Later On

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Conservatives mount a whisper campaign smearing Khashoggi in defense of Trump

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Is there nothing to which conservatives will not stoop? Robert Costa and Karoun Demirjian report in the Washington Post:

Hard-line Republicans and conservative commentators are mounting a whispering campaign against Jamal Khashoggi that is designed to protect President Trump from criticism of his handling of the dissident journalist’s alleged murder by operatives of Saudi Arabia — and support Trump’s continued aversion to a forceful response to the oil-rich desert kingdom.

In recent days, a cadre of conservative House Republicans allied with Trump has been privately exchanging articles from right-wing outlets that fuel suspicion of Khashoggi, highlighting his association with the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth and raising conspiratorial questions about his work decades ago as an embedded reporter covering Osama bin Laden, according to four GOP officials involved in the discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Those aspersions — which many lawmakers have been wary of stating publicly because of the political risks of doing so — have begun to flare into public view as conservative media outlets have amplified the claims, which are aimed in part at protecting Trump as he works to preserve the U.S.-Saudi relationship and avoid confronting the Saudis on human ri ghts.

“Khashoggi was tied to the Muslim Brotherhood,” Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner asserted on Thursday’s highly rated “Outnumbered” show. “I just put it out there because it is in the constellation of things that are being talked about.” Faulkner then dismissed another guest who called her claim “iffy.”

The message was echoed on the campaign trail. Virginia Republican Corey A. Stewart, who is challenging Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), told a local radio program Thursday that “Khashoggi was not a good guy himself.”

While Khashoggi was once sympathetic to Islamist movements, he moved toward a more liberal, secular point of view, according to experts on the Middle East who have tracked his career. Khashoggi knew bin Laden in the 1980s and 1990s during the civil war in Afghanistan, but his interactionswith bin Laden were as a journalist with a point of view who was working with a prized source.

Nevertheless, the smears have escalated. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son and key political booster, shared another person’s tweet last week with his millions of followers that included a line that Khashoggi was “tooling around Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden” in the 1980s, even though the context was a feature story on bin Laden’s activities.

A Tuesday broadcast of CR-TV, a conservative online outlet founded by popular talk-radio host Mark Levin, labeled Khashoggi a “longtime friend” of terrorists and claimed without evidence that Trump was the victim of an “insane” media conspiracy to tarnish him. The broadcast has been viewed more than 12,000 times.

story in far-right FrontPage magazine casts Khashoggi as a “cynical and manipulative apologist for Islamic terrorism, not the mythical martyred dissident whose disappearance the media has spent the worst part of a week raving about,” and features a garish cartoon of bin Laden and Khashoggi with their arms around each other.

The conservative push comes as Saudi government supporters on Twitter have sought in a propaganda campaign to denigrate Khashoggi as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement once tolerated but now outlawed in Saudi Arabia as a terrorist organization.

“Trump wants to take a soft line, so Trump supporters are finding excuses for him to take it,” said William Kristol, a conservative Trump critic. “One of those excuses is attacking the person who was murdered.” . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2018 at 8:12 pm

GOP Senator Pushed VA to Use Unproven “Brainwave Frequency” Treatment

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The GOP is certainly corrupt. Isaac Arnsdorf reports in ProPublica:

Sen. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, pushed doctors at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Reno to adopt an experimental mental health treatment marketed by a company with ties to his office.

On a Friday night last December in his Reno office, Heller, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, introduced VA officials to representatives from a health care startup called CereCare. The company markets an “off-label” method of treating addiction and post-traumatic stress, using electromagnetic brain stimulation.

The meeting came about because two of CereCare’s partners had a business connection to Heller’s senior aide in Reno. “We’ve known her for years,” one of the partners, Nino Pedrini, said of the aide, Glenna Smith. Pedrini and his partner have a separate joint venture with Smith’s former employer. “This was Glenna reaching out to us, knowing what we were doing, saying we think there’s a fit here where you folks can help our veterans,” Pedrini said.

Smith declined to answer questions about her role in arranging the meeting; she said she has never had a financial interest in Pedrini’s companies.

The Trump administration is encouraging the VA to use more alternative treatments, even though doctors and mental health experts caution against steering patients to procedures that haven’t been scientifically demonstrated to be safe and effective. The administration’s enthusiasm for such experimental treatments has opened the door to a flood of hopeful vendors like CereCare.

