Bad Prison Food Is More Than a Punchline

The quality of food in prisons and jails across the country is notoriously poor. What happens when there is an incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding incarcerated people?

Breakfast at Etowah County Jail.

Across Alabama, sheriffs contend that a state law authorizing them to “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails allows them to take any money they don’t spend on food as personal income. This dubious interpretation of state law has been clearly rejected by two different Attorneys General of Alabama, who concluded that the law merely allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it only for official purposes. Despite this, the practice continues. In January, SCHR – along with Alabama Appleseed – sued 49 sheriffs who refuse to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from money allocated for feeding people in their jails.

It’s long been understood that food served in correctional facilities across the United States is far from gourmet. Incarceration has a “gastronomic dimension,” and unappetizing food is often seen as part and parcel of the punishment incarcerated people are meant to receive. But bad prison food is more than just a punchline.

According to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, incarcerated people are 6.4 times more likely to contract a food-related illness than the general population. SCHR receives countless letters from people incarcerated in Alabama, detailing the meager and/or inedible meals served to them.

A new article by AL.com’s Connor Sheets highlights the gravity of the situation at Etowah County Jail, a facility which has come under scrutiny after it was revealed that Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin (one of the 49 sheriffs being sued by SCHR and Alabama Appleseed) kept hundreds of thousands of dollars meant to feed people incarcerated at his jail. Entrekin has pocketed well over $750,000 from the food money account over the past 3 years.

Not Fit for Human Consumption

Benjamin Hunter was incarcerated at Etowah County Jail for roughly a year. During his time there, he frequently handled boxes of food headed for the jail kitchen. Hunter tells AL.com:

“The meat patties they feed you and call it either chicken or Salisbury steak or whatever, it’s literally for dog food. We called them starfish patties because they look more like a starfish than anything. They literally said in bold red letters plain as day on the top, bottom and sides of the box, ‘Not Fit For Human Consumption.'”

Hunter also told AL.com that he frequently handled visibly rotten chicken that was donated to the jail. “I helped load these boxes of chicken that was culled because of tumors and abscesses and deformities or it was past its time to be shipped,” he said.

As Sheets reports, those who can afford it supplement (or replace) their meals with food items purchased from the jail commissary. Those who can’t afford it face extreme hunger, food-borne illnesses, or both.

The impacts of malnutrition and starvation go beyond the physical. According to Hunter,

“Every ‘riot’ I’ve seen was because of some bulls**t they fed us. Every single one I’ve seen was because of the food. It’s not like a violent prison riot or nothing. Everybody just starts raising hell and screaming and hollering.”

Chris Bush, who had worked in the jail’s kitchen for several months, also told AL.com that once, while in lock-down, one man attempted suicide to draw attention to the fact that they weren’t getting enough food. The guards responded by bringing each man in the lock-down unit two cookies, a cup of juice, and half a peanut butter sandwich. After 3 nights, the extra food stopped coming. Hunter corroborated that during the course of his incarceration there were a number of suicide attempts in response to the dire food issues. “If they were feeding everyone enough,” Hunter said, “you wouldn’t be waking up in the middle of the night thinking your throat’s been cut because the hunger pains are so bad.”

This isn’t the first time that substandard jail food has led to unrest. In May of last year, seven inmates at Alabama’s Marshall County Jail rioted in response to the food being served at the facilities. Incarcerated people in multiple states have organized protests against Aramark, a corporation with food service contracts in correctional facilities across the country.

“Access to enough nutritious food is a human right. When sheriffs have an incentive to spend as little money as possible on feeding people in their jails, it leads to appalling deprivations like those reported by detainees at the Etowah County Jail. When officials across the state are profiting off the starvation of people in their custody, the public has a right to know, and a duty to put a stop to it,” said SCHR attorney Aaron Littman.

Read more about our lawsuit here.

SCHR Files Civil Rights Lawsuit on Behalf of Two Incarcerated Men Brutally Beaten by Officers at Georgia State Prison

Today, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of two men who were beaten while handcuffed by officers employed at Georgia State Prison.

