Thousands languish in crowded Harris County Jail | Houston & Texas News | Chron.com – Houston Chronicle

By , August 23, 2009 5:18 pm
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More than half of the 11,500 inmates crammed into the Harris County Jail have not yet been found guilty of a crime but await their day in court confined with convicted criminals in conditions that repeatedly flunk state and federal safety inspections.

The most common accusation against them: possession of a crack pipe or minuscule amount of drugs.

Though the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial, at least 500 county inmates have been locked up for more than a year as they wait to be judged, according to an analysis of inmate data by the Houston Chronicle.

About 1,200 have been jailed six months or more though many face only minor felony charges, such as bouncing checks, credit card fraud, trespassing or even civil violations. In fact, around 200 inmates, theoretically innocent until proven guilty, appear to already have served more than the minimum sentence for the crime they allegedly committed, based on the newspaper’s analysis of inmate data provided by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

via Thousands languish in crowded Harris County Jail | Houston & Texas News | Chron.com – Houston Chronicle.

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Mike Presdee | Sociologist and Cultural Criminologist | Obituary

By , August 22, 2009 9:56 pm

Mike Presdee, who has died of cancer aged 64, was a sociologist of international acclaim and great personal magnetism. His work focused on the sociology of youth and cultural criminology. He was fascinated by the way in which young people can be criminalised and controlled, and of youth being seen as a problem, rather than young people being the locus of the problems of the system. In later life, he attempted to understand and explain New Labour’s neurotic obsession with antisocial behaviour.

He was a key figure in the now burgeoning field of cultural criminology, convinced of the impossibility of understanding crime (or any other form of human behaviour, for that matter) in terms of survey data and quantitative analysis. He argued that “numerical life” had little, if any, relationship with “actual life”, that there was a chronic split between academic knowledge (the gaze from above) and everyday experience (the view from below), revealed by ethnography and biography. Mike was one of those people who, because of class, ethnicity or migration, are permanent outsiders, who never feel quite at home with the world as it is presented by authority, and who, because of this, make the best sociologists and the most perceptive critics.

via Mike Presdee | Sociologist and Cultural Criminologist | Obituary | Education | The Guardian .

Terror from the Right: 75 Plots, Conspiracies and Racist Rampages Since Oklahoma City

By , August 22, 2009 6:48 pm
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At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, a 7,000-pound truck bomb, constructed of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and nitromethane racing fuel and packed into 13 plastic barrels, ripped through the heart of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The explosion wrecked much of downtown Oklahoma City and killed 168 people, including 19 children in a day-care center. Another 500 were injured. Although many Americans initially suspected an attack by Middle Eastern radicals, it quickly became clear that the mass murder had actually been carried out by domestic, right-wing terrorists.

The slaughter engineered by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, men steeped in the conspiracy theories and white-hot fury of the American radical right, marked the opening shot in a new kind of domestic political extremism — a revolutionary ideology whose practitioners do not hesitate to carry out attacks directed at entirely innocent victims, people selected essentially at random to make a political point. After Oklahoma, it was no longer sufficient for many American right-wing terrorists to strike at a target of political significance — instead, they reached for higher and higher body counts, reasoning that they had to eclipse McVeigh’s attack to win attention.

What follows is a detailed listing of major terrorist plots and racist rampages that have emerged from the American radical right in the years since Oklahoma City. These have included plans to bomb government buildings, banks, refineries, utilities, clinics, synagogues, mosques, memorials and bridges; to assassinate police officers, judges, politicians, civil rights figures and others; to rob banks, armored cars and other criminals; and to amass illegal machine guns, missiles, explosives and biological and chemical weapons. Each of these plots aimed to make changes in America through the use of political violence. Most contemplated the deaths of large numbers of people — in one case, as many as 30,000, or 10 times the number murdered on Sept. 11, 2001.

Here are the stories of plots, conspiracies and racist rampages since 1995 — plots and violence waged against a democratic America.

via Terror from the Right: 75 Plots, Conspiracies and Racist Rampages Since Oklahoma City | Rights and Liberties | AlterNet.