Heller declined to answer specific questions about the meeting. In a statement, he said he “will never apologize for supporting policies that could lead to additional treatment options for Nevada veterans because no one who has served this country should be waiting for care once they return from combat.”

Heller co-sponsored a bill directing the VA to start a pilot program on CereCare’s procedure. Another of CereCare’s partners, Judi Kosterman, participated in drafting the legislation, she said in an interview. Kosterman described herself as CereCare’s expert on the procedure, and her business card identified her as “Dr.” She is not a physician and her doctorate is in education, according to official records.

The bill says it provides no additional funding, so the pilot program would come at the expense of other treatments that are already proven to be effective. For that reason, it drew opposition from Veterans of Foreign Wars, which represents 1.6 million members. “The VFW believes that VA must spend its already scarce health care resources on therapies that have shown promise or have a proven track record,” the organization told Congress. Other veterans groups, such as Amvets and Vietnam Veterans of America, supported the bill because they said the treatment is worth trying. The Senate veterans committee hasn’t voted on the bill.

The procedure that CereCare was pitching to the VA uses electrical scans of the brain and heart to detect a patient’s “intrinsic brainwave frequency” and find “the area of the brain in need of restoration,” according to materials brought to the meeting. CereCare then uses that data to apply electromagnetic pulses from a machine called a transcranial magnetic stimulator.

This procedure is off-label, meaning it uses equipment approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but in a way that is not approved by the agency. Off-label procedures are not uncommon or illegal, but the FDA has not signed off on their safety or effectiveness. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

17 October 2018 at 12:51 pm

Trump may be a Saudi patsy, but these people aren’t

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Jennifer Rubin has a strong column:

The Post reports:

The growing number of Western companies distancing themselves from Saudi Arabia over the alleged killing of dissident Jamal Khashoggi is undermining the kingdom’s push to diversify its economy beyond oil and provide more opportunities for its young and often restive population.

By Friday afternoon, nearly a dozen tech, media and entertainment companies had backed out of a Saudi investment conference to be held this month, as dismay over Saudi agents’ alleged murder of Khashoggi spread to companies that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has tried to woo. . . .

Tech investor Steve Case said he was suspending plans to attend the conference and a meeting for a Saudi tourism project. Bob Bakish, chief executive of Viacom Inc., owner of MTV and movie studio Paramount Pictures, also said through a spokesman Thursday he would no longer be attending the conference. . . .

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson was one of the first non-journalism executives to break with the Saudis. “I had high hopes for the current government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and it is why I was delighted to accept two directorships in the tourism projects around the Red Sea,” Branson said in a blog post Thursday.

Good for them. The next step should be for think tanks, universities and press outlets to disclose their Saudi funding, if any, and disentangle themselves from the repressive regime that does not value intellectual or press freedom. In fact, Congress should hold hearings to determine the extent of Saudi influence-buying in the United States — including their dealings with President Trump and his family.

Trump is promising to talk to King Salman — though there is no set date for their chat, and no looming threat of U.S. retaliation. It was not until Saturday that we heard anything emphatic on the subject. (“We’re going to get to the bottom of it, and there will be severe punishment,” he said in a 60 Minutes interview, clips of which were released on Saturday.) We can surmise that his generally mild reaction to the apparent killing of a journalist might have had to do with Trump’s business interests. He may simply have too much to lose to take on the Saudi regime. If Democrats take control of the House, they should end Trump’s free ride on foreign emoluments, vote to disallow them, and then proceed to investigate his holdings and pursue divestiture. (Trump’s lack of urgency also might be nothing more than Trump’s gullibility in the face of the Saudis’ charm campaign. He is a sucker for repressive regimes that fawn over him.)

Whatever the reason for Trump’s belated reaction, Congress can and should proceed to reexamine our arm sales (while the administration professes satisfaction with the Saudis’ efforts to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen, human rights groups cite mass casualties). We must signal in a meaningful way that we will no longer tolerate Saudi Arabia’s repression at home and excesses in the region.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has it absolutely right: If appropriate, we should apply Global Magnitsky Act sanctions to any Saudi  official involved in what appears to be an abhorrent human rights atrocity. Cardin also urged:

Congress could consider the outcome of ongoing investigations when debating future U.S. arms sales to the kingdom, future International Military Education and Training assistance, and future U.S. support to the Saudi coalition’s role in the Yemen conflict — one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. We should also weigh the kingdom’s support for a truly transparent investigation when considering potential U.S.-Saudi nuclear power cooperation.

