As new U.S. law frees inmates, prosecutors seek to lock some back up

Monae Davis plays with a grandchild, Dayrone Ferguson Jr., 2, after an interview at a halfway house in Buffalo, New York, U.S., July 16, 2019. Picture taken July 16, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario

By Andy Sullivan

BUFFALO, N.Y. (Reuters) – Monae Davis walked out of prison on March 7, thanks to a new law that eased some of the harshest aspects of the United States’ war on drugs.

Now the U.S. Justice Department is trying to lock him back up.

As Davis, 44, looks for work and re-connects with his family, U.S. prosecutors are working to undo a federal judge’s decision that shaved six years off his 20-year prison sentence under the First Step Act, a sweeping criminal-justice reform signed into law by President Donald Trump last December.

“They’re prosecutors and it’s their job to make it hard on people,” he said. “Do I think it is right? No, it’s not fair.”

Even as thousands of prison inmates have been released by judges under the new law, federal prosecutors have fought scores of petitions for reduced sentences and are threatening to put more than a dozen inmates already released back behind bars, Reuters found in an analysis of these cases.

The reason: the Justice Department says the amount of drugs they handled was too large to qualify for a reduced sentence.

Davis, for example, reached a deal in 2009 with U.S. attorneys in western New York to plead guilty to selling 50 grams or more of crack, resulting in his 20-year sentence. Under First Step guidelines, that carries a minimum sentence of five years, less than half the time he has already served.

But prosecutors say Davis should not get a break, because in his plea deal he admitted to handling between 1.5 kilograms and 4.5 kilograms, which even under current guidelines is too high to qualify for a sentence reduction.

In a statement, the Justice Department said it is trying to ensure that prisoners seeking relief under the First Step Act aren’t treated more leniently than defendants now facing prosecution.

The department said prosecutors now have a greater incentive than previously to bring charges that more closely reflect the total amount of drugs they believe to be involved.

“This is a fairness issue,” the department said.

A TOUTED ACHIEVEMENT

Passed by overwhelming majorities in Congress, the First Step Act stands out as a rare bipartisan achievement in an era of sharp political divisions. Trump has invited ex-offenders to the White House and his State of the Union speech.

The law allows inmates who are serving time for selling crack cocaine to ask a judge to reduce their prison sentences. It’s a belated recognition, supporters say, that tough-on-crime policies that required lengthy prison terms for crack dealers were too punitive and fell most heavily on African-Americans.

More than 1,100 inmates have been released so far under this provision in the new law, according to the Justice Department.

In most of the 1,100 sentence-reduction cases, U.S. prosecutors did not oppose the inmate’s release. But in at least 81 cases, Reuters found, Justice Department lawyers have tried – largely unsuccessfully so far – to keep offenders behind bars. They argue that judges should base their decision on the total amount of drugs that were found to be involved during the investigation, rather than the often smaller or more vague amount laid out in the law they violated years ago.

The difference between the two amounts in these cases is often significant – and, depending on whether a judge agrees with prosecutors’ objections, can mean years of continued incarceration rather than immediate release.

Regional prosecutors’ offices, though they often enjoy great autonomy, have made it clear that they are operating on instructions from Washington.

One prosecutor in western Virginia in April objected to nine sentence reductions she had previously not opposed, citing Justice Department guidelines.

The federal government has lost 73 of 81 cases in which the issue has arisen so far, according to the Reuters analysis.

Prosecutors have appealed at least three of those decisions and indicated they intend to appeal 12 more.

If they succeed, men like Davis would return to prison.

First Step Act advocates say the Justice Department is undercutting the intent of the law.

“Many of these people have served in prison for five, 10, 15, 20 years and more. It’s time for them to be able to get on with their lives, and the notion the Department of Justice is just going to keep nagging at them and appealing these cases is not what we ever had in mind,” Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, one of the law’s authors, told Reuters.

Florida resident Gregory Allen, freed in March, appeared with Trump at a ceremony celebrating the new law in April. Federal prosecutors in Tampa, meanwhile, had filed paperwork to appeal that decision and force him back to prison. They dropped the appeal three weeks later, without explanation.

Legal experts say they are aware of few other cases in which the federal government has tried to re-incarcerate someone who has been freed due to a sentence reduction.

“It’s particularly cruel,” said Mary Price, an attorney with Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonpartisan group. “The whole point of the First Step Act was to give some relief to people who were sentenced to unduly long sentences.”

