The Prison Complex

Tuesday, Sep 29, 2015, 5:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Georgia Denies Kelly Gissendaner Clemency Despite Pope’s Pleas

Georgia’s board of pardons and paroles has denied clemency to Kelly Gissendaner, despite pleas to spare her life delivered by her children and Pope Francis.

Gissendaner is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 7pm for her part in the 1997 murder of her husband. The board met today to hear from her eldest son Brandon, but upheld its decision to deny clemency.

The intervention from the Pope comes a week after he told a joint session of Congress he opposed the death penalty “since every life is sacred.” The letter, written on the Pope’s behalf by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano read:

“While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms Gissendaner has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been expressed to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy,”

Gissendaner’s previous execution date was postponed in March after the drugs to be used in the lethal injection appeared “cloudy.” She is one of three death row inmates in three different states scheduled to die this week.  


Monday, Sep 28, 2015, 1:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Texas Provides Virginia with Lethal Injection Drugs Amid National Shortage

With drugs for lethal injections in short supply, Virginia has found a new supplier: Texas. As the New York Times reports, Texas has provided Virginia with the pentobarbital it needs to carry out the scheduled execution of Alfredo Rolando Prieto on Thursday.

The disclosure, which surfaced in a court filing in an Oklahoma death penalty case, was confirmed Friday by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Virginia prison officials also confirmed the trade, saying they needed pentobarbital to replace a dose of another drug they intended to use, midazolam, that will soon expire.

A spokesman for Texas prisons, Jason Clark, said the three vials of pentobarbital given to Virginia had been legally purchased from a compounding pharmacy, which he declined to name. Texas and Oklahoma are among a handful of states with laws — being challenged by death penalty opponents — that allow prison officials not to disclose where they get execution drugs.

Virginia prison officials gave Texas pentobarbital to use as a backup in 2013, and when Virginia asked for help this year, Mr. Clark said, “we reciprocated.” Continue reading… 

Critics of the death penalty have raised concerns about the exchange of drugs. Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the Times the exchange between states “puts a whole new spin on the efforts by state departments of corrections for secrecy in the execution process,” 

The exchange came to light in court filings in the case of Richard Glossip, the condemned Oklahoma inmate, who won a reprieve earlier this month


Saturday, Sep 19, 2015, 11:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Appeals Court Overturns Murder Sentences for Three of the Elkhart Four

An Indiana court has overturned the murder convictions for three of the Elkhart Four. Without ever having killed anyone, Blake Layman, Anthony Sharp, and Levi Sparks, had previously been serving 55 years in prison under the state's felony murder law.  Their case sparked renewed calls for the law to be changed.

In October 2012 five young people broke into a house in Elkhart looking for a quick way to make money. They later told police that they had believed the house was empty. It wasn't. The owner Rodney Scott, who had been sleeping upstairs, came down and opened fire hitting Layman in the leg and killing 21 year old Danzele Johnson. Despite the fact that none of the four surviving teenagers had pulled the trigger, they were all charged with murder. As the Indy Star reports, they were convicted under Indiana's Felony Murder Statute

...a person can be charged with murder if someone is killed while he or she is committing or attempting to commit another crime. That crime could be arson, burglary, robbery, carjacking, human trafficking, sexual trafficking, or sex and drug crimes — acts that the law considers inherently dangerous.

Felony murder carries the same penalty as murder, but unlike a murder charge, in which intent to kill must be proven, a person can be convicted of felony murder even if the death is accidental or unintended.

Supporters say it's a useful statute, a crime deterrent and a safeguard in the criminal justice system that holds people accountable for committing dangerous acts that result in someone's death.

 The four were sentenced to 55 years in prison for murder, but the case gained widespread interest. As the Guardian reports, on Friday, the sentence was overturned for all but one of the Elkhart Four. The fourth, Jose Quiroz Jr. plead guilty to felony murder and did not file an appeal. 

The highest court in the state on Friday stripped out the contentious “felony murder” conviction for Blake Layman, now 19, Anthony Sharp, 21, and Levi Sparks, 20, stating that none of the three had ever engaged in any “dangerously violent and threatening conduct”.

The judges reduced the convictions to simple burglary and ordered the lower courts to resentence the prisoners accordingly. Continue reading...


Wednesday, Sep 16, 2015, 2:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Appeals Court Grants Last-Minute Stay of Execution for Richard Glossip

An Oklahoma appeals court has granted death row prisoner Richard Glossip a two-week reprieve, just hours before he was due to be put to death. Glossip's lawyers had argued that newly unearthed evidence cast doubt on his murder conviction. As NBC reports, his supporters had urged Oklahoma's Governor to grant a stay of execution.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin was unswayed, but the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued an emergency stay of execution that will remain in effect until Sept. 30.