Meanwhile, during an interview this past week with Hugh Hewitt, national security adviser John Bolton sounded less than alarmed about the Saudis conduct. “Well, I don’t think we, we’ve known enough. I spoke with the crown prince [Thursday] along with Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, spoke to the crown prince as well. The president has spoken to this issue,” he said. “It is something we need to get resolved. And we need to do it as soon as possible.” Resolved? Does he think there has been some mix-up the Saudis can clarify in a phone call? Bolton’s utter disinterest in human rights — with the exception of Iran — is among his many disconcerting attributes.

In sum, Trump’s slow-motion reaction . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 October 2018 at 1:38 pm

No Wonder It Works So Well: There May Be Viagra In That Herbal Supplement

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Ronnie Cohen reports at NPR:

They claim to help you sleep, make your hair grow, speed weight loss, improve your sex life and ward off the nasty cold going around the office. Though it’s often impossible to tell if dietary supplements work, consumers generally feel certain they can’t hurt.

But they can.

The Food and Drug Administration has identified hundreds of supplements tainted with pharmaceuticals — from antidepressants and erectile dysfunction remedies to weight-loss drugs — since 2007, a study published Friday shows. Even after FDA tests proved the supplements contained unapproved or recalled medications, many of the products continued to be marketed and sold, the analysis finds.

The report in JAMA Network Open calls into question the FDA’s ability to effectively police the $35-billion-a-year supplements industry.

“The FDA didn’t even bother to recall more than half of the potentially hazardous supplements,” says Dr. Pieter Cohen, a Harvard Medical School professorand an internist with Cambridge Health Alliance in Boston, who wrote an accompanying commentary in the journal.

“How could it be that our premier public health agency spends the time and money to detect these hidden ingredients and then doesn’t take the next obvious step, which is to ensure that they are removed from the marketplace?” he asks.

The FDA does not comment on specific studies “but evaluates them as part of the body of evidence to further our understanding about a particular issue and assist in our mission to protect public health,” says Lindsay Haake, a press officer for the regulatory agency.

For the study, researchers from the California Department of Public Health and other state agencies examined an FDA database containing supplements that the FDA has purchased, tested and found to be adulterated. The FDA identified 746 supplement products that were pharmaceutically adulterated from 2007 through 2016.

Adulterants included unapproved antidepressants and designer steroids, the prescription erectile-dysfunction drug sildenafil, and a prescription appetite suppressant its manufacturer withdrew from the market after a study linked it to heightened risk of stroke and heart attack.

Although the FDA has the power to recall tainted supplements, the federal agency failed to require any of the 146 companies that manufactured the adulterated products to remove them from the market.

In 360 cases, manufacturers announced a voluntarily recall of the tainted supplements, though there is no way of knowing if the products actually were recalled, Cohen says. In 342 cases, the agency posted a notice on its website warning the public about the tainted supplements.

Only in seven cases did the FDA issue a warning letter nudging the manufacturer to remove the adulterated products. Before the FDA could seize a supplement and destroy it, it would have to send a warning letter to the manufacturer, Cohen says.

The study’s authors write that they find it “alarming” that the adulterated supplements continue to be sold.

“This report shines a harsh light on the problem of adulteration,” says Dr. Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. Lurie was not involved in the research. “It’s a very disturbing picture. You’ve got hundreds of these products that contain active pharmaceuticals, many of which pose a real threat to human health.”

Some of the drugs slipped into supplements without appearing on the label can have dangerous interactions with other medications people may be taking. For instance, drugs such as sildenafil may interact with other drugs to lower or raise blood pressure to dangerous levels. Others, including anabolic steroids present in some muscle-building products, have been associated with liver and kidney damage, heart attacks and strokes.

“The study lays a foundation for ongoing enforcement work in this area, by the FDA and other partner agencies, to curb the illegal manufacture, importation, distribution and sales of adulterated dietary supplements,” the California Department of Public Health said in a written statement.

More than half of American adults take supplements such as vitamins, minerals, protein powders, botanicals, fish oils, glandular extracts and probiotics. Under a 1994 law, the U.S. government reclassified supplements as food rather than food additives. The law exempts supplements from any of the premarket safety and effectiveness testing the FDA requires for drugs.

In the 24 years since the law took effect, the supplements industry has boomed.

