Propaganda of the Deed

The children of Marinaleda have the pleasure to tell you about the situation in Andalusia and specifically, Marinaleda. A few days ago, our parents, in an open assembly, agreed to go on hunger strike. We are in solidarity with them. We have been on hunger strike for several days.

Why are we on hunger strike? We are on hunger strike because our parents have already spent six months living on the alms of community employment. In our village people earn not even two hundred pesetas a day, because sometimes they only work two days a month. We live in such poverty that some families have to borrow money from their neighbours, because the shops no longer give them credit. Put yourself in our place and think: is it fair that while some children are on holiday with their parents and families, others don’t know if they will eat that night? Is it fair that while some children have private tutors, others can’t even attend state schools? Is it fair that while some waste large amounts of money on toys and luxuries, others have no shoes to wear and must go barefoot?

We don’t think it is, and that is why we are on hunger strike. That is why we have gone several days without food, and we won’t stop until a solution arrives, because this situation is unbearable. It is even more unbearable in a land as rich as Andalusia.

Friend: the problem in our land is serious, and so we are going to continue fighting alongside out parents. W will continue fighting because the problem is also ours; so please consider and answer these questions. What will become of us? What is our future? Your future, we imagine, is already resolve, but what of ours? Who will resolve ours?

This is not a fairy tale, but a real situation which you will never know . . . We ask you with all our hearts to stop and think, and perhaps you’ll feel anger or pity and you or your parents will us some solution.

Sorry if these words are strong, but our hunger is stronger. Greetings from your friends. Marinaleda.

The children of the small Andalusian village of Marinaleda wrote the above letter to Prince Felipe, son of King Juan Carlos, heir to the Spanish throne, and, at the time, twelve years old.

25spain-mapIt was August 1980, five years after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, when 700 residents – men, women and children – of Marinaleda decided to host the ‘hunger strike against hunger’ (una huelga de hambre contra el hambre) for nine days. As one newspaper cartoon put it at the time: “700 on hunger strike in Marinaleda; the rest, just hungry.”

The village initial demand upon launching the hunger strike was for an increase in ‘community employment funds’ (essentially, paid public-works projects for the unemployed). The village was is a truly desperate state by the summer of 1980. In the first seven months of the year they had received an equivalent of 200 pesetas per family per day – less than two euros. Ultimately, the people needed a more radial solution: land redistribution. Their fight had just begun.

This moment in history transformed the village of Marinaleda and frames Dan Hancox’s book The Village Against the World. Since the 1980s, the villagers of Marinaleda, led by the radiacl mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, have rebelled against the triple repression of the state, the monarchy and the church.

village_against_the_world_pb_cmyk-f8442eed8e2828cd6089edd67ff574b5In 1985, labourers from Marinaleda and the nearby pueblos of Gilena and Utrera started to occupy the lands of the Duke of Infantado, owner of 17,000 hectares in Andalusia. At the time, unemployment was 65 percent in Marinaleda, while 50 percent of land in Andalusia was owned by just 2 percent of families. The people wanted land reform to change this injustice.

They were requested the state redistribute 1,200 hectares. On this 1,200-hectare estate the only things growing, for mile in every direction, were wheat and sunflowers – it required only three or four caretakers to tend to it. The people were idle and the land was idle: the resolution was obvious.

Eventually in 1991, they were granted the 1,200 hectares and the Duke of Infantado was quietly paid off by the regional government. The people of Marinaleda finally became landlords.

They didn’t rest on their laurels, but continued la lucha throughout the 1990s, campaigning for funds for cultural projects, for housing, or for their brethren across Andalusia: occupying the Bank of Spain, blocking the high-speed AVE trains, breaking into the international airports at Malaga and Seville, occupying the Palace of San Telmo, Canal Sur Radio, and launching yet more hunger strikes, demonstrations and blockades, in the Sierra Sur and in Seville.

These historic victories showcase Marinaleda as an example for fellow communities in Spain and beyond. Villagers of Marinaleda build their own homes with materials supplied by the government, paying a ‘mortgage’ of 15 euros per months. Their is nearly full employment in Marinaleda, as unemployment is less than 5 percent, versus 36 percent in the rest of Andalusia. This is thanks to the olive oil cooperative and vegetable canning factory in the village, both of which pay higher than the national minimum wage.