The Plaintiffs in the case are Shawn Andrews and Seth Rouzan. On August 11, 2017, they were subjected to beatings by members of the prison’s Correctional Emergency Response Team and other officers. Specifically, in their lawsuit the Plaintiffs allege:

  • Officers removed Shawn Andrews from a prayer service and handcuffed him behind his back. When Mr. Andrews asked why he was removed from the prayer service, an officer slammed him to the ground head first, fracturing his skull, causing a life-threatening blood clot on his brain and breaking bones in his face. Mr. Andrews was airlifted to a hospital where his skull was surgically opened to treat the blood clot and a titanium plate was inserted to close the new hole in his skull.

 

  • Seth Rouzan was in the medical unit of GSP for a psychiatric appointment. He was taken by an officer to a secluded area of the hallway where officers held him down on the ground, handcuffed him behind his back, repeatedly kicked and punched him in the back and ribs, and kicked him in his right eye.  Mr. Rouzan suffered multiple injuries after this assault, including a fractured right eye socket requiring surgery, multiple facial fractures, a concussion, and other injuries.

 

“An officer’s role is to keep incarcerated people safe. Brutally beating handcuffed prisoners does quite the opposite. This behavior has no place in a civilized society,” said SCHR Senior Attorney Atteeyah Hollie.

The Plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages, and seek to reveal a pattern and practice of excessive force by officers at Georgia State Prison. The lawsuit is brought against six current and former corrections employees. This is the second excessive force case that SCHR has brought against employees of the Georgia Department of Corrections in the past year – in August of 2017, SCHR filed a lawsuit on behalf of inmates at August State Medical Prison, alleging that the Georgia Department of Correction’s guards used excessive force routinely.

The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia in Statesboro.  Read the filing here.

Former Prosecutors and Others File Friend-of-the-Court Brief in Support of Johnny Lee Gates

Yesterday, a unique group of former prosecutors, a former judge, and a civil rights attorney filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Johnny Lee Gates, whose 1977 murder conviction has been called into question by new evidence of systematic race discrimination.  The group, which includes former United States Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears, and former Congressman Bob Barr, argues that the evidence of discrimination is overwhelming and that it “must be fully examined on the merits and not swept away as the State desires.”

As former prosecutors, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, and a former President of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the signers are dedicated to advancing a fair justice system. The conduct presented in Mr. Gates’s case, they write, “is anathema to that goal.”  In addition, they argue that the Court should reject the State’s attempt to prevent Mr. Gates from presenting the new evidence based on procedural grounds.  “The State engaged in systemic racial discrimination, hid the evidence for four decades, and now that this Court has forced that evidence into the open, the State seeks to avoid its examination.  The Court should not allow the State to do so.”

Mr. Gates is represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP), who, last month, filed a supplement to a motion for a new trial, after newly discovered evidence clearly established that the prosecutors’ jury strikes in Gates’s case were the product of systematic race discrimination. In February, the Superior Court of Muscogee County ordered the State to disclose the prosecutors’ jury selection notes from Gates’s trial, as well as from other capital trials involving black defendants in Muscogee County in the late 1970s.  On March 2, the State produced its jury notes.

The notes in every case, including Mr. Gates’s, reveal a deliberate effort to keep black citizens off the jury.

The newly-obtained notes leave no doubt that the strikes were racially motivated with the goal of obtaining all-white juries:

  • The prosecutors labeled white prospective jurors as “W” and black prospective jurors as “N.”
  • The prosecutors further singled out black prospective jurors for strikes by marking a dot next to the black prospective jurors’ names.
  • The prosecutors described black prospective jurors in derogatory terms, including “slow,” “old + ignorant,” “con artist,” “hostile,” and “fat.”
  • One white prospective juror was described as a “top juror” because he “has to deal with 150 to 200 of these people that work for his construction co.”

