In 2016, Oaks of Justice LLC, and its founder and CEO, Joanne Morgan, began putting out information that the company was seeking Department of Justice (DOJ) and Bureau of Prisons (BOP) approval for a pilot program. Oaks said the program would send first-time non-violent offenders home for substantial portions of their sentences on a monitored work furlough.
As of last week, Morgan still believes the program would allow participants to serve time wearing a piece of proprietary hardware, a watch, developed by Oaks of Justice. She does however admit that there is no approval for the program at this time. By all accounts—there is not even an approval on the horizon—that is unless Morgan finds someone who can advocate for the company with the powers that be.
Morgan said the proprietary hardware would communicate with satellites to monitor the wearer’s location, biometric functions, and is capable of two-way communications between the wearer and the monitoring service. And that the company already has a tech company in place to monitor the device.
At least one person told me she had worn a prototype watch for a test run. She was able to send me a photo of herself wearing the watch—which looked nothing like the device on the Oaks website—and looked more like any other generic brand smart watch on the market. The wearer received the watch directly from Morgan in the mail, along with a key, that allowed her to take the watch on and off again. She was able to check her heart rate using buttons on the watch and when she originally set the watch up, there was some sort of “two-way” communications.
In June 2012, Winnie Joanne Barefoot, a/k/a Winnie Jo Budzina, a/k/a Winnie JoAnne Conn, a/k/a Joanne Knopsnyder, a/k/a Olivia JoAnne Morgan, a/k/a Olivia JoAnne Barefoot Morgan, was sentenced to five years federal prison for bank fraud arising from what the government said was the use of numerous identities, as well as obtaining real estate and commercial loans while receiving social security disability benefits. Morgan was released from federal prison in 2016—right around the same time Oaks of Justice appeared on the radar of incarcerated individuals in many federal prisons across the nation.
Morgan told me when she first formed the company, it was language in the BOP’s Work Furlough Program Statement that allowed implementation of the program. Morgan now says it is the First Step Act (FSA), signed into law in December 2018 by former President Donald Trump, that has made way for the program to move forward.
Here is where Morgan may find some support from others in the marketplace. At least one group of potential investors saw the same advantage to applying the FSA and the BOP’s Work Furlough Program Statement to implement the release of approved incarcerated people to a monitored work release program.
One member of the group, who wished to remain anonymous, told me “The Oaks of Justice program, and Jo Morgan, have produced a viable program that is authorized by current law in place, and policy, via Work Furloughs (used throughout the BOP for decades to allow inmates to work in the communities and for public and private entities) and later, via extended home confinement as per the First Step Act of 2018.”
“In mid to late 2017 a group of inmates with significant family and outside business and legal resources became aware of Oaks of Justice and Jo Morgan and her proposed opportunity of a Work Furlough program. At this time, this inmate group began to utilize those resources and investigate, review, and gather information to be shared with a disparate, but very interested, group of inmates (hundreds) as well as interested staff. This investigation and review continued through March of 2020…and “included meetings and due diligence completed through private investigators, prison consultants, attorneys, and business executives, of which many were family members or associates of the inmates with significant resources.” Reviewed was “all critical press and information that was available and actual review of documents provided by Oaks of Justice and others. “At no time did Oaks solicit any funds from any of the group of inmates, nor their families, just the opposite. There were inmates and their families offering funds of more than $100,000 to help fund the program and efforts to ensure placement in the first 600 – 1,000 inmates. Out of this group there was offers and opportunities to fund the lobbyist (excess of $200,000), as well as proposals to buyout Jo and acquire the company (based upon 10-year independent income projections). Of which, Jo never accepted any of those funds.”
He went on to say, “It was also determined that the consensus is Jo’s intentions were above board and that the business model was an improvement upon the long-term intentions of GEO and other private-prison-industry-corporations that specialize in running halfway houses and privately contracted prisons with the Federal Government.”