The village of Marinaleda is a shining light of the possibility of decentralized governance and social enterprise.


The American Injustice System: Slave Labour and Prison Profits

As Huey Freeman quipped, “the prison-industrial complex is a system situated at the intersection of government and private interest. It uses prison as a solution to social, political and economic problems. It includes human rights violations, the death penalty, slave labour, policing, the courts, the media, political prisoners and the elimination of dissent.”

I want to explore two major economic elements within the U.S. prison system below. Firstly, slave labour within prisons and the connection to corporations, whose products are used by most Americans. Secondly, the privatization of prisons, detention centers and other services, which used to be managed by more accountable bodies. Both of these elements are closely tied to American treatment of minority groups, especially African Americans, and people in economic poverty. Both of these elements have also seen recent social action, by the government and the prisoners themselves.

Slave Labour in American Prisons

The American Civil War waged for four years before being won by the northern states. Largely fought over the issue of slavery, the end of the war resulted in the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution. Passed and ratified by Congress in 1865, it provides that:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The most revealing part of this proclamation is the exemption of slavery as a punishment for crime. This has meant that slavery has continued in the U.S. for 150 years! In the years after slavery, a formal prison system formed in the South. Some plantations were bought by the state and turned into prisons. In the short illustrated video below, the Equal Justice Initiative narrates the details around the fact that mass incarceration is a direct descendant from slavery.

As researcher Kevin Bales explains, slavery is composed of three factors:

  1. one person completely controlling another;
  2. violence being used to maintain that control; and
  3. that control being used to exploit people economically.

By their very nature, prisons control people. They control every aspect of prison life including where and when prisoners can move. They control access to basic services like health care and educational materials. They control what food prisoners receive. As these parts are given, they can also be taken away – a form of psychological control.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported on staff brutality and degrading treatment of inmates the occurs across the country’s prisons. U.S. prison inmates have been beaten with fists and batons, stomped on, kicked, shot, stunned with electronic devices, doused with chemical sprays, choked, and slammed face first onto concrete floors by the officers whose job it is to guard them. Jail and prison staff throughout the United States have used unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force against prisoners with mental disabilities, “even when, because of their illness, they cannot understand or comply with staff orders.” Inmates have ended up with broken jaws, smashed ribs, perforated eardrums, missing teeth, burn scars—not to mention psychological scars and emotional pain. Some have died. In many states, death penalties continue the history of race-based lynching.

Once violent control is established, slavery occurs through economic exploitation. This exploitation is accompanied by paying the individual nothing, or close enough to that. This is exactly what the 13th amendment has allowed the U.S. to do to prisoners for the past century and a half.

According to Alternet, prior to the 1970s, private corporations were prohibited from using prison labor as a result of the chain gang and convict leasing scandals. But in 1979, the US Department of Justice admits that congress began a process of deregulation to “restore private sector involvement in prison industries to its former status, provided certain conditions of the labor market were met.” Over the last 30 years, at least 37 states have enacted laws permitting the use of convict labor by private enterprise, with an average pay of $0.93 to $4.73 per day.


Whole Foods has sold goods such as fish and cheese produced by Colorado prisoners. McDonald’s has purchased uniforms and plastic utensils made by Oregon inmates. Female inmates in South Carolina sew undergarments and casual-wear for Victoria’s Secret, while AT&T has consistently used inmates to work in their call centers since 1993. From agriculture to technology, the list of businesses – Wal-Mart, BP, Aramark included – that use prison labour in their pursuit of profit is lengthy. American capitalism is inextricably tied to American prison labour. This is, simply, corporate slavery.

The United States government also benefits from the cheap cost of forced prison labour. On average, federal prisoners work 8 hours a day, but they have no union representation and make between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour, over 6 times less than federal minimum wage. Federal prisoners are employed by Unicor, a wholly owned government corporation established by Congress in 1934. Its principal customer is the Department of Defense.

According to the Left Business Observer, “the federal prison industry produces 100 percent of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98 percent of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93 percent of paints and paintbrushes; 92 percent of stove assembly; 46 percent of body armor; 36 percent of home appliances; 30 percent of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21 percent of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.”


Two weeks ago, on the 45th anniversary of the Attica Rebellion, prisoners across the United States decided to do something about this unjust system of slave labour. Just as others have done in the past to gain greater control of their own labour, prisoners protested and stopped all work on September 9th.

