TEXAS LEGAL ACTIONS:

PRISON LAWSUITS:

2013:


    Lawsuit Targets Prison Company Over Records Request

    By Maurice Chammah
    May 1, 2013

    The Corrections Corporation of America, a company that runs 12 of the state's prison facilities, is facing a lawsuit from a publication that says it is failing to release information related to deaths and health care at the Dawson State Jail in Dallas.

    The prison is one of several that the Legislature is considering for closure because of a declining prison population.

    The lawsuit, filed Wednesday with a state district court in Travis County, seeks to force the company to comply with an open records request that was filed in early March by Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine based in Vermont that focuses on prisoner rights. The company has not complied with the request, spurring the magazine to bring a suit against it and, in the words of the petition, "enforce its right under state law to investigate patterns of unconscionable and unconstitutional conditions in corporate-run jails."

    CCA spokesman Steve Owen said in an email that the company "will review the complaint and determine the appropriate course of action."

    "This lawsuit is about the truth," Brian McGiverin, a Texas Civil Rights Project lawyer representing Prison Legal News, said Wednesday at a news conference. "They hide the truth because they know the truth is horrifying."

    Lawmakers are considering whether to close Dawson State Jail in the current budget, an effort spearheaded by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, along with the Texas chapter of the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees, which represents prison workers.

    A letter from numerous criminal justice advocacy organizations referred to "inadequate medical care and a rash of preventable deaths at the Dawson State Jail illustrate problems at this facility."

    In response, Owen told The Texas Tribune: "It’s unfortunate that these organizations are so closed-minded when it comes to facts and perspectives that might challenge their political agendas. CCA simply provides safe inmate housing and quality rehabilitation programming at a cost savings to Texas taxpayers."

    The state Senate's version of the coming budget would remove funding from the Dawson State Jail, which houses inmates convicted of low-level offenses for one to two years, while the House's budget would not. The issue is currently being debated by a conference committee of lawmakers.

    Several lawmakers have mentioned the accusations of mistreatment at the facility as reasons they believe it should be closed. Last month, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, told a radio station he was moved to oppose continued funding for the facility by the story of a 4-day old baby girl, who died last year at the facility after an inmate gave birth to her in a toilet.

    Owen responded by saying that medical personnel is provided by the University of Texas Medical Branch through its contract with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "Although we are not the healthcare service provider at the facility, we take our role in the process of providing inmates access to care very seriously," Owen said in a written statement.

    West responded, "That’s not a good answer when in fact under your contract you are supposed to coordinate medical care for the people who are in your custody."

    The University of Texas Medical Branch declined through a spokesperson to comment on the matter.

    "The choice to bring doctors to any particular inmate, or a scene where there might be an emergency, those decisions are made by guards employed by this private corporation," McGiverin said at the news conference. He said his civil rights group has sued the company in the past, but this is the first time it is over a public information request.

    Lawsuit Targets Prison Company Over Records Request


2012:


    Appeals Court Rules Jewish Inmate's Rights Infringed When Denied Kosher Meals

    By Erin Mulvaney
    December 30, 2012

    A Houston man in jail for murder should be served kosher meals, a federal appeals court ruled.

    The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans reversed a lower court's judgement, stating that Max Moussazadeh has a sincere religious belief as an Orthodox Jew in keeping a kosher diet and that Texas infringed upon his beliefs by denying him free kosher meals, according to court records filed on Dec. 21.

    Moussazadeh, now 35, was convicted in connection with a 1993 murder in Harris County for serving as a lookout while his three co-defendants shot a man to death during a Houston robbery. He is in the Stiles Unit in Beaumont, which does not provide free kosher meals, his attorneys said.

    In 2005, Moussazadeh sued after the state denied his request for a kosher meal plan to accommodate his religious beliefs. His case centers around the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which forbids the government from restricting religious rights of an institutionalized person.

    "I feel that I am going against my beliefs and that I will be punished by God for not practicing my religion correctly," he wrote in the 2005 complaint.

    Kosher meals are based on the Jewish teaching in the Torah that forbidden foods taint not only the body but the soul. A kosher diet is complex, but allows all non-animal products, certain typical or poultry and fish that have fins and scales but forbids pork and any mixing of dairy products and meat. To keep kosher, a meal must be prepared in containers that are untainted by any non-kosher food.

    A lower, district court dismissed Moussazadeh's case, ruling the inmate's commitment to a kosher diet was insincere and that all remedies had not been exhausted. That summary judgement has now been reversed.

    In 35 Prison Systems

    Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which helped represent Moussazadeh, said in a statement that the latest decision was a great victory for human rights and religious liberty.

    "Even prisoners retain their human rights, and the state cannot sacrifice those rights on the altar of bureaucratic convenience," Goodrich said.

    In the U.S., 35 prison systems provide kosher diets for Jewish prisoners, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

    The state's prison system provides inmates with a choice between pork-free, meat-free and regular diet trays at most units, none of which is considered kosher. In 2007, Texas established a "kosher kitchen" at one of its prison facilities at the Stringfellow Unit in Rosharon, where it provides a free kosher diet to inmates. The state estimates that the cost of feeding all observant Jewish inmates in its prison system would be less than 0.02 percent of its annual food budget, according to the Becket Fund.

    Moussazadeh was transferred to the Stringfellow Unit for a few years and the case was ruled moot. He was later transferred to the Stiles Unit, which offers basic kosher products for purchase, because of disciplinary infractions.

    The Texas Department of Criminal Justice attorneys argued that the inmate chose in some instances to go through the regular line at Stringfellow Unit, even when he had the option for a kosher meal.

    Appeals court rules Jewish inmate's rights infringed when denied kosher meals


    JULY 30, 2012

    5th Circuit: Inmates can sue TDCJ over excessive heat

    After the suit was thrown out at the district court level, the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said the Texas Civil Rights Project could sue the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on behalf of inmates over excessive heat.

    Here's the opinion (pdf)


    Two Lawsuits Challenge the Lack of Air-Conditioning in Texas Prisons


    Four inmates died of heat-related causes last summer. Eugene Blackmon is suing over conditions in a prison in
    the summer of 2008. "It felt like an oven," he said.

    By MANNY FERNANDEZ
    Published: June 26, 2012

    AUSTIN, Tex. — In the brutal heat of summer, many Texans flee to shopping malls, movie theaters and other air-conditioned havens to keep cool. But for one segment of the population, there is literally no escape from triple-digit temperatures: state prison inmates.

    Only 21 of the 111 prisons overseen by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the state prison agency, are fully air-conditioned. Many of the prisons that do have air-conditioning in areas where medical services or educational programs are provided to inmates do not offer it in the sections where they live.

    Inmates and their families have complained for years about the heat and lack of air-conditioning in the summertime, but the issue has taken on a new urgency. An appeal is pending in a lawsuit initially filed in 2008 by a former inmate claiming that 54 prisoners were exposed to Death Valley-like conditions at a South Texas prison where the heat index exceeded 126 degrees for 10 days indoors. And several inmates at other prisons died of heat-related causes last summer; a lawsuit was filed Tuesday in one of those deaths.

    Texas has long had a reputation for running some of the toughest prisons in the country, but inmates and their advocates say the overheated conditions violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. They accuse prison officials of failing to supply enough fans, ventilation and water and refusing to follow local and national prison standards.

    A Texas law requires county jails to maintain temperature levels between 65 and 85 degrees, but the law does not apply to state prisons. The American Correctional Association recommends that temperature and humidity be mechanically raised or lowered to acceptable levels.

    “The Constitution doesn’t require a comfortable prison, but it requires a safe and humane prison,” said Scott Medlock, director of the prisoners’ rights program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is representing the former South Texas inmate who sued prison officials. “Housing prisoners in these temperatures is brutal.”

    A prison agency spokesman, Jason Clark, said that many prison units were built before air-conditioning was commonly installed, and that many others built later in the 1980s and 1990s did not include air-conditioning because of the additional construction, maintenance and utility costs. Retrofitting prisons with air-conditioning would be extremely expensive, he said.

    As a result, the agency takes a number of steps to assist inmates, Mr. Clark said, and he disputed the criticisms of inmates and their lawyers about inadequate fans, water and ventilation. On hot summer days, he said, prison officials restrict outside activity, provide frequent water breaks, allow additional showers, permit inmates to wear shorts and increase airflow by using blowers normally used to move warm air in the winter.

