When an incarcerated pregnant woman in Illinois slept too long through mealtime, a guard decided to punish her by placing her in solitary confinement. While in isolation, the woman—who had a long history of depression—was denied access to her prenatal vitamins and was not given water for hours. She soon became highly anxious. This is one of the disturbing ways that US prisons treat incarcerated women who are pregnant, transgender, mentally ill, or who report that they are raped, according to a new report published Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Many of the reasons women are placed in isolation are highly subjective, the reports notes: "Because many cases come down to the word of a prisoner against the word of a corrections officer, a guard’s bad day can easily turn into a solitary confinement sentence for a prisoner for retaliatory reasons, such as a prisoner’s filing a grievance."
Solitary confinement, where prisoners are isolated for 22-24 hours a day with greatly reduced human contact and access to sunlight, is common practice in US prisons, but its harmful effects are well-documented. A United Nations torture expert said in 2011 that solitary should never be used on people with mental disabilities, and should never last longer than 15 days. In February, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called for US prisons to stop using solitary confinement on vulnerable populations, including pregnant women. And recently, the Justice Department sued Ohio for placing mentally ill boys in solitary confinement for excessive amounts of time.
According to the ACLU report, guards sometimes use solitary confinement to retaliate against women who report rape by corrections officers. As we reported in 2010, Michelle Ortiz, who was serving one year at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, alleged that she was sexually assaulted multiple times by a guard. When she spoke out, she was allegedly placed in solitary confinement. In another case, a prisoner named Lisa Jaramillo served more than 100 days in solitary confinement for allegedly lying about incidents of sexual assault.
"Women who have been sexually abused by prison guards are...forced to decide between reporting the attack and risking retaliation, or not reporting it and risking further assault," the report reads. The authors note that the lack of privacy in solitary cells can further victimize women. In solitary, a woman's attacker can closely watch her sleep, use the toilet, or undress.
But that hasn't stopped lawmakers in a number of states this year—including Connecticut, Illinois,New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington—from trying to pass vague and confusing laws to ban the game (which is already illegal everywhere assault laws exist). "We already have a lot of laws against punching people and attacking people in the street," notes Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "Some of this legislation just lends itself for endless legal appeals."
State Rep. Joe Verrengia, a West Hartford Democrat, says he introduced his Connecticut bill to send "a clear message to the thugs who commit this cowardly act." His legislation makes it a felony—with a minimum two-year sentence—for intending to "cause serious physical injury to another person by rendering such other person unconscious," doing so "without provocation," and causing injury by "striking such other person in the head." (A previous version of the bill said that the injury had to be caused by "a single punch or kick.")
The New Haven Registerreported last fall that there were six alleged knockout-game-style attacks in two days. Breitbart quickly picked up the news. Soon after, Sgt. Al Vazquez of the New Haven Police Department Detective Bureau told the Yale Daily News that the media was perpetuating the trend by continually covering it. Another case in Connecticut that conservative website WNDdeclared an example of the knockout game involved two teenage boys under the influence of drugs who jumped a man, according to local police. The man then allegedly stabbed the boys with a pocket knife, killing one of them.
"I'm not sure we have information indicating that the knockout game, one, was a real problem in this state and, two, is an ongoing problem in this state," another Democrat, state Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield of New Haven, said at a hearing on the bill. A longtime public defender in Connecticut, "Gideon," who blogs anonymously for the Connecticut Law Tribune, tells Mother Jones that he sees numerous problems with the bill. "This legislation covers acts that are already exactly covered [and it] says that the intent has to be to render someone unconscious. How do you ever prove that?" He adds, "The legislator who proposed this bill couldn't point to a single instance of this knockout game. That should give people pause." (Verrengia did not respond to a request for statistics backing up his legislation.)
A prosecuting attorney testifying for the anti-knockout-game bill in Washington state noted that he had only seen "one or possibly two cases" in Spokane County that would fit the bill's definition, but feared that "it's been in the national news lately, and does appear to be…a trend that is spreading." Five Republican lawmakers sponsored the bill, which passed the state Senate and relevant House committee this year, but failed to get a full House vote before the legislative session ended in March.
