Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Rockland County Times

No Excuse for Cruel and Unusual Prisoner Punishment

Posted August 25th, 2012

If you are reading this anywhere in America, you know firsthand that this summer has been a record-breaking sizzler. We could be living though the hottest summer season ever.

Think about what you’ve done to keep cool. You’ve turned on your air conditioner, or (if you don’t have one) maybe you’ve gone to the movies to cool off. You probably drink lots of ice-cold beverages or jump into a swimming pool or cool shower. Perhaps, like my friend Lester, you drench a kitchen towel, twist it into a U shape and plop it in the freezer to hang around your neck when working outside.

Well, imagine you couldn’t do any of those things. Imagine you were isolated in a 10-foot-by-12-foot space with no windows to open up to catch a cooling breeze. You had no fan, no relief and no escape.

That’s what countless prisoners in America have had to endure this long, hot summer. In the past, their situation has proven deadly. In Texas, a lawsuit was filed after 10 inmates died from heat-related causes last summer. All were held in cellblocks without air-conditioning. The suit, filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project, focuses on what was called the “wrongful death” of inmate Larry McCollum.

Even though the federal courts have ruled that temperatures over 90 degrees violate the constitutional rights of an inmate, the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas where McCollum died of heat stroke registered an indoor heat index of almost 130 degrees. After he collapsed last July and was taken to the hospital, doctors found McCollum’s body temperature still registered over 109 degrees!

The autopsy on the 58-year-old prisoner listed his cause of death as living “in a hot environment without air conditioning.” One unnamed Texas corrections official was quoted saying about his prisoners: “I’m supposed to be watching them. I’m not supposed to be boiling them in their cells.”

It’s not just Texas where inmates are suffering and, in my opinion, being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. In sunny Florida, only 10 of the 140 state-run prisons have air conditioning. But in those facilities with air, the cool sections are limited to just a few. It is somehow ironic that in a state where they have prison classes to teach inmates how to install and maintain air conditioners there aren’t any in the vast majority of their oppressively hot cellblocks.

In Chicago, this summer’s life-threatening heat is the worst they’ve seen in more than a century. In the lockups that do have air conditioners, the units are reported to be breaking down from almost constant use. Add to that an outbreak of bedbugs within the system this year, and both inmates and prison personnel are left to face a duel threat — unsanitary conditions and heat exhaustion.

The union representing prison guards says the situation has create “extreme fatigue and dangerous conditions … a recipe for disaster.” It’s a reminder that it is not just prisoners who are affected by the extreme heat, it’s also prison personnel. (At a prison near Rosharon, Texas, earlier this summer, a 58-year-old corrections official fainted, and the hospital ruled it was from heat exhaustion.)

In Iowa, cooling systems have kept many of the 8,300 inmates comfortable this scorching summer. But taken together the Mount Pleasant and Clarinda Correctional Facilities and the Anamosa State Prison have close to 1,900 inmates who have no air conditioning at all. In the prison at Mitchellville, where another 547 inmates live, there is no cool air in any of the older sections of the complex.

Imagine having to endure this summer trapped in a small, confined, almost airless space. We have strict laws against leaving a child or an animal in a hot, enclosed car. Put aside for a moment the crime committed that caused the prisoner to be incarcerated, and ask yourself: Shouldn’t we also care about human beings confined in stifling, life-threatening conditions? Of course we should.

Officials in states across the nation say there simply isn’t enough money in their budgets to retrofit all prisons with central air conditioning. So for now, they combat the threat of possible death by heat by catering, first, to those inmates with health problems (like diabetes and high blood pressure) and, second, to those locked up in the hottest sections of the prison. Electric fans, ice and water are being handed out to prisoners across the nation much more frequently than in years gone by.

I couldn’t find a reported death of an inmate from heat exhaustion so far this summer. But that doesn’t mean some prisoners aren’t still being held in inhumane conditions. Who is out there taking the temperature inside every prison and making sure it doesn’t go over the court-mandated 90 degrees? Nobody, that’s who.