This day of action was organised by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), the prison-organizing group of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union, which has been using work stoppages as a means to attack the economic incentive of prisons. On September 9th, more than 24,000 prisoners missed work, which affected at least 29 prisons. This was the largest prisoner protest in U.S. history. Solidarity protests in cities across America also occurred following this day of action.


I’m hopeful that these types of protests will bring greater awareness to the issue of slave labour within the American prison system and the corporations who profit from this involuntary labour. In the meantime, citizens and consumers also have the power to act by supporting prison reform as well as boycotting products made from prison labour.

While prison labour for rehabilitation may be beneficial for re-entry to society if a decent wage was paid, some prisons exist to lock up people  for as long as possible and solely for profit. I’m speaking about private, for-profit prisons.

Prison Profits

The U.S. locks up more people than any other country on Earth. The country has about 5 percent of the world’s population but more than 20 percent of it’s prison population. To deal with that overcrowding, the US turned to private prisons. Those private companies make big money. Private companies make millions through the construction of new prisons, government contracts for prison management, and providing transportation and probation services to correctional departments. These components of the for-profit American criminal justice system are discussed below.

The two largest for profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Geo Group, played significant roles in crafting criminal justice legislation in the United States, leading to increased mandatory minimums and incarceration rates. Indeed, stipulations are often written into the contracts of prison management companies to require 90 percent occupancy of the facilities. Concurrently, companies cut costs by reducing quality of life and basic care for inmates, leading to overcrowding and inhumane conditions.

This sector of the economy is difficult to investigate. However, in a special investigation of the private prison industry, Shane Bauer, a reporter for Mother Jones, spent four months working as a prison guard at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, one of the nation’s oldest private prisons. CCA, the company that runs this prison, takes in $1.9 billion a year and its stock is traded on Wall Street.

One way private prisons can make large profits is through low-wage staffing. At state run prisons, guards were making $12.50 an hour. At private prison, they were making $9 an hour. For this wage, guards like Shane witness stabbings, beatings and prisoners threatening to riot inside the prison on lockdown.

At his morning meetings, Shane recalls that “sometimes there would be 24 guards there for 1500 inmates. There often were not enough staff to keep the prison running the way it was supposed to.” This despite the company’s contract with Louisiana which states that they’re supposed to have 36 guards show up for work at 6:00 AM every day. While Winn is deficient in manpower, CCA’s CEO is making $3.4 million a year, nearly 19 times what the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons makes. This is the corporatization, the “Wal-Martification”, of the U.S. prison system. In fact, CCA competes with Wal-Mart for employees in the area. Since almost everything that happens at the prison requires guards, fewer guards means fewer programs for prisoners.

To further maximize profits, services at privately-run prisons are kept to a minimum. The physical conditions are barely tolerable. Medical and mental health care are inadequate. Shane met a prisoner who contracted gangrene at Winn and lost his legs and fingers as a result. Shane also found that prisoners were getting an insufficient amount of calories in their meals. Rehabilitation courses, like welding classes, and recreation are absent. Instead, most inmates sit in the dorm all day long. Getting bored, frustrated, and angry.

Prisoners and guards both reported to Shane that Winn was more violent than other prisons they’d been to. For one inmate, “forced fighting and stabbings, it doesn’t surprise me no more, after you’ve seen it so long.” In the first 4 months of 2015, CCA reported 200 weapons found at Winn. That’s 23 times more than were found at Angola, which is a maximum security prison. In his first two months, Shane heard about 12 stabbing that had occurred. However, when he looked at data from the Department of Corrections, it showed that CCA had only reported 5 stabbings in a 10 month period. They weren’t reporting all the stabbings. Little was being done to prevent violence inside the prison.

These conditions are not isolated to Louisiana, either. The documentary Prisons for Profit, made by ACLU Ohio, examines the condition of the Lake Erie Correctional Institute, operated by CCA, in Ohio. In this “institute” violence increases, especially as CCA takes a “no touch” approach, whereby guards are not allowed to intervene when fighting breaks out. Shane was instructed that the protocol in Winn is to verbally tell them to stop and that’s it. Back out, lock the room, and as he told, “Let them cut each other up.” If fighting intensifies to a certain level, chemical weapons are released to maintain order: pepper spray for fighting or stabbings; tear gas if a riot breaks out. One of the classic means for preventing violence is to occupy prisoners time with rehabilitation services, such as schooling. Unfortunately, private prisons cut these programs from their budgets to ensure profits are maintained.

