jump to navigation

Obama Visits Mandela’s Old Cell, But Won’t Free His Own Political Prisoners July 5, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Human Rights, South Africa.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

obama_wont_free_political_prisoners
Tue, 07/02/2013 – 22:22 — Glen Ford

 

A Black Agenda Radio commentary by executive editor Glen Ford

Obama sees no irony in making a pilgrimage to Nelson Mandela’s place of political imprisonment, while holding 80,000 human beings in solitary confinement. “Racist South Africa’s treatment of Mandela and his co-revolutionists was downright benign and enlightened, compared to fate of U.S. prisoners who are deemed a threat to the prevailing order.”

 

“Obama has no sympathy, however, for political prisoners of any race in his own country.”

President Barack Obama, a man of infinite cynicism, made a great show of going on pilgrimage to Nelson Mandela’s old prison cell on Robben Island, where the future first Black president of South Africa spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. With his wife and daughters in tow, Obama said he was “humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield…. No shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit,” said the chief executive of the unchallenged superpower of mass incarceration, a nation whose population comprises only 5 percent of humanity, but is home to fully one-quarter of the Earth’s prison inmates.

True sociopaths, like the commander-in-chief who updates his Kill List every Tuesday, have no sense of shame, much less irony. Obama feigns awe at Mandela’s suffering and sacrifice in the prisons of apartheid South Africa, yet presides over a regime that, on any given day, holds 80,000 inmates in the excruciating torture of solitary confinement. During Nelson Mandela’s nearly three decades of imprisonment by the white regime, he spent a total of only about one week in solitary confinement. The rest of the time, despite often harsh treatment, backbreaking labor, and unhealthy conditions, Mandela and other political prisoners at Robben Island and other South African jails were typically housed together. Indeed, Mandela and his incarcerated comrades called the prisons their “university,” where they taught each other to become the future authorities over their jailers.

“A social death alien to the human species.”

Racist South Africa’s treatment of Mandela and his co-revolutionists was downright benign and enlightened, compared to fate of U.S. prisoners who are deemed a threat to the prevailing order. At U.S. high security facilities, the slightest evidence that an inmate is of a political bent of mind is cause for him to be condemned to a solitary existence for decades – a social death alien to the human species. At California’s Pelican Bay and the state prison at Corcoran, thousands of inmates are held in isolation, 80 of them for more than 20 years, the very definition of barbarism. Yet, Obama journeys across oceans and continents to stand for a photo op in the cell of a prisoner whose ordeal was nowhere near as horrific as the standard fare for political prisoners in his own country.

On his trip to South Africa, Obama proclaimed that “the world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island.” And, that’s certainly true, although it was a U.S. intelligence agent who lured Nelson Mandela into a trap in 1962 that ultimately led to his capture and imprisonment. Obama has no sympathy, however, for political prisoners of any race in his own country. Former Black Panther Herman Wallace is thought to be the longest-serving prisoner in solitary confinement in the United States, having spent 40 years alone in a cell in Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison. Obama could free him at any time, but of course, he won’t. He could emancipate Black Panther captive Russell Maroon Shoatz, who has spent nearly 30 years in solitary, or Republic of New Africa political prisoner Mutulu Shakur or any and all of the scores of other aging political prisoners – people whose dedication to human freedom is no less than Mandela’s, yet have been subjected to far worse treatment at American hands. Instead, Obama has doubled the bounty on Shakur’s comrade and sister, Assata, in exile in Cuba. She might even be on Obama’s Kill List – which is the real and authentic legacy of this country’s First Black President.

For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Glen Ford. On the web, go to BlackAgendaReport.com.

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.

Human Rights Watch decries U.S. prison system January 31, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Torture, War on Terror.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Thursday, Jan 31, 2013 10:25 AM EST

The NGO’s World Report criticizes mass incarceration and U.S. record of torture and extrajudicial killing

By

 

Human Rights Watch decries U.S. prison system (Credit: Shutterstock)

Human Rights Watch Thursday published its annual World Report, in which it lays out a pointed critique of the U.S. prison system. The enormous prison population  — the largest in the world at 1.6million — “partly reflects harsh sentencing practices contrary to international law,” notes the report.

The 2013 World Report, a 665-page tome which assesses human rights progress in the past year in 90 countries, highlights particular issues undergirding the U.S.’s blighted carceral system. It notes that “practices contrary to human rights principles, such as the death penalty, juvenile life-without-parole sentences, and solitary confinement are common and often marked by racial disparities.” Via HRW:

Research in 2012 found that the massive over-incarceration includes a growing number of elderly people whom prisons are ill-equipped to handle, and an estimated 93,000 youth under age 18 in adult jails and another 2,200 in adult prisons. Hundreds of children are subjected to solitary confinement. Racial and ethnic minorities remain disproportionately represented in the prison population.

HRW cite statistics often used to show racial disparities in the U.S. prison system. For example, while whites, African Americans and Latinos have comparable rates of drug use, African Americans are arrested for drug offenses, including possession, at three times the rate of white men.

“The United States has shown little interest in tackling abusive practices that have contributed to the country’s huge prison population,” said Maria McFarland, deputy U.S. program director at Human Rights Watch. “Unfortunately, it is society’s most vulnerable – racial and ethnic minorities, low-income people, immigrants, children, and the elderly – who are most likely to suffer from injustices in the criminal justice system.”

