Author Archives: Jean Casella

The Graying of America’s Prisons

The following appears as Part One of a two-part Special Report on The Crime Report (TCR), which is “a collaborative effort by two national organizations that focus on encouraging quality criminal justice reporting:  The  Center on Media, Crime and Justice, the nation’s leading practice-oriented think tank on crime and justice reporting, and Criminal Justice Journalists, the nation’s only membership organization of crime-beat journalists.” I’ll post Part Two as soon as it appears on TCR.

Frank Soffen, now 70 years old, has lived more than half his life in prison, and will likely die there.

Sentenced to life for second-degree murder, Soffen has suffered four heart attacks and is confined to a wheelchair.  He has lately been held in the assisted living wing of Massachusetts’ Norfolk prison. Because of his failing health and his exemplary record over his 37 years behind bars—which includes rescuing a guard being threatened by other inmates—Soffen has been held up as a candidate for release on medical and compassionate grounds.

He is physically incapable of committing a violent crime, has already participated in pre-release and furlough programs, and has a supportive family and a place to live with his son. One of the members of the Massachusetts state parole board spoke in favor of his release. But in 2006 the board voted to deny Soffen parole. He will not be eligible for review for another five years.

The “tough on crime” posturing and policymaking that have dominated American politics for more than three decades have left behind a grim legacy. Longer sentences and harsher parole standards have led to overcrowded prisons, overtaxed state budgets, and devastated families and communities. Now, yet another consequence is becoming visible in the nation’s prisons and jails: a huge and ever-growing numbers of geriatric inmates.

Increasingly, the cells and dormitories of the United States are filled with old, often sick men and women. They hobble around the tiers with walkers or roll in wheelchairs. They fill prison infirmaries, assisted living wings, and hospices faster than the state and federal governments can build them—and since many are dying behind bars, they are filling the mortuaries and graveyards as well.

The care these aging prisoners receive, while often grossly inadequate, is nonetheless cripplingly expensive—so much so that some recession-strapped states are for the first time seriously considering releasing older terminally ill and mentally ill prisoners rather than pay the heavy price for their warehousing. It remains to be seen what will happen when such fiscal concerns run head on into America’s taste for punitive justice. A recent report by the Vera Institute made this clear.

Politicians no doubt did not imagine this Dickensian landscape of the elderly incarcerated when they voted to lengthen sentences and impose mandatory minimums three or four decades ago. But their actions are yielding an inevitable outcome.  While the graying of the prison population to some extent reflects the changing demographics of the populace at large, it owes considerably more to changes in law and policy. And this is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

According to the Sentencing Project, the United States imprisons five times as many people as it did 30 years ago and more than seven times as many as it did 40 years ago. Our criminal justice system now keeps 2.3 million people behind bars—about half of them for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes. Twenty-five years ago, there were 34,000 prisoners serving life sentences; today the number is more than 140,000. The fact that each person is spending a longer stretch behind bars means that the falling crime rates of the 1990s do not translate into fewer inmates. It also means that more and more people who committed offenses in their 20s or even their teens are growing old and dying in prison.

The situation is particularly stark in California, Texas and Florida, which have large prison populations with cells crammed to overflowing because of harsh sentencing laws. In California, the population of prisoners over 55 doubled in the ten years from 1997 to 2006. About 20 percent of California prisoners are serving life sentences, and over 10 percent are serving life without the possibility of parole. Louisiana’s prison system now holds more than 5,000 people over the age of 50—a three-fold increase in the last 12 years.

While 50 or 55 may not be old by conventional standards, people age faster behind bars than they do on the outside: Studies have shown that prisoners in their 50s are on average physiologically 10 to 15 years older than their chronological age. Older prisoners require substantial medical care, because of harsh life conditions as well as age. Inmates begin to have trouble climbing to upper bunks, walking, standing on line, and handling other parts of the prison routine. They suffer from early losses of hearing and eyesight, have high rates of high blood pressure and diabetes, and are susceptible to falls.

A recent study by Brie Williams and Rita Albraldes, published as a chapter in the book Growing Older: Challenges of Prison and Reentry for the Aging Population, found that in addition to the chronic diseases that increase with age, older offenders have problems such as paraplegia because of the legacy of gunshot wounds. Many have  advanced liver disease, renal disease, or hepatitis. Still others suffer from HIV-AIDS, and many more from drug and alcohol abuse. Living under prison conditions, they are more likely to get pneumonia and flu.

Many prisons are notorious for not taking their inmates’ health complaints seriously, and there is anecdotal evidence this problem may be compounded when prisoners are elderly. A doctor under contract in one southern prison told me in a recent interview how a diabetic man’s illness was misdiagnosed, resulting in months of excruciating pain and the amputation of toes and part of one foot. Back in prison, the man asked for prosthetic shoes so he could get around by walking; his request was denied.