Following the release of Bauer’s expose, a number of changes have occurred related to the private prison industry. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on 13 August that they have decided to stop contracting with private prisons. This is a sign of progress, however, as the Washington Post notes, “The vast majority of the incarcerated in America are housed in state prisons — rather than federal ones — and Yates’ memo does not apply to any of those, even the ones that are privately run.”

On the same day as the DOJ announcement, CCA and GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies in the country, lost almost half of their share value, equivalent to $2.2 billion. Shareholders and former inmates are filing lawsuits against CCA and GEO Group. The prison Bauer worked at, Winn Correctional Center, is no longer run by CCA; unfortunately, the new company is facing budget cuts, which means fewer medical and rehabilitative programs will be offered.

Another area the DOJ directive leaves out is the detention of immigrants, detained by the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Marshals Service detainees, who are technically in the federal system but not under the purview of the federal Bureau of Prisons. The share of beds in privately operated ICE facilities has risen in recent years, jumping from 49 percent in 2009 to 62 percent in 2015. Mega-corporations like CCA and Geo Group found another area of the American prison system to profit from. In August 2016, CCA was awarded a four-year, $1 billion contract “to build a massive detention facility for [Central American] women and children seeking asylum.” In what the Washington Post described as “an unusual agreement,” CCA will receive “the money regardless of how many people are detained at the facility.”

The Department of Homeland Security said it would reevaluate its use of private prisons. A DHS council will consider whether federal immigration detention facilities should follow the Justice Department’s lead and phase out privatized operations.

The corrections system in the US has also subcontracted services to companies that would normally fall under the scope of local police and sheriffs. The Marshall Project has investigated the case of private prison extradition industry in many states. Each year, tens of thousands of fugitives and suspects – many who have never been convicted of a crime – are entrusted to a handful of small private companies that specialize in transferring the men and women across the country. The Marshall Project uncovered cases of two prisoners dying of perforated ulcers, another woman who was sexually assaulted and a third who had to have both legs amputated from complications of untreated diabetes.

After complaining for more than a week of severe stomach pain and vomiting, William Weintraub was found dead in the back of a private prisoner transport van in Georgia. (GEORGIA BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION)

After complaining for more than a week of severe stomach pain and vomiting, William Weintraub was found dead in the back of a private prisoner transport van in Georgia. (GEORGIA BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION)

These types of services are bad for everyone involved. Prisoners face abuse and mistreatment. At least 14 women have alleged in criminal or civil court since 2000 that they were sexually assaulted by guards while being transported by these companies.

The workers are made to work long hours, to drive unsafe, as companies try to minimize wages paid. The companies are usually paid per prisoner per mile, giving them incentive to pack the vans and take as few breaks as possible. Crashes have killed a dozen prisoners and guards.

The public is at risk of both of these factors. At least 60 prisoners have escaped from private extradition vehicles since 2000, including one who later stabbed a police officer and another who was accused of sexual assault on a minor and is still missing. Prisoner escapes are difficult to investigate as vans constantly cross jurisdiction borders.

It’s difficult to reason that this system is benefiting anyone other that the companies who are profiting and largely unaccountable.

In certain states, private probation companies perform all of the work of an exhausted legal system – from levying fines to collecting payments for misdemeanors – without any need for a judicial authority. This has created modern-day “debtor prisons”. Laws are written that almost exclusively affect people living in poverty. In one extreme example, a woman in Arkansas wrote a check for $1.07 for a loaf of bread. The check bounced and her debt ballooned after fees and fines to nearly $400.

Every year, US courts sentence several hundred thousand people to probation and place them under the supervision of for-profit companies for months or years at a time. In their report, “Profiting from Probation: America’s ‘Offender-Funded’ Probation Industry”Human Rights Watch reports how minor traffic violations, like speeding, or misdemeanor crimes, like public drunkenness, put people in jail if they fail to make adequate payments towards fines and probation company fees.

