Beware the Prison-Industrial Complex

President Eisenhower’s last address to the American people warned them to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. . . in the councils of government.” He warned that, unchecked, the interests of an industry devoted to war could endanger the liberties and democratic processes of the American people. There is a similar, yet overlooked danger to our liberties as well today. The prison-industrial complex.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania not even a week ago overturned 6500 convictions and prison sentences of juvenile offenders in Luzerne County. No, it was not a “soft on crime” decision that declared imprisonment for juveniles unconstitutional. It declared that virtually every single juvenile to appear before the court in Luzerne County in the last five years had been the victim of the prison-industrial complex. Two judges, Mark Ciaverella and Michael Conhan, have been charged with accepting 2.8 million dollars in bribes from the owners of private prisons in Luzerne County to send some extra business their way. The judges were not only accepting bribes from the owners of the prison, but had convinced the county in 2002 that the current, government-run prison was unsafe, and that they should hire a private firm to do the job. Kids were sent to jail for stealing change from unlocked cars, and shooting out windows with a BB gun, among other minor offenses.

Well, at least they were caught, you might say. That is true. They will hopefully spend just as long, if not longer, in prison than the children they sent away for their own material gain. The children’s records will be expunged. But they cannot get back the months or years of their lives they spent in prison, the terror they likely experienced. The scars will follow them for a long time.

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Published in: on November 3, 2009 at 6:29 pm Comments Off on Beware the Prison-Industrial Complex

Copyright Infringement: Worse Than Murder?

I am a criminal. I have years of experience with a certain criminal activity. I started in high school on advice from a friend, and pretty soon I found a group of similarly-inclined friends to roll with and we ratcheted up our involvement some more. I learned new techniques in college and avoided the crackdowns happening all around me. I don’t do it anymore, and I’ve never been caught and punished, but I can assure you that if I had been caught, my punishment would have been harsher than if I had kidnapped a child, burned down a house, started a dogfighting ring, or even committed second-degree murder. No joke – it’s that bad.

What am I talking about? File-sharing. Copyright infringement. Piracy. Call it what you want: one way or another it’s about downloading somebody’s property without paying for it. Sixty million Americans are guilty of it, by the way; chances are you’ve done it before, and if you haven’t, your kids probably have BitTorrent chugging along in the other room as we speak (that’s why this page loaded so slowly.) Is it a crime? You’re darn tootin’ it is. Is it wrong? Well…sure, maybe, I guess. Are our laws against it just and effective? Absolutely and emphatically not.

It’s difficult to come up with arguments defending file-sharers that don’t make me, a self-avowed file-sharer, come off as a self-congratulating twit. At the end of the day you’re taking the work product of an artist you love, the very sweat of Beyonce‘s brow, without paying for it in return. That’s not something to be proud of. There’s more in play here, though, than that simple characterization reflects. First of all, the record label generally holds the copyright to a recording and makes most of the money from the sale of a CD. If you steal a CD, you’re only taking a dollar or two our of Beyonce‘s pocket. Mostly you’re robbing the record company — of course, you’re still robbing them, but they’re less sympathetic targets to be sure. It’s a similar deal with online purchases, say, through iTunes: artists get about ten cents off a 99-cent download. In fact, most artists arguably benefit from piracy: they forego the dollar in royalties for increased exposure to their fanbase and attracting new listeners who aren’t interested enough (yet) to pay to hear them, which can translate into increased ticket sales at concerts and more “star power”. For every Kid Rock or Lars Ulrich who complains about evil file-sharers, there’s a hundred lesser-known artists who couldn’t get their music heard until they started giving it away for free on the internet.

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Published in: on October 26, 2009 at 10:10 pm Comments Off on Copyright Infringement: Worse Than Murder?

Lies Cannot Drive Out Lies; Only the Truth Can do That

About a month ago Congressman Alan Grayson (a Democrat from the Florida 8th) stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and described the Republican’s idea of health care as “‘Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.” While it would take a stretch of the imagination to say that more than a few Republicans have been interested in helping with the current health care legislation, it takes a fantastic level of cynicism to say that any United States Representative doesn’t care about human life at all and just prefers some folks die quickly.

