Magical Realism, Writing, Fiction, Politics, Haiku, Books

domingo, enero 31, 2010

Tomas Eloy Martinez, RIP

El Argentino:

El periodista y escritor tucumano Tomás Eloy Martínez murió hoy a los 75 años, informaron allegados a su familia.

Martínez inició su carrera en el diario La Gaceta de Tucumán como corrector y luego se desempeñó en Primera Plana, La Opinión, Panorama, La Nación y Página/12, entre otros medios nacionales e internacionales escritos y televisivos.

Sus obras "La Novela de Perón", "La Pasión según Trelew" y "Santa Evita" mezclaron periodismo con literatura y lo ubicaron entre los escritores más leídos de la Argentina.

May he rest in peace.

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Peru: The World Needs To Notice This Disaster

Yesterday, I put up an essay about a natural disaster in Peru. I wrote about the devastation caused by the rain: flooding, mudslides, loss of homes, loss of crops, deaths, displacement of families. And I urged that readers make donations to Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross.

Today on reflection I think I underestimated the situation in Peru. Today I found two videos that capture conditions in the Sacred Valley of Peru so you can see them yourself. Conditions are even worse than I thought. Please watch these videos. And please help me to bring the severity of this disaster to awareness in the U.S. Peruvians need our help.

The first video:

The second video:

I realize that the Internet can be a powerful tool in circumstances like this. Please do what you can to be of help.

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sábado, enero 30, 2010

Peru's Natural Disaster

The Urubamba River In Flood

This year's rains have come to Peru. And the rains have been extremely heavy. The result has been a washout of crops in the Sacred Valley, which runs from Cusco to Machu Picchu, mudslides that have destroyed houses and other buildings, and flooding. Peru Rail's tracks from Cusco to Aguascalientes have been washed out or buried under boulders. And the bridges across the Urubamba River at Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Urubamba have all been washed out.

Tourists visiting Machu Picchu and staying in Aguascalientes, at the foot of the site, were stranded and rescued by helicopters. But the indigenous people of the area have not left, and they need assistance because many of their homes and their crops have been destroyed. What's worse is that the rainy season is just beginning. If there is more torrential rain, and there may be, there will be even more destruction, more flooding, more landslides, more disruption of the infrastruture.

AFP reports:

Heavy flooding in southern Peru, which trapped thousands of tourists visiting the Inca city of Machu Picchu, has killed 20 and left at least five missing, Peru's Civil Defense force said Saturday.

Thousands of others have been affected by heavy rains, the worst to hit the country in five years.

In the Cusco region, the downpours prompted landslides that trapped 3,500 visitors in and around the picturesque mountaintop tourist site of Machu Picchu.

Peruvian authorities used 12 helicopters and 40 pilots over four days to evacuate all the travelers trapped near the site, Latin America's top tourist destination.

The evacuation of all visitors ended late Friday.

"The good news is that Machu Picchu, along with all the ancient sites, is intact," said Carlos Millas, president of the chamber of commerce in Cusco, a region heavily dependent on the income from visiting tourists.

But the railway that ferries 90 percent of the 1,000 people that visit Machu Picchu each day to the site was damaged in the floods, and Peru Rail warned that repairs could take up to two months.

The rains are forecast to continue through Tuesday, with some heavy downpours predicted for the south, according to Peru's weather service.

I have a strong spiritual connection to this area. I've written here about Andean Shamanism. And I've spent some time in the area. The indigenous people of Peru, including virtually all of their spiritual teachers and Shamans, by and large are poor and they depend upon agriculture to survive. Crops like corn and squash can be grown in the valley next to the Urubamba River because that is warm and there is ample water for irrigation. The irrigation technique is essentially the one used centuries ago by the Incas.