The business of many private probation companies, such as Sentinel Offender Services, is built largely on the willingness of courts to discriminate against poor offenders who can only afford to pay their fines in installments over time. Thomas Barrett is one such example of this discrimination of the poor:

In Georgia, Thomas Barrett pled guilty to stealing a can of beer from a convenience store and was fined $200. He was ultimately jailed for failing to pay over a thousand dollars in fees to his probation company, even though his entire income—money he earned by selling his own blood plasma—was less than what he was being charged in monthly probation fees.

These examples of privatized criminal (in)justice in the U.S. – prisons, immigration detention, prisoner transport and probation – are just the tip of the iceberg of the current problems that exist within the prison-industrial complex. Until prisoners are treated with respect and given the most basic of human rights, the American justice system will never become just and will never solve the problems of crime that exist in and outside of prison wall.

Here’s hoping for change.


The American Injustice System: Manufacturing Criminals

Earlier this year, Netflix released Making a Murderer, a 10-episode series that examines the life of Steven Avery. Avery spent 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. Avery was exonerated with the aid of the Innocence Project and the actual perpetrator was found. To date, the work of the Innocence Project has led to the freeing of 343 wrongfully convicted people based on DNA, including 20 who spent time on death row and the finding of 147 Making_a_Murderer_titlecardreal perpetrators. The TV series then goes on to follow the prosecution of Avery for a second major crime – murder. I would like to focus on this first arrest and later exoneration.

Making a Murderer follows a long line of documentaries that question the results of the criminal justice system in the United States. From The Thin Blue Line to The Central Park Five, American police and prosecutors have been shown to get things wrong. These are not isolated mistakes but, rather, a trend. A trend of innocent people – mainly young, impoverished, African American males – arrested for crimes they didn’t commit and send to prison for long lengths of time. This trend has a long history. It dates back to the American civil war through the Jim Crow era and into modern day drug policy. The two books The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson document this history well. The result is staggering:

  • The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
  • In 1972, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons. By 2012, there was 2.3 million.
  • Seven million people are on probation and parole.
  • One out of three black men, between the age of 18 and 30, are in jail, prison, probation or parole.
  • The United States imprisoned a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.

Racism and poverty are at the heart of this system. Poor communities and communities of colour receive different punishments than those found in rich, white neighborhoods. This inequality is mixed with a desire for maximum punishment. If there’s any hope at solving the massive problems within the American criminal justice system, the root causes need to be brought to light. The System attempts to do so.

The System is a series of eight documentaries, produced by Joe Berlinger on Al Jazeera English. Each episode examines a single element of the American criminal justice system and can be watched below.

Four of the films explain why so many men and women are imprisoned. The reason is that they’re innocent. An in the other documentaries noted above, if an innocent person goes to prison, a guilty person does not. This means that they can continue committing crimes while innocent parties take the fall. There are four films in The System that explain this and the connection to racial and class inequalities.

An additional four films discuss the harsh punishments that face people (again, many of whom are innocent) once they are locked up in prison and even after they are released. In this era of ‘War on Drugs’ and ‘Law and Order’, the U.S. has passed several extremely harsh punishments. Punishments that also affect children – the U.S. is the only country in the world that has allows sentencing of 13-year-old children to life imprisonment without parole (sentenced to die in prison). These are some of the reasons that America has become the world leader in jailing its own citizens.

The System-Tiles

Locking Up Innocent People

Of the first 250 cases of DNA exoneration in the U.S., 76 percent had eyewitness mis-identification and 36 percent had more than one witness. One reason for these errors, described by Jennifer E. Dysart of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is relative judgement – people narrow down their options and pick the one that seems the best. Relative to the others, you choose the one that’s the best.

Try it for yourself. Look at the 12 U.S. pennies below and select the one that you think is correct. (Continue reading for the correct answer.)


The Penny Test: Which one is correct?

This simple test simulates a police lineup, where images of suspects are given to a witness for identification. Because memories are reconstructed, they are easily subject to contamination by post-event information, says Dysart whose research is profile in the episode ‘Eyewitness Identification’. There are many factors that cloud ones memory including uncontrollable factors (short exposure, lighting, distance) and controllable factors by police and investigators (911 call, crime scene control, witness interviews).