Nonetheless, many liberals have held Congressman Grayson up as an idol in wake of these outlandish comments. He has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result and been praised by many (including himself) as a “Congressman with Guts.” I do not think this is because liberals are ideologically disposed to false accusations and name-calling; they are just tired of being called names.

There are those on the far right that have no trouble fitting into the same sentence the odd and often contradictory claims that President Obama is a socialist, a communist, a fascist and a racist. Liberals are tired of the lies that are coming from the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and many others. They are tired of hearing about “death panels” and claims that President Obama was born in Kenya. Apparently Congressman Grayson and his many supporters have decided it is time to fight fire with fire and time to make up crazy lies of their own. While perhaps there is some psychologically rewarding feeling that comes from this strategy, it is fundamentally the wrong path for the progressive message to go down.

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Published in: on at 9:27 pm Comments Off on Lies Cannot Drive Out Lies; Only the Truth Can do That
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What’s Height Got to Do with It?

Anyone who has taken the time to stroll around the arms and armor section of an art museum or who has carefully studied the size of a bed in a historical home easily comes to the same conclusion: the average person was a lot shorter in the past than he is now! A suit of armor intended for a fully grown man can often appear adequate for a fifteen-year old boy of today. Interestingly, the reasons for the relatively short statures of our forefathers provide us with a fascinating insight into how we can solve some of the health issues our country faces today.

A recent article in The New York Times discusses the importance of thinking about height in the current healthcare debates.* (Most studies deem a person “short” when they are under average height [5’10” for men and 5’4” for women].) It is practically common knowledge that Americans have gotten bigger in terms of girth. A fact that is not well known is that in comparison to other Western countries, where people are getting taller on average, people in the United States are staying the same height; some studies seem to suggest that Americans may even be getting shorter. Although obesity, i.e. thick waistlines, has been heralded as a major cause of sickness and death in this country, costing around one trillion dollars a year for Medicare, there are also substantial positive correlations between shortness and health problems.

Before any vertically-challenged people start raising their eyebrows, it is important to consider the many similarities between obesity and shortness. Many health issues that are often associated with being overweight are also attributed to being short. Short people are more likely than their taller counterparts to develop heart disease, stroke or diabetes, and short people, on average, do not live as long as those who are of average height or taller.

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Published in: on October 21, 2009 at 8:53 am Comments Off on What’s Height Got to Do with It?

“Kill Me, or Else You are a Murderer.” – Kafka’s Last Words

Although it has been a crime punishable by up to fourteen years in prison to assist in the suicide of another in England since the passing of the 1961 Suicide Act, it is no secret that violators of the law often go unpunished – even when their role in the suicide is public knowledge.  But, until recently, there has been no official word on what distinguishes those cases that are prosecuted from those cases that are not, leaving those who do provide such assistance uncertain of what consequences, if any, will follow.

Clarification was finally delivered thanks to a hard-fought and drawn out legal battle waged by a middle aged woman with multiple sclerosis named Debbie Purdy.  Debbie wants to have the option of choosing a quick and painless suicide before her disease has a chance to finish the work it has started.  Like many in England who face the same choice, she intends to travel to Switzerland when she is ready, the only country where it is legal to assist both citizens and foreigners with suicide.  Her concern, however, is that if she waits until she cannot travel on her own, and her husband helps her get there, that upon returning he might face criminal charges.  So she petitioned the courts for an answer.

Finally, after several losses in lower courts, Debbie succeeded in getting the Law Lords to order England’s top Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, to clarify when his office will and when it will not enforce the Suicide Act.  In response, Starmer released a statement listing those things that are taken into consideration when determining whether to prosecute a case, such as whether the deceased was terminally ill and had clearly expressed a wish to die, and whether the person assisting was acting out of compassion.

