James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway

In 1965, James Ridgeway helped launch the modern muckraking era by revealing that General Motors had hired private eyes to spy on an obscure consumer advocate named Ralph Nader. He worked for many years at the Village Voice, has written 16 books, and has codirected Blood in the Face, a film about the far right. In 2012, he was named a Soros Justice Media Fellow.

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Two Clinton-Era Laws That Allow Cruel and Unusual Punishment

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 5:04 PM EST

If the lame duck Congress is looking for legislation to pass before the Republicans take hold, it should look no farther than two laws passed as part of the so-called War on Crime, which gives the War on Terror a run for its money when it comes to violating Constitutional and human rights.

The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), passed after the Oklahoma City bombing with broad bipartisan support, undermined habeas the corpus rights of US prisoners long before the Bush Administration sought to withhold them from "enemy combatants." AEDPA placed severe limitations on prisoners' ability to challenge death sentences—or life sentences, or any unjust convictions—in federal courts, even when they had new evidence of their innocence.

Under AEDPA, proof of "actual innocence" does not necessarily prohibit the execution or continued incarceration of prisoners. (A recent Supreme Court decision in the Troy Davis case questioned, but did not eliminate, this reality.) And while the pace of executions has slowed in recent years in spite of the AEDPA, the law still stands in the way of appeals by many prisoners across the country who might have just grounds for seeking to have their convictions overturned.

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Cat Food For You, Tax Cuts for Me

| Wed Nov. 10, 2010 6:20 PM EST

Proposals by the deficit Commission leaders Wednesday provide detail to what Washington has been gossiping about for months. Not whether Obama will cut entitlements, but where and how.

For months, the Obama administration has been hinting it will support cuts in Social Security and Medicare as part of a program to reduce the deficit, meantime leaving most of the Bush tax cuts in place. That's been the deal since last spring. Sunday on 60 Minutes, the President was somewhat more explicit. We are "still confronted with the fact that the vast majority of the federal budget are things that people really think are important, like Social Security and Medicare and defense. And so, you then have to start making some tough decisions about how do we pay for those things that we think are important? … I mean, we're gonna have to, you know, tackle some big issues like entitlements that, you know, when you listen to the Tea Party or you listen to Republican candidates they promise we're not gonna touch."

Wednesday the commission leaders—Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson—provided the President with the details he needs. The Washington Post reports, "Leaders of President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission are proposing to reduce the annual cost-of-living increases in Social Security. The proposal would also set a tough target for curbing the growth of Medicare. And it recommends looking at eliminating popular tax breaks, such as mortgage interest deduction."

Sex-for-Snitching Ring Reported at Massachusetts Prison

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 12:21 PM EDT

A prisoner at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Norfolk recently wrote to me to report the existence of a "sex for information’’ ring run by guards within the prison. He says the existence of this hitherto unknown operation is responsible for the state’s high number of prison suicides. The inmate suicide rate in Massachusetts is four times the national average, with eight suicides this year alone--including one in June at MCI-Norfolk, the state's largest medium-security prison, which also had two high-profile suicides last year.  

The prisoner, who says he has become the advocate for others too frightened of retaliation to talk, himself fears retaliation from within the prison. He  has reported the ring at MCI-Norfolk to the Massachusetts Department of corrections and has, he says, already been interviewed by Assistant Deputy Commissioner Paul DiPaolo, the state official in charge of stopping rape in the prisons. In granting this interview, the corrections hierarchy is bypassing lower-down officials within the prison, according to the prisoner. Each prison has an official responsible for rape suppression.

In a letter the prisoner, who chose to remain anonymous over concerns for his own safety, wrote:

Abusive and sadistic guards move weak and vulnerable prisoners into housing units they oversee and manipulate them into engaging in sexual activity with each other (many of these men are homosexuals, sex offenders and men with mental health histories) and then they [the guards] force them to become informants under the threat of revealing their secrets to the general population.

