Saturday, June 30, 2012

Pelican Bay Prison: One Year Later, Policy Remains "Debrief or Die"

Robert Luca, an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison
who was a gang member, looking out the grates of
his cell, near Crescent City, California,
February 10, 2012.
Saturday, 30 June 2012 00:00 By Victoria Law, Truthout | News Analysis 

In October 1990, only months after being transferred to Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU), Todd Ashker was shot in the right wrist by a prison guard. "This nearly severed my hand from my wrist and caused severe damage to hand, wrist and forearm," he recounted. Ashker stated that he was denied medical care, including pain management, and was told by medical staff, "If you want better care, get out of SHU. It's your choice." Only after he won a court injunction in February 2010 was he given an arm brace and physical therapy. [Letter from Todd Ashker, November 13, 2011.] Ashker's experience is the norm rather than the exception. "Prisoners with medical concerns are routinely told by prison officials that if they want better medical care for their conditions or illnesses, or improved pain management, the way to obtain adequate care is to debrief," states a federal lawsuit filed by Ashker and other SHU prisoners.

On July 1, 2011, Ashker and thousands of other prisoners went on hunger strike to protest such draconian conditions. As reported in Truthout last year, for three weeks, at least 1,035 of the 1,111 inmates locked in the SHU refused food. In the SHU, which comprises half of California's Pelican Bay State Prison, prisoners are locked into their cells for at least 22 hours a day. Over 500 people have been confined in the SHU for over a decade, over 200 for more than 15 years and 78 for over 20 years. The only way that a person can be released from the SHU is to debrief, or provide information incriminating other prisoners. Even those who are eligible for parole have been informed that they will not be granted parole so long as they are in the SHU. "They are told they can debrief or die," stated Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which recently filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of the SHU prisoners. [Press conference by phone, May 31, 2012.]

The Pelican Bay hunger strike spread to 13 other state prisons and, at its height, involved at least 6,600 people incarcerated throughout California.

"We have decided to put our fate in our own hands. Some of us have already suffered a slow, agonizing death in which the state has shown no compassion toward these dying prisoners." Mutope DuGuma, one of the hunger strike representatives, wrote in the original announcement for the hunger strike. "No one wants to die. Yet under this current system of what amounts to immense torture, what choice do we have? If one is to die, it will be on our own terms."   READ MORE

Do Republicans really want $400 a gallon gas?

Tanker trucks that transport fuel to NATO forces in
Afghanistan are parked near oil terminals in
Pakistan's port city of Karachi on May 15, 2012.
Commentary: That’s what the military pays in Afghanistan. 
And some in the GOP have fought efforts to change that.

WASHINGTON — For years, military leaders have identified fossil fuel dependence as the greatest long-term threat to US national security — and not just dependence on foreign sources, but on all fossil fuels, period. The Pentagon has taken the lead in developing alternative fuels, an effort our military-industrial complex stands ready to support.

Given the severity of our security interests and the profit motive for innovative solutions, one would expect a concern for national security to provide the common ground upon which progressives and conservatives can support an off-ramp from oil, coal and gas. Regrettably, that is not the case.

A group of 14 Republican Congressmen recently sent a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus advising him that his goal to make the Navy less reliant on fossil fuels is misguided. Coming from a party whose politicians regularly emphasize the importance of “listening to the generals,” especially on questions of force protection and mission effectiveness, the behavior of these 14 Republicans represents the height of irresponsibility and hypocrisy. They ignore the military’s understanding of the significant dangers of dependence on fossil fuels, both as a nation and for our military.  READ MORE

Supreme Court Takes the Edge Off Arizona Immigration Law

The ruling blocking much of Arizona's harsh SB 1070 calls into question the right's get-tough approach to immigration.

| Mon Jun. 25, 2012 10:58 AM PDT
Several parts of Arizona's harsh anti-illegal immigration law, which sought to purge the state of unauthorized immigrants through a policy of "attrition through enforcement," were blocked Monday by a Supreme Court decision that invalidated three of the law's four main provisions but let stand—for now—the part of the law that allows police to stop anyone they suspect or being in the country illegally and request proof of their status. The Arizona law had set off a burst of copycat legislation in other conservative states, some even more severe than the original. But with this decision, the laws spawned elsewhere are now susceptible to challenge—and the right's get-tough approach to immigration is at risk.
"The court resoundingly rejected the argument that Arizona had the right to impose its own criminal penalties for being undocumented in [Arizona] or trying to seek work in the state," says Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel at the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center. "I think that is very encouraging to challengers of other state laws."   READ MORE

