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Will Private Prisons Finally Be Subject to the Freedom of Information Act?

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 6:45 AM EST

Anyone can use the federal Freedom of Information Act to request records about prisons owned and operated by the government. Information about prisoner demographics, violent incidents, and prison budgets are all obtainable. But privately run facilities—even those that hold federal prisoners—are exempt from the law. Last week, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced legislation to change that. On December 10, she introduced a new bill, the Private Prison Information Act. If passed, it would force any nonfederal prison holding federal prisoners to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

In 2013, 41,200 federal convicts—19 percent of the entire federal prison population—were housed in private facilities. That year, Corrections Corporation of America, the largest prison contractor in the United States, collected more than $584 million from the federal government.

Passing Lee's bill will be difficult, if not impossible. From 2005 to 2012, Democrats (including Lee) introduced five separate bills that aimed to apply FOIA to private prisons. All of them failed. With the GOP—which has been generally friendly to the prison industry—controlling both houses of Congress beginning next year, the new bill will likely meet a similar end.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of prisoners are locked up in facilities that are legally immune to open-records requests. From 2000 to 2009, the number of people locked up in private facilities at every level of the justice system increased 37 percent, to 129,336, according to the Department of Justice. By the end of 2013, 133,000 inmates—about 8 percent of the entire US prison population—were housed in private prisons. The figure is on par with the entire California prison population at that time.

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The Federal War on Medical Marijuana Is Over

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 6:00 AM EST
Steven D'Angelo's Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California, was a target of the federal government.

Good news for medical pot smokers: The $1.1 trillion federal spending bill approved by the Senate on Saturday has effectively ended the longstanding federal war on medical marijuana. An amendment to the bill blocks the Department of Justice from spending money to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries or patients that abide by state laws.

"Patients will have access to the care legal in their state without fear of federal prosecution," Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), a supporter of the rider known as the Hinchey-Rohrbacher amendment, said in a statement. "And our federal dollars will be spent more wisely on fighting actual crimes and not wasted going after patients."

The DOJ's earlier pledge not to interfere with state pot laws left it plenty of wiggle room.

The Department of Justice last year pledged not to interfere with the implementation of state pot laws, but the agency's truce left it with plenty of room to change its mind. Earlier this year, for instance, the DOJ accused the Kettle Falls Five, a family in Washington State, of growing 68 marijuana plants on their farm in Eastern Washington, where pot is legal. Members of the family face up to 10 years in jail—or at least, they did; the amendment may now stop their prosecution.

More broadly, the change provides some added peace of mind for pot patients in California, where the DOJ's pledge appeared not to apply. The Golden State's 1996 medical pot law, the first in the nation, has long been criticized by the DOJ as too permissive and decentralized.

Medical marijuana activists hailed the amendment's passage as a landmark moment for patients' rights. "By approving this measure, Congress is siding with the vast majority of Americans who are calling for change in how we enforce our federal marijuana laws," said Mike Liszewski, Government Affairs Director for Americans for Safe Access.

The CRomnibus spending bill wasn't a universal victory of marijuana advocates, however. Another rider aims to prevent the District of Columbia from legalizing marijuana; it prohibits federal funds being "used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance." But Reason's Jacob Sullum notes that the rider may be moot because DC's pot law has already been "enacted" by voters—it passed at the polls in November by a 2-to-1 margin.

Whatever the outcome in DC, the appropriations bill is an undisputed win for pot smokers. As Slate's Josh Voorhes points out, "the District is home to roughly 640,000 people; California, one of 23 states were medical pot is legal, is home to more than 38 million." In short, Congress has done a bit of temporary weed whacking in its backyard, but it's acknowledging that stopping the repeal of pot prohibitions by the states is all but impossible.

These Ubiquitous Chemicals May Be Making Us Stupid

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 6:00 AM EST

You may not think much about the class of industrial chemicals called phthalates, which are used both to make plastics more flexible and to dissolve other chemicals. But you're quite likely on intimate terms with them. According to the Centers for Disease Control, they're found in "vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes)."

Because of their ubiquity, researchers routinely find phthalate traces in people's urine, CDC reports. Does it matter? "Human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown," the agency claims. But a growing body of research—summarized here and covered on Mother Jones here, here, here, and here—suggests they're causing us subtle but significant harm.