Live Poor or Die: The New American Retirement

| Wed Oct. 20, 2010 12:43 PM EDT

The very idea of retiring in America had become a mirage–tantalizing, but always sliding into the distance. Those visions of golden years spent playing golf in Tucson or bridge in Boca Raton, promoted by AARP magazine and purveyors of retirement investments, are now nothing more than a chimera for most Americans. The exception, of course, is a wealthy minority, who for the past decade has been squirreling away money they should have been paying in taxes. For everyone else, old age been reduced to three alternatives: Those of us lucky enough to have jobs can keep working indefinitely; the rest can live poor or die.

Anyone who doubts this blunt truth should take a look at a few few recent trends. Start with something called the Retirement Income Deficit. Retirement USA, a consortium of non-profits and unions, which came up with the term,  describes the deficit as follows:

Retirement USA asked the respected non-partisan Center for Retirement Research at Boston College to calculate the figure that represents our current retirement income deficit – that is, the gap between the pensions and retirement savings that American households have today and what they should have today to maintain their standard of living.   Using the data from the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances, the Retirement Research Center has calculated that figure at $6.6 trillion.The deficit figure covers households in their peak earning and saving years—those in the 32-64 age range—excluding younger workers who are just beginning to save for retirement as well as most retirees.  It takes into account all major sources of retirement income and assets:  Social Security, traditional pension plans, 401(k)-style plans, and other forms of saving, and housing. 

The measure assumes people will continue to work, save, and accumulate additional pension and Social Security benefits until they retire at age 65, later than most people currently retire.  It also assumes that retirees will spend down all their wealth in retirement, including home equity.  The deficit is thus in many respects a conservative number.

This gap is due, in large part, to the demise of the old-fashioned, fixed-income pension system. According to the Pension Rights Center, total employment in the nation today stands at 130 million, of which 108 million people are employed by private business and 22 million public. The traditional fixed-benefit  plans now cover only about 20 percent of the private workforce, and 79 percent of public workers. Half the entire private workforce today has no retirement system at all. And those with 401ks are at the mercy of the mutual fund companies, with their futures staked on the stock market. In the recession, those plans took a dive, losing one quarter to one third their assets.

Haley Barbour Will Decide the Fate of the Scott Sisters

| Tue Oct. 12, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

Jamie and Gladys Scott are two young women from rural Mississippi who were convicted, on questionable evidence, of involvement in an armed robbery that netted $11, and were sentenced to life in prison. Jamie Scott is suffering from end-stage renal disease, exacerbated by prison conditions and inadequate treatment–so her life sentence may soon become a death sentence.

Mother Jones was among the first non-local media to cover the case of the Scott sisters. Now the case in finally getting some national attention: The president of the NAACP, Ben Jealous, has called the sisters’ situation “utterly inhumane”; along with a growing number of grassroots supporters, he is urging Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to consider a pardon or commutation of their sentence. Today, this same call was made by New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert. After describing the Scotts’ conviction and sentence, he writes:

This is Mississippi we’re talking about, a place that in many ways has not advanced much beyond the Middle Ages.

The authorities did not even argue that the Scott sisters had committed the robbery. They were accused of luring two men into a trap, in which the men had their wallets taken by acquaintances of the sisters, one of whom had a shotgun.

It was a serious crime. But the case against the sisters was extremely shaky. In any event, even if they were guilty, the punishment is so wildly out of proportion to the offense that it should not be allowed to stand.

Three teenagers pleaded guilty to robbing the men. They ranged in age from 14 to 18. And in their initial statements to investigators, they did not implicate the Scott sisters.

But a plea deal was arranged in which the teens were required to swear that the women were involved, and two of the teens were obliged, as part of the deal, to testify against the sisters in court.

Howard Patrick, who was 14 at the time of the robbery, said that the pressure from the authorities to implicate the sisters began almost immediately. He testified, “They said if I didn’t participate with them, they would send me to Parchman and make me out a female.”

He was referring to Mississippi State Prison, which was once the notoriously violent Parchman prison farm. The lawyer questioning the boy said, “In other words, they would send you to Parchman and you would get raped, right?”

“Yes, sir,” the boy said. The teens were sentenced to eight years in prison each, and they were released after serving just two years...

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