same as outside, about 96 degrees with a heat index between dangerous and extremely dangerous. Medlock said that McCollum's body temperature was above 109 degrees when he arrived at the hospital. Prison officials distributed limited amounts of water to the inmates, but because McCollum had not yet received an identification card, he could not purchase a cup to drink the water. He could not purchase a fan, either.
When McCollum arrived, Medlock said, officers welcomed him with the phrase “Welcome to hell.”
After three days at the state jail, on July 22, 2011, McCollum collapsed. He had suffered from hypertension and was overweight, but his children said he had been relatively healthy. He died July 28, and the autopsy attributed his death to living in a hot environment.
Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said McCollum’s death did not represent an isolated incident, but that issues of heat within the prison system are a long-standing concern.
Earlier this month, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans heard arguments in another lawsuit against TDCJ that the TCRP filed in 2008 alleging that conditions in its facilities are unconstitutional.
The Texas Civil Rights Project sued the TDCJ in 2008 on behalf of Eugene Blackmon, a 63-year-old minimum-security inmate with high blood pressure who was serving three years in the Garza East Unit in Beeville. Blackmon is now out of prison, but he said he suffered dizziness, nausea and headaches when the temperature in his cell soared to 130 degrees.
The civil rights organization said in oral arguments on June 5 that it wasn't calling for air conditioning in all the prison units, but instead for appropriate accommodations for the high temperatures.
Prison officials argued in court documents that Blackmon did not show he suffered physical injury and that the issue was moot since he was no longer in that prison.
If the lawsuit is successful, it could affect prison conditions in the hot, humid southern states of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. 
Medlock said nine inmates died last year from heat-related causes. As of this afternoon, 16 offenders have reported heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion since January 1 this year, Clark said.

First-Ever Senate Hearing On Prison Isolation: Solitary Confinement ‘Makes Our Criminal Justice System Criminal’

Mock solitary cell set up in the hearing room. Photo credit: Dolores Panales
By Tara Culp-Ressler - 

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) convened a Senate hearing yesterday to examine the implications of solitary confinement in the American prison system, the first ever hearing to address prison reform as a human rights issue.
A replica of a solitary cell — just 7 feet by 10 feet and bare except for a cot and a toilet — was placed at the front the hearing room during the proceedings as a stark reminder of the prison conditions that face inmates in prolonged isolation.
Anthony Graves, an former prisoner who spent most of his 18 years in prison in extreme isolation, gave one of the most emotional appeals against solitary confinement during his personal testimony:
I am death row exoneree number 138. I was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Texas back in 1992. Like all death row inmates, I was kept in solitary confinement under some of the worst conditions imaginable with the…total disrespect of human dignity. I lived under the rules of a system that is literally driving men out of their minds.
I survived the torture, but those 18 years was no way to live. I lived in a small, 8 by 12 foot cage. I had a steel bunk bed with a very thin, plastic mattress and pillow that you could only trade out once a year. I have back problems as a result. [...]
Solitary confinement makes our criminal justice system criminal. Criminal. It is inhumane and by its design, it is driving men insane. I am living amongst millions of people out here, but I still feel alone.
Sen. Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, pointed out that addressing the practice of solitary confinement is a chance for the U.S. “to look in the mirror, to look at our own human rights record” and ask what our prisons say about our American values. Human rights groups — ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to Human Rights Watch to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture — have all called for an end to solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. United Nations experts havedescribed the practice of solitary confinement as a form of torture.

Overcrowding conditions worsening in Blount County Jail

By JJ Kindred | ( - 
Anyone who is imprisoned knows that conditions will not be like a country club or Buckingham Palace.
But some residents feel their loved ones who have been incarcerated in the Blount County Detention Facility recently should be able to serve their time in a better atmosphere.
The husband of Maryville resident Danielle Hubbard spent some brief time in the facility after being charged with contempt of court. He had to share a small cell with three other inmates and was relegated to sleeping on the floor.
‘Not sanitary’

