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Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison

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Mark Binelli reports in the NY Times Magazine:

In prison, Rodney Jones told me, everyone had a nickname. Jones’s was Saint E’s, short for St. Elizabeths, the federal psychiatric hospital in Washington, best known for housing John Hinckley Jr. after he shot Ronald Reagan. Jones spent time there as well, having shown signs of mental illness from an early age; he first attempted suicide at 12, when he drank an entire bottle of Clorox. Later, he became addicted to PCP and crack and turned to robbery to support his habit.

I met Jones a few blocks from his childhood home in LeDroit Park, a D.C. neighborhood not far from Howard University. It was a warm October afternoon, but Jones, 46, was wearing a puffy black vest. The keys to his grandmother’s house, where he currently lives, hung from a lanyard around his neck. His face was thin, a tightly cropped beard undergirding prominent cheekbones, and he had a lookout’s gaze, drifting more than darting but always alert.

Jones had been out of prison for three years, a record for him, at least as an adult, but he still sounded a bit like Rip Van Winkle as he marveled at how gentrified his old neighborhood had become. We sat on a cafe’s sun-dappled terrace, surrounded by creative-class types. A chef wandered outside to pluck some fresh rosemary from a planter. Jones was the only black patron at the cafe and probably the only person who remembered when it used to be a liquor store. “You wouldn’t be sitting here,” Jones said. He nodded at some toddlers playing across the street. “That park right there, that wasn’t a park. That was just an open field where everybody gambled. At any given time, you would hear shots ring out.”

From the age of 15, Jones found himself in and out of juvenile detention, St. Elizabeths or prison — never free for much longer than a month or so. The outside world came to feel terrifying; once, he wanted to get back inside so badly, he bought a bag of crack and called the cops on himself. “That was the world that I knew,” he said.

It hadn’t been easy for Jones to transition back to a life of freedom. He managed to stick it out, he said, because he was determined not to return to the place where he spent the final eight years of his last sentence: the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colo., known more colloquially as the ADX. The ADX is the highest-security prison in the country. It was designed to be escape-proof, the Alcatraz of the Rockies, a place to incarcerate the worst, most unredeemable class of criminal — “a very small subset of the inmate population who show,” in the words of Norman Carlson, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, “absolutely no concern for human life.” Ted Kaczynski and the Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph call the ADX home. The 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is held there, too, along with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef; the Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols; the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; and the former Bonanno crime-family boss Vincent Basciano. Michael Swango, a serial-killing doctor who may have poisoned 60 of his patients, is serving three consecutive life sentences; Larry Hoover, the Gangster Disciples kingpin made famous by rappers like Rick Ross, is serving six; the traitorous F.B.I. agent Robert Hanssen, a Soviet spy, 15.

Along with such notorious inmates, prisoners deemed serious behavioral or flight risks can also end up at the ADX — men like Jones, who in 2003, after racking up three assault charges in less than a year (all fights with other inmates) at a medium-security facility in Louisiana, found himself transferred to the same ADX cellblock as Kaczynski.

Inmates at the ADX spend approximately 23 hours of each day in solitary confinement. Jones had never been so isolated before. Other prisoners on his cellblock screamed and banged on their doors for hours. Jones said the staff psychiatrist stopped his prescription for Seroquel, a drug taken for bipolar disorder, telling him, “We don’t give out feel-good drugs here.” Jones experienced severe mood swings. To cope, he would work out in his cell until he was too tired to move. Sometimes he cut himself. In response, guards fastened his arms and legs to his bed with a medieval quartet of restraints, a process known as four-pointing.

One day in 2009, Jones was in the rec yard and spotted Michael Bacote, a friend from back home. The familiar face was welcome but also troubling. Bacote was illiterate, with an I.Q. of only 61, and suffered from acute paranoia. He had been sent to the ADX for his role as a lookout in a murder at a Texas prison, and he was not coping well. His multiple requests for transfers or psychological treatment had been denied. He was convinced that the Bureau of Prisons was trying to poison him, so he was refusing meals and medication. “You would have to be blind and crazy yourself not to see that this guy had issues,” Jones said, shaking his head. “He can barely function in a normal setting. His comprehension level was pretty much at zero.”

