Mojo - September 2010

Lady Gaga to the Rescue?

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 4:01 PM EDT

Whatever you may think of Lady Gaga, her "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" activism has been fairly successful of late. Last week, Majority Leader Harry Reid reassured her via Twitter that there would be a vote to end the controversial ban this week. The pop superstar has been using the 140-character medium to rally her 6.4 million followers (the most of anyone on Twitter) to call their senators. And today she's in Portland, Maine hosting a rally targeting Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, who may be critical to determining whether the 17-year-old policy is struck down.

Gaga joined the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) for the rally near the University of Southern Maine campus, which they are calling "a major Senate push to break the expected filibuster by Sen. John McCain." A vote on the National Defense Authorization Act that includes the repeal is scheduled for 2:15 p.m. Tuesday.

Even with the vote looming, it remains unclear whether the 60 votes are there to move forward. As Mark Thompson of Time reported yesterday, "Both backers and opponents of the change say the outcome remains too close to call, although late Sunday backers of repeal said they believe they don't yet have the 60 votes they need to halt an expected filibuster and push ahead with the repeal effort." Collins and Snowe are probably the best bets for getting Republicans to cross the aisle on the issue.

Collins joined Democrats in the Armed Services Committee to approve the measure in the defense bill last May. But Democrats will likely need both Collins and Snowe, since Jim Webb (D-Va.) is expected to vote against the measure as he did in committee.

Can Gaga help bring home the votes? Shortly before the rally began this evening, she Tweeted that she had been working on her rally address for 48 hours, and it would be titled, "THE PRIME RIB OF AMERICA." Is that a meat dress reference? I have no idea. But if there's one thing Gaga's good at, it's certainly drawing attention to herself.

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Cash-Strapped California to Spend $500 Million for New “Condemned Inmate Complex” (Death Row)

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 3:19 PM EDT

With what the Sacramento Bee called a "twisted sense of timing," California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced in mid-August that he plans to borrow $64.7 million from the state's general fund to move forward with construction of a new death row at San Quentin State Prison. According to a Bee editorial, "the administration's call for bids to build new digs for condemned inmates comes as the governor's lawyers seek court approval to furlough state workers and cut their pay to minimum wage, and as he pushes to end safety net services for some of California's poorest and most vulnerable citizens."

What's more, "the $64.7 million is merely a down payment. Construction would cost about $360 million"—an amount California lawmakers approved when they authorized a new death row in 2003. "Interest payments on 20-year bonds the state ordinarily would sell to finance the construction could add another $150 million or more to the final price tag," bringing it to more than $500 million.

A Correctional News report on the construction bidding process, which moved forward in late August despite opposition, described the new death row as a state-of-the-art "540,000-square-foot condemned inmate complex" with 768 cells, occupying a 40-acre site on the grounds of the state's oldest prison, which sits on a piece of prime bayfront real estate in Marin County.

"Geezer in the Hole": The Reality of Aging Behind Bars

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 3:10 PM EDT

Over the past few years there has been a growing interest in the increasing numbers of older prisoners. At times this interest has been accompanied by some piddling gestures to alleviate their miserable situation–for example, theoretically granting them leave to die "in the free world," or perhaps showing sympathy for granny having to climb up three tiers of bunks to get a night's sleep, or gramps asking for a cane (denied because it is a possible weapon) so he can get to the toilet without crawling.

Nonetheless, the dominant view from the corrections industry and most of the public is that these people did the crimes and now they have to do the time–even if the time reflects absurdly the long sentences instituted in the 1980s and 90s, and creates a new cohort of septuagenarian prisoners. In fact, most of the new interest in aging inmates actually has to do with money. According to a recent AP article:

The ACLU estimates that it costs about $72,000 to house an elderly inmate for a year, compared to $24,000 for a younger prisoner.The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the number of men and women in state and federal prisons age 55 and older grew 76 percent between 1999 and 2008, the latest year available, from 43,300 to 76,400. The growth of the entire prison population grew only 18 percent in that period.

"We're reaping the fruits of bad public policy like Three Strikes laws and other mandatory minimum sentencing laws," said David C. Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, D.C. "One in 11 prisoners is serving a life sentence."