Kids exposed to the highest levels of two common phthalates in the womb had an IQ score, on average, more than six points lower than children exposed at the lowest levels.

The latest: A study from a team of Columbia University and CDC researchers, published in the peer-reviewed PLOS-One, found that higher levels of exposure to phthalates at the prenatal phase is correlated to lower IQ scores for kids at age seven. The researchers tracked 328 New York City women and their children through a project called the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH). They took urine samples during the third trimester of pregnancy, looking for traces of five different phthalates. Nearly all of the samples contained them. They divided the women into four groups, ranging from the lowest to the highest phthalate readings. Then they subjected their kids to intelligence tests at age seven, and—controlling for socioeconomic and lifestyle factors—found that the ones exposed to the highest levels of two common phthalates in the womb had an IQ score, on average, more than six points lower than children exposed at the lowest levels.

None of the exposure levels, the authors report, were unusually high—they fell "within the range previously observed among general populations."

The study builds on a similar one by the same team, published in 2012, that found that the preschoolers with the highest prenatal levels of exposure to phthalates showed lower mental and motor development than less-exposed toddlers. The new study suggests that these effects persist into school age—a disturbing finding. "We note that the consistency of the associations over time has implications for public health and regulatory policy," the authors declare. That's science jargon for: "shouldn't the the feds be doing something about this?" Currently, phthalates are banned from kids' toys, but beyond that, neither the Food and Drug Administration for the Environmental Protection Agency has taken any action to rein in their use.

In a press release from Columbia University that accompanied publication of the study, the researchers say that while it's "impossible" to completely avoid phthalates, we can minimize our exposure to them by "not microwaving food in plastics, avoiding scented products as much as possible, including air fresheners, and dryer sheets, and not using recyclable plastics labeled as 3, 6, or 7." That's great advice—for consumers in the know. But in the absence of federal action, the vast majority of people, including pregnant women, will continue being exposed to them, unaware of their potential downside. After decades of federal campaigns, excessive drinking while pregnant has acquired the whiff of social stigma. Using plastic in the microwave while expecting—much less using dryer sheets and air fresheners—not so much.

Quote of the Day: Russian Central Bank Decides It Needs to Destroy the Economy In Order to Save It

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 9:05 PM EST

From Neil Irwin, commenting on the huge interest rate jump announced by Russia's central bank in the wee hours of the morning:

It may go without saying, but a 6.5 percentage point emergency interest rate increase announced in the middle of the night is not a sign of strength.

Roger that. Russian central bankers hope that this will be an incentive for people to keep their money in Russia, earning high interest, instead of shipping rubles out of the country at warp speed and squirreling them away in any safe haven that comes to hand. And maybe it will work. Alternatively, as Irwin suggests, it may be viewed as a sign of desperation, causing Russia's oligarchs to pile on the dilithium crystals and ship out their money even faster. You never know what's going to work when a currency crisis goes into panic mode.

In any case, even if it works, the price is going to be high. Here in America, we argue about whether the Fed will choke off recovery if it raises interest rates to 2 percent. Russia is now at 17 percent. Even if this puts a halt to currency flight, it's going to kill their economy. In Russia tonight, there are no good options left.

This Video Reveals Just How Degrading Professional Cheerleading Really Is

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 4:08 PM EST

Earlier today I published a timeline that chronicles the history of cheerleading, featuring everything from the debut of the Washington Redskinettes to Robin Williams' cameo as a Denver Broncos cheerleader. But for all the confounding moments in the hundred-plus years of cheerleading, this clip of a reality TV show called Making the Team might take the cake.

Now in its ninth season on Country Music Television, the show follows candidates as they try out for the famous Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. In the clip above, from August, team director Kelli Finglass performs "uniform checks," which she punctuates with choice comments like, "Today, we had a little bit of thigh and butt running together, so we're calling it a 'thutt.' Megan had a little bit of a thutt. We can cover cankles with boots, but we can't cover thutts."

Keep in mind: Finglass has said that she wants her cheerleaders to be "role models" who are a "cross section of the American woman." Also, it's 2014.

