Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Fight for Your Democracy

During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign he spoke to America’s anger and disillusionment of the rampant political corruption in Congress that has increasingly stifled America’s business.

The American educational system is in shambles; we have imprisoned more of our own citizens than at any time in history; the infrastructure is dilapidated; the poor, the disfranchised and the homeless reach historic numbers now.

Even before the greed-fueled, deception-ladened financial meltdown, the mass export of American jobs by unpatriotic corporations was in full gear.

A disenchanted America knows its problems all too well. As presidential candidate, Obama resonated with a disheartened America when he said both parties have allowed “lobbyist and campaign contributions to rig the system.”

It’s no wonder just forty five percent of Americans have “trust and confidence” in Congress, and just twenty five percent approve of how Congress is doing its job.

When hospitals and schools in America are closing and prisons are booming, gun sales and victims are at historic levels, and the very ones who caused this national failure are rewarded with taxpayer-funded spoils, then we know something is amiss. The taxpayer, meanwhile, is left starved, stranded, and stupefied.

The fight against undue corporate influence must begin today, right now. Put another way, the sale of American democracy must end today, right now.

For it is here that an ever appealing Obama expressed his most profound wisdom and challenge to you: “If we’re not willing to take up [this] fight, then real change—change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans—will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.”

As I record this ongoing history, over a year after these words were uttered, democracy, your democracy, is still under siege. Americans, taxpayers, citizens, all the ordinary people of this otherwise proud country, must come together to form a wave of change; today, right now!


Lessig, Lawrence, How to Get Our Democracy Back, The Nation, February 22, 2010, pp. 11, 13, 19
For Christ’s Sake, Where’s the Compassion?

Some might call it irony, others hypocrisy. An overwhelming majority of Americans claim Christianity as their religion, yet America is the only so-called civilized, industrial nation that practices vengeance with such gusto.

I was reminded of this fact earlier this week as NBC’s Ann Curry interviewed Ingrid Bettencourt, the Colombian politician who’d been captive for six years by Colombian leftist guerrillas called the FARC. She and a number of others were rescued by helicopter in a spectacular game of deception, ordered by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez.

Now picture on the canvas of your mind being restrained against your will deep in the dense darkness of Colombia’s jungles; imagine being chained for weeks on end to unrelenting trees, and forced to subsist in the most primitive conditions, exposed to the elements. As a woman, perhaps, you’re threatened with rape, or maybe even violated by foul-smelling, unsanitary rebels who treat you like the animals they are.

In spite of these atrocities, and so much more, the 1992 presidential candidate retained her dignity, her values. When Ann Curry asked if she was angry, if she wanted revenge, Bettencourt responded with poise.

She said, paraphrasing here, “When I looked down from the helicopter, I said I will not take this experience with me. I have compassion for the people who did these unspeakable things. Compassion and forgiveness are very important to me; they make me more human.”

This mind-blowing display of divine humanity was aired to an American audience bent on the death penalty—an eye for an eye penchant—despite their proclaimed allegiance to the Christian Christ whose top edict is to forgive.

Such humanity isn’t an aberration among foreigners. Both America’s state neighbors, Mexico to the south and Canada to the north, not only abhor the death penalty but consider the “lock ‘em up, throw away the key” mentality equally inhumane.

Across the globe, in Uganda, Africa, nearly two million victims of a horrible, twenty-year conflict forge ahead in a “forgiveness” campaign. This noble effort is aimed at the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army, a terror-laden rebel group that utilizes heinous tactics such as maiming and disfiguring civilians, and forcing children to be soldiers and sex slaves.

It takes a uniquely groomed heart and maturity to forgive, divine qualities Americans apparently haven’t yet grasped.

Still, I have faith that one day my country will be a compassionate nation; a nation that forgives its poor, pardons deserving prisoners, and recognizes the wealth and worth of every human being.

Unfortunately, today is just not that day.

Ann Curry, NBC, The Today Show, July 11, 2008

Okeowo, Alexis, “Uganda’s Rebels on ‘Forgiveness’ Tour, Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 2008, p. 7

The World Almanac and Book of FACTS: 2005 (World Almanac Education Group Inc., New York, NY, 2005): p. 765
Mergers V. Coalitions: Power V. So-Called Powerless

It’s a never-ending story, these corporate mergers. They combine, join forces and consolidate—growing ever stronger while the consumer, especially the ethnic consumer, grows more fractured and divided.

In May, 2005, Regions Financial Corporation struck a $10 billion deal to merge with rival AmSouth Bancorp. Prior to that, heavy-hitter software giant Adobe Systems combined with Macromedia for $3.4 billion. And Verizon successfully bid with NBC-Universal to compete in cable and satellite TV.

Meanwhile, we people on the bottom are divided; struggling like crabs in a bucket, or running on hamsters’ wheels that keep us moving but take us nowhere.

It is during divisions and disturbances in prison that the institutional alarms sound and we are obliged, even forced, to freeze. No one is allowed to move until the disturbance is quelled or an assessment is made as to how to proceed. Perhaps this facet of prison life should be our societal model.

Assessment: The elite and established have health care, employment, and property; and the privileged have education, cohesion, and power.

In sad contrast, we struggle for employment, education, and decent health care—we strive for a mere voice!

Ailments like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension plague our people; and gangs, guns, and prisons drastically minimize our presence.