Read the pleading here. Read the amicus brief here. 

2018 Legislative Update

Fighting uphill battles is nothing new to the Southern Center for Human Rights, and the 2018 Georgia Legislative Session certainly brought its share of challenges. The efforts of SCHR and our partners persisted into the final minutes of the session – with the Georgia General Assembly adjourning, sine die – after midnight on March 30th.  Despite the continued influence of the damaging rhetoric and policies from the federal administration, SCHR fiercely advocated for legislative changes consistent with our commitment to those affected by Georgia’s unduly harsh criminal (justice?) system. A list of criminal justice bills that passed the legislature can be found at the bottom of the blog.

Notably, we are pleased to share that SB 407, Governor Deal (and his Criminal Justice Reform Council’s) bill, achieved final passage in both chambers with unanimous votes. SB 407 includes many reforms, including changes to misdemeanor bail, increased ability for courts to convert fines and fees to community service, expanded access to retroactive first offender treatment, and improvements to behavioral incentive dates that shorten sentences.

We worked closely with lawmakers who introduced the following proactive, progressive legislative proposals that did not make it to the finish line in 2018, but will continue to be pursued in the coming years:

  • HB 768 – to ensure that people with intellectual disability are not executed in Georgia by improving the process for determining intellectual disability in death penalty cases. There was one hearing on the bill with impeccable testimony from Patrick Mulvaney, the managing attorney for SCHR’s capital litigation unit, and Lauren Lucas, GSU Law professor and director of the Center for Access to Justice.
  • HB 802 – to allow parole eligibility for people who were under the age of 18 when sentenced to life in prison and ensure compliance with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
  • HB 857 – to require that: 1) women who are incarcerated have access to feminine hygiene products and medical information; 2) pregnant women who are incarcerated are excluded from “squat and cough” searches; 3) male correctional staff are prohibited from showers and other dressing areas; 4) only female correctional staff conduct pat-down searches of incarcerated women; and 5) the location of family members be considered when making facility placement decisions for women who are incarcerated.
  • HR 1416 – to create a House Study Committee on Bail Reform consistent with the recommendation of the Council on Criminal Justice Reform to study statutory alternatives to money bond. The resolution was passed by the House Public Safety Committee but unfortunately did not make it to the House floor for a vote in time.

This year, we also had to battle several destructive measures that were wholly inconsistent with the “smart on crime” reforms passed in prior legislative sessions. This included attempts to create new crimes, increase sentence lengths, expand mandatory minimums, and try more children as adults. Disturbingly, there was also a last-minute, but unsuccessful, attempt to threaten the success of Governor Deal’s criminal justice reform efforts and preempt local bail reform in cities like Atlanta. In partnership with our allies in the Justice Reform Partnership, SCHR researched and explained the impact of proposed legislation, testified at hearings, drafted amendments, mobilized impacted communities, lessening the impact of some of these bad bills and causing others to fail.

SCHR is proud to be the convening organization for the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Partnership. The Partnership is a statewide coalition made up of over 50 organizations and individuals from across the political and issue spectrum that unite in our pursuit to pass common sense, proactive criminal justice reform legislation at the state and local level. This year, more than thirty partners co-sponsored “Justice Day at the Capitol,” bringing more than 600 Georgians from across the state to Atlanta to advocate for meaningful and effective criminal justice reform.

SCHR is grateful for the support of all our friends and partners who share our vision for a system that promotes equality, dignity, and justice. If you or your organization are interested in joining the Justice Reform Partnership, send an email to [email protected]. Together, let us build a better Georgia.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE BILLS THAT PASSED IN 2018

Adult:

