Virtual visitation with prisoners: The jury’s still out

Face to face, sort of
Face to face, sort of

Virtual reality, meet prison life: Marketplace radio  reports this morning on the rising popularity of video visitations with jail and prison inmates.

On the surface, it’s a tech issue. But it’s also about whether the inmate will wind up back behind bars, especially if they are behind bars for a few years, as opposed to a few months. There’s evidence that recidivism is impacted by continued ties to loved ones and friends while serving time.

On one hand, the video conferencing will help families who may be hundreds of miles away from the prison. Or thousands of miles: Inmates are sometimes housed in out-of-state prisons, making a visit pretty much impossible.

And anyone who has ever wanted to visit a Florida inmate will wade through a thicket of dos and don’ts in order to get permission to visit, including things that probably wouldn’t be a problem with a video chat, such as wearing a tank top, carrying car keys and having a $20 bill in your back pocket.

On the other hand, there’s the human factor. Will a talk via screen carry the same emotional benefit as a talk behind a thick glass partition?

Juvenile Justice agency to county commissioners: We’re working on reported problems at local juvvie center

Christina Daly didn’t have to pen letters to each of the Palm Beach County Commissioners about conditions at the local juvenile detention center, but the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice chief’s two page missive might allay concerns.

“I can assure you this department does not tolerate conduct or an environment that puts youth at risk,” DJJ Secretary Christina Daly wrote commissioners on Monday.

And Daly ticked off a laundry list of efforts: an unannounced visit by both the Inspector General and the head of the agency’s Bureau of Inspections, a fresh round of surveys of teenage boys housed there, a facilities inspection, an assessment of how staffers are trained in the use of force and, of course, the request that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement look into the facility.

Youth Services International, the Sarasota-based company operating the center under contract to DJJ, isn’t mentioned in the letter.

But it’s very much in the forefront of criticism. Legal advocates, including lawyers for teenagers housed in YSI facilities, have slammed YSI for several years. Only last year, a Florida Senate subcommittee took testimony into conditions at a Broward center run by the company.

YSI denied allegations of maltreatment and DJJ’s inspector general also found nothing to report.

None of that seems to have factored into Palm Beach County Mayor Shelley Vana’s desire to see the county break its $1-a-year lease with DJJ for the center property and send the agency, and its contractor, packing.

Shelley Vana, paying a second visit to the juvenile center.
Shelley Vana, paying a follow-up visit to the juvenile center.

Rather, it was what Vana found in April when she paid a surprise visit to the 118-bed facility.

Then, this month, two teens were injured; one was hospitalized. In both cases, DJJ said, another teenager was responsible for the injuries- not a staffer.

But staffers have had problems, too, including two who faced misdemeanor criminal charges after arranging a fight between teenagers there.



Lease could keep kids’ lockup here, despite criticism of conditions

Palm Beach County Juvenile Correctional Facility
Palm Beach County Juvenile Correctional Facility

Severing the Department of Juvenile Justice’s lease for a kid’s lockup here may be easier said than done.

Palm Beach County Mayor Shelley Vana would like nothing better than to see DJJ and the private company it hired to run a juvenile detention center just west of the Fairgrounds close up and go home.

Vana, wetter than a mad hen over conditions at the juvie jail, this week told County Administrator Bob Weisman to look for a way out of its contract with the state agency.

It’s the county’s land that the Palm Beach County Juvenile Correctional Facility sits on. DJJ leases it for $1 a year.

Weisman took a first look at the 1990s-era lease and wrote to the legal department that, “It seems to say that we cannot terminate the lease unless the termination is in accordance with law, but yet it doesn’t seem to provide a way that it could be in accordance with law, but then it says that if a court rules the termination was illegal, that we will pay DJJ for the value of the facility.”

“Makes no sense to me.”

Meanwhile, DJJ has scrambled to keep up with criticism of the vendor actually running the show: Sarasota-based Youth Services International.

The state agency stepped up monitoring and it appears the teenagers will get milk or juice with a snack, not water. YSI ordered parts for broken plumbing and at least some kids got new shoes and socks.