GOP Votes for Contempt as "Fast and Furious" Blows Up in Its Face

| Thu Jun. 28, 2012 11:08 AM PDT
The "Fast and Furious" imbroglio may have just gone sideways on House Republicans. Just prior to them leading a House vote for contempt against Attorney General Eric Holder on

Thursday, a far-reaching investigation published by Fortune magazine poked major holes in the conservative storyline about the alleged gun operation. Claims that law enforcement engaged in a deadly plot to let Mexican outlaws smuggle US guns, the magazine reports, are based on allegations by a lone whistleblower who may in fact be the only person who did any illegal gun-smuggling. The real cause of violence and crime south of the border, it reports, is lax gun laws in Arizona and elsewhere pushed by Republicans and their friends at the National Rifle Association.
To review the allegations in brief: Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) supposedly recruited local sellers in Arizona to hawk guns to known smugglers, then monitored the flow of those guns to criminal gangs in Mexico in the hopes of catching "big fish," in a tactic known as "gun-walking" (as opposed to "gun-running"). Two of these ATF-monitored assault weapons ended up at the crime scene where Brian Terry, a US Border Patrol agent, was shot and killed in December 2010. An ATF agent with a crisis of conscience blew the whistle on the operation, dubbed Fast and Furious, and Republicans in Congress began asking questions.   READ MORE

Obamacare Lives. What's Next?

Corporations need HealthCare my friends!

The Supreme Court has upheld President Obama's signature legislative accomplishment. Here's what it all means.

| Thu Jun. 28, 2012 8:36 AM PDT
It survived.

The largest expansion of the American welfare state since the Great Society stands, upheld by the most conservative Supreme Court in decades. Yet the decision is not simply a landmark ruling, it is a monumental setback for a conservative movement strategy meant to sabotage, by all available means, the presidency of Barack Obama.

"The Supreme Court just saved Obama's ass," says Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law.
In a largely unexpected decision, Chief Justice John Roberts joined with the four Democratic appointees on the court to keep the law alive, upholding the individual mandate as a tax, not a legitimate government regulation made possible by the Constitution's Commerce Clause. One man, a conservative justice appointed by Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, thwarted the right-wing assault on the Affordable Care Act. (You can read the decision below.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Elizabeth Warren: "No, Mitt, Corporations Are Not People"

I like this:
Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren took direct aim at Mitt Romney at an Obama fundraiser on Monday, dredging up his remark that "corporations are people."
"No, Mitt, corporations are not people," she exclaimed. "People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick,... they live and they die. Learn the difference.
"And Mitt, learn this: we don't run this country for corporations, we run it for people," Warren continued, drawing cheers from the crowd at Boston Symphony Hall.
She should do this, because Scott Brown is doing an excellent job of being the Eddie Haskell of American politics, with half the state of Massachusetts acting as his gullible June Cleaver:   READ MORE

Some Employers and Republicans Want to Lower the Minimum Wage -- Here's Why They're Completely Out of Touch

In Arizona, GOP legislators fight to allow employers to pay teens working part-time three dollars per hour less than the state minimum wage - a mere $4.65 per hour.
June 25, 2012

If you've been on Facebook this week, you've probably seen the Chris Rock quote making the rounds:
"I used to work at McDonald's making minimum wage. You know what that means when someone pays you minimum wage? You know what your boss is trying to say? It's like, 'Hey, [if] I could pay you less, I would, but it's against the law.'"
Now it seems that some minimum wage employers are trying to pay their workers less -- and to even make it legal to do so. It seems unfathomable that anyone would consider the minimum wage -- which, for a full-time worker, provides a yearly salary that is thousands of dollars below the poverty line for a family of three or four -- to be too high. But in Arizona, Republican legislators are pushing a bill that would allow employers to pay teenagers working part-time a full three dollars per hour less than the state minimum wage, which works out to a mere $4.65 per hour.

And the Florida legislature is considering lowering the state minimum wage for tipped employees by more than half, from the current $4.65 per hour to the federal minimum of $2.13. OSI Partners, the company that owns Outback Steakhouse, supports the legislation.

Given the current political discourse on how best to create good jobs and help struggling families, OSI's involvement is especially noteworthy since the firm is owned by Bain Capital, the company that Mitt Romney co-founded and in which the Republican presidential nominee still has tens of millions invested.

The 'Tea Party' Supreme Court: How Conservatives Turned the Highest Court in the Land to Ideological Extremism

Photo by bloomsberries, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
Why conservatives on the Supreme Court have become ideologically extreme, rigid and scornful of compromise.
June 21, 2012

However the Supreme Court rules on the Affordable Care Act – or affirmative action and the other pending issues – the decisions are unlikely to do much to enhance the respect the Court receives from the public.  

