We Sued the NYS Parole Board and It’s Downright Silly

“… explain to me how prohibiting Mr. Fontaine from associating with a woman who has done nothing more than telling his personal story is a proper release condition.”

Attorney letter to NYS Parole Board lawyer and chairwoman

It’s not the lawsuit that’s silly. But wait until you read the exchanges with prison and parole.

I wrote a book about a New York prison inmate who’s now on parole. Before his release, someone from the prison put my name on his “no-contact” list – but no one’s owning up to it.

I’m a journalist. Jon Fontaine is a guy I dated before I knew he was a criminal. A Jacket off the Gorge is about his crimes and the period when our lives intersected. Jon has lawsuits against prison staff. The book covers that.

On December 6, Prisoner’s Legal Services filed a lawsuit against the New York Board of Parole to get my name removed from Jon’s “no contact” list, alleging constitutional rights violations.

It was July 24 when PLS Attorney Sophia Heller stepped in and wrote the parole board chairwoman and chief counsel.

“… this condition is inappropriate. I thus respectfully request that Mr. Fontaine’s release conditions be amended accordingly.”

On August 15, the parole board secretary replied:

“… this condition was removed on April 18.”

However, the “amended” document still contained the original restriction:

“I will not associate or communicate by any means with Susan Ashline… without the permission of the [parole officer]. “

And added a line:

“I can be around/communicate with Susan Ashline as long as parole officer agrees.”

Yes, it really says that—the same thing twice, with the words flipped.

On August 21, the PLS attorney again wrote the board:

“… to impose this condition in any form without justification is entirely inappropriate.”

No one responded.

Since we’d planned to jointly promote A Jacket off the Gorge upon Jon’s release in September 2017, I had chased down getting my name removed from his no-contact list as early as one year prior to his release.

I endured months of head-scratching nonsense from Mid-State prison staffers who kept sending me out for buckets of steam, particularly Ronald Meier, a supervisor in the prison counseling office. I had caught Meier in several lies (see previous story). He kept feigning ignorance about the parole condition.

A parole board staff member then informed me the parole release conditions came directly from the facility. The document had Meier’s name stamped on it. The parole board blindly approved it.

I wrote the parole board instructing them to remove my name, included correspondence with prison staff, and stated prison staff had insisted only the parole board could remove my name.

Parole board secretary Lorraine Morse wrote on March 9:

“There is no indication that Mr. Fontaine wishes to have your name removed. If he wishes, he must submit in writing to the Guidance Office—SORC Meier—Midstate CF his request to have it removed.”

She’d passed the ball back to Meier. I called Morse and told her that was the very problem—that’d I’d kept getting passed back and forth. Meier was insisting he had no role in changing the condition.

Don’t worry, she told me. It won’t be a problem. “I had conversations with him directly. He knows exactly what he’s supposed to do.”

As directed, Jon sent the request to Meier on March 20.

How did Meier respond?

“This request will be forwarded to the parole board.”

Meier never did send it to the parole board anyway. He sent it to his supervisor in the prison, Jeff McCoy, Deputy Commissioner for Program Services.

McKoy wrote Jon on June 5:

“Please be advised that the Parole Board Commissioners are responsible for all final determinations of parole conditions.”

But on March 20, Jon had also sent his request to the parole board, just to be safe.

It was after that the parole board made their genius amendment.

Jon spoke with his prison counselor, Larry Zick, who allegedly told Jon that he was the one who wrote the parole release document, and my name was a whoopsie—he may have gotten distracted while writing up the list (because I had to point out to prison staff that they’d removed the name of Jon’s crime victim while surreptitiously inserting my name in her place).

Prior to that, more than a half dozen staffers claimed they had no idea how my name got on the list, or why. After stating he had no idea why my name was on the list, Meier told me in a phone call that it was because I’d briefly put myself on Jon’s no-correspondence list of my own volition.

I beat down doors until I got an investigation opened. Then, I was told a different story by yet another prison employee. This time, the story was that a prison staffer named Lisa Hoy added my name to the list, alleging I’d called her in 2015 and told her I was afraid of Jon.

2015? That’s curious timing.

In 2015, Jon’s attorney filed lawsuits against staff at Mid-State and Groveland prisons. In 2015, Mid-State staff became aware of my book when I wrote administration seeking permission to do a media interview of Jon inside the facility. It was denied.

I’d been posting stories by Jon on my website; many unfavorable to prison staff. Someone posted a story from my website to an online forum for prison employees. Views of that story spiked well into the thousands. A couple prison employees posted angry comments on my website.

