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Why do Prisoners in Florida Keep Dying?

With privatization of the state’s prisons in full swing, this year is on track to be its deadliest on record.

Credit: Tami Jo Urban (Flickr/CC by 2.0)

Why do Prisoners in Florida Keep Dying?

With privatization of the state’s prisons in full swing, this year is on track to be its deadliest on record.

On June 6, the Florida Justice Institute filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections over the murder of Anthony Vidal. A prisoner at Dade Correctional Institution, Vidal was serving 15 years for a nonviolent robbery. On March 11, 2016, Vidal’s cellmate, Tarrin Blue, beat and strangled him to death, according to the lawsuit. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Miami Dade Police Department still have an open investigation into Vidal’s death.  

Blue had a history of mental illness and attacked another prisoner in front of officers just a month earlier, according to the lawsuit. Instead of placing Blue in a mental health ward, he was housed with Vidal in the prison’s administrative confinement, which is given closer supervision than the rest of the prison. Vidal was there for violating prison rules by possessing a bootleg cellphone.

For nearly 10 minutes during the attack, the lawsuit alleges, Vidal cried out for help, but correctional officers did nothing and audio in the cell had been turned off. Vidal wasn’t found until a routine check revealed what happened, and it took another 10 minutes for medical personnel and officers to arrive. No correctional officers were held accountable for placing Blue in a cell with another prisoner and failing to intervene when other prisoners tried to alert them to the attack. The Florida Department of Corrections declined to comment on Vidal’s death other than to say it is still “an open and active investigation” with the state and county police.

What happened to Vidal is part of a worsening trend in the Florida Department of Corrections. Florida is currently on track to outpace its 2017 record for most prison deaths at 428, with 97,794 prisoners in the state system. As of June 2018, 216 people have died in Florida prisons. In 2015, the Miami Herald chronicled a steep rise in prison deaths since 2000, and since then the numbers have continued to climb. A portion of these deaths are natural, but many occur under suspicious circumstances and investigations regularly take several months to years to determine a conclusive cause of death.

Based on the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2001 and 2014, the average mortality rate among prisoners in the United States was 256 per 100,000 state prisoners. In 2014, Florida was just behind Texas in highest number of in-prison deaths with 346 total, though Texas has a substantially larger state prison population at 166,000 prisoners. Florida’s prison mortality rate has steadily increased since 2013, despite a decrease in prison population.

Critics blame the rise, at least in part, on understaffing and inadequate healthcare, problems they say have grown under Governor Rick Scott. Before Scott was first elected in 2010, he promised to reduce prison spending overall by $1 billion. His strategy was to reduce overall prison costs by privatizing the state’s prison facilities and services.

In his first budget, Scott cut 1,690 state correctional jobs and move 1,500 prisoners to private facilities. During a Florida Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in March 2017, the Florida Department of Corrections secretary, Julie Jones, noted that turnover for correctional officers had increased 95 percent since 2009, and over 75 percent of correctional officers in the state prison system had less than two years of experience.

Randall C. Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, said cutting corners on prison spending is dangerous. “The state prison system is understaffed by at least 1,000 guards. Florida is the third-largest prison system in the country. It’s very expensive to run a system this large and the legislature doesn’t want to pay for it.” Berg said.

The governor’s privatization of healthcare has also caused problems, Berg argued. The institute has filed several wrongful death lawsuits against Florida Department of Corrections and led class action lawsuits on behalf of prisoners who were denied treatment for hernias and hepatitis C. A court ordered a preliminary injunction requiring the corrections department to treat prisoners with hepatitis C in December 2017 and the department settled the hernia lawsuit for $1.7 million in April 2017.

In 2014, the Palm Beach Post reported that early in the corrections department’s contract with Corizon, one of the country’s biggest prison healthcare providers, prison deaths hit a 10-year high. Several prisoners complained of health problems being left untreated or said they were given Aleve and Tylenol to treat serious illnesses, the story explained.

One of those prisoners, Donna Pickelsimer, died after she was treated with Tylenol and cold compresses for months as her lung cancer remained undiagnosed. The same year, 48-year-old prisoner Michelle Tierney died at Lowell Correctional Institution. Tierney was reported to have cysts, pneumonia, and septic shock, which the infirmary diagnosed as arthritis. Both deaths were reported as natural. Contacted by The Appeal, the Department of Corrections said these deaths “occurred in 2014 when the department was under different leadership and contracted with a different provider for inmate health services.”