The release of these criteria by Starmer was largely publicized as a relaxation of the law; what is interesting, however, is that the law itself hasn’t changed.  In fact, numerous attempts to change the law by members of parliament have failed, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown has promised to block any future attempts to amend the law.  All that has happened is that the office charged with enforcing the law has essentially refused to do so in cases where people are acting out of compassion.

This situation is, in some respects, symptomatic of the tension between the right to die movement and societies that are not prepared to discard their inherited moral disapprobation of the very idea of suicide – a moral qualm that isn’t quite as universal and immemorial as many might assume.

The very word “suicide” tends to evoke strong emotional reactions- and for good reason: Too often suicide is sought as an answer to the kind of despair that could equally well be solved with the passage of time coupled with the love and support of family, friends, and, perhaps, mental health professionals.  (more…)

Published in: on October 16, 2009 at 5:30 pm Comments Off on “Kill Me, or Else You are a Murderer.” – Kafka’s Last Words

Lethal Injection: The New Frontline Against the Death Penalty

Over the years many different strategies of challenging the constitutionality of the Death Penalty have made their way through the courts. The latest line of attack is focused on lethal injection. Last year, in April, 2008 the Supreme Court came down firmly on the side of upholding lethal injection. In Baze v. Rees the Supreme Court held that the current practice of administering a cocktail of three drugs was not cruel and unusual. The main concern in Baze was the use of sodium thiopental, the first drug administered, which anesthetizes the prisoner. The Supreme Court stated that the presence of executioners with a minimum level of professional experience in place IV lines and the presence of the prison warden provided adequate safeguards for the practice of lethal injection. However, like many issues decided by the Supreme Court, this is far from the end of the debate.

On September 15, 2009, prison officials on Ohio halted an execution after technicians tried for over two hours to find a suitable vein to maintain an IV. Ohio Governor Ted Strickland then postponed the execution of Rommel Broom and a federal judge issued a restraining order to keep Ohio from executing Mr. Broom. The Federal District Court for the Southern District of Ohio will hear Mr. Broom’s testimony about his botched execution, which his lawyers are describing as torture and cruel and unusual. Mr. Broom was stuck with a needle over 18 times. He even tried to help the execution team by pointing out veins, and massaging his arms to try and keep a vein open. At one point the needle may have struck bone.

At the same time there are growing objections in the medical community to lethal injection. The American Medical Association, American Nurses Association and American Society of Anesthesiologists all oppose their members from participate in executions. Making it all the more likely that people with less and less medical training will take part in lethal injection executions. Ohio uses emergency medical technicians in their executions.

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Published in: on October 7, 2009 at 10:55 pm Comments Off on Lethal Injection: The New Frontline Against the Death Penalty

If You Were the Judge…

Warning: this entry contains graphic and disturbing content of a horrific crime.  Reader’s discretion is advised.

On April 13, 2007, a 23 year old graduate student attending Columbia University School of Journalism headed back to her apartment building in Hamilton Heights, a neighborhood located in Harlem, Manhattan.  She was subsequently followed to her apartment by an “assailant” who forced himself into her room by asking her the location of a fictitious apartment resident.  For over 19 hours, he raped the victim.  When she tried to (unsuccessfully) stab him in the neck with a pair of scissors, he forced her into her bathtub and threw bleach at her face.  After dragging her around the apartment, he ordered the victim to gouge out her eyes with a pair of scissors.  She refused.  The assailant then boiled water and poured it on her body.  After force-feeding her painkillers, he left her apartment to unsuccessfully withdraw money from her bank account.  During this time, the victim lay passed out and tied up on her futon.  Furious that he had failed in his mission, the assailant came back to her apartment and again poured boiling water on her open wounds.  He later came at her with a knife, slit her face/eyelids and threw “something heavy” at the back of her head.  He then used the blunt end of a knife and bashed her face and her eye sockets until she lost consciousness.

During the ordeal, the victim passed out numerous times and even tried to stab herself in the neck during the assailant’s numerous demands for her to “stab out” her own eyes.  When it was all over, the assailant torched her apartment, leaving her to die on the futon.  The victim was able to break the ropes using the fire and escape her apartment.