That being said, “it is a program that is ahead of its time.” “While current law and policy allow such a program, and specifically is encouraged and required by the FSA, it would be a number of years until it could really get off the ground due to the bureaucracy within the BOP and DOJ specifically and their foot-dragging of implementation of the FSA in its entirety, and the refusal to use current tools (laws and programs) to progressively reduce the prison population and being adverse to change from the norm.”
Regardless, Morgan still has some explaining to do.
For example, Morgan originally told me that Oaks paid $200,000 to a lobbyist who was working with someone at the DOJ and the BOP to get the program approved. She claims the lobbyist told her he was close to making a deal with the Trump Administration, prior to President Biden taking office. When asked where the money to pay the lobbyist came from, Morgan said it was paid with personal funds—proceeds from a legal settlement she had received. At least one other person I interviewed was told the same story by Morgan.
When I spoke to the lobbyist, Mark Seale, he recalled being paid a $25,000 retainer by Oaks in early 2019. It was his understanding at the time that the money came from an investor not Joanne Morgan. In his research, he came to the conclusion that there was “no legislation currently in place that would allow the program to be viable.”
Seale says he was promised additional payments from Morgan to continue to work on Oak’s behalf, however, those payments were not forthcoming. What was forthcoming, was the many factual misstatements told to Seale by Joanne Morgan. After eight or nine months, Seale thought it best to exit stage left. He was not willing to put his reputation on the line working with Oaks or Morgan, when so many things just didn’t add up.
I confronted Morgan with Seale’s version of events, and her story morphed into something totally different than what she originally told me. Morgan now claims that Oaks actually signed a contract with Seale to pay him $200,000, of which $35,000 was paid before the two parted ways. She says the $35,000 came from Steve Standridge, an ex-employee of the company, but admits the actual bank deposit was wired from someone named D. White, not Standridge. Morgan also provided a small business bank statement to support her position.
I reviewed the bank statement and found that Oaks of Justice did in fact receive a $39,000 deposit from D. White into its bank account in February 2019. On that same date, an outgoing wire transfer in the amount of $35,000 showing the name Mark Seale as the recipient, was paid from the same bank account.
Steve Standridge, once a successful Arkansas businessman, received a five year federal prison sentence for money laundering and wire fraud in 2014. When I spoke to Standridge, he denied anything to do with the $39,000 deposit, and claims he never gave any money to the company or Morgan. In fact, Standridge remembers the $39,000 being a loan to the company from an unknown investor.
Standridge said he believed in Oaks and Morgan. And “he thought she was doing her best to help people.” He claims he resigned from the company because Morgan would “not apologize to the board for lying about sending an email to a potential investor stating to him that she had over $200,000 in payroll and other monthly costs and she actually had zero payroll.” Something Morgan flatly denied.
Why Do So Many Things Not Add Up?
I for one am certainly not inclined to throw rocks at anyone who has served their time in prison and is now attempting to start their own company—in fact, I will be the first to line up to cheer them on. However, in this case, two plus two just doesn’t equal four.
Many things Morgan says just don’t add up, such as the many times Oaks has claimed to be close to implementing the program. In March 2019, she told Thomas Root of Lisa Legal, “we have gotten the go-ahead from the White House for the program and we are waiting for acceptance of our protocols by BOP.” At that time, Morgan told Mr. Root that the first group of 600 prisoners would enter the program in March, with two additional groups of 1,000 participants each entering the program by the end of May. I spoke to Mr. Root at length, he is absolutely convinced, after his research into the company, that it is nothing more than a run of the mill scam.
I confronted Joanne Morgan about the misinformation that has been put out by Oaks of Justice. Morgan claims she was given misinformation by members of the Oaks team, including the lobbyist, which led her to believe the company was closer to approval than was the reality. She provided emails between herself and Seale that show when asked about the appointments, Seale replied “requests are in just waiting.” Morgan says this led her to believe that Seale was in fact meeting with the White House and the BOP.