Some of us are so deceived we see the other as the enemy.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobile pulled in a first-quarter profit of $8.4 billion this year. Many other American-born multinational corporations also did well. And it seems the better they do, the more they get from Congress, and the less we get from either.

But our curse is also our blessing.

After all, in a capitalistic society, money rules. And though hardly realized, money is a resource we have plenty of.

African Americans reportedly spend $761 billion annually, while Latinos dole out $760 billion a year. Our combined ethnic purchasing power, including Asians, Indians and others, is expected to exceed $1.5 trillion in the U.S. by 2009.

That’s power. But power, to be effective, must be channeled.

The days of blindly rewarding discriminatory, unpatriotic and exploitive corporations must end—today.

“How we spend our dollars has a big impact on corporate profits,” says Jeremy Siegal, author of “Stocks for the Long Run.” Samuel Gompers of organized labor told us in the ‘60s that we must “reward[] labor’s friends and punish[] labor’s enemies.”

Punish them by withholding that which they covet most—money.

Boycotts are not new to us. The recent boycotts of “anything gringo”—on both sides of the border—for immigrant rights was impressive. as was the December 12, 2003, boycott, sponsored by the Mexican American Association in response to the repeal of the California law allowing undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses. Governor Schwarzenegger has since softened his hostile tone on immigrant issues, and the passage of a new law granting them the privilege to drive appears promising.

The solid unity of Latinos and their willingness to sacrifice brings to mind the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott spawned by the late civil rights activist Rosa Parks. It was hailed as one of the most effective boycotts of the time, lasting over a year and costing the Montgomery Bus Line Company $750,000 in lost revenues. Some 17,000 African Americans refused to ride the buses, instead ride-sharing or walking if they had to.

As history has taught us, values often come in second to profits in a capitalistic world. This point is made clear when one considers the history of the United States, not to mention the exploitation of countries like Africa or our western neighbors in Central and South America. Here in North America we have yesterday’s abominable period of trans-Atlantic slavery, followed by horrific child labor abuses and less than humane sweatshop conditions. Now, prolific immigrant exploitation and heartless job outsourcing plague the country’s moral stance. Yet corporate economics has always been the catalyst fueling this evil.

On the other hand, we now wield an unprecedented potency. Take for instance the knee-bending $50 million loss Safeway, Inc. suffered in just 4 short months during the 2004 worker strike over a dispute with white shirts over health care and a proposal for wage reductions for new workers. Safeway’s devastating loss in revenues also sent their stock plummeting, further hurting their bottom line.

The vociferous complaints bellowed by Los Angeles Unified School District officials following mass student walkouts in protest to anti-immigrant legislation was also telling. According to news reports, in just three days the walkouts caused a loss of $1 million in federal student subsidizing.

In the interim, while we casually consider the urgent need to coalesce, phone giant Sprint bought Nextel for $6.5 billion, Procter & Gamble purchased Gillette for $57 billion and K-Mart seized Sears for $11 billion; all spawning layoffs, fewer consumer options and much more power for corporations incessantly flexing the consolidated muscle we, as consumers, fortify.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sex Offenders: The Math and the Money

There are 83,000 sex offenders on the streets of California. The average parole officer has a caseload of 70 parolees. The average sentence for your run-of-the-mill sex offender is 2-8 years in state prison.

In distinct contrast, there are an estimated 5,000 nonviolent people locked up for 25 years-to-life under California’s notorious Three Strikes law at a cost of $49,000 a year per prisoner—just over half the salary of a tenured teacher.

The list of nonviolent (and violent) celebrities and other elite in free society extends itself daily, yet Americans seem okay with that. These miss the vengeful eye of the victims’ rights focus so often directed at the poor.

Three Strikes was enacted in response to paroled sex offender Richard Allen Davis, who kidnapped and murdered our young, promising Polly Klaas.

In 2004, an amendment to Three Strikes was placed on the ballot, increasing the penalties for sex offenders and relaxing that retroactive, mandatory life sentence for petty thieves and trespassers. The prison guards’ union and the Schwarzenegger administration defeated the measure.

Instead, toothless laws named after still more innocent child victims were passed: Megan’s Law, creating a federal, mandatory sex offender registry, and Jessica’s Law, localizing the same tenets, including school zone restrictions in California.

Still, the Phillip Garridos and John Gardners stand accused of carrying on their sexual deviations at the cost of our most vulnerable with little hindrance.
Meanwhile, with the media machine’s sensational focus on the nonviolent and their inevitable releases, we’re all made aiders and abettors to this sick, backward, and deadly madness. With California budgets suffering, we can’t look up those we’re merely mad at and those we have true reason to fear. Can I get an amen?

March 2010


California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (

Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes Law (

Fox 11 News, March 4, 2010, “John Gardner Believed Killer of Second Girl”

KABC-7 Eye Witness News, March 24, 2010, “California Law Makers Grill CDCR Officials for Failure to Protect Public from Paroled Sex Offender John Gardner”

NBC’s Today Show, March 3, 2010, “83,000 Sex Offenders in California”
The State of Corrections

The state of California is often touted as a growth state. Shamefully, one of its biggest and fastest growing institutions is its massive penal system of 170,000-plus prisoners, the largest in the nation. And as huge as the penal system is, its still too small for its burgeoning occupancy, which is almost double over what it was physically and constitutionally designed to hold.