Those who live higher up in the mountains (the Sacred Apus) also depend upon agriculture. It is much colder in the mountains, many of which tower at higher than 17,000 feet. Potatoes grow at the top of the arable fields, other crops lower on the mountain. The fields are divided by the community so that the division will be fair and no one will get the best fields repeatedly. But when there are landslides and the soil is saturated as it is now, no crops can be grown, and those already in the ground may rot. And the fields are not accessible because of the mud. The animals kept by those in the mountains, llamas, sheep, and other animals need to be able to graze. Flooding makes that extremely difficult.

How to help out?

Make a donation to Doors Without Borders. Also, the American Red Cross sends aid to Peru. My friends in the Shamanic World are trying to organize to fill gaps in the aid, especially to the most remote villages, but that is still a work in process.

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jueves, enero 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger, RIP

The New York Times reports:

J. D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II but who then turned his back on success and adulation, becoming the Garbo of letters, famous for not wanting to be famous, died Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91....snip

Mr. Salinger’s literary reputation rests on a slender but enormously influential body of published work: the novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” the collection “Nine Stories” and two compilations, each with two long stories about the fictional Glass family: “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.”

“Catcher” was published in 1951, and its very first sentence, distantly echoing Mark Twain, struck a brash new note in American literature: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

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miércoles, enero 27, 2010

Howard Zinn, RIP

The New York Times reports:

Howard Zinn, an author, teacher and political activist whose book “A People’s History of the United States” became a million-selling leftist alternative to mainstream texts, died Wednesday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 87 and lived in Auburndale, Mass.

The cause was a heart attack, his daughter Myla Kabat-Zinn said.

Published in 1980 with little promotion and a first printing of 5,000, “A People’s History” was, fittingly, a people’s best-seller, attracting a wide audience through word of mouth and reaching 1 million sales in 2003. Although Professor Zinn was writing for a general readership, his book was taught in high schools and colleges throughout the country, and numerous companion editions were published, including “Voices of a People’s History,” a volume for young people and a graphic novel.

“A People’s History” told an openly left-wing story. Professor Zinn accused Christopher Columbus and other explorers of committing genocide, picked apart presidents from Andrew Jackson to Franklin D. Roosevelt and celebrated workers, feminists and war resisters.

May he rest in peace.

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lunes, enero 25, 2010

Law And Disorder: Ending State Killing

It's not every day that I get a welcoming forum to discuss the death penalty and why state killing should be abolished. So I was particularly delighted to appear today on WBAI's "Law and Disorder". Want to hear what I had to say? Click this to play the interview.

A special thanks to Michael Smith, Michael Ratner and Heidi Bogosian for inviting me and to WBAI in New York for broadcasting this show both on the radio and the Internet.

h/t to Edger for embed

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Honduras: Remember That Coup?

You know. The one where agents of Roberto Micheletti seized duly elected President Manual Zelaya at gun point, put him on a plane in his pajamas, and flew him out of the country in June, 2009? Remember that? Remember how most countries, except the US, refused to accept the November, 2009 Honduran presidential election because the coup remained in power and Zelaya hadn't been restored to his office on election day? Remember how after the election the US Government told us that was no big deal, that it would recognize the new Porfirio Lobo government anyway, and we should all move on, there was nothing to see? Have we forgotten all of that? Have we forgotten that Manual Zelaya found refuge in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa in September, 2009, and that he's still there, still confined in the embassy?

Porfirio Lobo is supposed to be sworn in as President of Honduras on Wednesday, January 27. And today's news, which you probably wouldn't otherwise have heard about, is about the failure of democracy in Honduras:

Ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya has accepted a deal to go to the Dominican Republic this week when his four-year term ends and his predecessor is sworn in, his top political adviser said.

Zelaya said that he will return "when there is a process of reconciliation".

The ousted president said he can leave as an ordinary citizen on the 27th, leaving the Brazilian embassy where he has been in refuge since last September when he returned to Honduras....snip

Except for the United States, most of the other nations refuse to recognize the November elections as legitimate because the balloting took place under the regime of the puchistas, coup d'etat government.

Costa Rican president, Oscar Arias, ...said he would not attend the Lobo swearing in ceremony on the 27th.