Look, I understand there are some people who think that once a criminal is convicted they should lose all their constitutional rights. In other words, if life is tough on the inside, so be it. But it’s never been the American tradition to treat our own people worse than we would treat an animal. If climate change means every summer will be increasingly brutal, we better figure out a way to fix this — or there could be a flood of wrongful death suits to pay.

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Man Accuses Prison of Violating His 13th Amendment Rights (You Know, The One That Banned Slavery)

Gary S. Chapman
It’s been 147 years since slavery was abolished in the United States, but one man believes a Vermont prison treated him as if he were back in the 1800s. Finbar McGarry has filed a lawsuit against the state’s prison system and a number of prison officials, alleging they violated his 13th Amendment rights — under which all Americans are guaranteed freedom from “slavery or involuntary servitude.”
McGarry, in the $11 million lawsuit, claims he was forced to work for hardly any pay under unsafe conditions at a Vermont jail. According to CBS, he was arrested for a domestic disturbance in December 2008. He spent six weeks in prison before the charges were ultimately dropped, but while serving time, the Ph.D student at the University of Vermont alleges he was forced into 14-hour shifts in the prison laundry, paid a paltry 25 cents an hour to work in unpleasant, unsanitary conditions, which resulted in him getting an infection in his neck. If he refused to work, he was threatened with solitary confinement.
Although a lower court initially dismissed McGarry’s lawsuit, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found Friday that McGarry should be allowed to bring forth his case. Speaking to WBZ radio, David Frank of Lawyer’s Weekly said: “You do have to give the plaintiff in this case a lot of credit. He’s come up with a very creative argument.” He explained that the fundamental issue wasn’t one of slavery, but innocence. “Unless a judge or jury finds you guilty, that presumption of innocence gives you some protection,” he added. “It’s significant difference that the law recognizes.”
Frank warned that there is “no doubt” that should McGarry’s lawsuit prevail, “it would be a very significant message for jails and houses of correction that hold people pre-trial. “The message would be: you can’t force people to work while they’re awaiting trial, whether you’re going to pay them 25 cents an hour or $25,000 an hour.”
Read more: http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/08/07/man-accuses-prison-of-violating-his-13th-amendment-rights-you-know-the-one-that-banned-slavery/#ixzz24llDqAVt

Texas prison officials struggle with high turnover rates, staff shortage

The state's prison system is offering a $3,000 signing bonus for new guards in hopes of filling latest in series of shortages

MORRIS NEWS SERVICE, August 6, 2012 10:17 AM EDT

Texas prison officials struggle with high turnover rates, staff shortage

AMARILLO — Texas correctional officers guard one of the largest state inmate populations in the country but are plagued by a shortage of people willing to do the job.
It’s a thankless but critical function. The pay is low, the hours are long, the conditions are grueling and the danger is constant.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Inmates sue over Pelican Bay 'sensory deprivation'

Published 08:55 p.m., Thursday, May 31, 2012
Ten inmates held in isolation at California's Pelican Bay State Prison for more than a decade sued the state Thursday, saying their conditions - which deprived them of virtually all human contact and any meaningful chance for release - violate international standards against torture and inhumane treatment.
The prolonged solitary confinement in the North Coast prison's Security Housing Unit is the harshest anywhere in the nation and "strips human beings of their basic dignity and humanity," the inmates said in a federal court suit in Oakland.
A proposed class action on behalf of the unit's 1,000 inmates - half of whom have been there for more than a decade - seeks court orders limiting their stay in the unit to 10 years, requiring regular review and barring what the suit described as "sensory deprivation" and "environmental deprivation."
The prison in a remote area of Del Norte County houses inmates classified as security risks, mostly because of gang activity. The suit said they are held in windowless concrete cells at least 22 1/2 hours a day, are fed through a slot, have no access to prison vocational or educational programs, sleep on a concrete bed with a lumpy mattress, and can be punished for trying to speak to other inmates.
Most inmates have never been charged with gang-related conduct behind bars, their lawyers said, and are kept in the Security Housing Unit on flimsy evidence - a tattoo, some artwork in their possession, shaking hands with the wrong person, or inclusion in an undisclosed list by an unidentified informant.
They said authorities have told them that the only way out of the unit is to "debrief'" - admit their gang ties and become an informer on other members.
"We have been told repeatedly by prisoners that they are faced with a stark choice: debrief or die" in the security unit, said attorney Alexis Agathocelous of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The suit also alleged that state officials have adopted an unofficial but binding policy of denying parole to otherwise eligible prisoners while they are in the security unit. One inmate, George Ruiz, 69, placed in a security unit 28 years ago as a gang member, has been eligible for parole since 1993, but has been told repeatedly by parole boards that he will never be released while housed in the unit, the suit said.
Asked about the suit, Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said, "We do not have solitary confinement in California prisons." He noted that the inmates are allowed to have visitors on weekends and also have contact with prison staff.
That is "preposterous," replied Agathocelous. Although prisoners can have two two-hour visits per weekend, he said, they can speak to their visitors only through Plexiglas and are prohibited from physical contact.
The same complaints were the subject of two prison hunger strikes last summer and fall that spread to more than 6,000 inmates in 13 prisons. Afterward, state officials said they would ease some restrictions on prisoners' activities and on transfers out of security units, but inmates' representatives said Thursday the changes have been minimal.
"Prison authorities have given them a handball in the recreation area, and prisoners can buy colored pencils" for artwork, said Marilyn McMahon, executive director of the advocacy group California Prison Focus. "But the major demand was to stop debriefing. The department has made it clear that they have no intention of ending that."
Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: begelko@sfchronicle.com

