The curious case of Benjamin Hicks
On November 9, 2017, Benjamin Hick’s received a call from his case manager Richard Cheney. Richard was asking for him to bring his verification forms to him at the St. Joseph County Ducomb Center. At the time, it didn’t strike Ben as anything out of the ordinary. Former prisoners released to the Ducomb Center on house arrest have to bring in signed and dated verification forms to their case managers every week. They need to prove that they visited all the places on their weekly schedule.
Ben is a fastidious man when it comes to his release. After being sentenced to 4 years for cocaine possession, he only had to serve a year and a half of that in prison before being released with an immaculate prison record and, quote, “exceptional behavior.” He was released to the Ducomb Center, and from there released to house arrest. Ben was staying with a friend when he got the call.
Once Benjamin arrived at the Ducomb Center and submitted the forms, Richard told him that he had to remain at the center. When asked why he was being kept, Richard told him only that the order came down from the Center’s Executive Director, Sharon McBride. When asked why Sharon would want Ben held, all Richard could say was that he would speak with Sharon when she returned to the center in a couple of days. It was the first of many delays, and only a taste of things to come.
A week passed, and Ben received no response from Sharon McBride, from Rich Cheney, or from any administrator or staff member at the Ducomb Center about why he was being held and what, if anything, he had done wrong. So Ben started filing official grievances about his detention, which was seemingly without cause or parameters.
In St. Joseph County, prisoners released on home detention must commit a crime or violate the terms of their home detention before being sent back to and held at the Ducomb Center. According to the law, the Ducomb Center Executive Director must make a formal recommendation to the Judge assigned to the ex-prisoner’s case requesting that he or she be returned.
In Benjamin’s case, he neither committed a crime nor violated the terms of his house arrest.
Two more weeks passed, and Benjamin was still waiting for a response from Sharon McBride. He kept filing grievances, on almost a daily basis now. It felt like the only thing he could do. He submitted them to Sharon McBride, to his case manager Richard Cheney, and to the program manager Justin Moody.
Eventually he stopped getting silence in response to his grievances, and started getting threats. Richard Cheney, his own case manager, threatened him with write-ups if he kept up his persistent questions. The environment in the Ducomb Center, once indifferent to Ben’s plight, was turning hostile.
Fearing that he would never receive these answers, Ben cast out a lifeline to the outside world. He asked his fiancé, Kyna Glass to write a letter to Judge Jane Woodward Miller, the judge presiding over his case.
In early December, Kyna gave a letter to Judge Miller’s clerk at the St. Joseph County Courthouse. Weeks passed, and Kyna did not receive a response from Judge Miller. Kyna wrote another letter, this time stressing the need for Benjamin to be granted his day in court. They would wait longer still.
On December 24, 2017, there were 2 drug overdoses in the Ducomb Center. One of those people was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, but the other had died from their overdose. That man was Benjamin Hicks’ dormmate.
There are procedures in place in case of a death by drug overdose. Ben knew there would be a full investigation, and as part of that, a visit from the Executive Director herself. Though it was the only chance he had gotten since being detained to actually speak to the woman who ordered his detention, at that point Ben was more afraid of reprisal than he was hopeful that she would offer any help or understanding.
Benjamin decided to stay quiet, to wait to hear from the judge, but sometimes you can’t hide anguish from showing through on your face. Sharon McBride came to his dorm and asked them all questions as part of her investigation. She also approached Benjamin as he was quietly sitting on his bed, his forehead tucked under his hands out of frustration. She asked if he was OK. After weeks of silence, she asked if he was OK.
He answered. “No, I am not okay.” Ben explained that he had been filing grievances since early November and had yet to receive any response from her about why he has been held in this facility against his will.
Her reply was not an answer, but a question. “So you mean you don’t know why you’re back in here?”
Benjamin said, “No.”
Sharon McBride then asked, “Well, what did they tell you?”
Benjamin replied: “They only said it came from the top.”
Sharon then responded by deflecting. “You know they like to throw me under the bus.” Frustrated, Ben pressed, “So you mean you haven’t received any of my grievances or messages that I wanted to talk to you?”