So it's over. The golpe goes unavenged. Democracy in this hemisphere is at its most perilous because a coup might not be fought. And, of course, the right wing in the US continues to scream that despite the US's complete betrayal of Manual Zelaya, the US is being too cozy with Hugo Chavez and events in Honduras somehow prove it.

If there was a "teachable moment" before or after the Honduras golpe de estado, about democracy in this hemisphere and the U.S.'s relationship to it, we've apparently forgotten what it might have been. 2010 in Honduras is looking a lot like 1910.

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"The Autobiography Of An Execution"

David Dow has represented people facing execution for two decades. Now he's written a book, "The Autobiography Of An Execution". It's worth reading. You can get a taste for it at this article by him on HuffPost. Go and buy it this book.

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lunes, enero 18, 2010


Patti Smith's Sinatra Reference

In today's New York Times Janet Maslin reviews "Just Kids" by Patti Smith. Writes Maslin,

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were both born in 1946, at a time when “the iceman” and “the last of the horse-drawn wagons” could still be seen on city streets. Ms. Smith points this out at the start of her tenderly evocative memoir, “Just Kids,” but there is even stronger evidence that this book dates back a long time.

“Just Kids” captures a moment when Ms. Smith and Mapplethorpe were young, inseparable, perfectly bohemian and completely unknown, to the point in which a touristy couple in Washington Square Park spied them in the early autumn of 1967 and argued about whether they were worth a snapshot. The woman thought they looked like artists. The man disagreed, saying dismissively, “They’re just kids.”

How hard is it for Ms. Smith to turn back the clock to this innocent time? Hard. Exactly as hard as it was for Bob Dylan to describe himself as a wide-eyed young newcomer to Greenwich Village in “Chronicles, Volume I,” a memoir that “Just Kids” deliberately resembles.

In describing the day that Mapplethorpe created his exquisitely androgynous image of her in white shirt, black pants and black jacket for the cover of her “Horses” album, she describes deliberately giving the jacket a rakish “Frank Sinatra style” fling over her shoulder. “I was full of references,” she says, invoking them explicitly throughout the book. A Patti Smith calendar would include Joan of Arc’s birthday, the day of the Guernica bombing and the day she, as a young bookstore clerk, sat among Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Grace Slick in a bar feeling “an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people.”

Your virtually anonymous bloguer@ was also born in 1946. In Newark. It's true that the iceman still came, also the milkman and the Dugan's man. Being "perfectly bohemian", however, was harder work. I don't think I ever really mastered it. I tried. Hard. But somehow, no, I didn't achieve it. I'm sure there are still witnesses to my many dismal failures. And then, suprisingly, it didn't really matter. Not any more. That was swept away by the new, different poses that would flower into Technicolor Hippiness. Bohemianism, Beatnikism were just gone.

I'm sure Patti Smith's book is worth the reading. For me it's almost sure to be a jealous glimpse of the still unachievable.

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A Song For Haiti: Let's Do It Together

Wear Red for Haiti
Date: Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Time: 12:00pm - 11:55pm
Location: Everywhere (There's no specific place, it's a nationwide/worldwide event)

Description: Everyone should listen to this. It's called Together (A Song for Haiti) and was recorded by the High School of Recording Arts. The "first step" that they're talking about? It's exactly what you all are doing right now, coming together to show your support. By showing our support for these people, we WILL increase the donations given and we WILL make a difference in the lives of everyone affected by this quake.

Show your support for the victims of the earthquake disaster in Haiti by wearing red on January 19. We're all one people and we all share this world, and we must stand up for one another when others begin to fall apart.


If you are interested in donating money to the victims, you can do so in several different ways:
1. Text "HAITI" to 90999 to donate $10 to the American Red Cross which is also aiding in the efforts.
2. Obviously if you are aware of any charities sending money to the victims, these would work as well.

There is a long list of organizations participating in Haiti as of right now, so if you have the money to spare, please give what you can to help these people.

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sábado, enero 16, 2010

For Doctor King

The following MLK Weekend Essay is a reprint of an April 4, 2008 essay.

