AP Exclusive: Shakedowns of prison staff ordered
Jul 30, 7:45 PM (ET)
By JOHN O’CONNOR
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) – Illinois authorities conducted a “mass shakedown” of guards and other prison employees last week, taking the unusual step of searching workers as they left correctional facilities and sparking allegations of reprisal for public complaints and leaked information to the news media, according to interviews and a document obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
An email written by a Department of Corrections administrator was sent to 10 southern Illinois prison wardens, telling them to conduct the shakedowns, on July 19. It was time stamped just 18 minutes after about a dozen workers began a public forum in the state Capitol to complain about conditions at Illinois prisons.
Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano declined comment Monday on the email obtained by the AP. She previously would not confirm that the searches were coordinated, but said such searches are a “routine security measure” to control banned materials, which range from cellphones to weapons.
The dustup over the pat-downs comes as Gov. Pat Quinn pushes a cost-cutting plan to shutter several state correctional facilities, including next month’s scheduled closure of the “supermax” prison in Tamms. Prison workers have fiercely resisted that idea, fearing increased violence if currently isolated gang members are moved elsewhere.
The searches also began just days after a published report about where some displaced Tamms inmates would go. That report was based on an internal Department of Corrections document.
Department policy allows searches of employees at any time – beginning, during or ending a shift – to ensure they are not carrying banned materials, from magazines and cigarettes to illegal drugs and weapons.
But the employees’ union said the recent searches – body pat-downs as opposed to routine bag-checks and metal detector screenings – are rare, and called them retaliatory “intimidation” of employees for speaking out. The department denies that claim.
Kim Larson, an accountant at the prison in Danville for 12 years, said she has never gone through a shakedown upon leaving her 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift like she did on July 23.
“It was weird. Usually, they do it at the beginning of the shift, when we’re coming in,” she said. “I mean, what are we going to take out?”
A female officer accompanied her to a restroom where Larson emptied her pockets and submitted to a pat-down. Larson said that type of search, even when arriving at work, is so unusual that she can’t remember when it last happened.
The searches were conducted the week of July 23 at as many as 15 prisons, according to the internal email, interviews with workers and their union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The email from Ty Bates, an agency deputy director, went to wardens at ten prison facilities in southern Illinois and ordered them to “please ensure we conduct a mass shakedown on a shift of your choosing. We want to shake down staff leaving the facility,” with the word “leaving” underlined in bold letters.
It was sent at 11:18 a.m., just minutes after the start of the workers’ testimony critical of the governor’s plans to close several prisons.
“We have no indication that there is any valid reason for these searches,” Henry Bayer, AFSCME’s executive director, said in a statement Monday. “Rather, the tactics and timing suggest they are part of a retaliatory effort by the administration to intimidate whistleblowers.”
Solano, the prisons spokeswoman, said last week that the department “has full authority to search employees whenever it chooses” to ensure they aren’t bringing in or helping move banned materials. “This is one such measure the department is taking to ensure safety and security inside the prisons,” she said.
Solano denied that the department retaliates against staff and said employees are encouraged to report problems to the Office of the Executive Inspector General.
Quinn, a Democrat, wants to close the prison in Tamms and a women’s prison in Dwight to save money. He said Tamms is underused and too expensive despite advocates’ contention that its isolation of troublemakers reduces problems in other prisons which critics say are too crowded.
There are currently about 48,000 inmates in a system designed for 33,000. The department had 16,000 employees in 2002, but just more than 11,000 in June.
Criticism of the closure plan has increased after reports about violence and Tamms’ shutdown.
The AP reported earlier this month, after tipped by people knowledgeable about the prisons, on a string of violent incidents and an inmate drug overdose in the previous six weeks.
Days after the workers union’s public forum at the Capitol, Lee Enterprises newspapers in Illinois reported on an internal Department of Corrections memo that designated nine Tamms inmates for transfer to prisons out of state.
That prompted lawmaker complaints that Tamms should stay open and resulted in a letter to the newspapers from Corrections chief executive Jerry Buscher, warning that publication of the material would be viewed “as attempting to promote disorder within the prison system.”
Union spokesman Anders Lindall said Corrections officials told the union the shakedowns were necessary because of a recent inmate cell search that turned up cellphones. Solano confirmed that contraband was found but would not comment further.
Toby Oliver, a correctional lieutenant at Tamms who was stabbed by an inmate at Stateville in 1995 and has criticized Tamms’ closure, called it “coincidental” that the shakedowns began two days after the newspaper report. He said he never remembers an end-of-shift shakedown.
