South Carolina Prison Officials: Escapee May Have Used a Drone

By Christopher Zoukis

For a few days in early July, Jimmy Causey, a 46-year-old inmate at South Carolina’s Lieber Correctional Institute, was on the loose.

Causey was serving five life sentences for kidnapping, robbery and burglary after breaking into his defense lawyer’s home, holding the lawyer and his family at gunpoint, and ransacking the home before leaving with just $40 and a cellphone.

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Bawdy Rooftop Performances Entertain Inmates in Chicago Prison

By Christopher Zoukis

Chicago has earned its reputation as a city that knows how to show conventioners, tourists and other visitors a good time – but who knew some Chicagoans would go so far as to stage adult entertainment for the enjoyment of inmates in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the 27-story prison operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons?

But that’s apparently what’s been happening on the roof of a self-service parking garage across the street from the prison. Chicago papers printed accounts of the X-rated cavorting on the garage rooftop, which has included performances by topless or nude dancers, and other displays the family papers have had difficulty describing.

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Discovery of Look-Alike Frees Inmate after 17 Years in Prison

By Christopher Zoukis

On Memorial Day 1999, Tamara Scherer was in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in the Kansas City, Kansas suburb of Roeland Park, when she was attacked by three young men. They tried unsuccessfully to snatch her purse, but managed to knock her down, causing some minor injuries, and then fled in a car after stealing her cell phone.

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Appeals Court Tosses FCC Rate Controls on Most Prison Calls

By Christopher Zoukis

Advocates of government action on lowering phone rates for calls to prison and jail inmates were handed a major setback June 13 when three-judge panel of a Washington, D.C. federal appeals court ruled the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lacked legal authority to impose rate limits on intrastate calls to inmates.

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Alabama Executes Inmate First Sentenced to Death 34 Years Earlier

By Christopher Zoukis

On May 26, 75-year-old Tommy Arthur died by lethal injection in Alabama's Holman Correctional Facility, ending a decades-long legal drama begun 34 years earlier.

Sentenced to death for the 1982 murder-for-hire shooting of the sleeping husband of the woman with whom he was having an affair, Arthur was scheduled for execution seven times between 2001 and 2016, but each time the state was stymied by challenges brought by his volunteer legal team.

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Federal Court Again Slaps Arizona Jailers for Reading Inmate Mail

By Christopher Zoukis

A federal three-judge appeals panel unanimously ruled on May 18 that Arizona corrections officials were illegally monitoring mail state prisoners send to—or receive from—their lawyers. It was the third time in three years judges from the 9th Circuit had rebuked Arizona law enforcers on the issue.

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Appeals Court: Prison Litigation Reform Act Doesn’t Apply to Suits Filed by Ex-Prisoners

By Christopher Zoukis

A three-judge panel of a federal appeals court has ruled that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) applies only to lawsuits filed by people who are incarcerated at the time they file the lawsuit, not to those formerly incarcerated.

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Jails Scandal Brings Ex-L.A. County Sheriff Three Years in Prison

By Christopher Zoukis

A federal judge has handed a three-year prison sentence to Leroy “Lee” Baca, who was sheriff of Los Angeles County for 15 years, for his role in covering up abuses in the county’s jail system that was being investgated by the FBI. The L.A. Sheriff’s Department has more than 18,000 employees and is responsible for policing over 4,000 square miles and the nation’s largest jail system.

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Inmates at Ohio Prison Secretly Built Computers, Used Them for Crimes

By Christopher Zoukis

For over three months, five inmates in Ohio’s medium-security Marion Correctional Institution tapped into the prison’s network to run two computers they had built piecemeal from parts scavenged from a nonprofit group’s job training program. The program teaches inmates how to disassemble and recycle outdated computer equipment as part of Marion’s “Green Initiative” program.

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Supreme Court Rejects Intellectual Disability Test Methods in Texas Death Penalty Cases

The Supreme Court exempted one man's death sentence citing outdated medical standards and other factors lacking scientific basis in determining his intellectual ability.

The Supreme Court exempted one man's death sentence citing outdated medical standards and other factors lacking scientific basis in determining his intellectual ability.


By Christopher Zoukis

In a 5-3 decision March 28, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the methods that Texas has been using to gauge whether a defendant’s intellectual ability should spare them the death penalty.