With prison costs escalating and states overwhelmed with deficits, letting granny and gramps out of the clink suddenly doesn't sound so bad to some state officials. Old prisoners are expensive, and if we must take care of them, then why should local and state government's foot the bill. Better to let the federal government pay instead, through Medicare and Medicaid. The leading predictor of criminal behavior is age (young), so there's little risk involved in letting the geezers go; all that's keeping most of them behind bars in the nation's insatiable taste for punishment.

With all this in mind, I am reprinting an article that just appeared on Solitary Watch, another blog where I am editor along with Jean Casella. It is the story of Robert Platshorn, leader of the "Black Tuna Gang" of marijuana smugglers in the late 1970s, an experience described in his book The Black Tuna Diaries. In 1980, he received what was then an unprecedented sentence of 64 years in federal prison.

When Platshorn was released on parole in 2008 at the age of 65, he was the longest-serving non-violent marijuana offender in America. But as he wrote in a blog post for High Times earlier this year, that distinction "won't be mine for long. Many sentenced after me will soon be able to claim my title. They are serving LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE and will never get to spend another minute as a free man." When Platshorn was convicted, he writes, "no one received a life sentence for marijuana. That changed in the early 80′s as Reagan stepped up this insane failure of a drug war." According to Platshorn, several other non-violent marijuana offenders, including Billy Deckle, are now in their sixties and seventies, and will likely never be released.

Here is what they have to look forward to: Surviving day to day in an environment so dangerous that a slip of the tongue often ends in death. Since the elimination of parole, federal prisons are populated mainly by young, uneducated, aggressive inmates serving absurdly long sentences. They have little hope and nothing to lose. Violence has become endemic in a system that has little or no reward for good behavior. Prison gangs find older non-violent inmates easy prey.

Inadequate medical care. It costs the taxpayers billions to provide even minimal health care for older inmates. Yet these are the people least likely to commit a crime after release. An older marijuana offender serving a long sentence is likely to die in prison for lack of medical care…

An extremely unhealthy diet. It becomes an obsession, trying find enough decent food to maintain good health. Even under the best of circumstances, it's no longer possible. When I entered prison in 1979, the budget to feed an inmate for three meals a day was $2.62. When I left prison in 2008 it had shrunk to $2.25…This has to pay, not only for food, it has to cover repairs and replacements for kitchen equipment, civilian salaries, and eating utensils…You don't have to be an economist to figure out, that since Bush decimated the prison food budget, the cost of inmate medical care has skyrocketed. Especially for older inmates, many of whom require a special or restricted diet…Now, the Bureau [of Prisons] will say that they provide special diets for those who require them. And it's true. Sort of! Those diet trays usually contain so little edible food that the starving sick geezer ends up eating a piece of deep fried breaded sewer trout or a hunk of fried breaded mystery meat, just to stave off the terrible never ending hunger pangs. The results, a sick geezer who now needs expensive medications and has little or no chance of surviving a long sentence. Most of those geezers would pose no threat to society if released. It's even worse when the geezer is serving forever for marijuana, a harmless substance, and an effective medication that is now legal in many states. How would you feel if that old pot smuggler was your Uncle Billy?

Geezer in the hole! "The Hole"! Segregation!…The Federal Bureau of Prisons thinks it sounds better if they call it the SHU (Special Housing Unit). Take my word for it, it ain't special in any way you'd like to experience. During my almost 30 years in 11 different federal prisons, about 3 1/2 years were spent in segregation. They got it right in the old movies, "the hole". Now you might ask, why would a nice non-violent old dude wind up in the hole? Lots of reason! Someone "drops a note" saying the old dude's life is in danger. Result many months in the hole. He gets in a fight. Doesn't matter if it's self-defense. Into the hole! Uncle Billy gets caught coming out of the chow hall with an apple or a cookie in his pocket. The hole! The old pot smuggler has been forced to work in the prison factory because he owes a fine. A tool disappears from his work area. Everyone who works in that area is tossed in the hole. And so on and so on. Now what happens is: he has to eat whatever shows up on the meager tray that comes through the slot, or starve. Mostly he eats all the starchy crap because he's been flat on his back all day and night, and he's bored to death. Meals are the only break he looks forward to. Each time he leaves his cell his hands are cuffed behind his back. This is especially painful for an older inmate. He has to be cuffed while he crouches backwards with his hands pushed out through the lower food slot. This usually means Uncle Billy will forgo his three weekly showers and exercise periods. It's no big deal when your young and supple, but for a geezer it's a different story. The only way I can express it is, if you are over fifty, spend 90 days in the hole and you come out two years older. Fatter, slower, more depressed, and less likely to recover physically or mentally.