“He had to sleep on the floor with nothing to cover up with,” Hubbard said. “It’s not sanitary. He said it was horrible. I understand there’s people that need to be there, but there are people on contempt (of court charges) that came in. It’s so bad that people need to let (officials) know or find them a better facility.”
Many residents like Hubbard who have had loved ones, friends or acquaintances serve time in the facility have been flooding the Sheriff’s Office with calls and messages, expressing their concerns about the conditions of the jail, and overcrowding in particular.
Some inmates have been sleeping on mats on concrete floors if there are no beds available, and some, like Hubbard described, have slept on the floor with no mat, pillow or blanket.
The jail, which opened in 1999, was built to house 350 inmates, but as of Thursday has about 515. Officials described the situation as “10 pounds of flour in a five-pound bag.”
As of Thursday, out of those 515 inmates, officials said about 190 of them are accused of felonies and are waiting to go to trial.
There were 76 accused of misdemeanor offenses and are still waiting to go to court, 45 sentenced felons who have been court-ordered to serve less than two years in the facility, and 50 serving time on misdemeanor offenses ranging from 48 hours to nearly a year.
There are also 90 federal inmates and 86 from the Tennessee Department of Corrections who are still waiting for beds.
‘Train off track’
Blount County Sheriff James Berrong said during an interview with The Daily Times that the jail started experiencing jail overcrowding problems during the 1990s.
“We were sued by a number of inmates, but a federal judge came in to control this facility and we relieved that liability,” Berrong said. “They did a needs assessment back in 1994, based on what the county would need in terms of population. When we first got here, we had a lot of space and we rented some out to the U.S. Marshals Service.”
Berrong said the jail has had decent revenue in the last 10 years, but he and other officials approached the Blount County Commission 3½ years ago, and let them know that “the train was coming off the track.”
“We were experiencing overcrowding and had to do something,” Berrong said. “We took out some of the marshals’ prisoners, and that cost us $3,000-$4,000 a year. During that time, it was a low number and we had enough revenue, but since then it’s gotten way out of hand.”
‘Cruel and inhumane
Knoxville resident Joann D’Onofrio, whose son spent a brief time in the facility, said he told her there were inmates sleeping in the hallway, and several fights broke out.
“It’s cruel and inhumane treatment as far as I’m concerned,” D’Onofrio said. “(The inmates) are supposed to get raises (more privileges) twice a week. They (officers) don’t care about them — they hung up on me at the jail.”
D’Onofrio and Hubbard were among many who complained that they were told inmates have suffered from skin conditions such as scabies, and even developed hepatitis from being confined to multiple inmates in a small cell. “My son was there for almost two months, and they never gave him medicine for his skin,” D’Onofrio said. “He knew to put in for the doctor to provide itch medicine, but they don’t care. (My son) needed to be in jail, but don’t treat them like dogs. It’s inhumane.”
“In every single cell, all of them were coughing,” Hubbard said. “The cells are small, and with four people in there when you (go to the bathroom), it splashes all over everybody. I know it’s not the Holiday Inn, but that’s not adequate care.”
Berrong said while he admits the jail has many issues, it will be a slow process in order to make improvements.
‘Nothing to hide’
“We have nothing to hide,” Berrong said. “We send the mayor the jail’s population periodically and what we’re averaging. I don’t have the purse strings — all I can do is run the physical plant assigned to me in this 13-year-old facility.
“We are experiencing some complaints, and some of them are valid. Whenever you have that many people in this confined space, you’re going to have issues. We are staffed for 350 inmates, so we have concerns internally.
“We do have cots,” Berrong continued. “I can’t say that no one has ever slept on the floor with just a blanket, but we just got some new cots in.”
“Whenever you run a facility like this, you’re going to have some health problems,” added Chief Deputy Ron Dunn. “I haven’t heard of that recently, but it’s common to have those things.”
“Our philosophy is we can only do things we can control,” Berrong said. “They’re used to having television, newspapers, sodas and cigarettes ... that creates some issues among people that live here. This is jail. The word in the corrections community is you don’t want to go to Blount County.”
Tour of facility
Lt. Keith Gregory, one of the facility’s corrections officers, gave a tour to The Daily Times and showed first-hand inmate living conditions, some of which would not make most people comfortable.
“There are few complaints as far as being overcrowded,” Gregory said. “They (inmates) all pretty much get along. These guys back here in this pod (pointing), they’re not going to complain. They have more room to roam and get on the phone any time they want, but they have to have money on their account to use it.”
Gregory said that the inmates are classified from being trustworthy enough to work inside the prison to being placed in solitary confinement, where they sit in their cells 23 hours a day and are allowed one hour of recreation time in a confined area.
“Our circuit court is so backed up that when you hear a case or two a week, it’s hard to make that number (of inmates) go back down,” Gregory said. “These guys that can’t afford to make bond are having to sit back here for a long time. That number keeps growing.
“Prisons in other counties are in the same shape we’re in,” Gregory continued. “They don’t have the room, either. It’s easier for them to pay to house them here and try to stack them up. We get 10 prison beds every two months. It seems like for every 10 we send, 10 get sentenced and they’re waiting for a prison bed. You can ask any of these guys and they would rather do time in another county, because there are things that can make the time go by a lot quicker.”