The Lima Climate Talks Actually Produced Something Important: An Idea

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 3:42 PM EST

So what should we think about the recently concluded climate talks in Lima? They were, as usual, a dog's breakfast. Rich countries fought their usual battles with poor ones. The talks nearly foundered completely. Over the weekend the wording of the draft agreement went from "weak to weaker to weakest," in the words of Sam Smith, chief of climate policy for the environmental group WWF. And in the end, no legally binding limits were set on greenhouse gas emission.

That sounds pretty bad. And yet, something important happened in Lima. As weak as the final language turned out, it does do one thing: it asks every country on the planet to submit a plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn't mandate what the plans should be. It doesn't require any independent review of the plans. It doesn't set out any timetables. But it does require a plan from everyone.

This is something new. It may not be legally binding, but then, no agreement was ever likely to be. For the first time ever, though, Lima enshrines the idea that every country should have a plan to fight climate change. This is similar to Obamacare, which is flawed in dozens of ways but, for the first time in American history, enshrined in law the idea that everyone should have access to affordable health coverage. Once you do that—once you get that kind of public agreement to an idea—you can use it as a building block. Eventually Obamacare will become universal health care. In the same way, Lima may eventually be the building block that produces a universal agreement to fight climate change on a global scale.

This is a fairly rosy view of the Lima agreement, and I don't want to oversell it. Still, the mere principle that every country on the globe should have a formal plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is important. Once the plans are in place, they become a concrete starting point for climate activists everywhere. And then they go from weakest to weaker to weak to something that's actually meaningful. Everywhere.

It's not enough. But it's something.

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Cheney on Torture: Lying or Ignorant?

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 2:28 PM EST

On Sunday, days after the release of the Senate torture report, former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press to defend the Bush-Cheney administration's use of harsh interrogation practices and to deny that these methods were torture. It was a typical no-retreat/no-surrender performance by Cheney. Asked by host Chuck Todd to define torture, Cheney repeatedly said torture was what happened on 9/11: "What the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans." That is, he defined torture as an act of mass violence that targets civilians.

This was a confusing, nonlogical talking point that Cheney gripped tightly. Yet on the specific matter of waterboarding—which he defended—Cheney simply resorted to false statements. He insisted that waterboarding "was not torture." Todd asked him, "When you say waterboarding is not torture, then why did we prosecute Japanese soldiers in World War II for waterboarding?"

Cheney replied:

For a lot of stuff. Not for waterboarding. They did an awful lot of other stuff…To draw some kind of moral equivalent between waterboarding judged by our Justice Department not to be torture and what the Japanese did with the Bataan Death March and the slaughter of thousands of Americans, with the rape of Nanking and all of the other crimes they committed, that's an outrage. It's a really cheap shot, Chuck, to even try to draw a parallel between the Japanese who were prosecuted for war crimes after World War II and what we did with waterboarding three individuals—

See what he did there? He denied the basis of Todd's question and then tried to make it seem silly: You can't equate what our guys did to the worst mass war crimes of World War II!

But Cheney was wrong. In 1947, the United States did charge a Japanese interrogator named Yukio Asano with war crimes, including waterboarding. In fact, waterboarding was one of the key crimes of which he was accused. Here's a portion of the indictment:

Charge: That between 1 April, 1943 and 31 August, 1944, at Fukoka Prisoner of War Branch Camp Number 3, Kyushu, Japan, the accused Yukio Asano, then a civilian serving as an interpreter with the Armed Forces of Japan, a nation then at war with the United States of America and its Allies, did violate the Laws and Customs of War.

Specification 1: That in or about July or August, 1943, the accused Yukio Asano, did willfully and unlawfully, brutally mistreat and torture Morris O. Killough, an American Prisoner of War, by beating and kicking him; by fastening him on a stretcher and pouring water up his nostrils.

Other parts of the indictment also refer to other times Asano engaged in waterboarding. He was not indicted for the Bataan Death March. He was accused of a specific war crime: waterboarding.