Over thirty-three concrete and steel prisons hold this independent-county-sized population of people. That’s a lot of growth from the first California prison in the 1850s, which was actually a rotting three-mast ship. (Imagine how different things might be if we focused on growing the educational system with similar zeal.)

Following a derailed attempt at badly needed prison reform by the legislature this Spring, this massive monster of a penal system is now slated to grow even more. In a hurried effort to hold three federal judges at bay—who see the need to intervene or outright takeover the failed system—Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently announced that he had forged a deal with lawmakers to add nearly sixty thousand new beds to existing sites, unsightly, matte-gray sites that dot California’s otherwise lively green landscape like a bad case of acne.

Of course, the price tag for these ungainly places must grow as well. Californians already strain to pay the current $9 billion a year budget, which translates to an estimated $40,000 a year, per prisoner. Add to that $7 billion for the expansion—which one insider estimates will balloon to $15 billion with interest.

The justification for the expansion is to ease overcrowding. It’s the exact same so-called remedy each governor has implemented; governor after governor, term after term, for the last thirty years. Each one passing along a more dire crisis.

Today, the state of corrections can best be described in two syllables: a mess!

Yet, this band-aid of a fix does nothing to address the causes of the mess.

-There’s no plan for parole reform, though California has the highest recidivism rate in the nation.

-The CDCR’s Board of Parole Hearings is in complete shambles; releasing only two percent of lifers who come before it—though the system was actually designed to release reformed men and women, like other states manage to do. As a result, the hopelessness increases violence and suicides—and again, California has some of the highest rates in both categories.

-And thousands of non-violent three-strikers still hopelessly linger within, though just about everyone, including a number of judges, agree the law is bad policy and needs desperate reform—in fact, the only opponents seem to be those who profit politically or financially from the yearly growth.

-Robert Sillen, the federal court appointed receiver of the failed medical division of the CDCR, has charged repeatedly that the department wastes billions of dollars because of chronic mismanagement.

-Incessant overtime due to staff shortages has caused persistent cost overruns over the years. Last year, alone, overtime totaled $277 million. This year is expected to be no different.

Astonishingly, there was no remedy offered for these obvious problems, which actually go on and on but were limited for this essay.

In sum, the state of corrections is so tattered that even those who host the most unfettered hatred towards prisoners should be white-hot at the failures because each parolee who fails after release, and makes a new victim, is but a reflection of the bigger picture.


William Wan., “Parole Museum Pays Tribute to Unsung System,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2004: B3 (First prison, according to parole agent Paul Toma).

Pacifica Network’s KPFK Evening News (90.7 FM), February 8, 2007, (billions wasted).

Pacifica Network’s KPFK Evening News (90.7 FM), February 9, 2007, (billions wasted).

Pacifica Network’s KPFK Evening News (90.7 FM), April 26, 2007, (Prison expansion deal).

KNBC4 News, April 27, 2007 (Prison expansion deal).

“California Parole Board Squelches Life Prisoner Writs on Procedural Grounds,” Prison Legal News, October 2006: p. 38, (98% of paroles denied).

“California Prison Guards’ Overtime Doubles to $277 Million,” August 2006.

Don Thompson (AP), “California Inmate Suicides Climb, Security Changes Blamed,” August 6, 2005 (

Inmate Price Tag $43,287 – Legislative Analyst’s Office, Sacramento Bee, February 2007. – violence statistics and other information.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Prisons, Immigrants, and a Culture of Life
There is one place where immigrants are not only unwanted but also where they absolutely shouldn’t be—prison.

Like prisoners, immigrants are already stigmatized, discriminated against and exploited by a voracious labor market. Immigrants, like prisoners, are all too familiar with being profiled, abused, and having their families separated by the system.
Many prisoners can relate to the plight of the immigrant for other reasons, too. Immigrants are largely undereducated and many are poor. Like those who generally become prisoners, immigrants find it extremely difficult to contest state charges, even when not guilty of the crime accused. Like prisoners, immigrants often find themselves the scapegoat for society’s ills when, in reality, disparate social policies—here and abroad—make up our collective ills.
With all the commonalities, a cynical mind just might believe we actually belong together. Perhaps that’s what Congressman James Sensenbrenner was thinking when he introduced H.R. 4437, the onerous bill that would make felons out of an estimated twelve million misdemeanor border-crossers; much like what California’s Three Strikes law did to 43,000 nonviolent poor and petty offenders; that’s according to a 2005 State Legislative Analyst Office report.
On a national scale, there are already 2.1 million prisoners behind bars in this country. A number that surpasses any period in our history, and shamefully exceeds every other nation—including China, which has almost five times the general population of the U.S.
So where would we put twelve million new felons if H.R. 4437 became law? Realistically, if just three million, or one-third of the twelve million immigrants, were caught we’d have to build two times the prisons we currently have. And for what? To maliciously incarcerate scores of hard working, contributing and otherwise law-abiding people?
On the inside we’re already woefully overcrowded. Instantly doubling the national prison population would turn prison yards into friction-agitated powder kegs.
As it is, we’re pitted against one another for scarce resources like mattresses—though they’re wafer thin. Library seats come twelve per session, though there are one thousand prisoners in each yard. Jobs and educational assignments are frustratingly limited, not to mention the food rations and lack of medical care so egregious that a prisoner a week was dying until a federal judge intervened in early April.
So be warned; let the recent murderous melees and racial riots at California’s inundated jails and prisons serve as an omen to the rest of the nation. Needless, expensive, massive and inhumane incarceration is, in many ways, murder and should be vehemently resisted by a nation that boasts a culture of life.

