Monthly Archives: April 2008

Murder and Mayhem at Theo Lacey Jail

We keep building new jails. We have more prisoners than any other country with the exception of China. We seem to think that pouring money into contractor’s pockets to build prisons, arrest prisoners, guard prisoners, feed prisoners, transfer pisoners, clothe prisoners, put prisoners to work, well, we seem to think that all that will make us safer. It certainly keeps a lot of things out of sight out of mind, though every now and then prisons errupt into the public consciousness with rioting and violence. Theo Lacy jail hasn’t errupted into riots, but it did make the front page of the LA Times yesterday after transcripts from a Grand Jury investigation were finally made public…it took a court case to make this public record public, and given what the contents are it’s pretty easy to see why the battle was fought to the bitter end. The LA times headline is simply “Rampant Abuse seen at O.C. Jail.” So what do they consider rampant abuse?

John Derek Chamberlain was raped and beaten to death over a period of 50 minutes, with inmates finding time to go and wash the blood from their clothes in an area that was close to the guard’s glass walled station and should have been patrolled every half hour.

I suppose rampant abuse is just strong enough to cover that. But I think I would call it something else, especially given the patterns exposed in the transcript of the hearings…

Inmates testified that jail deputies had told them Chamberlain had been charged with child molestation. He was not, in fact, charged with any such thing. Deputies acknowledged that they used inmates called “shot-callers” to keep other inmates in line. These inmates enforced jail rules at the behest of deputies, and used violence to do so. Prison guards not only turned a blind eye to all of the violence, but encouraged it and incorporated it into discipline at the jail. Apart from this of course, remains the fact that deputies lied in the log book and did not actually make the rounds required of them, they watched television and made personal phone calls and texts. Such a murder occurring in prison should have been referred immediately to be investigated by the District Attorney, but instead the Sherrif’s Department stepped in, an action that looks remarkably like a cover up. While heads have rolled in the Sherrif’s Department, all of the deputies on watch the night Chamberlain was murdered have continued working at Theo Lacy. A substantial legal battle occurred to keep the transcripts of this highly damaging hearing sealed so that these truths should never come to light.

This certainly raises questions about what happens in prisons in our country. It raises questions about the point of prisons at all, why do we have them? Given the levels of violence and crime, the regularity of race riots, the infamous reputations of Angola, Folsom, San Quentin…what do we hope to accomplish with prisons? It is imposible to kid ourselves that they serve to reform individuals…I think it is proven that prisons tend to break down and corrupt everyone that comes into contact with them, both inmates and employees alike. We can grow even further into a prison society, lock people up without ever letting them back out, isolate guards even more from the rest of society…but who would choose this when we can also choose to implement other solutions, strengthen our community’s ability to take of its own? We spend more on prisons than schools, so we already know what direction the government is pushing us in…

For alternatives and more information look at http://www.criticalresistance.org/

also published at http://www.allvoices.com/users/Andrea#tab=blogs&group=2

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Edward Lorenz Dies

I suppose not many know who Edward Lorenz is, he wrote computer programs to try and predict the weather, and in 1972 published a paper titled “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” Does it? The answer to this now famous question is perhaps. Lorenz is credited as one of the discoverers of chaos theory, his findings proving the uncomfortable notion that due to the potentially large effects of very small things, nothing at all is entirely predictable. I suppose most of us already felt the power of unpredictable things to hit us upside the head at any time, it took science until the 1970’s to do so. Still, Lorenz is a man who can be said to have ended one way of thinking (where we thought one day we’d have everything figured out, and the future mapped out bright before us), and ushered in another (where we are continually figuring out that we haven’t really figured anything out at all). He was out hiking 2 weeks before his death on Wednesday, which leads me to believe it was not indeed predicted, and I’m glad of that. It reads as though he had a happy and full life, and I have a strange admiration for scientists who grapple with the fundamentals of our reality.