Sharon said, “No.”
Asking for patience, considering the work she had to do with the overdose and investigation, Sharon said she would look at his case and get back with him in a week.
A week went by. Nothing. Around January 4th, Justin Moody informed Benjamin that he received a court date from Judge Miller. January 17th.
January 17th, 2018. When Benjamin appeared for his court hearing and attempted to explain his situation to Judge Miller. In the middle of this explanation, the Judge stopped him. She needed to know why he was being held. To Benjamin’s surprise and consternation, Judge Miller ordered him to speak with Case Manager about why he was being held. She would reschedule him for another court date, and when that date came she wanted to have an answer.
Everything hinged on that one detail, the one thing no one would tell him: why was he being held here? Richard Cheney had recently been fired, so Justin Moody took over as Ben’s temporary case manager. Unfortunately, all he had to offer was more of the same.
Judge Miller set the next court date for February 16th.
Given that Justin Moody was not responsive in the past, Benjamin knew he would not get an explanation from him by his next court date. When Ben returned to the Ducomb Center he told Justin that he was ordered by Judge Miller to ask him why he was being held and report back to her in 30 days.
Justin Moody responded, “Well, it’s kind of complicated.” To which Benjamin responded, naturally, “What do you mean it’s kind of complicated?” Justin deflected again. “Let me check on some things and I’ll get back to you.”
At this point, Ben was beginning to lose hope that he could work this out by talking to the Ducomb Center staff.
About a week after his January 17th court date, Ben Hicks contacted Diane Tillman-Robertson, a local attorney in St. Joseph County. He asked for her assistance in finding answers and for her to represent him at his next hearing. Tillman-Robertson agreed to a retainer and began to send emails to Sharon McBride, asking for a reason why Benjamin was being held.
Sharon did not respond. As the court hearing neared, Diane decided to call Sharon McBride and spoke with her on the phone. While on the phone with Sharon, she explained that she needed to meet with her to discuss Benjamin’s case. Sharon agreed to meet with Diane, in private, on February 15th, just one day before his hearing.
The night of February 15th, Benjamin, his Attorney, and his fiance Kyna had a conference call during which Ms. Tillman-Robertson explained what transpired in her conversation with Sharon McBride. In that conversation Sharon stated that she was ready to give “the real reason” why Benjamin was pulled back into the facility. Sharon McBride told Diane that she received a call from the person with whom Benjamin Hicks resided while on house arrest. The person claimed that Benjamin was “mean” and that the person was scared, and wanted Sharon to hold him in the Ducomb Center.
This confused Ben. He never had any issues with this person. They were a close personal friend, and they have always had a good relationship, that was why he was staying at their house in the first place. Something didn’t smell right. Neither Sharon McBride nor Justin Moody had ever brought these allegations to his attention. He had never received an incident report or, indeed, anything related to these charges. None of it added up.
On February 16th, Benjamin Hicks appeared in court with his attorney ready to share his findings with Judge Miller. When Benjamin and his attorney stood before Judge Miller, Justin Moody appeared and said that Benjamin had “a pending write-up.”
Judge Miller refused to hear him, but not because of the write up. Because of Benjamin’s health. It was brought to Judge Miller’s attention that Benjamin had surgery scheduled for February 19th. She told him to go home on house arrest (the Ducomb does not have in-center medical services), have his surgery, and return in six weeks for a hearing, this time set for April 6th.
Justin Moody confirmed, “April 6th, Your Honor?”
Judge Miller confirmed the date and made it clear that the Ducomb Center was expected to appear at the next hearing.
When April 6th came, Ben Hicks and his attorney returned to court ready to tell his story, but they were the only ones. No-one from the Ducomb Center appeared. Because no one from the Ducomb Center showed up, Judge Miller sent Ben back to the Ducomb Center, and rescheduled his hearing for May 4th.
In anticipation of his May 4th hearing and fearful that Ducomb would continue to dodge him, Benjamin Hicks retained a new attorney, John Ulmer, who subpoenaed Ducomb Executive Director Sharon McBride.