California State Analysts Office, 2005, “Three Strikes: The Impact After More Than a Decade.”

Jennifer Warren, State Prisons Chief Resigns After 2 Months on the Job,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2006, A1

You can hear audio commentaries of Dortell at
A Shrinking Middle Class: A Growing Prison Population
Remember when President George W. Bush and his corporate cronies told us everything’s good and the economy is as rosy as can be? It probably was in the Bush gardens, but here in the tangible world where real people are affected by one malignant policy after another, the situation has disintegrated into a field of thorny weeds.

In contrast to a future filled with prospects, we, on the ground level, see some of America’s corporate icons sinking fast; from major airlines to a couple of America’s premiere automakers. Some sectors of corporate America seem to be see-sawing between senior lay-offs and low wage hiring; others are unpatriotically abandoning American workers for cheap labor abroad.

And it gets uglier: In August, 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 37 million Americans live in poverty, up 1.1 million from the previous year, and up consecutively for 5 years straight.

The lamentable irony is that China, our emerging rival in everything from consumer spending to economic growth, is fostering a middle class at a rate of 1 million a month; obviously fueled by regrettable neo-American policies.

Kind of engenders a sinking feeling America might be imploding. Falling apart for the same reasons socialism in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics crumbled in the ‘80s: cronyism and greed at the top. Likewise with Rome, which neglected its interior and over-extended its might and hubris abroad.

Meanwhile, according to a variety of news reports, foreclosures, bankruptcies and homelessness in America are up. College enrollment, especially in minority sectors, is down and dropout rates downright shameful.

So the middle-class is shrinking, the working poor is a growing class, and poverty is robust.

According to the Department of Justice, Bureau of Statistics, there are over 2 million prisoners in the U.S. (we are beating China at something), and we’re locking up an average of 900 people a week.

You name it and there’s a new law against it. American policing has reached unparalleled heights, along with media reports of police brutality. But despite convictions of executive cheats like former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, or the guilty plea of former Boeing executive Darlene Druyun, stemming from a nefarious conspiracy involving a $23 billion Air Force contract, it’s the Wall Street elite who invest in the poor’s imprisonment. For it is the poor, not the elite, who fill up America’s prisons; yet the crimes of the elite are so much more extensive.

Progressives and the conscious call it a war on the poor. Unfortunately, too many at the bottom haven’t even realized they’re under attack.

The most frightening aspect of it all is that it is primarily the poor and middle-class who finance and support our very own demise. We tolerate deception from those we privilege to hold office instead of forcing a cycle where the new guy, any new guy, is given a chance. After a few of these cycles it will become evident to policy makers that keeping it clean is the only way to remain in office. Moreover, too many of us continue to patronize crooked corporations and re-elect sellout political figures without any demands or accountability.

Until this changes, that is until we change it, those of us already in the know can assure you, it’s getting pretty crowded in and down here.

Source list:

John O’Dell, “Fired Boeing Executive to Plead Guilty to Conspiracy,” Los Angeles Times, April, 2004: C1, C4

U.S. Census Bureau

U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Statistics

Alan Mendohlson, “Troubled Economy, Economic Woes,” KCAL-9, June 5, 2006

Bill Alexander, NBC, The Today Show (Challenging Economic Times), May 14, 2006

Michael McCarthy, “[Lou] Dobbs Fires Away Against Outsourcing,” USA Today, February 23, 2005: 3B

Mark Trumbull, “Inflation’s Rising Toll on Consumers,” Christian Science Monitor, May 18, 2006: pp. 1, 10

Update, June 2006: On his way out of the White House, President Bush acknowledged that the American economy was sliding downhill fast. During emergency congressional sessions economists suggested a massive $7 billion dollar bailout of the banking industry was needed, and they (the rich) got it with no strings attached.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Marching for a Better Future
It was a rare and exciting sight, an event of historic proportion. On April 15, 2008, California’s beleaguered labor force took to the streets. United for better jobs, some 300,000 unionists, construction workers, longshoremen, and baggage carriers, shot to the offensive to protect the middle class citadel.

This unprecedented ensemble of unions, representing firemen, janitors, and more, called their demonstration “Hollywood to the Docks March for Good Jobs.” The three day trek was the first of its kind in modern times but a centuries-old battle between the interests of employees and employers; uber-capitalists and consumers.

Indeed, as recorded in Howard Zinn’s popular book, A People’s History of the United States (The New Press, 2003):

In 1835, twenty mills went on strike to reduce the workday from thirteen and a half hours to eleven hours; to get cash wages instead of company script, and to end fines for lateness. Fifteen hundred children and parents went on strike (p. 170).

Ultimately, they won twelve-hour workdays, nine on Saturdays. During the next two years there were 140 strikes in the eastern region of the U.S. The strikes helped forge more humane conditions that workers still enjoy today.

It’s more important to note that it wasn’t corporate mercy that brought about change; it was collective opposition by you, the people.

For sure, business wants as much productivity as it can get with the least amount of wages and benefits expended. Workers want as much family time as possible with as much recompense and benefits to care for their families.

Corporate interests and people interests are diametrically opposed. In this scheme of opposites, consumers fall on the side of the worker, for they are the workers, and they want as much for their hard earned cash as possible.