“The underlying problem is this is a huge industry with fly-by-night actors, and it’s completely impossible for the agency to keep up with them,” says Lurie, who worked at the FDA for eight years. “We’d all like to see the agency doing more. In some cases it has limited authority. In other cases it has limited resources.” . . .

Continue reading.

The obvious answer: a stiff Federal tax on supplements with the proceeds directed toward beefing up the part of the FDA that monitors supplements, plus very stiff fines for manufacturers who have adulterated supplements with unsafe ingredients, the fines likewise going to the FDA. A Democratic Congress might do this; a Republican Congress, never.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 October 2018 at 8:37 am

Less than 1% of rapes lead to felony convictions. At least 89% of victims face emotional and physical consequences.

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It’s amazing to me how many people view men as the victims in sexual assault cases. Andrew Van Dam reports in the Washington Post:

The consequences of sexual assault fall overwhelmingly on the victims.
About 0.7 percent of rapes and attempted rapes end with a felony conviction for the perpetrator, according to an estimate based on the best of the imperfect measures available.
On the other side of the incident, at least 89 percent of victims report some level of distress, including high rates of physical injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
There has been much wringing of hands about the damage done to American men by accusations of sexual assault, as brilliantly chronicled this week by The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa.
But any fretting on behalf of those accused of assault should take into account research that shows that millions of victims of sexual assault have paid a serious, measurable price, physically and mentally.

Less than a third of rape incidents are reported to the police, according to an analysis by the nonprofit advocacy group RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), which combined Justice Department National Crime Victimization Surveys from 2010 to 2014 with other federal data to track what happened to perpetrators.
Just 5.7 percent of incidents end in arrest, 0.7 percent result in a felony conviction and 0.6 percent result in incarceration, RAINN found. The organization’s website notes these figures are approximations, not scientific estimates, because their analysis “combines data from studies with different methodologies.”
The specter of false accusation looms large in the backlash chronicled by Rucker and Costa, but a 2009 review of research from around the world, based on credible sources, indicates only between 2 and 8 percent of all sexual assault reports were false. Again, the research looks only at reported incidents. Most incidents aren’t reported.

Not only do rape and sexual assault typically go unreported, but definitions also vary, and many of the mental and physical effects are slow to manifest and challenging to detect. Survey findings vary based on how questions are phrased and what population is surveyed.
Almost 9 out of every 10 sexual assault victims experience some level of distress, with 46 percent experiencing severe distress — a higher number than we see among victims of robbery or aggravated assault, according to an analysis by Justice Department statisticians Lynn Langton and Jennifer Truman of 2009-2012 figures from the massive annual crime victimization survey mentioned above. Other sources place the figure even higher.
Three-quarters of victims experience significant social and emotional problems in the wake of assault — at work or school and with friends and family. About 58 percent of victims are injured in the assault, suffering some combination of cuts, bruises, broken bones, gunshot wounds, internal injuries and rape injuries. More than a third of victims are injured badly enough to require treatment, typically in a hospital.
A 2009 literature review in the journal Trauma, Violence & Abuse by Rebecca Campbell, Emily Dworkin and Giannina Cabral found “rape is one of the most severe of all traumas, causing multiple, long-term negative outcomes.” Patterns remained consistent over time, which allowed them to include more than two decades of research.
The relevant studies found between 17 and 65 percent of women (they specify gender in this specific case) who have been assaulted develop PTSD. It is later noted that the 17 percent is an outlier on the low end. Most studies find somewhere between 33 and 45 percent.
As many as 82 percent of victims experience  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

13 October 2018 at 7:17 am

The decline of the moral authority of the US: The Five-Year-Old Who Was Detained at the Border and Persuaded to Sign Away Her Rights

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Sarah Stillman reports in the New Yorker:

Helen—a smart, cheerful five-year-old girl—is an asylum seeker from Honduras. This summer, when a social worker asked her to identify her strengths, Helen shared her pride in “her ability to learn fast and express her feelings and concerns.” She also recounted her favorite activities (“playing with her dolls”), her usual bedtime (“8 p.m.”), and her professional aspirations (“to be a veterinarian”).