Bacote had paperwork from previous psychiatric examinations, so Jones went to the prison’s law library (a room with a computer) and looked up the address of a pro bono legal-aid group he had heard about, the D.C. Prisoners’ Project. Because Bacote couldn’t write, Jones ghosted a query. “I suppose to have a hearing before coming to the ADX,” Jones, as Bacote, wrote. “They never gave me a hearing.” He continued, “I need some help cause I have facts! Please help me.”

The story of the largest lawsuit ever filed against the United States Bureau of Prisons begins, improbably enough, with this letter. Deborah Golden, the director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, fields approximately 2,000 requests each year, but Bacote’s, which she received in October 2009, caught her eye. “I thought I might be missing something, because it was inconceivable to me that the Bureau of Prisons could be operating in such a blatantly illegal and unconstitutional manner,” she said. Golden was referring to B.O.P. regulations that forbid the placement of inmates who “show evidence of significant mental disorder” in prisons like the ADX.

Groups like Golden’s D.C. Prisoners’ Project tend to focus their reform efforts on state-run prisons — in part because the Prison Litigation Reform Act, passed by Congress in 1996, made it more difficult for prisoners to file federal lawsuits, and in part because the federal government possesses, as Golden put it, “an inexhaustible supply of resources.” A droll 42-year-old attorney who once considered rabbinical school, Golden has spent her entire career practicing human rights law. As she investigated Bacote’s claims, she came to realize there were dozens of inmates at the ADX with comparable stories, or worse: cases of self-mutilation, obvious psychosis, suicide. Her organization had never considered filing such an enormous suit. Because it is so difficult to win cases against the federal government, challenging the B.O.P. “just didn’t fit into anyone’s strategic goals,” Golden explained. The last major B.O.P. lawsuit to result in a settlement was in the mid-’90s (Lucas v. White, brought by a group of female inmates who had been sexually assaulted). But the clarity of Bacote’s claims gave her pause. “A lot of cases we see involve matters of interpretation: Who knew what and when,” she said. “This didn’t seem to involve that kind of uncertainty. I wasn’t sure if we had a chance. But it seemed like a court had to see it.”

Since opening in 1994, the ADX has remained not just the only federal supermax but also the apogee of a particular strain of the American penal system, wherein abstract dreams of rehabilitation have been entirely superseded by the architecture of control. Throughout our country’s history, there have been different ideas about what to do with the “worst of the worst” of our criminal offenders, ranging from the 19th-century chain gangs, who toiled in enforced silence, to the physical isolation of Alcatraz Island. The use of solitary confinement in the United States emerged as a substitute to corporal punishments popular at the end of the 18th century. The practice was first promoted in 1787, by a group of . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2015 at 4:15 pm

Willie Nelson prepares to launch his own line of cannabis and accessories

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James Joiner reports in the Daily Beast:

Willie Nelson takes a hit of the cigarette-sized vaporizer in his gnarled hand, exhaling a small cloud, before placing it on the foldout table in front of us. We’re seated in the cool enclave of his tour bus, at the entrance to his sprawling property just outside Austin, Texas, which he has dubbed the town of Luck. Up a hill and around a corner, people are rocking out at Willie’s own Heartbreaker Banquet, an annual fundraiser/music festival held concurrently with SXSW.

Now 81, Willie is biding his time before joining the festivities, and we’re talking about why he puts on the event every year. In the process, he lets slip that he has something else in the works: a new brand of weed, called, naturally, Willie’s Reserve.

Pressed on this, he’s either dismissive or coy, though he does indicate that the smoking implement he has again picked up is a part of the line. The PR person promises to connect me with Michael Bowman, a veteran hemp and pot lobbyist who serves as the fledgling brand’s spokesperson. Two days later, much colder, much more sober, and back in my native New England, Bowman and I connect by phone.

The discussion is below, but the rub is that the marijuana world is about to get its first connoisseur brand, edging it farther from an illegal substance and closer to the realm of fine wines.

So what exactly is Willie’s Reserve?