    “The agency is committed to making sure that all are safe during the extreme heat,” Mr. Clark said in a statement.

    Despite those measures, four inmates — Larry Gene McCollum, 58; Alexander Togonidze, 44; Michael David Martone, 57; and Kenneth Wayne James, 52 — died last summer from heat stroke or hyperthermia, according to autopsy reports and the authorities. Advocates for inmate rights believe that at least five others died from heat-related causes last summer.

    On Tuesday, the Texas Civil Rights Project and an Austin lawyer filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Mr. McCollum’s wife, son and daughter. They accused prison officials of causing his death by keeping him in the sweltering Hutchins State Jail outside Dallas, where he had a seizure around 2 a.m. on July 22 and fell from his bunk bed.

    When Mr. McCollum, who weighed 345 pounds and had hypertension, arrived at a Dallas hospital, his body temperature was 109.4 degrees. He died six days later.

    The cause of death was hyperthermia, the autopsy report said. Mr. McCollum was “in a hot environment without air-conditioning, and he may have been further predisposed to developing hyperthermia due to morbid obesity” and use of a diuretic for hypertension, the report noted.

    “For this to happen to any human being is beyond my belief,” said Mr. McCollum’s son, Stephen, 30, at a news conference in Austin announcing the lawsuit. “There’s pets in pounds that have better conditions.”

    Nearly two weeks after Mr. McCollum died, Mr. Togonidze and Mr. Martone died of hyperthermia on the same August day in different prisons. Five days later, Mr. James was found unresponsive at 3 a.m. at a prison near the East Texas town of Palestine. His body temperature was 108 degrees, and the cause of death was “most likely environmental hyperthermia-related classic heat stroke,” according to the autopsy report. Like Mr. McCollum, Mr. James had hypertension.

    Mr. Clark, the prison agency spokesman, said it was unknown whether the lack of air-conditioning was a factor in the deaths. The agency does not comment on pending litigation, he said.

    Eugene Blackmon, 67, the former South Texas inmate who sued, said the conditions inside the C-8 dormitory at the Garza East prison caused him to have headaches, blurred vision and nausea. Mr. Blackmon was an inmate there in the summer of 2008 for a parole violation on a stolen-goods charge.

    After he filed his lawsuit, his lawyers hired an expert who took measurements inside the dorm in 2010 and retroactively calculated the indoor temperatures for the summer of 2008. The heat index inside reached a high of 134, the expert determined.

    “It felt like an oven,” said Mr. Blackmon, whose lawsuit was denied by a lower court and now awaits a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. “These bodies are throwing off heat. We would take a wet towel sometimes and put it over us to try to keep cool. The water we drank was from the sinks. If you had a cup, you drank with the cup. If not, you drank with your hand.”

    In court documents, the state attorney general’s office, which is representing the prison officials, denied Mr. Blackmon’s accusations, saying that he made no complaints of a heat-related illness or vision problems at the time and that his blood pressure readings improved rather than worsened over time. An air handler ventilating the dormitory, an industrial fan and a rooftop purge fan — in addition to extra shower privileges and ice water three times a day — increased the level of comfort in the C-8 dorm, the state’s lawyers argued.

    State Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said he was concerned about the inmate deaths but wanted to examine the circumstances of each. He said he was not sympathetic to complaints about a lack of air-conditioning, partly out of concern about the costs, but also out of principle.

    “Texans are not motivated to air-condition inmates,” he said. “These people are sex offenders, rapists, murderers. And we’re going to pay for their air-conditioning when I can’t go down the street and provide air-conditioning to hard-working, taxpaying citizens?”

    A version of this article appeared in print on June 27, 2012, on page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: Two Lawsuits Challenge the Lack of Air-Conditioning in Texas Prisons.

    Two Lawsuits Challenge the Lack of Air-Conditioning in Texas Prisons


    June 7th

    Ex-TDCJ PIO Michelle Lyons files lawsuit against TDCJ for harassment/retaliation she endured after blowing the whistle against the agency

    Former TDCJ public information office Michelle Lyons has filed a federal lawsuit alleging she was fired in retaliation for revealing information about irregularities in agency time keeping, The Backgate blog reports.

    To read the Backgate Article, click Here.

    To read the actual lawsuit, click Here.


    Inmate Barred From Muslim Services Loses Appeal

    MICHAEL GRACZYK
    Associated Press
    March 13, 2012

    HOUSTON (AP) — A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected a Texas inmate's claim that he was unconstitutionally barred from Muslim religious services for six months as discipline for causing a prison ruckus.

    The court also rejected his claims that Christian symbols hung in the chapel where Muslim services were held created a "hostile" environment and that prison officials improperly monitored services.

    "Prison officials have broad discretion in balancing prisoner rights with prison security," the decision from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said. It added that "monitoring alone does not prevent the free exercise of religion."

    Jesse James Copeland, 56, is serving life for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon in Gregg County in 1987. His record includes another aggravated robbery conviction, along with burglary and aggravated assault on a corrections officer.

    The ruckus started when he refused orders to leave the chapel at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Eastham Unit about 80 miles north of Houston.

    "A host of correctional officers and ranking officials abruptly burst into the chapel, and insolently disrupted the service ... having no respect for the Muslim offenders who were making their individual prayers," Copeland said in his lawsuit.

    About 30 officers responded to the disturbance, and Copeland was subsequently was barred from attending religious meetings for six months, confined to his cell for 45 days and lost good-behavior credits. Copeland said the punishment violated his free exercise of religion.

    He appealed after a lower court rejected his lawsuit as frivolous.

    The appeals court said even if Copeland's constitutional rights were violated, his lawsuit was moot because the six months had passed and the defendants he named, including nearly a dozen prison administrators, chaplains and officers, were entitled to immunity because they were doing their jobs.

    It also said his grievances about Christian symbols in the chapel were vague, noting he hadn't requested any changes or an alternative place for Muslim inmates to pray.

    Inmate barred from Muslim services loses appeal


    Jan. 8

    Everyone has the right to sue, including criminals behind bars, but some prisoners are tipping the balance of justice in their favour, using their time in jail to find ways to make the system pay.


    2010:


    Sex offender label requires hearing, court rules
    By R.G. RATCLIFFE
    Copyright 2010 HOUSTON CHRONICLE
    May 21, 2010

    AUSTIN — Texas has been unconstitutionally designating some prison inmates as sexual criminals without giving them an appropriate hearing, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

    The ruling could affect as many as 6,900 prison inmates who have never been convicted of a sex offense although they may be sexual predators.

    The lawsuit was brought by Raul Meza, who was convicted in the 1982 murder of a 9-year old girl. He was released from prison in 1993 under the state’s mandatory supervision law and then re-incarcerated until 2002.

    At that time the Board of Pardon’s and Paroles listed Meza as a sex offender, a condition that was rescinded in 2005. Meza was not allowed to see the evidence against him or have a hearing before the board.

    "Meza is no longer required to register as a sex offender," the court said.

    Meza’s lawsuit

    Meza says he cannot get out of incarceration in a Travis County Correctional Complex because the terms of his release require a parole officer to accompany him at all times. He says he has been allowed to leave the jail only twice and that he was denied one job because it was close to a "child safety" zone and on another occasion because he was not allowed to obtain a driver’s license. The 5th Circuit noted that in previous cases it has ruled that inmates cannot be designated as a sex offender without a due process hearing.

    No chance to see records

    The 5th Circuit said the state has an interest in rehabilitating sex offenders before they re-enter society, but it said inmates also have a legitimate interest in making certain the record against them is free of errors. But the state at present does not allow inmates to review the record that is used to designate them as sex offenders or to put additional provisions on their parole.

    "We conclude that the current procedure provided to parolees who have never been convicted of a sex offense and who face possible sex offender registration and therapy is constitutionally insufficient," the court said.

    "In compiling 6,900 parolee packets, human error will inevitably occur and parolees may be falsely accused of sexually deviant behavior," the court said.

    "By simply granting the parolees the right to review his packet, such human errors could be avoided."

    Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said the agency plans to review the ruling next week with the Texas Attorney General’s Office to see what step to take next.