The legislation would have made it a felony—punishable by up to five years in prison—to assault a person "randomly without any prior physical or verbal contact in a public place." Legal experts say that the bill's use of the term "random" doesn't make much sense. According to Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA School of Law, "If, for instance, someone decides to attack someone because that person looks old, looks ugly, or seems defenseless, or is present in a place where there aren't any passers-by who can step in to stop the attack, that wouldn't be random, yet why would such nonrandom elements make the offense any less serious?"
Volokh also finds a serious problem with the South Carolina bill, introduced by Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen from Camden, who is running for South Carolina governor. Sheheen told WSPA.com that he introduced the bill to stop kids from filming the knockout game and posting it on the internet. The bill makes it a felony to film a violent crime, with exceptions for journalists, accidental recordings, or law enforcement. But Volokh notes that the bill doesn't protect bystanders who might record a crime on their phones to preserve evidence, so it appears to be "unconstitutional." The Oklahoma bill also includes a provision banning recording assault, but specifies that it's illegal only if published "on behalf of the attacker."
Many of these new bills also specifically target teenagers. The Republican-backed New York bill, for example, makes it so that juveniles will face prison time of up to 25 years if they are convicted of playing the knockout game. The Oklahoma bill would charge juveniles accused of the crime in adult court, and the Connecticut bill would do the same with 16- and 17-year-olds.
Gideon, the Connecticut defender, says, "What you have, essentially, is an assault of some sort, which is elevated to a different status because of what it represents: urban youth (black or Hispanic) attacking innocent white folk. No legislator will admit it, but the undertones are obvious." He adds, "This is nothing more than pandering to a certain white demographic, and we all ought to be ashamed."
Two abortion providers sued a Dallas hospital on Thursday, after the hospital revoked their admitting privileges. Because Texas law now requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, the revocation would mean that these doctors could no longer legally perform abortions. In a letter to the doctors, Chuck Schuetz, CEO of University General Hospital–Dallas, said they were disrupting the hospital's "business and the reputation" by providing abortions at their own facilities miles away. The lawsuit filed by the doctors, Lamar Robinson and Jasbir Ahluwalia, contends that the hospital discriminated against them because they perform abortions.
Last month, anti-abortion rights activists announced plans to hold a demonstration outside the hospital to protest its association with Robinson. But on March 31, the day before the protest was to take place, Schuetz canceled the doctors' admitting privileges. "Your practice of voluntary interruption of pregnancies...creates significant exposure and damages to UGHD's reputation within the community," Schuetz wrote to Robinson and and Ahluwalia. In the letter, Schuetz characterized providing abortions as "disruptive behavior." He claimed that the hospital was not equipped to treat complications related to abortion and that the doctors were increasing "the probability of malpractice." Robinson and Ahluwalia allege that Schuetz yielded to pressure from anti-abortion rights activists, promising them the hospital would be "pro-life" and not associate with abortion doctors.
Update, April 24, 2014: On Thursday, the FDA proposed regulating e-cigarettes, banning the sale of the devices to Americans under 18 and requiring makers of e-cigarettes to to disclose their ingredients to the agency. But a spokesperson for the FDA tells Mother Jones that the proposed rule does not cover "accessories of proposed deemed tobacco products," which includes batteries and chargers that have been blamed for e-cigarette explosions. The FDA is still seeking comment on whether it might include these products under its regulatory umbrella.
Last week, an 18-year-old bartender in North Yorkshire, England, was serving drinks when a colleague's electronic cigarette exploded, setting the bartender's dress on fire. This was not the first reported incident of an e-cigarette exploding—over the past few years, there have been more than a dozen similar reports.
Specifically, it's e-cigarettes' lithium-ion batteries that combust. These batteries are also found in laptops and cellphones. But with e-cigarettes, the batteries are especially prone to overheating because smokers use incompatible chargers, overcharge the e-cigarettes, or don't take sufficient safety precautions. For example, many e-cigarettes are made to plug into a USB port, which smokers may take to mean the devices can be safely charged with a computer or iPad charger. But if left too long in a common USB port, some e-cigarette batteries can fry.
The industry acknowledges that explosions are a possibility. "I'm aware of 10 failures in the last year," Thomas Kiklas, who represents the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, told NBC Chicago last October. "When you charge them, they are 99.9 percent safe, but occasionally there will be failures."
The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees tobacco products, does not currently regulate e-cigarettes. An FDA spokesperson says the agency is working to change that.