The appeal was for Bobby James Moore, convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 1980 for fatally shooting an elderly Houston supermarket clerk during a botched robbery. Twenty years old at the time, Moore spent 19 years on Death Row before winning a new trial, due to ineffective assistance of counsel. But on retrial in 2001, he was again convicted and given a death sentence.

In 2014, Moore’s lawyers sought to persuade a state court he was intellectually disabled to a degree that made sentencing him to death unconstitutional. That court agreed, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected its recommendation, finding Moore was not severely impaired enough to be exempt from the death penalty.

On appeal, Moore’s lawyers challenged the state appeals court’s reading of constitution law. The leading federal case, Atkins v. Virginia, set down a basic rule in 2002: executing mentally disabled convicts violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Atkins didn’t set standards on how states should determine mental disability in capital cases, however.

In 2014, in Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court rejected that state’s use of an IQ score of 70 as precluding mental disability, saying state determinations must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” So the central issue the Supreme Court faced in Moore v. Texas was whether the way Texas made that determination in Moore’s case squared with the high court’s earlier cases.

The majority opinion, from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, found it did not. The court which had recommended exempting Moore from the death penalty, it noted, used a generally accepted test, consistent with modern diagnostic standards, with three core parts – mental functioning defects, evidenced by such things as an IQ of roughly 70; adaptive deficits, such as inability to learn basic skills or change behavior to fit changed circumstances; and the onset of such deficits before the age of majority.

Ginsburg cited evidence the first court had found about Moore, a ninth-grade dropout who by age 13 could barely read, write or even tell time or understand common measurement units. In contrast, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals relied on state case law, which imposed added requirements, based on a 1992 psychology manual no longer accepted by most experts, and added seven “evidence factors” of its own devising, such as whether those who knew the individual treated him or her as mentally disabled. It also faulted the Texas criminal appeals court for relying on IQ scores Moore had received without considering those tests’ margins of error.

While the Court’s earlier decisions allow states leeway in making mental disability determinations, the majority vacated Moore’s death sentence, based on the state's use of outdated medical standards and other factors lacking scientific basis. A dissent by Chief Justice John Roberts, with Justices Alito and Thomas, would have accepted the state’s reliance on an IQ score of 74 for Moore, and complained the majority opinion gave states insufficient guidance on how to determine mental disability.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at, and

Fewer States Automatically Suspend Driver’s Licenses for Drug Convictions

More states are opting out of suspending licenses of people convicted of drug crimes unrelated to driving.

More states are opting out of suspending licenses of people convicted of drug crimes unrelated to driving.

By Christopher Zoukis

Since 2009, seven state legislatures have acted to remove themselves from a 1991 federal law that since 1994 has threatened to reduce federal highway funds to states which did not provide at least a six-month driver’s license suspension for people convicted of drug crimes.

Known at the time of enactment as a “use and lose” measure, the federal law (23 U.S. Code 159) is these days increasingly seen as an outdated “war on drugs” holdover which does little, if anything, to achieve its stated aims, and may actually impede them, while creating serious barriers to re-entry into society for people with histories of drug convictions. Opponents of the federal law claim it burdens courts and detracts motor vehicle agencies from more important work directly related to highway safety.

Despite the clear trend in recent years for states to end or modify their driver’s license suspension laws, or to take advantage of a provision in the federal law allowing states to opt out of suspending licenses of people convicted of crimes unrelated to driving and still keep highway funds, 12 states and the District of Columbia still require license suspension for drug convictions unrelated to driving.

Since some major population centers are among the dozen states with such laws still on the books – including New York, Texas, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia – an estimated 122 million people live under such laws, and almost 200,000 lose their driver’s licenses each year for non-driving violations.

But it’s growing increasingly likely even more states will decouple drug convictions from driver’s license suspensions – and some in Congress are even backing federal bills to that end.

As recently as 2004, 27 states automatically suspended or revoked driver’s licenses for at least some drug convictions. Last year alone, legislators in Ohio and Massachusetts gave judges the power to decide whether or not to suspend driver’s licenses after drug convictions, following similar actions in earlier years by Georgia, Delaware, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. Virginia, one of the 12 states still restricting driver’s licenses after drug convictions, is set to opt out starting this July, and others are considering similar actions. Some states have also eliminated or reduced the fees previously required to reinstate suspended licenses.

And a bill — House of Representatives 1952, with the short title of the “Better Drive Act” —  was introduced in the House of Representatives April 5 by Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX). Its six backers are equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. The main sponsor argues his bill, by making it possible for people with drug convictions unrelated to driving to maintain the driver’s licenses they will likely need to find employment and get to their jobs, would ease social re-entry and fight recidivism.

