Kansas inmates say prisons discipline them for false reasons. One man says it cost him parole
Shaidon Blake says he didn't threaten officers in prison, but a disciplinary report saying he did might have cost him parole. Kansas News Service reporting shows his claim of innocence has merit.
TOPEKA, Kansas — Shaidon Blake believes he should already be out of prison, and he argues a falsified disciplinary report has hurt his chances at parole and kept him locked away.
That report said Blake threatened to kill Kansas corrections officers and start a gang war, and it's being used against him when the parole board hears his case.
A records request from the Kansas News Service eventually found evidence that Blake’s claim of innocence has merit. It’s just one example of a prison disciplinary system that can be stacked against inmates when they try to fight a write up.
It was September 2020 when officers came to Blake’s cell. They said he was having a stroke, but he said he felt fine. He went to the prison’s medical center and was told he needed to go to the hospital.
He didn’t want to go, but officers said he couldn’t refuse medical care because the situation was potentially life threatening. Blake was put in a restraint chair and officers said he was verbally combative.
What happened that day has put Blake at odds with the prison system for years. Official reports said Blake harassed staff and told them that if anyone touched him, “they will f****** die. My guys will pull up on their houses.”
Blake said none of that happened and staff, who were frustrated with him already, lied on official documents to spite him. He has spent years unsuccessfully fighting his write up.
Eventually a corrections officer came to Blake’s defense, saying the report was not true.
“(The) narrative was indeed altered and what the narrative stated now was not what happened,” said a corrections officer in an email obtained by the Kansas News Service. That officer wasn’t directly involved in the event, but began asking questions about it once he heard Blake’s complaints.
That didn’t make a difference, though, and Blake said he isn’t getting out because Maryland officials think he wants to kill police. Blake was arrested and convicted in Maryland and later transferred to Kansas.
Blake’s parole record said he should improve his “institutional adjustment, access programs and secure job placement.”
Since his last parole date, his niece was killed. He said he should have been free before that tragedy.
“Anything that would have happened in my life before that parole day, then it was on me … But that happened when I should have been home,” Blake said. “I lost something from this falsified document. It cost me something.”
Inmates in Kansas prisons said the entire process for disciplinary write ups is flawed. They said even when they have evidence of their innocence, corrections officers don’t listen. And those write ups can prevent people from getting out of prison early or can cost them access to services like visits or phones to call loved ones.
One former inmate said he had apples and garbage bags in his locker, which can be used to make prison alcohol, and he was wrongly written up for dangerous contraband.
It isn’t clear if this is a widespread issue because the state makes it hard to get records confirming the most basic facts about a case.
The Kansas prison system tried to prevent public records about Blake’s case from being released to the Kansas News Service. An open records request for the email where one officer said the write up had false information was originally denied by the Kansas Department of Corrections. KDOC said that email was protected by health privacy laws, inmate privacy and was part of a criminal investigation.
The prison system ignored follow up questions asking for justification of the decision, and the emails weren’t provided until the Kansas News Service hired a lawyer to point out problems with the denial.
The prison system has made systematic mistakes with discipline before.
Kansas corrections staff misused alcohol testing swabs that led to an unknown amount of false positives and an unknown number of false write ups for illegal contraband. The prison misused those tests for almost a decade, and even though inmates complained for years, the prison system never took their claims seriously.
“We have no administrative remedy procedure up here,” Blake said. “There is no process to solve any issues.”
KDOC declined multiple requests to be interviewed.
How often do Kansas prisons falsely discpline inmates?
Prison write ups can’t add time to someone’s sentence — only new criminal charges can. Those reports can prevent an early release, take away visitation or put someone in a higher security cell.
The process mirrors a less formal court hearing. Inmates can take pleas for lesser punishment, be found guilty or not guilty. If found guilty, they can appeal.
There were 15,401 write ups and 12,171 guilty rulings in the Kansas corrections system last year. Of the guilty verdicts, 478 were appealed with 20 appeals leading to a reduced penalty, 47 had their infractions dismissed and 33 got a new hearing.
That means 21% of write ups ended in a not guilty verdict, but a tiny percentage of people were successful in appealing their guilty verdicts. Just 0.8% of guilty verdicts were successfully reversed.
Successful appeals are low for a variety of reasons. For starters, inmates could simply be guilty and are fighting the write up because they have the time and ability to do it. Others with legitimate complaints might not attempt to appeal because they don’t expect the appeal to succeed.
Inmate Tamikka Farr was written up for threatening another inmate. Farr said the conversation was heard out of context and she didn’t threaten anyone. She asked if the inmate she allegedly intimidated could talk to the corrections officers to prove that they weren’t in danger, but officers didn’t allow the alleged victim to speak.
Multiple inmates told the Kansas News Service that hearings are almost pointless because officers are always going to believe other officers, and an inmate's past makes them less credible.
“That’s the first thing that comes out of a hearing officer’s mouth is, ‘Oh, because of your history I know for a fact that this is you,’” Farr said.
She knows that people won’t always believe inmates, but she said an unfair process can make life inside prison harder.
“We are in prison, but we still got to fight for our rights in here,” Farr said. “This is our life. We’re trying to get out there and rehabilitate ourselves … (corrections staff) hold the key to us getting out of here.”
Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative — a left-leaning prison reform group, said this isn’t just a Kansas problem. She hears complaints from prison populations across the country.
Inmates don’t get lawyers but still have to craft a defense. They don’t always get to cross-examine witnesses and Kansas inmates said they don’t always get access to security camera footage to prove their case.
“When a corrections officer decides that someone has committed an infraction,” Bertram said, “there’s very little that the person can do to seek redress of that if they think that was an inappropriate charge.”
And breaking prison rules can have serious consequences, even if it was a minor offense.
A 2022 report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that 17% of inmates with minor violations were put into solitary confinement, while 53% lost privileges like phone calls and 12% lost early-release credit. Those early release credits can knock time off someone’s sentence and get them out of prison earlier.
“These are agencies that have a lot of power (and) refuse to make any kind of substantive change,” Bertram said.
Fighting a prison write up
Blake said there was no due process in his disciplinary reporting hearings. He was facing a half dozen write ups with multiple charges on each write up. He said he was found guilty after only having one hearing, which didn’t let him plead his case on each individual charge.
He began appealing these decisions, which took the complaint from the hearing officer to the warden and even to the Kansas secretary of corrections, but none of them took his side.
Blake said some of his complaints went a year without an official response.
Eventually, prison staff said Blake could appeal to the Maryland parole board and KDOC would not interfere with that investigation, unless Maryland asked for documents related to the incident.
“I truly hope Maryland does give you another chance,” Kansas prison staff said in response to his grievances.
Blake’s next parole hearing isn’t until 2028 and the write up could still remain on his record.
He is approaching two decades in prison. Blake admits he did things he shouldn’t have done and made mistakes that should have landed him in prison.
But he’s lost faith in the justice system. Blake was convicted of a gruesome murder, which he said he didn’t do. There are witnesses to the crime, but a detective investigating the case would later be convicted of making false claims and perjury in a separate case.
Years after his arrest, former Baltimore police officer Anthony Fata shot himself and lied about the incident to collect workers compensation benefits.
Blake was angry when he first got to prison but said he has changed. Even going as far as calming down other inmates who were yelling at staff.
“It is my belief that resident Blake (is) committed to making positive changes in his life that will make him a productive member of society should he be released from prison,” a parole recommendation reads. “It is rare to see a success story of effective corrections play out, and I believe Mr. Blake is one such success story.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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