Yet, in today’s world, it’s often hard to discern between one side of the fence and the other. The pockets of some consumers burn hot until they cast all their dough into the troves of the big corps.

There is little of no demand in exchange from them. No requirement that corporations invest locally; repairing infrastructure, building community centers for the kids, and hiring those within the same zip code. Nationally, they don’t demand that their jobs, their neighbors’ jobs, and their friends’ jobs remain in America. They simply fork over their spoils for little in exchange.

The marchers want better job security and benefits that rise along with inflation. They realize that it is their hands and their money that have made the corporation.

The middle class is shrinking with depression-era likeness. Millions are losing their homes due to corporate corruption. The once friendly bank is now a rapacious, multi-national corporation that claws ever closer to the foreclosed home; ever so ready to add to the swelling homeless population, and the prisons they build.

It is the corporations—those voracious beasts—that dispatch armies of lobbyist to the halls of Congress to bump your vote. It is the corporations that pollute the land, threaten the ecology and blatantly renege on pre-paid health care insurance when one is ill stricken.

Yes, this was an historic march, not just for Californians but for the country, for you and yours and me and mine. This was a march for the nation, for the world against a ravenous, diabolical fiend that will eat you out of house and home if you don’t tame him.

KNBC, March 15, 2008

California Budget Project Report, March 2008 (Housing market crash)

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Rehabilitating CDCR with Honor
I realize that many in society are hard pressed not to believe that all prisoners are dangerous, violent or incorrigible.

It is true that prisons are dangerous places—for all, guards and prisoners alike. California’s prisons, in particular, make for perfect peril by a lethal combination of chronic overcrowding, repressive idleness and an obstinate, embittering model of punishment, and punishment only.

Prior to forfeiting my seat in society in 1989, I had always assumed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation meant just that, a place where the broken in society were sent to be fixed—or to at least have rehabilitation available if desired.

The reality of my fallacy hit me square in the face when I was sent—as a 26-year-old first-timer—to the notorious state prison called Pelican Bay.

I was given no plan or suggestion for self-improvement. I was not encouraged to do anything positive and, to my surprise, classes one would think to be a given in the department of “corrections” were starkly absent; no anger management despite the rampant violence, no gamblers’ anonymous to counter that pervasive and addictive vice—that all too often leads to violent repercussions for unpaid debts, not even victim orientation to instill some reality and empathy for the hellish consequences of victimization.

The only admonishment received was from fellow prisoners just as ignorant and misguided as myself: this prison clique is warring with that prison clique, or we aren’t on speaking terms with this race, and so and so is gonna get hit today for not paying a dope debt. Those were the extent of my many advisements.

Despite the haunting deprivations and neglect by prison officials, I desired more than the daily, vexing emptiness that surrounded me. My drug dealing days were shipwrecked along with my freedom. I certainly didn’t want to continue that lifestyle in prison. Neither was gang-banging an option for me in prison, or ever. Like the outside world, all of the street-hustle paths of prison led to darkness.

Then, in 2003, by pure serendipity, I was transferred to the state prison at Los Angeles County, a facility where a few reform-minded men cut through the institutional thicket of obstacles to open a route towards self-amendment. It was then that I eventually learned of a little known secret called the Honor Program.

Initiated in 2000, this conglomerate of men, tired of the madness and irresponsibility, proposed a bright vision for change that would stand in stark contrast to the damaging model of force and violence utilized for prisoner control.

The most glaring distinction of the Honor Program was that it was completed voluntary. Participants had to agree to random drug tests, to relinquish gang ties and racial politics, and to draw up a program plan.

As in the past, prisoners gave me a heads up, but the language and tone was much more inspiring: “This yard is different, man. We don’t [gang] bang here; we respect all races and push the positive,” I was told.

As the days peeled away, I was astonished to see integrated sports teams on the yard, and I kind of felt neurotic as I searched in vain for any hint of tension. Here prisoners utilize each other’s skills to teach one another through peer-education, and are given leeway by progressive staff to do so. Writing class, critical thinking, yoga and Spanish are all offered, to name a few.

The success has been indisputable. In its first year of existence, a study was conducted by prison officials that revealed a decrease in weapons infractions by 88 percent, and violence dropped by 85 percent. The Honor Program had saved CDCR (and taxpayers) $200,000.

To our dismay and disappointment, the Honor Program has been virtually ignored by past secretaries of CDCR, refusing to make it official. Still, ever so optimistic, it is our hope that the new secretary, Mathew Cate, will adopt this self-sufficient, money-saving program and secure its longevity.

It is without question that rehabilitated prisoners not only make prisons safer, but society is also made safer upon the release of the majority of those who will eventually be paroled.


Faucett, Richard, “Honor Program Success,” Los Angeles Times, 2003

Lawrence, Susan, “Creating A Healing Society,” (Elite Books, Santa Rosa, CA: 2006): p. 101

Widdison, Marissa, “Bodies Imprisoned, Minds, Go Free,” Antelope Valley Press, October 7, 2006

Senate Bill 299, The Honor Program, 2006 (vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

It’s the System that Needs Corrections and Rehabilitation

It was kind of like asking a captured robber voluntarily handcuff himself without the threat of authority, or expecting a rabbit to hold still while you aim and fire. Today, the prison guards distributed a survey asking if we’d be interested in voluntarily transferring to out of state joints to help them ease overcrowding. The survey was initiated by the legislature as they contemplate the viability of such transfers, along with sentencing reform and other avenues to alleviate a severe population overflow.