Its time for all the Uncle Billys to go home…

O'Donnell: She's a Witccccchhhhhh!

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 11:38 AM EDT

Okay, cue the laugh track. The latest dispatch from the bizarro Planet O'Donnell is that the tea party sweetheart who won last's week GOP Senate primary in Delaware said she had dabbled in witchcraft. During a 1990s appearance on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, she spilled this nugget and noted that she had once had a date on a satanic altar. (She didn't explain what happened on this date.) This is just one more weird fact from Christine O'Donnell's off-beat bio. And Maher says he has other footage of O'Donnell he'll be releasing in the weeks ahead—unless O'Donnell agress to come on his HBO show.

The reference to witchcraft did seem to come out of the blue. But there is a family connection. As we reported last week, O'Donnell has a sister who is quite different from her. Christine O'Donnell is a fundamentalist Christian who has denounced homosexuality. Her sister Jennie is a Los-Angeles-based actor/director/spiritual healer who supports lesbian rights and who says she lives with her girlfriend. Jennie also has pursued many—that is, many—different spiritual pathways. On her LinkedIn page, Jennie writes:

I have studied and practiced many therapeutic methods, as well as many different spiritual practices, such as; The Eastern Philosophies of Buddhism, Taoism, Sidha yoga with Brahma khumaris and other yoga practices for self realization. Western philosophies of Christianity, Science of mind, Course in miracles, Catholicism, Native American Spiritualities, Judaism, Muslim, Sufi, Ancient Alchemy of the Emerald Tablet, Metaphysics, Wicca, Pagan and many other world spiritualities.

Did the sisters share their mutual interests in Wicca? These days, Jennie has been working on her sister's Senate campaign and insisting Christine is not "homophobic." But if Maher wants an interesting show and cannot get Christine, he ought to try to book Jennie.

The Avastin Conspiracy

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 11:30 AM EDT

Over at RedState, Brian Darling argues that the Food and Drug Administration's decision to revoke its approval of the drug Avastin for use in late-stage breast cancer patients amounts to dreaded health care "rationing" brought on by (what else?) "Obamacare." Darling isn't alone in his pro-Avastin crusade—the Wall Street Journal editorial board has been harping on this, too. They're both wrong. Avik Roy, a right-wing policy writer, did a good job of explaining why last month:

The panel's new recommendation came on the heels of new data showing that Avastin did not extend the survival of patients with advanced breast cancer. (In cancer trials, the length of a patient’s life on a given treatment is the accepted gold standard for measuring a treatment's effectiveness.) In the Avastin trial, called AVADO, patients treated with placebo and Taxotere, another cancer drug, lived for 31.9 months on average; whereas patients treated with Avastin and Taxotere lived for 30.8 months at a low Avastin dose and 30.2 months at a high Avastin dose. Understandably, the FDA's advisory committee saw this data as evidence that Avastin didn’t offer a real benefit to breast cancer patients.

[...]

[W]e can't forget that one of Avastin’s principal side effects is financial: a year’s worth of the drug costs between $80,000 and $100,000.

The real problem is this: if the government is responsible for paying for our health care, the government is entitled, if not obligated, to decide how to spend its money most effectively. If we don't want the government to be making these decisions for us, then we need to pay for our own medicines. We can't have it both ways.

I know RedStaters may not believe the "liberal media" when it reports that Avastin is an incredibly expensive drug that doesn't work particularly well on late-stage breast cancer. But maybe they'll believe Roy, who also writes for the National Review. Read the whole thing.

Brad O'Leary's "Is Obama a Muslim?" Poll

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 11:19 AM EDT

Right-wing talk show host and WorldNet Daily columnist Brad O'Leary has a fondness for Zogby polls, especially the ones he commissions himself. He used several of them in his 2008 anti-Obama book, The Audacity of Deceit, to make misleading claims about the president. And he frequently cites polls he's commissioned in his WND columns. (Just to give you the flavor of his polling inquiries, one O'Leary commissioned last year asked, "The stimulus bill would allow undocumented workers, who are also referred to as illegal aliens, who are working and paying taxes to collect a tax rebate check of $500 per person. Do you agree or disagree with this provision?")