Here is a brief history of notable e-cigarette explosions and fires:
Niceville, Florida, February 2012
A 57-year-old Vietnam veteran was smoking an e-cigarette when it exploded in his face, knocking out his teeth and part of his tongue, according to ABC News. A fire chief told the news outlet that the accident was most likely caused by a faulty lithium battery, which exploded like a "bottle rocket."
Muskogee, Oklahoma, April 2012
Shona Bear Clark bought an NJOY e-cigarette from Walmart to help her cut back on smoking half a pack a day. Clark says it exploded when she tried to remove it from its package. "It was as loud as firing a gun, but a gun fired right in your face," she recalled.
Corona, California, March 2013
Jennifer Ries and her husband, Xavier, were driving to the airport, with their VapCigs e-cig charging in the car. "I looked around and I saw the battery to the [e-cigarette] dripping," she told CBS Los Angeles. "I went to unscrew it and the battery started shooting fire toward me and then exploded and shot the metal pieces onto my lap…A blowtorch type of fire and then an explosion." Ries suffered second-degree burns, and the the couple later sued the e-cig manufacturer.
Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 2013
Kyle Czeschin's e-cig was plugged into his laptop. Guess what happened next? "Everything was on fire, my laptop was on fire, my lamp was on fire, the shades," he told News On 6.
Sherman, Texas, July 2013
Wes Sloan wanted to kick his habit, so bought what he assumed would be a safer, electric alternative to cigarettes. "The battery was into about a two-hour charge and it exploded and shot across the room like a Roman candle," he said. Sloan was charging the e-cig in the USB port of a Macbook. He says he suffered second- and third-degree burns, and that he and his wife, Cathy, were treated for smoke inhalation.
Mount Pleasant, Utah, September 2013
A Utah mom was charging her e-cigarette in her car when she said there was "a big bang, and kind of a flash, [and] smoke everywhere," according to Fox 13 News. The e-cigarette reportedly released a hot copper coil that landed in her son's car seat, burning the boy. The mom was finally able to put the fire out with an iced coffee. A fire marshal told the news outlet that the mom's charger was standard and factory-issued, and it was a "catastrophic failure of the device." He also noted this was the second e-cigarette explosion he'd investigated recently in the region.
Atlanta, September 2013
A woman in Grant Park plugged her e-cigarette into her computer to charge it, according to WSB-TV Atlanta. Fortunately, she was home when she says it began to shoot four-foot flames across the living room. (A screenshot in the above link shows the rag that the woman used to unplug the e-cigarette as it was burning.) "If I hadn't had been home, I would have lost my dogs, I would have lost my cats, I would have lost my house," she told the news station.
La Crosse, Wisconsin, September 2013
The La Crosse Fire Department explains how they're learning to deal with e-cig fires:
Blaine, Minnesota, October 2013
A man was charging his e-cigarette through his computer when his wife noticed that it was "sparking like a fountain firework," according to KMSP Fox 9. The device then "shot out like a missile" from the computer, she said. The owner of a nearby e-cigarette business told the news outlet that the battery didn't have overcharge protection, and that's likely why it overheated.
Kootenai County, Idaho, November 2013
An e-cigarette started a fire in an Idaho household's living room while the family of four slept. The device, which was charging through a laptop, overheated and exploded. "If that smoke alarm didn't go off, none of us would have woken up, you know, none of us would have been able to get to the door, 'cause it would have been blocked by the flames and we would have all died," the son said.
Queen Creek, Arizona, November 2013
Just four days after Kyler Lawson bought his Crown Seven Gladiator e-cigarette, it exploded while charging. "It shot out like a bullet, hit the window, dropped from the window to the carpet," he said. "Caught the carpet on fire…If you're going to charge it, be there. Be present when you're charging it because you never know what can happen."
Eugene, Oregon, November 2013
Judy Timmons had been charging her e-cig in her car for two hours when it exploded. "I'm just glad my grandkids weren't in the backseat because it could have exploded at any time," she said. "It had enough power and momentum to shoot all the way to the backseat," Larry, her husband, said.