I'm thinking about times more than forty years ago when I sang, "We Shall Overcome." I'm remembering how I felt when I sang it, holding hands, swaying, anticipation in the air. I loved the idea of walking hand in hand, black and white together, and at the same time there was always a tension, a tightness in my jaw and in the pit of my stomach, the presence of fear. The song's purpose was to get ready to do what had to be done. I'm committed to nonviolence, I recall thinking, but there are those who are not. They shot James Meredith, and lynched Emmitt Till, and burned Greyhound buses, and unlike me, they don't want me to be safe. Uncertainty about what will happen tightens my jaw, while my heart commits me to the cause.

Remembering these fears rekindles my old thoughts. I remember the policemen in the church parking lot writing down the license plate numbers as if it were the Appalachin Crime Convention. My mind flashes from people sitting in a restaurant who stop eating to stare and sneer, to the incomprehensible Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, to the repeated, threatening phone calls, to kids on a school bus yelling hate names through the windows, to the Klan and the police, and wondering how they were different. I think about the person who ran over my dog.

I'm remembering singing "our song" in Port Gibson during the boycott trial and fearfully contemplating the long, dark ride home to Jackson on the Natchez Trace, an unlit, two-lane road that avoids all towns.

I'm remembering the Woolworth's lunch counter and the bus station in Jackson, notorious before my arrival, at which friends were seriously injured. I'm remembering the two unequal, racially labeled water fountains at the Courthouse in Laurel, and the three bathroom doors upstairs at the Mayflower Restaurant. I'm remembering a black man pumping the gasoline, that his boss won't let him touch the $5 I try to hand him.

I'm remembering a Mississippi judge hissing that he doesn't have to put up with Communists-- he's talking about me-- in his Court. I'm remembering the Neshoba County Fair and what it must have been like on the night Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were all killed, how everyone there must have known about it.

Awash in this flood of distant memories, my remembrance of my own feelings is more opaque. I was learning to be a good lawyer, and I was an optimist, believing that eventually, we would confront and overcome racism and poverty and oppression and violence. But I was also numb while my unworkable marriage was sliding slowly, unconsciously and miserably to ultimate dissolution by another southern Court.

Then, in 1973, I started to represent inmates of the sprawling Mississippi State Hospital because Barry Powell, an excellent lawyer and mentor, "discovered" it and convinced himself and me that the issues should be litigated. Most of the people warehoused there, it turned out, were safe to release, but the staff was too small to have any idea who was safe and who might be risky. For obvious cases, like the four older women who played remarkably skilled bridge using sign language to bid and hadn't seen a doctor in 7 years, release was accomplished simply, by my inquiry if they could go home and my veiled threat of a judicial proceeding if they couldn't.

The harder cases were like Mr. O'Reilly (not his real name), who also wanted to be released. Doctors thought Mr. O'Reilly might be mentally ill because he still believed that ten years before somebody, a relative most likely, stole a million dollars worth of gold coins from his trailer in rural Oktibehha County and he was mad about it. According to the doctor, Mr. O'Reilly didn't have any insight into his delusional system and his obvious anger made him dangerous.

Mr. O'Reilly was tall and sunburnt from years of taking major tranquilizers and being outside, and he walked with his back arched, elbows back, hands on the small of his back, another side effect of the drugs. I explained the situation to Mr. O'Reilly. I told him that the doctor didn't believe the million dollar story, and that frankly, I didn't either. In fact, I doubted there were ever $50 worth of gold coins in his entire county, and that when he acted angry about the situation, he was scaring the doctor. He laughed, "So is that what all the fuss's about? How come nobody told me this before?" I shrugged. He said, "Well, I guess I'll be going home then," and he shambled off, doing the phenothiazine walk.

At the time the Hospital Staff decided who would be released by individually interviewing all the inmates who requested release. When asked, Mr. O'Reilly said he came in complaining about the theft of a million dollars worth of gold coins, that he didn't blame anybody for not believing him, and that he doubted the story made sense. Was he mad about it? No, he said, just sad that he didn't understand the problem earlier. Could he go home?

