Political MoJo

The American Correctional Association Ushered Me Out of Its Convention With Armed Guards

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 12:54 PM EDT
Vgm8383/Flickr

I've dealt with surly, armed prison guards in my reporting career, but Tuesday was the first time the encounter involved a PR man kicking me out of a convention I had personally requested to attend, paid for, and traveled across country to attend. On Tuesday, the director of government and public affairs of the American Correctional Association (ACA), a prison trade group, pulled me out of a seminar at their conference in Salt Lake City, which I'd been attending for several days. Flanking him were two men in Utah Department of Corrections uniforms, with pistols and tasers on their hips.

The convention is a twice-yearly affair, and I've been to it before. Hundreds of prison staff and members of the vast industry surrounding corrections touch down on an American city to discuss all things prison related. This week, Salt Lake City laid out the red carpet. Downtown restaurants posted signs welcoming the prison industry. Hotels printed the ACA insignia on their keys. Bars hosted parties sponsored by corrections companies. The local prison had inmates press an "ACA 2014" license plate for each convention guest.

The ACA is the largest and oldest correctional association in the world, and their conventions offer a rare glimpse into the world of US prisons. Vendors in the exhibit hall openly discuss their increasing sales of SWAT-style equipment to prisons. Visitors can check out the new tech like drone-detection devices, surveillance systems, and shank-proof e-cigarettes. People hold workshops on issues like sex between prison guards and inmates and the problem of drug-dealing staff. Serious topics like suicide among transgender inmate populations are often revealingly discussed in terms of liability and cost.

But in attending ACA conventions, I've also been surprised at how many reformists there are. When I attended an ACA convention in Tampa six months ago, the main plenary was composed of wardens and mental-health workers discussing the need to reform the use of long-term solitary confinement (called "restrictive housing" in ACA jargon). In Salt Lake City, prisoner mental health and the rampant problem of hepatitis C (affecting 40 percent of inmates) were major topics.

For someone who writes about prisons and is accustomed to being stonewalled at every turn, the ACA conventions have felt refreshingly transparent. After workshops or at company-sponsored meet-and-greets, most people are very willing to speak to a journalist, and I have always identified myself as such.

While in Salt Lake City, I was live-tweeting throughout the convention, posting revealing tidbits from workshops and notes on a visit to a local jail. This may have had something to do with why, on the fourth day, a man named Eric Schultz, the ACA's director of government and public affairs, came into a workshop and asked me to step outside. Standing at each side of him was an armed Utah correctional officer. He told me I was going to have to leave.

The guards ushered us into an empty room. The reason for my dismissal changed as Mr. Schultz and I talked. First, he told me I wasn't registered as media. I explained to him that when I called to register, I was told there were no media passes, and that I should register through the normal channels. He then told me the problem was that I wasn't displaying my Mother Jones credentials, which was required by policy (I still have not been able to find that policy). I told him that could easily be remedied. "It's nothing against you or Mother Jones," he said. "But you are just going to have to leave." The burly guard stepped in closer.

After I left the convention center, I called the main ACA office in Virginia to ask again whether media were allowed to attend the convention. The man who answered told me yes, they were.

"Any media?" I asked.

“Yes,” he said. My editor, Monika Bauerlein, called Eric Schultz several times to discuss the matter, leaving voicemails and receiving no return calls. I later called up Schultz to ask whether he wanted to comment for this post. He hasn't responded.

The ACA functions as the de facto oversight organization for our prison system. They set the professional standards and conduct audits. I've been told by many that their accreditation carries weight in court. What are we to infer when an institution whose purpose is to make sure our prisons are up to par doesn't allow the public to see what it's doing?

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Here’s Why Bank of America’s $17 Billion Settlement Probably Won’t Cost It That Much

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 11:59 AM EDT

On Thursday, the Justice Department announced a record $17 billion settlement with Bank of America over accusations that the bank—as well as companies it later bought—intentionally misled investors who purchased financial products backed by toxic subprime mortgages. It's the largest settlement the US government has reached with any company in history, and it is roughly equal to the bank's total profits over the past three years. But as is the case with similar settlements involving Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America probably won't end up paying that much.