In July, Helen fled Honduras with her grandmother, Noehmi, and several other relatives; gangs had threatened Noehmi’s teen-age son, Christian, and the family no longer felt safe. Helen’s mother, Jeny, had migrated to Texas four years earlier, and Noehmi planned to seek legal refuge there. With Noehmi’s help, Helen travelled thousands of miles, sometimes on foot, and frequently fell behind the group. While crossing the Rio Grande in the journey’s final stretch, Helen slipped from their raft and risked drowning. Her grandmother grabbed her hand and cried, “Hang on, Helen!” When the family reached the scrubland of southern Texas, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended them and moved them through a series of detention centers. A month earlier, the Trump Administration had announced, amid public outcry over its systemic separation of migrant families at the border, that it would halt the practice. But, at a packed processing hub, Christian was taken from Noehmi and placed in a cage with toddlers. Noehmi remained in a cold holding cell, clutching Helen. Soon, she recalled, a plainclothes official arrived and informed her that she and Helen would be separated. “No!” Noehmi cried. “The girl is under my care! Please!”

Noehmi said that the official told her, “Don’t make things too difficult,” and pulled Helen from her arms. “The girl will stay here,” he said, “and you’ll be deported.” Helen cried as he escorted her from the room and out of sight. Noehmi remembers the authorities explaining that Helen’s mother would be able to retrieve her, soon, from wherever they were taking her.

Later that day, Noehmi and Christian were reunited. The adults in the family were fitted with electronic ankle bracelets and all were released, pending court dates. They left the detention center and rushed to Jeny’s house, in McAllen, hoping to find Helen there. When they didn’t, Noehmi began to shake, struggling to explain the situation. “Immigration took your daughter,” she told Jeny.

“But where did they take her?” Jeny asked.

“I don’t know,” Noehmi replied.

The next day, authorities—likely from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (O.R.R.)—called to say that they were holding Helen at a shelter near Houston; according to Noehmi, they wouldn’t say exactly where. Noehmi and Jeny panicked. Unable to breathe amid her distress, Noehmi checked herself into a local hospital, where doctors gave her medication to calm her down. “I thought we would never see her again,” Noehmi said. She couldn’t square her family’s fate with the TV news, which insisted that the government had stopped separating migrant families.

Helen had been brought to Baytown, a shelter run by Baptist Child & Family Services, which the federal government had contracted to house unaccompanied minors. Helen was given a pack of crayons and spent the summer coloring patriotic images: busts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the torch on the Statue of Liberty. She was granted an hour of “Large Muscle Activity and Leisure Time” each day, and received lessons on the human respiratory system, the history of music, and “the risk and danger of social media.” “Helen,” a caseworker observed, “has excellent behavior at all times.” She had no major sources of stress, her reports noted, aside from “being separated from her family.” Her teachers encouraged her to develop “smartgoals”—ambitions that are “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.” Helen’s goal was simple: “Minor disclosed wanting to live with her mother and family in the U.S.”

According to a long-standing legal precedent known as the Flores settlement, which established guidelines for keeping children in immigration detention, Helen had a right to a bond hearing before a judge; that hearing would have likely hastened her release from government custody and her return to her family. At the time of her apprehension, in fact, Helen checked a box on a line that read, “I do request an immigration judge,” asserting her legal right to have her custody reviewed. But, in early August, an unknown official handed Helen a legal document, a “Request for a Flores Bond Hearing,” which described a set of legal proceedings and rights that would have been difficult for Helen to comprehend. (“In a Flores bond hearing, an immigration judge reviews your case to determine whether you pose a danger to the community,” the document began.) On Helen’s form, which was filled out with assistance from officials, there is a checked box next to a line that says, “I withdraw my previous request for a Flores bond hearing.” Beneath that line, the five-year-old signed her name in wobbly letters.

As the summer progressed with no signs of Helen’s return, Noehmi and Jeny contacted lupe, a nonprofit community union based in the Rio Grande Valley, to ask for help winning Helen’s release. Founded by the famed activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in 1989, lupe fights deportations, provides social services, and organizes civil mobilizations on behalf of more than eight thousand low-income members across south Texas; Jeny, employed as an office cleaner, was one such member. Tania Chavez, a strategy leader forthe organization, met with the family to hear their story.

Helen’s case didn’t fit the typical lupe mold. “Historically, we have served longtime residents of the Rio Grande Valley,” Chavez told me, “but since this new surge of refugees came about, we’ve been on the front lines of advocacy against family separation.” Freeing Helen struck Chavez as a tangible and urgent goal. “Right away, we said, ‘How do we help this little girl?’ ” she said. As Chavez saw it, the girl’s seizure by the government showed that the family-separation crisis hadn’t been resolved, as many Americans believed—it had simply evolved.