The Prison Consultant
I spoke with Dan Wise a/k/a RDAP Dan. Wise, now a prison consultant, pleaded guilty in 2014 to conspiracy to distribute drugs for his role managing a pill mill pain clinic in Georgia. Wise said he worked with Oaks for about a month in 2019, before his research made him realize the program “was definitely not going to go anywhere.” When I questioned Wise about what tipped him off to Oaks, he said he became aware of the scam during a conversation with lobbyist Mark Seale. Seale revealed to Wise that no appointments had been set up with the DOJ or the BOP, because Oaks had never finished paying him.
Wise says Morgan told him that a meeting was set up with Jared Kushner’s office, and that an agreement was in place with the BOP and Alderson Federal Prison Camp. All of which Wise says turned out to be lies. Wise believes Morgan was taking money from investors and that was the scam.
Once he became aware of what Oaks was doing, Wise immediately reached out to Christie Thompson with The Marshall Project and Thomas Root of Lisa Legal. Wise says he worked closely with the two reporters to provide information that appeared in negative press releases in January of 2020, and February of 2020, respectively. RDAP Dan also made his own YouTube video to alert his followers about the Oaks scam on June 26, 2019.
Both Morgan and Wise provided me with email correspondence that shows Wise was at least in contact with Morgan and Oaks of Justice as early as January 2018. As with everything else in this twisted saga, Morgan tells a different story about Wise’s involvement. Morgan says Wise was only interested in how much money he could make for himself. And that Wise wanted to run a call center for the company to accept applications and screen would be participants in the program in order to rake in cash. Wise admits he was looking to run a call center to process applications for the company, and said “of course he would have charged for his services—who wouldn’t?”
Morgan claims Wise wanted to raise the application fees to families by double the amount that was necessary to enroll the incarcerated participants in the program. She says Wise wanted to keep one-half for himself for processing the applications, and that this is what caused the two to part ways. She says Wise “did not take the no easily” and this “turned out to be a reason for him to retaliate.”
Morgan provided me with a copy of a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) that she says Dan Wise breached. Wise, who originally did not remember the NDA until I emailed him a copy of the document, admits he signed it, but claims the agreement is invalid in many states. The agreement was signed on June 11, 2019. Emails provided to me between Morgan and Standridge, show that at least Steve Standridge also agreed with Morgan’s claim that Wise had violated the NDA agreement.
Did Money Change Hands?
I attempted to find families of incarcerated or formally incarcerated individuals that had actually paid money to Morgan or Oaks of Justice. Nobody came forward. However, people did comment on my Facebook posts requesting information on several federal justice impacted pages, stating that the company is “a scam.” The general consensus is that Oaks of Justice has done something wrong. Yet nobody can quite put their finger on exactly what it is the company or Morgan actually did that was a scam.
A moderator and group expert for the Facebook page FAMMilies in Action stated “This organization came across our radar a few years ago, and at the time we sent this message to our Corrlinks list about them: we have received a lot of questions about an organization reaching out to prisoners and their families called Oaks of Justice. FAMM cannot vouch for this group. We don’t know of any valid program that can provide what Oaks of Justice offers. Our advice here would be the old saying: if something sounds too good to be true, it’s likely that it isn’t true.”
However, it does appear that at least some money did change hands. Morgan admitted that one person complained to authorities about being unhappy with services she paid to Oaks. Morgan claims that she is cooperating with an investigation by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) into that claim and has turned over all information on the matter to investigators. She also says the OIG told her “she is not a target or person of interest in the investigation.”
The Legal Consultant
In the company’s defense, Morgan stated it was Steve Standridge that accepted the money without her knowledge. And that the money was received into an Oaks bank account opened in Arkansas by Standridge, that he controlled. She says the money was paid to a consultant who did a compassionate release motion for a family that had reached out to Oaks for help. Standridge denies any knowledge of the bank transaction or the compassionate release motion.