Another elderly prisoner complained of an earache which went untreated for months.  When it became unbearably painful, the prisoner was shipped to a local hospital emergency room, under contract to the prison. There the doctors found the earache was brain cancer—by then, too advanced to treat.

The exploding prison population has further undermined the already questionable quality of inmate medical care. In California, which has the nation’s largest number of state prisoners, a panel of federal judges earlier this year found that the state of medical care was so poor that it violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and was in danger of routinely costing prisoners their lives. The only solution, the judges said, was to reduce prison overcrowding caused by the states draconian mandatory sentences. The court recommended shortening sentences and reforming parole, which they believed would have no impact on public safety; it has given California three years to comply.

To come in Part Two:  Challenging the status quo for geriatric prisoners

Right Wing Gun Group Puts “ObamaCare” in Its Crosshairs

Right-wingers have depicted health care reform as a front for various dastardly schemes, which include everything from killing off grannies and unborn babies to ushering in a socialist state. Now, one radical gun rights group sees yet another hidden agenda behind the reform effort: The health care legislation, they say, threatens their right to bear arms.   

D.C. Tea Party protest, September 12, 2009

The accusation comes from Gun Owners of America, a 300,000-member group that proudly advertises itself with a quotation from Ron Paul: “The only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington.” The GOA has been described as “eight lanes to the right” of the NRA, which it tends to dismiss as a pack of wussy sell-outs; and the group’s longtime leader, Larry Pratt, was booted from Pat Buchanan’s inner circle for having ties to the militia movement and hobnobbing with white nationalists.

Yet, like the Tea Partiers who draw Republican Congressional leaders to their racially tinged protests against “National Socialist Health Care,” the Gun Owners of America could well influence the reform debate in ways that belie their extremist status. GOA has thrown itself wholeheartedly into the battle for the soul of the GOP, pledging to help oust “RINOs” and other insufficiently trigger-happy Republicans in the 2010 primaries. And last week the Washington Post reported that the GOA’s campaign against health care reform could also “cause political indigestion for Democrats from conservative states,” and have some influence on their final votes.

In fact, no version of the reform legislation even mentions firearms. But that hasn’t stopped the Virginia-based group from raising the alarm about what it calls the “anti-gun ObamaCare bill.” In its most recent alerts, the GOA has fixed on the proposal for a nationwide system of electronic health care records, which, it says, “will most likely dump your gun-related health data into a government database….This includes any firearms-related information your doctor has gleaned or any determination of post traumatic stress disorder or something similar, that can preclude you from owning firearms.”

In other words, better record-keeping and information-sharing might lead some people to be denied gun permits on the basis of serious mental illness. Presumably, this could include people like Cho Seung-Hui, the student who gunned down 32 others before killing himself in the 2007 Viriginia Tech massacre. Less than two years before the shooting, a state court order had directed that Cho be taken into custody for a psychiatric evaluation, declaring the young man mentally ill and “an imminent danger to himself or others.” (He was later ordered into outpatient treatment and released.) But Virginia failed to supply this information to the FBI-monitored National Instant Criminal Background Check System, so Cho was able to purchase two semi-automatic pistols in local gun stores, along with two ten-round magazines of ammo on eBay. After the massacre, even George W. Bush willingly signed a new gun control bill—the first in 13 years. But Gun Owners of America doesn’t think insanity is necessarily incompatible with gun ownership. (The group also has a novel approach to such massacres: Put more guns in schools.)

A GOA alert earlier this fall was titled “ObamaCare Could be Used to Ban Guns in Home Self-Defense.” Their premise, as described by PolitiFact, is that “in a bid to control spiraling health care costs, the administration will target people who have ‘excessively dangerous’ behaviors that officials believe raise the cost of health care.”  The legislation’s “special ‘wellness and prevention’ programs” the GOA warns, “would allow the government to offer lower premiums to employers who bribe their employees to live healthier lifestyles — and nothing within the bill would prohibit rabidly anti-gun HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius from decreeing that ‘no guns’ is somehow healthier.” (Sibelius earned GOA’s unending wrath when she vetoed concealed-carry gun legislation as governor of Kansas.) “It is even possible that the Obama-prescribed policy could preclude [insurance] reimbursement of any kind in a household which keeps a loaded firearm for self-defense.”

Such dire prognostications are quickly spreading far beyond the GOA’s membership. The Washington Examiner quoted Dave Kopel, research director of the libertarian Independence Institute of Colorado, who said, “The more you socialize costs, the more you empower the argument that the government has the authority to control private behavior.” Kopel continued, “If [the Department of Health and Human Services] can write regulations for lower premiums for healthy habits in general…”Then I don’t see anything in the bill that stops HHS from saying people get higher premiums for unhealthy habits such as owning a gun or a handgun.”