After Mr. O'Reilly was released, the Mississippi Mental Health Commissioner, Reginald White, told me that he thought I was doing "litigation therapy" and that he was surprised that people who were so obviously disoriented when they arrived were now going home. Did I think it was because of the intensive attention I was giving them? Or was it just time, the drugs, spontaneous change, and "millieu therapy"? At the time I didn't have any idea. I just wanted inmates who wanted to go home to be released.

And this past January, almost forty years later, with my wife of almost 30 years and two of my three children, I attended an Interfaith Service commemorating Dr. King's Holiday in Hudson, New York. After wonderful gospel music by the Shiloh Baptist Church choir, a sermon, singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, prayer and scripture, the time came at last to sing "our song." It had been a long time. My eyes grew wet. I could feel an aching in my throat and in my heart my continuous, decades long love of justice, fairness, and equality. And there was no fear. Instead, there was only my unbounded joy that now, at last, my kids would learn and experience the magic of "our song." It was their turn to inherit the possibility of accomplishing the unthinkable, and it was their opportunity to forge a deep, personal heart connection with the community and movement for human dignity and justice.

"We Shall Overcome" has never been sweeter to me. I can feel how very far I have traveled. Although there remains an enormous journey to complete, the holiday celebration brought me the gift of seeing for the first time that my kids will soon be able, by themselves, to carry the movement on. Forty years ago I never could have guessed how special, how complete and wonderful that would feel.

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jueves, enero 14, 2010

Action: Stop Deportations To Haiti

This is a straightforward and important request.

The Friends Committee on National Legislation, a a Quaker-based and widely respected Washington lobby for peace and justice, is asking for letters to President Obama and our Congresspersons urging the U.S. government to immediately act to grant Temporary Protected Status to the 30,000 Haitian immigrants presently facing deportation. That means that attempts to deport Haitians back to their ravaged country would be halted.

The Friends Committee has made this easy. Just click here and follow the instructions.

Let compassion guide us on this.

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martes, enero 12, 2010

Torture In Your Own Backyard

Cell Block D, Alcatraz

If Dostoevsky was right, that "the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons," the United States has ceased to be civilized. When a country imprisons more than 2 million people, and when it manages to be torturing more than 20,000 of those prisoners through long term solitary confinement, something is wrong. Very, very wrong. And remarkably, the torture is thoroughly overlooked.

Torturing? Yes. Not waterboarding. Not stress positions. No. I’m talking about long term, unrelenting solitary confinement. Solitary confinement not for days, but for years, even for decades. Solitary confinement that literally drives prisoners crazy. Solitary confinement that is torture plain and simple.

Join me in Special Housing.

As early as 1890, the US Supreme Court recognized the pernicious effects of solitary confinement. Justice Miller wrote In Re Medley, 134 U.S. 1 60 (1890):

A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.

So we're not dealing with forecasts here. It was clear a century ago that solitary confinement was cruel, that it was hurtful, and that it would absolutely ruin the mental health of a person who was confined. These were not theoretical predictions of the results of solitary confinement; these were reported observations.

In 1934 the US Government opened Alcatraz to hold the worst of US, federal prisoners. NPR explained what solitary confinement at Alcatraz's D block (pictured above) was like:

Most inmates spend many hours outside in the yard and on required work details. But a few dozen are kept in "D Block," the prison’s solitary-confinement hallway. One cell in particular is called "The Hole" -- a room of bare concrete except for a hole in the floor. There is no light, inmates are kept naked, and bread and water is shoved through a small hole in the door. Although most inmates only spend a few days in the hole, some spend years on D Block. Conditions are better than in The Hole -- inmates have clothes and food -- but they are not permitted contact with other inmates and are rarely let out of their cells. The most famous inmate on D Block is Robert Stroud, known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz,” who spends six years there.