One of the interesting uncontrollable factors is the cross-race effect. In this episode, two innocent black men were misidentified by white witnesses. Even though the witnesses selected individuals who had inconsistent height and did not have the correct physical identifiers, the men were still convicted. In general, people are not very good at noticing differences among other ethnicity. A cross-age effect has also been found in eyewitness identification.

A controllable factor of note is identification procedures. And relates to the penny test above. Law enforcement are supposed to tell the witness: “The real perpetrator (or penny) may or may not be there.” None of the pennies above are correct. If you picked one, you picked the wrong one. The same is true with police lineups. The police pull together images of “suspects” and witnesses select one, whether or not the criminal is actually shown. Dysart and other researchers are working to improve the procedures of law enforcement so that miscarriages of justice like this stop.

Like an eyewitness identification, a confession of a crime is often taken by law enforcement and courts as absolute truth. However, in 27 percent of cases with DNA exoneration, the defendant gave a false confession. In two cases profiled in the episode ‘False Confessions’, convictions were reached largely on the defendant’s confession. One of these cases involve a Las Vegas woman who experienced a sexual assault, an attempted rape. When investigators came to her home to talk, she thought they were saw her as a victim. Instead, they saw her as a criminal. One month after her ordeal, a murder occurred on the opposite side of the city from where she was attacked. Police didn’t believe her story and instead pinned the murder on her.

Beyond disbelief of victims, law enforcement use all sorts of tactics to gain confessions. Police interrogations can be hours long and use lie detector machines, which are unscientific but great at inducing stress. In many documented cases, police have gained confessions from young people, some who do not understand what they are agreeing to. This is exactly what happened to Jeffrey Deskovic, the second case documented in this episode. After 16 years of imprisonment, post-conviction DNA testing both proved Deskovic’s innocence and identified the real perpetrator of a 1989 murder and rape. As a former FBI investigator notes, “confessions are useless without corroboration.”

In ‘Flawed Forensics’, Berlinger examines the recent history of the FBI Laboratory. According to the Washington Post, the Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000. Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project. The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison. This now discredited area of criminal forensics adds to the list of ways prosecutors and courts imprison innocent people in the U.S.

‘Prosecutorial Misconduct’ explores the culture of prosecutors whose goal is to gain convictions at any cost. In a two-part series (part 1 / part 2), ProPublica found several state and federal court rulings in New York in which judges explicitly concluded that city prosecutors had committed harmful misconduct. In each instance, these abuses were sufficient to prompt courts to throw out convictions. In one such example, a prosecutor was later found, in one case, to have withheld critical evidence from a defendant’s attorney and, in another case, to have manipulated evidence. It wasn’t until a third case was overturned because the same prosecutor lied to a trial judge about the whereabouts of a key defense witness did they lose their job. In most cases, prosecutors who engaged in misconduct are rarely investigated or reprimanded. Disturbingly, several received promotions and raises soon after courts cited them for abuses. As Marvin Schechter, a defense attorney and chairman of the criminal justice section of the New York State Bar Association summarizes: “Prosecutors engage in misconduct because they know they can get away with it.”

These prosecutors were helped by police officers who cut corners and played by their own rules. Police officers have been found forcing witnesses to lie in order for them to make an arrest, often threatening charges in other crimes if they didn’t follow police instructions to lie. In other cases, police investigators pick and choose the evidence that fits their theory while ignoring defendant’s alibis or other evidence of their innocence. Together, prosecutors and police have left behind a long history of wrongful convictions in America. Men and women who have decades behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit, while actual criminals aren’t held accountable and, worse, are allowed to remain free.

Wider Injustice Issues

The episode ‘Geography of Punishment’ explores the intersection of wider social problems and criminal justice. In just one year, 50,000 people in New York were arrested under practices known as “stop and frisk”. Civil liberty groups have raise serious concerns over racial profiling since the vast majority of people stopped are black and Latino. There are also concerns over privacy rights. The Bronx Defenders Officer, after surveying six months of misdemeanor marijuana possession cases from a single court, found that in a huge number of instances, police were manufacturing crime. Police were conducting “improper stops, illegal searches [and making] false arrests”. To fight this misconduct by New York Police Department (NYPD), defendants would have to go to court. But their cases, which should have taken 60 days, were stretching to two years due to backlogs in the court system. Many become tired of fighting and having their lives disrupted by court dates, so they are forced to plead guilty. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD’s own reports.