Although noting some progress in 2012 (both D.C. and Connecticut joined the ranks of 16 states to have abolished the death penalty), HRW also stressed continuing injustices in U.S. immigration policies, labor issues and treatment of minorities, women, the disabled and HIV positive individuals. The report was particularly critical when reviewing the U.S.’s counterterrorism policies. The NGO noted in a statement:

Both the Obama administration and Congress supported abusive counterterrorism laws and policies, including detention without charge at Guantanamo Bay, restrictions on the transfer of detainees held there, and prosecutions in a fundamentally flawed military commission system.  Attacks by US aerial drones were carried out in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere, with important legal questions about the attacks remaining unanswered.

The administration has taken no steps toward accountability for torture and other abuses committed by US officials in the so-called “war on terror,” and a Justice Department criminal investigation into detainee abuse concluded without recommending any charges. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence completed a more than 6,000-page report detailing the CIA’s rendition, detention, and interrogation program, but has yet to seek the report’s declassification so it can be released to the public.

The World Report explicitly mentions Obama’s signing of the NDAA in 2011 (an act he repeated this year), noting, “The act codified the existing executive practice of detaining terrorism suspects indefinitely without charge, and required that certain terrorism suspects be initially detained by the military if captured inside the U.S..”

Next week, the lawsuit against Obama over the NDAA’s definite detention provision will be back in federal court as plaintiffs including Chris Hedges, Daniel Ellsberg and Noam Chomsky seek an injunction prohibiting indefinite detention of civilians without charge or trial.

Comments from HRW’s McFarland point out what’s at stake for the president here: “The Obama administration has a chance in its second term to develop with Congress a real plan for closing Guantanamo and definitively ending abusive counterterrorism practices,” McFarland said. “A failure to do so puts Obama at risk of going down in history as the president who made indefinite detention without trial a permanent part of U.S. law.”

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com. More Natasha Lennard.

U.S. is the Worst Police State in the World – By the Numbers August 31, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Race, Racism, Torture.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

 

 

 
Roger’s note: the increasing use of private prisons exacerbates this problem in that the private corporations that contract with governments for provide custodial services demand a certain percentage of “customers,” that is, prisoners (how else can they make a profit?).  This requires the so-called criminal justice system to continue to crank out more and more prisoners, mostly poor and people of color, and most;y  for non violent crimes such as possession of marijuana. 
 

Tue, 08/28/2012 – 21:18 — Glen Ford

 

A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford

There’s no getting around the fact that the United States is the Mother of All Police States. China can’t compete in the incarceration business. With four times the U.S. population, it imprisons only 70 percent as many people – about the same number as the non-white prison population of the U.S. Even worse, 80,000 U.S. inmates undergo the torture of solitary confinement on any given day.

 

U.S. is the Worst Police State in the World – By the Numbers

A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford

The American People of Color Gulag is as large as the entire prison population of China, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people.”

When U.S. corporate media operatives use the term “police state,” they invariably mean some other country. Even the so-called “liberal” media, from Democracy Now to the MSNBC menagerie, cannot bring themselves to say “police state” and the “United States” without putting the qualifying words “like” or “becoming” in the middle. The U.S. is behaving “like” a police state, they say, or the U.S. is in danger of “becoming” a police state. But it is never a police state. Since these privileged speakers and writers are not themselves in prison – because what they write and say represents no actual danger to the state – they conclude that a U.S. police state does not, at this time, exist.

Considering the sheer size and social penetration of its police and imprisonment apparatus, the United States is not only a police state, but the biggest police state in the world, by far: the police state against whose dimensions all other police systems on Earth must be measured.

By now, even the most insulated, xenophobic resident of the Nebraska farm belt knows that the U.S. incarcerates more people than any country in the world. He might not know that 25 percent of prison inmates in the world are locked up in the U.S., or that African Americans comprise one out of every eight of the planet’s prisoners. But, that Nebraska farmer is probably aware that America is number one in the prisons business. He probably approves. God bless the police state.

For the American media, including lots of media that claim to be of the Left, it is axiomatic that China is a police state. And maybe, by some standards, it is. But, according to United Nations figures, China is 87th in the world in the proportion of its people who are imprisoned. China is a billion people bigger than the United States – more than four times the population – yet U.S. prisons house in excess of 600,000 more people than China does. The Chinese prison population is just 70 percent of the American Gulag. That’s quite interesting because, non-whites make up about 70 percent of U.S. prisons. That means, the Black, brown, yellow and red populations of U.S. prisons number roughly the same as all of China’s incarcerated persons. Let me emphasize that: The American People of Color Gulag is as large as the entire prison population of China, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people.

Solitary confinement beyond 15 days at a stretch crosses the line of torture.”

However, police states must be measured by conditions behind the bars, as well as raw numbers of inmates. And, by that standard, the American Gulag is even more monstrous.

Civilized people now recognize that solitary confinement is a form of torture. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, reports that solitary confinement beyond 15 days at a stretch crosses the line of torture, yet, as Al Jazeera recently reported, it is typical for hundred of thousands of U.S. prisoners to spend 30 or 60 days in solitary at a stretch. Twenty thousand are held in perpetual isolation in so-called supermax prisons – that is, they exist in a perpetual state of torture. Studies now show that, all told, 80,000 U.S. prisoners are locked up in solitary on any given day.That’s as many tortured people as the entire prison system of Germany, or of England, Scotland and Wales, combined.

If that is not a police state, then no such thing exists on planet Earth.

For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Glen Ford. On the web, go to Black Agenda Report.

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.