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Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor? | Rights and Liberties | AlterNet

By , August 22, 2009 12:39 pm
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It’s too bad so many people are falling into poverty at a time when it’s almost illegal to be poor. You won’t be arrested for shopping in a Dollar Store, but if you are truly, deeply, in-the-streets poor, you’re well advised not to engage in any of the biological necessities of life — like sitting, sleeping, lying down or loitering. City officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about the ordinances that afflict the destitute, most of which go back to the dawn of gentrification in the ’80s and ’90s. “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” a city attorney in St. Petersburg, Fla., said in June, echoing Anatole France’s immortal observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”

In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually been intensifying as the recession generates ever more poverty. So concludes a new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which found that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with ticketing and arrests for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering or carrying an open container of alcohol.

The report lists America’s 10 “meanest” cities — the largest of which are Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco — but new contestants are springing up every day. The City Council in Grand Junction, Colo., has been considering a ban on begging, and at the end of June, Tempe, Ariz., carried out a four-day crackdown on the indigent. How do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “An indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance.

That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it’s definitely Al Szekely at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington — the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Fu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972. He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until last December, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants.

It turned out that Mr. Szekely, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs or curse in front of ladies, did indeed have a warrant — for not appearing in court to face a charge of “criminal trespassing” (for sleeping on a sidewalk in a Washington suburb). So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail. “Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Mr. Szekely. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless.”

via Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor? | Rights and Liberties | AlterNet.

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Priority Test – Health Care or Prisons?

By , August 21, 2009 12:52 pm
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At a time when we Americans may abandon health care reform because it supposedly is “too expensive,” how is it that we can afford to imprison people like Curtis Wilkerson?

Mr. Wilkerson is serving a life sentence in California — for stealing a $2.50 pair of socks. As The Economist noted recently, he already had two offenses on his record (both for abetting robbery at age 19), and so the “three strikes” law resulted in a life sentence.

This is unjust, of course. But considering that California spends almost $49,000 annually per prison inmate, it’s also an extraordinary waste of money.

Astonishingly, many politicians seem to think that we should lead the world in prisons, not in health care or education. The United States is anomalous among industrialized countries in the high proportion of people we incarcerate; likewise, we stand out in the high proportion of people who have no medical care — and partly as a result, our health care outcomes such as life expectancy and infant mortality are unusually poor.

It’s time for a fundamental re-evaluation of the criminal justice system, as legislation sponsored by Senator Jim Webb has called for, so that we’re no longer squandering money that would be far better spent on education or health. Consider a few facts:

¶The United States incarcerates people at nearly five times the world average. Of those sentenced to state prisons, 82 percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to one study.

¶California spends $216,000 annually on each inmate in the juvenile justice system. In contrast, it spends only $8,000 on each child attending the troubled Oakland public school system, according to the Urban Strategies Council.

¶For most of American history, we had incarceration rates similar to those in other countries. Then with the “war on drugs” and the focus on law and order in the 1970s, incarceration rates soared.

¶One in 10 black men ages 25 to 29 were imprisoned last year, partly because possession of crack cocaine (disproportionately used in black communities) draws sentences equivalent to having 100 times as much powder cocaine. Black men in the United States have a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives, according to the Sentencing Project.

Look, there’s no doubt that many people in prison are cold-blooded monsters who deserve to be there. But over all, in a time of limited resources, we’re overinvesting in prisons and underinvesting in schools.

via Op-Ed Columnist – Priority Test – Health Care or Prisons? – NYTimes.com.

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Supreme Court Orders New Look at Death Row Case – NYTimes.com

By , August 17, 2009 5:16 pm
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WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday ordered a federal trial court in Georgia to have a fresh look at the case of Troy Davis, who is on death row in state prison there for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer. The case has attracted international attention, and 27 former prosecutors and judges filed a brief supporting Mr. Davis.

Seven of the witnesses against Mr. Davis have recanted their testimony, and several people have implicated the prosecution’s main witness as the actual killer of the officer, Mark MacPhail.