With Republicans sticking to party-line votes against health care reform, the GOA is going after what it sees as vulnerable Democrats. After the Senate cloture vote, GOA attacked Democrats from Conservative states who “were bribed into selling out the American people because Harry Reid ordered them to do so,” and declared: “Can you spell R-E-C-A-L-L?  GOA is looking into which states are the best targets for recalls–and you can be sure that we will be pursuing this option aggressively, exposing the Senators who sold their vote.” It provided a model letter for its members to send, which begins: “Just so you know, I will not forget how you voted on Saturday, November 21 when you threw your support in favor of anti-gun socialized health care.”

But if Democrats like Arkansas’s Blanche Lincoln or Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu are swayed by the likes of the GOA, it will mark a new low in the party’s capitulation not only to conservatives, but to extremists of a truly hateful variety. While his views on some subjects may not represent all GOA’s members, Larry Pratt, who has been the group’s executive director for 26 years, has been up to his neck in far-right extremist activity for several decades—an outrider among the pistol-packing white power crowd, and a fellow traveler and inspiration to the militias that sprung up in the 1990s.

Leonard Zeskind, the expert on white nationalist movements, has described Pratt as having “one foot in the political mainstream and the other in the fringe.” Pratt comes out of Fairfax, Virginia, and served two terms in the state legislature in the 1980s, arguing an anti-abortion, anti-tax line. But he made national headlines in 1996, while he was co-chair of Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign, after news surfaced on his attendance at a meeting of the racialist far right in Estes Park, Colorado, in 1992. As described by Zeskind, in an article for Rolling Stone:

The three-day strategy session was organized by Pete Peters…who pastors to members of a fringe religious group called [Christian] Identity. Identity doctrine contends that Northern Europeans are racial descendants of the biblical Hebrews; that our government is in the hands of satanic Jews; and that black people were created before Adam and are therefore less than human. Identity believers have begun to stockpile weapons, food and supplies in preparation for Armageddon, which they think will be a race war in the United States.

Among the speakers were Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler and legendary Klansman Louis Beam. And as Zeskind writes, “Although many of the participants had met before, this gathering was different. This meeting marked the birth of the modern militia movement that would tie well-armed radicals to gun advocates in a right-wing national network.” Beam laid out his theory for carrying forward a white revolution against the Zionist Occupied Government by means of a “leaderless resistence” cell strategy. Instead of mass organizations with known chains of command, Beam said, right wing revolutionaries should go underground in secret cells, unknown and unrelated to one another. The cells could number a few or many members, or individuals could act on their own as so-called Phineas Priests. It’s not a stretch to say that this meeting, and the ideas and energy that came from it, may have helped inspire not only the modern Militia Movement, but also crimes ranging from the murders of abortion providers to the Oklahoma City bombing.

And in the midst of it all was Larry Pratt. Lenny Zeskind describes the GOA leader’s appearance at the meeting:

Pratt stood at the podium and peered out from behind his glasses. He confessed to the crowd of gun lovers that he wasn’t a particularly good shot or an enthusiastic hunter. “I bought my first gun in 1968, during the riots in Washington, D.C.” that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he said. At the time all he could buy was a shotgun. “If they’d had that assault rifle, so-called, for sale, and I’d seen that big old magazine there at the time, that’s exactly what I would have bought.”

Pratt, who had studied the evolution of death squads in places like Guatemala and the Philippines and glorified these vigilante groups, joined Beam in providing inspiration for a revived militia movement. He argued the importance of the old-style posse, organized in militias. In his book Blood and Politics, Zeskind quotes from Pratt’s writing: “When the government no longer fears the people, atrocities become possible….Long live the militia! Long live freedom! Long live a government that fears the people.”

Larry Pratt's facebook photo. (He has 3,021 friends.)

Pratt’s history, in general, exemplifies the blurred boundaries between the “mainstream” and the “fringe”—the right and the extremist (and usually racist) far right. In addition to GOA, Pratt set up the Committee to Protect the Family Foundation, which attacked gays and demanded a quarantine for anyone with AIDS. “Our judges coddle criminals instead of caring for the victims of crime. They’ve chased God out of our schools, defended abortions…and now they are trying to infect us with strange and horrible diseases.” He was a keen backer of Randall Terry and Operation Rescue, and when the government shutdown OR’s finances, Pratt’s Protect the Family Foundation raised money to help pay off the groups debts and fines. And Pratt is also a founder of the anti-immigrant groups U.S. Border Patrol and English First, and a contributing editor to a periodical of the anti-Semitic United Sovereigns of America.