 

21st-Century Slaves: How Corporations Exploit Prison Labor July 22, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Labor, Race, Racism.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

AlterNet /
By Rania Khalek

 

In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant
strategy in the eternal quest to maximize profit.

 

July 21, 2011  |

//
There is one group of American workers so disenfranchised that corporations
are able to get away with paying them wages that rival those of third-world
sweatshops. These laborers have been legally stripped of their
political, economic and social rights and ultimately relegated to second-class
citizens. They are banned from unionizing, violently silenced from
speaking out and forced to work for little to no wages. This
marginalization renders them practically invisible, as they are kept hidden from
society with no available recourse to improve their circumstances or change
their plight.

They are the 2.3 million American prisoners locked behind bars where we
cannot see or hear them. And they are modern-day slaves of the
21st century.

Incarceration Nation

It’s no secret that America imprisons more of its citizens than any other
nation in history. With just 5 percent of the world’s population,
the US currently holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In 2008,
over 2.3 million Americans were in prison or jail, with one of every 48
working-age men behind bars. That doesn’t include the tens of
thousands of detained undocumented immigrants facing deportation, prisoners
awaiting sentencing, or juveniles caught up in the school-to-prison
pipeline. Perhaps it’s reassuring to some that the US still holds
the number one title in at least one arena, but needless to say the
hyper-incarceration plaguing America has had a damaging effect on society at
large.

According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy
Research
(CEPR), US prison rates are not just excessive in comparison to the
rest of the world, they are also substantially higher than our own longstanding
history. The study finds that incarceration rates between 1880 and
1970 ranged from about 100 to 200 prisoners per 100,000
people. After 1980, the inmate population began to grow much more
rapidly than the overall population and the rate climbed from about 220 in 1980
to 458 in 1990, 683 in 2000, and 753 in 2008.

The costs of this incarceration industry are far from evenly distributed,
with the impact of excessive incarceration falling predominantly on
African-American communities. Although black people make up just 13
percent of the overall population, they account for 40 percent of US prisoners. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), black
males are incarcerated at a rate more than 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5
that of Hispanic males and black females are incarcerated at approximately three
times the rate of white females and twice that of Hispanic females.

Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow that more black men are in jail, on probation, or on parole than were
enslaved in 1850. Higher rates of black drug arrests do not reflect higher rates
of black drug offenses. In fact, whites and blacks engage in drug offenses,
possession and sales at roughly comparable rates.

Incentivizing Incarceration

Clearly, the US prison system is riddled with racism and classism, but it
gets worse. As it turns out, private companies have a cheap, easy labor market,
and it isn’t in China, Indonesia, Haiti, or Mexico. It’s right here
in the land of the free, where large corporations increasingly employ prisoners
as a source of cheap and sometimes free labor.

In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy in the
eternal quest to maximize profit. By dipping into the prison labor
pool, companies have their pick of workers who are not only cheap but easily
controlled. Companies are free to avoid providing benefits like
health insurance or sick days, while simultaneously paying little to no
wages. They don’t need to worry about unions or demands for
vacation time or raises. Inmate workers are full-time and never
late or absent because of family problems.

If they refuse to work, they are moved to disciplinary housing and lose
canteen privileges along with “good time” credit that reduces their
sentences. To top it off, the federal government subsidizes the use
of inmate labor by private companies through lucrative tax write-offs. Under
the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), private-sector employers
earn a tax credit of $2,400 for every work release inmate they employ as a
reward for hiring “risky target groups” and they can earn back up to 40 percent
of the wages they pay annually to “target group workers.”

Study after study demonstrates the wastefulness of America’s
prison-industrial complex, in both taxpayer dollars and innocent lives, yet
rolling back imprisonment rates is proving to be more challenging than ever.
Meanwhile, the use of p
rivate
prisons and now privately contracted inmate labor has created a system that does
not exactly incentivize leaner sentencing.

The disturbing
implications of such a system mean that skyrocketing imprisonment for the
possession of miniscule amounts of marijuana and the the expansion
of severe mandatory sentencing laws regardless of the conviction, are policies
that have to potential to increase corporate profits. As are
the“three strikes laws” that require courts to hand down mandatory and
extended sentences to people who have been convicted of felonies on three or
more separate occasions.  People have literally been sentenced to life for minor crimes like
shoplifting
.

The
Reinvention of Slavery

The exploitation of prison labor is by no means a new
phenomenon. Jaron Browne, an organizer with People Organized
to Win Employment Rights (POWER), maps out how the exploitation of
prison labor in America is rooted in
slavery
. The abolition of slavery dealt a devastating economic
blow to the South following the loss of free labor after the Civil
War. So in the late 19th century, an extensive prison system was
created in the South in order to maintain the racial and economic relationship
of slavery, a mechanism responsible for re-enslaving black
workers. Browne describes Louisiana’s famous Angola Prison to
illustrate the intentional transformation from slave to inmate:

“In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased by the state of
Louisiana and converted into a prison. Slave quarters became cell units. Now
expanded to 18,000 acres, the Angola plantation is tilled by prisoners working
the land—a chilling picture of modern day chattel slavery.”

The abolition of slavery quickly gave rise to the Black Codes and Convict
Leasing, which together worked wonders at perpetuating African American
servitude by exploiting a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for
crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the
United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The Black Codes were a set of laws that criminalized legal activity for
African Americans and provided a pretext for the arrest and mass imprisonment of
newly freed blacks, which caused the percentage of African Americans in prison
to surpass whites for the first time. Convict
leasing involved leasing out prisoners to private companies that paid the state
a certain fee in return. Convicts worked for the companies during
the day outside the prison and returned to their cells at
night. The system provided revenue for the state and profits for
plantation owners and wasn’t abolished until the 1930s.