Of course, the true nature of the beast is force. Everything in prison is done by force—directly or indirectly. However, this time we got saved by the parched, yellowed and dog-eared sheet of paper called the Constitution.

The survey said, as if we didn’t know, that the prison system is dangerously overcrowded and voluntary transfers would help relieve the pressure.

I’ve been captive to these hell holes for nearly two decades and marvel that our quixotic legislature has finally decided to act on this re-occurring problem.

The stakes are high, so they want us to help dig them out of this mess.

So, let’s say the needed 5,000 of us agree to transfer. The problem is temporarily countered. Yet laws like Three Strikes continue to gobble up petty thieves for life, the Board of Parole Hearings, which is designed to actually parole people, continues to release its annual 2 percent trickle and the newly released continue to get tripped up on technical violations and recidivate. Before you know it, we’re up to the brim again. Then what?

Meanwhile, for the rest of us, there’s little by way of job training, or rehabilitation or drug treatment—though 85 percent of offenders have drug or alcohol directly or indirectly related to their imprisonment. Opportunities to gain productive skills are slim to none in California prisons, so we abide in a world of idleness where violence reigns as a result.

That pretty much describes the cycle every time they build a new prison as well. California has been trying to build its way out of overcrowding—without releasing lifers or rehabilitating those with fixed sentences for over 20 years. It hasn’t worked in the past and nothing suggests that failure won’t repeat itself with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s two proposed prisons or multimillion dollar extensions to existing sites. These always amount to nothing more than temporary plugs—been there, done that.

The survey graciously related that we’ll continue to earn good-time credits if we help ‘em out and transfer out of state. Sure we will, and every other detail of our sentences will also apply. No sentence adjustments commensurate with the accepting state’s sentencing guidelines, which are usually far less than that of California. And perhaps no furloughs, or family visits for the general population, or other incentives that California refuses to give. The survey listed 28 applicable states, from Alabama to Wisconsin, none of which lock up their citizens for 25 years to life for video game theft or other such petty offenses, but, again, even if we were to transfer to Jupiter, California will want its quarter-century in time.

So “what do we get out of the deal?” was the echo on the yard. Or how does the taxpayer benefit, for that matter? It’s just a shell game, but with bodies. Just more of the same.

Still, there are other options. We can hold out and make our captors actually fix the problem. They can honor the punishments originally meted out and start releasing the thousands who have met their Board of Parole Hearings requirements. The legislature should enact sentence reform, and implement genuine rehabilitation like other states with successful prison systems, or better yet, let U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson take over and bust up that dominating guard’s union (the California Peace Officers’ Association), said to be the most influential in the state. They’re constantly pushing for more prisons, more guards and repressive laws to ensure the need for prison growth. It’s as immoral as slavery.

Judge Henderson has already seized control of the Youth Authority, along with a portion of the prison administration that deals with prison guard discipline (due primarily to a pervasive code of silence within their ranks that hindered criminal and misconduct investigations on prison guards), and most recently Judge Thelton has taken control of the prison system’s health care department where an average of 52 prisoners were dying a year of preventable deaths as a result of gross negligence—that’s about a prisoner a week.

According to a 34-page report released in July by special master John Hagar, appointed by Judge Henderson to investigate the corrections department and possible violations of prisoner’s civil rights, the guard’s union is too influential, is impeding positive reform, and the governor’s office has become too chummy with the union, apparently trying to curry favor for the November election. Hagar also accused the governor of back peddling on his promise to fix the problems which have now grown into a crisis.

I checked the “Not Interested” box on the survey without the slightest hesitation. In spite of the myriad of criminal allegations we see those in power spin their way out of, they hold us responsible to the Nth degree for our slightest slipups. I say it’s time we finally hold them accountable for something; namely this overcrowded, mismanaged, wasteful and out of control prison system they’ve created that now needs a good dose of correction and rehabilitation itself.

Don Thompson (AP) “Prison Watchdog Rips Governor,” Antelope Valley Press, June 22, 2006: A10 (Hagar report, Officer code of silence).

Don Thompson (AP) “Prison Problems Prompt Special Session,” Antelope Valley Press, August 2006: A1, A6 (Hagar report; governor chummy with union).

Jennifer Warren and Jordan Rau, “Prison Reform Plan Falls Short,” Los Angeles Times, August 30, 2006, B1, B7 (Need rehab, forced transfers unconstitutional).

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Fear Mongering of Early Release
It amazes me to hear of all the fear mongering and panic spread in response to any talk of early prison releases.

History has proven repeatedly that early releases—releasing people who will get out anyway—does not culminate into significant crime spikes.

To illustrate, in 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Sixth Amendment, in Gideon v. Wainwright, as fulfilling the need to grant poor people accused of felonies the right to counsel. As a result, the 1,252 detained indigent Floridians who weren’t afforded counsel were point blank released. Fear and hysteria were understandably rampant, yet 28 months later the FDC found their recidivism rate amounted to a mere 13.6 percent.

Furthermore, history has proven that the mass demonization of prisoners as “dangerous” is Politics 101. The facts: The vast majority of imprisoned people made a mistake and simply wish to peacefully do their time and stay out of the way. Likewise, the vast majority of prison guards are professional/ In either case, if the bad apples ruled the system would completely implode.