Detective Fiol, the NYPD officer in charge of the case, was at the victim’s hospital on the night of April 14.  The graduate student was alive, but in critical condition.  Burns covered her torso, chest and most of her arms.  There were chemical burns on her face.  The victim sustained 2nd/3rd degree water/chemical burns on 12-20 percent of her body.  Her skull was cracked and she required skin grafts and surgery on her eyelids, which the doctors testified was “extremely painful.”  The victim’s liver failed due to the painkillers she was forced to ingest.  There was evidence that she was raped.  While her liver recovered and she never did lose her sight, the graduate student was hospitalized for 2 ½ weeks and required months of physical therapy.  However on the first night of her hospitalization, merely several hours after one of the worst acts of violence Manhattan has ever seen, the victim was awake, alert and conscious.  She grabbed a pen and a piece of paper from the detective and drew the gold tooth and the scar she saw on her attacker’s abdomen.  During her ordeal, she took mental notes of the man and committed them to memory.

The assailant, Robert Williams, was arrested five days later in Jamaica, Queens.  He was attempting to rob a house when a resident of the community called the cops.  Upon arriving at the scene, the suspect’s scar and gold tooth matched the victim’s drawing. Williams was then transported to the Manhattan Sex Crimes Unit in questioning of the horrific crime in Hamilton Heights.

While not much is known about the assailant, Robert Williams was born in Hamilton Heights in 1977.  His father was a gang lord and his mother was a heroine addict.  In Elementary School, teachers would describe Williams as the type of child who would become very angry when he could not answer a multiplication problem correctly.  He also would bring in hundreds of dollars into class and sport expensive leather jackets.  Williams later joined his father’s gang and, at the age of 14, shot a rival gang member to death.  He received five years in jail.  Within three weeks of getting out, he shot a man six times in the back during a robbery attempt.  The man survived and he received seven years for attempted murder.  Williams was often kept in solitary confinement due to his violent behavior towards fellow inmates and throwing feces at prison guards.  Upon his release at the age of 26, Williams had lived in prison more than he had lived outside of prison.  During his four years out of jail, the ex-convict had drifted from one homeless shelter to the next.  His father (who was now in jail), wanted nothing to do with him and his brothers avoided him on the streets.  Then the attack came.  Williams was thirty at the time of the attack.  He weighed 180 pounds and was six feet tall.  He was black and his victim was white.  Unlike Williams’ muscular physique, his victim was five feet tall, petite and weighed 130 pounds.

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Published in: on at 10:54 pm Comments Off on If You Were the Judge…

Obama’s Education Plan

“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”- Malcolm X

No matter where individuals may fall on the political ideology spectrum,all can agree with Malcolm X’s statement. A child without a quality education is a child with little hope for a prosperous future, which is why President Obama plans to make changes in three major areas of education. He intends to expand early childhood education programs such as head start, so that all kids are more prepared for kindergarten. As far as post-secondary education, the President aims to ensure that all high school graduates receive at least one year of higher education or job training. The most challenging area to improve will probably be K-12 education. Merit pay, expansion of charter schools, lengthening schools hours of operation, and revamping No Child Left Behind(NCLB) are just some of the ways President Obama plans to tackle this area of education.

Increasing teacher salary based on student performance is one the more controversial Obama administration initiatives, particularly among teachers unions. There are two major problems with merit based pay. First, is the difficulty in determining an accurate measure of student success and the amount of success necessary to trigger a salary increase. Every teacher faces unique challenges depending on the type of students they work with and the environment they work in. If success is measured by standardized test scores, then a teacher who works with gifted students has an advantage. He or she is naturally going to have more high scoring students than a teacher who works with students who are ESL, behind in reading, or have learning disabilities. The disparity in test scores does not indicate superior teaching talent of the teacher with gifted students over other teachers. For example, a 4th grade teacher, who has students reading on a 1st grade level has done a commendable job if by the end of the year, those students are reading on a 3rd grade level. This increase in reading ability may not translate into high scores on a standardized assessment.The dilemma is that it is obviously unfair to measure student achievement solely based on standardized tests, yet impractical to create measuring tools unique to each teachers student demographic and teaching environment.