Then, last month, in an out-of-left-field move, DJJ asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review what was going on at the facility, which holds 118 teenage boys, most of them in pretty serious trouble with the law.

YSI has been dogged by allegations of maltreatment for years. Critics cite a string of scandals linked to the company and its predecessor, including the 1999 collapse of a juvenile jail contract in Pahokee. And for years, company officials have insisted any bad employees have been fired and reforms adopted.

The problems just keep coming, though. Things seemed to come to a head last year, when a Florida Senate subcommittee on criminal justice agreed to hear testimony about a troubled YSI-run Broward center and DJJ canceled a contract with YSI for another center in North Florida.

But even as the troubles mount, so do the deals: According to DJJ records, YSI still holds more than $100 million in contracts to run Florida juvenile facilities.

Under the radar, secret NSA database open for business

phone-personThink the NSA is out of the phone record business?

Congress has forced the National Security Agency to begin winding down daily bulk of collection of billions of Americans’ phone call records, but that’s not the end of the line.

The NSA has sometimes used its daily dragnet of phone numbers in a way that links hundreds of thousands of innocent people to terrorist suspects.

That analysis has been placed  in a smaller database dubbed the “Corporate Store” – and there’s nothing in the new legislation forcing NSA to purge the records.

Once there, peoples’ call records, and ultimately, the course of their daily lives, can be charted by the NSA, the FBI, the IRS and even some foreign governments.

Here’s how it has worked. The NSA identified a number from its daily phone collection they believed was associated with a terrorist suspect. They collected and stored all phone calls made within five years to and from that number.

They also collected all phone calls  made by everyone who called the terrorist suspect’s number- and then everyone those people called as well.

A blue ribbon panel wrote that using this system, a single terrorism suspect could be quickly tied to 421,000 phone numbers.

Given that sweep, it is inevitable that people who had never so much as jaywalked would wind up “linked” to a terrorist- and their personal phone calling history tucked away for browsing.

If, for instance, you had the bad luck of ordering a pizza from  the same eatery a terrorism suspect did, then you could have  been linked to the suspect- and so would the family members and friends you called.

By one estimate, in 2012 alone, more than 100 million call records could have been collected and placed in the Store for further analysis.

Edward Snowden

Those searches didn’t happen very often, and after the Edward Snowden revelations, the White House limited their scope.

But that did not affect previous searches already squirreled away. And even limited searches still would net thousands of people not involved in wrongdoing.

NSA isn’t commenting on its plans for retaining these phone call records.

But with nothing forcing the Corporate Store to close for business, ACLU attorney Patrick Toomey said, “This NSA database may grow even more quickly than ever before.”

And here’s a closer look – The Post story on what hasn’t changed very much at all.



Feds demand turn over info on blog posters

As it turns out, Reason has plenty of reason to be paranoid.
As it turns out, Reason has plenty of reason to be paranoid.

Maybe you can’t be as bad as you wanna be on the Internet., the online magazine published by libertarian mothership Reason Foundation,  is on the receiving end of a federal grand jury subpoena.

The feds want to provide information on the identities of anonymous commentators on a recent blog post.

Two or three of them had suggested shooting and/or tossing a certain federal judge into a woodchipper. Feet first.

In other words, typical website commentator blather for, which seems to attract an inordinate number of ravings among its more thoughtful posts.

It is patently unfair: The website is filled with crisp writing and thorough analysis. (And I say this as someone whose reporting on prison privatization has been ripped by Reason writers.)

Nick Gillespie, editor of
Nick Gillespie, editor of

In this case, libertarian rock star and editor Nick Gillespie blogged on the sentencing of Ross “Dread Pirate Roberts” Ulbricht.

Ulbricht was a mastermind  of the notorious Silk Road website, a marketplace for buying and selling drugs. The judge gave him life. No parole.

Blog  commentators began weighing in on Gillespie’s post, and the harsh sentence. imagesThat was May 31.

On about June 2, a New York federal subpoena landed on’s doorstep, demanding that the online magazine turn over identifying information on readers (IP addresses. Credit cards. Phone numbers, et al.)  who made noxious comments as part of “an official criminal investigation of a suspected felony.”