Early releases here in California have proven no different. In the 70s, under Senate Bill 42, Governor Jerry Brown released 11,000 prisoners, the majority of them lifers; with no significant crime increase. Moreover, due to the same type of overcrowding the prison system is experiencing, the Los Angeles County Jail system has been doing early releases as a matter of course for over a decade.

Considering that we’re spending 45 percent more on prisons than the university system, and that the state budget is still $20 billion in the hole, I think early releases are long overdue. Just think, $49,000 per prisoner annually. That’s almost a salaried teacher’s pay. Yet we’re keeping the prisoners and releasing the teachers!

Indeed, these prisoners are no more dangerous than singer Chris Brown, who pled guilty to a domestic violence case or film director Roman Polanski, who accepted a plea deal for statutory rape. However, these proposed felons are non-violent.

American Bar Association Project on Minimum Standards for Criminal Justice, Standards Relating to Sentencing Alternatives and Procedures, 59, quoted in ronald L. Goldfarb and Linda R. Singer, After Conviction (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1973) p. 183

DeWayne Wickham, “Polanski’s Supporters Look Past Pedophilia,” USA Today, October 27, 2009: 11A

Fay Knopp and Jon Regeir, Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolistionists (Prison Research Education Action Project, Syracuse, N.Y., 1976, 2005) p. 39-41

Henry J. Steadman and Gary Keveles, The Community Adjustment and Criminal Activity of the Baxsrom Patients: 1966-1970, American Journal of Psychiatry, 129
(1972) pp. 304-310

Monday, February 15, 2010

Plea Deals, But No Mercy
Plea bargains are a main staple of the criminal justice system, yet the public knows little or nothing of what they entail. According to Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, ninety-six percent of California’s criminal cases end by plea bargains, which is about the national average.

Plea bargains are the pressure valve for overburdened court systems where a never-ending line of criminal trials can endure for as little as a few days or drag on for years at a time. These courtroom deals, as they’re sometimes called, relieve stressed public defenders’ offices, save taxpayers millions of dollars by circumventing costly trials where lawyers and investigators charge hundreds of dollars by the hou8r, and relieve civilians of time-consuming jury duty.
For the accused, plea bargains save people from the experience of humiliating and invasive public trials; from the expense of financially draining defense counsel, and sometimes, they reduce probable harsher sentences that could potentially follow a jury conviction.

A plea bargain is a formal agreement with the government—a contract, if you will—for a guaranteed and specified outcome. A plea bargain is supposed to be a win-win situation. However, as the story of Eric Davis illustrates, win-wins are not always the case.

Davis, a California three-striker, suffers from a sixty-year sentence for, as many call it, an ancient history of robberies. On its face it might seem just that a repeat offender got what he deserved. Yet, as with most legalese, it’s much more complicated than that.
Davis, a fifty-six year old father of two, committed his first robbery at age nineteen—in 1968—twenty-six years before the enactment of the Three Strikes Law.

After his release from the ’68 robbery, Davis went straight, adopting a career in upholstery, while practicing music on the side./ Some eight years later, having fallen on hard times, he reverted back to robbery. Following a four year prison stint, from 1976 to 1980, he was released and managed to keep himself clean for fifteen years, until he was arrested in 1995 for the third time for another robbery (with mitigating circumstances because he used no gun during the crime).

Davis now sits warehoused in prison, expected to languish for more than twice the time a person would get for two homicides. Imagine, a sentence of six decades in prison for three completely isolated incidents, albeit, criminal, in which no one was ever injured. His offenses spanned some thirty-seven years, two of which occurred before the Three Strikes law was even a concept.

Davis readily acknowledges that criminal behavior shouldn’t be overlooked simply because he fell on hard times. Indeed, millions of people are subjected to hard times and don’t revert to criminal behavior. Still, the fact that the government would go back decades to strike a person out for life is wholly unfair and unjust.

According to Davis, his first offense was supposed to be sponged from his record when he turned twenty-one; after he met all the conditions of his parole term. Normally, that would have been the end of the case. Had that conviction been stricken, according to the plea agreement, the maximum sentence for his current offense would have been fourteen years; still a stretch to any observer who values human life.

Davis considers himself a victim of the state by deception. He, like scores of others, took plea agreements that saved the state time, inconvenience and money in exchange for what should have been settled and closed agreements, only to have the state renege and arbitrarily hold those plea agreements against them decades later. For the objective onlooker, giving people strikes for settled cases, years after the fact, is a gross breach of contract.

In legal terms, this constitutionally offensive practice is referred to as ex post facto, which in Latin literally means “after the fact.” The Three Strikes Law makes past criminal convictions, for which were already paid, eternally greater after the deal—with no warning of possible changes or future application; a complete departure from the original agreement.

Normally, ex post facto laws prohibit the retroactive application of new laws to past offenses.

Using a rather conspicuous but current case is that of Dennis L. Rader and how the retroactive application of the death penalty was prohibited in his circumstances. The fifty-nine year old Kansas man tortured and murdered ten men, women, and children from 1974 to 1991. Many people assumed Rader, definitely one of the worst of the worst, would be eligible for the death penalty. However, Kansas hadn’t enacted the death penalty until after Rader’s infamous killing spree had quietly subsided. Keeping within the framework of ex post facto, Kansas officials announced that Rader was ineligible for death after he was finally arrested in 2005. The harshest sentence he could receive was one hundred seventy-five years.