    Meza became a statewide story at the time of his 1993 release in the rape and murder of Kendra Page on a South Austin playground. Parole officers found it difficult to find a home for Meza because one community after another rejected his local release. He eventually ended up back in Austin and had his parole revoked when he broke curfew to leave his mother’s home to buy a pack of cigarettes.

    rg.ratcliffe@chron.com

    Sex offender label requires hearing, court rules


    2009:


    Prison Legal News – For Immediate Release

    November 4, 2009

    PUBLISHER SUES TEXAS DEPT. OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE FOR CENSORING BOOKS

    Corpus Christi, TX – Prison Legal News (PLN), a non-profit monthly publication that reports on criminal justice-related issues, filed suit today in federal district court against Brad Livingston, Executive Director of the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), and other TDCJ officials.

    According to PLN’s complaint, TDCJ has inappropriately censored books sent to Texas state prisoners. One of the censored books was Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, by Silja J.A. Talvi. Ms. Talvi is an accomplished journalist and award-winning author. Her book on incarcerated women was described by one reviewer as a "comprehensive and passionately argued indictment of the inhumane treatment of female prisoners ... the sort of shocking expose too seldom seen in these media days of so much celebrity fluff." Two other Texas prisoners also were not allowed to receive Women Behind Bars after placing book orders with PLN.

    PLN contends that the censorship of Women Behind Bars, which was upheld by senior prison officials, was improper. Further, the TDCJ did not notify PLN of the censorship decision which would have provided PLN an opportunity to respond and contest that decision.

    TDCJ staff also censored another book ordered from PLN, The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime, by Joel Dyer, on the basis that the book mentions "rape." In fact, as PLN explains in its federal complaint, Perpetual Prisoner Machine "quotes from a 1968 Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office investigation into sexual assault in prison, and describes crimes committed against prisoners." Again, the TDCJ did not notify PLN of this censorship.

    "It is a sad commentary when government officials censor books sent to prisoners – particularly books that deal with prisoners’ rights and conditions in our nation’s prisons," stated PLN editor Paul Wright. "Apparently, the TDCJ prefers that prisoners remain uninformed about issues that directly affect them. We believe this is a poor rationale for censorship."

    "For decades, Texas prisoners have had the right to read most books while they are incarcerated," said Scott Medlock, Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s Prisoners’ Rights Program. "If there is anything everyone should be able to agree on, it’s that encouraging prisoners to read is a good thing."

    PLN is seeking compensatory, punitive and nominal damages plus declaratory and injunctive relief for violation of its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as attorney fees and costs.

    The case is Prison Legal News v. Livingston, U.S. District Court (S.D. Texas, Corpus Christi Division), Case No. 2:09-cv-00296. PLN is ably represented by Scott Medlock with the Texas Civil Rights Project and by HRDC general counsel Daniel E. Manville in Ferndale, Michigan.

    Prison Legal News (PLN), founded in 1990 and based in Seattle, Washington, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. PLN publishes a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has almost 7,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website (www.prisonlegalnews.org) that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents. PLN is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center.


    Jury says state officials violated parolee's right to hearing

    Parole board chair found liable for $21,000 in damages.

    By Mike Ward
    AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
    October 09, 2009

    An Austin federal jury on Thursday found that two top state parole officials violated the constitutional rights of an ex-convict who was denied a required hearing for 576 days.

    Jurors also held Board of Pardon and Paroles Chairman Rissie Owens liable for $21,250 in damages and awarded Curtis Ray Graham attorney's fees that are expected to top $100,000.

    The verdict came after an unusually contentious trial presided over by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, who in August had declared a mistrial in the case and who earlier this week fined an assistant attorney general for disregarding his warnings about making prejudicial comments in front of jurors.

    Graham sued the parole board after he was classified as a sex offender even though he was never convicted of a sex crime. He was arrested on aggravated rape charges in the 1980s, and parole officials used that as a basis for classifying him as a sex offender five years after he had been released on parole.

    Graham alleged he was never allowed to review evidence against him before the parole board made its decision in December 2007, despite several federal court orders requiring such hearings.

    It is rare for ex-convicts in Texas to win such legal challenges in state or federal courts. It is almost unheard of for parole officials to be held liable for official omissions. State parole director Stuart Jenkins, a second defendant in the high-profile case, was not held liable.

    At a time when several similar lawsuits are pending against state parole officials, attorneys have argued that a win by Graham could force new hearings in perhaps thousands of parole cases in which offenders were classified as sex offenders without proper hearings.

    Such a finding can bring more stringent limitations on their freedom.

    "This should send a message to the parole board that their arrogance not to change their policy won't work any longer, that constitutional rights matter in how they do their business," said William Habern, a noted parole-law attorney from Riverside who represents Graham.

    Owens and her attorneys left the courtroom after the verdict without commenting. Jenkins declined to comment, as did his attorneys.

    "I feel that I have been vindicated," said Graham, a minister who operates an auto detailing business in Athens, in East Texas. He has been on parole since 2003, after serving prison time on charges of attempted murder.

    Graham received a hearing in early August after Sparks ordered it.

    It did not change the outcome in his case, but Graham's attorneys say it did not comply with the judge's order to make an official finding that Graham was a continuing threat to society.

    Defense attorneys insisted that Owens and Jenkins had followed procedures in effect at the time and that the officials believed the process was constitutional because it had been reviewed by agency attorneys. They should not be held liable for doing what they thought was right, their attorneys argued — even though Sparks himself had twice ordered that Graham receive a due-process hearing on his case.

    The trial started with a bang Monday, with Sparks repeatedly warning Jenkins' attorney, Assistant Attorney General Kim Coogan, to limit her remarks about Graham's criminal history.

    Sparks cited her for contempt for remarks at an August hearing and had declared a mistrial last month after he vented his disgust with the state's lawyers several times.

    At one point, with jurors sent out of the courtroom for the umpteenth time by an increasingly irritated Sparks, he pointedly warned the attorneys they were irritating the jury.

    "A sixth-grader who's not doing well in school, who's a C student, can look at these undisputed facts and make a determination that due process was not followed," the judge said at another point in the trial. "The only thing we know in this case is there were no (required) hearings and that for over a year and two-thirds that nothing was done. Ten minutes. That's all it would have taken to hold a hearing."

    On Monday, after Coogan noted while questioning a witness that an evaluation of Graham had diagnosed him as "a psychopath," Sparks fined her $500 for "deliberately and intentionally injecting prejudicial" information into testimony, despite his repeated earlier warnings.

    She later paid the fine with a check from the attorney general's office.

    In closing arguments Thursday, Coogan set Sparks off again, suggesting that jurors should disregard the "mumbo jumbo" instructions that Sparks was giving the jury.

    Sparks exploded, hinting that he had only one other remedy: jail.

    But after the verdict, he took no action against her, opting instead for a later hearing to address the issue.

    Coogan referred a reporter to Attorney General Greg Abbott's press office, where spokesman Jerry Strickland responded, "We are reviewing the order, nothing further."

    mward@statesman.com

    Jury says state officials violated parolee's right to hearing


    Banned from churches, sex offenders go to court

    October 7, 2009
    By ALYSIA PATTERSON
    Associated Press Writer

    RALEIGH, N.C. — Convicted sex offender James Nichols said he was trying to better himself by going to church. But the police who arrested him explained: The church is off-limits because it has a daycare center.

    Now Nichols is challenging North Carolina's sex-offender laws in a case that pits the constitutional right to religious freedom against the state's goal of protecting the public from child molesters.


    Convicted sex offender James Nichols wears a tracking device on his ankle Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009 in Fayetteville, N.C. Nichols said he was trying to better himself by going to church. But the police who arrested him explained: The church is off-limits because it has a daycare center.

    "I just started asking the question, 'Why? Why am I being treated this way after trying to better myself?'" said Nichols, a 31-year-old who was twice convicted of indecent liberties with a teen girl and again in 2003 for attempted second-degree rape. "The law gives you no room to better yourself."

    At issue in Nichols' case and a similar one in Georgia are day care centers and youth programs at houses of worship where sex offenders can come into proximity with children.

    Sex offender advocates agree some convicts should not be allowed around children, but they contend barring all offenders denies them support needed to become productive citizens.

    "Criminalizing the practice of religion for everyone on the registry will do more harm than good," said Sara Totonchi, policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

    "With these laws, states are driving people on the registry from their faith community and depriving them of the rehabilitative influence of the church."

    Thirty-six states establish zones where sex offenders cannot live or visit.

    Some states provide exemptions for churches but many do not.

    In December, North Carolina state legislators barred sex offenders from coming within 300 feet of any place intended primarily for the use, care or supervision of minors.

    Three months later, Nichols was arrested at his home after attending Sunday services. He said he was "floored" to learn that he had been picked up because Moncure Baptist Church has a child-care center for families attending services.