California Bill Would Lift Media Ban on Access to Prisons

This important story was put out yesterday from Californians United for a Responsible Budget, via San Francisco Bay View. If legislation like this were passed in other states, as well as in California, it would go a long way toward exposing to the public the truth about supermax prisons and solitary confinement units--which are not only torture chambers, but also virtual domestic "black sites." See our earlier post for more background on the bill.

Today, residents throughout the state celebrate as AB1270, a bill to lift the media access ban in California prisons, passed the Senate Committee on Public Safety in a 4-2 vote. AB1270 will now go to a vote in Senate Appropriations. A rally on the north steps of the Capitol was held at noon as calls for transparency in California’s troubled prison system spread. Since 1996, media have been prohibited from choosing their interview subjects inside prisons, and nine versions of this bill have been vetoed by three different governors.

Supporters of AB1270 note that the Supreme Court ruling on overcrowding and unconstitutional medical and mental health conditions and last year’s massive prisoner hunger strike demonstrate the need for California taxpayers to have full information about what goes on inside California’s prisons. Testifying on behalf of the bill, a spokesperson for the California Newspaper Publishers Association said: “With the scrutiny and limited resources now being directed to prison facilities, this bill could not be any more timely … Most newspapers have forgone these beats … because there are so many limitations. It’s very difficult for reporters to get in and do their jobs.” A steady stream of supporters from dozens of organizations throughout the state added “me too’s” to the bill...

Assembly member Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, sponsored the bill, citing the need for more transparency and public accountability from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). “Independent media access to prisoners is critical for ensuring transparency and accountability,” said Ammiano. “Despite the thousands of prisoners who participated in a statewide hunger strike last year over conditions in the prisons, it was near impossible to get unbiased information about what was happening due to these restrictions. Today’s vote is an important step towards providing the public with balanced and necessary information about our prisons.”

Read the full piece, which includes a list of the organizations supporting the bill, here.

Texas Prisoners Cost $620 Million More Than They Did in 1990, Thanks to Longer Sentences


Meet the average modern Texas prisoner, released in 2009. He spent 2.8 years behind bars -- 32 percent more time than his average prisoner predecessor released in 1990. If he was busted for a violent crime, he spent 5.3 years locked up, a 44 percent increase from his predecessor in 1990. You've spent a hell of a lot of tax dollars keeping Mr. Average Prisoner in the clink, according to this Pew Center study on prison tems, which didn't phrase it quite that way.
Pew crunched the numbers for Texas: $1,783 (average one-month prison stay) x eight months (average increase from 1990 to 2009) $14,682/prisoner. If you multiply that by the amount of prisoners released in 2009, you get $620.1 million dollars, the amount taxpayers have spent keeping people in prison longer.
Nationally, the average length of additional time over the course of two decades is nine months, a month longer than that of Texas. Nearly every state increased prison sentence lengths, Pew reports. Florida lead the pack with a 166 percent increase. And Texas' $620.1 million on increased sentences becomes over $10 billion across the country, with more than half of that attributed to non-violent offenders. But if it all sounds excessive, there's a catch.
Getting serious career criminals off the streets: priceless.
"Serious crime has been dwindling for the past two decades, and imprisonment deserves some of the credit," the Pew study reports, "But criminologists and policy makers increasingly agree that we have reached a 'tipping point' with incarceration, where additional imprisonment will have little if any effect on crime."
Here are measures that states have been exploring to curb sentence length without tipping the scales in the direction of higher crime: raising the dollar amount that constitutes certain felony property crimes, revising drug offenses to ensure that the punishment fits the crime, scaling back minimum sentence requirements, increasing opportunities for merit-based sentence reductions, revising eligibility requirements for parole.
Texas criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast makes the interesting point that while Florida's average time served rose by 166 percent, New York's rose by two percent. And crime in New York has taken a nosedive. So, whatever the connection between crime reduction and incarceration time, it's certainly more complex than a 1:1 ratio.