Pratt has said that he is not a racist or a violent revolutionary, though his record suggests otherwise. And the apparent mainstream influence of a radical group like GOA seems especially sinister at this historical moment. We live at a time when the election of the first black president has sparked an explosion in gun sales, and when attendees at anti-health care reform town halls carry assault weapons and signs saying “It is time to water the tree of liberty” (with the “blood of patriots and tyrants” as the quotation continues). All of which is just fine with the Gun Owners of America. Commenting on the idea of “Americans openly carrying firearms outside presidential appearances,”Pratt told CBS News that “the most remarkable thing about this is that some find this behavior to be remarkable.” A few days later, Chris Matthews asked GOA spokesperson John Velleco whether people attending a presidential event should “be allowed to walk in the door armed… Should they be allowed to come into the president’s company and sit in the first row with a loaded gun?” Velleco said that would be fine with him.

In times like this, accommodating the likes of Pratt and the GOA–over health care reform or anything else–is playing with fire.

On the Death of Robert McNamara and the Continuing Survivial of Dick Cheney

POETRY AND POLITICS SERIES

Robert McNamara , the former secretary of defense who was–despite his half-baked, late-in-life regrets–one of the primary architects and apologists for the Vietnam War, died last week.

Dick Cheney has played a similar role in the Iraq War, and seems unlikely to have any attacks of hindsight or conscience in his golden years. At the end of June, Cheney offered a damning benediction on the beginning of troop withdrawals from Iraq:  

“I hope the Iraqis can deal with it,” Mr. Cheney said. “At some point they have to stand on their own, but I would not want to see the U.S. waste all the tremendous sacrifice that has gotten us to this point.”

Here’s a poem written by British poet G.K. Chesterton in 1922, after the senseless slaughter of World War I had decimated an entire generation. With the substitution of “America” for “England” (and “men and women” for “men”), it can be fittingly rededicated to McNamara, and especially to Cheney, whose dicky heart is still beating.  

Elegy in a Country Church-Yard

The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.

But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.

And they that ruled in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England
They have no graves as yet.

 

Posted by: Jean Casella

Vive la Geezer

Unsilent Generation has taken a break while principal James Ridgeway visits a friend in France. He’s still over there, but is now back at the computer and will be posting again soon.

10450In the meantime, here’s something from the grand old man of French music, Charles Aznavour. For members of the Silent Generation, Aznavour became an international epitome of cool for his chanson and his appearances in films like Truffaut’s 1960 classic Shoot the Piano Player. He began performing while he was still a child, was “discovered” by Edith Piaf, and has recorded more than a thousand songs over almost 70 years. In 1998 he was chosen as “Entertainer of the Century” in a CNN/Time contest, edging out Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.

At age 85, Aznavour is still recording and touring. Interviewed by the New York Times in 2006, while performing at Radio City Music Hall, he said:  “There are some people who grow old and others who just add years. I have added years, but I am not yet old.” Here’s more from that Times piece:

Even now, while best known around the world as a singer (he has also appeared in more than 50 French movies), Mr. Aznavour considers himself first and foremost a songwriter: he starts with the words, and only later does he or another composer add the melody and rhythm. For him the chanson française is quite simply the art of telling stories to music.

For material he has always counted on love and its pitfalls, but recent songs confirm that he is also ever-alert to what is topical.

“I don’t write stories like novels,” he said. “I don’t invent anything. I bring language to existing facts and events. I read all the newspapers. I watch all the news programs on television. I was the first to write about social issues like homosexuality and the deaf. In my new record I write about unrest in the suburbs, about ecology. I find real subjects and translate them into song.”

One recent record, “Le Voyage,” includes two songs about journalists: in “La Critique,” he snipes at critics and concludes that, “in the end, only the public is right”; and in “Un Mort Vivant,” or “A Living Death,” which he dedicated to Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent assassinated by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in 2002, Mr. Aznavour pays tribute to reporters who risk their lives while seeking the truth.

And here is Aznavour performing “The Old-Fashioned Way” at Carnegie Hall in 1995, at age 71.

 

Posted by: Jean Casella 

American Dreams

POETRY AND POLITICS SERIES

Jean Casella, my longtime editor, who has published, edited, and written about books for twenty years, has agreed to bring some culture to Unsilent Generation by posting a literary excerpt every now and then, along with reviews of books, movies, and music.

For July the 4th, she sent me these two poems, one from the 1930s (and especially relevant to our current economic conditions), and one from the 1950s (which reminds me what things were like in this country when I was young). In both, the poets confront their nation about its failure to live up to its own promise, and its own mythmaking. Both, I think, are examples of what Howard Zinn meant when he said that dissent is the highest form of patriotism.

I can’t post these in their entirety for copyright reasons, but urge you to follow the links and read them through.

 

Let American Be America Again
by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)…

Read the complete poem here.

 

America
by Allen Ginsberg

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument….

Read the complete poem here.