Patrick Earl Conely, Appellant v. Texas Board of Criminal Justice et al., Appellees

NO. 03–11–00094–CV

-- May 30, 2012

Before Chief Justice Jones, Justices Pemberton and Henson 
M E M O R A N D U M   O P I N I O N
Appellant Patrick Earl Conely, an inmate confined in the Institutional Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), who is appearing pro se and in forma pauperis, appeals the dismissal of his suit against the Texas Board of Criminal Justice and Candace Moore.   Because we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing Conely's suit pursuant to chapter 14 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, we will affirm.   See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem.Code Ann. §§ 14.001–.014 (West 2002).
Conely filed suit in district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2003).   Conely alleged that McConnell Unit librarian Candace Moore deprived him of his right to exercise his religion through her actions related to his correspondence with Bill Bucholtz, a member of a Jehovah's Witness congregation with whom Conely claimed to have “a close religious relationship.”   Conely contended that Moore's conduct was in retaliation for his having filed numerous administrative grievances against her or related to her actions.   According to Conely, Moore's conduct violated his First, Fourteenth, and Eighth Amendment rights to freely exercise his religion, to be free from retaliation, and to due process.   Conely also alleged that Moore's conduct violated the Texas Theft Liability Act, see Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem.Code Ann. §§ 134.001–.005 (West 2011), and 18 U.S.C. § 1702 (2000), which makes obstruction of correspondence a criminal offense.
The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the suit as frivolous pursuant to section 14.003 of the civil practice and remedies code on the ground that the claims asserted had no arguable basis in law.   See id. § 14.003. The defendants also moved to dismiss the suit on the ground that Conely failed to comply with chapter 14's procedural requirements.   See id. §§ 14.004, .006.   The district court granted the motion and dismissed the suit with prejudice on the ground that the claims are frivolous.   Conely perfected this appeal.
Chapter 14 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code applies to all suits, such as this one, filed by inmates who declare themselves unable to pay costs.   Id. § 14.002(a).  Section 14.003 authorizes a trial court to dismiss an inmate's claim, filed in forma pauperis, either before or after service of process occurs, if the court finds the claim to be frivolous.   Id. § 14.003(a)(2).   A claim is frivolous if it has no basis in law or fact or if its realistic chance of success is slight.   See id. § 14.003(b)(1), (2).   A claim is considered to have no arguable basis in law when either the legal theory on which it is based is meritless or the factual allegations on which it is based are wholly incredible or irrational.  Nabelek v. District Att'y of Harris Cnty., 290 S.W.3d 222, 228 (Tex.App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2005, pet. denied).
We review dismissal under chapter 14 for an abuse of discretion.  Leachman v. Dretke, 261 S.W.3d 297, 303 (Tex.App.—Fort Worth 2008, no pet.).   A trial court abuses its discretion if it acts unreasonably or without reference to any guiding rules or principles.  Id. We review de novo whether the plaintiff's claims have no basis in law such that dismissal on that ground is authorized.   See Retzlaff, 94 S.W.3d at 653.   In conducting our review, we take as true the allegations in the plaintiff's petition.  Scott v. Gallagher, 209 S.W.3d 262, 266 (Tex.App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2006, no pet.).   We examine the claims asserted and the relief requested to determine whether the petition stated a cause of action that could authorize relief.  Hamilton v. Williams, 298 S.W.3d 334, 339 (Tex.App.—Fort Worth 2009, pet. denied).
In his second issue, Conely claims that the trial court erred in dismissing his “First and Fourteenth Amendment due process claims” brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.   As an initial matter, we note that the First Amendment does not contain any due process protections.   The allegations Conely relied on in his petition to support his “Fourteenth Amendment claim” are (1) as a result of Moore's conduct, Bucholtz did not receive some biblical documents that Conely was attempting to return to him, and (2) Conely did not receive notice from Moore, as required by the operations manual for the mailroom, that the stamp on his letter was removed or that his letter to Bucholtz was sent to another destination.   Elsewhere in the petition, Conely alleged that Bucholtz did receive the letter he sent but apparently not the biblical documents.   It appears, therefore, that Conely claimed to have been deprived of a stamp and some biblical documents without due process.   Although it is not entirely clear from his pleadings, it seems that the biblical documents did not belong to Conely but to Bucholtz, which is why Conely was returning them.   And the stamp that Moore allegedly confiscated was one provided by Bucholtz for Conely's use in returning his completed lesson and the biblical documents to Bucholtz.   Assuming, however, that the stamp and biblical documents did belong to Conely, the Due Process Clause is not necessarily violated when a prison official either negligently or intentionally deprives an inmate of property.   See Aguilar v. Chastain, 923 S.W.2d 740, 743–44 (Tex.App.