Potential tax deductions and tricky accounting techniques in deals like this often hide the real cost to banks. The Associated Press explains:

Bank of America will pay $9.65 billion in cash and provide consumer relief valued at $7 billion…Whether cash payments are structured as penalties or legal settlements can determine whether targeted companies can declare them as tax-deductible business expenses. Also, consumer relief is an amorphous cost category: If Bank of America's deal resembles the department's previous settlements with JPMorgan and Citigroup, that part could be less costly to the company than the huge figures suggest.

...[M]uch of the relief will come from modifying loans that the banks have already concluded could not be recovered in full. Reducing the principal on troubled loans often just brings the amount that borrowers owe in line with what the banks already know the loan to be worth.

Settlement math also affects the actual cost of the deals, allowing banks to earn a multiple for each dollar spent on certain forms of relief. Under Citi's deal, for example, each dollar spent on legal aid counselors is worth $2 in credits, and paper losses on some affordable housing project loans can be credited at as much as four times their actual value.

Banks generally regard the consumer relief portion of settlements as "stuff they're doing anyway," banking analyst Moshe Orenbuch told the AP.

The Bank of America settlement resolves more than two dozen investigations by prosecutors around the country.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 21, 2014

Thu Aug. 21, 2014 9:56 AM EDT

The US Marines practice weapon proficiency during a crew-served weapons familiarization shoot to serve in the Asia-Pacific Region. (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Henry Antenor)

Gun-Pointing Cop Who Threatened to Kill Ferguson Protesters Is Suspended

| Wed Aug. 20, 2014 7:13 PM EDT
Police point guns at protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, early Wednesday morning.

The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, were relatively calm yesterday, especially compared to previous nights where heavily armed police have responded to protests with tear gas and arrests. But there was at least one police officer who took things a little too far. In this video, an unidentified officer points a rifle at journalists and others walking in the street and warns, "I'll fucking kill you." (NSFW language in the clip.)


Somebody off-camera asks for his name and the officer replies, "Go fuck yourself." Soon afterward, a county police sergeant comes and ushers the officer away. Earlier today the ACLU asked for the officer to be removed from Ferguson. The St. Louis County Police Department has announced that the officer has been suspended, according to the Washington Post:

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 20, 2014

Wed Aug. 20, 2014 1:40 PM EDT

After a training mission, F-15 Eagles of the US Air Force fly over wildland fires in Southern Oregon. (High-G Productions photo by Jim "Hazy" Hazeltine.)

Watch: Livestream from Ferguson: August 19

| Wed Aug. 20, 2014 1:21 AM EDT

The live stream feed via Vice News and Tim Pool was largely mellow for most of the night, Aug. 19, until about 11: 50 p.m. CDT, when a thrown bottle led to police moving in. You can see the whole thing, as it happened, embedded below.

12:04 p.m. CDT: Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept tweeted a picture of peacemakers trying to calm down a potentially violent moment:

12:15 p.m. CDT:Wesley Lowery tweets a picture of police forming a line against the press:

12:30 p.m. CDT:Adam Serwer with some protesters being pushed back by police:

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This Is Rick Perry's Mugshot

| Tue Aug. 19, 2014 7:02 PM EDT

Rick Perry was booked today on abuse of power charges that look pretty flimsy.

Say what you will about his awful retrograde conservative politics, but Rick Perry is a handsome devil.

Amnesty International's Latest Hot Spot? Ferguson.

| Tue Aug. 19, 2014 5:06 PM EDT

Amnesty International is best known for monitoring human rights conditions in places like Afghanistan and China—while active in the United States, it rarely makes headlines here. That's why the sight of yellow-clad Amnesty activists walking the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, is attracting so much attention: It marks the first time an Amnesty delegation has been dispatched to monitor a human rights crisis unfolding on American soil.

Margaret Huang, deputy executive director of campaigns and programs for Amnesty USA, was in Ferguson earlier this week for what she called a "support mission" and says that Amnesty came at the request of the community. Huang and her colleagues did field trainings to educate protesters on their rights and how to respond to police. "The goal was not necessarily to produce a report, which is what Amnesty has typically done, but just to make sure things have been examined from a human rights angle and for people to understand international legal obligations," Huang says. She says the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive; the police, however, haven't been as welcoming. On Monday night, police forced Amnesty observers out of the protest area at gunpoint.