The Supreme Court’s decision was unsigned and only a paragraph long, but was nonetheless highly unusual. It instructed the trial court to “receive testimony and make findings of fact” about whether new evidence clearly establishes Mr. Davis’s innocence. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who joined the court this month, did not participate.

The decision set off a sharp debate between Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia about Supreme Court procedure, the reach of a federal law meant to limit death-row appeals and the proper treatment of claims of innocence.

“The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death,” Justice Stevens wrote in a concurrence joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, “clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing.”

Justice Scalia, in a dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the hearing is “a fool’s errand” because Mr. Davis’s factual claims are “a sure loser.”

He went on to say that the federal courts would be powerless to assist Mr. Davis even if he could categorically establish his innocence.

“This court has never held,” Justice Scalia wrote, “that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”

via Supreme Court Orders New Look at Death Row Case – NYTimes.com.

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State leaders near face-off over prison funding cuts

By , August 17, 2009 11:39 am
SAN QUENTIN, CA - MAY 15:  A view of the Calif...
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SACRAMENTO — When lawmakers fixed California’s deficit-plagued budget last month, they left one aspect of the spending plan unfinished.

The revised budget calls for cutting $1.2 billion from the state corrections department but does not specify how to do it. The solutions, which include releasing some prisoners before they serve their full terms, are such potential lightning rods that lawmakers agreed to deal with them later.

That time arrives this week when lawmakers return from their summer recess.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is joining majority Democrats to propose reducing the state inmate population by 27,000 within the first year. They would do that primarily by diverting thousands of convicts to local jails, placing them under house arrest or reducing some crimes to misdemeanors that would allow criminals to escape prison time.

The debate over how to make the cuts in the prison system’s budget comes on the heels of a riot that injured 175 inmates and left portions of the California Institution for Men in Chino uninhabitable.

Republican lawmakers are against an early release program, saying it would flood the streets with felons. They forced a delay on the details of the prison cuts until after lawmakers’ three-week summer vacation.

Majority Democrats could approve the plan on a simple majority vote, meaning they would not need Republican support. But some Democrats also have concerns about releasing inmates before they have served their full sentences, so any solution might have to be bipartisan.

“They are hellbent on putting some thoroughly dangerous individuals out on the street,” said Republican Assemblyman Jim Nielsen of Yuba City, a former state parole board chief. “I believe we can do it without doing mass releases. And that’s what they’ve been talking about — mass releases of these individuals into our communities.”

Schwarzenegger said his approach to cutting the $10.5 billion Corrections and Rehabilitation Department’s budget would avoid freeing inmates who have been convicted of violent crimes or sex offenses.

Over two years, the governor’s plan would trim the inmate population by 37,000 inmates — from 168,000 to about 131,000 — and eliminate 5,000 corrections jobs.

The administration would use home, hospital or nursing home confinement for ill or infirm inmates, some of those over age 60 or any inmate with less than 12 months left to serve. Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said such a plan does not constitute an early release because the inmates’ locations would be monitored electronically.

“They’ll still be within the jurisdiction of the department,” Cate said. “They just won’t be taking up a brick-and-mortar bed.”

via State leaders near face-off over prison funding cuts.

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Why Does Popular Culture Treat Prison Rape As a Joke? | Reproductive Justice and Gender | AlterNet

By , August 17, 2009 7:32 am
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Gillius, Inc., the company selling Sebelius’ game online, promises a certificate of authenticity to the first 3,000 purchasers of the game that invites players to “steal painkillers from the nurse’s desk in the Infirmary, avoid being cornered by the Aryans in the Shower Room, fight off Latin Kings in Gang War, and try not to smoke your entire stash in The Hole.

“The artistry of each handcrafted piece is matched with comparable humor & intelligence on every card. Stack your smokes, sharpen your shank, and get ready for an experience that only someone on the outside could appreciate.” So goes the game’s promotional copy.

It’s certainly not the first time that rape in prisons is spun for humor (though perhaps it’s the first time that such humor is alleged as intelligent). Untold numbers of YouTube videos, Hollywood movies, and late night talk show monologues play off the soap meme. Meanwhile, Andy Borowitz just released the “Bernie Madoff edition” of his 2003 book, Who Moved My Soap?: The CEO’s Guide to Surviving Prison.