—Tyler 1996, writ denied) (citing Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 328 (1986), and Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 533 (1984)).  “[D]eprivations of property caused by the misconduct of state officials do not infringe constitutional due process provided adequate state post-deprivation remedies exist.”  Murphy v. Collins, 26 F.3d 541, 543 (5th Cir.1994).   The legislature has provided an administrative remedy to pay inmates' claims for property lost or damaged by the TDCJ. See Tex. Gov't Code Ann. §§ 501.007, .008 (West 2004).   Therefore, Conely's allegation that his property was confiscated does not give rise to a section 1983 claim.   See Murphy, 26 F.3d at 543–44;  see also Aguilar, 923 S.W.2d at 743–44.   To the extent Conely complains that his due process rights were violated by Moore's failure to follow TDCJ policy, “a prison official's failure to follow the prison's own policies, procedures or regulations does not constitute a violation of due process, if constitutional mimina are nevertheless met.”  Myers v. Klevenhagen, 97 F.3d 91, 94 (5th Cir.1996).   Constitutional minima are satisfied in this case because an adequate post-deprivation remedy was available.   See id. at 94–96;  see also Aguilar, 923 S.W.2d at 744;  Murphy, 26 F.3d at 543–44.   Conely's due process claim therefore had no arguable basis in law, and the trial court properly dismissed it.   We overrule the second appellate issue.
In his first issue, Conely asserts that the trial court erroneously dismissed his retaliation claim.   Prisoners have a First Amendment right to be free from retaliation for complaining about a prison official's misconduct, and a violation of this right is actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  Woods v. Smith, 60 F.3d 1161, 1163 (5th Cir.1995).   To prevail on a section 1983 retaliation claim, an inmate must be able to establish:  (1) a specific constitutional right;  (2) the defendant's intent to retaliate against him for exercising that right;  (3) a retaliatory adverse act;  and (4) causation.   McDonald v. Stevard, 132 F.3d 225, 231 (5th Cir.1998).   Retaliation against a prisoner is actionable only if it is capable of deterring a person of ordinary firmness from further exercising his constitutional rights.  Morris v. Powell, 449 F.3d 682, 686 (5th Cir.2006), cert. denied, 549 U.S. 1038 (2006) (adopting de minimis standard in retaliation claims because it achieves proper balance between need to recognize valid retaliation claims and danger of courts “embroiling themselves in every disciplinary act that occurs in state penal institutions”).   Inconsequential actions, even if retaliatory, are not sufficient to support a retaliation claim.  Id. A retaliation claim fails if the complained-of act, though motivated by retaliatory intent, is so de minimis that it would not deter an ordinary person from further exercise of his rights.  Id.
In his brief, Conely argues that his petition set forth a chronology of events from which it could plausibly be inferred that Conely's past grievances and lawsuits caused Moore to “interfere with his religious activities or First Amendment right to freedom of religion by stopping his outgoing correspondence addressed to his religious instructor, Bill Bucholtz[,] and sending it to another person besides Bill, and stealing or trashing his biblical documents.”   The facts Conely relies on to demonstrate that Moore's conduct interfered with his religious activities are that (1) Moore informed Bucholtz that, “for material gain,” inmates with whom he corresponded removed the stamps he supplied them to use when returning biblical materials to him, (2) Moore forwarded this letter to the “head elder over the congregation” instead of to Bucholtz, and (3) as a result, Bucholtz received Conely's bible lessons and letter later than he would have if mailed to him directly.
Conely's allegations did not state how Moore's conduct, assuming it was retaliatory, prevented him from practicing his religion.   He did not claim that he was prevented from corresponding with Bucholtz, and in fact his pleadings indicate that their correspondence has continued and that the congregation has continued to send him self-addressed stamped envelopes for that purpose.   We conclude that any alleged retaliatory act was inconsequential and did not deter Conely from exercising his constitutional right to freedom of religion.   The trial court did not err in concluding that Conely did not state a valid claim for retaliation.   We overrule the first appellate issue.1
In his third issue, Conely challenges the trial court's dismissal of his claim that Moore's conduct is actionable under the theft liability act.   See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem.Code Ann. § 134.001–.005. The allegations Conely relies on to support his theft claim are that (1) as a result of Moore's conduct, Bucholtz did not receive the biblical documents Conely was attempting to return to him, and (2) Moore “stole or removed a stamp for her personal use and trashed [Conely's] biblical documents.”   As an initial matter, the record indicates that the biblical documents and the stamp belonged to Bucholtz or the congregation, not to Conely.   Conely claimed to be “returning” the biblical documents to Bucholtz, and the stamp was provided by the congregation for that purpose.