Well, you know, Willie has spent a lifetime in support of cannabis, both the industrial hemp side and the marijuana side. He wants it to be something that’s reflective of his passion. Ultimately, it’s his. But it was developed by his family, and their focus on environmental and social issues, and in particular this crazy war on drugs, and trying to be a bright light amongst this trail as we’re trying to extract ourselves from the goo of prohibition.

Really he wants it, at the end of the day, to envelop what his personal morals and convictions are. So from the store itself to how they’ll work with suppliers and how things are operated, it’s going to be very reflective of Willie’s life.

Wait, so there’s going to be stores?

Well, yeah, they’re in the making. I think it’s safe to say that there will be stores that roll out in the states where marijuana has become legal.

So will there be signature strains that you grow under Willie’s oversight? Or will you sell other people’s strains? . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2015 at 1:56 pm

Australian comic Jim Jeffries has some good words for gun control

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Via this post on Daily Kos, take a look at the Netflix streaming concert video Jim Jeffries: Bare. The Daily Kos post quotes from the video:

Jeffries was once the victim of a home invasion in which he was tied up and beaten with his girlfriend, who was also threatened with rape. You’d think he’d have some cause for carrying a gun, no? Wrong! He brilliantly nails why Americans need to make a case for more gun control:

I’m going to say some things that are just facts. In Australia, we had guns. Right up until 1996. In 1996, Australia had the biggest massacre on earth. Still hasn’t been beaten. Now, after that they banned guns. In the 10 years before Port Arthur, there was 10 massacres. Since the gun ban in 1996, there hasn’t been a single massacre since. I don’t know how or why this happened….maybe it was a coincidence, right?Now, please understand, I understand that America and Australia are two vastly different cultures with different people, right? I get it. In Australia we had the biggest massacre on earth and the Australian government went–that’s it! No more guns! And we all went–yeah, right then, that seems fair enough.

Now, in America you have the Sandy Hook massacre, which little, tiny children died and your government went….maybe we’ll get rid of the big guns? And 50% of you went – FUCK YOU, DON’T TAKE MY GUNS!

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2015 at 1:48 pm

Posted in Comedy, Daily life, Guns, Video

The College You Go To May Not Matter As Much As You Think

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Very interesting article excerpted from Frank Bruni’s new book—Bruni is a columnist for the NY Times, one of the columnists whom I regularly read (as opposed to, say, Tom Friedman and David Brooks, whom I view as windbags and never read). This excerpt is from the Here and Now column of the NPR station WBUR, and there’s also a downloadable 10-minute audio file at the link.

Peter Hart didn’t try for Harvard, Princeton or any of the Ivies. That wasn’t the kind of student he’d been at New Trier High School, which serves several affluent suburbs north of Chicago. Nearly all of its roughly one thousand graduating seniors each year go on to higher education, and nearly all of them know, from where they stand among their peers and from the forecasts of guidance counselors, what sort of college they can hope to attend. A friend of Peter’s was ranked in the top five of their class; she set her sights on Yale—and ended up there. Peter was ranked somewhere around 300: not great but wholly respectable considering the caliber of students at New Trier. He aimed for the University of Michigan or maybe the special undergraduate business school at the University of Illinois.

Both rejected him.

He went to Indiana University instead, and arrived there feeling neither defeated nor exhilarated. He was simply deter- mined to make the most of the place and to begin plotting a career and planning an adult life.

Right away he noticed a difference. At New Trier, a public school posh enough to pass for private, he’d always had a sense of himself as someone somewhat ordinary, at least in terms of his studies. He lacked his peers’ swagger and ready- made eloquence. He wasn’t especially quick to raise his hand, to offer an opinion, to seize a position of leadership. At Indiana, though, the students in his freshman dorm and in his freshman classes weren’t as uniformly poised and showily gifted as the New Trier kids had been, and his self-image went through a transformation.