The 10-line bill would remove the federal law withholding some federal highway funds from states which do not automatically suspend driver’s licenses after a drug conviction. The repeal bill, if adopted, would not prevent states from suspending licenses for drug-impaired driving, but would only stop automatic license suspension for offenses not related to driving. The bill to repeal the federal mandate would not restrict states’ ability to suspend or revoke licenses for drug-impaired driving offenses.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at, and


Massachusetts May Toss Thousands of Convictions for Drug Test Fraud

By Christopher Zoukis

Annie Dookhan, a chemist working for a Massachusetts state drug-testing laboratory, was paroled last year after serving nearly three years in a state prison for her admitted perjury and evidence tampering in state-prosecuted cases. 

Now state prosecutors, responding to an order from the state’s highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court, have dismissed 21,587 of the more than 24,000 criminal convictions linked to Dookhan’s unreliable court testimony and drug-testing reports.

In the largest-ever case of its type, Dookhan pleaded guilty to more than two dozen counts of tampering with drug samples, falsifying lab reports, and misleading investigators during the nine years she worked at a drug-testing lab run by the state’s Department of Public Health.

In some cases, Dookhan apparently did no actual testing, but still issued reports that samples submitted by police or prosecutors in fact contained controlled substances. In some cases, Dookhan signed reports not only for herself, but for other staffers who were supposed to supervise or confirm her work. Contrary to lab rules, she also took calls from police, who told her what drug they expected would be found in the samples they had sent her.

When Dookhan’s mishandling of samples, faked reports and other misconduct came to light in August 2012, the large number of cases potentially involving false evidence raised serious problems not just for defendants who may have been wrongfully convicted, but also for courts, prosecutors and public defenders.

Advocates, including the national American Civil Liberties Union and its state chapter, sought for several years across-the-board overturning of convictions in cases tied to evidence processed, or testimony given, by Dookhan.

Last year, the state’s high court declined, but ordered state district attorneys to winnow down the list of nearly 24,000 convicted in such cases to show which the prosecutors thought strong enough to be retried, without Dookhan-provided evidence. About 60% of those convicted with Dookhan’s assistance faced only minor charges for drug possession, and many have already completed their sentences. Prosecutors had earlier tried, but failed, to persuade the court to leave persons convicted in any of the cases to pursue individual legal remedies, at their own expense, with separate consideration of each case.

In January, the court ordered seven district attorneys to finalize their lists of cases from their districts they view as worth prosecuting again, and submit by April 18. 

The approximately 2,500 cases the prosecutors opted to keep exceeds earlier estimates, which suggested fewer than 1,000 of the cases would survive. But the state court has the last word, since it reserved the right to dismiss additional cases if it thought prosecutors plan to re-file an unreasonably large number of cases.

The Dookhan scandal illustrates the dangers of relying on drug-testing labs, liked the one where Dookhan worked, which have few or no certification requirements, minimal training and lax supervision. One misdemeanor charge against Dookhan was that she had misstated her professional credentials, claiming a nonexistent master’s degree —  a falsehood which went undetected by her employer.

In another drug-testing lab in the state, at about the same time as Dookhan’s misconduct, supervisors similarly failed to detect serious, long-running violations by another chemist – including stealing drug samples, smoking drugs in the workplace, and using the lab to manufacture crack cocaine.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at, and

Nearly 24,000 criminal drug convictions may be linked to a chemist convicted of perjury and evidence tampering in state-prosecuted cases.

Nearly 24,000 criminal drug convictions may be linked to a chemist convicted of perjury and evidence tampering in state-prosecuted cases.

Florida Weighs Restoring Voting Rights for Released Felons

Activists are working to undo the voting rights ban for released prisoners in Florida through a November ballot initiative.

Activists are working to undo the voting rights ban for released prisoners in Florida through a November ballot initiative.

By Christopher Zoukis

For 150 years, Florida has had one of the nation’s harshest policies toward restoring the voting rights of released inmates – lifetime disenfranchisement for former felons – but the state’s voters may soon get a chance to reverse that ban, which is also under legal challenge.

A long-standing provision in Florida’s constitution permanently prevents voting by an estimated 1.6 million Floridians, a figure roughly equal to the adult population of Miami-Dade County. Along with Kentucky and Iowa, Florida is the only state currently providing for lifetime disenfranchisement for felons who have completed all parts of their sentences. In the years since 2000, four other states (Delaware, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Maryland) have dropped laws similar to Florida’s.