While waiting for his next hearing, Benjamin had several conversations with Justin Moody where Justin admitted that Benjamin’s situation should have been handled better. He even apologized, saying that when he found out what was “really going on” that “it was out of [his]hands.” He wanted Benjamin to know that “it was just business, not personal.” It was a strange conversation, and not comforting.
On May 4th, he went to court, accompanied by John Ulmer. His former attorney, Diane Tillman-Roberson, was now a witness in the proceedings. Her personal conversation with Sharon McBride on February 15th was germane to the case, and pointed to the real reason for Ben’s continued detention. At the hearing, Ben was again not allowed to argue his case. Again, Ducomb did not show up.
Sharon McBride did not appear in court, in violation of her subpoena. The County Prosecutor explained that Sharon was out of town, and was therefore unable to appear in court. This struck everyone involved as a strange, unusually generous application of the subpoena process. Judge Miller suggested to Ulmer that he file a modification on behalf of Benjamin, which raised concerns for Benjamin because the past four court hearings had absolutely nothing to do with a modification to his sentence, only to do with a holding in Ducomb for which there was no official cause.
Again, Benjamin Hicks was sent back to the Ducomb Center.
Ben was surprised to see Sharon McBride shortly after walking in the door — barely an hour after the Prosecutor granted her a reprieve for being out of town. A little more hope slipped out the door as it was closed behind him.
On May 9, 2018, Benjamin had a post-op appointment with his doctor to make sure everything went well with his surgery. Since having the surgery on February 19th, Benjamin had several visits to the hospital due to pain in his abdominal area. Benjamin was denied a pass to his appointment because according to a staff member at the Ducomb Center, the ankle bracelet system was down and she was given strict instructions by Sharon to not allow him to leave the facility without having an ankle bracelet on.
At that time, his fiancé Kyna had enough. She contacted their attorney — Ulmer — about Ben being denied access to medical attention. Ulmer filed for an emergency hearing.
Suffering through a painful recovery and an imprisonment with no end in sight, the situation weighed heavy on Benjamin Hicks. Later that day, he said to one of the staff members at Ducomb, “So now y’all just gone play with my health? Ok.”
Surprisingly, after that, Ducomb’s on-site Officer approved his pass. He approved it even though Katrina Parham, Ben’s new Case Manager, had already denied it. This small mercy allowed Ben to go to his appointment, albeit over two hours late. Fortunately, the receptionist at the doctor’s office said he might have to wait a couple of hours, but they could squeeze him in.
May 10, at 11:30 am, the very next day, he had an appointment with his attorney Mr. Ulmer. He expected to receive a pass for this meeting but discovered that the Ducomb Center had filed a bench warrant with the court to have him sent back to prison. The relief of yesterday’s small reprieve was drowned out by the sting of this new reprisal. There was no doubt in Ben’s mind that this was in retaliation for the emergency hearing. Ducomb had made it’s intentions clear, if not its motives: they wanted him behind bars, one way or another.
On May 15, 2018, in an act of bravery, desperation, and hope, Benjamin’s family held a press conference outside of the Ducomb Center to bring attention to his case. Benjamin’s family received an overwhelming amount of private well-wishes from people who watched the press conference video posted on facebook, and even some responses from people who had witnessed similar cases in Ducomb.
On May 18, 2018, although he was on total lockdown and could not leave the facility, and hadn’t left in days, staff pulled him out of his dorm, strip-searched him, and issued him a drug test. Benjamin believed, and still believes that this was done to intimidate and harass him. He does not use drugs and has never failed a drug test.
Thankfully, Judge Miller denied the bench warrant filed against Benjamin, and Ducomb has not yet been able to send him back to prison.
Now, more than 7 months since being called back, Benjamin Hicks is still in total lockdown at the Ducomb Center.
The Ducomb Center has yet to respond to a request for an emergency hearing.
At the time of this writing, Benjamin Hicks is awaiting a public ‘status conference’ with his attorney, Judge Miller, and the legal representation from the Ducomb Center.
But he is not optimistic.