It's not a long jump from Alcatraz to the present. In 2005, Daniel P. Mears, an associate professor at Florida State University, conducted a nationwide study(big file, pdf) and found that there were then 40 states operating Supermax or control-unit prisons, which collectively hold more than 25,000 U.S. prisoners, in solitary confinement. This is a huge population. And every single person in it is being given the same toxic, dangerous, tortuous treatment.

What's it like to be incarcerated in such a place? It’s not much different now from how it was more than 75 years ago at Alcatraz. In Beard v. Banks, 548 U.S. 521 (2006) the US Supreme Court described Pennsylvania’s Long Term Segregation Units (LTSU), the current prison lingo for solitary confinement:

The LTSU is divided into two levels. All inmates are initially assigned to the most restrictive level, level 2. After 90 days, depending upon an inmate's behavior, an individual may graduate to the less restrictive level 1, although in practice most do not. ...

The [3 units] all seriously restrict inmates' ordinary prison privileges. At all three units, residents are typically confined to cells for 23 hours a day, have limited access to the commissary or outside visitors, and (with the exception of some phases of the SMU) may not watch television or listen to the radio...

Prisoners at level 2 of the LTSU face the most severe form of the restrictions listed above. They have no access to the commissary, they may have only one visitor per month (an immediate family member), and they are not allowed phone calls except in emergencies... In addition they (unlike all other prisoners in the Commonwealth) are restricted in the manner at issue here: They have no access to newspapers, magazines, or personal photographs.... They are nonetheless permitted legal and personal correspondence, religious and legal materials, two library books, and writing paper... If an inmate progresses to level 1, he enjoys somewhat less severe restrictions, including the right to receive one newspaper and five magazines... The ban on photographs is not lifted unless a prisoner progresses out of the LTSU altogether...

Is holding someone for a long period of time in these conditions torture? If that’s not already clear, it is. In a March, 2009 New Yorker article, Atul Gawande effectively argues that destroying people’s mental health through prolonged solitary confinement is torture plain and simple. Gawande note the evidence that solitary confinement drives prisoners into insanity:

It is unclear how many prisoners in solitary confinement become psychotic. Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist, has interviewed more than two hundred prisoners in solitary confinement. In one in-depth study, prepared for a legal challenge of prisoner-isolation practices, he concluded that about a third developed acute psychosis with hallucinations. The markers of vulnerability that he observed in his interviews were signs of cognitive dysfunction—a history of seizures, serious mental illness, mental retardation, illiteracy, or... a diagnosis such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, signalling difficulty with impulse control. In the prisoners Grassian saw, about a third had these vulnerabilities, and these were the prisoners whom solitary confinement had made psychotic. They were simply not cognitively equipped to endure it without mental breakdowns.

You can, of course, read Grassian’s Report (pdf).

To be clear, driving prisoners insane through long term solitary confinement is torture.

In 2000, and again in 2006, the United Nations Committee Against Torture condemned the kind of isolation imposed by the U.S. government in federal, state and county-run supermax prisons, calling it "extremely harsh." "The committee is concerned about the prolonged isolation periods detainees are subjected to," they stated, "the effect such treatment has on their mental health, and that its purpose may be retribution, in which case it would constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

The usual “justifications” for solitary confinement cannot bear scrutiny. As Gawande writes,

The main argument for using long-term isolation in prisons is that it provides discipline and prevents violence. When inmates refuse to follow the rules—when they escape, deal drugs, or attack other inmates and corrections officers—wardens must be able to punish and contain the misconduct. Presumably, less stringent measures haven’t worked, or the behavior would not have occurred. And it’s legitimate to incapacitate violent aggressors for the safety of others. So, advocates say, isolation is a necessary evil, and those who don’t recognize this are dangerously naïve.