And to please not talk about it.

The subpoena seems to be aimed at determining whether a credible threat had been made against the judge.

The shooting/wood-chipper comments aren’t pretty. But they are absolutely in line with the typical blog give-and-take between journalists and readers, and blog readers and other blog readers.

It’s a rough and tumble world out there.

I, for one, can’t begin to count the times someone has invited me to go jump into a woodchipper.

A Reason spokeswoman said they would have no comment, “on advice of counsel.” There’s a call out to the feds. We’re still hoping it’s all a terrible misunderstanding.

Meanwhile, for an entertaining First Amendment take on this, seek out Ken White Among his pungent woodchipper observations: “Is A Reference To Fargo, On The F**** Internet, Something That Should Concern The Government?”


Three things you didn’t know about NSA phone spying

NSA headquarters in Maryland: Maybe your last call to the pizza delivery guy is stored here?
NSA headquarters in Maryland: Maybe your last call to the pizza delivery guy is stored here?

Tons of ink – oceans, really – have been written in recent weeks about the NSA telephone snooping program, better known as Section 215 of the U.S. Patriot Act.

That would be the section that the NSA used to justify collecting records of virtually every phone call made by almost all Americans since at least 2006; information on who you called, how long you spoke and when you made the call.

The daily dragnet is slowly coming to a halt since Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which ends mass collection of bulk phone data.

But here are three things that may have gotten lost in the buzz:

1. They really wanted to find you, too. It’s true that the NSA did not use its phone data for geolocation- using records to find out where a person was.  But that may not have been for lack of interest.  A declassified 2011 memo unearthed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation refers to both the Department of Justice and the secret court overseeing the NSA eavesdropping being apprised of an NSA trial run of a geolocation option.  It never got past the sampling stage.

2. They were not immune to software snafus. In 2009, DOJ admitted to the secret FISA court that a newly installed software search system had allowed some of the agency’s worker bees to “utilize the phone records in a manner contrary to court order,” according to a federal oversight panel’s report.

We don’t exactly know what that contrary manner is, just as we don’t know the names of the  “executive branch officials” who told the judge everything was just fine. We do know the judge was mightily ticked off and that NSA tried multiple times to patch its software- and failed. They finally just dumped out of it.

3. It was never just about phone records.  When an appeals court last month ruled that Section 215 was unlawful, it also pointed out that the issue at stake wasn’t only the government’s right to gather up phone records of innocent Americans and keep them for years on end.

“If the government (argument) is correct,” the court wrote, ” it could use 215 to collect and store in bulk any other existing metadata available anywhere in the private sector, including …financial records, medical records, and electronic communications (including e‐mail and social media information) relating to all Americans.”

So that’s the three things we didn’t know.

As far as we know.


No big prison reform, but now they can track the chemical spray

Apparently, Florida has all along needed a law- or Rick Scott’s blessing – to figure out just how much CS gas (aka pepper spray)  state prisons have, where they put it and how they can get rid of it.Scott+2015

Finding a better way to trash empty gas canisters is not what the architects of a sweeping Senate prison reform bill had in mind this past session.

That bill was gutted by the House, though, just before it closed down for business three days ahead of schedule.

All along, lawmakers behind the Senate bill said the House’s suggested reforms weren’t reforms at all, but were window dressing: Changes that no one needed a law to implement.

Like figuring out how to inventory pepper spray.

This afternoon, Gov. Scott signed  Executive Order 15-102, which the governor’s office said makes “significant reforms in Florida’s prison system to improve safety, transparency and accountability.” Among the reforms:

  • Establishment of a usage and inventory policy to track, by institution, the use of chemical agents and disposal of expired, used, or damaged canisters of chemical agents.

The order also includes some significant items, such as unannounced inspections and  statistical analysis examining use of force by guards.

Not included, though, was the central Senate reform, an independent oversight commission. Nor were other reforms the Senate considered necessary in the wake of a series of stories by The Post, the Miami Herald and others exposing prison inmate deaths, abuse and unchecked brutality.