“What is coming out of the institution seems to be the priority,” Oliver said. “You’d think it would be the other way around.”
Contact John O’Connor at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor
Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All right reserved.
In Texas, Arguing That Heat Can Be a Death Sentence for Prisoners
David Bowser for The New York Times
Mary Lou James, the mother of Kenneth Wayne James, 52, who was found in his cell with a body temperature of 108 degrees.
Published: July 28, 2012
Ten inmates of the state prison system died of heat-related causes last summer in a 26-day period in July and August, a death toll that has alarmed prisoners’ rights advocates who believe that the lack of air-conditioning in most state prisons puts inmates’ lives at risk.
The 10 inmates were housed in areas that lacked air-conditioning, and several had collapsed or lost consciousness while they were in their cells. All of them were found to have died of hyperthermia, a condition that occurs when body temperature rises above 105 degrees, according to autopsy reports and the state’s prison agency.
Other factors contributed to their deaths. All but three of them had hypertension, and some were obese, had heart disease or were taking antipsychotic medications, which can affect the body’s ability to regulate heat.
One inmate, Alexander Togonidze, 44, was found unresponsive in his cell at an East Texas prison called the Michael Unit at 8 a.m. on Aug. 8 with a body temperature of 106 degrees, according to prison documents. The temperature in his cell, taken by prison officials 15 minutes after he was pronounced dead, was 86.2 degrees and the heat index was 93 degrees.
Five days later, at the nearby Gurney Unit prison, Kenneth Wayne James, 52, was found in his cell with a body temperature of 108 degrees. His autopsy report stated Mr. James most likely died of “environmental hyperthermia-related classic heat stroke,” noting several risk factors, including Mr. James’s chronic illness and use of a diuretic, and the lack of air-conditioning.
“We were looking for him to come home in a few months,” said Mary Lou James, the mother of Mr. James, who had been charged with injuring a child and was serving a five-year sentence for violating probation. “I think that’s just awful, to have a place like that where you don’t have any air. I don’t think human beings should be treated in that manner.”
Officials with the prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said 12 inmates had died of heat-related causes since 2007. The debate over the lack of air-conditioning in the prison system has intensified in recent weeks, after lawyers from the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project sued the agency in federal court over one of the inmate deaths from last summer. They also plan to file additional wrongful-death lawsuits.
Of the 111 prisons overseen by the agency, only 21 are fully air-conditioned, and inmates and their advocates have argued that the overheated conditions during triple-digit summers violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Prison officials dispute those claims, saying that the health and well-being of the inmates are their top priorities and that the autopsies of the 12 inmates who died list a variety of contributing factors to their deaths. They said they take steps to help inmates on hot days, including restricting outside work activities and providing extra water and ice.
“It is unknown whether the lack of air-conditioning was a contributing factor in the offender deaths,” Jason Clark, a prison system spokesman, said in a statement. “Texas experienced one of the hottest summers on record in 2011. It was an unprecedented event affecting the entire state and much of the southern and eastern United States. T.D.C.J. took precautions to help mitigate the impact of temperature extremes on offenders and staff. The agency continues to do so.”
But a corrections supervisor who works at a prison where one of the 12 inmates died said the number of heat-related fatalities was a cause of concern, as was the larger number of inmates and corrections officers who require medical attention because of the heat.
At least 17 prison employees or inmates were treated for heat-related illnesses from June 25 through July 6, according to agency documents. Many of them had been indoors at the time they reported feeling ill.
At the Darrington Unit near Rosharon on June 25, a 56-year-old corrections officer fainted in a supervisor’s office and was taken to a hospital. Heat exhaustion was diagnosed. At the four-story Coffield Unit near Palestine, where one inmate died of hyperthermia last August, dozens of windows have been broken out — prisoners slip soda cans or bars of soap into socks and throw them at the windows, hoping to increase ventilation.
“I’m supposed to be watching them, I’m not supposed to be boiling them in their cells,” said the corrections supervisor, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “If you’ve got a life sentence, odds are you’re going to die in the penitentiary. But what about the guy who dies from a heat stroke who only had a four-year sentence? His four-year sentence was actually a life sentence.”
One of the 10 inmates who died last summer, Larry Gene McCollum, 58, a prisoner at the Hutchins State Jail outside Dallas, had a body temperature of 109.4 degrees. Nine days before his death in his cell, the indoor temperatures at Hutchins were routinely recorded by prison officials and ranged from 100 degrees to 102 degrees, according to agency documents.