We believe the inclusion of my name on Jon’s “no contact” list was an attempt to silence our story.

Conveniently, Hoy left the prison job a very long time ago. I have no idea who she is. I’m not inclined to phone strangers at a prison to talk about my feelings. And if that call actually took place, what steps did the prison do to “protect” me? Because in 2015, and up to the time of his release, Jon and I had seamless, unhampered contact via phone calls, letters and visits.

I am not afraid of Jon.

The condition states that contact is ultimately up to his Rochester parole officer, Martin Buonanno. Note that almost all correspondence is cc’ed to Jon’s file. Either Buonanno didn’t bother to read it, or he arbitrarily dismissed it. He denied me the right to communicate with someone.

I am not under state ownership. My constitutional freedoms are not discretionary.

The litigation, called and Article 78, challenges an administrative decision; in this case, the parole board adding my name to the “no contact” list. The case is set be argued in State Supreme Court in Albany on January 5, 2018.

Cause of Action, Fontaine v. NYS Board of Parole
Memo of Law, Fontaine v. NYS Board of Parole
Memo of Law, Fontaine v. NYS Board of Parole
Cause of Action, Fontaine v. NYS Board of Parole

Click here to read my affidavit

Read the Cause of Action:

 

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Jail Fights are Like Diarrhea

Fights in jail or prison are like diarrhea – explodes everywhere.

I’ve had my share of fights over the years. I’ve probably forgotten as many as I remember. Most jail or prison fights are over in seconds. They’re not drawn out boxing matches. They’re explosions of violence.

Looking back, what I find remarkable is not the fights I’ve had – split lips, black eyes, sore hands, scratches – but my reaction to other people’s fights.

I was a teenager sitting in the mess hall of maximum security Elmira Correctional Facility. One corner of the mess hall was taken up by an indoor gun tower – round gun ports set in thick, angled glass. Officers paced in front of the glass, holding what looked like shotguns. Dozens of ceiling pipes were above my head, and the old-timers explained these were used to drop tear-gas canisters.

There were more officers stationed all around the room, toting wooden batons.

One minute, a few hundred inmates were eating; the next, two inmates exploded to their feet, fighting.

No one told me what to do in this situation. I was two months into my 18th year. I leaped to my feet, planning to move to the closest wall under the gun tower so I wouldn’t get shot.

The fight lasted 10 or 15 seconds – a long time in a prison fight – before officers broke it up and dragged them out.

I sat back down at my table and the guys asked me what I thought I was doing.

Years would pass, and I would see countless fights on all sides. Between inmates, there are cuttings and stabbings, and there are vicious, unprovoked beatings by officers.

A lifetime of violence desensitizes you.

I didn’t realize how far desensitized I was until 2012. I was in the Monroe County Jail, sitting in a visit with Susan [Ashline]. Half-way through our visit, I heard a crack behind me. I didn’t even turn to look, but I could see everyone else – inmates and visitors – watching.

Susan was staring at it and said to me, “They’re fighting!”

“So what?” I told her. “We’re having a visit.”

Here was a sane, law-abiding citizen surprised by a fight, and I didn’t even turn to look. I was more disturbed that she as distracted by two men fighting than I was that two men were fighting behind me.

Around the same time, also at the Monroe County Jail, there was another fight. Fifty-three inmates got popped out of their cells for breakfast. I had sat down, poured half my milk carton into a bowl of cereal and started eating.

One or two bites in, I heard inmates arguing over a chair, some cracks and scuffling, and a deputy yell, “Lock in!”

Inmates jumped up, leaving their trays behind, and fled to their cells. I stayed at my table, eating. The fight was still going on. Now, the two guys were rolling around on the floor. More deputies ran into the unit yelling, “Lock in!”

Besides the two fighting, I was the only inmate still out.

Deputies dove on them, and one ran up to me yelling, “Lock in or get sprayed!”

I stood up, picked up my tray with one hand, and kept eating with the other. I walked while eating.

When I finished, I set the tray on the floor, grabbed the half-carton of milk and took it into my cell and locked in.

After hauling the two fighters off, a deputy came to my door and asked why I didn’t lock in.

“I didn’t want my Rice Krispies to get soggy.”

“You were willing to get pepper sprayed over Rice Krispies?” he asked.

“I’ve been pepper sprayed for less.”

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Susan Ashline on DiTullio and Moran Show: A Jacket off the Gorge

Susan Ashline talks about A Jacket off the Gorge (missing coins and fake death, and answers questions you want to know) on DiTullio and Moran, 95.1 Rochester, May 24, 2017.