Unfortunately, convict leasing was quickly replaced with equally despicable
state-run chain gangs. Once again, stories of vicious abuse created
enough public anger to abolish chain gangs by the
1950s. Nevertheless, the systems of prisoner exploitation never
actually disappeared.

Today’s corporations can lease factories in prisons, as well as lease
prisoners out to their factories. In many cases, private
corporations are running prisons-for-profit, further incentivizing their stake
in locking people up. The government is profiting as well, by
running prison factories that operate as multibillion-dollar industries in every
state, and throughout the federal prison system, where prisoners are contracted out to major corporations by the
state.

In the most extreme cases, we are even witnessing the reemergence of the
chain gang. In Arizona, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in
America,” Joe Arpaio, requires his Maricopa County inmates to enroll in chain gangs to perform various community services or
face lockdown with three other inmates in an 8-by-12-foot cell, for 23 hours a
day. In June of this year, Arpaio started a female-only chain gang made up of women convicted of
driving under the influence. In a press release he boasted that the
inmates would be wearing pink T-shirts emblazoned with messages about drinking
and driving.

The modern-day version of convict leasing was recently spotted in Georgia,
where Governor Nathan Deal proposed sending unemployed probationers to work in Georgia’s
fields as a solution to a perceived labor shortage following the passage of the
country’s most draconian anti-immigrant law. But his plan backfired when some of the probationers began walking off
their jobs because the fieldwork was too strenuous.

There has also been a disturbing reemergence of the debtors’ prison, which
should serve as an ominous sign of our dangerous reliance on prisons to manage
any and all of society’s problems. According to the Wall Street Journal more than a third of all U.S. states allow
borrowers who can’t or won’t pay to be jailed. They found that judges signed off
on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010 in nine
counties. It appears that any act that can be criminalized in the
era of private prisons and inmate labor will certainly end in jail time, further
increasing the ranks of the captive workforce.

Who Profits?

Prior to the 1970s, private corporations were prohibited from using prison
labor as a result of the chain gang and convict leasing
scandals. But in 1979, Congress began a process of deregulation to restore private sector involvement
in prison industries to its former status, provided certain conditions of the
labor market were met. Over the last 30 years, at least
37 states
have enacted laws permitting the use of convict labor by private
enterprise, with an average pay of $0.93 to $4.73 per day.

Federal prisoners receive more generous wages that range
from $0.23 to $1.25 per hour, and are employed by Unicor, a wholly owned
government corporation established by Congress in 1934. Its
principal customer is the Department of Defense, from which Unicor derives
approximately 53
percent
of its sales. Some  21,836 inmates work in Unicor programs. Subsequently,
the nation’s prison industry – prison labor programs producing goods or services
sold to other government agencies or to the private sector — now
employs more people
than any Fortune 500 company
(besides General Motors), and
generates about $2.4 billion in revenue annually. Noah Zatz of UCLA law school estimates that:

“Well over 600,000, and probably close to a million, inmates are working
full-time in jails and prisons throughout the United States. Perhaps some of
them built your desk chair: office furniture, especially in state universities
and the federal government, is a major prison labor product. Inmates also take
hotel reservations at corporate call centers, make body armor for the U.S.
military, and manufacture prison chic fashion accessories, in addition to the
iconic task of stamping license plates.”

Some of the largest and most powerful corporations have a stake in the
expansion of the prison labor market, including but not limited to IBM, Boeing,
Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq,
Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern
Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and
many more. Between 1980 and 1994 alone, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Since the
prison labor force has likely grown since then, it is safe to assume that the
profits accrued from the use of prison labor have reached even higher levels.

In an article for Mother Jones, Caroline Winter details a
number of mega-corporations that have profited off of inmates:

“In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35 female
South Carolina inmates to sew lingerie and leisure wear for Victoria’s
Secret and JCPenney. In 1997, a California
prison put two men in solitary for telling journalists they were ordered to
replace ‘Made in Honduras’ labels on garments with ‘Made in the
USA.'”

According to Winter, the defense industry is a large part of the
equation as well:

“Unicor, says that in addition to soldiers’ uniforms, bedding,
shoes, helmets, and flak vests, inmates have ‘produced missile cables (including
those used on the Patriot missiles during the Gulf War)’ and ‘wiring harnesses
for jets and tanks.’ In 1997, according to Prison Legal
News, Boeing subcontractorMicroJet had
prisoners cutting airplane components, paying $7 an hour for work that paid
union wages of $30 on the outside.”

Oil companies have been known to exploit prison labor as well. Following the
explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and irreparably
damaged the Gulf of Mexico for generations to come, BP elected to hire Louisiana prison inmates to clean up its
mess. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state in
the nation, 70 percent of which are African-American men. Coastal residents
desperate for work, whose livelihoods had been destroyed by BP’s negligence,
were outraged at BP’s use of free prison labor.

In the Nation article that exposed BP’s hiring of inmates, Abe
Louise Young details how BP tried to cover up its use of prisoners by changing
the inmates’ clothing to give the illusion of civilian workers. But
nine out of 10 residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana are white, while the cleanup
workers were almost exclusively black, so BP’s ruse fooled very few
people.