    "I believe wholeheartedly if it wasn't for God, I don't know where I'd be today," he said. "God's blessed me with learning how to live a better life."

    In Georgia, the Southern Center for Human Rights sued the state in part because the law there prevents offenders from volunteering in places of worship. The lawsuit brought on behalf of Georgia's 16,000-plus registered sex offenders is pending in federal court.

    Katherine Parker, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina, said she was not aware of religion-based challenges to sex-offender laws in any other states. The ACLU is helping in Nichols' case.

    Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said preventing offenders from attending religious services is another in a series of increasingly unforgiving laws adopted across the country. Some of the laws have pushed offenders out of homes and entire communities.

    "This case is part of a much larger group of cases dealing with the expansive sex-offender laws," Turley said. "The state cannot sentence someone to a life of being an agnostic or an atheist without violating the constitution."

    Some question whether the restrictive laws will lead to more crime.

    "It's not clear that there's any public-safety purpose to these laws. They continue to ostracize previous sex offenders in a way that could be dangerous in the end," said Sarah Tofte, a legal researcher with Human Rights Watch. "If they can successfully transition to the community, to include going to church, they are less likely to reoffend."

    Some lawmakers say offenders such as Nichols should blame themselves for breaking the law in the first place.

    "I'm not denying him the right to go to church. He denied himself that," said state Sen. David Hoyle, the Democrat who sponsored the North Carolina bill. "If they are a convicted pedophile, they have given up a lot of their rights."

    Church leaders feel caught between leading houses of worship where broken people can seek help and preventing criminals from exploiting a place of trust.

    Joseph Green, pastor of a church that Nichols attended after his arrest, reached out to him while at the same time assuaging the concerns of his parishioners.

    "I told him as long as he's honest with me, then we're willing to embrace him and help him focus and get his life back on track," Green said. But, he added, "The Bible talks about wolves coming in in sheep's clothing, so I've got to be watchful over everyone coming into my church."

    Most church members were welcoming. "I think everybody deserves a chance," said Shawn Cox, 28, a married father of two who says his faith helped steer him away from drug dealing and crime.

    "God turned my life around," said Cox. "I'm not saying that you bring the guy in and put him over the youth program or the youth ministry as soon as he walks in the door. But there's no way he can overcome these things without help and support."

    Associated Press Writer Barbara Rodriguez contributed to this report.

    Copyright 2009, The Associated Press.

    Banned from churches, sex offenders go to court


    Warden among 4 named in lawsuit

    By Enrique Rangel
    enrique.rangel@morris.com
    Publication Date: 09/29/09

    AUSTIN - The warden and three officers with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Jordan Unit in Pampa are among the defendants named in a civil lawsuit in the death of a 30-year-old inmate who suffered from asthma.

    The lawsuit the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project filed in U.S. District Court in Austin on behalf of Gail O'Neil of Houston alleges that Warden Michael Savers placed Shermaine Peterson in a poorly ventilated cell, even though he knew Peterson suffered from asthma.

    In addition, the three officers, identified only as Capt. Anderson, Major Penan and Officer Herman, are accused of failing to provide assistance while Peterson suffered the fatal asthma attack in July 2008, despite repeated calls for help from other inmates.

    "The day before Mr. Peterson died, the administrators and staff refused to provide Mr. Peterson with medical care, despite his constant complaints of severe chest pains," the lawsuit contends.

    The TDCJ referred all questions to the state Attorney General's Office, but Jerry Strickland, press secretary for Attorney General Greg Abbott, said the office could not comment because it had not reviewed the lawsuit.

    Todd Batson, with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the defendants have 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.

    "This is a classic example of TDCJ's and the prison guards' deliberate indifference towards the welfare of inmates," said Texas Civil Rights Project Director Jim Harrington, who filed the lawsuit.

    The civil rights organization filed the lawsuit on behalf of O'Neil because she's the adoptive mother of Peterson's 10-year-old daughter, Batson said.

    The lawsuit seeks punitive damages that would be determined by a jury, as well as attorney's fees, Batson said.

    Click Here to read story:

    © The Amarillo Globe-News Online


    September 30, 2009

    LETTER
    A Prisoner’s Right to Sue

    To the Editor:

    Re “Prisoners’ Rights” (editorial, Sept. 24):

    You correctly point to the enormous harm caused by the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s provision requiring prisoners to exhaust their prison’s internal grievance system before they can file a civil rights case in federal court, as well as the provision that bars litigation if a prisoner has not suffered a physical injury in addition to a violation of constitutional rights. Every day, the American Civil Liberties Union is contacted by prisoners shut out of court by these provisions.

    Unfortunately, these are not the only provisions of the law that strip prisoners and jail detainees of their constitutional rights.

    A separate provision of the law limits the power of federal courts to issue effective relief in prison and jail conditions of confinement cases. As a result, large numbers of such facilities are no longer under any effective form of judicial supervision, and now some facilities are even refusing to provide prisoners with basics like three meals a day or a bed at night.

    No one’s rights are secure when Congress arbitrarily strips basic human rights from unpopular groups of people, and Congress needs to fix the Prison Litigation Reform Act now.

    Elizabeth Alexander
    Washington, Sept. 28, 2009

    The writer is director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

    A Prisoner’s Right to Sue


    Prison worker sues TDCJ over back pay

    9/2/2009
    By Kelly Holleran

    A Jefferson County woman claiming the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has failed to fully compensate her is suing the department for more than two years' back pay.

    Plaintiff Valerie Mahfood filed a lawsuit against TDCJ on Aug. 27 in Jefferson County District Court.

    Mahfood states she has worked for TDCJ for 16 years at the LeBlanc Unit in Beaumont in a dual position as grievance investigator and law librarian.

    At the time Mahfood was hired to work the positions in July 1999, both positions received the same lieutenant-level pay, according to the complaint.

    In September 2005, however, the law librarian position was raised to a higher, captain-level pay and all law librarians should have received a salary increase, the suit states.

    Because Mahfood was spending a majority of her time performing law librarian duties, she contends she should have received the pay increase. However, she continued to be listed as a grievance instructor and receive only lieutenant-level pay, the complaint says.

    It was not until January 2008, after Mahfood made repeated demands that she be raised to captain-level pay, that her salary was finally increased, she claims.

    But when Mahfood's salary was increased to captain-level pay, she was not compensated with back pay for the period between September 2005 and December 2007, according to the complaint.

    In her suit, Mahfood is seeking unpaid wages and benefits, interest, attorney's fees, costs and other relief to which she may be entitled.

    Kelly J. Stewart and James E. Wimberley of McPherson, Hughes, Bradley, Wimberley, Steele and Chatelain in Port Arthur will be representing her.

    The case has been assigned to Judge Donald Floyd, 172nd District Court.

    Jefferson County District Court case number: E184-797.

    Prisoner Worker Sues TDCJ over Back-Pay


    Incarcerated Wiccan claims prison system discriminates

    August 25, 2009
    By JEREMY ROEBUCK,
    The Monitor

    McALLEN – A Wiccan man incarcerated in Edinburg has sued the Texas prison system claiming he has been prevented from practicing his religion behind bars.

    Charles Roberts, 28, of Brownsville, alleges he has asked several times for religious books, pentagrams and a person to lead Wiccan services at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Lopez Unit but has received no assistance from the prison’s chaplain.

    "They have programs for Christians, Catholics and Muslims, but not for us," he said in a lawsuit filed in federal court earlier this month. "It is discrimination against us and a violation of our constitutional rights."

    A spokesman for the prison system declined to comment on Roberts’ specific claims citing the ongoing litigation but said TDCJ has established policies for accommodating minority religious groups.

    "It is (our policy) to extend as much freedom as possible to pursue individual beliefs and practices consistent with security, safety and orderly conditions in the institution," reads an orientation handbook provided to all new inmates.

    Under current prison policy, there must be three inmates of the same faith in a given facility before employees will allow them to meet for worship services. An outside volunteer is also required to lead the sessions.

    The department has established Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Native American and non-denominational Christian services at all of their prisons. Wiccan volunteers also lead worship sessions at two TDCJ facilities outside of Houston, department spokesman Jason Clark said.

    But Roberts – a Brownsville native incarcerated for a 2004 conviction on aggravated assault charges — claims that prison officials failed to even note his religion correctly on his inmate intake forms.

    When he told him practiced Wicca – a neo-pagan, nature based religion — an intake officer classified him as "non-denominational," his lawsuit states.