  • HB 657 – Makes it a felony to knowingly give a firearm to any person convicted of a felony or on first offender probation. (SCHR’s position – opposed)
  • HB 673 – Distracted Driving Bill that requires hands-free use of cell phones and other technology. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 732 – Expands definition of sex trafficking and increases the penalty. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • HB 751 – Creates the Georgia Emergency Communications Authority. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 765 – CJ’s Law – increases penalties for hit and run accidents that result in death or serious injury. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 803 – Prohibits trafficking a disabled adult, elder person, or resident. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 890 – Creates penalties for using a fire exit after shoplifting. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • HB 834 –  Provides for the termination of a lease when the lessee is the victim of family violence. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HR 913 – House Study Committee on Incorporating Law Enforcement in the Pathway to Treatment and Social Services for Persons Having Challenges with Drug Use and Mental Health. (SCHR’s position: supported)
  • SB 315 – Creates the new crime of unauthorized computer access. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • SB 369 – Requires $5 of pretrial diversion fees be given to the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • SB 407 – Reforms to misdemeanor bail, conversion of fines and fees to community service, retroactive first offender, behavioral incentive dates and sentencing enhancements for certain firearm offenses. (SCHR’s position: supported)
  • SR 146 – Marsy’s Law – proposes an amendment to the state’s constitution to acknowledge certain rights of crime victims. (SCHR’s position: monitored)

Juvenile: 

  • HB 740 – Prohibits the expulsion or suspension of any child (preschool – 3rd grade) for more than 5 consecutive days unless drugs or weapons were involved. (SCHR’s position: supported)
  • SB 336 – Prohibits the provider of electronic communications services from notifying a customer about a subpoena for records used in furtherance of crimes against minors. (SCHR’s position: monitored)

Reentry:

  • SB 406 – Expands background checks for people working with vulnerable populations. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • SB 427 – Changes provisions relating to income, voluntary unemployment, and involuntary loss of income to account for a parent’s incarceration. (SCHR’s position: supported).

SCHR Continues to Challenge LaGrange, GA, Policies That Restrict Access to Basic Utility Services

Charles Brewer, of LaGrange, suffers from serious sleep apnea and congestive heart failure. The 55-year old’s health problems render him unable to work, and his sole source of income is the disability payment he receives monthly.

In 2014, Brewer pleaded no contest to driving without a license, and was placed on probation. In October 2015, the City transferred $210.25 in unpaid municipal court fines to the city’s collection agency. In March 2016, Brewer applied for utilities in the home he had just moved in to, and was obligated to sign a statement which read: “Applicants with delinquent amounts owed to the City of any type shall be subject to having utility services terminated for failure to pay said debts.”

Five months later, Brewer received a letter from the City, warning him that his utilities would be cut off if his court debt – which was accruing interest each month – was not paid. Both Brewer’s oxygen tank and CPAP machine require electricity to run. Terrified at the prospect of losing these life-sustaining machines, he explained his situation to the City, who claimed to have added a “medical no-cut” notation to his file. Despite this, Brewer continued to receive threats of service interruption.

In May 2017, the Southern Center for Human Rights, the National Immigration Law Center, and Relman, Dane & Colfax, PLLC filed a lawsuit against the City of LaGrange, Georgia challenging two utility-related policies. The first conditions utility service access on the payment of municipal court debt; if residents are unable to pay outstanding court fines, they risk having utilities turned off completely. The second policy requires individuals seeking utility services to provide a valid social security number and a government-issued photo ID. In December, our suit was dismissed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia because, in its view, the Fair Housing Act only applies to pre-acquisition claims (or discriminatory policies that affect a person’s ability to obtain housing), not post-acquisition claims challenging discriminatory policies that affect a person’s ability to keep housing.

Last month, we filed an appeal in the Eleventh Circuit. Multiple organizations from across the country, and four former Assistant HUD Secretaries, submitted amicus briefs to the Eleventh Circuit in support of our position, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, the Georgia Legal Services Program, and the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation.

Brewer’s story is not an anomaly in LaGrange. In an attempt to lure new residents and businesses to the City, LaGrange doesn’t levy property taxes. Instead, a large portion of the city’s municipal operations are funded by the sale of utilities to residents. The city is the sole utility provider, a monopoly which allows them to both extort unpaid municipal court fines from city residents by withholding utilities as well as restricting immigrants’ access to utilities.