Private companies have long understood that prison labor can be as profitable
as sweatshop workers in third-world countries with the added benefit of staying
closer to home. Take Escod Industries, which in the 1990s abandoned plans to open
operations in Mexico and instead moved to South Carolina, because the wages of
American prisoners undercut those of de-unionized Mexican sweatshop workers. The
move was fueled by the state, which gave a $250,000 “equipment subsidy” to Escod
along with industrial space at below-market rent. Other examples include Ohio’s Honda supplier, which pays its prison workers
$2 an hour for the same work for which the UAW has fought for decades to be paid
$20 to $30 an hour; Konica, which has hired prisoners to repair its copiers for
less than 50 cents an hour; and Oregon, where private companies can “lease”
prisoners at a bargain price of $3 a day.

Even politicians have been known to tap into prison labor for their own
personal use. In 1994, a contractor for GOP congressional candidate Jack Metcalf
hired Washington state prisoners to call and remind voters he was pro-death
penalty. He won his campaign claiming he had no knowledge of the
scandal. Perhaps this is why Senator John Ensign (R-NV) introduced a bill earlier this year to require all
low-security prisoners to work 50 hours a week. After all, creating a national
prison labor force has been a goal of his since he went to Congress in 1995.

In an unsettling turn of events lawmakers have begun ditching public
employees in favor of free prison labor. The New York
Times
recently reported that states are enlisting prison labor to close budget gaps to offset cuts in
federal financing and dwindling tax revenue. At a time of record
unemployment, inmates are being hired to paint vehicles, clean courthouses,
sweep campsites and perform many other services done before the recession by
private contractors or government employees. In Wisconsin, prisoners are now taking up jobs that were once
held by unionized workers, as a result of Governor Scott Walker’s contentious
anti-union law.

Why You Should Care

Those who argue in favor of prison labor claim it is a useful tool for
rehabilitation and preparation for post-jail employment. But this
has only been shown to be true in cases where prisoners are exposed to
meaningful employment, where they learn new skills, not the labor-intensive,
menial and often dangerous work they are being tasked with. While
little if any evidence exists to suggests that the current prison labor system
decreases recidivism or leads to better employment prospects outside of prison,
there are a number of solutions that have been proven to be
useful.

According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, having a history of
incarceration itself impedes subsequent economic success. Pew found that past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11
percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks and reduced yearly earnings by 40
percent. The study suggests that the best approach is for state and
federal authorities to invest in programs that reconnect inmates to the labor
market, as well as provide training and job placement services around the time
of release. Most importantly, Pew says that in the long term, America must move
toward alternative sentencing programs for low-level and nonviolent offenders,
and issuing penalties that are actually proportionate with real public safety
concerns.

The exploitation of any workforce is detrimental to all
workers. Cheap and free labor pushes down wages for
everyone. Just as American workers cannot compete with sweatshop
labor, the same goes for prison labor. Many jobs that come into
prison are taken from free citizens. The American labor movement
must demand that prison labor be allowed the right to unionize, the right to a
fair and living wage, and the right to a safe and healthy work
environment. That is what prisoners are demanding, but they can
only do so much from inside a prison cell.

As unemployment on the outside increases, so too will crime and incarceration
rates, and our 21st-century version of corporate slavery will continue to expand
unless we do something about it.

Rania Khalek is a progressive activist. Checkout her blog Missing Pieces or follow her on Twitter @Rania_ak. You can contact her at raniakhalek@gmail.com.

Pretending to be Civilized in an Epidemic of Institutional Sadism March 29, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

by Pierre Tristam

From the you-can’t-be-serious department: Savana Redding was a 13-year-old honors student at a small Arizona middle school. In math class one morning the principal ordered her to pack up and follow him to his office. The principal interrogated her about a planner Savana had lent a friend, and a few ibuprofin pills sitting on the principal’s desk, which were found in the planner. Savana knew nothing about the pills.

The principal then ordered her to the nurse’s office for a strip search. Over ibuprofin pills. Not that it would make a difference if she were carrying crack. She was 13. She was being ordered to strip. Her parents were never notified. Savana did not consent to the search but complied in humiliating details. She was forced, literally, to shake her bra and her underwear, exposing herself in front of the nurse and an assistant. Nothing was found. I don’t know what’s more perverse: The principal’s zero-tolerance stupidity over ibuprofin pills, the degrading search, or the fact that nine U.S. Supreme Court justices will hear this case next month to decide what limits, if any, there should be on school authority.

But this isn’t authority. It’s criminal abuse — of authority, of the child, of human dignity. How do we come to this? Stupid question, considering the accumulating record of a society where ideals of justice and humaneness mix with the basest controls in the name of discipline and order. They’re close relatives, those school officials who order a 13 year old strip searched, to those who have children Tasered, or to police officers who now use that instrument of torture as a routine means of subjugation, or to prison guards who do the same with restraining chairs. When the barbaric becomes routine, it’s called protocol. What should be denounced and forbidden is accepted and debated.

The distance has vanished from there to a government so willing to torture, and a public so willing to implicitly accept that dissolution of principles, if it’s willing to debate it. “Why can’t we send them to be tortured?” George W. Bush had wondered about terrorism suspects in the early days of his war, according to a new book by Patrick Tyler, The New York Times’ chief diplomatic correspondent. “Stick something up their ass!” Bush got his wish in the by-now familiar litany of terrorist behavior in the name of fighting terrorism — torture and rendition, secret prisons, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the systematic policy of brutality approved from the top that muscled up the wars’ enforcers.