Activists are working to undo the ban through a ballot initiative, the Voting Restoration Amendment, which would become law if approved by 60% of voters going to the polls in November 2018. The proposal would automatically restore voting rights to ex-felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, including probation or parole. The measure would not apply to persons convicted of murder or sexual felonies. Those individuals would remain permanently disenfranchised unless both the governor and the state cabinet vote to restore their voting rights.

As state law requires, the Florida Supreme Court held a March 6 hearing to examine whether the wording of the Voting Restoration Amendment complies with the standards ballot initiatives must meet in order to go before the voters. The initiative must be clearly worded and address only a single issue. A decision on whether the initiative is properly drawn is expected soon. Supporters were encouraged that Pam Bondi, the state’s Attorney-General, seen as a potential opponent, took no position on the measure during the court hearing.

In 2011, Bondi and Gov. Rick Scott, shortly after taking office, reversed major parts of a broader clemency process adopted by ex-governor Charlie Crist. As amended by Scott and his cabinet, ex-felons have to wait at least five years after finishing their sentences before they can apply to the governor and his cabinet for restoration of their voting rights. Fewer than 2,500 of those requests have been approved during Scott’s time in office, and a backlog of about 10,500 applications awaits action.

If the state Supreme Court clears the new initiative to win a spot on the 2018 ballot, supporters will also have to muster almost 700,000 more signatures from registered state voters – which could be a lengthy and expensive undertaking. A similar effort in 2016 fell far short.

In other action aimed at overturning the Florida lifetime disenfranchisement of felons, on March 13 seven former felons and the nonpartisan Fair Elections Legal Network filed a class-action lawsuit against Gov. Scott and other state officials, attacking the state’s disenfranchisement law as unconstitutional.

The lawsuit argues the state’s mandate on felon disenfranchisement has a disparate impact on racial minorities. It also alleges that the governor, who has the deciding vote in some voting rights restoration cases, has in some cases rejected requests because the applicants have gotten traffic tickets after completing all terms of their sentences. In other instances, applicants complained of being quizzed about whether they were using alcohol or controlled substances.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at, and




Ignorance, Bureaucracy and Red Tape: U.S. Citizens Mistakenly Deported

immigration United States

By Christopher Zoukis

According to Bryan Cox, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), “claims of U.S. citizenship of individuals encountered by ICE officers, agents, and attorneys are immediately and carefully investigated and analyzed.” However, the United States has a long history of mistakenly deporting its own citizens; since 2003, more than 20,000 U.S. citizens have been detained or deported by immigration officials. [See: PLN, March 2013, p.40].

Consider the case of Andres Robles Gonzalez, who was deported to Mexico at age 19 despite the fact that he was an American citizen. For over three years he tried to convince authorities of his citizenship. Eventually, the evidence to support his claim was found in an unusual place: the U.S. government’s own records.

Armed with that information, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued Gonzalez a certificate of citizenship. Problem solved? Not quite. Despite acknowledging his citizenship and issuing the certificate, USCIS could not provide that evidence to Gonzalez because he had already been deported.

Jonathan Crawford, the New Orleans-based field director for USCIS, nicely summed up this Catch-22 when he told Gonzalez, “Your N-600 Application for a Certificate of Citizenship was approved on June 15, 20011 [sic]. You derive [sic] citizenship on June 13, 2002, when your father became a naturalized citizen of the United States. However, since you were deported from the United States, we are unable to complete the N-600 application process and provide you with a certificate of citizenship.”

Helpfully, Crawford advised Gonzalez to report to a USCIS office for assistance in obtaining his certificate once he returned to the United States. But the red tape was just too thick. A vice counsel in the U.S. Department of State refused to provide Gonzalez with a passport because “[i]t does not appear that you have a claim to U.S. citizenship.” Thus, Gonzalez could not return to the U.S. to obtain proof of his citizenship since he could not secure a U.S. passport – because he lacked proof he was an American citizen.

Fortunately for Gonzalez, attorneys were able to circumnavigate the system and finally establish his citizenship. But had he been indigent and unable to access competent legal help, he could have been deported permanently.