Three-quarters of the pubic believe that the justices are influenced by their personal or political views and the Court’s overall public approval ratings have fallen significantly over the last quarter-century. The results stem in part from a relentless conservative attack on the legitimacy of the Court. Indeed, 30 percent of the public believes that the Court is “too liberal” while only 24 percent believe it is “too conservative” – despite independent evaluations indicating that this is the most conservative Supreme Court since at least the 1930s.

But the reason this Court can be termed a “Tea Party” Supreme Court does not necessarily turn on the content of the decisions, which like this week’s immigration rulings, are often a complex mix of the justices’ individual approaches.  Instead, the Court merits a “tea party” label because of the efforts to stack the Court with doctrinaire extremists, and to promote a methodology that has much in common with the Tea Party congressmen who threaten to bring government to a standstill.

How Monsanto Is Sabotaging Efforts to Label Genetically Modified Food

Lobbyists from the biotech industry are ardently opposing GMO labeling.
June 26, 2012

As the 2012 Farm Bill continues to take shape in the halls of the United States Congress, the immense influence of corporate interests is on display.

On June 21 the United States Senate voted overwhelmingly against the Sanders Amendment that would have allowed states to pass legislation that required food and beverage products to label whether or not they contain genetically engineered ingredients.

The amendment, proposed by Independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, is particularly relevant as many states prepare to vote on a ballot initiatives that would require such labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods.

Lobbyists from the biotech industry have ardently opposed GMO labelling. These opponents argue that because food labelling has historically been handled by the Food and Drug Association (FDA), it is a federal issue and, therefore, individual states do not have the right to implement such legislation. Indeed, in the case of Vermont, Sanders' home state, Monsanto successfully intimidated the state legislature from voting on a bill that would have required GMO labelling.

Patty Lovera, the assistant director of Food and Water Watch, explained that states planning to vote on GM labelling in November could face a legal fight to defend their right to enact such laws.

Colbert's "Pre-sponses" to Supreme Court Decisions

Richard Mourdock, Republican candidate for Indiana Senate, hilariously recorded ("pre-sponded") videos reacting to every possible outcome to the SCOTUS ruling on health care—and then put them on YouTube? Way to go, Mourdock. Colbert naturally had to mock him hilariously, and recorded his own "pre-sponses"—TO EVERYTHING. Amazing, amazing video below, via TPM. And yes, "Call Me Maybe" is indeed the song of the summer!

Do People Get Less Religious When Societies Grow More Egalitarian?

Photo Credit: NASA Goddard
When countries embrace progressive social policy, that tends to create a decline in religious belief. Why?

June 25, 2012

Slowly but surely, religion’s historical monopoly on the human mind is breaking apart. On its surface, the reason seems straightforward: the rise of secular democracy and especially of scientific understanding should encourage more people to give up on religion.

In fact, recent research from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago shows that the picture worldwide is much more complex than that. While atheism is on the rise in many places in the world, others are seeing a rise in religiosity, creating a situation where the levels of belief and non-belief vary wildly depending on culture. A lot of it has to do with history and culture, but one intriguing thread can be pulled from the picture, which is that there seems to be a strong correlation between high rates of atheism and countries that prioritize economic equality and make higher investments in a strong social safety net, such as France and the Netherlands.

Could liberal policies help create non-believers? Previous research indicates that when countries embrace progressive social policy, that tends to create a decline in religious belief. The theory, often called the “secularization thesis” is that the combination of good education of its citizens and the fact that citizens can rely on the government instead of the church for poverty relief means that more people will turn away from religion. But could the reasons go deeper than that? Few people base their choice of whether to believe in God or not on something as simple as whether they can go to the church or the state in times of need. Perhaps it’s more that economic insecurity itself increases the desire to believe in God. And if atheists want to minimize the power religion plays in society, should they start by demanding a more secure and egalitarian society?  READ MORE

How Can We Stop the Mexican Drug Insanity When Banks and Much of the Establishment Profit Big Time from Illegal Drugs?