PLRA trumps again

     CHICAGO (CN) - A federal judge overstepped his authority by creating review procedures of Illinois supermax prison transfers, the 7th Circuit ruled, finding that the Illinois Department of Corrections can conceive its own system.
     Robert Westefer, representing a class of inmates incarcerated in the Closed Maximum Security Unit at the Tamms Correctional Center, challenged the procedures by which the Illinois Department of Corrections assigns inmates to the prison in a 2000 lawsuit.
     Westefer claimed that transfer procedures violated prisoners' due process rights.
     Though a federal judge with the Southern District of Illinois dismissed the initial claims, the 7th Circuit reversed and certified the class.
     As the parties readied for a bench trial, the corrections department drafted a "Ten-Point Plan for Tamms" that established a detailed transfer-review process. The department had received the governor's approval but had not yet implemented the plan before submitting it to the court.
     The Ten-Point Plan aimed to create a Transfer Review Committee whose proceedings would be digitally recorded and documented, automatic review of all transfer decisions within 30 days of entering Tamms, review of past decisions, written notice of the reasons for transfer, a right of appeal to the corrections department's chief legal counsel, and routine reviews of all inmates.
     U.S. District Judge Patrick Murphy later issued a lengthy decision that said conditions at Tamms "impose an atypical and significant hardship on inmates," requiring prison officials to provide constitutionally sufficient due process review of transfer decisions.
     Murphy's order adopted the Ten-Point Plan, plus six extra requirements of his own.
     On appeal, the corrections department said that Murphy's injunction was overly broad and needlessly intrusive, in violation of the Prison Litigation Reform Act and cautionary language from the Supreme Court.
     A three-judge panel agreed and vacated the injunction last week.
     "Under the PLRA injunctive relief to remedy unconstitutional prison conditions must be 'narrowly drawn,' extend 'no further than necessary' to remedy the constitutional violation, and use the 'least intrusive means' to correct the violation of the federal right," Judge Diane Sykes wrote for the court, abbreviating the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
     "These standards preserve significant administrative discretion and flexibility for prison officials," she added.
     After examining the due process requirements created by Supreme Court precedent, the panel found that Murphy's injunction substantially exceeded them.
     "In short, the injunction goes well beyond what the Supreme Court has said is constitutionally required," the 14-page opinion states. "By incorporating a highly specific notice-and-hearing system into the injunction, the district court has in effect established the details of that system as constitutional requirements."
     On remand, Murphy must take a more hands-off approach.
     "It is up to IDOC to craft transfer-review procedures that meet the requirements of due process," Sykes wrote, abbreviating the Illinois Department of Corrections. "The court should do no more than order IDOC officials to do so in general terms and to verify that the plan they submit satisfies the relevant constitutional mandates." 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dispatch from San Quentin: Inhumane Conditions Persist

New America Media, First Person, "Malik"Posted: May 12, 2012

EDITOR’S NOTE: New America Media received the following commentary unsolicited from a current prisoner at San Quentin State Prison in California. The topic of the commentary – the writer describes the existence of unsanitary and inadequate living conditions in the prison’s West Block housing unit -- was previously reported by The San Quentin News, an inmate-produced newspaper. That article also appeared in the newspaper SF Bay View in December of last year.The author, who says the living conditions reported in that article persist in West Block to this day, has asked to use a pseudonym to protect his identity.