Does Cheney know this? If he did, it probably wouldn't matter. During his interview, the ever-unrepentant Cheney refused to acknowledge any problems with the CIA detention and interrogation program that he and George W. Bush approved. He showed no concern when Todd noted that up to 25 percent of the detainees—some of whom were tortured—were wrongly held. Cheney insisted the extreme interrogation practices "absolutely did work," though the Senate report offers numerous examples of instances when torture did not yield pivotal information and did not contribute to thwarting attacks. Cheney asserted that waterboarding in the defense of the United States is no vice. And he kept thrashing at a straw man, accusing naive torture critics of equating these interrogation methods with the bloody deeds of Al Qaeda.

Asked about a passage of the report that clearly notes that the CIA provided Cheney with false information—that the use of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques helped the CIA stop a dirty bomb attack planned for Washington, DC—Cheney insisted that the implication that the CIA misled him "is just wrong." But he didn't say how he knew that. After all, did Cheney review the intelligence himself? (He didn't even read the full torture report—or the 528-page executive summary that was released.) And if the CIA had provided him inaccurate information touting the use of these interrogation techniques, how would he know that?

Given that the CIA screwed up regarding WMD in Iraq, Todd asked Cheney, why are you so confident that CIA officials were telling you the truth? Cheney had only this to say: I trusted them. Who's being naive now?

Finally, Todd asked if Cheney had any regrets about the Iraq War, noting that the invasion has led to chaos in the region. Big surprise: Cheney said no. He repeated the canard that Saddam Hussein "had a 10-year relationship with Al Qaeda." Once again, the 9/11 Commission found that there was no "collaborative operational relationship" between the Iraqi dictator and Al Qaeda, and the Institute for Defense Analyses, a research arm of the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command, studied a half million Iraqi documents and concluded there had been no direct connection between Osama bin Laden's gang and Baghdad.

"We did the right thing," Cheney told Todd. But for more than a decade now, Cheney has been peddling false information to the American public: Saddam was amassing WMD to use against the United States, Iraq had obtained aluminum tubes so it could create a nuclear weapon, a 9/11 ringleader met with an Iraqi intelligence officer. And now: Torture wasn't torture, and it worked. After all that—though he's still afforded elder statesman status by much of the media—he probably deserves derision more than rebuttal.

Elizabeth Warren Says Gay Men Should Be Able To Donate Blood

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 1:39 PM EST
Elizabeth Warren marching in the 2012 Boston Gay Pride Parade

Elizabeth Warren and a host of Democratic lawmakers are demanding the Obama administration stand up for gay rights.

A coalition of 80 senators and House members spearheaded by the Massachusetts senator—alongside Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)—sent a letter Monday to Sylvia Burwell, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, protesting the long-standing prohibition that bars men who have had sex with men from donating blood in the United States.

In 1983, the federal government instituted a lifetime ban for any man who has had sex with another man—even once—at any time after 1977. That rule went into effect during the early days of AIDS panic when the disease was largely unknown. Now, technology exists that can detect HIV within a few weeks of infection.

Last month, an HHS panel that handles blood policy advocated tossing out the lifetime ban—but argued for replacing it with a measure that would keep any sexually active gay man from contributing to the blood supply: a ban on donations from any man who had sex with another man within the past year.

To the Democrats in Congress, that slight improvement isn't nearly enough. The letter calls both the lifetime ban and the one-year deferral policies "discriminatory" and "unacceptable." The lawmakers urged an end to the lifetime ban by the "end of 2014," while also pushing for a less-stringent restriction than the one-year celibacy requirement.

"The recommendation to move to a one-year deferral policy is a step forward relative to current policies; however, such a policy still prevents many low-risk individuals from donating blood," the letter says. "If we are serious about protecting and enhancing our nation's blood supply, we must embrace science and reject outdated stereotypes."

The letter may have been better directed at the Food and Drug Administration. That agency's Blood Products Advisory Panel met earlier this month to consider the one-year deferral proposed by HHS, but the panel of experts seemed more inclined to let the current policy stand rather than loosen the restrictions.

Here's the full letter:

 

Tom's Kitchen: Latkes for Hanukkah

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 1:31 PM EST

I'm a lapsed Catholic and confirmed anti-cleric, but that doesn't stop me from savoring religious culinary traditions. Judaism brims with them—and now, with Hanukkah upon us, it's time to think about one of that holiday's signature dishes: latkes.

