In this edition: Retaliation at Luzerne County Jail, Supreme Court reverses Lorenzo Johnson verdict, Prisoner wins $125,000 in lawsuit against DOC, and more…
Petition to End the 20+ years of Solitary Confinement Torture of Russell Maroon Shoatz reached 2523 signatures. Please sign here if you have not signed the petition yet and share widely. Thank You!
News from the Inside
Retaliation at Luzerne County Jail: Six prisoners being held at Luzerne County Correctional Center awaiting a hearing were retaliated against after speaking out against food problems. Carrington Keys reported that five other prisoners, including members of the Dallas 6 were reduced to bag food and one prisoner was put in a restraint chair by guards Belluda, Smith, Ahmeen, Handley and Lynch. The prisoners were supposed to be moved from the jail back to state prison after Friday, but their hearing was postponed due to an emergency. An advocate for the Human Rights Coalition planned a visit to the jail this past Sunday and was delayed by prison officials for 2 hours for no reason.
The Dallas 6
are a group of prisoners who reacted against abusive prison conditions in the solitary units at SCI Dallas in 2010 by putting towels up over their cell windows and asking to speak to members of the media and higher officials about food deprivation and abusive conditions. They were subsequently beaten, tasered, and emergency evacuated from the prison to be separated. The men were then charged with riot and have been litigating the charges in court for two years.
Supreme Court reverses Third Circuit in case of Lorenzo Johnson:
In a unanimous decision
, the United States Supreme Court summarily reversed the Third Circuit Court of Appeals grant of habeas corpus relief in the case of Lorenzo Johnson
, a Pennsylvania state prisoner convicted of first degree murder and conspiracy due to his alleged role in the 1995 killing of Taraja Williams in Harrisburg. Unlike most Supreme Court decisions, the reversal of Johnson’s grant of habeas relief was issued without briefing or oral argument.
Sixteen years after his initial conviction, Johnson was granted relief by the Third Circuit in October 2011 based on the claim that the evidence used to convict him was insufficient. He was subsequently released from prison on bond pending the Commonwealth’s appeal to the high court.
The testimony presented at trial established that on December 14, 1995 in Harrisburg,
Pennsylvania, Corey Walker confronted Taraja Williams about a debt. An argument ensued, Walker hit Williams, and then Williams proceeded to beat Walker with a broomstick. Lorenzo Johnson was present at this incident, and was with Walker later in the day when Walker made multiple comments that he was going to kill Williams for inflicting a beating on him.
Later that night, Williams and Walker got into another heated argument at a bar. There was conflicting testimony about whether Johnson was present, with the bar owner and bouncer being unable to recall him being there, but another witness, Carla Brown placing him at the bar. Brown did not recall Johnson’s role, if any, in the argument. Those involved in the argument were asked to leave the establishment. After leaving, Walker, Williams, and Johnson were seen walking into an alley, with Johnson remaining at the entrance while Walker, who had a concealed object under his coat, and Williams entered the alley. A loud boom was soon heard. One witness saw unidentified persons running from the scene, and the police soon discovered the body of Taraja Williams, who had been killed by a shotgun blast.
While the factual record of the case is clear, the Third Circuit and Supreme Court differed on whether this record supported a finding that Johnson harbored the specific intent to kill that is a necessary element for sustaining a conviction of murder in the first degree. The Third Circuit found the jury’s verdict to be the product of speculation, as none of the necessary inferences for sustaining a finding of specific intent could be drawn from the facts absent speculation. According to the Third Circuit, “[t]he difference between an inference and a speculation is that an inference is a reasoned deduction from the evidence, a speculation is a guess.”
The Third Circuit carefully scrutinized the evidentiary record, explaining how each thread of circumstantial evidence proffered by the Commonwealth was insufficient to establish specific intent. The court found that there was no evidence that Johnson had harassed or threatened Williams at the first encounter, later at the bar, or in or near the alley. Contrary to the prosecution’s claim that he forced Williams into the alley, the court noted that there was no evidence that he acted in a coercive manner whatsoever, only that the record could sustain a finding that he was present and possibly intended to “confront, threaten, or harass Williams.” As explained by the court, “Perhaps it can be speculated from this record that Johnson shared Walker’s intent to kill Williams, but we do not find it reasonable to infer an element of the offense based on mere speculation. Although such speculation may be possible, it is Constitutionally insufficient to support a conviction.”