In a brief order, the judges said they wanted time to give "fair consideration" to all the materials Glossip's defense submitted. Continue reading...

On Tuesday Oklahoma City's Fox News station, revealed that evidence in Glossip's case had been destroyed while he was still seeking to appeal his case.

Some of the physical evidence from the murder still exists, but acting on questions from Fox 25, the Oklahoma City Police Department reviewed the property room and discovered an entire box from the case is missing.

That box of evidence was destroyed in 1999.  According to a police report the order for destruction came on October 25, 1999, just five days after the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ordered Glossip’s initial trial verdict back to Oklahoma County District Court for a ‘fact finding’ hearing on his claims of prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel. Continue reading...

Glossip's execution has been rescheduled for September 30th. 


Monday, Sep 14, 2015, 11:00 am  ·  By George Lavender

Oklahoma Execution Looms but Lawyers say Richard Glossip “Sentenced to Death Because He’s Poor

Time is running out for Oklahoma death-row prisoner Richard Glossip. 

With just days to go before his scheduled execution, Glossip's lawyers used a press conference on Monday to present what they said was previously unexamined evidence of his innocence.  His new attorney Donald Knight says that Glossip had been unable to pay for an adequate legal defense. "Not very many people can afford a death penalty defense" he told the Guardian "that should scare everyone.” Knight is seeking a 60 day stay of execution from Governor Mary Fallin. 

Glossip has been convicted twice for arranging the killing of Barry Van Treese in 1997, but no DNA or fingerprints were ever presented linking him to the murder, and the case relied instead on the testimony of the person who actually carried out the killing. As the Guardian reports Glossip's lawyers have sought to challenge that version of events.

Glossip was convicted based on the testimony of Justin Sneed, a 19-year-old maintenance worker who, at various points during his police interrogation a week after the murder, said he didn’t know Van Treese, then that he didn’t kill van Treese, then that he had killed him accidentally, and then that he had killed him intentionally, under Glossip’s instruction. Eventually, Sneed agreed to a plea deal in which he would testify against Glossip to save himself from the death penalty.

Transcripts of the police interrogation show Sneed first denied any knowledge of the murder. “I don’t really know what to say about it,” he told investigators, stumbling over a story about his brother before admitting that he robbed Van Treese but “I only meant to knock him out”.

“The thing about it is, Justin, we think – we know that this involves more than just you, okay?” Detective Bob Bemo said to Sneed, later introducing Glossip as a snitch. “You know Rich is under arrest don’t you? … [H]e’s putting it on you the worst.”

Sneed’s story shifted.

“Actually, Rich asked me to kill Barry, that’s what he’d done,” Sneed said, and investigators took the conversation off-camera, where Sneed signed a plea deal. Continue reading...

Last year, Sneed's own daughter wrote in a letter to the state's Parole and Pardon Board that for "a couple of years now, my father has been talking to me about recanting his original testimony. But has been afraid to act upon it, in fear of being charged with the Death Penalty, and not be here for his children." 

Glossip has come close to death before. In January he was just a day away from the death chamber before being granted a stay. 

Oklahoma's death penalty has been under scrutiny ever since the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014. Glossip's own execution was delayed because he was part of a legal challenge to the use of the death penalty drug, midazolam, one of the drugs used in Lockett's execution. In June the Supreme Court ruled that use of the drug was constitutional.


Monday, Aug 31, 2015, 4:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Inmate Firefighters Are on the Frontlines of Fighting the West Coast’s Wildfires

The Chikamum Fire in the state of Washington. (Washington DNR / Flickr)  

As a record-breaking wildfire season scorches the West, Inmate firefighters are among those on the frontlines of blazes from California to Washington.

An escape attempt this week drew attention to the little-known use of young people from juvenile detention facilities in firefighting crews in Washington state. As The Guardian reports, the 16 year old had been working on the Chelan Complex fire, when he escaped. He later tried to commit suicide when he was spotted by police, but survived.

David Ball, a criminal justice lawyer and corrections expert at California’s Santa Clara University, said he was surprised to learn of fire camps for inmates under the age of 18.

“The word about scared-straight boot camps for juveniles is that they don’t do any good,” said Ball. “For most juvenile programs, there are lots of other things for these kids to do, like get their GED and go to counseling. This is really something that I have not heard of.”

The Washington state government said it was reassessing the juvenile work camps, in light of the events. Two deployed crews had been recalled to their main facilities. Continue reading…   

Meanwhile, despite earlier predictions that California’s widespread use of inmate firefighting crews might be reduced owing to a decline in the prison population has proved unfounded according to Capitol Public Radio.