Another War: Juarez, Mexico

Over 210 people have been killed in Juarez since the beginning of the year…it’s hard to know the exact figures, they keep finding bodies. It’s an all out war between the drug cartels, and the victims include corrupt cops, hired mercenaries, local street gangs, the soldiers sent in force to try and control the situation…and one can always hope not too many innocents. But this is a war complete with mass graves, automatic weapons, masked men roaming the streets, humvees full of men in fatigues. Such wars find it hard it hard to limit themselves to the active participants. It is generated and funded by the immense wealth to be found in supplying the immense demand in the United States for drugs and good times. Of course, the profits do not just come from trafficking drugs into the United States, they also come from trafficking people, many of whom are the afore-mentioned innocents. These people seeking hope and a better life (and miles between themselves and Juarez) also make good times possible by cleaning kitchens, cooking food, taking care of children, picking crops, building houses…In short, a lot of good times in the US are sponsored by Mexico. A lot of them are even enjoyed in Mexico, border towns are always good for hopping into for a cheaper currency, and picking up cheap goods along with your sex and drugs. Tijuana, Nogales, Juarez, they all have their strip of excess with their sex shows their buckets of cheap beer their drunken underaged drinkers their sunburned tourists. Survival is a difficult business, an ugly business here where extreme poverty collides with extreme wealth.

Juarez is famous in Mexican corridos for the drug running exploits, the colorful characters of the cartels, and its legion of corrupt officials. It is almost as famous for acres of maquiladoras manufacturing things very cheaply to sell quite expensively across the border. The women working in the maquiladoras are more victims, not only due to low pay and horrifying working conditions, but also the hundreds dead or disappeared over the past 15 years and no one prosecuted. They too have made it into song, these things might not hit the news very often but communities are always working to make sense of the world, talk about what is happening, try to improve thinsg for their children…

Las Mujeres de Juárez (Letra y música de Paulino Vargas, grabado por Los Tigres del Norte en su disco Pacto de Sangre [2004])

Humillante y abusiva la intocable impunidad
Los huesos en el desierto muestran la cruda verdad
Las muertas de ciudad Juárez son vergüenza nacional

Mujeres trabajadoras de maquiladoras
Cumplidoras y eficientes, mano de obra sin igual
Lo que importan las empresas no lo checa el aduanal
Vergonzosos comentarios se escuchan por todo el mundo

La respuesta es muy sencilla cuáles saben la verdad
Ya se nos quitó lo macho o nos falta dignidad
La mujer es bendición y milagro de la fe, la fuente de la creación
Parió al zar y parió al rey y hasta al mismo Jesucristo lo dio a luz una mujer

Es momento ciudadanos de cumplir nuestro deber
Si la ley no lo resuelve, lo debemos resolver
Castigando a los cobardes que ultrajan a la mujer
Llantos, lamentos y rezos se escuchan en el lugar

De las madres angustiadas y al cielo imploran piedad
Que les devuelvan los restos y poderlos sepultar
El gran policía del mundo también nos quiso ayudar
Pero las leyes Aztecas no quisieron aceptar

Tal vez no les convenía que esto se llegue a aclarar
Ya hay varias miles de muertas en panteones clandestinos
Muchas desaparecidas que me resisto a creer
Es el reclamo del pueblo que lo averigüe la ley


The Women of Juárez (Words and music by Paulino Vargas, recorded by Los Tigres del Norte on their album Pacto de Sangre [2004])

Humiliating and abusive, the untouchable impunity(1)
The bones in the desert show the raw truth
The dead women of Ciudad Juárez are a national shame
Women workers of the maquiladoras
Reliable and efficient, hired hands without peer

What is important to the businesses is not checked by the customs office
Shameful commentaries are heard throughout the world
The response is very simple to those who know the truth
Either we have lost our manhood or we lack dignity
Spoken: Woman is a blessing and a miracle of faith, the fount of creation

She gave birth to the czar and gave birth to the king, and even Jesus Christ himself was born of woman
It is the moment, citizens, to live up to our responsibility
If the law does not resolve this, we must
Punishing the cowards who abuse women

Tears, laments, and prayers are heard in the region
Of the agonized mothers and they cry on heaven to have pity
That the bodies be given to them so that they can be properly buried
The great world policeman also wanted to help us
But the Aztec laws did not allow it (2)

Perhaps it was not in their interest for this to be cleared up
Already there are thousands of dead women in hidden graves
Many disappeared, that I can hardly believe
The public demands that the law investigate this.