A TURBULENT LIFE

According to court documents and his own account, Davis has led a turbulent life. The son of a prostitute who entered the witness protection program when testifying in a criminal case, Davis was given a new name and moved to New Orleans when he was seven years old.

By the time he was fifteen, back in Buffalo, both parents and a younger brother were dead and he was selling drugs. He dropped out of high school.

He killed a woman accidentally when he was nineteen, he said, and records show he eventually pleaded guilty to state manslaughter charges.

By the time he was 30, federal agents say, Davis oversaw a network that sold crack and cocaine across western New York and Pennsylvania.

“Your life has been a disaster, and maybe not all of it your fault,” U.S. Judge William Skretny told him in 2009 as he sentenced him.

In March, the same judge ruled that Davis should be freed under the First Step Act.

“I fell off the chair,” Davis recalled. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Prosecutors told the court they intend to appeal. The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, James P. Kennedy Jr., declined to comment on Davis’s case, but said in a prepared statement that asking for appellate review ” is consistent with our mission of seeing to it that justice is done in each case.”

Meanwhile, Davis is learning to use a smartphone and planning to start welding classes in September. Eventually, he says, he aims to run a cleaning service or auto shop and set aside money for his six grandchildren so they can have a better life than he did.

“I know God has a plan for me,” he said. “I know I’m not finished yet.”

(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Julie Marquis)

Inmates shiver in frigid cells at New York jail, lawmakers say

Protesters attend a rally at Metropolitan Detention Center demanding that heat is restored for the inmates in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, U.S., February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Go Nakamura

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Inmates at a federal jail in Brooklyn have suffered for days without heat or power during a wintry cold snap, according to lawyers and U.S. lawmakers who rallied outside the jail on Saturday demanding the problems be fixed and ill inmates moved.

A fire last Sunday at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center cut off power and heat to parts of the jail just as freezing Arctic air began rolling towards the East Coast, according to motions filed this week in federal court by lawyers from the Federal Defenders who represent some of the inmates.

Since then, at least some of the more than 1,600 men and women incarcerated at the jail have suffered in near-freezing temperatures and in darkness after the sun goes down while locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, according to the court filings. On Wednesday night, the temperature in New York City dropped to nearly 0 Fahrenheit (minus 18 Celsius.)

“Inmates were wrapped head to toe in towels and blankets,” Deirdre von Dornum, who oversees the Federal Defenders’ Brooklyn team, said in a telephone interview on Saturday, recounting her tour of the jail the day before. “Their windows were frosted over. Even more disturbingly perhaps for the inmates, their cells were pitch black and they don’t have flashlights.”

She said senior officials at the jail were “indifferent” to the problems during her tour even as guards complained to her of the cold. The power problems have also meant inmates cannot easily call family or lawyers nor get any needed medication refilled, lawyers said.

Telephone calls to the jail went unanswered on Saturday, but it said in a statement that power had been affected in one building and that repair work should be completed on Monday. Additional blankets, provided by New York City’s government, and clothing were to be given to inmates on Saturday, the statement said. A notice on the jail’s website said all visits have been suspended until further notice.

Officials at the jail and the Bureau of Prisons had said in emails this week to the New York Times, which first reported the problems on Friday, that the cells still had heat and hot water.

One inmate, Dino Sanchez, has only a short-sleeved jumpsuit, a T-shirt and a single standard-issue thin blanket to keep him warm, according to a court filing by his attorney. Sanchez has asthma, which the cold has exacerbated, and fears collapsing in the dark without anyone noticing and coming to his aid, his lawyer wrote.

Nydia Velazquez, who represents parts of New York City in the U.S. House of Representatives, was one of the lawmakers who visited the jail on Saturday. She said the Bureau of Prisons was disregarding inmates’ rights.

“This appalling situation needs to be fixed,” she wrote on Twitter. She noted that some heat had been restored, but that the heating system was still “not at full capacity” and that staff at the jail were still complaining about the cold on Saturday.

Hugh Hurwitz, the Bureau of Prisons’ acting director, told lawmakers in telephone conversations he agreed that conditions in the jail were “unacceptable”, according to Velazquez.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a brief statement that the conditions at the jail were unconstitutional and demanded an immediate fix.