Monday, Aug 10, 2015, 2:24 pm  ·  By George Lavender

California First State To Pay For Prisoner’s Sex Affirmation Surgery

Shiloh Quine will be the first transgender woman in prison to have her sex affirmation surgery paid for by a state. California settled Quine's case, which leaves open the question of whether the prison system has a constitutional obligation to provide such surgery to transgender prisoners who chooose it.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the settlement in Quine's case follows the announcement that Michelle Norsworthy would be parolled before she could recieve surgery. 

In both instances, California prison officials had denied the surgeries, arguing that sex reassignment was not medically necessary. The state's position was undermined in June when its own expert concluded that Quine required the operation.

"Sex reassignment surgery is medically necessary to prevent Ms. Quine from suffering significant illness or disability, and to alleviate severe pain caused by her gender dysphoria," wrote Richard Carroll, a clinical psychologist and director of the Sexual Disorders and Couple Therapy Program at Northwestern University in Chicago. Surgery, he said, would reduce her "depression, anxiety and risk of suicide attempts."

Waiting until she got out of prison was not an option. Quine is serving a life sentence without parole for murder. Continue reading...


Sunday, Aug 9, 2015, 8:00 am  ·  By George Lavender

Transgender Woman Who Took California to Court Over Cost of Surgery to be Paroled

A transgender woman who took California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to court to argue that sex affirmation surgery should be paid for by the state will now be paroled.

Michelle Lael Norsworthy had her case upheld by a federal court in April, but the surgery was delayed while the state appealed. Now, she is expected to be released before the surgery can go ahead as the Guardian reports.

She is being held at Mule Creek, a men’s state prison in Ione, near Sacramento. Prison records refer to her by her birth name of Jeffrey Bryan Norsworthy, though she has lived as a woman since the 1990s.

She was diagnosed with gender identity disorder in 1999 and began taking female hormones. She began asking the corrections department for the surgery in 2012 after learning a judge for the first time had ordered Massachusetts to provide an inmate with the procedure. However, that decision was overturned on appeal in December, and the US supreme court declined to intervene.

The ninth circuit agreed to hear California’s appeal of US district judge Jon Tigar’s ruling and a hearing is scheduled for Thursday. The appellate court noted that the case raises serious legal questions about whether denying the surgery violates Norsworthy’s constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. Continue reading… 


Thursday, Jul 30, 2015, 9:00 am  ·  By George Lavender

Should Prisoners Pay Medical Bills?

Should prisoners pay for their own medical care? 

There are a number of reasons why that's something many states do or are considering, not least of which is that medical care makes up a large part of prison budgets. The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates one-fifth of state's prison expenditure goes towards medical care. 

According to the Brennan Center for Jusice at New York University School of Law and Statelinereporting 38 states currently authorize prisons and jails to collect fees for care  

The fees are typically small, $20 or less. And states must waive them when a prisoner is unable to pay but still needs care, in keeping with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prisoners have a constitutional right to “adequate” health care.

The rationale for charging copays is the same for prisoners as it is for people not behind bars: to discourage seeking medical care when it is not really needed.

“We do it for the same reason your insurance company does — to eliminate abuse by making the inmates put a little skin the game,” said Tommy Thompson, the jail administrator at the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office in Tennessee. Continue reading...

Medical care in prison is a costly business. An analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that in 2011 states spent $7.7 billion on healthcare in prisons and jails. But the idea of allowing prisons and jails to charge for medical care also has its critics, like Robert Greifinger, the former chief medical officer of the New York Department of Corrections.  

Medical fees, usually for services rendered in the prisons or jails, typically are deducted from a prisoner’s commissary fund, which is replenished with money earned in prison jobs or contributions from family members. Prisoners also use their commissary funds to buy snacks, toothpaste, soap and other supplies. Sometimes, according to the Brennan Center, prisoners leave prison with a debt for their medical fees.

Though the fees are slight in most states, there are exceptions. In Texas, for example, the Brennan Center says that a state prison inmate who requests a medical visit can be charged $100, though all health service appointments that inmate makes in the ensuing 12 months are free. In Utah, state prison inmates can be charged up to 10 percent for any hospitalization outside of prison facilities — not to exceed $2,000 in a year.

“It may not seem like a lot of money but, typically, the prisoners are impoverished and, often, so are their families,” Greifinger said. “Sometimes, their choices come down to a medical appointment or shampoo.”  Continue reading...

The National Commission on Correctional Healthcare, a non-profit group, has its own guidelines for prisons and jails on charging for medical care. Among the suggestions are that prisons and jails should monitor infection levels before and after introducing charges for medical care to assess whether the cost is "blocking access to needed care."   


Thursday, Jul 16, 2015, 10:00 am  ·  By George Lavender

“The Punishment Simply Does Not Fit The Crime”: President Obama on Criminal Justice Reform (VIDEO)

President Obama's remarks to the NAACP via the

THE PRESIDENT:  Hello, NAACP!  (Applause.)  Ah, it’s good to be back.  (Applause.)  How you all doing today?  (Applause.)  You doing fine?  