Nevertheless, even assuming the documents and the stamp belonged to Conely, the trial court did not err in dismissing this claim as frivolous because Conely failed to exhaust his administrative remedies with regard to his claim that Moore stole property belonging to him.  Section 14.005(a)(1) of the civil practice and remedies code provides that an inmate who files a claim subject to the TDCJ grievance system must file an affidavit or unsworn declaration stating the date his grievance was filed and the date he received the written decision described by government code section 501.008(d).  Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem.Code Ann. § 14.005(a);  see Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 501.008(d) (inmate may not file claim until he receives written decision issued by highest authority provided for in grievance system or, if inmate has not received written decision, until 180th day after date grievance was filed).   If an inmate does not strictly comply with section 14.005(a), a trial court does not abuse its discretion in dismissing the claim.  Brewer v. Simental, 268 S.W.3d 763, 768 (Tex.App.—Amarillo 2009, no pet.).   The affidavit of exhaustion of administrative remedies supplied by Conely reveals that he did not file a grievance complaining of Moore's alleged theft of his property.   Rather, the grievance he filed complains only that Moore retaliated against him and interfered with his constitutional rights by redirecting his correspondence and notifying the congregation of her belief that inmates were removing stamps from self-addressed stamped envelopes the congregation had provided and then requesting postage from the TDCJ indigent program.   Nowhere in the grievance filed does Conely allege that Moore stole any property.   This allegation appears for the first time in Conely's petition.   Because Conely failed to demonstrate that he exhausted his administrative remedies with respect to his claim that Moore committed theft of his property, the trial court did not err in dismissing this claim.   We overrule Conely's third appellate issue.
In his fourth issue, Conely asserts that the trial court erred in failing “to continue [his] default judgment hearing.”   By this issue Conely contends that he was entitled to entry of a default judgment and that the trial court made a partial ruling in his favor but also stated that she would not rule until she reviewed documentation demonstrating service of citation.   Before the default judgment was signed, the defendants filed their answer.   We understand Conely to complain that the trial court should have rendered default judgment sooner, i.e., before the answers were filed.   This argument is without merit.   The trial court determined, and we agree, that Conely's claims are frivolous because they have no arguable basis in law.   A default judgment is properly granted only if the facts set out in the petition allege a cause of action for which relief may be granted.   In such a case, the default judgment conclusively establishes the defendant's liability.  Morgan v. Compugraphic Corp., 675 S.W.2d 729, 731 (Tex.1984).   Here, because Conely's claims as alleged could not succeed as a matter of law, the trial court would have erred by granting a default judgment.   See Huynh v. Vo, No. 01–02–00295–CV, 2003 WL 1848607, at *3 (Tex.App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Apr. 10, 2003, no pet.) (mem.op.) (when plaintiff's claim could not succeed as matter of law, trial court erred in rendering judgment on claim).   Moreover, even when a district court refuses to rule on a motion for default judgment, once an answer has been filed, any complaints regarding the district court's prior failure to act are rendered moot.   See Palacios v. Rayburn, 516 S.W.2d 292, 294 (Tex.Civ.App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1974, no writ) (plaintiff's petition for writ of mandamus against trial court judge who refused to grant default judgment against non-answering defendant was rendered moot when defendant filed answer).   We overrule Conely's fourth issue.
In his fifth issue, Conely contends that the trial court's failure to rule on pending motions was a denial of his due process rights.   Specifically, Conely claims that the trial court failed to rule on his motion for default judgment, motion for partial judgment on liability, motion to compel discovery, and motion to strike.   The trial court may rule on a motion either expressly or implicitly.   See, e.g., Tex.R.App. P. 33.1(a)(2) (for party to present complaint for appellate review, record must show that trial court either ruled on motion, expressly or implicitly, or refused to rule and complaining part objected to refusal).   Here, by granting the dispositive motion to dismiss without ordering the defendants to answer discovery, the district court implicitly denied this motion.   See In the Interest of Z.L.T., 124 S.W.3d 163, 165 (Tex.2003) (concluding that trial court implicitly denied inmate's request for bench warrant by proceeding to trial without issuing one).   The trial court's dismissal of Conely's claims likewise implicitly denied the motions for default judgment and for partial judgment on liability.   Because we conclude that the district court effectively ruled on Conely's motions, we overrule his fifth appellate issue.
Having overruled Conely's appellate issues, we affirm the trial court's judgment.
1.  FN1. Having concluded that the trial court did not err in dismissing Conely's section 1983 claims as having no arguable basis in law, we need not address Conely's sixth appellate issue, in which he contends that he met the minimum amount-in-controversy requirement for invoking district-court jurisdiction.   See Tex. Const. art.   V, §§ 8, 19;  Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 24.007 (West 2004 & Supp.2011).   Our disposition also renders moot Conely's seventh appellate issue, in which he contends that the trial court erred in denying his request for a declaration that Moore's conduct violated state and federal law.
J. Woodfin Jones, Chief Justice