This exposes a major flaw in the immigration system: people do not have the right to an attorney, which disproportionately affects indigent people because they lack sufficient legal representation to help them prove their U.S. citizenship. Gonzalez eventually sued the federal government, discovering during the litigation that ICE was aware of its mistakes yet failed to correct them. The United States agreed to update its records pertaining to Gonzalez’s citizenship and paid him $350,000 in damages in May 2015. See: Gonzalez v. United States, U.S.D.C. (E.D. La.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00696-CJB-JCW.

Immigration and deportation issues are doubly problematic for the incarcerated and those with a criminal record. For example, Lorenzo Palma, 39, was not released from prison after he finished serving his five-and-half-year sentence in Texas for aggravated assault. ICE ordered prison officials to hold him for another year, then he was transferred to an immigration detention center where he was held for six months. Although he was a naturalized U.S. citizen, Palma feared being deported to Mexico because his younger brother, a U.S. citizen, had previously been erroneously deported. Palma was fortunate in that the U.S. government eventually acknowledged his citizenship status in January 2016 and he was released.

Similarly, soon after President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, a nationwide immigration enforcement operation ensued. Elizabeth Hernandez-Carrillo, a 46-year-old mother of four, was arrested in her home during a raid and detained for a month. She noted that the detention center held her in a “small cell infested with cockroaches [where she] got dehydrated, contracted a bladder infection and desperately missed her family.” Hernandez-Carrillo was a U.S. citizen; she had previously returned to the U.S. after “being deported to Mexico in 2004 following a felony marijuana trafficking conviction,” despite her efforts to inform ICE of her U.S. citizenship status. Her case highlighted the complexity, especially under the current presidential administration and its new policies, of proving one’s citizenship status.

Jacqueline Stevens, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University and director of the school’s Deportation Research Clinic, noted in a 2011 report that “the deportation laws and regulations in place since the late 1980s have been mandating detention and deportation for hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people each year without attorneys or, in many cases, administrative hearings. It would be truly shocking if this did not result in the deportation of U.S. citizens.” After filing a Freedom of Information Act request, Stevens exposed records from U.S. immigration courts that indicated the adjournment of 256 cases between January 2011 and September 2014 was due to the high volume of findings “that the presumed ‘aliens’ were actually U.S. citizens.”

Navigating the waters of our nation’s immigration system can be treacherous as errors are surprisingly common. According to Stevens, the possibility of mistakes is high because “[u]nless you have an unusually thorough immigration judge, which is very rare, or an attorney, you can be a U.S. citizen and not even know you’re a U.S. citizen, and abandon claims to be in the United States.” There is no single method to verify citizenship, and the process to prove one’s citizenship status is often complicated by the “constantly evolving laws that determine an individual’s eligibility,” Stevens said.

The complex process to validate citizenship status has had significant repercussions for U.S. citizens who are incorrectly detained or deported due to errors by government officials. One of the more notorious errors occurred in 2011, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained a four-year-old girl for 20 hours in a cell without bedding at Dulles Airport in Virginia, then deported her to Guatemala. Although her parents hired an attorney and their daughter was returned to the United States within three weeks, the four-year-old began to show stress-related symptoms. “She began to overeat, throw tantrums, and soil her pants during the day,” according to a lawsuit filed by her parents. “She hid whenever people knocked on the door, she refused to let go of her father’s hand, and she became frightened whenever the lights were off at night.” The federal government agreed to settle the case for $32,500 in June 2015. See: Ruiz v. United States, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Vir.), Case No. 1:14-cv-01246-GBL-JFA.

However, monetary damages cannot make up for what the family went through due to the wrongful deportation – which, sadly, was one of many due to the incompetence of immigration authorities. 

Sources:,,,, USA Today,

This article original appeared in Prison Legal News on April 3, 2017.

Video Calling Services vs. In-person Visitation

prison visitation

By Christopher Zoukis

Video calling* is gaining a significant foothold in local jails. The technology is seen both as less costly than in-person visitation and a potential profit generator for jailers. But it can also have a detrimental impact on prisoners’ ability to communicate with their families; nevertheless, for-profit companies are rolling out video calling services as fast as they can. [See: PLN, Nov. 2014, p.48; March 2014, p.50; Sept. 2012, p.42; Jan. 2010, p.22]

Often, when a jail contracts with a video calling provider, such as Securus Technologies, all in-person visitation is banned. [See: PLN, July 2013, p.44]. For example, in Maine’s Cheshire County and York County jails, as well as the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, in-person visits were banned after video calling services were implemented. Richard Van Winkler, superintendent of the Cheshire County jail, defended the move – which will earn his facility 20 cents of every $1 charged by Securus when prisoners’ families pay for video calls.