    "The fact that my religious preference is said to be non- denominational goes to show that nothing is being done," he wrote.

    A number of Texas inmates from various faiths have challenged the prison’s religious policies on similar grounds over the past several years. In nearly every case, federal judges and appeals court justices have found that the department’s guidelines does not put undo restraints on inmates’ ability to practice their faith.

    Roberts has asked a federal court to award him $500,000 in damages and to force TDCJ to grant his religious requests.

    A hearing date on the case has not yet been set.

    Incarcerated Wiccan claims prison system discriminates


    Drug-test suit alleges false imprisonment

    By Robert Crowe
    Express-News
    August 21, 2009

    Five former probationers allege in a lawsuit filed Thursday that they were falsely charged and imprisoned in 2008 after drug tests that Treatment Associates conducted showed false-positive results.

    The plaintiffs are suing Treatment Associates owner Jeff Warner, as well as two Bexar County supervisors, for unspecified damages. The Bexar supervisors named in the suit are Bill Fitzgerald, chief of the county's Community Supervision and Corrections Department, and Kathleen Cline, the probation department's director of operations.

    According to the suit, filed in the county's 408th District Court, former probationers Michelle Archer, Rosa M. Rocha, Frank Viesca, Raymond Anthony and Jimmie Martinez were jailed after faulty drug tests showed their urine was positive for illegal substances.

    “Jailing these individuals who had been successfully serving probation ... was devastating to the integrity of the criminal justice system and destructive to the ability of the system to protect the safety of the public,” said their attorney, David Van Os.

    The probation department pays Treatment Associates about $190,000 a year to conduct drug tests of probationers.

    Fitzgerald said he could not discuss the litigation: “I have no idea what the allegations are about.”

    Warner could not be reached for comment Thursday.

    The lawsuit alleges the probationers endured such harm as spending three months in jail in one case, while in another a college student missed midterm exams and was forced to drop every course and lose a full semester.

    Drug-test suit alleges false imprisonment


    Deputy's use of scent ID targeted in lawsuits

    07/12/2009
    Associated Press

    The only dog handler in Texas who uses scent to identify suspects in crimes is named in two lawsuits amid increasing criticism of a practice that defense attorneys say can be hopelessly imprecise.

    The Victoria Advocate reported Sunday that the work of Fort Bend County sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett led to 62 days in jail for Calvin Lee Miller before the Yoakum native was cleared in the robbery of one elderly woman and sexual assault of another.

    A swab of Miller and the scent from the assault victim's sheets were sent to Pikett, whose three bloodhounds indicated Miller's scent was on the sheets.

    The other lawsuit involves a former Victoria County sheriff's captain who became a murder suspect based on scent evidence.

    No laws or regulations govern scent lineups, but they're admissible in courts across the nation. Only tighter oversight can keep shoddy scent IDs from becoming key evidence, a growing number of critics say.

    "This is junk science. This isn't even science. This is just junk," said Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas. The group works to free wrongfully convicted inmates and started to investigate Pikett recently.

    The premise for scent identification revolves around two things: Dogs have a keen sense of smell — sometimes 10,000 times more sensitive than humans — and everyone has a unique scent.

    Supporters say it can be a reliable and important part of law enforcement when lineups are closely regulated and human interaction is limited.

    Critics contend scent IDs are easily influenced by human involvement such as the use of a leash during a lineup; the presence of many scents on evidence or in scent lineups; and the fact that humans must speak for dogs in court.

    Even supporters say great care must be taken if scent lineups are to be considered reliable.

    "As a dog handler, you'd better be acting as a scientist," said Steve Nicely, a police dog handler who has since served as a defense witness. "Otherwise, you're acting on myth and folklore."

    Pikett's scent work led to a search warrant for the house of former Victoria County sheriff's Capt. Michael Buchanek during the 2006 investigation of the high-profile murder of Child Protective Services worker Sally Blackwell in Victoria.

    The deputy's dogs walked from a spot where Blackwell's body was found to her home about five miles away, then to Buchanek's home nearby.

    Through a scent lineup, authorities obtained a search warrant.

    Another man eventually pleaded guilty in the case.

    Rex Easley, an attorney for Buchanek and Miller, criticized Pikett's use of a leash and said the evidence was contaminated with countless other scents. An expert hired by Easley blasted Pikett's work.

    The lineup was "the most primitive evidential police procedure I have ever witnessed," said Bob Coote, who worked with police dogs in the United Kingdom. "If it was not for the fact that this is a serious matter, I could have been watching a comedy."

    Pikett's attorney, Randy Morse, said his supervisors haven't set guidelines for his work because he's the only one who understands it.

    Morse said he had advised his client not to comment.

    Some prosecutors and investigators support scent identification because it can offer leads where there were none.

    San Jacinto County District Attorney Bill Burnett used Pikett as an expert witness to prosecute three co-defendants in a murder case. One was convicted of murder, another of capital murder and the third was acquitted.

    "I felt like this evidence was certainly credible," Burnett said.

    The Scientific Working Group for Dog and Orthogonal Detection Guidelines is drafting a list for scent lineups. The group will likely suggest an international board to oversee certifying agencies, said Kenneth Furton, chairman of the federally funded group. Even with certification, Furton said, no criminal case should be built on scent lineups alone.

    The 43-year-old Miller, who was initially targeted because police knew him as a habitual nonviolent offender, said he moved away from Yoakum after his arrest. Easley said the former high school football player still doesn't understand how he ended up in jail.

    "His question was, 'If I didn't do it, how could those dogs say I did it?'" Easley said. "And I told him dogs can't talk."

    Deputy's use of scent ID targeted in lawsuits


    Dead Amarillo inmate’s family files suit

    Associated Press
    July 10, 2009

    AMARILLO — A lawsuit accuses Potter County, several jailers and medical staff of being responsible for the death of a jail inmate.

    Michael Dick, 33, was arrested in July 2008 in Amarillo on a probation violation. He resisted arrest and suffered injuries. He died in his jail cell 10 days later from peritonitis, according to the suit.

    Dick’s parents claim in a federal lawsuit that their son was denied proper medical care.

    Potter County officials told the Amarillo Globe-News that they had no immediate comment.

    Dead Amarillo inmate’s family files suit


    Dallas County to settle two jail inmate lawsuits

    July 7, 2009
    By KEVIN KRAUSE
    The Dallas Morning News
    kkrause@dallasnews.com

    Dallas County commissioners voted Tuesday to settle two federal jail neglect lawsuits for close to a half-million dollars.

    County officials say the lawsuits are the last major legal claims related to prior conditions in the jail system, which were described a few years ago by federal investigators as being dangerous to inmates' well-being.

    As a result of the settlements, the family of former inmate Rosie Sims will receive $250,000, and former inmate Bruce A. McDonald will receive $190,000, minus legal expenses.

    Sims, 60, who was mentally ill, died in the Dallas County jail in 2005.

    Her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit, claiming she died of pneumonia after guards and a nurse refused to take her to the infirmary.

    Sims, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, spent more than a year and a half in the jail awaiting trial before her death.

    She didn't receive medical treatment or "even a routine physical examination" during that time, according to the lawsuit. The guards found Ms. Sims lying on the floor in her own waste after she collapsed in her cell but didn't take her to be examined, the suit said.

    The story of Sims' lifelong struggle with schizophrenia and her treatment while in custody were told in a series of articles in The Dallas Morning News in 2006.

    McDonald contended in his suit that the county violated his constitutional rights by denying him treatment in the jail after he was punched in the eye by another inmate in 2005.

    He said he lost vision in the eye after the injury went untreated for seven weeks despite the fact that doctors said on three different occasions that he needed surgery.

    Both lawsuits were headed for trial after the county tried unsuccessfully to have them dismissed.

    "They're definitely acknowledging that there was a problem. They'll settle when they think they'd get a worse outcome when they go to court," said Scott Henson, a criminal justice expert.

    County Judge Jim Foster said he voted for the settlements because it was "the right thing to do" and because it's expensive to defend lengthy lawsuits.

    Commissioner John Wiley Price called it a "fair resolution to the case" and added that there shouldn't be any more such settlements down the road.

    "The faucet turns off," he said.

    Tuesday's approved payouts follow several other settlements and judgments against the county related to allegations of mistreatment in the jails:

    •In April, a federal jury in Dallas awarded more than $300,000 to former inmate Mark Duvall, who alleged that a staph infection he caught while in jail in 2003 left him blind.