Rights group joins case over solitary confinement cells in CA where prisoners kept for years

Saturday, August 25, 2012

In Jackson, tourists pay for the chance to experience life behind bars

by Ellen Craeger  
About 250 guards at State Prison of Southern Michigan fired tear gas at the 1,000 prisoners.
Visitors now get a chance to see 7 Block, part of the former State Prison of Southern Michigan. The tour of 7 Block was added last year, boosting prison tourism in Jackson. / MARCIN SZCZEPANSKI/DFP
Judy Gail Krasnow takes visitors back in time to experience another way of life on the Jackson Historic Prison Tour. Krasnow, in front of a mural designed by Jean Weir and Hector Trujillo, hosted just 400 tourists in 2008 but had 3,200 last year. / MIKE BROOKBANK/DETROIT FREE PRESS
Art is displayed at this studio in the historic state prison. This room would have been about two cells. / MIKE BROOKBANK/DETROIT FREE PRESS
Some visitors come by the busload. More than 40 people from a senior center in Portage visited Wednesday. / MIKE BROOKBANK/DETROIT FREE PRESS
JACKSON -- There's new glamour in the slammer.
Tours are booming for Michigan's most famous lockup city, with visitors coming from across the state and beyond to go on the Jackson Historic Prison Tour.
Its highlight: the infamous 7-Block at the former State Prison of Southern Michigan. It closed in 2007.
The eerie 7-Block, still part of a razor-wire enclosed campus with four other active prisons, echoes with drama. It's where Dr. Jack Kevorkian stayed when he first arrived -- cell 82, level three -- and where hundreds of men, women and children were held on a single night during the 1967 Detroit riot.
Visitors can sit in the creepy cells, smell the dank air, read the blue-cover prison rule books still attached to the cell bars and imagine life for the 515 prisoners held there.
One thing visitors can't do? Take pictures. To see 7-Block, you have to come in person.
Judy Gail Krasnow, the tour founder who worked with the state to add 7-Block as part of her historical prison tour last year, said Jackson's prisons are a potential tourism gold mine.
Her tour garnered just 400 tourists in 2008 but 3,200 last year. This year, "we already have almost 50 tours booked."
Like California's Alcatraz, Jackson has endless prison stories just waiting to be told.
"I want to raise the spirit of Jackson's prison past," Krasnow said. "It's not an embarrassment. It's history."

Artwork, cookbooks, ghosts and more turn up in tour of Jackson's old prisons

In the stark symmetry of the prison building known as 7-Block, it's easy to imagine bad things happening.
Rails are garish yellow. Bars are white. The floor is grim gray. There are windows, but the light is filtered, like at a cheap motel, so you can't see out. You go through a door into the yard; looped razor wire menaces from atop every fence.
Nobody would ever want to come here.
Except as a tourist, of course.
"I loved it. I loved the way it looked like the prisons you see on TV, but you can see it in person," said Jan Herrick of Kalamazoo. "For some reason, prisons really fascinate me."
They fascinate others, too. From West Virginia to California, prison tours are drawing crowds.
Since the Jackson Historic Prison Tour added the visit to 7-Block at the former State Prison of Southern Michigan last year, interest has spiked, said Judy Gail Krasnow, tour founder.
"People like to see the real thing. A lot of the fascination is, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "
That said, the four-and-a-half-hour tour has to be one of the strangest prison tours -- and one of the strangest tours, period -- in the world.
You see two prisons, two art studios and the tour guide's apartment.
There are odd juxtapositions -- you eat a turkey sandwich, visit a painter in his bright studio, then go to the basement to see 19th-Century, solitary-confinement cells.
You take a bus 2 miles north to Blackman Township's prison complex and see 7-Block, which looks ancient but actually was in use until five years ago. Krasnow interviewed former warden Charles Anderson and former inmates to learn the cellblock's inside stories.
(In 1981, the Free Press' Taro Yamasaki won a Pulitzer Prize for photographing life inside the prison, including 7-Block.)
Besides the visit to 7-Block, here are tour highlights:
• Michigan's First State
Prison: All tours begin at Jackson's original prison, which operated from 1838 to 1934. It has been remodeled as the Armory Arts Village, with 62 apartments and artists studios.
In this old prison, inmates wore ball and chains on the grounds and labored in prison factories. Living conditions were primitive. In one wing, 328 men lived in tiny cells with no electricity, heat, ventilation or plumbing.
The prison had a band, a baseball team, a newspaper and a lot of interaction with the community.
"Mothers brought their daughters to get their wedding dresses made at the prison tailor shop," Krasnow said. "Prisoners made exquisite furniture."
Although Michigan abolished capital punishment in 1846, some conditions likely were worse than death.
Investigators once found that 20 men had been confined for 17 years straight in solitary confinement. When inspectors got them out, "nine couldn't talk, all were malnourished and six died right away," Krasnow said. "Everyone was thrown into solitary for two weeks to break their spirit. They didn't care if you stole a loaf of bread or murdered someone."
The chance to see the old prison appealed to Carol Vandenberg of Kalamazoo. Her grandfather, Walter Stoops, was an inmate there in the 1920s.
"I never met him, but I'd always heard there was a black sheep in the family," she said. "I couldn't pass up this trip."
• Artists' studios. Lou Cubille and Carol A. Kent welcome tourists in their studios.
• Krasnow's apartment. Her two-level apartment is the size of 36 prison cells. Yes, she has sensed ghosts in the apartment, or did until she put up a crucifix -- even though she's Jewish.
"The building is 174 years old, so if the spirits have seeped into the brick and floors, that's understandable," Krasnow said. Some of her tours are for paranormal groups.
• Old Prison Gift Shop: Opened in April, it features artwork by former prison inmates, a prison cookbook and T-shirts that say, "I spent time in Jackson (Michigan)."
Contact Ellen Creager: 313-222-6498 or ecreager@freepress.com
More Details: Want to go?
The Jackson Historic Prison Tour runs through Oct. 31 and takes participants to Michigan's First State Prison (1838-1934), now the Armory Arts Village, and 7-Block (1934-2007) at the former State Prison of Southern Michigan.
Tours last three and a half to four and a half hours, depending on the itinerary, and are by appointment only. The minimum group size is four, and no child younger than 9 will be allowed.
Tickets are $35 per person; groups of 20 or more can get discounts and a package price that includes lunch.
For more information, go to www.historicprisontours .com or call 517-795-2112.