The argument makes intuitive sense. If the worst of the worst are removed from the general prison population and put in isolation, you’d expect there to be markedly fewer inmate shankings and attacks on corrections officers. But the evidence doesn’t bear this out. Perhaps the most careful inquiry into whether supermax prisons decrease violence and disorder was a 2003 analysis examining the experience in three states—Arizona, Illinois, and Minnesota—following the opening of their supermax prisons. The study found that levels of inmate-on-inmate violence were unchanged, and that levels of inmate-on-staff violence changed unpredictably, rising in Arizona, falling in Illinois, and holding steady in Minnesota.

And there are available, effective alternatives to solitary confinement. Gawande writes:

So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.

The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.

One would think that with 25,000 people in solitary confinement there would be a gigantic tidal wave of litigation about the subject. But that hasn’t happened. I can offer a few reasons for this.

First, the US Supreme Court has since Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), given great, uncritical deference to prison administrator’s opinions about how their prisons should be run. You will note that it is their prison, not yours. This means in practical terms that the warden’s assertion that some people are so dangerous that they need to be in solitary confinement so that the prison can function, will be accepted, and contrary opinions and innovations will be rejected.

Second, the prison industrial complex has been booming for decades because of the excessive number of people confined in the US and the desire to isolate prisoners, something that requires more prisons and more guards and more administration and more spending.

Third, the Courts, even when confronted with massive, proven injuries caused by solitary confinement in a Supermax prison, have rendered themselves unwilling to intercede and powerless. In Madrid v. Gomez a federal judge found conditions at Pelican Bay Prison in California "may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable. But, and this is the important but he ruled that there was no constitutional basis for the courts to shut down the unit or substantially to alter it. The Court had to defer to the state’s views about how to treat prisoners.

Prisoners, of course, don’t have any power to change these conditions. They have no money. They are routinely excluded from voting. They don’t have an alumni association. Prisoners’ families are mostly poor and disenfranchised. Prisoners cannot change these conditions.

And we? The prison’s walls keep the prisoners in, but they also keep us out. We don't know what's going on. We might not even care. We really need to have a serious discussion about what is going on behind the walls in our names. But we haven’t managed so far even to start that dialogue. That's a pity.

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martes, enero 05, 2010

Yeah? Well Mine Is Bigger

Taipei 101

Yesterday's news of the opening of the world's tallest building phallic symbol was a pun fest. The New York Times, for example, had as a headline, "Dubai Opens a Tower to Beat All." The Dubai Tower, it seems, is 2,717 feet tall. It is far taller than any of the other really tall buildings phallic symbols in the world, including the one in China Taipei, Taipei 101.

All of this, of course, begs the question as to why Dubai, which apparently cannot pay its debts and is teetering on the abyss of financial collapse, decided to build this gigantic monument to itself. Maybe its name should be changed from Burj Khalifa to the Ego Tower or Narcissus 101:

The glittering celebration may have been an attempt by Dubai’s ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, to shift the focus from Dubai’s current economic troubles to a future filled with more promise.

All the same, the tower’s success by no means signals a recovery in Dubai’s beaten-down real estate market, where prices have collapsed by as much as 50 percent and many developers are having trouble finding occupants for their buildings... snip

At a time when several of Dubai’s newly built office towers stand empty, [the big one] is 90 percent sold, according to the building’s developer, Emaar Properties.

Can you believe that? Lying about one's size and performance apparently goes with the territory. Even yesterday there were whispers that the building was empty, that it wasn't as hot as it was claimed to be.

And what about the US? Doesn't the US need to have the world's tallest monument to Priapus? Apparently, 1 World Trade Center proceeds apace, but it is about 1,000 feet shorter than Burj Khalifa. What a huge disappointment. Can the US face up to this embarrassing Erecting Dysfunction? Isn't there some kind of architectural Cialis or Viagra to grow this project?

All of this begs the real question. What kind of sign of the Apocalypse is it that humans are building gigantic, expensive, unneeded phallic symbols rather than feeding those who are starving and caring for those who need medical care? How many schools, hospitals, clinics and libraries could be built instead of these awful, unnecessary buildings? How many hungry people could be fed, how many sick people could receive care and medicine? Couldn't these resources be better spent developing systems to keeping humans from broiling or drowning on this planet?

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