The first stage of the family-separation crisis unfolded largely out of public view, not long after Trump took office. By January, 2018, when I began collecting the stories of parents who had been separated from their children at the border, the government denied that these separations were happening without clear justifications, and insisted that they weren’t encouraged by official policy. In the late spring, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, was still espousing this line, even as she ramped up “zero tolerance” prosecutions—criminally charging parents with “illegal entry,” and seizing their kids in the process.

Stage two of the crisis unfolded in the national spotlight. As the number of separations soared past two thousand, and their wrenching details surfaced, hundreds of thousands of Americans protested in the streets. Laura Bush said that the practice broke her heart. The American Academy of Pediatrics denounced it as “abhorrent,” noting that the approach could inflict long-term, irrevocable trauma on children. On June 20th, the President issued an executive order purporting to end the practice.

Now stage three has commenced—one in which separations are done quietly, lupe’s Tania Chavez asserts, and in which reunifications can be mysteriously stymied. According to recent Department of Justice numbers—released because of an ongoing A.C.L.U. lawsuit challenging family separations—a hundred and thirty-six children who fall within the lawsuit’s scope are still in government custody. An uncounted number of separated children in shelters and foster care fall outside the lawsuit’s current purview—including many like Helen, who arrived with a grandparent or other guardian, rather than with a parent. Many such children have been misclassified, in government paperwork, as “unaccompanied minors,” due to a sloppy process that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General recently critiqued. Chavez believes that, through misclassification, many kids have largely disappeared from public view, and from official statistics, with the federal government showing little urgency to hasten reunifications. (O.R.R. and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment.)

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2018 at 11:57 am

The Love Story that Upended the Texas Prison System

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Ethan Watters writes in Texas Monthly:

I. THE DARKEST PLACE IN ELLIS

On November 9, 1967, Fred Cruz was in his sixth year of a fifteen-year robbery sentence and starting yet another stint in the hole. Of the many punishments the Texas prison system doled out to inmates, solitary confinement was one of the most brutal on the body and the soul. It wasn’t Cruz’s first time there, but it wasn’t something one got used to. The Ellis Unit, about fourteen miles north of Huntsville in a boggy lowland area of East Texas, was known as the toughest prison in the system, and there was no worse place to be in Ellis than solitary.

The cell’s darkness was so complete it made the eyes ache. On some occasions, Cruz was given a thin blanket and nothing else—no clothes and no mattress for the steel bunk. His toilet was a hole in the floor. He’d receive only three slices of bread a day with a full meal twice a week, and had shed multiple pounds from his already thin frame. After two weeks, an outer door to the cell would be opened, allowing in light from the hallway. This would be considered a “release” from solitary. Then the warden or an officer would come by and assess the sincerity of Cruz’s contrition. If he failed that yes-sir-no-sir encounter, the solid steel door would be shut again and the days of darkness would recommence.

Cruz’s ability to maintain his composure through interminable silence and darkness was better than that of many other inmates, but still uneven. Sometimes a panic would rise in his chest, his heart would pound, and he couldn’t catch his breath. Some days he simply wished for death.

But if he got his mind right, he could keep it together. Cruz’s upbringing had made him tough. Abandoned by his father, he came of age in the late fifties and early sixties in the segregated Mexican-American barrios on the West Side of San Antonio. It was a place where you joined a gang or risked becoming a victim. He ran with the Mirasoles and dressed in street pachuco style: zoot suits with pleated pants and suspenders. Members of his family sold drugs, and run-ins with the law were a regular occurrence. Cruz was nineteen and serving a short stint for selling marijuana when he learned that his older brother Frank had been shot dead by the police during a failed hold-up.

From that childhood grew an emotional steeliness, but it wasn’t until he started this fifteen-year stint in 1961 for robbery that he began to develop an intellectual and a spiritual strength. He took to reading difficult texts in philosophy and legal theory. He learned about yoga and Eastern religions, and started a correspondence with a Buddhist priest in San Francisco. It was the sixties, and though he was in prison, Cruz was aware of the cultural awakenings happening in the world around him. He read Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God and Rammurti Mishra’s Fundamentals of Yoga. He was drawn to the Buddhist idea that peace of mind came not from the external world, but from personal insights into truth and reality.