    •In 2008, a federal jury ordered the county to pay $900,000 to former inmate Stanley Shepherd for denying him proper medical care while he was in custody in 2003.

    In recent years, county commissioners have spent more than $100 million improving jail conditions and jail health.

    Dallas County to settle two jail inmate lawsuits


    Dismissals sought of prisoners' lawsuits

    By Chris Paschenko
    The Daily News
    Published June 29, 2009

    GALVESTON — The county’s legal department will seek dismissals of all lawsuits filed by prisoners who claimed living conditions were intolerable in the days after Hurricane Ike’s landfall in Galveston.

    As of Friday, 40 prisoners had filed lawsuits against former Sheriff Gean Leonard, Chief Deputy Michael Henson and others. The county claims the lawsuits are frivolous and says that prisoners here fared well compared to those in New Orleans who endured the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

    If the lawsuits are deemed frivolous, the county will seek court- ordered sanctions of $500 against the inmates if they don’t drop the lawsuits.

    The lawsuits, which were filed by the prisoners themselves without attorneys, claim the defendants, by refusing to evacuate, showed reckless disregard for prisoners’ safety. Hurricane Ike made landfall Sept. 13, damaging much of the upper Texas coast.

    Nearly a dozen prisoners have contacted The Daily News, describing living conditions after the storm that included bucket baths, bucket urinals, baloney sandwiches and the rationing of water.

    Judge Lonnie Cox of the 56th District Court has said he is inclined to handle the cases individually.

    County officials plan to send a letter to every inmate who filed a lawsuit, detailing what could happen if the lawsuits are deemed frivolous.

    The letter says Galveston County inmates claim holding them in jail was a civil-rights violation. Similar cases were filed from parish jails in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and they were dismissed as frivolous, the letter states.

    “The description of the conditions those inmates faced were pretty nasty,” the letter states. “In fact, by comparison, the allegations of the Galveston inmates make the Galveston inmates look like a bunch of Boy Scouts whining about the dessert at summer camp.”

    The county’s lawyers could be reimbursed at a rate of $300 per hour, and the $500 sanctions, if awarded, could be taken from the inmates’ commissary accounts, the letter states.

    On behalf of Henson, the county’s legal department recently filed an answer to inmate Clifford Joel Ellison’s lawsuit. Ellison claims the conditions were inhumane and cruel and unusual punishment, but the county claims the lawsuit fails to identify what conditions were inhumane or cruel.

    In seeking the dismissal, the county claims Henson was acting in his official capacity and is entitled to immunity to all claims against him. It also claims Ellison failed to state specific allegations against Henson or list physical injuries.

    Dismissals sought of prisoners' lawsuits


    Prisoner lawsuits from Ike jump to 22

    By Chris Paschenko
    The Daily News
    Published June 1, 2009

    GALVESTON The number of lawsuits filed by jail inmates who weren’t evacuated during Hurricane Ike has increased to 22, court records revealed Friday.

    Those incarcerated in the Galveston County Jail relate tales of bucket baths, rations and claim living conditions that were deplorable.

    The 22 handwritten lawsuits naming former Sheriff Gean Leonard and other jail staff were filed by the inmates themselves.

    William Ficklen, 48, was arrested after the storm on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Ficklen said he discharged a shotgun multiple times into the ground in Bacliff to drive away looters. No one was injured and the charges were dismissed, said Ficklen, who has not filed a lawsuit.

    “I’m trying to find a lawyer to take the case, but nobody wants to take it,” Ficklen said.

    His 13-day stay included using buckets as urinals, other buckets for baths, eating baloney sandwiches and splitting 10 gallons of water per day between 48 inmates in his cell block area, Ficklen said.

    Leonard declined to comment on pending ligation.

    But members of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards toured the jail about 10 days after the storm’s Sept. 13 landfall and found no problems, the organization’s executive director said.

    A status conference has been set for July 2 in Judge Lonnie Cox’s 56th District Court, where trial dates could be set. All pretrial matters for the cases will be handled in Cox’s court, Kay Henson, Cox’s court coordinator, said.

    Cox said he was inclined to handled the cases separately.

    Some of the lawsuits haven’t been served, mainly because prisoners who filed from jail haven’t made the request. It is unclear what will become of those lawsuits.

    There are policies in place to evacuate county jail prisoners, however it is up to the sheriff to make that call, Maj. Ray Tuttoilmondo, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said.

    “There’s no hard fast rule that says when the weather gets to X, then we leave,” Tuttoilmondo said. “It’s a very dynamic process.”

    Prisoner lawsuits from Ike jump to 22


    Associated Press profile on Prison Legal News

    May 25, 2009

    Ex-con's magazine focuses on advocacy, prison life

    By JOHN CURRAN

    WEST BRATTLEBORO, Vt. (AP)— To prison inmates, he's a jailhouse lawyer made good.

    To wardens, he's a thorn in the side.

    To prison advocates, Paul Wright is a success story: Once a killer, then a prisoner, now a journalist with a cause. He has carved out a niche with his Prison Legal News, a self-help magazine.

    The publication, known as PLN, does more than highlight mail censorship, sexual abuse by prison guards and prison overcrowding in its black-and-white pages. The nonprofit tabloid often takes on the role of prisoner advocate, going to court against states and private prison operators— and winning money, reform and public attention for prisoners.

    "It's a voice from the inside, but it's a helluva lot more reasoned and balanced than you might think, even though the point of view is obvious," said Fred Cohen, coeditor of Correctional Law Reporter, a trade publication that serves prison officials. "It's advocacy, in the best sense."

    Wright, a former U.S. Army military policeman, started the monthly publication in 1990. Back then, he was inmate No. 930783 at Clallam Bay Correctional Center in Clallam Bay, Wash., where he served 16 years of a 25-year term for killing a cocaine dealer he was trying to rob.

    Now, he produces the 56-page tabloid from a split-level home on a cul-de-sac in West Brattleboro, Vt., where he moved after his release from prison in 2003.

    It's a long way from his jail cell, where Wright wrote the 10-page first edition on a typewriter, photocopied it and arranged for a contact on the outside to mail it to 75 prisoners he knew in Washington.

    It was immediately banned in all state prisons in Washington, prompting Wright and coeditor Ed Mead — also a prisoner — to file the first of dozens of legal challenges targeting regulations that barred inmates from receiving PLN and other publications.

    PLN has won similar court fights in Alabama, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon and California, where state prison officials agreed in 2006 to pay PLN $65,100 for five-year subscriptions for each of the state's 157 prison legal libraries to settle a lawsuit.

    The legal challenges aren't always about getting PLN into prisoners' hands.

    In 2007, the magazine won a $541,000 settlement in a public records lawsuit against the state of Washington that started with Wright's request for the identities of the Department of Corrections officials who participate in executions.

    "PLN is not fighting for cable TV or air conditioning for prisoners," said Rhonda Brownstein, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Ala. "What they're fighting for is basic human rights, and the basic human rights we're talking about are the right to be free from violence by other prisoners or guards, the right to adequate medical care, adequate mental health care and the right — to an extent— to freedom of expression."

    But it's the magazine that reaches deepest into prison cells and law libraries.

    Subtitled "Dedicated to protecting human rights," it uses lawyers, public policy experts, advocates and prison scribes as correspondents.

    The premise is simple, Wright says: "We're not telling prisoners 'Hey, here's how you make bombs.' We're not telling people 'Hey, you need to kill the guards in the morning.' Rather, what we're doing is we're telling them on a fundamental level `You're human, you have civil rights and you can use the civil system to enforce them,'" he said.

    The publication is stuffed with legal advice, tips on staying healthy behind bars and news about court rulings that involve prison labor, medical treatment in prisons and suicide prevention programs in prisons. Its correspondents have ranged from late civil rights attorney William Kunstler to imprisoned Philadelphia police officer killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.

    To prisoners, it's the Bible. After all, there's no hotter topic behind bars than the law.

    "Everybody wants the case that's gonna get them out of jail," said Carol Callea, director of legal education for inmate access to courts for Vermont prisons. "When something happens, they want to know about it."

    With no photos or color, and headlines like "Alabama Prisoner Awarded $90,000 for Work-Related Eye Injury" and "Pro Se Tips and Tactics," it's not a slick publication.

    And it doesn't have to be. It has a captive audience.