At the time, Corizon provided health services to Florida’s prisons, but the company ended its five-year $1.2 billion contract three years early in May 2016. Corizon said at the time that it terminated the contract because of inadequate funding from the state, but it had also been under fire from lawmakers and advocates for the quality of its care. Corizon declined The Appeal’s request for comment about deaths that occurred during its contract. “Providing medical information on those individuals would be a violation of HIPAA privacy laws,” Martha Harbin, a spokesperson for Corizon, said.

Shortly before the contract ended, Michael Baker, 42, died on March 10, 2016 at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton, Florida, after complaining to family members for months he was being denied medicine for sickle cell disease. “Baker wrote to me over a period of weeks from the fall of 2015 until early 2016,” Baker’s attorney, James V. Cook, told The Appeal in an email. “Somehow I couldn’t get a medical release from him to review his medical files. He mentioned two nurses … He said he would complain to them of severe pain, throwing up blood and they would tell him to ‘go ahead and give up and die,’ and ‘lay your Black ass down and wear it.’ He said they refused to let him see a doctor. By the time I finally got his medical records, he was dead.”

Cook is in the discovery process of a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Baker, and he said the trial will most likely begin in the middle of next year. A spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections, Patrick Manderfield, wrote in an email to The Appeal:  “The death of Michael Baker is currently still under active investigation by our department’s Office of the Inspector General. Due to its open status and the HIPAA federal privacy rule, we don’t have any additional information available to provide at this time.”

The department cited a variety of possible reasons for the recent rise in prison deaths. “The influx of contraband, specifically synthetic and homemade drugs, is a contributing factor to the increase in inmate violence and in-custody deaths,” Manderfield wrote. The department also cited an increase in an elderly prison population, defined as prisoners age 50 or older, and an increase in prisoners with mental illnesses.

But David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, says privatization is part of the problem. “The claim a private corporation can do the same job as state employees more cheaply and create profits for its shareholders sounds too good on its face and the evidence suggests it’s false,” he told Prison Legal News last year.

The most recent private contract for prison health services was awarded to Centurion, the only government contractor providing health care to prisoners held by the Florida Department of Corrections and a prolific donor to the Republican Party. The $375 million deal to provide healthcare services to all Florida state prisons is nearly $40 million higher than previous contracts to provide healthcare, and includes an 11.5 percent “administrative fee.” The department did not respond to a request for comment on Centurion’s contract.

In May 2018, Governor Scott signed an $87 billion state budget that shorted prison funding by $28 million. The Florida Department of Corrections announced plans to cut mental healthcare, substance abuse, re-entry and work release programs to cover the shortfall. “In order to secure a health services contractor, fund the increased pharmaceutical budget, and adjust for reductions, we’ve unfortunately had to make some very difficult decisions,” Jones, the corrections department secretary, said in a statement at the time. The department would not comment on current staffing levels, but a spokesperson said a 2017 pay raise for correctional officers and human resources improvements have been implemented as a result of the cuts.

Queens DA releases final report on massage worker’s death, calling sex work ‘degrading and humiliating’

As anticipated, district attorney finds no misconduct in raid that led to Yang Song’s fatal fall.

The door to the room where Yang Song's final interaction with an NYPD officer took place. After her death, the door was secured with a cable lock and mourners left bouquets of flowers.
Scott Heins for The Appeal

Queens DA releases final report on massage worker’s death, calling sex work ‘degrading and humiliating’

As anticipated, district attorney finds no misconduct in raid that led to Yang Song’s fatal fall.

A redacted report released Thursday by the Queens district attorney’s office on the November 2017 death of Yang Song, a 38-year-old massage worker, confirms that prosecutors found no misconduct in her death. According to the report, which recommends that the case be closed, Yang Song “either intentionally leapt [or] accidently [sic] fell” from the fourth-floor apartment where she worked providing massage services while “attempting to flee apprehension by law enforcement officers, as a result of her unlawful conduct.”

The report and accompanying compilation of surveillance footage also provide a snapshot of what an NYPD vice operation looks like, and how the top Queens prosecutor understands sex work. “The death of Ms. Song is sad and tragic,” Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said in a statement that accompanied the report’s release. “I have always maintained that prostitution is a degrading and humiliating industry.”

In the same statement, Brown praises his office’s participation in prostitution diversion programs, like the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court. “My office has long been at the forefront in helping those trapped in the sex industry find an escape through programs and assistance as an alternative to incarceration,” he said.

Yet Yang Song’s experience, as elaborated in the report, reveals the limitations of any approach that attempts to rescue sex workers by first arresting them. According to the report, Yang Song was nearly finished with a mandate from the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court—five counseling sessions at Restore NYC to resolve a September 2017 prostitution arrest—when the raid took place. She had one session remaining, scheduled for three days after her death.