Insubordination

That morning’s “infraction” had been stupid and petty. As Cruz’s squad prepared for the short journey to the cane fields, a friend had offered him a seat on a work wagon. A prison guard, Officer Graham, told Cruz to get on a different wagon, which he promptly did, although he couldn’t help making an offhand comment. “Personally,” he said, in his quiet but steady cadence, “I’m not particular about which trailer I go to work in.”

Cruz’s response might have sounded innocuous to anyone not schooled in the subtextual game of prison obedience and resistance. But any prisoner who heard the comment certainly knew it was a brazen challenge to the guard’s authority.

“You’re not going to take over my squad,” Officer Graham yelled at Cruz. “You aren’t going to run anything while you are working under me!”

That evening, after a full day of cutting cane and the open-air strip search that was required after prisoners used any tools, Cruz was called into the major’s office, where he found almost the entire prison hierarchy waiting for him, including Officer Graham and Assistant Warden McKaskle.

“What’s your trouble?” began one of the captains.

“I don’t know, sir,” said Cruz. “That’s what I’m here to find out.”

“Well, you’re sure fixing to find out right now,” said the captain. Then, Officer Graham told his story about Cruz getting on the wrong wagon. Cruz, he said, had been “running his head with them others. I told him to get off my trailer, and he opened his mouth to me.”

Captain Ramsey announced the penalty: “That will be one gallon of peanuts.” Shelling peanuts was at the low end of the punishment scale, a nasty, mind-numbing task that would keep Cruz up half the night and leave his fingers blistered and raw.

“Just a minute,” said Cruz. “Don’t I get to say anything at all?”

“Sure,” McKaskle said. “You got anything you want to say?”

He could have let it go right there and just taken the punishment. He knew that if he objected things would only get worse. But it wasn’t in Cruz’s character to let things go, and he bridled at arbitrary rules. So he launched into his defense, speaking slowly and looking his accusers in the eye. Many who guarded or served time with him would remember his preternatural calm. Even when being interrogated or brutally beaten, he stared out at the world as if nothing could surprise him, as if his true self had receded deep inside to watch events unfold from a distance. Cruz was only 27, but he had the sort of inner strength that could unnerve those charged with keeping him in line.

Cruz asked the men to tell him exactly what prison regulation he’d broken. Was there a rule about which work wagon he rode on or whom he sat next to? “I’m entitled, under your rules, to a fair hearing,” he told the group. “I’m refusing to go along with the recommendation at this time. I wish to appeal the decision of this committee to the prison board.”

“Very well,” said McKaskle. “You may do that when you are released from solitary.”

And so another confrontation with authority came to a close. A page was added to Cruz’s folder of offense reports, a file that was already thick enough to make a thump when dropped on the warden’s desk. The new entry read: “Insubordination—refused peanuts.”

Many of the other offenses chronicled in that disciplinary file were just as petty. Cruz had only recently been transferred to Ellis from another prison when he drifted away from his squad’s cotton row. For that, he had lost ninety days of “good time.” (Accruing good time allowed prisoners to take as many as two days off their sentences for every day they kept their noses clean. But looking at a guard sideways could be enough to wipe those “good time” days away.) On another occasion, while picking cotton, Cruz had asked a guard for water with the words “no water, no work.” For that he received a week in solitary. Then there was the time he received the punishment of standing on a rail, which meant standing for days at a time on a six-by-two plank turned sideways. The offense that day: “inmate started chasing an armadillo.”

The infractions went on and on: “unsatisfactory work” … “creating a disturbance” … “impudence” … “refusal to work” … “disobeying a direct order” … “disrespectful attitude” … “insolence” … “insubordination” … “insubordination.”

Cruz always lost, but with each encounter he learned a little more about the nature of the Texas Department of Corrections. He learned it the same way someone can learn a great deal about the nature of a grizzly by poking it with a stick.

Finding the Law

Cruz’s record up to that point confirmed the assessments most prison officials had made when he entered the system in 1961, after an arrest and conviction for the aggravated robbery of an ice house in San Antonio. He’d been described as an eighth-grade dropout and a “hardened incorrigible” with an IQ of 87, one who was an “extremely poor prospect” for rehabilitation.

A clinical psychologist named William Gates, who interviewed Cruz, was the only one who saw something different. To his eyes, Cruz was “intellectually bright” as well as “suspicious, and prone to be hostile to authority.” In a report to the warden, Gates warned that Cruz had “leadership potential,” and that if the prison authorities failed to keep him in line he would “most certainly be a disturbing influence.”