    About 80 percent of its 7,000 subscribers are incarcerated in the U.S. Subscriptions are cheaper in jail — $24 a year for inmates, $40 for anyone not incarcerated, free for death row prisoners.

    Fans of the magazine say PLN's value lies in giving prisoners truthful, no-nonsense tips to fight their legal battles and, in the process, disenfranchising jailhouse lawyers peddling less reliable information.

    "It's really an extraordinary resource, and it's not just a resource for jailhouse lawyers, although it's certainly that," said Elizabeth Alexander, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national prison project. "It's also a resource for prison rights advocates."

    Not that Wright hasn't made some enemies.

    "He's very bright, sometimes very effective," said Eldon Vail, secretary of the Washington state Department of Corrections, a frequent Wright target. "He has a world view shaped by his experience that isn't always right. He doesn't always preach a balanced view, but it's a prisoners' rights magazine and you don't expect that."

    Wright, a 43-year-old father of two, is articulate and plainspoken in person, but says he has no interest in becoming a lawyer. He's the one sought by lawyers and others to speak at seminars and conference, he says.

    With the nation's prison population surpassing 2 million people, he sees a growing market for Prison Legal News — the only prisoners' rights publication with a national scope — if only because it covers prison life with the inmates in mind.

    "Most of what passes for criminal justice coverage, it's press release journalism. The prosecutor's office or the warden's office or the DOC office issues a press release and that's all (reporters) do.

    "They don't seek any input from prisoners, prisoners' advocates, or whatever. It's just a totally one-sided story," he said.

    Ex-con's magazine focuses on advocacy, prison life


    2008:


    Former McLennan County Jail inmate files suit in strip search

    September 09, 2008
    By Tommy Witherspoon
    Tribune-Herald staff writer

    An 18-year-old Waco man who claims he was strip-searched in view of a woman during a four-hour jail stay after a drunken-driving arrest last year has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against McLennan County, the sheriff’s office and Sheriff Larry Lynch.

    William Robert Bradshaw, who was 17 at the time of his June 2007 arrest, is seeking an injunction to block future strip searches and is asking that his suit attain class-action status on behalf of other jail inmates who claim they were humiliated during strip searches.

    Bradshaw’s suit was filed Monday in Waco’s U.S. District Court on his behalf by attorneys for the Texas Civil Rights Project and Mark Merin, a civil rights lawyer from Sacramento, Calif.

    Lynch and Mike Dixon, a Waco attorney who represents McLennan County, declined comment on the suit, saying they were unaware Monday that it had been filed.

    Merin said “blanket strip searches” of people arrested on charges not involving violence, drugs or weapons violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    “Blanket strip searches have been unconstitutional since before William was born,” said Scott Medlock of the Texas Civil Rights Project. “It’s outrageous that McLennan County ignores the constitutional rights of the hundreds of people who haven’t even been convicted of anything who pass through its jail each year.”

    Court records show that Bradshaw spent four hours in jail after his arrest June 2, 2007, for DWI. He was placed on misdemeanor probation for 18 months and fined $2,000 in December 2007.

    The lawsuit alleges that he experienced distress, anguish, suffering, humiliation, deprivation of constitutional rights and other damages after he was strip-searched in full view of a female employee at the county jail.

    Merin has settled several class-action strip-search cases against county jails in at least three other states and currently has a similar suit pending in Bexar County in Texas, a Texas Civil Rights Project spokesman said. In 2005, Sacramento County, Calif., agreed to pay $15 million to 4,000 inmates who were strip-searched “without reasonable suspicion,” the spokesman said.

    twitherspoon@wacotrib.com
    757-5737

    Inmate files suit in strip search


    State Rep. Terri Hodge maintains combative persona as she fights corruption charges

    August 18, 2008

    By GROMER JEFFERS Jr.
    The Dallas Morning News
    gjeffers@dallasnews.com

    State Rep. Terri Hodge, the only sitting elected official indicted in the federal government's sprawling public corruption case, has asked the court to try her separately from other defendants.

    If she succeeds, that could move Ms. Hodge's trial on bribery and fraud charges, now scheduled to begin in January, to after the next session of the Texas Legislature, which also convenes in January.

    Federal prosecutors say they will not oppose Ms. Hodge's request to U.S. Judge Barbara Lynn because they don't want the constituents in her Dallas district going without representation during the legislative session.

    Any ruling by Judge Lynn probably won't come until come after the November election because authorities want to see if Ms. Hodge weathers an electoral challenge by Libertarian Robert Pritchett. She is favored to win in her heavily Democratic district against a little- known opponent.

    "It's good for the district," said Michael Sorrell, a Dallas lawyer and president of Paul Quinn College. "It allows the district to continue to have the benefit of her knowledge and experience."

    Unlike most of the other defendants in the corruption case, Ms. Hodge has kept a high public profile and retained her combative persona.

    "These people have shown me such overwhelming support that I owe it to them to stay visible," Ms. Hodge said of her constituents in her most extensive interview since being indicted. "I've done nothing wrong, so why should I sit in the back of the room like I'm a crook or a criminal?"

    She has been particularly active in raising money for her defense fund. Reports on file with the Texas Ethics Commission show that she's raised almost $200,000 from October 2007 to July 15.

    Ms. Hodge says that raising money to defend herself has been humbling but that she expects to reach her goal of $300,000 or more.

    "Does it hurt me to have to ask people for money to help me? Yes. It's the worse part of the whole thing," she said.

    Ms. Hodge says she appreciates those who have given to her, but she voices frustration about those who haven't.

    Not one of her state House colleagues from Dallas contributed to her defense fund.

    "I've been disappointed with my colleagues," she said. "I've been surprised of the lack of support I've received from some Democrats."

    She is particularly bitter toward former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, saying she helped his various campaigns but "he hasn't given me a dime."

    "A lot of the people who support me don't look like me," she said. "The least support I'm getting is from the African-American community. But when this is all over, the same people standing on the sidelines now, I want them to stand on the sidelines then."

    Mr. Kirk said "she's hurting" and would not comment on Ms. Hodge's complaints about his lack of support.

    Some people say privately that Ms. Hodge's temperament is a problem.

    At the recent Texas Democratic Convention, for instance, she had public confrontations with officials when she was not selected as delegate.

    During the general session of the convention, she publicly suggested that top Democrats, including state Sen. Royce West, were plotting in secret to prevent her from being chosen as a delegate.

    "Whatever I want to say, I'm going to say it," Ms. Hodge said about criticism of her sometimes abrupt manner. "If you make me mad and I feel like cursing, I'm going to do that."

    Still, Ms. Hodge has loyal supporters.

    For instance, Criminal Court Judge John Creuzot resisted advice that he not put her name on his primary campaign material.

    "She hasn't been convicted of anything," Judge Creuzot said. "She's my friend, and I'm proud to have her name on my campaign material."

    Ms. Hodge was indicted on 14 counts, including bribery, fraud and conspiracy. Prosecutors say she received concessions in rent, utility bills and carpet while living in one of indicted developer Brian Potashnik's low-income complexes. In exchange, they say, she supported Mr. Potashnik's projects.

    Last week, federal prosecutors filed papers with the court that included more allegations that Ms. Hodge used her influence in exchange for political contributions.

    The court filings accuse Ms. Hodge of "receiving payments from families of Texas prison inmates in return for her political support and assistance on proceedings affecting the inmates before the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole."

    Ms. Hodge declined to talk directly about the charges.

    "People say that I got paid for this, man, that's (expletive)," she said. "I'm not the only elected official that has given a letter to developers putting projects in their districts. I guess what really tied me in is not only had I given a letter, I was living in one of his affordable apartments."

    Ms. Hodge said she's not hostile toward the government.

    "I don't believe the FBI people think I'm guilty," she said. "I really don't.

    "The FBI people were doing their jobs. It's apparent that somebody was doing something that wasn't right. I just got caught up in it."

    But the experience has made her rethink her choice to run for public office.

    "I would give anything to turn back the hands of time," Ms. Hodge said. "If I thought just being here doing my job would have caused me the kind of problems and misery and pain and worry and disgust, I never would have sought this position."

