Political MoJo

America's Worst Prison Closed 51 Years Ago. Except It Didn't.

| Fri Mar. 21, 2014 5:32 PM EDT

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was conceived as a place to put the worst of the worst. The prisoners that kept starting problems at the other prisons. Put them all together, the thinking went. It wasn't a place for rehabilitation. It was a place to isolate the infection. Over the 29 years it operated, starting in  1934, “Hellcatraz” earned a reputation so fearsome, it has a powerful hold on the American imagination to this day.

Alcatraz was finally shuttered, 51 years ago today, not because it was brutal, though it was, or because living conditions were inhumane, though they were. It simply cost too much.

This isn’t a secret. But it’s easy to forget. Because people tend to know three things about Alcatraz: 1) It was brutal 2) No one escaped and lived to tell about it, and 3) It’s closed. Lost along the way was “very inefficient from a budgetary standpoint.”

You could be forgiven for assuming that one morning in the spring of 1963, everyone woke up and said, “hey, wait a minute, let’s treat our prisoners better!” Maybe JFK was there and the wind was blowing in his hair and he smiled, and Bobby was there too, and he looked very serious and maybe one of them quoted Dostoyevsky’s line that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” and then they shut the prison and went sailing and Jackie was there and everyone was happy. But that didn’t happen. Everyone was fine with the prisoners being treated the way they were.

And 51 years later, so are we, really. The United States operate 1,800 prisons and 3,000 jails. Like Alcatraz, they aren't about rehabilitation. They're about punishment. 80,000 people are held in solitary confinement every year. As many as half of all sexual assaults in prisons are carried out by prison guards. One fourth of the people incarcerated on Earth are incarcerated in the United States. We have 2.3 million Americans behind bars. They aren’t held on an island off San Francisco, they’re held at ADX Florence, Pelican Bay, and Rikers Island, where an inmate recently baked to death in his cell.

Baked to death.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary—the one that Clint Eastwood broke out of and Nicolas Cage broke into—may be dead. But what we mean when we talk about Alcatraz is very much alive.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

"This Is The Era of The Empowered 'One Percenter'"

Fri Mar. 21, 2014 2:06 PM EDT

The Koch brothers. Citizens United. "Dark money." Billionaire sugardaddies. A Republican takeover of Congress.

These are a few of the 2014-themed issues that Mother Jones senior reporter Andy Kroll and ProPublica's Kim Barker discuss on the latest episode of Moyers and Company, the popular weekly show hosted by the acclaimed journalist Bill Moyers. They talk about the 2014 midterms, which could be the most expensive off-year election cycle in history; the influence of big-money politics on Congress and the White House; and the upcoming Supreme Court decision that could obliterate yet another campaign law and send even more money rushing into our elections.

As Kroll says in the interview, this is a great time to be a fired-up millionaire or billionaire. Today, these individuals have the ability to pump unlimited sums of cash into our elections through super-PACs and anonymously funded nonprofit groups. As they do, the center of gravity in our political system shifts from the political parties to these mega-donors spending big on the Democratic and Republican side. "This is the era of the empowered 'one percenter,'" Kroll notes. "They're taking action and they're becoming the new, headline players in this political system."

What's the effect of all that money on our democracy? Watch the entire episode above or over at BillMoyers.com to find out. Throughout the weekend, you can catch the interview on your local PBS affiliate.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 21, 2014

Fri Mar. 21, 2014 10:16 AM EDT

An U.S. Soldier of Easy Company, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, prepares to conduct a low-cost, low-altitude airdrop during a mission rehearsal exercise at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, March 16, 2014. The MRE was conducted at the 7th Army Joint Multinational Training Commands Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels Training Areas in order to prepare subordinate battalions of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade to deploy to Afghanistan to provide medical evacuation and combat support to the NATO International Security Assistance Force mission. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Tyler Kingsbury/Released)

US Lawmakers Fight Russia on Twitter: "I Guess This Means My Spring Break in Siberia Is Off"

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 3:09 PM EDT

On Thursday, shortly after President Obama expanded sanctions against Russia for its role in the Ukraine crisis, the Russian Foreign Ministry released its own list of nine US officials and lawmakers who will be targeted by sanctions. The list includes three White House aides—deputy national security advisors Ben Rhodes and Caroline Atkinson, and senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer—as well as six US lawmakers: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)​, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)​, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)​, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)​, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)​, and Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.)​.

Many of the Sanctioned 9, none of whom will be allowed to visit the Russian Federation or attend Valdimir Putin's birthday party (assuming it is held in the Russian Federation), took to Twitter to win the morning show their strength and solidarity.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)​

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)​

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.)

Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), to senior White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer

"What did you do during the war, daddy?"

"Twitter, mostly."

Progressive Groups Take Obama to Task for Violating Voting Rights Law

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 12:45 PM EDT

After months of quiet lobbying, civil rights groups and progressive organizations are now coming out publicly against the Obama administration for failing to enforce a voting rights law that applies to the Obamacare health insurance exchanges. 

The 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), commonly known as the "Motor Voter" law, requires DMVs and other state agencies that provide public assistance to also help voters register. The Obama administration has acknowledged that Obamacare exchanges are covered by the law. But the federally-run exchange, which serves residents of states whose Republican governors refused to establish their own insurance marketplaces, isn't doing much to fulfill its Motor Voter obligations, beyond embedding a link to the federal voter registration site in the online insurance application.