In the 1970 case of Santabello v. New York, the court explains the injustice of violating ex post facto and almost prophetically describes what later came to be California’s Three Strikes Law: “By retroactively increasing terms to be imposed for enhancement purposes, the state has changed a factor of consideration to the detriment of the [contractee]. This is fundamentally unfair; which could result in a doubling of a sentence, or even life imprisonment for future offenses. Without foreknowledge of this [shift] in liability petitioner’s plea agreement was neither voluntary or knowing.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of In re Andrade and Ewing v. California in 2003 drastically strayed from these protections and allowed California’s practice of violating ex post facto to stand, retroactively striking out thousands of California citizens accused of crimes. Reprehensibly, the majority of those struck out constitute African Americans. While African Americans make up just seven percent of California’s overall population, they represent forty-seven percent of the three-striker population.

It remains to be seen how this turnaround could affect other laws, perhaps arbitrarily affecting the work place, civil cases and other aspects of American daily living.

When I asked Davis how he felt about the Supreme Court’s departure from the common interpretation of ex post facto he said, “I hope that people will wake up and realize that when it comes to stripping down civil and other protections, the wide gap between even the rich and the poor grows a lot closer.”


Eric Davis, CDCR# K-4206

Erica Warner, “Report: States 3-Strikes Law Needs to be Changed,” AVP, September 23, 2005: All; Families to Amend Three Strikes,, (the law affects minorities disproportionately).

Steven H. Gifis, Barron’s Law Dictionary, Third Edition, (Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., New York, NY, 1991): p. 176.

Patrick O’Driscoll, “Witcha Cheers Arrest of BTK Killings,” USA Today, February 28, 2005: 3A (Re: Dennis L. Rader arrest).

David Savage and Henry Weinstein, “Justice Finds California’s Sentencing Law Flawed,” Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2007.
Mass Arrests: A Call to Question

Stealth in the cover of darkness, they descend like a swarm of mad hornets clad in full riot gear, guns drawn, battering rams in the lead, ordering everybody down.

Police raids, sweeps and outright invasions have become so frequent around the country, like fierce hurricanes, they’re given names: Operation Shield, Operation Clean Streets, and so on.

These aggressive, action-packed maneuvers, conducted by local, state, and federal police are usually found by a press conference describing the nature of the bust, the suspects arrested and the contraband seized. We’re all made to feel safer; “Everything’s okay,” they say. But is it?

There are many untold problems associated with mass arrests. They’re typically based on profiling of some sort; relegated to a particular venue, racially confined, or perhaps used to target some other narrowly defined group.

Another troublesome aspect of these mass arrests is that they’re conducted by fallible souls: real people, some with deep biases, political and other aspirations and a very suspect history. Of course, not all cops are rogue, but it only takes a few. The LAPD’s Rampart disgrace here and the Abu Ghraib torture scandal abroad are a couple of recent examples of why police actions should be questioned.

Furthermore, as with every human endeavor, people simply make mistakes; and on the flip side, there’s always somebody in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not to mention it’s just bad business to arbitrarily label sums of people who reside in select geographical boundaries or persecute people belonging to a distinct group or who share the same way of life.

President Bush was quick to remind us of this point last January during a news conference. ABC’s Martha Radditz asked Bush about allegedly cozy-looking pictures taken of him with former kingpin-lobbyist and admitted defrauder Jack Abramoff. Bush adamantly down played the link, retorting that pictures don’t mean anything. Irony and truth make his statement evident when one thinks of the satellite pictures his then secretary of state, Colin Powell, used to convince the world that an invasion on Iraq would be justified. In the end, the pictures didn’t mean anything.

Apparently, individual members of the Republican party share the president’s view on the inherent unfairness of generalizations—at least when it comes to them. Still, they’re quick to label immigrants criminals, make “terrorists” of untried detainees; and I have yet to see them consistently define what a gang member is, though they’ve initiated a wide law enforcement net over thousands of mainly minority youths—under the political spotlight of media cameras.

Yet with each of their former colleagues named in one corruption scandal after the next, they’ve responded with distance and asserted distinction. The latest is that of Mark Foley (R) of Florida accused of harassing under-aged House pages with unwanted sexually explicit internet messages – a federal crime.

By far the most unsettling aspect of mass arrests is their preluding pattern to genocide. Whether we’re talking about the mass round-up of Africans during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the thousands of Armenians collected for slaughter from 1915 to 1923, the millions of Jews, Blacks and Christians killed in the 1930s holocaust or the 900,000 massacred Rwandan Tutsis in 1994, these mass actions of evil needed questioning and intervention.

Likewise with the Afghans and others detained in Cuba’s American occupied Guantanomo Bay, or the thousands of Sudanese being massacred and displaced as I write, they need more questioning and intervention now.

Meanwhile, the inhumane history of mass arrests and our moral fortitude compel us to be suspect of these actions; demanding public and highly scrutinized trials that go beyond reliance on emotion-evoking labels, underhanded tactics, or mere circumstantial evidence.

So the next time you hear about police raids on gangs, the homeless or immigrants, hold your applause until after you ensure subsequent fair and transparent trials. Only in a true and genuine democracy is it the people’s responsibility to make certain checks and balances are a reality by questioning its public servants.

Martha Radditz, ABC News, January 26, 2006

Linda Feldman, “Political Fallout of Foley’s Resignation,” Christian Science Monitor, October 2, 2006: P. 3