Second, merit based pay may cause teachers to manipulate test scores and other measures. A teacher who feels pressured to produce results has an incentive to inflate grades or test scores in order to earn the extra money. The upside of merit pay is that it may incentivize teachers to work harder. Most teachers have altruistic motives, and would not be any more motivated by financial gain than they already are by their desire to make a difference.

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Published in: on September 30, 2009 at 5:33 pm Comments Off on Obama’s Education Plan

Beyond I-Got-Mine-Jack Health Care

This opinion piece by Professor Erin Ryan appeared in the Virginian-Pilot on September 21 and in the Star Ledger on September 22.

Finally, I have the private health insurance I’ve always dreamed of: reasonable deductibles, pre-conditions cared for, no draconian limits. It’s taken a lot of hard work to position myself for employment that promises these benefits, and with a complicated medical history, it means everything to me. So why am I willing to risk it all to support reform? Simple. Because “I got mine, Jack” is not the American way.

The “Aha!” moments come fast and frequent about all that’s wrong with our health care system–higher costs and worse outcomes than comparable Western democracies, mounting personal bankruptcies following illness, and the drain that health care costs pose for small businesses and the overall economy.

But my most recent came when I realized that Emma, my 16-year old cat, was getting better health care than Emily, my 40-year old house cleaner. I love my cat, and gladly paid for the expensive tests that diagnosed her obstruction. But shame stopped me mid-sentence as I answered Emily’s thoughtful inquiries. How could I talk about Emma’s bloodwork when Emily–whose mother is dying of cervical cancer–hasn’t had a gynecological exam since her seven-year-old was born?

Twice each month, Emily helps rescue our home from the ravages of overworked parents, mischievous cats, and a toddler who redecorates the house with each meal. She approaches her work with the combination of pride and duty that once propelled the American workforce toward prosperity. Emily left a career in retail management when her son was born with special needs that require her at unpredictable times. As a single-parent, she turned to housecleaning because it allows the flexibility she needs to care for her little boy. Her work ethic soon earned her a full book of business–but not affordable health insurance.

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Published in: on September 29, 2009 at 6:18 pm Comments Off on Beyond I-Got-Mine-Jack Health Care

Is Worrying About AIDS Sooo 90s?

Today The Washington Post reported on a brand new five-year AIDS and HIV awareness campaign – Act Against AIDS. The article quoted the Director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Kevin Fenton, who said that Americans have settled into complacency about the disease and that we have a false sense of security. The new program will strive to communicate that AIDS is still very much a problem in this country, with a new infection happening every 9 ½ minutes. The campaign has 45 million dollars behind it and will use various media to get the message out and put AIDS in front of the American people.

The program’s first phase is directed at communicating the campaign’s primary message, “every 9 ½ minutes, someone’s brother, mother, sister, father, or neighbor is infected with HIV.” Ads will run on the radio, the Internet, on buses and in airports. The second phase will specifically target the most at-risk populations for HIV and AIDS, most heavily African-Americans. According to the Act Against AIDS press materials, African Americans have a higher incidence of HIV than any other racial or ethnic group and, “while accounting for just 12 percent of the U.S. population, blacks represent roughly half of new HIV infections and AIDS deaths every year.” The awareness program will include messages about the importance of getting tested (a subcampaign directed at African-American women is titled, “Take Charge. Take the Test.”), protecting yourself from infection and protecting your partners. The program will eventually address Latinos in addition to other groups of men who have sex with men (the materials generally refer to this population as “MSM”).

Act Against AIDS is already dealing with groups who don’t believe this is the right way to help. For example, today’s Post article quotes the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s president, Michael Weinstein, who says that this kind of money could be put to better use. Weinstein points out the hundreds of thousands of people who have HIV/AIDS  and don’t know it, and believes that efforts should be focused on identifying those people to keep them from spreading the disease.

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Published in: on April 9, 2009 at 9:24 am Comments Off on Is Worrying About AIDS Sooo 90s?