I reached out to the consultant, Scott Sitner of https://scottsitner.com. Sitner says he was paid to write a letter to the Warden and draft a compassionate release motion on behalf of Diane Dalmy, who was incarcerated at the time. Sitner told me that Steve Standridge sent him a copy of a pending bank wire for $5,000 from Dalmy’s son on November 29, 2019. Bank records reflect a wire deposit from A. Dalmy that was deposited into the Oaks of Justice Arkansas bank account on November 29, 2019, and three electronic transactions on December 4, 2019, paying $2,500 in total to Sitner. Something Morgan says she found out about after the fact.
Morgan also provided bank statements that show Sitner was paid additional funds in the total amount of $590, from the same Arkansas bank account on various other dates. She says she was told by Standridge that the additional funds were paid to Sitner to make phone calls to probation officers, as well as case managers at several prisons. Morgan says the calls were made on behalf of clients Sitner consulted that were referred to him by Standridge, not Oaks. She claims this was all done behind her back, and without approval of her or the board of directors of Oaks, with Standridge and Sitner splitting the fees. She denies that she or Oaks ever kept any of the money.
When I spoke to Diane Dalmy, she told me she was not at all pleased with the services that were provided by Sitner. Her beef is with him, not Oaks. She says she complained to the State Bar of Michigan about Sitner and his connection to Oaks. Her complaint—many details in her compassionate release motion were not correct and she never received a copy for review before it was filed on her behalf. She is also upset that Sitner was disbarred from the practice of law in 2005—something she nor her family was made aware of before hiring him.
Dalmy says the incorrect information in the motion Sitner filed got her in hot water with the Judge, who called her a liar in his order denying her compassionate release. Per court records, the motion was filed unsigned and showed as a pro se filing by Dalmy. However, per the envelope included with the electronic filing of the motion, it was mailed to the court by Sitner from an address in Michigan. Sitner provided emails he claims proves the document was reviewed by friends and family members of Dalmy, before he mailed it. He gave no explanation as to why it was not signed by Dalmy, which is customary in a pro se filing. It is unclear from the emails exactly which document was reviewed, since Sitner prepared both the letter to the Warden and the compassionate release motion during the same timeframe.
It is of note that prior to her federal conviction for conspiracy in 2018, Dalmy was an attorney herself. Had she reviewed the motion, surely she would have noticed that the motion called her a “physician” and stated that she was suffering from “breast cancer,” two of the major mistakes that can be found in the motion that was filed with the court. And something Dalmy says caused the Judge to believe she had lied to the court in the motion. Playing pin the tail on the donkey blindfolded might be easier than pinning down the details of what actually happened in this case.
The biggest question for incarcerated persons and their families may be where the company stands now? Morgan claims an attorney for the company Graham Catlett, a well-known Little Rock, Arkansas attorney, incorporated the business in October 2020, under the name Oaks Security, LLC. Based on my research of Arkansas Secretary of State business records, in October 2020, someone did in fact incorporate Oaks Security, LLC in the state of Arkansas, and Graham Catlett is listed as the registered agent for that company. What appears to be a company website (https://oakssecurity.us ) references both Oaks Security, LLC and Oaks of Justice on the same site.
I reached out to Mr. Catlett to ask questions about Oaks of Justice. In his email response, he denied having anything to do with the company. In our correspondence, Catlett told me “I am not associated with that company and cannot comment.” When I pressed further, relaying the information Joanne Morgan had told me about him being the attorney for the company, Mr. Catlett replied “I have no further comment.”
Morgan provided me with a copy of what she claims is the proposed legal Operating Agreement of Oaks Security, LLC, a document she says Mr. Catlett drew up. The contract states the nature of the business as “The Company may engage in the business of monitoring individuals under various state or federal programs providing for home confinement, early release or similar programs.” The agreement if entered into, would make JoAnne Morgan 66.67% owner and Catlett, Inc. 33.33% owner of Oaks Security, LLC.