“When one violates the law and one has to serve time in a public institution, one of the liberties that one could lose is the opportunity to hug a loved one,” he said. “And you know what? That’s a difficult sanction. That’s hard time.”

According to a 2015 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, 13 percent of local jails – around 500 in 43 states – have implemented video calling, with 74 percent also banning in-person visitation. Costs to install the video system may be borne by the sheriff’s office, which then receives a portion of the fees paid by visitors who use the service.

Jail officials in Spartanburg County, South Carolina emphasized the benefits from eliminating the need to escort prisoners to in-person visits and monitor the visitation area. Before switching to video calling in March 2017, jail director Major Allen Freeman said such concerns made the prior visitation system “a logistical nightmare.”

But experts question whether prisoners should lose the ability to have in-person visits altogether. In a letter to the California Board of State and Community Corrections, a coalition comprised of the ACLU, Prison Law Office, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice said that in-person visits result in fewer disciplinary problems among prisoners and lower recidivism rates.

Some corrections officials agree that in-person visitation is a better option, at least with respect to prison discipline – in part because it’s a privilege that can be taken away as a sanction for misbehavior.

“When [prisoners] have that contact with the outside family, they actually behave better here at the facility,” said one Indiana prison official quoted in the Prison Policy Initiative report.

However, marketing pitches from companies like Securus to cash-strapped municipalities highlight cost savings and the potential to limit the introduction of contraband into jails. Those benefits may be illusory, though. In Travis County, Texas, a report published in October 2014 by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found that the amount of contraband actually increased after the introduction of video-only visitation. So did disciplinary problems and prisoner violence.

Some states are taking steps to curb the introduction of video calling. In Texas, a law passed in May 2015 requires county jails to offer prisoners two 20-minute, in-person visits per month. State Senator John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat who sponsored the bill, didn’t cite research linking in-person visitation with fewer problems and better outcomes for prisoners and their families. Instead he alluded to a moral imperative.

“I just think there’s something inherently wrong with not allowing a father to see his family or a mother to talk to her husband or son,” he said. “How do you keep an individual from seeing his family? As another human, how do you do that?”

Nationwide an estimated 2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent, but 5 million children will experience parental incarceration at some point during their childhood. [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.28]. African-American children are over seven times more likely than their white peers to have a parent in prison or jail, while Latino children are twice as likely.

“Visits are not a privilege or a reward for good behavior; they are a right,” asserted Tanya Krupat, program director at the Osborne Association, a New York-based non-profit that sponsors programs for children with incarcerated parents as part of its criminal justice reform efforts.

New York officials have insisted they view video calling as a way to supplement in-person visits, not replace them. Governor Andrew Cuomo recently restricted in-person visitation at state prisons to weekends, but a spokesman noted that the cost savings will allow for expanded video calling while also preserving the most popular times for families to visit, especially those that have to travel long distances.

Yet with research indicating that maintaining contact helps both children and their incarcerated parents – the child fares better during the parent’s absence and the parent enjoys a smoother re-entry to the community after release – other public officials want to encourage and expand in-person contact.

In New York, the Proximity Bill, introduced in March 2016, would create a pilot program requiring the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to take proximity to family members into account when assigning prisoners to state facilities. The bill is sponsored by state Senator Gustavo Rivera, a member of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, who was influenced by children he encountered through the Osborne Association.

“Children tell us all the time: Nothing replaces that quality in-person time,” said Krupat.

The Pennington County jail in Rapid City, South Dakota is one place where the introduction of video calling earlier this year was accompanied by an increase in the availability of in-person visitation.

“Anytime an inmate can be involved with his family, can spend time with them ... it improves their behavior in the facility,” explained Jail Captain Brooke Haga.

Back in Maine, the Somerset County jail was able to contract for video calling services from Securus without foregoing in-person visitation. But the overall trend points to increased video calling access and decreased in-person visits for prisoners.

California has gone further than Texas in limiting the use of video-only visitation in county jails. The Board of State and Community Corrections voted in February 2017 in favor of requiring future county jails to include space for in-person visits; the new regulation also prohibits sheriffs from adopting any policy that bans in-person visitation. Board chairwoman Linda Penner cited the growth of video calling as the basis for the rule.

“The use of video has become more widespread,” she said. “The regulation today really draws a line in the sand.”