Gates should have been a fortune teller, because it wasn’t just dumb stuff like chasing armadillos or talking back to low-level turnkeys that would get Cruz in trouble. When not working in the fields, Cruz dedicated himself to studying law. Cut off from the siren calls of heroin, marijuana, and alcohol, he’d begun reading textbooks, as well as documents like  Supreme Court opinions, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. And although he had no illusions of fairness inside the walls of Texas prisons, he came to understand, and long for, the platonic ideal of justice. He almost worshiped it.

Cruz’s early attempts at writing court filings mostly focused on appealing his own case on the grounds of inadequate representation. He had always denied that he’d robbed the ice house and claimed his court-appointed lawyer had been so disengaged that he failed to call an alibi witness. And while lower courts routinely dismissed Cruz’s pleadings, Cruz became known among his fellow inmates as someone who understood the legal system. They called him a “writ writer” and sought him out for help with their own appeals and filings.

Unfortunately, helping other prisoners with legal issues, or keeping legal books or documents in one’s cell, was strictly against the rules. Even talking to another prisoner about the law was a violation and could be punished with weeks of hunger and darkness in the hole. Cruz did several stints in solitary for possessing or sharing contraband books and documents—including Cochran’s Law Lexicon, 4th EditionCasebook on Criminal Procedures in the Courts of Texas; and The Constitution of the United States of America.

So Cruz lost good time: first weeks, then months, then years. But the punishments wouldn’t stop him. Using his growing legal acumen, he would become the most dangerous man in the cloistered and labyrinthine Texas prison system—a danger not to the other prisoners but to those with real power: the officers and the wardens, and George Beto, the director of the Texas Department of Corrections. As unlikely as it would have seemed as Fred Cruz sat in solitary in the winter of 1967, he would see to it that many of those men’s careers ended in disgrace. The effort would fundamentally alter prison systems across the country.

But he wouldn’t do it alone.

II. PORTIA FOR THE POOR

By all reasonable imaginings, Frances Jalet and Fred Cruz should never have met.

Jalet was born in Boston, and had been among the first cohorts of women to graduate from Columbia Law School, in 1937, but, like many educated women of that era, she found it difficult to put that education to use. She’d gotten married in 1935 and eventually moved to Darien, Connecticut, where the only jobs she could find were teaching and typing. She and her husband had five children, and Frances took charge of raising them. She went to church, she sang in the choir, she volunteered for good causes.

Then, while Jalet’s husband was flying a friend’s private plane on a trip to Chicago, his flight went down; he barely survived the crash. He came home irrevocably changed by the serious head injury he had sustained. He drank heavily and was unpredictable and angry. At one point he became so out of control he had to be hauled off in a straitjacket.

For several years, Jalet tried to keep the marriage going, but by 1954 it was over. Divorced, she  moved with her kids to Washington, D.C. for a job with the American Association of University Women. That was one of a series of moves and short-term positions that lasted only a year or two. By the summer of 1959, she had finally found a job that stuck—as a staff attorney on the New York Law Revision Commission in Ithaca, New York. She held that position for eight years, until the last of her children was out of the house.

Jalet longed to be a part of the burgeoning civil rights movements, and saw this moment in time as her opportunity. “I am now without home ties,” she wrote. “My children are grown and need me less. My material needs are small. I want simply to spend all the rest of the time that might be mine giving assistance to those who need it.”

She applied for and was awarded a Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship. It was the first year of the program, which was funded by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity to attract lawyers from top law schools into the field of poverty law. The honor was mostly reserved for attorneys just starting out in their careers, and Jalet’s age made her stand out. After six weeks of intensive training, the fifty “Reggies” were scattered to poverty law centers across the country with the guarantee of a modest stipend from the federal government. Jalet asked where her services were most needed. The answer: Texas.

So, late in the summer of 1967, she packed her car and set out on the long drive to Austin. After a difficult marriage and two decades of motherhood, she was suddenly off on a new adventure. She drove west and south, through the August heat and thunderstorms. She was 56 years old.

A few days after she got to town, the Austin American-Statesman ran a short profile of this peculiar woman who had moved from the East Coast to Texas to help low-income plaintiffs. The writer of the story called her “Portia for the Poor,” after the heroine in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice—a rich heiress who dresses up as a man and fools everyone into believing she is a competent lawyer.

The next week, she received a letter from a prisoner named Fred Cruz. He’d read the article, he said, and wondered if she could help him with his case. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2018 at 11:48 am

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