Atteeyah Hollie.

“There are enough collateral consequences associated with a criminal conviction.  Losing one’s water and electricity shouldn’t be one of them,” says Atteeyah Hollie, an SCHR staff attorney and counsel for the Plaintiffs.

Along with the Court Debt Policy, our lawsuit also challenges the city’s Immigrant Utilities Policy, which confines access to utilities to residents with US government-issued identification and social security numbers. Many undocumented residents are forced to open utility accounts via an agreeable third-party – a desperate act which violates another LaGrange city ordinance.

Plaintiff, John Doe #3, has resided in LaGrange for over a decade. He owns the home that he lives in with his wife and two young children. Doe has both an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) provided to him by the IRS, as well as a Mexican government-issued photo ID. Neither form of identification is deemed sufficient to open a utilities account with LaGrange, forcing Doe to ask a friend to open the family’s utility account, thereby risking criminal prosecution. The family’s only legal option? Live without access to electricity and water.

These policies are not only inhumane – they’re illegal. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) forbids discrimination in the provision of services relating to the use of a dwelling due to race, color, or nationality. It also protects against housing policies which have an unjust impact on members of a protected group. The Court Debt policy disproportionately harms LaGrange’s Black residents, who make up less than 50% of the city’s population but more than 90% of those with debt added to their utility bills. The Immigrant Utilities Policy unfairly impacts immigrants, primarily Latinos.  The Court Debt policy also violates state law in that it conditions utility services on the payment of unrelated debt.

Legislation Would Further Exacerbate Wealth-Based Detention in Georgia

Yesterday, following a three hour hearing on SB 452, the legislation passed out of the House Public Safety Committee.

Sponsored by a group of Republican state senators, the legislation would mandate that local police notify prosecutors when they learn that a suspect is in the country illegally. SB 452 would also require the courts sentencing these suspects to determine whether they are here without proper documentation and to pass that information along to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Local jails would also be required to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement before unauthorized immigrants are released from custody.

Unfortunately, SB 452 now includes language that would prohibit meaningful bail reform across the state of Georgia. The legislation would prohibit the release of people on their own recognizance (including for local ordinance violations) until after he or she has been before a judge. This proposal is the product of the bail bond industry, and it will be at the expense of local communities and taxpayers.

The bail language in SB 452 would exacerbate wealth-based detention in Georgia by only allowing the immediate release of people who have money. The impact of this proposal will be felt by communities and taxpayers that will have to deal with the unnecessary costs of incarcerating people charged with minor non-violent offenses. The state should not force local jurisdictions to impose financial conditions on people charged with minor offenses.

According to SCHR’s Public Policy Director Marissa Dodson,

“Section 2 (Lines 32-41) is extremely problematic for our coalition’s bail reform efforts because, if passed, it will:

  1. Preempt the City of Atlanta’s new bail policy that requires the immediate release of people charged with minor offenses on their own recognizance; and

  2. further exacerbate wealth-based detention in Georgia by only allowing people to be immediately released from jail when financial conditions are imposed.”

    Critically, this proposal was not recommended by executive and judicial bodies that studied bail for more than 6 months. After seeking the input of relevant stakeholders including law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, impacted people and community groups, and studying Georgia’s bail system for more than six months, a committee appointed by the Judicial Council of Georgia and the Governor’s Council on Criminal Justice reform made findings and recommendations for reform. In its annual report, the Governor’s Council issued recommendations on bail reform to the General Assembly. Several of these recommendations are included in SB 407, which is currently being considered by the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.

The next step will be for the SB 452 to be considered by the House Rules Committee and then on the floor of the House of Representatives. Can you help us stop this legislation?