Those temperatures exceed those allowed by a state law requiring county jails to maintain temperature levels between 65 and 85 degrees in occupied areas. But the law applies only to county jails, not to state prisons.
“After this many deaths, prison officials obviously know this is a problem,” said David C. Fathi, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, in Washington. “Prisons aren’t supposed to be comfortable, nor are they supposed to kill you.”
State Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said he was not alarmed by the number of deaths, noting that the overall state inmate population exceeds 150,000. Keith Price, the former warden of the Coffield Unit, agreed.
“Just from a statistical standpoint, that’s really not significant, particularly when you consider the population,” Mr. Price, an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at West Texas A&M University, said of the 12 deaths. “Many inmates are poorly equipped to manage their lives and thus make poor decisions. I do not believe it is up to the taxpayers to provide air-conditioning for inmates when some simple self-discipline would avoid many of these problems.”
Prison officials said that air-conditioning had not been installed in many buildings because of the additional construction and utility costs, and that retrofitting them would be an extraordinary expense.
Prisoners’ rights advocates said that treating inmates who become ill from the heat is just as costly, and that retrofitting entire buildings was not the only possible solution. They said allowing medically high-risk inmates to spend time in air-conditioned areas would be one improvement.
Hill is scheduled to be executed tonight despite a US supreme court ruling making it illegal for mentally disabled inmates to be killed. Here are 10 reasons why it should not be carried out
Warren Hill was sentenced to death for killing a fellow prisoner, Joseph Handspike, in 1990. Photograph: Georgia Department of Corrections
Warren Hill, 52, is scheduled to die by a single injection of the sedative pentobarbital at 7pm tonight. The state of Georgia is pressing ahead with preparations for the execution despite a nationwide outcry that Hill is “mentally retarded” and therefore at risk of wrongful execution. He was put on death row for killing a fellow prisoner, Joseph Handspike, in 1990, at a time when he was already serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend Myra Wright.
Here are 10 reasons why the judicial killing of Hill would be inappropriate:
1. The US supreme court in 2002 banned executions for prisoners who are “mentally retarded” – in other words, those with learning difficulties. The justices ruled that such executions violated the eighth amendment of the US constitution that prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.
2. Just months after the supreme court ban was imposed, a Georgia court found that Hill was “mentally retarded” by a “preponderance of the evidence”. In plain English, he was likely to be “mentally retarded” and fall into the very category of prisoner who the supreme court had just declared must not be executed.
3. Paradoxically, in 1988 Georgia became the first state in America to ban the execution of mentally disabled prisoners. It made the move in response to huge public outcry following its judicial killing of an intellectually disabled prisoner, Jerome Bowden. Days before he was put to death Bowden was tested and found to have the mental capacity of a 12-year-old. History now appears to be repeating itself.
4. When Georgia banned executions of the “mentally retarded”, it applied a standard to such cases that meant that death row prisoners had to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that they had learning difficulties. Experts in intellectual impairment say that is virtually impossible to do. No other state in the US applies such a harsh standard. Most states use the “preponderance of evidence” proof that Hill was found to meet.
5. As Leah Sears, the former chief justice of Georgia’s supreme court – the highest member of the highest judicial panel in the state – herself pointed out the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard means that the “state may still execute people who are in all probability mentally retarded. The state may execute people who are more than likely mentally retarded. The state may even execute people who are almost certainly mentally retarded.”
6. Hill shows many of the classic signs of intellectual disability. He has a family history of learning difficulties and borderline intellectual functioning, though the jury at his 1991 trial heard little about that. In terms of IQ, he tests 70 – a sub-average level of functioning shared by only 3% of the general population. Such challenges render him subject to impulsive behaviour and poor decision making at times of stress and threat.
7. The family of his victim, Joseph Handspike, has never been consulted by the Georgia prosecutors about the application of the death penalty in this case.
8. The Handspike family is opposed to Hill being executed. Handspike’s nephew Richard Handspike has written on behalf of the family that : “I and my family feel strongly that persons with any kind of significant mental disabilities should not be put to death.”
9. Several jurors at Hill’s original trial have said they would have sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole – the sentence that his lawyers are now pleading for – had the option been open to them.
10. To execute Hill could be a violation of international law. Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has said that it would be a “fatality in violation of international as well as domestic law” and a “violation of death penalty safeguards“.