Hai Song, Yang Song’s brother, was disappointed with the report. “The police are completely off the hook,” he told The Appeal. “As if they’re doing it [the operation] perfectly.”

The redacted report also confirms that Yang Song filed a complaint about a violent incident to the 109th Precinct in October 2016. She reported that a man presented himself as an undercover police officer and sexually assaulted her at gunpoint. A retired U.S. Marshal turned himself in that month, after the New York Police Department’s Police Impersonation Unit produced a wanted poster based on surveillance footage, the report states. He was released, however, after Yang Song selected a different man in a lineup. A subsequent DNA test found that the retired marshal “was not the source of the DNA in all samples” taken from Yang Song’s clothing. The case was closed in April 2017.

Yang Song’s family and former immigration attorney also told The Appeal last year that she had confided in them about being asked to become an NYPD informant, something else that led the family to believe she feared police. There is no mention of this in the redacted report.

The Queens Vice Enforcement Squad planned the Nov. 25 raid at Yang Song’s place of work in response to a civilian complaint on Nov. 15, according to the redacted report. The complainant alleged that “females were offering massages, but were selling intimacy” at the 40th Road location. Prostitution arrests have decreased in New York City since the police pledged to curb them in February 2017. Yet raids and sweeps in response to community complaints have continued, apparently at odds with the agency’s stated goal to build trust among vulnerable immigrants.

Though the police did not break protocol during the raid, according to Brown’s team of investigators, their activity apparently put Yang Song on high alert in the minutes leading up to her fatal fall. The report states that she brought an undercover officer into her apartment shortly before 7:30 p.m. When he exited the bathroom, she allegedly asked him “Are you a cop?” and he replied “No.” (The report cites audio collected from a one-way recording device the officer wore.) Video shows Yang Song opening the door for him to go out, and watching him walk down the stairs before closing the door.

The report also states that although she was alone when she either jumped or fell, Yang Song was aware of several police officers directly outside her bedroom door. At 7:25 p.m., a sergeant, a police officer, and two detectives entered the building, according to the report. They passed the undercover on his way downstairs and “knocked repeatedly” at Yang Song’s door, “stating in sum and substance: police, open up.” The DA’s report concluded that a detective’s “knocking on the subject apartment door while startling does not rise to the level of recklessness or neligence [sic].”

Concurrent video inside the apartment shows Yang Song pacing back and forth and staring at a live surveillance feed of the police in the hallway before moving out of the frame. Surveillance footage collected from a camera on the exterior of the building also shows what looks like a body falling through the air. A commotion ensues on the sidewalk, although the body lands outside the frame.

As part of the investigation into Yang Song’s death, the Queens DA pulled arrest data for the building in which she worked. According to the office’s records, there were 43 prior arrests made at the same address. The most recent, on Sept. 27, 2017, was of Yang Song.

This recent arrest may well have been front of mind for Yang Song in the moments before she fell, prosecutors acknowledge. The Appeal asked the district attorney’s office if it would continue to prosecute such cases, considering its conclusion that Yang Song’s death came after fleeing such an arrest.

“We cannot predict how anyone reacts to the prospect of being arrested on any charge,” Kim Livingston, a spokeswoman for the Queens County DA, said. “It is our job to enforce the law but we do so in these instances fairly and compassionately.”

Asked about the purpose of Brown’s comment about Yang Song’s “degrading and humiliating” profession, Livingston said it stood on its own. “There was no victim-blaming,” she told The Appeal.

Soon after the report and footage was released, Flushing residents and activists discussed it in a group chat created shortly after Yang Song’s death. Seeing her alone and panicked in the video was frightening, wrote Ms. H, a 52-year-old woman living in Flushing. She used to work as a phone operator for a massage business, so the video hit home.

“I’ve … heard many arrest [stories] before, the damage and PTSD for workers,” Ms. H said via a social messaging app. She questioned “why it’s a vice job” to police massage workers.

Yang Song knew she was about to be arrested again, Ms. H said. “Anyone would [be] scared at that moment. Would you?”

Additional reporting by Rong Xiaoqing.

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Exclusive: Immigrant Detainees In an Oregon Federal Prison Are Being Held In General Population Units

As a consequence, authorities are keeping them in cells for 22 to 23 hours a day, according to Oregon’s federal public defender.

An immigrant detainee looks out from his 'segregation cell' at the Adelanto Detention Facility on November 15, 2013 in California.
John Moore/Getty Images

Exclusive: Immigrant Detainees In an Oregon Federal Prison Are Being Held In General Population Units

As a consequence, authorities are keeping them in cells for 22 to 23 hours a day, according to Oregon’s federal public defender.