That’s all revolting enough. But it’s all been offshore, an outsourcing of depravity over there so we wouldn’t have to be depraved over here — the unspoken parallel to Bush’s dismal rationale of “fighting terrorists over there so we wouldn’t have to fight them over here.” That’s assuming that depravity can be so neatly segregated so the rest of us can go about our civilized pretensions untroubled. But those excesses weren’t exceptions. They were variations on everyday norms at home that made them possible.

Abu Ghraib was bad. Our domestic prison system is worse, from the unspoken torture of the solitary confinement of thousands (as The New Yorker’s Atul Gawande argues in the current issue) to the stunning yet apathy inducing fact that 7.3 million Americans are in prison, on parole or under probation. It’s a $47 billion-a-year industry, the opposite of “corrections,” that exceeds China’s entire military budget. Can that many Americans be so disproportionately more lawless than any other people on earth? On its face, the answer is no. Americans aren’t. Their criminal justice system is — the same system, unique in the world, that imprisons 13 year olds for life, carries out executions by conveyor belt (an average of 60 a year since 2000) and turns petty marijuana inhalers into felons swelling prison cells and budget deficits.

There is no off-shoring of these betrayals of civilized behavior, no way to segregate them from what we are as a culture and what we’ve made possible, abroad or in our own justice system and Taser-charged streets, and even our zero-tolerant schools, as Savana and many like her find out every day.

In “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” the crew of the Enterprise travels back from the 23rd century to 1986 America, either to save the planet or save the whales. There’s a wonderful scene toward the end where Captain Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy are trying to save Chekov from the claws of 20th century health care. Dr. McCoy can’t believe the hospital’s wards of barbarism. To a woman on dialysis: “Dialysis? What is this, the dark ages? Here, swallow one of these.” Chemotherapy? “Sounds like the (expletive) Spanish Inquisition.” One of these days, I hope not so far as the 23rd century, we’ll look back on this decade’s epidemic of institutional sadism with as much horror as Dr. McCoy looked at 20th century medicine.

Jim Webb’s courage v. the “pragmatism” excuse for politicians March 28, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Drugs, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

 There are few things rarer than a major politician doing something that is genuinely courageous and principled, but Jim Webb’s impassioned commitment to fundamental prison reform is exactly that.  Webb’s interest in the issue was prompted by his work as a journalist in 1984, when he wrote about an American citizen who was locked away in a Japanese prison for two years under extremely harsh conditions for nothing more than marijuana possession.  After decades of mindless “tough-on-crime” hysteria, an increasingly irrational “drug war,” and a sprawling, privatized prison state as brutal as it is counter-productive, America has easily surpassed Japan — and virtually every other country in the world — to become what Brown University Professor Glenn Loury recently described as a “a nation of jailers” whose “prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history.”

What’s most notable about Webb’s decision to champion this cause is how honest his advocacy is.  He isn’t just attempting to chip away at the safe edges of America’s oppressive prison state.  His critique of what we’re doing is fundamental, not incremental.  And, most important of all, Webb is addressing head-on one of the principal causes of our insane imprisonment fixation:  our aberrational insistence on criminalizing and imprisoning non-violent drug offenders (when we’re not doing worse to them).  That is an issue most politicians are petrified to get anywhere near, as evidenced just this week by Barack Obama’s adolescent, condescending snickering when asked about marijuana legalization, in response to which Obama gave a dismissive answer that Andrew Sullivan accurately deemed “pathetic.”  Here are just a few excerpts from Webb’s Senate floor speech this week (.pdf) on his new bill to create a Commission to study all aspects of prison reform:

Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have 5% of the world’s population; we have 25% of the world’s known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice. . . .

The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200%. The blue disks represent the numbers in 1980; the red disks represent the numbers in 2007 and a significant percentage of those incarcerated are for possession or nonviolent offenses stemming from drug addiction and those sorts of related behavioral issues. . . .

In many cases these issues involve people’s ability to have proper counsel and other issues, but there are stunning statistics with respect to drugs that we all must come to terms with. African-Americans are about 12% of our population; contrary to a lot of thought and rhetoric, their drug use rate in terms of frequent drug use rate is about the same as all other elements of our society, about 14%. But they end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced to prison by the numbers that have been provided by us. . . .

Another piece of this issue that I hope we will address with this National Criminal Justice Commission is what happens inside our prisons. . . . We also have a situation in this country with respect to prison violence and sexual victimization that is off the charts and we must get our arms around this problem. We also have many people in our prisons who are among what are called the criminally ill, many suffering from hepatitis and HIV who are not getting the sorts of treatment they deserve.

Importantly, what are we going to do about drug policy – the whole area of drug policy in this country?

And how does that affect sentencing procedures and other alternatives that we might look at?

Webb added that “America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace” and “we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail.”

It’s hard to overstate how politically thankless, and risky, is Webb’s pursuit of this issue — both in general and particularly for Webb.  Though there has been some evolution of public opinion on some drug policy issues, there is virtually no meaningful organized constituency for prison reform.  To the contrary, leaving oneself vulnerable to accusations of being “soft on crime” has, for decades, been one of the most toxic vulnerabilities a politician can suffer (ask Michael Dukakis).  Moreover, the privatized Prison State is a booming and highly profitable industry, with an army of lobbyists, donations, and other well-funded weapons for targeting candidates who threaten its interests.