But state Senator Nancy Skinner said the new regulations don’t go far enough.

“Why ... would we create a circumstance where [prisoners’] families cannot visit them?” she asked, adding that “video visitation is not the same as a family visit.”

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, agreed. While serving in the House last year she introduced H.R. 6441, the Video Visitation in Prisons Act, which would require the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that correctional facilities with video calling services do not ban in-person visits. The legislation would also limit the fees for video calls and impose other restrictions. An online petition in support of the bill is available at:

Prison Legal News supports the use of video calling at prisons and jails only if it is provided at no cost and is used to supplement, not replace, in-person visitation. 

* PLN refers to video visits as “video calling,” as they are not comparable to in-person visitation and are more like a video phone call.

Sources: Associated Press,,,,,,,,

This article original appeared in Prison Legal News on March 31, 2017.

Privately-run Montana Jail Remains Mostly Empty Since 2007

By Christopher Zoukis

In an odd twist in this age of prison and jail overcrowding, the Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility (TRRDF) in Hardin, Montana has had an awfully difficult time finding prisoners to fill its beds. Opened in mid-2007 as an intended economic boon for the area, the jail, which is overseen by the Two Rivers Authority (TRA), the economic development arm of the City of Hardin, has not been able to obtain enough contracts to cover interest payments on bonds used to build the $27 million facility, much less break even or generate profit. As PLN has repeatedly reported over the years, this has left city officials scrambling to locate prisoners for almost a decade. [See: PLN, Aug. 2013, p.42; March 2011, p.34; Dec. 2009, p.1].

The situation is dire for Hardin. The facility sat vacant for seven years until TRA entered into a contract with Louisiana-based Emerald Correctional Management to operate the jail in
May 2014.

Under Emerald, TRRDF, which has a capacity of 464 beds, housed just 250 prisoners under a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Until November 1, 2015, it only housed Native American detainees.

That contract, the facility’s largest since it opened, was canceled on October 31, 2015 due to BIA budgetary restraints. Through early 2016, TRRDF and Emerald limped along with a small number of prisoners (around twenty or less) imported from nearby jurisdictions, such as Williams County, North Dakota.

Emerald, which had been pursuing a renegotiation of the BIA contract, suspended its operations at TRRDF in April 2016, and by September had withdrawn from involvement with the facility.

The average TRRDF population during 2015 was just 150. Between 200 and 250 prisoners are needed to fulfill the TRA’s interest payments on municipal bonds issued for the jail’s construction (bonds that have been in default since 2008), and a minimum population of 350 is needed to generate profit. While the BIA paid Hardin $76 per detainee per day, that didn’t make much of a dent in the jail’s debt. As a result of interest payments, which the city had been largely unable to make, the $27 million facility now costs around $40 million.

While the BIA contract was not renewed, TRA executive director Jeffrey S. McDowell, who has been paid “on a limited basis” since March 2015, was optimistic. He explained, “We could fill that place tomorrow if Yellowstone County, for example, sent their excess inmates over.”

According to McDowell, the TRA has been in discussions with a number of neighboring counties and state prison systems in an effort to secure contracts. Thus far he has been largely unsuccessful. Issues related to TRRDF’s construction, proximity to other communities and even potential legal hurdles to housing prisoners from other jurisdictions have dogged the facility since it first opened.

In early 2016, as TRA and Emerald were seeking prisoners to fill the empty Hardin jail, overtures were made to neighboring Yellowstone County, Montana. At that time, the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, operated by the county’s sheriff’s office, was holding roughly 500 prisoners despite having a maximum capacity of 286.

TRA and Emerald proposed that Yellowstone County could send its overflow prisoners to TRRDF at a rate of $68 per prisoner per day. Nevertheless, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder, who had toured the Hardin facility, expressed opposition to the proposal, citing inadequate daylight in the jail and other problems related to indirect supervision of prisoners. Further, he noted that housing prisoners at TRRDF, even at $60 per day, would cost Yellowstone County $2.2 million per year. As those costs would accumulate to $11 million over the first five years, Linder recommended that the county invest in expanding its own jail infrastructure rather than exporting prisoners.

As such, the Yellowstone County deal never materialized. And following the departure of Emerald Correctional Management, TRRDF again sits empty on the plains outlying Hardin – a failed moneymaking scheme that, thus far, has only resulted in increasing debts. 


This article original appeared in Prison Legal News on March 31, 2017.