Photo Credit: ChrisgoldNY via Flickr
Corruption in the drug war extends far beyond the hands of drug cartels - our own banks, businesses, and government profit from illegalization of drugs.
June 26, 2012

This is the eighth article in the Truthout on the Mexican Border series looking at US immigration and Mexican border policies through a social justice lens. Mark Karlin, editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout, visited the border region recently to file these reports. You can find links to the previous coverage at the end of this article. 
US Banks Love Real Dollars, and Illegal Drug Money Comes in Cash
A recent article in The Guardian UK offers evidence that "while cocaine production ravages countries in Central America, consumers in the US and Europe are helping developed economies grow rich from the profits."
According to The Guardian UK story, the study by two Colombian professors found that "2.6% of the total street value of cocaine produced remains within the country [Columbia], while a staggering 97.4% of profits are reaped by criminal syndicates and laundered by banks, in first-world consuming countries."
One of the researchers, Alejandro Gaviria said: "We know that authorities in the US and UK know far more than they act upon. The authorities realize things about certain people they think are moving money for the drug trade - but the DEA [US Drug Enforcement Administration] only acts on a fraction of what it knows."
"It's taboo to go after the big banks," added Gaviria's co-researcher Daniel Mej√≠a. "It's political suicide in this economic climate, because the amounts of money recycled are so high."  READ MORE

As Labor Struggles, Have the Big Rights and Liberties Groups Like the ACLU Deserted Unions?

While labor is under powerful battering from conservatives, a strong case can be made that they aren't being supported by some of our most prominent human rights groups.
June 25, 2012

Progressive intellectuals have been acting very bipolar towards labor lately, characterized by wild mood swings ranging from the “We’re sorry we abandoned labor, how could we!” sentiment during last year’s Wisconsin uprising against Koch waterboy Scott Walker, to the recent “labor is dead/it’s all labor’s fault” snarling after the recall vote against Gov. Walker failed.

It must be confusing and a bit daunting for those deep inside the labor movement, all these progressive mood swings. At the beginning of this month, New York Times’ columnist Joe Nocera wrote a column about having a “V-8 Moment” over the abandonment of labor unions, an abandonment that was so thorough and so complete that establishment liberals like Nocera forgot they’d ever abandoned labor in the first place!

The intellectual-left’s wild mood swings between unrequited love towards labor unions, and unrequited contempt, got me wondering how this abandonment of labor has manifested itself. While progressives and labor are arguing, sometimes viciously, over labor’s current sorry state, one thing progressives haven’t done is serious self-examination on how and where this abandonment of labor manifests itself, how it affects the very genetic makeup of liberal assumptions and major premises.

So I did a simple check: I went to the websites of three of the biggest names in liberal activist politics: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the ACLU. Checking their websites, I was surprised to find that not one of those three organizations lists labor as a major topic or issue that it covers.


Handy pair: Solomon High School student Brooke
Wallace, right, and her prom date Mark Aylward in
clothes she made out of duct-tape for a
national contest

200 hours and 42 rolls of Duck Tape... Now student's sticky prom gown looks set to win her a $5,000 scholarship


A Kansas teen has earned a spot as a finalist in a national design competition with a prom dress made entirely from duct tape.

Brooke Wallace, 17, of Solomon, spent more than 200 hours fashioning a western-style prom dress for herself and a suit for her date from 42 rolls of duct tape. 

Wallace told The Salina Journal the effort wasn't just for kicks: She and her date, Mark Aylward, could each win $5,000 scholarships and their school could get $5,000 too.

The couple was recently named one of 10 finalists in a design contest sponsored by duct tape maker Duck Tape.
The competition required couples to make and wear outfits made from duct tape to their spring proms and post pictures on a website. The winners will be chosen through online voting that runs through July 11.    READ MORE

The Senate Farm Bill: It Could Have Been Worse

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate
Agriculture Committee Photo: Kathleen Galligan,
Detroit Free Press/
| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 1:30 PM PDT
As the 2012 farm bill zipped its way through the Senate—passing Thursday by a vote of 64-35— I kept thinking of something that veteran farm policy watcher Fred Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told me back in April.

He said that the Senate version represents the bill's "high-water mark" in terms of progressive policy—that whatever the Senate comes up will be pushed in more Big Ag-friendly, regressive directions during reconciliation with the House.

Well, as expected, the Senate version of the farm bill preserves the broad incentives that have been in place for US agriculture for decades: Grow as much corn, soy, and a few other commodities as possible. It achieves it through insurance schemes described in my April post.

And yet, as dismal as the Senate's farm bill is, it could have been much worse. A flurry of amendments—the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a good rundown here are here—improved the bill at the margins. For example, the Senate ag leadership had tried to push the bill through without "conservation compliance" provisions to subsidized crop insurance. That would have allowed farmers to plow up fallow, environmentally fragile land for crops, and cash in on taxpayer-subsidized insurance policies if the crops failed. Importantly, in an amendment that squeaked by Wednesday by a vote of 52-47, farmers utilizing subsidized crop insurance will have to agree to basic conservation measures.  READ MORE

China's Other Sleeping Giant Is the Other White Meat

They're going hog wild in Iowa again.
Chart: Des Moines Register
Wed Jun. 27, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
 Since the dawn of the Great Recession, Americans have been eating less meat, including pork. Meanwhile, prices of corn and soy—the main components of US livestock feed—have been high. Lower demand, high feed costs: Basic economics tells us that US factory farms should be cutting back, slowing down, producing less. And that would be a good thing, because as I've written so many times before, our style of meat production sucks up huge amounts of resources and creates vast amounts of pollution.