“I really felt like I was a competent person,” he told me when I interviewed him in June 2014, shortly after he’d turned twenty-eight. “It was confidence-building.” He thrived during that first year, getting a 3.95 grade point average, which earned him admission into an honors program for under- graduate business majors. And he thrived during the rest of his time at Indiana, drawing the attention of professors, be- coming vice president of a business fraternity on campus, cobbling together the capital to start his own tiny real estate enterprise—he bought, fixed up and rented small houses to fellow students—and finagling a way, off-campus, to get interviews with several of the top-drawer consulting firms that trawled for recruits at the Ivies but often bypassed schools like Indiana. Upon graduation, he took a plum job in the Chicago office of the Boston Consulting Group, where he recognized one of the other new hires: the friend from New Trier who’d gone to Yale. Traveling a more gilded path, she’d arrived at the very same destination.

Peter worked for three years with the Boston Consulting Group and another two with a private equity firm in Manhattan. When I talked with him, he was between his first and second year at Harvard’s graduate business school. Yes, he said, many of his Harvard classmates had undergraduate degrees fancier than his; no, he said, he didn’t feel that his Indiana education put him at any disadvantage. Besides which, he and most of the others in the Harvard MBA program had been out of college for as long as they’d been in it. What they’d learned in the workplace since graduation had more bearing on their assurance and performance at Harvard than did anything picked up in any class, let alone the name of their alma mater.

The main, lasting relevance of Indiana, he told me, was the way it had turned him into a bolder, surer person, allowing him to discover and nurture a mettle that hadn’t been teased out before. “I got to be the big fish in a small pond,” he said. Now, if he wanted to, he could swim with the sharks.

Jenna Leahy, twenty-six, went through the college admissions process two years after Peter did. She, too, was applying from a charmed school: in her case, Phillips Exeter Academy, which was less than a mile from her family’s New Hampshire home and which she attended as a day student. She wasn’t at the very top of her class but she had as many A’s as B’s. At Exeter, one of the most storied prep schools in America, that was nothing to sneeze at. She was also a captain of the cross- country team and active in so many campus organizations that when graduation day rolled around, she received one of the most coveted prizes, given to a student who’d brought special distinction to the academy.

Jenna had one conspicuous flaw: a score on the math portion of the SAT that was in the low 600s. Many selective colleges cared more than ever about making sure that each new freshman class had high SAT scores, because that was one of the criteria by which U.S. News & World Report ranked schools in its annual survey, the influence of which had risen exponentially since its dawn in the 1980s. In fact, the college on which Jenna set her sights, Claremont McKenna, cared so much that its dean of admissions would later be exposed for fabricating and inflating that statistic.

Jenna applied early to Claremont McKenna. And was turned down.

She was stunned. She couldn’t quite believe it. And partly because of that, she didn’t sink into a funk but moved quickly to tweak her dreams and widen her net, sending applications to Georgetown University, Emory University, the University of Virginia and Pomona College, which is one of Claremont McKenna’s sister schools. She threw in a few more, to have some insurance, though she was relatively certain that she wouldn’t need it.

In early spring the news came. Georgetown said no. Emory said no. No from Virginia. No from Pomona. She felt like some kind of magnet for rejection: Earlier that semester, her first serious boyfriend had broken up with her. He was a sophomore at Stanford, the sort of school she was now being told she simply wasn’t good enough for. What was she good enough for? What in the world was going on? Many of her Exeter classmates were bound for the Ivies and their ilk, and they didn’t seem to her any more capable than she. Was it be- cause they were legacy cases, from families with more money than hers?

All she knew was that they had made the cut and she hadn’t.

“I felt so worthless,” she told me. “It was a very, very de- pressing time.”

As she remembers it, she was left essentially with two options. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2015 at 1:27 pm

Posted in Daily life, Education

More Welfare = More Entrepreneurs?

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Interesting article discussed by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones:

Walter Frick writes in the Atlantic about recent research which suggests that a strong social safety net increases entrepreneurship. For example, one researcher found that expansion of the food stamp program led to a higher chance that eligible households would start new businesses:

Interestingly, most of these new entrepreneurs didn’t actually enroll in the food stamp program. It seems that expanding the availability of food stamps increased business formation by making it less risky for entrepreneurs to strike out on their own. Simply knowing that they could fall back on food stamps if their venture failed was enough to make them more likely to take risks.