This weekend, he presented a new poll to attendees of the Values Voter Summit in DC which could have been dubbed the "Is Obama a Muslim?" poll. The summit, sponsored by the Family Research Council, is a high-profile gathering of religious right activists who come to DC to hear from potential GOP presidential candidates and other conservative luminaries. But on Saturday afternoon, after the ballroom lights had dimmed and activists headed to smaller break-out sessions around the Omni Shoreham hotel, O'Leary headlined a presentation of new polling data that had been billed with the bait-and-switch title, "Who are the tea party and Christian voters and what do they believe?"

If the values voters on hand thought they might be getting some new insights into what makes the tea party tick, or on whether the tea party movement is really compatible with social conservative set, they may have been sorely disappointed. O'Leary gave a PowerPoint presentation that first examined a burning issue at the top of every tea partier's agenda these days: spanking. Most of the data he presented looked at whether tea partiers were more or less likely than Democrats or Republicans to believe parents have a legal right to dole out a "modest spanking" to their children. More than 80 percent of tea party respondents believed that they do, compared with 47 percent of Democrats. (The poll was connected to a later presentation by Home School Legal Defense Association head Michael Farris, who is trying to rally the faithful to oppose Senate ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which he believes will make spanking illegal.)

But even more revealing about O'Leary's data was the section he presented on the 2012 presidential hopefuls and their Christian values. While O'Leary said at the session that Zogby couldn't in good conscience ask people outright whether they thought Obama was a Muslim because the question itself was too biased, they could ask people whether they thought Obama had "strong Christian values or not." So that's what they did. And shockingly, only 37 percent of the respondents thought Obama wasn't a Muslim—er, was a good Christian, a number that actually went up the less likely someone was to go to church. (Of those who never attend church, 45 percent thought Obama was a good Christian.)

The breakdown was even more interesting when viewed by political loyalties as opposed to church attendance. O'Leary pointed out that a mere 2 percent of tea partiers think Obama has strong Christian values, compared with 5 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Democrats. Oddly enough, Obama seems to score better among NRA members, 37 percent of whom thought he was a good Christian, suggesting his avoiding of gun control issues might be paying dividends in at least one regard. (Either that or NRA members lean more libertarian than either Republicans or tea partiers and are overrepresented in the "never go to church" category.)

NRA members, though, did not think so highly of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; only 4 percent thought she had strong Christian values, while 6 percent of tea partiers did. O'Leary also had Zogby ask the question about Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. Romney scored better on the "Christian values" scale than Obama—about 60 percent of tea partiers, Republicans and NRA members thought he had good Christian values—but he was roundly trounced by Palin, who is apparently the most righteous of the bunch, even if Democrats don't see her that way. While 86 percent of tea partiers and 78 percent of NRA members believe Palin's Christian values are strong, only 28 percent of Democrats do. Christian values are apparently in the eye of the beholder.

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Stupid Secrets

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 10:20 AM EDT

Last week, Dan told you about Operation Dark Heart, a new book by former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Anthony Shaffer:

The book was originally cleared by army reviewers, who vetted the manuscript to ensure it didn't reveal national security secrets. It went to press, was sent to reviewers, and was even available for a short time online. Now your best best of getting a copy may be to bid for the one some opportunist put up on Ebay—starting bid, $500 $1000. That's because the Pentagon is now negotiating with Shaffer's publisher to purchase all 10,000 copies of the first print run with the intention of destroying them. It turns out the book may indeed contain a significant amount of sensitive material. Once the DIA looked over the book, and shared it with other intelligence agencies, "200 passages suspected of containing classified information" were discovered "setting off a scramble by Pentagon officials to stop the book’s distribution," according to the Times.

Unfortunately for the Pentagon, some review copies of the book did get out, and the New York Times got one of them. So when the Times' Scott Shane got the new (more redacted) version, it was a piece of cake for him to produce a story that made the government's censorship rules look really, really dumb:

The National Security Agency, headquarters for the government’s eavesdroppers and code breakers, has been located at Fort Meade, Md., for half a century. Its nickname, the Fort, has been familiar for decades to neighbors and government workers alike. Yet that nickname is one of hundreds of supposed secrets Pentagon reviewers blacked out in the new, censored edition of an intelligence officer’s Afghan war memoir.