CALL TO ACTION:

  1. Contact the Rules Committee and ask for a NO vote on SB 452
    1. In the “To” column cut and paste:

[email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]

    1. Put in the subject line: Vote NO on SB 452
    1. Copy and paste the following (and please feel free to modify as you like):

Members of the House Rules Committee,

Please hold SB 452 without further action. SB 452 will compromise public safety, waste taxpayer dollars and harm the state’s economy. Specifically, the bail provisions in Section 2 will exacerbate wealth-based detention in Georgia and prohibit local jurisdictions from being able to decide whether financial conditions are necessary to ensure court appearance and maintain public safety.

Thank you,

Your name

Street Address

City, State, Zip

2. Contact Speaker Ralston and Gov. Deal

Speaker David Ralston

404-656-5020 (Consider putting this number on speed dial)

[email protected]

Governor Nathan Deal

404-656-1776 (Consider putting this number on speed dial)

Click here to use the form on his website

3. Copy and Paste the Call to Action and Send to Your Networks!

Newly Discovered Prosecutors’ Notes Reveal Blatant Race Discrimination in Capital Jury Selection

Today, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Georgia Innocence Project filed a supplement to a motion for a new trial in the case of Johnny Gates. In 1977, Gates – a black man – was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in Columbus, GA.  The prosecutors struck all four black prospective jurors from serving on Gates’s jury. Newly discovered evidence clearly establishes that the prosecutors’ jury strikes in Gates’s case were the product of systematic race discrimination.

Johnny Gates.

In February, the Superior Court of Muscogee County ordered the State to disclose the prosecutors’ jury selection notes from Gates’s trial, as well as from other capital trials involving black defendants in Muscogee County in the late 1970s.  On March 2, the State produced its jury notes.

The notes in every case, including Mr. Gates’s, reveal a deliberate effort to keep black citizens off of the jury.

The newly-obtained notes leave no doubt that the strikes were racially motivated with the goal of obtaining all-white juries:

  • The prosecutors labeled white prospective jurors as “W” and black prospective jurors as “N.”
  • The prosecutors further singled out black prospective jurors for strikes by marking a dot next to the black prospective jurors’ names.
  • The prosecutors described black prospective jurors in derogatory terms, including “slow,” “old + ignorant,” “con artist,” “hostile,” and “fat.”
  • One white prospective juror was described as a “top juror” because he “has to deal with 150 to 200 of these people that work for his construction co.”

“Race discrimination undermines the credibility and reliability of the justice system,” said Patrick Mulvaney, an SCHR attorney representing Mr. Gates.  “Mr. Gates is entitled to a new trial that is fair and free of discrimination.”

The prosecutors’ jury strikes of black citizens confirm the discriminatory intent reflected in their notes.  There were two prosecutors in Gates’s case: Douglas Pullen and William Smith.  In the five capital cases involving black defendants that Pullen tried between 1975 and 1979, the prosecution struck 27 of the 27 black prospective jurors.  Smith had a similar strike record. Additionally, in 2016, the United States Supreme Court held in Foster v. Chatman that Pullen and his co-counsel struck black prospective jurors on the basis of race in a capital case out of Rome, Georgia.

Gates has been incarcerated for the past 41 years based on his 1977 trial.  Though he initially received the death penalty, he was later resentenced to life in prison without parole.

View images of the jury notes here. Read the pleading here.

Gates is represented by Patrick Mulvaney and Katherine Moss from the Southern Center for Human Rights and Clare Gilbert from the Georgia Innocence Project.   

Inadequate Medical Care in Prison Makes Headlines Again

A sick person in detention is entirely at the mercy of the prison or jail for their medical care.

As the result of extreme overcrowding, budget cuts, and the profit priorities of for-profit health care providers, people in prisons, jails and detention facilities with medical needs suffer from scant medical care. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the Deep South, where SCHR has challenged poor medical care and intolerable living conditions in litigation for decades.

Over the weekend, NPR reported on yet another lawsuit challenging the subpar medical care that prisoners — currently the only group in the United States with a constitutional right to healthcare — receive.