The same is true of other programs. For example, the Children’s Health Insurance Program: . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2015 at 1:10 pm

Excellent James Fallows column on the Germanwings crash

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James Fallows writes at his blog in the Atlantic:

As I write I am listening to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcementthat the Germanwings crash in France this week was apparently a deliberate act of suicide/murder. The ramifications:

1) Has anything like this ever happened before? Yes it has. Back in 1999, EgyptAir flight 990, shortly after taking off from Kennedy airport in New York en route to Cairo, disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Cod. In 2001, my friend and then-Atlantic-colleague William Langewiesche, who has spent all his life around aviation, wrote a celebrated story for our magazine about the evidence that the plane’s pilot had deliberately flown the aircraft into the sea. You can read “The Crash of EgyptAir 990″ online here. It is probably the most useful work of journalism to consider today.

William Langewiesche’s piece contains this observation, which so far reflects to the great credit of French and German officials:

One of the world’s really important divides lies between nations that react well to accidents and nations that do not. This is as true for a confined and technical event like the crash of a single flight as it is for political or military disasters. The first requirement is a matter of national will, and never a sure thing: it is the intention to get the story right, wherever the blame may lie. The second requirement follows immediately upon the first, and is probably easier to achieve: it is the need for people in the aftermath to maintain even tempers and open minds.

2) Could this happen in just the same way on U.S. airlines? In exactly the same way, no. In a somewhat similar way, yes.

It wouldn’t happen in exactly the same way, with one member of the flight crew left alone in the cockpit, because on U.S. airlines . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2015 at 12:30 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

What Shakespeare knew about Robert Durst

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Very interesting New Yorker column by Adam Gopnik:

One of the strangest things to observe in recent weeks has been the hold on what used to be called the popular imagination of Robert Durst’s final monologue in Andrew Jarecki’s documentary series, “The Jinx.” As nearly everyone knows by now, Durst, while on a “hot mic” in a bathroom, either did or did not, exactly, confess to the three or so murders of which he has long been suspected (and has denied and, in one case, been acquitted of having committed). His words, two parts Shakespeare to one part Samuel Beckett, seem likely to be burned onto our period’s memory: “There it is. You’re caught. You’re right, of course. But you can’t imagine. Arrest him. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

Durst’s overheard speech has inspired an entire vein of interpretation. Some are exculpatory, or try to be: perhaps he was imagining others saying these things about him, rather than saying them about himself. But, more often, his guilt has been assumed, and its mechanism explored.“In art, illumination comes in many guises: the soaring strings, the poetic monologue, the soul bared suddenly in a glance,” one interpreter wrote in the Los Angeles Times, adding that Durst “creates a deeply disturbing prose poem to the human drama, culminating in what sounds eerily like the call and response of good and evil.”

The risk in this kind of thing, of course, lies in aestheticizing what were, after all, sordid murders, of inexpressible pain to the victims’ families. (Rebecca Meadhas already argued that the spectacle, and its extraction, compromises both the viewers and the filmmakers.) But there is a difference between treating evildoing as entertainment and struggling to understand why some moments of reflection—if not confession—do indeed mesmerize us, even if as only the blackest kind of humor. For, by doing so, they presumably point to some truth that we would rather not face; in this case, the limitless human resource, even in extremis, for self-justification and the normalization of the abnormal. It is the banalities that Durst so casually throws into his confession—the burping alongside the bleeding, so to speak—that astonish us.

Many people have pointed out the eerie resemblance of Durst’s words to a Shakespearean soliloquy. Actually, only one kind of soliloquy—the villain’s kind—takes this form. Durst’s words are not at all Hamlet-like, as some have said. They recall, instead, the soliloquies of Iago, in “Othello,” and of Edmund, in “King Lear”—the moments when an evil man speaks out loud of his own capacity for evil, and then assures us that there’s nothing really shocking there. It’s just the burping.

That’s the thing that distinguishes Shakespeare’s confessions from their more commonplace counterparts in conventional crime fiction and drama: while the television bad guy usually sweats as he confesses to the terrible thing, the keynote in Shakespeare’s villains’ self-directed speeches isn’t . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2015 at 11:06 am

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