Judge Analisa Torres ordered the Bureau of Prisons to produce witnesses at a hearing in federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday to explain how the complaints raised by inmates’ lawyers were being addressed.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Wolves to lambs: Finding God behind bars in El Salvador

Members of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) evangelical church participate in a religious service at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

By Jose Cabezas and Nelson Renteria

SAN FRANCISCO GOTERA, El Salvador (Reuters) – Pastor Manuel Rivera’s voice echoes through the crowded courtyard in the notorious San Francisco Gotera prison in El Salvador, as hardened criminals weep and bow their heads in prayer.

Brutal ‘mara’ street gangs and chronic poverty have made El Salvador one of the most murderous countries on the planet, but the growth of evangelical Christianity behind bars is giving gangsters a way to break the spiral of violence.

Rivera, an ex-hitman from the powerful Barrio 18 gang, speaks to rows of men with spidery black tattoos on their arms, necks and faces, delivering a message of salvation: God had rescued them from violence. Returning to gang life would mean death.

“We used to say that the gang was our family, but God took the blindfold off our eyes,” says Rivera, 36, dressed like the other inmates in a white t-shirt, shorts and plastic sandals.

Some weep silently while he reads from a black bible. Others sing hymns, clapping and waving arms enthusiastically. They chorus: “Amen.”

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang participate in a religious service of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang participate in a religious service of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

By embracing religion, these men can leave their gangs without retaliation, Rivera says. But if they do not show real devotion, their former gang-mates may kill them, fearing they will join other gangs and become enemies.

Convicted murderer Rivera’s own transformation came behind bars, when, battered by years of running from police and enemy gangs, unable to see his son, he turned to prayer.

When God appeared in a dream, prophesying Rivera would have his own flock, he became a pastor, he says. He is now half-way through an eight-year sentence for criminal association.

Evangelical Christianity has grown rapidly in Central America in the past decade, coloring local politics. Dozens of lawmakers embrace it, defending hardline positions against gay rights and abortion.

The fervor has spilled into jails, where it is welcomed by officials who sense its potential for reforming ex-gangsters.

President Salvador Sanchez Ceren’s government plans to use Gotera as a model of religious rehabilitation it hopes can be replicated.

Two years ago the prison, located about 100 miles (166 km) east of capital San Salvador, was almost entirely home to active gang members. Now, the majority of its approximately 1,500 inmates want to find redemption, says prison director Oscar Benavides.

The conversions “show the country that it is possible to rehabilitate those in the Mara Salvatrucha or other gangs,” says Security Minister Mauricio Ramirez, dismissing criticisms that the government should do more.

The Mara Salvatrucha, a notorious cross-border crime group also known as MS-13, was founded by Salvadorans in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

President Donald Trump has blamed MS-13 and illegal immigration from Central America as a major source of violence in the United States.

Outside the relative tranquility of the prison, danger permeates the streets of El Salvador.

Crime has fallen from a record high in 2015, but at 60 per 100,000 inhabitants last year, the murder rate is still one of the highest worldwide.

Inside Gotera, where some inmates are serving 100-year sentences for accumulated crimes, colorful drawings of angels and prophets decorate the walls alongside biblical quotations.

Inmates wearing shirts emblazoned with “Soldier of Christ” and “Jesus Saved My Life” study prayer books, weave hammocks and tend to a garden.

Rodolfo Cornejo, 34, with intricate black tattoos circling his neck, started praying and growing cucumbers when he entered the prison on a 12-year sentence for carrying firearms, wanting to leave the rough life that had isolated him from his kids.

“People on the outside don’t trust us very much: they think we can’t change. But yes, we can show them.”

Click on https://reut.rs/2HJg8kN to see a related photo essay.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O’Brien)

Undercover investigator able to smuggle blades, drugs into NYC jails: watchdog

An undercover investigator with New York City's Department of Investigation (DOI) posing as a corrections officer passes through front gate security as part of an operation against smuggling at city jails, in an undated still image from video released in New York City, New York, U.S. February 8, 2018. Parts of the image are blurred at source. New York City Department of Investigation/

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) – An undercover investigator dressed as a jail officer was able to smuggle scalpel blades and drugs into the main city jails in Manhattan and Brooklyn, a city watchdog said on Thursday, the latest sign of ongoing troubles in the city’s jail system.

The report from the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI), which examines misconduct by city employees, was issued on the same day that federal authorities in Brooklyn unsealed an indictment charging two corrections officers and five inmates with smuggling drugs inside the Manhattan jail.