Lewis v. Cain

Francis Brauner was instrumental in launching a class-action suit on behalf of all people currently incarcerated at Louisiana’s Angola prison, suing for care that allegedly caused them “needless pain and suffering.” According to NPR, Mr. Brauner was sent to Dixon Correctional Institute in Louisiana in 2005. He was sentenced to 20 years, with hard labor involved. When he was roughly a quarter of the way through his sentence, he was working in the fields when an inexplicable pain shot through him — perhaps some remnant of back trouble caused by a car accident years ago — but intense enough that he could no longer stand up.

Mr. Brauner was taken to a hospital in New Orleans, but Hurricane Katrina soon hit the city, and he was moved to Angola prison. He was told the larger facilities would mean better resources and faster treatment. Instead, he languished in bed in the hospital ward for a month, essentially unattended. He developed bedsores so severe that they ate through muscle. He was denied necessary surgeries. He eventually became paralyzed from the waist down.

Soon after arriving at Angola, Mr. Brauner experienced serious lapses in medical attention and kept continuous notes of the subpar care other incarcerated people were receiving in a journal. He shared it with his attorney, Nick Trenticosta. Trenticosta was shocked when he visited the hospital ward at Angola. According to NPR:

“There were open garbage containers,” Trenticosta recounted. “Fly tape hanging from the ceiling with a lot of dead flies on it. Over men’s beds who had open bedsores.”

Mr. Brauner went on to sue several of his Angola doctors and jailers, claiming they were deliberately indifferent to the severity of his medical condition, violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Then, in 2015, the ACLU of Louisiana, along with The Promise of Justice Initiative, the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, and the Advocacy Center filed a complaint against the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Lewis v. Cain. According to the ACLU of Louisiana, the “complaint alleges that the [Angola] prison’s more than 6,000 prisoners are all at risk of serious harm, while scores of men have already experienced unnecessary injury, suffering and death.” Late last month, Judge Shelly Dick said the case could proceed as a class action lawsuit on behalf of Angola’s prisoners.

Substandard medical care in detention facilities has created a public health crisis, with more than 600,000 people being released from prison every year and going home to their communities, carrying with them both infectious diseases and medical conditions requiring immediate attention and resources. Medical failures are particularly pervasive in jails, where detainees with serious medical needs are often ignored by a system that knows the average length of stay for jail detainees is 3 months. Rather than treat the individual as a patient, medical systems in jails more often treat them as problems that will leave their jurisdiction in a matter of months.

To ensure adequate medical care for people who are incarcerated, SCHR has brought a number of class action lawsuits.

For example, SCHR filed Leatherwood v. Campbell, a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of all men who were HIV-positive and incarcerated at Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Alabama. The lawsuit challenged the inadequate medical treatment and deplorable housing provided to HIV-positive men at the facility. The defendants named in the lawsuit were the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and NaphCare Inc., the state’s former private medical provider. The ADOC and the plaintiffs entered into a two-year settlement agreement in which the Defendants agreed to improve HIV medical care at Limestone by ensuring that all incarcerated people who are HIV-positive received their medications, by hiring a full-time HIV Specialist, and by improving the living conditions for all people with HIV at the institution.

Read more about Lewis v Cain here. Read more about SCHR’s history of healthcare advocacy here. 

Alabama Botches Doyle Lee Hamm’s Execution

Last Thursday, the state of Alabama attempted to execute Doyle Lee Hamm. Hamm, whom we have written about in the past, suffers from a myriad of medical issues, including acute lymphatic cancer. His long-time attorney, Bernard Harcourt, has been arguing for months that because treatment for his cancer has compromised Hamm’s veins, attempting an execution via lethal injection would be cruel and unusual – and likely unsuccessful. It appears that Harcourt was correct. Hamm spent more than two and a half hours in the death chamber on Thursday night, yet he is still alive.

What exactly happened on the night of February 22nd? In the words of Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem.” In the words of Hamm’s attorney, Bernard Harcourt, “This was a bit of butchery that can only be described as torture.”