(1) “impunidad” is a common term in Mexico, referring to the routine failure of officials to bring criminals to justice. (2)This appears to be a reference to the Mexican government’s refusing US law enforcement assistance.
Translation ©2004 Elijah Wal

also published at http://www.allvoices.com/users/Andrea#tab=blogs&group=2

LA’s skid row effort hits a wall

The LA Times can really write a headline. Is this the effort to deal with the systemic problems that have led to massive homelessness and widespread drug addiction? An attempt to deal with the absence of community mental health clinics, affordable housing, living wage jobs, a solution to racism?

I’m afraid not, it is Chief Bratton’s effort to criminalize homelessness itself, to clean up downtown by simply shoving thousands of people in jail, and harrassing them enough to move on. It was the three cops on every corner, seven cops to make each arrest, cops on horses running people down on foot, a frightening show of force. And the fact that it has hit a wall shouldn’t be too surprising. You can’t stop the drug trade by arresting junkies, you can’t clean out an area of people who have nowhere else to go, and it’s never good to piss people off who have nothing left to lose. Though they’ve certainly tried.

HUD Leaves the Business of Housing

Alphonso Jackson is leaving HUD, and he’s leaving under a cloud of criminal investigation for corruption in the handing out of federal contracts…but there are a lot of other reasons he should be leaving which sadly aren’t getting enough attention in the press. As a political appointee, and therefore an entirely political animal, you could argue that he is simply following the party line, following orders. I think we’ve all heard that before. Why wasn’t he fired in 2006 when he boasted in a public speech that he had revoked a contract with someone when they told him they did not like Bush? Or when he was accused in a lawsuit by a local Housing Authority of trying to force them to sell land to a developer he knew, and then gutting their budget when they refused? Now he’s the one resigning, I know it’s under pressure, but clearly he’s been allowed to save face.

Still, the deeper, much more important issue here is the reality of a federal government steadily dis-investing in housing in this country even as real wages are falling, rents are skyrocketing, the population of homeless folks is being swelled by women and children, and almost everyone but the very wealthy are only a paycheck or two away from eviction. A serious illness in the family or a lay-off and many of us would be in trouble. Given the sub-prime mortgage crisis, many thousands have already lost their homes. So lets take a look at those lucrative New Orleans contracts that are currently under investigation, what exactly was the federal government paying contractors to do in New Orleans? It certainly wasn’t to build housing for the thousands of refugees spread across the nation. New Orleans is actually a perfect case study showing how the federal government is slowly withdrawing from public housing and leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens vulnerable to the bubbles of the market. And no one will be bailing them out.

In 1996 there were 13,500 public housing units in New Orleans. 9 years later, just before Katrina, that number had already been reduced by almost half to 7,100 through programs like Hope VI; 2,000 of those units were vacant, scheduled to be demolished. 5,146 families lived in public housing before the hurricane. How many have been allowed to return? About 1,000 families. And HUD continues to put forward the plan to demolish another 5,000 units, of which they are proposing to replace around 20%. The federal government will have gone from providing 13,500 homes for needy families to a grand total of around 2,000 homes, all within the space of 12 years.

I heard a lot of speculation on the news about the mindset of those people who had refused to leave New Orleans. Leaving aside the fact that many poor people did not have the means to get out of town, I believe this definitely bears out their fear that once they left, they would not be allowed back. Poor people aren’t stupid, and balancing personal risk with keeping your home is a dilemma that many would find very hard.

The other way, less direct way that HUD is putting people onto the streets? When the Federal Housing Authority insures the mortgage of a low-income home-buyer, and that home-buyer defaults on their mortgage, then the FHA pays the mortgage off and turns the property over to HUD. Buildings between 1 and 4 units are eligible for FHA insurance, so HUD receives a number of buildings with between 1 and 4 families living in them as tenants. Their policy is to evict all of the tenants, which they can do even in rent-controlled areas, and then auction off the building. The much-publicized wave of foreclosures and the crash of the sub-prime market has undoubtedly had thousands of silent and unremarked victims. I worked with one such building several years ago where we were trying to arrange the sale of a foreclosed upon 4 unit building to a local non-profit affordable housing developer. Our goal was to keep the tenants in the building as all four families had lived there for over 10 years, and one of the tenants had lived there for over 20 years and was incredibly active in the work to improve the neighborhood. We managed it in spite of HUD, one of their employees actually told me over the phone that they were “not in the business of housing.” There are a multitude of witty answers possible to such a statement, but my jaw dropped and I could not think of a single one. Still, the woman was right, it certainly seems true that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is no longer in the business of housing.

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