Evidence gathered as part of an undercover operation by New York City's Department of Investigation (DOI) into smuggling at city jails is seen in an undated photo released in New York City, New York, U.S. February 8, 2018. Part of the image is blurred at source. New York City Department of Investigation

Evidence gathered as part of an undercover operation by New York City’s Department of Investigation (DOI) into smuggling at city jails is seen in an undated photo released in New York City, New York, U.S. February 8, 2018. Part of the image is blurred at source. New York City Department of Investigation/Handout via REUTERS

Together, the two investigations highlighted the smuggling that continues to plague the city’s jails, most notably the notorious Rikers Island jail complex, according to DOI officials. The report comes after a similar 2014 sting operation in which an undercover investigator brought weapons and drugs through six Rikers entrances.

“Three years after a DOI undercover investigation demonstrated serious flaws in DOC security screening, the problems remain,” DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said in a statement, referring to the city Department of Correction.

DOC commissioner Cynthia Brann said the department had made progress in enhancing jail security.

“Notably, DOI didn’t find fault with our policy but urged us to better apply our procedures which we are committed to doing, and we have already begun implementing significant reforms,” she said in a statement.

The department cited statistics showing it has greatly increased its contraband finds among jail visitors since 2014, including a spike in weapons confiscations to 533 in 2017 from 88 in 2014.

Brann also said the two arrested officers would be suspended and, if convicted, fired.

Since 2014, more than two dozen corrections employees have been charged with smuggling contraband into city jails, according to the DOI. U.S. prosecutors said the two officers charged on Thursday accepted thousands of dollars from inmates in exchange for bringing marijuana into the Manhattan Detention Complex, known colloquially as “The Tombs.”

Rikers Island, which has been plagued by pervasive violence and smuggling for years, has received most of the attention, prompting Mayor Bill de Blasio to call for sweeping reforms at one of the United States’ largest jail complexes.

But Peters said Thursday’s report shows the problems are also present at other city facilities.

DOI officials recommended that the DOC screen corrections officers at staff entrances with drug-sniffing dogs, eliminate unnecessary pockets on their uniforms and place their personal lockers outside the front-gate entrances, among other measures. The DOC has agreed to adopt those improvements.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Susan Thomas)

Sheriffs Express Concern Over Release of 6,000 Prisoners

Over 6,000 nonviolent drug offenders are being released early this weekend and sheriffs across the country are concerned for the safety of their citizens.

The release is the largest one-time release of federal inmates in U.S. history, and advocates for the release are saying that it will be handled responsibly. The mass release was a response in a decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce sentences for most drug trafficking offenses, which coincides for a push to rethink federal sentencing, according to Fox News.

But the main concern is how the ex-inmates will adjust.

“There’s no transition here, there’s no safety net. This is the biggest sham they are trying to sell the American people,” Sheriff Paul Babeu of Arizona’s Pinal County told FoxNews.com.

“On average these criminals have been in federal prison for nine years — you don’t have to be a sheriff to realize that a felon after nine years in jail isn’t going to be adding value to the community. A third are illegals and felons so they can’t work. What do we think they are going to do?” said Babeu, also a congressional candidate.

Despite these concerns, the government is providing a transition. 77% of the inmates are already in home confinement or halfway houses, according to the Justice Department. Also, 1,764 of the inmates were handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation proceedings. Any one state is to receive the average number of 80 inmates, but Texas will get 597 inmates.

However, sheriffs on the Mexico-U.S. border were skeptical of both the deportation claim and the risk these inmates will bring to their communities.

“If [the Obama administration is] not capable of making honest and prudent decisions in securing our borders, how can we trust them to make the right decision on the release of prisoners who may return to a life of crime?” Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Texas, told FoxNews.com.

Last month, a review from the Associated Press found that while many of the prisoners were low-level drug dealers, some did have prior convictions for robbery. Others were charged with moving serious drugs like heroin and cocaine. And according to WGME in Maine, one inmate was a former “drug kingpin” who was once on “America’s Most Wanted.”

“For them to tell me or tell citizens that they’re going to do a good job and these inmates are non-violent, when in many instances drug crimes, drug purchasing, drug trafficking are related to other, violent crimes – I’d be amazed if the 6,000 … being released are non-violent,” Eavenson said.

Approximately 46,000 other cases may be reviewed in the future for possible early release.