The Supreme Court chastised the Third Circuit for failing “to afford due respect to the role of the jury and the state courts of Pennsylvania,” and summarily reversed the decision. The high court found Johnson’s presence at the earlier encounter between Walker and Williams, his having overheard Walker make threats, and his alleged presence in or near the alleyway where Williams was shot sufficient for him to be convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to die in prison serving life without the possibility of parole. The Court held that it was permissible to infer Johnson’s intent based in substantial part on the actions of Walker, who “was noticeably concealing a weapon, and he had been heatedly threatening to kill Williams after a violent confrontation earlier in the day.” Engaging in further speculation, the Court found that Johnson’s walking with Walker and Williams in a single-file line with Williams in the middle was somehow indicative of his furthering a plot to execute Williams, going so far as to guess that Johnson’s position at the entrance to the alleyway was intended to prevent Williams from leaving. As there was no testimony in the record indicating coercive or threatening speech or action from Johnson, it is unclear how the Court could infer that Johnson intended to help murder Williams.
Lorenzo Johnson will now be forced to return to confinement within the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections where he will serve a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, a sentence that has been described as “the other death penalty” by a coalition of prisoners
seeking to organize against life without the possibility of parole.
Prisoner wins verdict of $125,000 in lawsuit against the Department of Corrections: On Friday June 1, a jury of six awarded prisoner Cornell Warren $125,000 for his 8th amendment rights being violated by prison guard Cardenas. Warren’s claim was that his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the eighth amendment was violated when Officer Cardenas used excessive force by purposely breaking Warren’s finger during a cell extraction. While being incarcerated at SCI Laurel Highlands, Warren was subjected to harassment and retaliation at the hands of the staff in the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU). This harassment and retaliation stemmed from an altercation between Warren and an Officer named Captain Wilts. Warren is a diabetic and a dialysis patient, and were repeatedly denied meals, which could have resulted in him, falling into a diabetic coma, or possibly death. He was temporarily moved to SCI Somerset in the months after his altercation with Captain Wilts.
Warren’s lawsuit stemmed from an incident that occurred when he was brought back to SCI Laurel Highlands for dialysis. He was placed in a cell in the RHU and told to strip. This was an indication to Warren that he was going to be forced to return permanently to Laurel Highlands. Fearing that he would have to return to the facility where he experienced so much abuse, he refused to strip and demanded to see the superintendent. After his request was denied, Warren obstructed his cell window to forced a cell extraction, in order to speak with someone at the administrative level. When he heard the officer’s coming to perform the cell extraction he laid down on his stomach with his hands behind his back, in order to show the guards that he was not resisting. Warren testified that during the extraction that Officer Cardenas said, in Warren’s ear, “this is for Wilts” and proceeded to bend his finder back until it broke.
During the trial it was revealed that twenty-five seconds of the cell extraction video were missing. It is prison policy that all cell extractions must be filmed and that if there is a malfunction or a gap in the footage, it must be explained by the officer operating the camera. No such explanation was ever offered. Warren testified that it was during those 25 seconds that his finger was broken. What is shown in the extraction footage is Warren saying “Thanks, I have never had a broken bone before!” The footage also reveals Warren accusing Officer Cardenas of breaking his finger. Despite Warren making these allegations, none of the Officers involved in the extraction reported the allegation of abuse, which is also a violation of Prison Policy.
Across the Nation
Lawsuit challenges long-term solitary confinement in California:
On Thursday, May 31, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a federal lawsuit
on behalf of prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent between 10 and 28 years in solitary confinement. The case, Ruiz v. Brown
, is part of a larger movement to end torture conditions in California prisons’ Security Housing Units (SHU), a movement dramatized by two hunger strikes by thousands of SHU prisoners in the summer and fall of 2011. The named plaintiffs include hunger strikers, among them several of the principal negotiators for the hunger strike. The class action suit, which is being jointly filed by CCR and several advocate and legal organizations in California, alleges that prolonged solitary confinement violates Eight Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violates the prisoners’ right to due process.