Just months ago, FSU’s Project on Accountable Justice concluded the state prison agency was so flawed that it recommended basically rebuilding it from the ground up.

One of the cases cited by the group:  The 2010 death of  Randall Jordan-Aparo.

He was gassed to death by guards.




Another day, another Florida prison guard headed to jail

Columbia CI
Columbia CI

Another day, another prison guard bust.

Make that two guards.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) reports that Columbia Correctional prison Sgt. Christopher Michael Jernigan and guard Donald Dwight Sims, Jr. have been charged with aggravated battery on an inmate and, in Jernigan’s case, tampering with evidence.

According to the FDLE, this is how it played out:

The Columbia Correctional Institution guards were taking Shurick Lewis, 41, to solitary confinement this past February when they ordered other inmates to leave the area. Lewis was then taken to a place without video surveillance and assaulted.

According to FDLE, after the beating, Jernigan told other inmates to clean up the blood, put a new mattress on the bunk and throw away bloody clothes.

Lewis, bleeding from his nose and mouth and with a swollen eye, was seen by a prison nurse. It’s not known what care he got, but the nurse sent him back to his cell – where he lost consciousness.

Several hours later, he was found by officers on the next shift and taken to Shands Hospital, where he was treated for a broken nose and several facial fractures.

The two guards offered vastly different stories: Sims said Lewis fell off his bunk. Jernigan said he used force after the inmate lunged at him.

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones

Jernigan turned himself in to the Columbia County Jail yesterday. Sims was arrested Monday night.

All this comes within weeks of the arrest of two prison guards and one ex-guard — all reputed members of the Ku Klux Klan — for conspiring to kill a former inmate.

That doesn’t exactly qualify as the start of a clean sweep, but it does give some credence to  Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones’s written comments about Jernigan and Sims: “The Florida Department of Corrections has absolutely no tolerance for the behavior and actions taken by these individuals.”


Sheriff invites FBI, police group scrutiny of shootings

boblogoPalm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has apparently decided to take the bull by the horns: In the wake of a series of Palm Beach Post and NewsChannel 5 stories detailing shootings by deputies, and inadequate internal investigations into those shootings, Bradshaw today asked the FBI to review “one particular case of interest.”

And he’s asking a well-respected advisory organizations, to review its internal affairs investigations of shootings.

Bradshaw stopped short of saying which one of the many shootings The Post/NewsChannel Five investigation examined is that case of interest, but Post reporter Lawrence Mower is hearing that it may be the Dontrell Stephens shooting.

The unarmed 20-year-old bicyclist was shot by a PBSO deputy 4 seconds after being stopped for a bike violation.

The deputy said he believed he saw Stephens reaching for a gun and bringing up a “dark square” object in his left hand. There was no weapon. Stephens has been holding a black cell phone in his right hand, the deputy’s dashboard camera showed.

The deputy was cleared of any violations of policy. Stephens, who has since filed suit, is partially paralyzed.

GEO: Feds gave Karnes immigrant center clean bill of health

Earlier this month, an estimated 40 immigrant women announced a hunger strike at the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, where GEO Group houses immigrant women and children on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The women, some of whom had already cleared the first hurdle to being granted asylum, were demanding that they and their children be released.

It’s the federal government, not GEO, which makes release determinations.

But immigrants had also previously alleged mistreatment, including physical mistreatment,  at the GEO-run facility that went beyond immigration status decisions. In a written response, GEO told The Post that, “Earlier this year, the findings of a comprehensive investigation conducted by the Office of the Inspector General corroborated the unfounded and unsubstantiated nature of prior allegations.”

Karnes, wrote GEO,  “provides high quality care in a safe, clean, and family friendly environment, and on site U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel provide direct oversight to ensure compliance with ICE’s Family Residential Standards.

“Our company has consistently, strongly denied allegations to the contrary.”

Further, said GEO, just about anyone can come to the center and see for themselves, citing “an open and transparent policy of allowing visits to the Center by the public, elected local and national officials, federal officials from ICE and other government agencies, as well as nongovernmental organizations.”

The hunger strike, meanwhile, appears to have ended.