The law requires covered agencies to go much further and treat voter registration the same as the application process for other services. In the case of Obamacare, this means the navigators hired by HHS to walk uninsured Americans through the insurance sign-up process should also offer to guide applicants through the voter registration process. But Republicans have decried plans to apply the Motor Voter law to exchanges, saying it would create a "permanent, undefeatable, always-funded Democrat majority," since the uninsured are disproportionately low-income people and minorities—groups that tend to vote Democratic. Following the outcry by the GOP, the Obama administration decided last year to hold off on full implementation of the Motor Voter provision. But now 32 progressive organizations and unions—including the NAACP, United Auto Workers, and the National Council of La Raza—are calling on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to start requiring navigators to help register voters immediately.

"There is no question that the ACA [the Affordable Care Act] must meet the requirements of the NVRA, as your administration has acknowledged," the groups said in a letter to the HHS last week. "As staunch supporters of voting rights, we believe that it is critical for the ACA to meet these legal requirements now and offer voter registration to the millions of Americans who will be shopping for insurance on the exchanges in the coming months and years."

The letter comes on the heels of a public campaign in January led by the voting rights organizations Demos and Project Vote to get HHS to fall in line with Motor Voter.

The 24 million mostly low-income and minority Americans who are expected to buy insurance through the exchanges by 2017 are far less likely than other citizens to be registered to vote, although Motor Voter has helped lessen the disparity. Some 140 million people have registered to vote through the program since it was enacted. Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, told Mother Jones in January that the reason HHS "has really dropped the ball" on the Motor Voter issue is likely quite simple. "This looks like [the administration is] running from a political fight," he says.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 20, 2014

Thu Mar. 20, 2014 10:10 AM EDT

A Norwegian helicopter lands near a dock in Soreisa, Norway, to deliver inspectors from Belarus during Cold Response 14, March 17, to evaluate the U.S. Marine component of the exercise. The inspection during Cold Response 14 is conducted under the auspices of the Vienna Document, which obligates signatories from more than 50 nation States to exchange information in regards to size, structure, training and equipment of its armed forces as well as related defense policy, doctrines to build multilateral transparency, trust, cooperation and confidence. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tatum Vayavananda/Released)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Flashback: GOP Senate Candidates's Anti-Gay Diatribe

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) has some competition in the race to take on New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in November. In late February, former Sen. Bob Smith—who represented the Granite State in the Senate from 1990 until 2003 before losing a primary, moving to Florida, and twice running for Senate unsuccessfully there—threw his hat into the ring. Smith has vowed to debate Brown "in 10 towns he's never heard of," and offered him a map in case he got lost.

Notwithstanding the fact that Smith himself moved to Florida to start a real estate company after losing his primary, or that he once gave a 45-minute floor speech on why circus elephants shouldn't be allowed on the Capitol grounds, there are plenty of reasons why Brown's opponent may not be palatable to swing voters in a state that went to President Obama in 2008 and 2012. As a senator in the 1990s, Smith spent much of his time pushing back against the "gay agenda" and supposed attempts by LGBT radicals to indoctrinate children into their ranks. The propaganda campaign, according to Smith, was being pushed into public schools in the form of AIDS education literature and sex ed materials. In 1994, he joined with arch-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to introduce an amendment that would strip federal funding from any school that promoted homosexuality as a "positive life style alternative"—or that directed students to organizations that did. Because when you're trying to raise awareness about sexually transmitted diseases, the point is to be as vague as possible.

In an impassioned floor speech, Smith warned colleagues that he was prohibited by decency standards from displaying most of the materials he was hoping to de facto ban. Then he read aloud from the children's book Heather Has Two Mommies:

When Smith was finished, he began reading from another book, Daddy's Roommate:

The kicker: In 2010, 14 years after Smith last won an election, New Hampshire made it legal for Heather's two mommies to get married. Sure, Smith can tell voters he represented New Hampshire in Washington before, but it was a Granite State he'd need a road map to navigate today.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 19, 2014

Wed Mar. 19, 2014 10:05 AM EDT

Pfc. Xavier Grace, Mad Dog Platoon, 4th Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, leads the wedge formation during the non lethal weapons training, riot control formations at Ft. Hood, Texas. (U.S. Army photo by Maj. Penny Zamora)

The House GOP's Obamacare Alternative Won't Curb Health Care Costs—But It Will Enrich the Insurance Industry

| Wed Mar. 19, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported in an "exclusive" front-page story that House Republicans are at long last promoting their alternative to Obamacare. According to the Post, the new plan, roundly panned, is really just a compilation of the same old health care proposals that Republicans have been floating for years, including allowing the sale of insurance plans across state lines, high-risk insurance pools, and, notably, restrictions on medical-malpractice lawsuits.

Like so many of the Republicans' health care reform proposals, capping damages in and otherwise restricting malpractice lawsuits isn't likely to have a big impact on health care costs, or on expanding coverage to the uninsured. Just ask the state of Florida, whose Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a law similar to the one House Republicans are pushing.

Florida passed its version of the House GOP plan in 2003, when doctors in the state were loudly proclaiming the existence of a "malpractice crisis" in which the state was plagued with an epidemic of frivolous lawsuits that were driving doctors' insurance premiums sky-high and forcing them to leave the state. But last week, Florida's Republican-dominated Supreme Court poked a giant hole in that hysteria. It declared that not only was that "crisis" a fiction, but that the alleged cure—caps on lawsuit damages, which are also favored by the House GOP—had done nothing but enrich insurance companies at the expense of doctors and patients, in violation of the state constitution.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 18, 2014

Tue Mar. 18, 2014 10:10 AM EDT

Cpl. Marcus Chischilly, from Phoenix, Ariz., takes a plunge underwater during the 2014 Marine Corps Trials at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., March 5, 2014. The Marine Corps Trials enables wounded, ill, or injured Marines to focus on their abilities and to find new avenues to thrive. Athletes compete in archery, cycling, shooting, swimming, track, field, sitting volleyball, and wheelchair basketball. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Michael V. Walters/ Released)