    Terri Hodge defense fund
    Some of the contributors:

    •Joan Covici, inmate recidivism activist – $100,000

    •Terri Hodge campaign – $24,300

    •Tom Dunning, former Dallas Citizens Council chairman – $2,500

    •Albert Black, former Dallas chamber chairman – $2,000

    •State Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston – $5,000

    •State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston – $1,500

    •State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont – $1,000

    •Dallas Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway – $500

    •Boyd Richie, Texas Democratic Party chairman – $500

    corruption charges


    WRIT WRITER

    by Susanne Mason
    June 3, 2008
    (60 minutes)

    They are called jailhouse lawyers: prisoners who learn the law and fight their cases while serving time. In the 1960s, inmate Fred Cruz became a hero of the cellblock -- and a threat to the Texas prison system by writing "writs" -- invocations of the constitutional right to have a judge hear your case. This unlikely hero took on the Texas legal system and changed prisons forever.

    Get broadcast listings and learn more:
    WRIT WRITER

    This and other news about mass incarceration can be found at;
    Real Cost of Prisons


    Inmate Wins Supreme Court Review

    The case is Jimenez v. Quarterman, 07-6984.

    WASHINGTON (AP) — A Texas inmate acting as his own attorney persuaded the Supreme Court on Monday to hear his case.

    Carlos Jimenez was sentenced to 43 years in prison in 1995 after pleading guilty to burglary and violating the terms of his probation. Jimenez had a prior felony conviction for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

    In 2005, acting as his own lawyer, Jimenez petitioned a federal court, challenging his burglary conviction and asserting that he had not received proper legal representation when he went before the state courts in San Angelo, Texas.

    The federal judge said Jimenez had waited too long to file his petition and refused to extend the deadline. Federal law gives state inmates one year after a conviction is final to petition a federal court for review of their cases.

    At issue is Jimenez's argument that the one-year clock should have started all over again in 2005 because of the unusual circumstances of his case.

    In 1996, a state appeals court dismissed Jimenez's appeal after a court-appointed lawyer said in court papers that in his professional opinion, Jimenez had no grounds for an appeal.

    Nearly six years later, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to let Jimenez file an appeal based on his argument that his attorney in 1996 had not properly notified him of what the attorney was planning to do. The appeals court wrapped up its work on Jimenez's belated petitions in 2005, after affirming his conviction and sentence.

    The case is Jimenez v. Quarterman, 07-6984.

    Inmate wins his case

    Support - A Bill to Revive the System of Parole for Federal Prisoners. Go to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee contact page:
    http://judiciary.house.gov/contact.aspx

    Support - A Bill to Revive the System of Parole for Federal Prisoners
    http://www.petition online.com/fedparol/petition.html


    Teague v. Quarterman

    Cause 05-11368
    (5th Cir. March 21, 2007)

    On March 21, 2007, the United States Court of Appeal for the Fifth Circuit issued its decision in Teague v. Quarterman. Teague is a very important case that directly affects prisoners who are eligible for mandatory supervision release.

    I suspect that the TDCJ will ask for rehearing and try to persuade the full Court to reverse the Teague decision. However, unless and until the Court reverses itself, Teague is good law.

    CASE HISTORY

    1. Disciplinary Case and Hearing

    In December 2001, TDCJ prisoner Teague received a disciplinary case for "trafficking and trading" (Offense Code 15.0) because another prisoner (Jordan) "caused $225.00 to be deposited into Teague’s" Inmate Trust Fund Account. The TDCJ alleged that Teague had Jordan place the money into his ITF account in exchange for Teague providing Jordan legal assistance. Teague denied the allegation. The TDCJ produced no evidence to show that Teague knew that Jordan had asked someone to deposit money into Teague’s ITF account. Nevertheless, at the disciplinary hearing, Teague was found guilty and part of his sanction was the loss of 30 days of good time. After his Step 1 and Step 2 were denied, he filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus (28 U.S.C. §2254) in federal court.

    2. 28 U.S.C. §2254

    Teague alleged that he was deprived of procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment and raised the following claims:

    --Insufficient evidence to support the finding of guilt

    --Prison officials failed to serve him timely with notice of the alleged violation

    --Disciplinary hearing officer was not impartial

    --Disciplinary hearing officer improperly denied his request to call witnesses

    --Disciplinary hearing officer improperly denied his request to have the charging officer present at the hearing

    --Disciplinary hearing officer stopped recoding the hearing during Teague’s presentation of evidence

    --TDCJ improperly removed $225.00 from his inmate trust account

    The District Court granted relief on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to support the disciplinary hearing officer’s guilty finding and denied the rest of the claims.

    The TDCJ filed a Rule 59e "Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment" on the grounds that the loss of 30 days of good time is "de minimis" and insufficient to warrant due process protection.

    The District Court agreed that the loss of 30 days of good-time credits, which represented approximately .18% of Teague’s prison sentence, was de minimis. The Court granted the TDCJ’s Motion and held that the loss of 30 days of good-time credits was insufficient to entitle Teague to due process.

    Teague then filed a Motion for Certificate of Appealability, which the District Court granted.

    3. United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

    On March 21, 2007, almost six years after the disciplinary hearing on the trafficking and trading case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued its decision in Teague.In its opinion, the Court affirmed:

    When a state prisoner has a constitutional expectancy to an early release from prison based on the accumulation of good-time credits, he has a protected liberty interest in the good-time credits and is entitled to due process before he can be deprived of the good time credits; and

    There is no right or constitutional expectancy to early release on parole in Texas because parole is within the total and unfettered discretion of the State; and

    Texas’ pre-September 1, 1996 mandatory supervision statutes creates a protected liberty interest in good-time credits. Therefore, prisoners eligible for mandatory supervision release under the pre-September 1, 1996 statute are entitled to due process before the TDCJ can take away any of their good-time credits.

    The Court also held, for the first time:

    (1) Texas’ post-September 1, 1996 mandatory supervision statute does not deprive prisoners of their constitutional expectancy of release; and

    (2) Texas’ post-September 1, 1996 mandatory supervision statute creates a constitutional expectancy of early release and a protected liberty interest in previously earned good-time credits. Therefore, prisoners eligible for mandatory supervision release under the post-September 1, 1996 statute are entitled to due process before the TDCJ can take away any of their good-time credits; and

    (3) Good time may not be taken away from a state prisoner by a TDCJ administrative tribunal without affording the prisoner due process, regardless of the absolute number of days forfeited of the percentage of the sentence (or the remaining balance thereof) represented by the number of days lost; and

    (4) TDCJ cannot discipline a prisoner for a Code 15.0 Offense (trafficking and trading) when there is no evidence that the prisoner had any knowledge of or participated in an unauthorized deposit into his Inmate Trust Fund Account.

    WHY THIS CASE IS IMPORTANT

    All prisoners with mandatory supervision dates have a protected interest in their good-time. Prior to Teague, only prisoners who were under the pre-September 1, 1996 mandatory supervision statute had a protected interest in their good-time credits.

    The TDCJ must give this class of prisoners (prisoners with mandatory supervision dates) due process before depriving them of any previously earned good-time credits, regardless of the amount of the good time and there is no exception for an amount that might otherwise be considered "de minimis."

    If a prisoner with a mandatory supervision date loses good time in a disciplinary hearing, he can challenge the disciplinary hearing via a federal petition for writ of habeas corpus.

    The TDCJ cannot use Offense Code 15.0 (trafficking & trading offense) to punish a prisoner who has no knowledge of or participation in an unauthorized deposit into his trust account.

    WHAT TO REMEMBER

    This case has no affect on prisoners who are not eligible for mandatory supervision release. The holdings in this case have no application to parole because there is no right or constitutional expectancy to early release on parole in Texas. Parole is within the total and unfettered discretion of the State.

    ALSO IMPORTANT

    This case took almost six years to work its way through the courts.

    Teague was represented by court appointed attorney Jason Douglas Hawkins of the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Northern District of Texas.

    TDCJ was represented by Steven Michael Bozarth of the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Steven Bozarth is the husband of Melinda Bozarth who is the General Counsel for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

    The Fifth Circuit heard oral argument on November 9, 2006.

    WHAT PRISONERS SHOULD DO IF THIS CASE APPLIES TO THEM

    Any prisoner who was disciplined and punished for a Code 15.0 offense, and who the TDCJ did not/cannot prove had knowledge of or participated in the unauthorized deposit into his ITF account, should file a grievance about the disciplinary case and ask that the case be reversed regardless of how long ago the disciplinary case was written. He should cite Teague as support for his grievance.

    If the prisoner had money confiscated from his ITF account because of a Code 15.0 Offense (trafficking and trading), he should file grievance and request that the TDCJ refund the money. He should file both a Step 1 and Step 2 and cite the Teague case for support.


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