Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy


Tim Murphy is a senior reporter in MoJo's DC bureau. His writing has been featured in Slate and the Washington Monthly. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy [at] motherjones [dot] com.

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Video Visitation Giant Promises to Stop Eliminating In-Person Visits

| Mon May 11, 2015 10:30 AM EDT

Video visitation is the hot new trend in the corrections industry. Companies like Securus and Global Tel*Link, which have made big bucks charging high prices for inmate phone services, are increasingly pitching county jails new systems that will allow inmates to video-chat with friends and family. Using new terminals installed onsite, inmates can communicate with approved users who log in remotely on a special app similar to Skype. For inmates whose loved ones don't live anywhere near their corrections facility, that can be good news.

But as I reported for the magazine in February, those video-conferencing systems sometimes come with a catch—jails that use the systems are often contractually obligated to eliminate free face-to-face visits, leaving family members no choice but to pay a dollar-a-minute for an often unreliable service.

In a press release last week Securus has announced it will no longer require jails to ditch in-person visitation:

"Securus examined our contract language for video visitation and found that in 'a handful' of cases we were writing in language that could be perceived as restricting onsite and/or person-to-person contact at the facilities that we serve," said Richard A. ("Rick") Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Securus Technologies, Inc.  "So we are eliminating that language and 100% deferring to the rules that each facility has for video use by inmates."

Translation: Nothing to see here, move along! But while inmates might be getting their face-to-face visitation back, Securus' concession on in-person visits comes even as it's fighting the Federal Communication Commission's efforts to regulate the cost of intrastate prison phone calls (it capped the price of interstate prison phone calls in 2014 at 25 cents per minute). And the corrections technology industry isn't the only group defending the status quo—the executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association told IB Times earlier this month that if the FCC interferes with phone prices (corrections facilities often get a cut of the profits), some jails may just decide to cut off access to phone calls.

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That Time Mike Huckabee Preached Against Booze, Sex, and Monty Python

| Fri May 8, 2015 12:34 PM EDT

Good luck tracking down sermons from Mike Huckabee's two decades as a Baptist preacher. The GOP presidential candidate, who once started a television station out of his church to broadcast his sermons, kept those tapes under wraps during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Among the handful of sermons open to the public is a partial recording of a 1979 sermon in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, at the congregation Huckabee had tended as a pastor a decade earlier when he was a student at Ouachita Baptist University. The sermon, included in the school's special collections, catches a young Huckabee confident in his beliefs and fluid in his rhetoric, riffing from one New Testament passage to the next in critiquing the most "pleasure-mad society that probably has ever been since Rome and Greece, in the days when there was just absolute chaos and debauchery on the streets":

It's a sad thing but it's true in this country: 10,000 people a year are directly killed by alcohol in this country. Ten thousand. But we license liquor. There's one person a year on average killed by a mad dog, just one. But you know what we do? We license liquor, and we shoot the mad dog. That's an insane logic! But it's what's happening, it's because we love pleasure more than anything else. A lot of times we look around our society we see this problem we see pornography and prostitution and child abuse and all the different things that we're all so upset about. You know why they're there? You know why they're in the communities? You say "because the Devil"—they're there because of us.

It was dark days indeed, he argued, when "an x-rated theater can open up down the street from a church." Above all, Huckabee was upset with Monty Python's 1979 movie, Life of Brian. Huckabee was hardly alone in condemning Life of Brian, which follows the story of a Jewish man, Brian, who is mistaken for the Messiah because he was born on the same day as Jesus. The film was banned in Ireland; picketed in New Jersey; denounced by a coalition of Christian and Jewish leaders; and canceled in Columbia, South Carolina after a last-minute intervention from Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond. (On the other hand, the movie does have a score of 96 at Rotten Tomatoes.) Per Huckabee:

There was a time in this country when a movie like The Life of Brian which, I just read—thank God the theaters in Little Rock decided not to show, but it's showing all over the Fort Worth–Dallas area, which is a mockery, which is a blasphemy against the very name of Jesus Christ, and I can remember a day even as young as I am when that would not have happened in this country or in the city in the South.

But friend, it's happening all over and no one's blinking an eye, and we can talk about how the devil's moved in and the devil's moved in but what's really happened is God's people have moved out and made room for it. We've put up the for sale sign and we've announced a very cheap price for what our lives really are. We've sold our character, we've sold our convictions, we've compromised we've sold out and as a result we've moved out the devil's moved in and he's set up shop. And friend [he's] praying on our own craving for pleasure.

No word on whether Huckabee will defund the Ministry of Silly Walks if elected.

Why You Should Be Skeptical About the New Police Narrative on Freddie Gray's Death

| Thu Apr. 30, 2015 11:49 AM EDT

On a relatively quiet night in Baltimore, the Washington Post dropped a bombshell. According to a sealed court document, a witness alleged that Freddie Gray—whose April death has triggered days of protests in the city—may have been deliberately attempting to injure himself while in police custody:

A prisoner sharing a police transport van with Freddie Gray told investigators that he could hear Gray "banging against the walls" of the vehicle and believed that he "was intentionally trying to injure himself," according to a police document obtained by The Washington Post.

The prisoner, who is currently in jail, was separated from Gray by a metal partition and could not see him. His statement is contained in an application for a search warrant, which is sealed by the court. The Post was given the document under the condition that the prisoner not be named because the person who provided it feared for the inmate's safety.

It's easy to see how a sealed document like that, drafted by a police investigator, might have leaked to the press in spite of the court order, and in spite of the police department's general aura of secrecy. If Gray's injuries were self-inflicted, the police department is off the hook.

But as WBAL's Jayne Miller noted, the new exculpatory allegation appears to be at odds with the police department's earlier narrative, as well as the timeline of events:

And there's another reason to be skeptical. Information that comes out of jails is notoriously unreliable, for the simple reason that anyone in jail has a real incentive to get out; cooperating with the people who determine when they get out is an obvious way to score points. This report from the Pew Charitable Trust walks through the conflicts in detail. According to the Innocence Project, 15 percent of wrongful convictions that are eventually overturned by DNA testing originally rested on information from a jailhouse informant. Two years ago in California, for instance, a federal court overturned the conviction of an alleged serial killer known as the "Skid Row Stabber" because the conviction rested on information from an inmate dismissed as a "habitual liar."

Or maybe the witness in Baltimore is right—that happens too!—and what we thought we knew about the Freddie Gray case was wrong. But the department isn't doing much to quiet the skeptics. It announced Wednesday that it will not make public the full results of its investigation into Gray's death, "because if there is a decision to charge in any event by the state's attorney's office, the integrity of that investigation has to be protected."

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