Most notably, Webb is in the Senate not as an invulnerable, multi-term political institution from a safely blue state (he’s not Ted Kennedy), but is the opposite:  he’s a first-term Senator from Virginia, one of the “toughest” “anti-crime” states in the country (it abolished parole in 1995 and is second only to Texas in the number of prisoners it executes), and Webb won election to the Senate by the narrowest of margins, thanks largely to George Allen’s macaca-driven implosion.  As Ezra Klein wrote, with understatement:  “Lots of politicians make their name being anti-crime, which has come to mean pro-punishment. Few make their name being pro-prison reform.”  

For a Senator like Webb to spend his time trumpeting the evils of excessive prison rates, racial disparities in sentencing, the unjust effects of the Drug War, and disgustingly harsh conditions inside prisons is precisely the opposite of what every single political consultant would recommend that he do.  There’s just no plausible explanation for what Webb’s actions other than the fact that he’s engaged in the noblest and rarest of conduct:  advocating a position and pursuing an outcome because he actually believes in it and believes that, with reasoned argument, he can convince his fellow citizens to see the validity of his cause.  And he is doing this despite the fact that it potentially poses substantial risks to his political self-interest and offers almost no prospect for political reward.  Webb is far from perfect — he’s cast some truly bad votes since being elected — but, in this instance, not only his conduct but also his motives are highly commendable.

* * * * *

Webb’s actions here underscore a broader point.  Our political class has trained so many citizens not only to tolerate, but to endorse, cowardly behavior on the part of their political leaders.  When politicians take bad positions, ones that are opposed by large numbers of their supporters, it is not only the politicians, but also huge numbers of their supporters, who step forward to offer excuses and justifications:  well, they have to take that position because it’s too politically risky not to; they have no choice and it’s the smart thing to do.  That’s the excuse one heard for years as Democrats meekly acquiesced to or actively supported virtually every extremist Bush policy from the attack on Iraq to torture and warrantless eavesdropping; it’s the excuse which even progressives offer for why their political leaders won’t advocate for marriage equality or defense spending cuts; and it’s the same excuse one hears now to justify virtually every Obama “disappointment.”

Webb’s commitment to this unpopular project demonstrates how false that excuse-making is —  just as it was proven false by Russ Feingold’s singular, lonely, October, 2001 vote against the Patriot Act and Feingold’s subsequent, early opposition to the then-popular Bush’s assault on civil liberties, despite his representing the purple state of Wisconsin.  Political leaders have the ability to change public opinion by engaging in leadership and persuasive advocacy.  Any cowardly politician can take only those positions that reside safely within the majoritiarian consensus.  Actual leaders, by definition, confront majoritarian views when they are misguided and seek to change them, and politicians have far more ability to affect and change public opinion than they want the public to believe they have. 

The political class wants people to see them as helpless captives to immutable political realities so that they have a permanent, all-purpose excuse for whatever they do, so that they are always able to justify their position by appealing to so-called “political realities.”  But that excuse is grounded in a fundamentally false view of what political leaders are actually capable of doing in terms of shifting public opinion, as NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen explained when I interviewed him about his theories of how political consensus is maintained and manipulated:

GG:  One of the points you make is that it’s not just journalists who define what these spheres [of consensus, legitimate debate and deviance] encompass. You argue that politicians, political actors can change what’s included in these spheres based on the positions that they take. And in some sense, you could even say that that’s kind of what leadership is — not just articulating what already is within the realm of consensus, which anyone can do, but taking ideas that are marginalized or within the sphere of deviance and bringing them into the sphere of legitimacy. How does that process work?  How do political actors change those spheres?

JR: Well, that’s exactly what leadership is. And I think it’s crippling sometimes to our own sense of efficacy in politics and media, if we assume that the media has all of the power to frame the debate and decide what consensus is, and consign things to deviant status. That’s not really true. That’s true under conditions of political immobilization, leadership default, a rage for normalcy, but in ordinary political life, leaders, by talking about things, make them legitimate. Parties, by pushing for things, make them part of the sphere of debate. Important and visible people can question consensus, and all of a sudden expand it.  These spheres are malleable; if the conversation of democracy is alive and if you make your leaders talk about things, it becomes valid to talk about them.

And I really do think there’s a self-victimization that sometimes goes on, but to go back to the beginning of your question, there’s something else going on, which is the ability to infect us with notions of what’s realistic is one of the most potent powers press and political elites have. Whenever we make that kind of decision — “well it’s pragmatic, let’s be realistic” — what we’re really doing is we’re speculating about other Americans, our fellow citizens, and what they’re likely to accept or what works on them or what stimuli they respond to. And that way of seeing other Americans, fellow citizens, is in fact something the media has taught us; that is one of the deepest lessons we’ve learned from the media even if we are skeptics of the MSM.

And one of the things I see on the left that really bothers me is the ease with which people skeptical of the media will talk about what the masses believe and how the masses will be led and moved in this way that shows me that the mass media tutors them on how to see their fellow citizens. And here the Internet again has at least some potential, because we don’t have to guess what those other Americans think. We can encounter them ourselves, and thereby reshape our sense of what they think. I think every time people make that judgment about what’s realistic, what they’re really doing is they’re imagining what the rest of the country would accept, and how other people think, and they get those ideas from the media.

We’ve been trained how we talk about our political leaders primarily by a media that worships political cynicism and can only understand the world through political game-playing.  Thus, so many Americans have been taught to believe not only that politicians shouldn’t have the obligation of leadership imposed on them — i.e., to persuade the public of what is right — but that it’s actually smart and wise of them to avoid positions they believe in when doing so is politically risky. 