A man in Colorado Springs was charging his e-cigarette when it exploded, setting his bed on fire, according to KRDO NewsChannel 13. He used a blanket to smother the flames, suffering burns on his body and face. The manufacturer of "Foos" e-cigarettes told the news outlet that this was the first time he'd heard of their products malfunctioning. The man said that nonetheless, "I'm back on normal cigarettes now."
Sneads Ferry, North Carolina, January 2014
A North Carolina man who spent over 20 years working as a firefighter was injured after his e-cigarette exploded in his face. He described the incident to the Jacksonville Daily News as feeling like "a bunch of hot oil hit my face." After spending the night in the hospital, the newspaper reported that he continues to suffer from the incident: "The bottom of his left eyeball is sensitive to light, hard to see out of, and will need to be looked at by an optometrist."
Springfield, Missouri, January 2014
Last Christmas Eve, Chantz Mondragon was sitting in bed with his wife when his e-cig overheated and burst into flames. The device was charging via a USB port on his laptop. He described the explosion as "a searing hot blinding light like a magnesium sparkler, [like] whenever you see a person welding." Mondragon also said the fire burned through his bed, and caused second-degree burns on his leg and foot.
North Yorkshire, England, April, 2014
Eighteen-year-old Laura Baty was serving a customer at the Buck Inn Hotel when her coworker's charging e-cigarette exploded behind the bar. "I started crying hysterically and my arm was all black," she told the Press. "My dress caught on fire as I ran away, and I just didn't know what was happening."
London, April 2014
A woman who used an incompatible charger to charge her e-cigarette caused a major fire that took about 40 minutes to get under control, according to the London Evening Standard. A member of the London Fire Brigade told the paper that, "As with all rechargeable electrical equipment, it's vitally important that people use the correct type of charger for their e-cigs to prevent fires which can be serious and could even result in death."
It's no secret that Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) don't get along. Last month, Issa cut off Cummings' microphone at a hearing on the IRS scandal. Their latest spat came last week, when Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter to Cummings, the senior Democrat on the committee, accusing him of secretly scheming with the IRS to target True the Vote, a conservative organization. But in his argument against Cummings, Issa's grasping at straws.
The oversight committee has been investigating whether the IRS purposefully targeted conservative nonprofit groups. GOPers have fixated on the investigation, despite the fact that documents have shown the IRS scrutinized progressive groups as well. And last Thursday, House Republicans voted to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt for refusing to testify about her role in the IRS matter. One of the groups that Issa is concerned may have been unfairly targeted is True the Vote, an organization whose mission is to root out voter fraud. At least as early as February 2012, the IRS was requesting information from True the Vote about its activities, including any for-profit organizations it was associated with. A few months later, in August, Cummings contacted the IRS to notify the agency that his own staff was planning to investigate the organization. On October 4, 2012, his office sent the first of a series of letters to True the Vote requesting information about its activities. Cummings was concerned that the group was engaging in voter intimidation and partisan activities, such as making a $5,000 donation to the Republican State Leadership Committee. Cummings asked the IRS for "publicly available information" about the group in January 2013.
Issa's main gripe is that Cummings sent questions to True the Vote that were similar to questions the IRS put to the organization. He says that although Cummings denied that his staff "might have been involved in putting True the Vote on the radar screen of some of these federal agencies," his communications indicate otherwise. Issa also claims that Cummings didn't adequately inform the committee of his interactions with the IRS.
But according to the timeline in Issa's own letter, Cummings didn't trigger the IRS investigation into True the Vote. True the Vote was on the agency's radar screen months before Cummings reached out to the IRS. Additionally, Issa was aware that Cummings was looking into True the Vote. Cummings CCed Issa on the October 2012 letters he sent to the group and posted them on his website. In a scathing reply to Issa last week, Cummings wrote: "According to your logic, simply requesting access to public information is somehow evidence of a nefarious conspiracy."
It's certainly not unusual for lawmakers to request publicly available information from government agencies. In fact, Issa sent a sharply worded letter to the IRS in August 2009 requesting documents related to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the now defunct progressive organization. He specifically wanted to ensure that ACORN's political contributions "satisfy federal and state campaign finance laws" and was concerned the nonprofit was engaging in partisanship. About a month after Issa sent his letter, ACORN employees were caught on tape advising conservative activists who were posing as a prostitute and a pimp on how to evade the IRS. ACORN then lost funding from a number of federal sources. Issa quickly took credit for these developments.