Reuters reported this month that federal authorities were moving 1,600 immigrant detainees, awaiting civil immigration court hearings, to five federal prison complexes across the country, a practice that has never been carried out on such a large scale. The Appeal has learned that immigrant detainees are being held in prison housing units with the general population in at least one of these federal prisons, in Sheridan, Oregon, rather than in separate facilities. The detainees at FCI Sheridan have been there since mid-May.

The arrangement could be dangerous and raises constitutional concerns, according to a source in the federal Bureau of Prisons and Lisa Hay, Oregon’s federal public defender.

Prison staff members are concerned about detainees’ safety during their stay in the facility, said the Bureau of Prisons employee, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the issue. Consequently, prison officials have sought to cut off these 123 detainees’ interactions with the general population, confining them to their cells for 22 hours a day this week, according to Hay. During brief respites outside their cells, detainees are allowed to shower and attempt to use the phone, said Hay, who has visited the facility with her staff three times over the last two weeks.

Carissa Cutrell, an ICE spokesperson, confirmed this physical arrangement in an email, noting that there are “ICE detainees and federal inmates in the same unit, but on different tiers.” Asked about the claims of 22 hour confinement Cutrell said that is not “ICE’s understanding” and said the detainees are supposed to be moved to their own housing unit Friday. Cutrell did not respond to The Appeal’s inquiries as to whether ICE detainees at other federal prisons have been held in the same housing units as federal inmates.

The facility’s long-term federal inmates have access to educational and recreational programs as well as library and computer resources. But prison staff members have not made any decisions about what, if any, activities immigrant detainees will have access to while authorities try to find facilities for them outside the federal prison system, according to the BOP source.

When ICE transfers detainees to a separate unit, these restrictive conditions will change, Cutrell says. “Since there were ICE detainees and federal inmates in the same unit, but on different tiers, they had to split recreation time,” said Cutrell.

The confinement of detainees in federal prisons across the country is expected to last for at least three more months.

Lawmakers who visited the Oregon prison last weekend denounced the restrictive-hour rules in a June 16 press conference. But no previous reports have revealed why immigrants are being subjected to these extreme confinement conditions. They appear to be a direct consequence of federal authorities’ attempts to isolate detainees from the general population, after allegedly placing them directly in the general population units.

Asked about the decision to confine the detainees for so many hours in these units, the BOP source said,  “I think it was a last minute safety precaution. There wasn’t a lot of notice to institutions that they’d be taking detainees so I highly doubt anyone knew right from the start that they’d be confining them for so long.”

Immigration detainees have been in BOP facilities in the past, says Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, but he has never heard of a situation like the one apparently at hand. “It’s true they have housed a minority of immigrant detainees over the years,” said Kerwin in a phone interview, pointing to facilities like FCI Oakdale in Louisiana. “But the idea of commingling them with people who are serving sentences, that’s a practice that has totally been renounced under prior administrations.”

Dora Schriro, founding director of ICE’s Office of Detention Policy and Planning, said she could not recall an instance in which civil immigrant detainees were housed in the same units as federal inmates.

“The vast majority of civil detainees do not have criminal histories and holding two different populations, one with some depth of prior criminal history, with one that has little to no criminal history, is ultimately going to create some very challenging situations,” Schriro said in a phone call, pointing to the language barriers and lack of legal services federal prison could offer immigrants.

In the past, many immigrants being held in detention during their deportation proceedings were eligible for bond hearings, which gave them the opportunity to remain outside detention while their immigration status was decided. A Supreme Court decision in February held that certain immigrants are not eligible for bond, leaving more of them in detention for longer periods of time. The litigation is ongoing.

Reached by phone, Amber Lee Newmann, a spokesperson at FCI Sheridan declined to answer The Appeal’s inquiries, directing all questions to the Bureau of Prisons central office. The central office also declined to answer requests, referring questions  to ICE.

Oregon’s Office of the Federal Public Defender is investigating whether the punitive nature of the confinement violates the Constitution for this population of asylum seekers, who do not stand accused of any crimes.

“These are not people being held for crimes,” Hay said. “These are people being held for asylum.”

Cutrell declined to provide information on whether the 123 detainees are all asylum-seekers.

According to The Oregonian, of the 123 people currently in Sheridan, 52 listed India as their home country. Several of these detainees said they were Sikhs or Christians fleeing religious persecution. Others are from Nepal, Peru, Russia, Honduras, Guatemala, Armenia, China, and Brazil, according to the Statesman Journal.