Here are some more secrets the government is trying to protect by buying 10,000 books with your tax dollars:

Another supposed secret removed from the second printing: the location of the Central Intelligence Agency’s training facility — Camp Peary, Va., a fact discoverable from Wikipedia. And the name and abbreviation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, routinely mentioned in news articles. And the fact that Sigint means "signals intelligence."

As Starbuck notes, there is really only one appropriate response to this: facepalm.

 

The Class of New Unemployables

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 8:46 AM EDT

Should older Americans who lost their job in the Great Recession give up the search and wait it out until retirement?

That's the underlying question in a New York Times story today about older, unemployed Americans who're finding it nearly impossible to break back into the workforce. They're shipping out resumes and cover letters to no avail; some blame age discrimination, others rusty job skills. One academic called them the "class of new unemployables." As the Times' Motoko Rich points out, 2.2 million of the 15 million unemployed Americans are over 55; half have been jobless for six months or more; and the 7.3 percent unemployment rate for that group is at an all-time high. The Times goes on to report:

Since the economic collapse, there are not enough jobs being created for the population as a whole, much less for those in the twilight of their careers...

After other recent downturns, older people who lost jobs fretted about how long it would take to return to the work force and worried that they might never recover their former incomes. But today, because it will take years to absorb the giant pool of unemployed at the economy’s recent pace, many of these older people may simply age out of the labor force before their luck changes.

The Times zeroes in on the experience of Patricia Reid, a laid-off auditor at Boeing in Washington state:

For Ms. Reid, it has been four years of hunting—without a single job offer. She buzzes energetically as she describes the countless applications she has lobbed through the Internet, as well as the online courses she is taking to burnish her software skills.

Still, when she is pressed, her can-do spirit falters.

“There are these fears in the background, and they are suppressed,” said Ms. Reid, who is now selling some of her jewelry and clothes online and is late on some credit card payments. “I have had nightmares about becoming a bag lady,” she said. “It could happen to anyone. So many people are so close to it, and they don’t even realize it.”

Calling it quits early—at 55, or 60, say—is hardly what most older Americans intended. Quite the opposite: With health care costs climbing, hard-hit pensions dwindling, and the cost of everyday goods continually rising, older Americans are hoping to work past the traditional retirement age—not leave the labor force early.

The Times doesn't mention one curious statistic about older, unemployed workers. According to labor data, the older Americans most likely to remain stuck on the labor sidelines are better educated. It's counterintuitive, but true. Older workers with either "some college," a bachelor's degree, or higher experienced longer durations out of work than those with just a high school diploma. Patricia Reid, the woman cited by the Times, fits the bill: she has a degree in business administration—and she's been searching for work for four years. Maybe more education isn't always a good thing if you're searching for work.

Values Voters Woo the Tea Party

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 5:10 AM EDT

Last year, the Family Research Council's DC Values Voters Summit was about as establishment Republican an event as you can get. The entire GOP congressional leadership addressed the crowd of evangelical activists and Mike Huckabee, a longtime favorite of social conservatives, won the conference's presidential straw poll in a landslide.

How things have changed in one year: Not a single member of the Republican leadership made the trek to DC's Omni Shoreham hotel for this year's summit. Instead, the event was dominated by tea-party-caucus types like Representatives Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), along with newly minted conservative rock star Christine O'Donnell, the surprise winner of the Delaware GOP senate primary. And in a startling indicator of just how much the political landscape has shifted, Huckabee was edged out of the 2012 straw poll by tea party favorite and Indiana congressman Mike Pence. (Sarah Palin placed fifth.)

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 20, 2010

Mon Sep. 20, 2010 1:58 AM EDT

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. John Kingsley (left), a radio transmission operator with the Nangarhar Provincial Reconstruction Team, and U.S. Army 1st Lt. John Cerra, a security forces platoon leader with the team, look toward the location of suspected fire near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on Sept. 8, 2010. Members of the team were inspecting a reconstruction team funded project when the attack occurred. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. John Barton, U.S. Air Force. Photo via U.S. Army.