THE PRESIDENT:  You look fine.  (Applause.)  All right, everybody have a seat.  I got some stuff to say.  (Applause.)  I've got some stuff to say.  

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  We love you!

THE PRESIDENT:  I love you back.  You know that.  (Applause.) 

So, see, now, whenever people have, like, little signs, you all got to write it bigger, because I'm getting old now.  (Laughter.)  And I like that picture of me.  That's very nice.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  

Let’s get something out of the way up front.  I am not singing today.

AUDIENCE:  Awww --

THE PRESIDENT:  Not singing.  Although I will say your board sang to me as I came in for the photograph.  (Laughter.)  So I know there’s some good voices in the auditorium.  

Let me also say what everybody knows but doesn’t always want to say out loud -- you all would rather have Michelle here.  (Laughter.)  I understand.  I don't blame you.  But I will do my best to fill her shoes.  (Laughter.)  And she sends everybody her love.  And Malia and Sasha say hi, as well.  (Applause.)    

I want to thank your chair, Roslyn Brock.  I want to thank your president, Cornell Brooks.  I want to thank your Governor, Tom Wolf, who’s doing outstanding work and was here.  (Applause.) The Mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, who’s been a great friend and ally.  (Applause.)  Governor Dan Malloy of Connecticut, who’s here today.  (Applause.)  And some outstanding members of Congress who are here.  I want to just say thank you to all of you for your love, for your support, but most importantly, for the work that you are doing in your communities all across the country every single day.  (Applause.)  

It's not always received with a lot of fanfare.  Sometimes it's lonely work; sometimes it's hard work; sometimes it's frustrating work.  But it's necessary work.  And it builds on a tradition of this organization that reshaped the nation.  

For 106 years, the NAACP has worked to close the gaps between the words of our founding that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights -- those words try to match those with the realities that we live each and every day.  

In your first century, this organization stood up to lynching and Jim Crow and segregation; helped to shepherd a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act.  I would not be here, and so many others would not be here, without the NAACP.  (Applause.)  

In your second century, we’ve worked together to give more of our children a shot at a quality education; to help more families rise up out of poverty; to protect future generations from environmental damage; to create fair housing; to help more workers find the purpose of a good job.  And together, we’ve made real progress -- including a My Brother’s Keeper initiative to give more young people a fair shot in life; including the passage of a law that declares health care is not a privilege for the few, but a right for all of us.  (Applause.) 
We made progress, but our work is not done.  By just about every measure, the life chances for black and Hispanic youth still lag far behind those of their white peers.  Our kids, America’s children, so often are isolated, without hope, less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to earn a college degree, less likely to be employed, less likely to have health insurance, less likely to own a home.  

Part of this is a legacy of hundreds of years of slavery and segregation, and structural inequalities that compounded over generations.  (Applause.)  It did not happen by accident.  (Applause.)  Partly it’s a result of continuing, if sometimes more subtle, bigotry -- whether in who gets called back for a job interview, or who gets suspended from school, or what neighborhood you are able to rent an apartment in -- which, by the way, is why our recent initiative to strengthen the awareness and effectiveness of fair housing laws is so important.  (Applause.)  So we can’t be satisfied or not satisfied until the opportunity gap is closed for everybody in America.  Everybody.    

But today, I want to focus on one aspect of American life that remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth, a source of inequity that has ripple effects on families and on communities and ultimately on our nation -- and that is our criminal justice system.  (Applause.)  

Now, this is not a new topic.  I know sometimes folks discover these things like they just happened.  There’s a long history of inequity in the criminal justice system in America.  When I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked to make sure that we had videotaping of interrogations because there were some problems there.  We set up racial profiling laws to prevent the kind of bias in traffic stops that too many people experience.  Since my first campaign, I’ve talked about how, in too many cases, our criminal justice system ends up being a pipeline from underfunded, inadequate schools to overcrowded jails.  (Applause.)  

What has changed, though, is that, in recent years the eyes of more Americans have been opened to this truth.  Partly because of cameras, partly because of tragedy, partly because the statistics cannot be ignored, we can’t close our eyes anymore.  And the good news -- and this is truly good news -- is that good people of all political persuasions are starting to think we need to do something about this.

So let’s look at the statistics.  The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  Think about that.  Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s.  We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined.  And it hasn’t always been the case -- this huge explosion in incarceration rates.  In 1980, there were 500,000 people behind bars in America -- half a million people in 1980.  I was in college in 1980.  Many of you were not born in 1980 -- that’s okay.  (Laughter.)  I remember 1980 -- 500,000.  Today there are 2.2 million.  It has quadrupled since 1980.  Our prison population has doubled in the last two decades alone.