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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Federal Prisons Chief to Inmates: Don't Kill Yourself

| Fri Aug. 10, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Federal Bureau of Prisons director Charles E. Samuels has been in the hot seat lately over the BOP's treatment of some of the prisoners in its custody—most notably the mentally disabled prisoners housed in solitary confinement at ADX Florence, the federal supermax prison in Colorado. Samuel's latest response was to write an uncharacteristically touchy feely letter to all federal prisoners, urging them not to commit suicide.

A federal class-action lawsuit filed in June alleges that many ADX prisoners suffer from severe mental illness that has been exacerbated or even caused by their years of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation in small concrete cells. It claims that the BOP fails to provide even a semblance of psychiatric care to these prisoners, with grisly results. According to a litigation fact sheet, "inmates often mutilate themselves with razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones, writing utensils and other objects. Many engage in prolonged fits of screaming and ranting. Others converse aloud with the voices they hear in their heads. Still others spread feces and other waste throughout their cells. Suicide attempts are common. Many have been successful."

Another lawsuit, filed earlier in the spring, accuses ADX officials of denying proper mental health care to inmate Jose Martin Vega, who subsequently hanged himself in his cell.

Nearly 6 Million Americans Can't Vote Due to Felon Disenfranchisement Laws

| Fri Jul. 13, 2012 5:30 AM EDT

In an updated study released Thursday, the Sentencing Project reports that close to 6 million Americans are now unable to vote thanks to felon disenfranchisement laws. "Approximately 2.5 percent of the total US voting age population—1 of every 40 adults—is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction," notes the report, authored by Christopher Uggen and Sarah Shannon of the University of Minnesota and Jeff Manza of New York University.

The numbers have risen dramatically over the decades, due both to the rise of mass incarceration in the United States and to the spread of restrictive state voting laws. As we reported last week, nearly all states bar imprisoned felons from voting, 29 states bar them even after they have served their time, and a handful—including several battleground states—effectively bar them for life. The number of affected Americans has ballooned from 1.2 million people in 1976 to 3.3 million in 1996. As of 2010, the figure stands at 5.9 million.

Rates of disenfranchisement vary dramatically by state due to broad variations in voting prohibitions. In six states—Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia—more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised.

In what amounts to a modern-day version of Jim Crow-era statutes, felon disenfranchisement takes a substantial bite out of the black vote. According to the report, nearly 8 percent of voting-age black Americans (1 in 13) is disenfranchised, compared with roughly 2 percent of their non-black counterparts. In three states—Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, at least 1 in 5 black Americans will be out of luck come Election Day. In the cases of Florida and Virginia, the numbers are sizeable enough to change the outcome in November. As Desmond Meade of the nonprofit Florida Rights Restoration Coalition put it to us last week: If these people were able to vote, "Florida would no longer be a swing state."

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