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. – Late last year, myself and some other inmates at Solano State Prison were transferred here to San Quentin to do a “mainline” (general population) program in the West Block section of the prison – a housing unit that was previously being used only as a reception and temporary home for processing new inmates -- which we were told was ready to accommodate us. Some of us inmates had even volunteered to come here, just to be closer to our families in the Bay Area. Upon arrival, however, we soon discovered that West Block was far from being fit for housing the mainline prison population. 

Following is a description of what I saw with my own eyes: 

West Block was filthy with black mold, and human and bird feces. There were no electrical outlets in the cells to hook up any of the appliances that inmates in California are allowed to have. Dirty clothes hung on razor wire above our heads. The whole unit was infested with rats, birds and other creatures. The heating and plumbing systems were deplorable – the plumbing in West Block can only accommodate two toilet flushes per hour – and the ventilation system was non-existent.

Also, the showers were causing some prisoners to get infections in their feet, which can be verified by the so-called hospital we have here, which is really nothing but a clinic. It can’t even fix a broken leg – I know inmates who have been transferred to outside hospitals to treat broken bones -- let alone help a heart attack patient.

I just happened to be going to see the doctor the other day to get the results of a blood test (which came back normal, thank God) and I ran into this guy from Eritrea who I’d met while I was housed in West Block for about two months. At the time we were both housed there, he had a round face, so I almost didn’t recognize him when we crossed paths. 

I asked him if he was okay. “I’ve been a little sick lately,” he said. 

I told him he sure had lost a lot of weight in his face. “I know,” he said. “It’s that building man, and I’m not on drugs, either.”

He had this look on his face, as though he was saying, “help.” I wished him well.

While living in West Block, I had the opportunity to meet a female Corrections Officer named Romero. She was a straight up officer and she kept it real, so I doubt she would make up a lie to a fellow officer. Recently, she was working our yard down here in H-Unit (where I live now) and I overheard her tell another officer that there was “black mold” growing all over the place in West Block. 

The San Quentin News (the inmate newspaper) quoted prison officials in a report saying the mold wasn’t harmful, but I don’t believe it. I mean, even Stevie Wonder could see that there is something wrong with this picture. I was there in West Block. I’ve seen it for myself. There are some corrections officers here that care, and let’s look at it like this: they don’t want to get sick, either. It’s kind of hard to spend your money from the grave, right?

It is quite frightening to think that people may still be in dire need of help in West Block, which is why I’m writing this story – I owe it to the brothers who are still there, dealing with such inhumane treatment.

The Ninth Circuit Court ruled not too long ago that the California prison system is a mess with too many people, and that the overcrowding poses a risk to the health of inmates. Still, the prison is trying their best to keep conditions like those that exist at West Block a secret. But we are not going to let this happen. West Block is not fit for any person to be housed in, and we are human beings.

Groups Hope HOD Closure Leads To Safer Inmate Conditions

New Orleans Shuts Down House Of Detention  
UPDATED 7:01 AM CDT Apr 10, 201

NEW ORLEANS - At least two advocacy groups said they hope Tuesday's announcement that the House of Detention is closing leads to safer and cleaner conditions for those arrested and held in jail in New Orleans.
Opened more than 50 years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana said the House of Detention, better known as the "House of D," should have been shut down a long time ago."The HOD should have been shut down years ago. Everyone has known for years that conditions inside the House of Detention are deplorable," ACLU Executive Director Marjorie Esman said.

Last month, federal marshals said they removed inmates from the facility; and last week, the department of justice did an investigative tour.

A report was released Monday that there were too many sexual assaults inside the jail.
Officials said the House of D was mentioned frequently in a 2 1/2-year-old Department of Justice report on conditions at Orleans Parish Prison.

According to the report, "During our review, we found the most densely populated facility -- the House of Detention -- was also the most understaffed, which likely explains the high incidence of violence."

The Southern Poverty Law Center agreed with the ACLU and the DOJ report, and said that when it comes to violence inside the House of D, there was a lot of punishment.
"(Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin) Gusman should be applauded for taking this step. It's unfortunate it took this long and so many lives to know what we've known for years -- the jail is too out of control," said Katie Schwartzman, managing attorney for the SPLC.
Gusman has long said that many of the findings in the DOJ report have been corrected, although many disagreed with the notion.

"This is the first step of many that I hope that will lead to improvements that are much needed at OPP," Esman said.

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