People love now to assume the role of super-sophisticated political consultant rather than a citizen demanding actions from their representatives.  Due to the prism of gamesmanship through which political pundits understand and discuss politics, many citizens have learned to talk about their political leaders as though they’re political strategists advising their clients as to the politically shrewd steps that should be taken (“this law is awful and unjust and he was being craven by voting for it, but he was absolutely right to vote for it because the public wouldn’t understand if he opposed it”), rather than as citizens demanding that their public servants do the right thing (“this law is awful and unjust and, for that reason alone, he should oppose it and show leadership by making the case to the public as to why it’s awful and unjust”).

It may be unrealistic to expect most politicians in most circumstances to do what Jim Webb is doing here (or what Russ Feingold did during Bush’s first term).  My guess is that Webb, having succeeded in numerous other endeavors outside of politics, is not desperate to cling to his political office, and he has thus calculated that he’d rather have six years in the Senate doing things he thinks are meaningful than stay there forever on the condition that he cowardly renounce any actual beliefs.  It’s probably true that most career politicians, possessed of few other talents or interests, are highly unlikely to think that way.

But the fact that cowardly actions from political leaders are inevitable is no reason to excuse or, worse, justify and even advocate that cowardice.  In fact, the more citizens are willing to excuse and even urge political cowardice in the name of “realism” or “pragmatism” (“he was smart to take this bad, unjust position because Americans are too stupid or primitive for him to do otherwise and he needs to be re-elected”), the more common that behavior will be.  Politicians and their various advisers, consultants and enablers will make all the excuses they can for why politicians do what they do and insist that public opinion constrains them to do otherwise.  That excuse-making is their role, not the role of citizens.  What ought to be demanded of political officials by citizens is precisely the type of leadership Webb is exhibiting here.

Update on Leonard Peltier January 27, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, First Nations.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Michael Eckhardt
January 26, 2009

www.freepress.org

Update: 23 Jan 2009. We received a phone call from Leonard on 1/22. He was jumped by young gang members. He’s been put in solitary, he says, and won’t be released again into the general population. He was told by the FBI that he was the victim in the attack, the proof of this being a videotape. Assured that he’d enjoy all his privileges upon his transfer to USP-Canaan, he’s now been told he’ll be allowed only one phone call a month. Two attorneys attempted to get inside the prison to meet with Leonard, but their requests for legal visits were denied. Peltier is clearly being isolated from friends and family and even his attorneys.

Update: 24 Jan 2009. Sheila Dugan, Esq., an attorney residing in Pennsylvania and working with Peltier attorney Michael Kuzma was able to visit Leonard this morning for four hours. She saw his bruises. Leonard’s chest still hurts. Leonard was not taken to a hospital to be examined after he was beaten by two other inmates.

Leonard is in solitary confinement. As crazy as it sounds, he doesn’t have a comb so he can’t comb his hair. Also, this was a no-contact visit. A glass barrier separated Leonard and Ms. Dugan. She had to talk to him via phone for the entire four hours.

The letter below to the Bureau of Prisons was written today by Michael Kuzma, Esq., attorney for Leonard Peltier. Please consider writing letters of concern to the BOP as well!

January 24, 2009

Mr. Harley G. Lappin, Director
Bureau of Prisons
320 First Street, N. W.
Washington, D. C. 20534

Re: Leonard Peltier, #89637-132

Dear Director Lappin:

I represent Mr. Leonard Peltier, #89637-132, who is currently incarcerated at USP Canaan.

Mr. Peltier was recently transferred to USP Canaan from USP Lewisburg. It is my understanding that Mr. Peltier was brutally attacked on or about January 13, 2009. Mr. Peltier suffered a possible concussion, the middle finger on his left hand may be broken or is badly injured, he has a large bump near his right wrist, the right side of his rib cage and chest are in a pain, the right side of his chest is bruised as is his left knee, and he is now having headaches, which Mr. Peltier believes are a direct result of the January 13, 2009 beating.

It is clear that Mr. Peltier is in grave danger at USP Canaan. By letters dated November 29, 2008 and December 15, 2008, I requested that Mr. Peltier be transferred to the Turtle Mountain reservation or, in the alternative, he be sent to Sandstone FCI or Oxford FCI. As I noted in my letter of December 15, 2008, on August 20, 2008 Mr. Peltier sought to be transferred to Sandstone FCI or Oxford FCI. A copy of the “Inmate Request to Staff” form dated August 20, 2008 that Mr. Peltier submitted to Case Manager Rothermel is once again enclosed for your information.

Please advise me of what steps, if any, you have taken to ensure Mr. Peltier’s safety. More specifically, I would like to know what you have done to make sure that he is not attacked again in the future. Also, has Mr. Peltier received appropriate medical treatment for his injuries? If not, it is imperative that he sees health care professionals without any further delay so that his injuries may be properly treated.

I look forward to hearing from you shortly.

Thank you.

Yours truly,

Michael Kuzma, Esq.

President Obama has stated in his Indian Policy Papers that he will respect and honor the sovereignty of the First Nations. Please contact the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and encourage them to apply Nation-to-Nation pressure on the government of the United States to return their enrolled citizen Leonard Peltier to their Nation. Ask the Council at Turtle Mountain if there is anything that you can do to assist them in this effort.

Richard Marcellais, Tribal Chairman
Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians
PO Box 900
Highway 5 West
Belcourt, ND 58316

Please send a copy of your letter to the Turtle Mountain Star, 11 1st Avenue, NE, Rolla, ND 58367.