This cartooning of abuse renders moot any sensitive and serious response to it. It’s also unique to abuse among male inmates; the ubiquitous caricature comes alongside a relative silence about rape in women’s prisons. There’s no soap-dropping counterpart “joke” referring to the abuse of female inmates. Ultimately, these distorted punch-line/silence memes enforce each other and perpetuate the reality of prison rape.

This isn’t news to Just Detention International, a nonprofit based in New York City and Washington D.C. Once known as Stop Prison Rape, the survivor-led organization has challenged the perceptions, practices, and consequences of rape in prisons for twenty-nine years.

via Why Does Popular Culture Treat Prison Rape As a Joke? | Reproductive Justice and Gender | AlterNet.

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Why Are Cops Tasering Grandmothers, Pregnant Women and Kids? | Rights and Liberties | AlterNet

By , August 17, 2009 7:24 am
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Technology is a double-edged sword, the cliche goes. It can save and even extend your life, but it can also kill you in new and unpredictable ways. In the several years since the Arizona-based Taser International has deployed its terminologically challenging Electronic Control Devices (ECDs), colloquially known as stun guns or simply tasers, what started out as a midrange law enforcement weapon has turned into a surreal nightmare that has gone viral from streets to screens. It’s now to the point that only a hyperreal comedian like Stephen Colbert can make sense of it.

“Nation, our gun rights are always under attack from the bleeding hearts,” he cracked in late July, “and not just the hearts bleeding from a gunshot wound. Thankfully, there’s the taser. It’s the perfect weapon for when you really want to shoot someone, but killing them just seems like overkill.”

Of course, Colbert milked the footage of accidental and purposeful taser victims, the latter being media and law enforcement members who signed up for shock therapy and provided the world with no shortage of hilarious video. But his point was well-taken: Thanks to the taser’s wildfire deployment, classification as non-lethal weaponry and pop-cultural appeal in films, television, comics and even cartoons, cops have nearly lost their minds using it on everyone from children, the elderly, and pregnant mothers to the mentally unstable and physically disabled.

Or have their lost their spines? After all, the police are public servants, and were even once referred to as peace officers, charged with resolving disputes, defusing danger and, when necessary, applying lethal force to keep the public safe. But lately, and thanks partially to the taser’s alleged safety, they have been leaving peace behind in favor of brutalizing innocent civilians with accelerating lunacy. That kind of unarmed diplomacy takes real work, and involves much more than simply firing off electrified darts and wires.

via Why Are Cops Tasering Grandmothers, Pregnant Women and Kids? | Rights and Liberties | AlterNet.

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Troy Anthony Davis: Race, Death, and Justice in America

By , August 16, 2009 9:09 am
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Although not directed specifically at the case of Georgia death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis and slain policeman Mark Allen MacPhail, the state of North Carolina’s new Racial Justice Act, signed into law by Governor Beverly Perdue on August 11, 2009, shines a light on one of the major aspects of the Davis/MacAllen case: that of race and the death penalty.

When reviewing such elements as the lack of physical evidence linked directly to Davis, and the fact that seven out of nine testimonies initially filed against him have since been recanted, various observers have voiced concern over whether the only reason he has not yet been granted a second trial is because Davis is African American and Officer MacPhail was White American.

Significantly, Governor Perdue is in fact a supporter of the death penalty itself. However, she notes in the following statement an important distinction between employing capital punishment and achieving justice:

“I have always been a supporter of [the] death penalty, but I have always believed it must be carried out fairly. The Racial Justice Act ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state’s harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals – the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice.”

Simply put, the new law will allow death-row inmates and pre-trial defendants to use statistical studies to challenge racial bias in the death penalty system. This would give prosecutors a chance “to rebut the claim that the statistical disparities indicate racial bias. If proven, a judge could overturn the death sentence or prevent prosecutors from seeking the death penalty

via Savannah Talks Troy Anthony Davis No. 5: Race, Death, and Justice in America.

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