In addition to the restrictive living conditions, detainees at Sheridan as well as another federal prison in Victorville, California, have been denied access to immigration attorneys, according to local media reports. Consequently, what little is known about detainees’ living conditions has largely come from concerned public officials and criminal defense attorneys, like employees from Oregon’s Office of the Federal Public Defender, who have managed to make it inside.

“They haven’t been able to see immigration lawyers,” said Hay, referring to the detainees at Sheridan. “We’ve been able to see them but we’re not immigration lawyers, so we’re assessing the constitutionality of their confinement.”The transfer of detainees to federal prisons signals the incredible stress the immigration detention system is currently handling. Cutrell, the ICE spokesperson, told the Associated Press this week that capacity at immigration detention centers, where those not facing criminal charges are often held, has been exhausted by the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.

The new policy has also increased the amount of criminal prosecutions for misdemeanor illegal entry by 60 percent between January and April along the southwest border.

These arrests have flooded federal jails and prisons, and county jails as well,  leaving authorities scrambling to find places to house detainees. As federal jails have filled, the U.S. Marshals have placed detainees in private prison facilities also used by ICE. As ICE facilities have reached capacity, the U.S. Marshals have sent those in federal custody to far-flung county jails in California and Arizona.

Center for Migration Studies

On Monday night, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed an emergency lawsuit in the Central District of California to put an immediate end to the denial of attorney access to the detainees housed in the Victorville prison, which is holding up to 1,000 civil immigration detainees. An ACLU spokesperson told The Appeal that they have no idea what the conditions are like for immigrant detainees inside the Victorville prison, because no lawyers have been allowed access.

The BOP employee argued that detainees’ lack of access to immigration lawyers is not “due to nefarious reasons.” “It takes a while for new inmate to get their visitor list approved,” the employee said. “From what I heard on the news, most of the detainees don’t have lawyers. If you don’t already have a name to put down on your visiting list it’s going to likely delay the process.”

But Cutrell of ICE laid the blame for the lack of access to lawyers on protestors camped outside ICE offices in Portland. “The detainees at Sheridan were scheduled to attend legal presentations with local immigration attorneys at the Portland ICE office on June 20, 21, and 22,” Cutrell told The Appeal. “However, those presentations were canceled because the ICE building was inaccessible due to ongoing protests. ICE is in the process of rescheduling those presentations.”

The federal prisons were given little time to prepare for the new arrivals. Union representatives for the Victorville workers wrote a blog post shortly after the announcement of the transfer of civil immigration detainees to the federal prison, claiming that the prison was “not ready to accept this influx of inmates with the current staffing levels,” after a recent hiring freeze. On Tuesday, LAist reported that the BOP had confirmed a case of chickenpox among the immigrant population it is detaining, a medical situation that staff had brought up during a picket of the prison last Friday.

At least six of the 123 would-be asylum seekers at Sheridan are fathers who were separated from their children at the border, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon told the Willamette Week earlier this week. On Wednesday, Trump issued an executive order saying that the federal government will now be keeping families together throughout their criminal and immigration proceedings. It is unclear whether this order means parents in deportation proceedings, like those being held in federal prison in Oregon and California, will be reunited with their children elsewhere. (Under U.S. law, children cannot be held in federal prisons.) The Bureau of Prisons declined to address The Appeal’s questions about what would happen to detainees in federal prisons who have been separated from their children. ICE said it would respond to the questions “at a later time.”

Immigration experts have pointed out that Trump’s executive order has loopholes that allow the government to continue to separate parents and relatives from children, and sets up a showdown in the courts that could strike down the executive order.

But ICE has fewer options over where to place immigrant detainees than in years past. In 2017 California passed new “sanctuary” laws that bar counties from adding new contracts for ICE detention or expanding old ones—sealing off a large swath of the southern border from immigrant detention purposes. As a result, federal prisons are one of the only remaining alternatives. With the recent implementation of zero-tolerance policies, the immigration system’s substantial backlog has only grown, and the Department of Homeland Security has become desperate to add capacity. Last year, the agency began soliciting proposals for at least five new ICE detention centers across the country. The new executive order also instructs other federal agencies—including BOP and the Pentagon—to make facilities available for immigrant detention purposes.

Activists say the shift of immigrant detainees seeking asylum into federal prison speaks to the criminalization of migration more broadly. “If we’re asking where are the children, we also have to ask where are the parents?” Jacinta Gonzalez, a field director at the immigrants’ rights group, Mijente, said in a phone interview. “We have to understand this as an escalation of previous policies that go across both sides of the aisle, so we must demand the recall of the racist laws that put people in cages to begin with.”

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