Latkes to me are the ultimate potato pancake: hash browns goosed up with onions and an egg. They couldn't be simpler: You just grate potatoes and drain as much water as possible out of them, mix them with chopped onion and a beaten egg, and fry them on a hot skillet. From Cook's Illustrated—a journal upon which I confer near-Talmudic authority—I picked up an interesting tweak. If you let the potato water drain into a bowl, a clingy layer of pure potato starch will develop at the bottom—just pour off the water and it will be revealed. You'll want to beat the egg in that bowl and incorporate the starch—it gives the finished latkes a more robust texture.

Latkes
(About 10 pancakes)

 

3 medium potatoes, grated
1 small onion, minced fine
1-2 spring onion or scalion, white part and green part minced fine
1 egg
1 teaspoon of salt
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
Oil that can withstand high heat with smoking, such as peanut or grapeseed

Place the grated potatoes in a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl. Press them with your fist or a wooden spoon to force as much water as possible out of them. Let the potato water sit in the bowl for a few minutes, and then pour it off. Marvel at the layer of starch that's left over. Crack the egg into the bowl and whisk it with a fork, making sure to incorporate that starch. Add everything else (except the cooking oil) and stir to incorporate with a wooden spoon.

Find your largest heavy-bottomed skillet  (preferably cast iron) and heat it over medium-high heat. Add enough oil to quite generously cover the bottom of the skillet. When the oil shimmers, grab a smallish (about a quarter cup) handful of the potato mixture and give it a squeeze to release any lingering liquid. Carefully place it on the hot skillet, and then gently press it down with a metal spatula. Repeat until the skillet is full, allowing a bit of space between each latke. Flip them as they turn golden brown, and cook until brown on both sides. When they're done, allow them to drain on a wire rack over a cookie sheet. Repeat until you're got no more batter.

They can be served just off the skillet, or reheated later in a medium-hot oven. Enjoy with apple sauce and sour cream. Happy Hanukkah!

This Glimpse Into Mexican Fruit and Vegetable Farms Is Heartbreaking

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 1:19 PM EST

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The ongoing LA Times investigation of conditions on the Mexican farms that grow much of our produce (latest installment here) got me digging around for more information. That's how I how I found the above short documentary, Paying the Price: Migrant Workers in the Toxic Fields of Sinaloa, by the Mexico-based Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, a MacArthur-funded group that "defends the rights of the indigenous and poor people living in the mountain and Costa Chica regions of Guerrero, Mexico."

Paying the Price traces the movements of a group of workers from a tiny village called Ayotzinapa, in the southern state of Guerrero, north to a large produce farm in the ag-heavy state of Sinaloa, which churns out huge amounts of food for export to the US. (Ayotzinapa recently gained infamy after 43 students from a rural teachers college based there were kidnapped and probably massacred, under circumstances that are shaking the foundations of the Mexican state.)

The film—about 36 minutes long, subtitled in English—is extraordinary, because it includes in-depth interviews from a variety of players on a big farm that grows vegetables for the US and Canadian markets: everyone from the farm owner to several workers to the labor contractors that bring them together. The farm owner claims the workers get a good a good deal; the workers complain bitterly of pay so low that they leave the several-month stint of hard labor with little to show. Two highlights:

• Starting about at the 18-minute mark, there's a detailed and sensitive exploration of child labor. The LA Times piece reported that child labor has been "largely eradicated" at the mega-farms that directly supply huge US retailers like Walmart, but that it's still common on mid-sized farms, some of whose produce "makes its way to the US through middlemen." That's the case with the operation depicted in this video. The farm owner basically throws his hands up on the topic, claiming that the workers insist on having their children toil in the fields. By the end of the section, though, you realize that people wouldn't choose to commit their children to hours of hard labor if they weren't living in poverty and desperately trying to earn enough to survive.

• Starting about 25:50, there's a chilling section on pesticide use. We see crop dusters roaring over fields amid chemical clouds; men whose faces are covered in in little more than rags operating backpack sprayers; women complaining that nearly all the children in the camps are sick, some of it possibly linked linked to pesticide exposure, and that medical services are woefully inadequate; and worker advocates claiming that regulation of pesticide use is weak and enforcement nearly nonexistent.

In all, Paying the Price is essential viewing for anyone who wants to know what life is like for the people who grow our food.