The contract would also require Morgan to “transfer to the Company all her intellectual property, contacts, files and information regarding the Company; transfer from Oaks of Justice, LLC its website address, SAM registration and any and all other licenses, registrations; warrant to the Company that the Company has no debts whatsoever or if it does, to terminate all such debts prior to filing in Arkansas; train the Directors and key employees about the business plan and its implementation; establish meetings with appropriate persons at prospective Company vendors and the US Bureau of Prisons and the US Department of Justice in order to obtain agreements with the Company; use her best efforts to make the Company operational.”
Language in the agreement appears to take away most of the decision making from Morgan, and place it with Catlett, Inc. and the board of directors of Oaks Security, LLC. Morgan claims she is having second thoughts about signing the contract. She says the second thoughts stem from her disagreement with language in the contract that she and Mr. Catlett have gone back and forth about on several occasions. She claims because she has not signed the contract, it is not valid, and she still owns the business.
One issue the company may run into, is that similar technology is already being used by half-way houses and probation offices in various parts of the country. And by all accounts, the BOP was investigating the program as recently as 2019-2020 as being a scam. At the time, inmates at many facilities were warned about the possible scam and discouraged from giving the company any monies. And Oaks of Justice does have complaints on several consumer review sites, including the well-known Ripoff Report. The reviews are not flattering, to say the least.
At least one person I interviewed disagrees with the group of potential investors in regards to the program being viable under the FSA. That person, who wished to remain anonymous, spent seven years incarcerated in federal prison. She stated “you can’t waive statute or law. That would be an extremely slippery slope and the BOP will just adjust PATTERN scores to not allow for release referral.” She believes “it would take years to hire enough probation officers to do this, even if possible, which it is not.” And “just because it’s written doesn’t make it true or plausible and my interpretation is different.” She went on to say “that’s why Republicans passed it because it’s never going to happen. The entire criminal code would need to be changed. Even if they did that, prosecutors would just ask for way more time at sentencing to off-set any possible reduction in incarceration behind bars.”
Did Oaks Cause Harm To Incarcerated Individuals and Their Families?
As someone who advocates for first time non-violent offenders to serve their sentence in community custody programs, or at home on a monitoring device being supervised by the United States Probation Office, I would love to see a program like the one Morgan envisioned get off the ground. The savings alone in taxpayer dollars would be reason enough. Let alone the benefits a program like this would do for keeping families together. And given the impact incarceration has on the mental health of those incarcerated, society would be better served in the long run. The success of those released under the Cares Act has in ways given us a view into what a program like this could actually look like.
What is the saddest part of this story to me—is the many incarcerated individuals and their families that have been given false hope—sold nothing more than a pipe dream. But one source, who himself served a good amount of time in federal prison, sees it differently, “Did Jo’s belief that the FSA and its mandates and authorizations would be implemented as the law requires cause “false” hope, and place inmates and their families on an emotional rollercoaster as to desperately wanting to believe in the program and its imminent implementation? Or is this hope what allows an inmate, and their family, to see a light at the end of the tunnel and bring them through each day with hope vs. giving up? In many cases making to the end of their sentences.”
He went on to say “Is it any different than the “false” hope and therefore, emotional stress and strain, caused by Congressional actions from 2012 – 2016 with the SAFE Act? Or the emotional ups and downs and harm caused by the promises of Congress and the President from 2017 – 2018 surrounding the First Step Act? Or the false hope, anxiety and incredible stress by the failure to implement the FSA? Or the Fair Sentencing Act, the Equal Act, and all other proposed reforms? A case can be made that these hopes as generated by Oaks, advocacy groups, congress, candidates, and Presidents, are what get hundreds of thousands of inmates and their families through the day to day grind of incarceration.”