Struggle for prison health care enters new phase

A new phase opened May 7 in the long-running struggle to provide adequate health care for California prison inmates and to end conditions a federal judge said in 2005 were leading to the unnecessary death of one inmate a week.
The State of California, the attorneys who brought the lawsuit on behalf of prison inmates, and the receiver now in charge of prison health care filed a joint report in court this week, setting forth their differing - in some cases opposing - views on how to end the receivership while assuring adequate treatment for the state's current inmates.
The state claims prison health care has been "totally transformed," with a "well-qualified" staff, new or improved facilities, and a lower inmate population than when the receivership was ordered. It wants the court to end the receivership in 30 days, with a monitor observing progress for another year.
Last month California unveiled a comprehensive plan on how to ensure "a quality medical care system for years to come."
But attorneys for the inmates say that while conditions have improved, big health care problems remain at many prisons, and the state hasn't shown it can continue to improve things if the receivership is lifted. They also contend California is refusing to cut the prison population to the court-ordered number, and has not yet done needed upgrades to prison medical facilities.
"There are still problems at many prisons, with getting timely access to a physician and timely access to their medications that they need," Prison Law Office attorney Donald Spector, the lead attorney in the case, told southern California public radio station KPCC.
Spector said one of the biggest improvements to date has been getting rid of incompetent medical staff and bringing in more, and better qualified, professionals. 
However, federal receiver J. Clark Kelso said some newer staff members have quit because of inadequate clinic facilities and other ongoing problems.
Kelso says the receivership should last until the inmate population is lowered to the court-ordered number, and more progress is made on building new medical facilities.
The struggle has a long history. Class action suits charging inadequate care date back to 1990 and 2001.
In 2005, after U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson found that an average of one inmate a week was dying because of inadequate health care, he ordered the prison health care system into receivership.
In 2009, a federal three-judge panel including Judge Henderson said prison health care in California's greatly overcrowded prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and ordered the state to cut the prison population by more than a quarter over a two-year period.
The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled a year ago that the prison population must indeed be cut.
Among factors contributing to California's soaring prison population, observers point to Prop. 184, the "three strikes and you're out" ballot measure passed in 1994, which imposes minimum sentences of 25 years to life for three-time repeat offenders with previous serious or violent felony convictions.
But the California Legislative Analyst's Office says only about 37 percent of those sentenced under three strikes were convicted of crimes against persons, while over half were convicted of property or drug crimes.
Advocates for sentencing reform point to the large numbers of African Americans and Latinos who are incarcerated for minor offenses including drug violations, and parolees who are sent back to prison for minor technical parole violations.
A ballot initiative to limit three-strikes sentencing to cases where the third offense, or a prior offense, is serious or violent is now undergoing signature verification, and may be on the November ballot.
Photo: Derek Key // CC 2.0

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