Photo courtesy: Iheart Radio

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Deputy Throws Whistle Blower Inmate in Isolation

Jon Fontaine is the subject of my book, A Jacket off the Gorge. He’s been sending me blogs from behind bars that I’ve been posting on my website. They are not popular among Monroe County Jail staff. They identify serious failures. (Read Jon’s blogs here.)

In what appears to be retaliation, jail staff has now taken Jon’s pen, paper, and modes of communication (phone, visits) and thrown him in isolation.

On May 23, I attended Jon’s court hearing. His attorney handed me a note that Jon surreptitiously passed him to give to me. It listed deputies’ names and stated they’d threatened him.

I walked to jail administration to turn over the note for investigation, and Corporal John Helfer came to talk to me. I had not stated the nature of my visit. Helfer’s demeanor appeared angry and defensive. He brought up Jon’s blogs on my website before I ever did, and before I got a chance to explain why I wanted to talk to him.

Helfer stated someone “sent an email around” to jail staff “with a link” to Jon’s blogs and suggested they look into his claims. Helfer then said to me, “We don’t investigate anything unless someone files a formal complaint.”

It was then I handed Jon’s note to Helfer and stated, “I want this investigated.”

Helfer asked me how Jon gets his stories to me. I said he writes them and mails them.

The next morning, May 24, Jon was taken to the mental health unit and locked in an isolation cell, his pen and paper taken from him, and his phone and visitor privileges revoked. This has been confirmed by an attorney.

Blocking someone from free speech: no small deal. That’s a violation of constitutional rights.

Later that evening, I received a call from the jail, but it wasn’t Jon. It was an inmate I didn’t know. He read a note which details the alleged chain of events. (Click here to listen to the inmate read the note.)

These are the allegations: Jon was talking with other inmates when jail deputy Cambisi confronted him and said, “You and I need to talk.” Cambisi then informed Jon he was going to write him up for “inciting a riot.” Internal Affairs staff arrived to investigate the complaint I’d launched the day before. Jon informed them of Cambisi’s action. After they left, Cambisi went to Jon’s cell and said, “You have a visit.” Jon grabbed his legal folder to take with him, which includes pen/paper. This time, however, it was not Internal Affairs, but two jail employees (Deputy Noble and Corporal Scott Bevilacqua) who took Jon to the mental health unit and locked him in an isolation cell, where inmates are barred from mail, phone calls and visits. Later, Corporal Wayne Guest brought Jon his property. Missing were his pens and paper. (Jon still had possession of the pens/paper he’d taken with him in his legal folder, which had not been searched).

The following is an email I sent to Monroe County Sheriff Patrick O’Flynn:

I am requesting that inmate Jon Fontaine be immediately released from isolation, where he was put today (5/24/17) after Deputy Cambisi wrote him up on trumped up charges of “inciting a riot.”

This appears to be in direct retaliation of the complaint I delivered on Jon’s behalf to Corporal John Helfer yesterday. Helfer mentioned Jon’s stories on my website before I ever did. He asked how Jon relayed the stories to me. I told him Jon writes them and mails them.

Today, Jon’s pen, paper and carbon paper were taken away from him, and he was placed in an area where he is barred from communication.

I call on Sheriff O’Flynn to investigate these jail employee’ actions, and if the claims are found to be substantiated, to remove them from their duties.

UPDATE:

5/24/17 evening

Two jail guards entered Jon’s isolation cell, awaking him at 10 p.m. to search his property. They took him from the isolation cell and relocated him.

UPDATE:

5/25/17 a.m.

Jon was relocated to the “main frame;” an area of the jail known for housing the most violent detainees. There, guards are caged for their safey.

5/25/17 p.m.

Two inmates in the main frame entered Jon’s cell and bashed his head in. He spent the night in the medical unit under observation. Jon states that after required time in the gym, inmates were returned to their cells and locked in, but soon after the cells locked, they were all unlocked. That’s when, according to Jon, two inmates entered his cell and began stating they were told he was a “baby killer.” They proceeded to slam the back of his head repeatedly into the jail bars. He states he does not remember how this ended. Jon states there were witnesses and security cameras.

UPDATE:

5/26/17 

Without explanation or paperwork, Jon was abruptly removed from the Monroe County Jail and taken back to Mid-State Correctional Facility. He had been under judge’s orders to remain in the Monroe County Jail through June 20, the date of his restitution hearing, so he would have adequate contact with his attorney in preparing for the hearing.

Jon had been at the Monroe County Jail for six months without incident. The weekend before this happened, Jon’s blogs on my website spiked to more than 5,000 views in two days.

 

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