Americans with a family member behind bars have to pay for a lot more than just a lawyer. Although the FCC recently capped the cost of interstate phone calls from correctional facilities at 21 cents a minute, in-state calls, which are not regulated, can cost five times more than that. And as I explained in a piece for the magazine in February, it can cost as much as a dollar a minute for a 20-minute video visit with an inmate at county jails. (By comparison, the in-person visits that video visitation software has replaced are free.)
Now, Bernie Sanders wants to change that. On Thursday, the independent senator from Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, introduced a bill (co-sponsored by three progressive congressmen) designed to crack down on private contractors in public prisons. The bill's biggest-ticket item is a prohibition on federal funding for private prisons altogether. (Currently about 1.6 million federal inmates nationally are at private facilities.)
But the bill—read it here—also takes on video and phone contractors. Specifically, it would put an unspecified cap on the per-minute cost of video and phone conferencing with inmates; it would prohibit or restrict correctional facilities from taking a cut of the revenue from phone and video conferencing fees (which can create an incentive to jack up rates, and cut back on things like in-person visitation); and it would require corrections departments to open up their facilities to multiple phone and video contractors, giving inmates and their families choices over which providers to use.
Sanders has already nudged the Democratic field to the left on economic issues like a $15 minimum wage. Maybe prison justice is next.
When ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked Bernie Sanders earlier this year whether a self-proclaimed socialist could be elected president, the candidate brought up Scandinavia. "In those countries, by and large, government works for ordinary people in the middle class rather than...for the billionaire class."
"I can hear the Republican attack ad right now," Stephanopoulos replied. "'He wants America to look more like Scandinavia.'" Sanders didn't hesitate. "That's right. And what's wrong with that?" How would Sanders Scandinavian-ize the US? Here are his big ideas:
Double the minimum wage. Congress can't pass a $10 minimum wage. Sanders thinks it just isn't shooting high enough—he wants $15, or more than double the current rate.
Tax the rich. (And tax them. And tax them.) He endorses a return to Eisenhoweresque tax rates of potentially more than 50 percent for Americans in the highest tax brackets.
Cap and tax. Right now, companies deduct "performance-based" executive compensation, such as bonuses and stock options. But Sanders wants them to pay taxes on these perks if the gap between top and bottom salaries exceeds a certain percentage—or they could spread the wealth to the low-wage workers at the bottom of the scale.
Universal Medicare. Sanders voted for the Affordable Care Act, but he still dreams of a single-payer system—Medicare for everyone.
Make Wall Street pay for college. Tax every Wall Street transaction—the so-called "Robin Hood tax"—and use the money to make tuition free at public colleges and universities.
Seize the means of production. Kinda. Provide loans to workers who want to buy a stake in their companies, in order to spread profits across the workforce—not just the 1 percent.
On Sunday, President Barack Obama announced that the official name for the highest peak in North America, Alaska's Mount McKinley, would formally be changed to its Athabascan name: Denali. This makes a lot of sense. The mountain was known as Denali long before a gold prospector dubbed it McKinley after reading a newspaper headline in 1896, and it has officially been known as "Denali" in Alaska for about a century, according to the state's board for geographic names. The state and its Republican legislature have been asking Washington to call the mountain Denali for decades. And for decades, the major obstacle to getting this done has been Ohio, McKinley's home state.
We need not spend much time discussing Ohio in this space, but suffice it to say that Ohioans are a very proud, if sometimes misinformed, people, and the birthplace of mediocre presidents won't just take the marginalization of those mediocre presidents lying down. It will fight! To wit, the state's congressional delegation has decided to show off that old Ohio fighting spirit by condemning the decision in sternly worded press releases and tweets. Here's GOP Sen. Rob Portman:
This decision by the Administration is yet another example of the President going around Congress (4/5)
No it wasn't! McKinley was assassinated in 1901. The mountain was named McKinley in 1896, by a random gold prospector who had just returned from the Alaskan Range to find that the governor of Ohio had won the Republican presidential nomination. This is like naming the highest point in the continent after Mitt Romney. Is Portman suggesting that the fix was in as early as 1896? Did Czolgosz really act alone? Was Teddy Roosevelt in on it? My God! Congress did pass a law in 1917 formally recognizing McKinley as the mountain's name, but that was really just paperwork.
Let's see what else they've got:
Boehner stmt: naming continent's highest mt 4 McKinley was "testament 2 his great legacy" including Ohio govship, victory in Spanish-Am War
The Spanish-American War hadn't happened yet in 1896—William Randolph Hearst wouldn't start that for another two years! Okay. Here's GOP Rep. Bob Gibbs, all but engraving his sternly worded response on obsidian:
The National Park Service turns 99 years old on Tuesday. To celebrate, the Department of the Interior has waived admission fees for all NPS sites for the day. That's a pretty sweet deal. You should stop reading this right now, call in sick, and enjoy the great outdoors. National parks are great.
But not everyone agrees. Yelp is filled with one- and two-star reviews of America's most pristine and majestic natural wonders. And honestly, they're riveting. What makes a national park a one-star destination varies from one reviewer to the next. Maybe the tacos at the visitor center aren't up to snuff. Maybe it was cloudy. Maybe the park was too cowardly to cut down some trees for spillover parking lots. Maybe it was President Barack Obama's fault.
Whatever the case, you can thank these people for leaving the campgrounds a little bit less crowded for the rest of us:
I looked it up, and it's true—the bees at Joshua Tree National Park are out of control. In 2000, a group of hikers was attacked by a swarm and one man was stung more than 100 times. They tried to get inside their car to escape, but some of the bees followed them inside the car and continued stinging them. Holy crap, bees! If you were stung 100 times by bees at Joshua Tree, you should give it one star. But maybe it shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise that the desert gets hot in the summer. This is like downgrading a restaurant because you went there on a hunger strike.
Carly Fiorina has had the wind at her back after the first Republican presidential debate. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO earned high marks for her appearance at the "kids table" forum for the least-popular GOP candidates, and she has been rising in the polls ever since. So it was only a matter of time before the knives came out.
On Sunday evening, former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who herself was doing well in the GOP presidential polls this time four years ago, drew her followers' attention to a 14-year-old speech Fiorina had given in Minneapolis, in which she defended the cultural, legal, and scientific heritage of the Muslim world. The catch: It was delivered just weeks after 9/11. What nerve!
Fiorina's speech reads as a thoughtful defense of the faith of many of her employees at Hewlett Packard. Her respect for Islam seems to come from personal experience. In her 2006 book, Tough Choices, she described the soothing effect of listening to Muslim prayers when she was a teen and her family lived in Ghana. (Her father was a law professor then on a teaching sabbatical at the University of Ghana). She wrote:
I remember hearing, for the first time, Muslims pray, and how over time their sound evolved from being frightening in its strangeness to comforting in its cadence and repetition—I would feel the same peace when I listened to the sound of summer cicadas around my grandmother's house. I grew to love being awakened in the morning by the sound of the devout man who always came to pray under my bedroom window.
Uh-oh. That reminiscence may well provide Bachmann with more ammo. And it's not just Bachmann who has called out Fiorina for being soft on Islam. Fiorina's comments on Islamic civilization have also been criticized by fringe-right outlets like the American Thinker and Western Journalism Review.
Islam has once again become a wedge issue in the Republican primary. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, for instance, has called for a ban on certain kinds of Muslim immigrants. Fiorina, who tried (and failed) to ride the GOP tea party wave into the Senate in 2010 by fashioning herself as a stalwart conservative—is now the target of the extremists she once courted.