Yet look what's happening in Iowa, the by far the nation's leading hog-producing state. There, the Des Moines Register reports, there's been a boom in state-issued permits for new factory-scale hog confinements. As the chart to the right shows, new permits fell off dramatically in 2009, driven down by the low hog prices, but are now charging back up.

Why would the meat industry be investing so heavily in new hog capacity if the economics aren't working out? Grist food editor Twighlight Greenaway proposes an answer:     READ MORE

Poisoning Workers at the Bottom of the Food Chain

Pesticides sicken more than 10,000 farm laborers annually. What's being sprayed is often a mystery. And complaining can mean getting fired or deported.

| Mon Jun. 25, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Laboring in the blackberry fields of central Arkansas, the 18-year-old Mexican immigrant suddenly turned ill. Her nose began to bleed, her skin developed a rash, and she vomited.

The doctor told her it was most likely flu or bacterial infection, but farmworker Tania Banda-Rodriguez suspected pesticides. Under federal law, growers must promptly report the chemicals they spray.

It took the worker, and a Tennessee legal services lawyer helping her, six months to learn precisely what chemical doused those blackberry fields. The company ignored her requests for the information. The Arkansas State Plant Board initially refused to provide records to her lawyer, saying it didn't respond to out-of-state requests. An Arkansas inspector, dispatched after the complaint, didn't initially discern what pesticides were used the day the worker became ill, records show.

When answers finally arrived—the fungicide was Switch 62.5WG, a chemical that can irritate the eyes and skin—Banda-Rodriguez had already left Arkansas to follow the season to Virginia and ultimately returned to Mexico. She never learned whether the pesticide sickened her.

The episode is as telling a snapshot today as it was six years ago for one of America's most grueling and lowest-paying vocations. Pesticides can endanger farmworkers, but thin layers of government protect them and no one knows the full scope of the environmental perils in the fields.   READ MORE


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Belle of the ball: Koch brother, lobbyists, fete the new House majority

[Memory Lane]

Three words to describe the Koch brothers and their lobbyists’ relationship to the new House and its brand new, dumbo-gaveled speaker: who’s … your … daddy …?
From ThinkProgress:
Today, as Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) was sworn in as the Speaker of the House for the 112th Congress, ThinkProgress witnessed a group of Koch Industries lobbyists entering the Capitol along with members of Congress and their families. Tim Phillips, a former business partner to Jack Abramoff who now leads the Koch front group Americans for Prosperity, was with Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former corporate lobbyist for Koch Industries.

ThinkProgress learned that David Koch, the polluter billionaire who has bankrolled groups organizing the Tea Parties and much of the modern conservative movement, was also in attendance in the Capitol for Boehner’s swearing-in event.

After the ceremony, David Koch walked up to Rep. Frank Guinta (R-NH) — a freshman Republican Koch helped to elect using his front group, Americans for Prosperity — and asked him to confirm that he will be attending a party that Koch is hosting for Republicans. Guinta said he would be at the party, which began at 5:00pm today.
Of course, you know David Koch as the man behind the tea party curtain, and the guy who brought together the shadowy group of moguls who, through American Crossroads, bankrolled the Republicans’ 2010 electoral triumph.

The only question, is whether Mr. Koch gave Weepy any checks to hand out on the House floor. Tick-tock…

Conflict of Interest: Clarence Thomas’ Koch Brothers story doesn’t add up

February 14, 2011 · Posted in Breaking News, News and Current Affairs, People, Political News, Politics, The Supreme Court 

Clarence Thomas doesn’t talk — at least not during Supreme Court oral arguments. But a speech he appears to have given at an event hosted by the Koch brothers, the anti-Social Security, anti Clean Air Act, libertarian oil and paper magnates who have become key sponsors of tea party conservative groups  – and conflicting statements he gave about it — may soon cause him some headaches. Breaking overnight on the New York Times website (with a hat tip to Rachel Maddow, who reported on it in the closing minutes of her show on MSNBC…) as written up by investigative reporter Eric Lichtblau:

WASHINGTON — Discrepancies in reports about an appearance by Justice Clarence Thomas at a political retreat for wealthy conservatives three years ago have prompted new questions to the Supreme Court from a group that advocates changing campaign finance laws.   READ MORE