“The prolonged conditions of brutal confinement and isolation such as those at Pelican Bay have rightly been condemned as torture by the international community,” said CCR President Jules Lobel. “These conditions strip prisoners of their basic humanity and cross the line between humane treatment and barbarity.” Advocates hope that the suit will strike a blow against the increasingly routine use of solitary confinement in American prisons.
The lawsuit names ten plaintiffs and seeks to establish two classes of prisoners entitled to relief. The larger class consists of all prisoners serving indefinite terms in the SHU based on gang validation since their rights to due process are violated by the arbitrary, meaningless review process used to justify their retention in the SHU. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) routinely buries prisoners in long-term solitary confinement based on alleged membership in or affiliation with gang members. Under this policy, books, tattoos, artwork, and secret evidence from confidential informants are alleged to constitute evidence of gang activity sufficient to keep a person in solitary confinement indefinitely, and many prisoners have been kept in the SHU for longer than a decade without any serious rule violation.
A subclass of prisoners who have been or who will be confined in the SHU for ten years or longer is seeking release from the SHU on the grounds that their eighth amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment is being violated.
The complaint advances several legal theories as to how the plaintiffs’ eighth amendment rights are being violated, including that the cumulative effect of prolonged solitary confinement, denial of good time credits and parole to SHU prisoners, and the deprivation of quality medical care deprive prisoners of several basic human needs, “including but not limited to normal human contact, environmental and sensory stimulation, mental and physical health, physical exercise, sleep, nutrition, and meaningful activity.”
Another constitutional theory supporting the eighth amendment claim is based on the immense psychological pain and suffering currently experienced by SHU prisoners, along with “a significant risk of future debilitating and permanent mental illness and physical harm.” Yet another theory states that CDCR’s “harsh policies are not legitimately related to security or other penological needs of isolating alleged dangerous prisoners from others, but rather are designed to coerce plaintiffs to debrief and become informants for the State. This policy of holding plaintiffs and class members in prolonged solitary confinement for many years at the Pelican Bay SHU until they debrief or die is, as one Court put it, “tantamount to indefinite administrative segregation for silence – an intolerable practice in modern society.”
In addition, the lawsuit argues that California’s rampant use of solitary confinement “violates contemporary standards of human decency and dignity” as “evidenced by the international community’s condemnation of the practice of prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement under very harsh and stifling conditions as exist in the Pelican Bay SHU,” citing in support the United Nations “Convention Against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, decisions and declarations of international bodies, customary international law, and decisions of regional and national courts such as the European Court of Human Rights and Canadian courts.”
The relief being requested by the court is for a declaration that plaintiffs’ eighth amendment and due process rights are being violated; that those prisoners who have been held longer than ten years be released from the SHU; that conditions in the SHU are alleviated “so that prisoners are no longer incarcerated under conditions of isolation, sensory deprivation, lack of social and physical human contact, and environmental deprivation”; meaningful review of the continued justification for solitary confinement of all prisoners held in the SHU within six months of the court’s order; and meaningful review of SHU confinement all prisoners confined in the SHU in the future.
Philly area: Wednesdays are Write On! Prison Letter Writing Night at the LAVA space at 4134 Lancaster, 7-9 pm. Come help us stay connected with the many prisoners who write to us with news from inside, learn to document crimes committed by prison staff, and help bring an end to the abuse and torture of our brothers and sisters behind bars.
If you’d like to know more about the Human Rights Coalition or would like to get involved, come to Write On!, to our monthly general meetings (second Wednesday of each month, 5-7pm), or call us at 215-921-3491, email: email@example.com
, or visit our website at http://www.hrcoalition.org./
Write On! – Letter writing to prisoners and HRC work night every Wednesday at 5129 Penn Avenue from 7 -10pm. To get involved with HRC/Fed Up! in Pittsburgh, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
or call 412-654-9070.
You’ve been listening to the Human Rights Coalition’s PA Prison Report. HRC is a group of current and former prisoners, family members, and supporters, whose ultimate goal is to abolish prisons.
Keep up the fight!