Hamm was given an execution date on December 13th, 2017 – the day he was supposed to be in surgery to remove multiple cancerous tumors. Instead, his surgery was canceled and the warden read him his death warrant. District Court Judge Karen Bowdre granted a stay of execution on January 31st; that stay was vacated after an emergency appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on February 13th, and a medical examination of Hamm was ordered. The results showed that Hamm did not have any usable veins in his hands and arms – the standard locations for lethal injections – but that his lower extremities had workable venous access. In an unprecedented move, Bowdre ordered that the execution could proceed if only Hamm’s legs and feet were used.

On the night of the scheduled execution, two hours after the procedure had been scheduled to begin, a last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States was denied. From approximately 9 to 11 30 PM, it was unclear to those outside of the death chamber what was happening. The details are horrific. Harcourt writes:

“While he was strapped down arms and legs to the gurney, the IV personnel simultaneously worked on both legs at the same time, probing his flesh and inserting needles. The IV personnel almost certainly punctured Doyle’s bladder, because he was urinating blood for the next day. They may have hit his femoral artery as well, because suddenly there was a lot of blood gushing out. There were multiple puncture wounds on the ankles, calf, and right groin area, around a dozen. They were grinding a needle in his shin area for many minutes, painfully. He seems to have 6 puncture marks in his right groin, and large bruising and swelling in the groin.”

“This attempted execution clearly demonstrates the cruelty and the torture of the death penalty,” said SCHR Executive Director Sara Totonchi. “It is unconscionable. Our hearts go out to everyone involved in this macabre display: from Mr. Hamm and his family and defense team, to the victim’s family, to the correctional officers.”

SCHR Client Olivia Pearson Acquitted

Yesterday, a Wayne County jury returned a not-guilty verdict – after just 20 minutes of deliberation – for Southern Center for Human Rights client Olivia Pearson. Ms. Pearson was initially charged with two felonies: illegally assisting a voter, and falsely signing a form explaining her reason for doing so. SCHR was successful in getting the first charge dismissed. This was Ms. Pearson’s second trial; her first ended in a mistrial after the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict on either count.

Ms. Pearson outside the courthouse.

Ms. Pearson is an African-American grandmother who has dedicated her life to public service in Douglas, Georgia. Eighteen years ago, she became the first African-American woman elected to Douglas’s city commission and has run unopposed for her seat in every election since. Her mother helped sue the city of Douglas to gain more African-American political representation in the 1970’s. She was prosecuted for showing a first-time black voter how to use a voting machine during Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012 in Coffee County, Georgia.

“I’m glad that the Wayne County jury saw this case for what it was, and rightfully acquitted Ms. Pearson in 20 minutes. We’re thrilled for her,” said SCHR attorney Mark Loudon-Brown.

On October 15th, 2012, a young woman named Diewanna Robinson was voting for the first time in Douglas, Georgia. When Ms. Robinson took the stand at trial, she testified that she’d requested assistance in using the voting machine, that Ms. Pearson had agreed to help show her how to use the machine, and that Ms. Pearson neither told her who to vote for, nor influenced her vote in any way. She testified that Ms. Pearson’s instruction ended at how to operate the machine. Nevertheless, Ms. Pearson was charged with two felony offenses.

“This was without a doubt a racially motivated targeted prosecution of a woman who was exercising her right to get out the vote in her community,” said Sarah Geraghty, Managing Attorney at SCHR.

Ms. Pearson and her SCHR legal team await the jury’s verdict.
Ms. Pearson reacts to the jury’s verdict – not guilty.

“Yesterday was finally the end to a very tumultuous time in my life. I am so grateful to the jurors of Wayne County for being able to see the truth and allow justice to prevail,” Ms. Pearson said.

Ms. Pearson’s legal team was comprised of Mark Loudon-Brown, Sarah Geraghty, and Maya Chaudhuri of SCHR.

Ms. Pearson and her SCHR legal team.