Amnesty began reporting on human rights in the United States in 1998, and it has since become just as vocal about conditions here as it is elsewhere. The organization's 2013 report on the US is a laundry list of alleged human rights transgressions, including solitary confinement, detention of prisoners in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, drone strikes, and police brutality. This tweet about the situation in Ferguson sums up the organization's angle:

While the nature of Amnesty's mission in Ferguson is unprecedented in the United States, it's not the first time delegations have been on the ground in times of crisis. After Hurricane Katrina hit, teams went to New Orleans to interview residents, with the purpose of producing a report detailing how government was failing in its recovery efforts. Amnesty also helped organize protests and raise awareness leading up to Troy Davis' execution in 2011.

To find the closest parallel to what Amnesty is doing in Missouri, though, you have to look abroad. Huang says that Amnesty's work during Turkey's massive anti-government protests in 2013 most resembles the Ferguson mission. In Istanbul, activists gave medical assistance to injured protesters and observed the violent clashes involving protesters, police, and sometimes members of the press. They ultimately produced a huge report detailing the numerous human rights abuses carried out by Turkish police. Their concerns then—police brutality, harassment and detainment of the press—were also articulated in a statement about Ferguson.

What's happening in Ferguson and what happened across Turkey last year aren't the same, of course. But the similarities between the two situations—and the fact that Amnesty is in Ferguson in the first place—are, for many, making what's unfolding now even more troubling. Huang didn't say how long the delegation plans to stay in Ferguson, calling the situation "very fluid," but Amnesty USA's executive director, Steven Hawkins, is there now.

The Man Who Ran Contra Propaganda for Reagan Is Guatemala’s New DC Lobbyist

| Tue Aug. 19, 2014 2:45 PM EDT

In late July, with child migrants still surging across the US-Mexico border, President Obama met with Central American leaders to discuss a response to the crisis. Not satisfied with Obama's plans, Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina took his agenda to the media, writing a Guardian op-ed criticizing the United States for the lasting legacy of both the Cold War and the drug war in his country.

Around the same time, Guatemala hired a lobbyist to help push its interests in Washington, DC. Given Pérez Molina's sharp criticism of the United States' history in the region, his choice—former Reagan official and noted Cold War propagandist Otto Reich—was a shocker.

If you've forgotten about Reich, check out this 2001 profile from The American Prospect, this 2002 New Yorker piece, or his National Security Archive page. Highlights of his Latin American misadventures include:

  • Running the Reagan-era Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean (OPD), which, as historian Greg Grandin wrote in Empire's Workshop, "was officially charged with implementing a 'new, nontraditional' approach to 'defining the terms of the public discussion on Central American policy.'" What it actually did was work to ensure US support of the Nicaraguan Contras in their offensive against the Sandinistas.
  • Overseeing OPD's "white propaganda" program, which placed pro-Contra op-eds in the mainstream media without acknowledging their links to the Reagan administration.
  • Confronting and intimidating those journalists Reich believed were sympathetic with the Sandinistas or the Salvadoran rebels. This included a memorable trip to the NPR office in DC—Reich referred to NPR as "Moscow on the Potomac"—during which he alerted reporters that OPD was listening to and transcribing their Central American reporting.
  • Helping write the Helms-Burton Act (which tightened the Cuban embargo) as well as lobbying for Bacardi to eliminate Cuban trademark rights so the rum maker could pilfer Cuba's official Havana Club brand. (Reich is Cuban American and staunchly anti-Castro.)

Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but hiring someone with Reich's history in the region is probably not the best way to, as the lobbying disclosure form puts it, "develop a strategy to move forward on the change of narrative from Guatemala to Washington, DC, allowing representatives in the North American political parties that are willing to abandon the reference to Guatemala of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the last century, and are eager to talk about the present and future of Guatemala of the 21st century." (The rest of the form is embedded below.)

Nor is it the best way for fellow cold warrior Pérez Molina to avoid references to his role as a military leader during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Guatemalans, many of them indigenous Mayans, with assistance from the United States. But then again, trying to make sense of the country's politics can be futile. "Just as you think you understand," University of California-Santa Cruz prof Susanne Jonas once wrote, Guatemala will "show you that you understand nothing at all."

 

(h/t CEPR's The Americas Blog)

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 19, 2014

Tue Aug. 19, 2014 10:21 AM EDT

A US Marine shouts out to his crew during a training mission in the Atlantic. (US Marine Corps photo taken by Lance Cpl. Alex W. Mitchel)