The city of New Haven, Connecticut is featured. It embraced “stop and frisk” as well as the idea of drug-free zones. Drug-free zones meant that anyone arrested within certain areas of the city would receive an enhanced penalty: one year for using drug paraphernalia, two years for possession and three for drug sales. Because both policies worked to increase arrests, government official decided to increase the area of these zones. Drug-free school zones increased from 1,000 to 1,500 feet. They then added day care centers and all public housing. The maps below show the result in different communities of Connecticut.


Drug-free zones in Hartford and Canaan: Schools (blue), day care centers (green) and public housing (red)

In New Haven, virtually all (around 95%) of the city is covered by drug-free zones; the one exception is the golf course at Yale University. Because of this enhanced penalty system, many innocent people feel pressured to plead guilty rather than risk such a harsh punishment. The system disproportionately affected minority population and impoverished people, who live in the inner city. In Connecticut, white people account for 70 percent of the population, but just 28 percent of arrests in drug-free zones. As seen above, suburbs, like Canaan, have far fewer drug-free zones than urban centers. They are also whiter and wealthier than urban centers. This is the unequal geography of punishment.

Worst of all, these zones effectively do nothing to prevent drug dealers from selling near schools, as all areas of the city are labeled “drug-free zones”. Reformers in New Haven are seeking to reduce the area of these zones from 1,500 to 200 feet so that they can actual act as a deterrent, rather than unnecessary additional punishment, as they do today. The problem is bigger than just New Haven, though. Over the past few decades, a report by Mic and Fractl shows, “drug-free zones” have taken over entire cities.

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Once arrested, many people face the additional burden of ‘Mandatory Sentencing’. This episode looks at the issue of mandatory minimum sentences related to gun crimes. In one case, an elderly Florida father fired a warning shot in self defense of his daughter’s boyfriend. Even though this was his first criminal charge, he was sent to prison for 20 years – a mandatory minimum sentence for aggravated assault with a firearm. This episode shines a light on the challenge of create fair sentencing. Law enforcement and legislators pushing these types of laws say they are protecting families and preventing future victims. However, this isn’t always the case as shown by the father protecting himself in his own home.

This episode also touches on the problem of plea deals and bargaining, which are becoming more frequent in U.S. criminal cases, rising from 84% of federal cases in 1984 to 94% by 2001. Because of mandatory sentencing, where judges are not given the option of leniency, prosecutors can persuade defendants, including those that are innocent, to plead guilty and receive a sentence less than the mandatory minimum sentence. Plea bargaining incentivizes innocent people to plead guilty and is another reason for the swell of incarcerated Americans.

In the 2012 decision of Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. Sentences of life imprisonment with no parole also violate international law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every country in the world except the United States and Somalia. However, there are still more than 2,000 juveniles imprisoned with mandatory life sentences. ‘Juvenile Justice’ follows the case of two young men: one arrested before the Supreme Court ruling, and one arrested after. Both cases involved juvenile males of colour connected to murder cases. Neither actually committed the act but were in the presence or connected to the individuals involved. In one of the cases, the prosecutor said that “he did an adult crime, he’s got to face an adult sentence”.

The notion of treating children like adults in criminal matters runs counter to research by social psychologists. In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson discusses how young children are developmentally incapable of exercising the judgment, maturity, and knowledge necessary to competently defend themselves against criminal prosecution in adult court. Courts could not give any consideration to the child’s age or life history. Many kids are then subjected to further victimization and abuse in the adult prisons.

Mandatory sentencing, especially against children, do not allow for rehabilitation or a second chance. Instead, they are death sentences which are cruel and inhumane.

Only five percent of prisoners will remain behind bars for life. For the majority who will be released, some will be let out early on parole. Parolees fulfill the remainder of their sentence in the community under parole supervision. ‘Parole: High Risks, High Stakes’ steps inside parole board hearings. The politics of appearing ‘tough on crime’ have meant that parole is granted less often than before – meaning prisoners stay in prisons longer. Parole boards have to evaluate the “threat” a person poses to a community if they were released. With the privatization of prisons and budget cuts, many prisoners are not given the chance to improve themselves. Other will have their past actions brought up again and again, despite any changes they made. For some, parole will be granted. But even this does not guarantee freedom.

After serving 19 years inside prison for burglary, Donald Perry was granted parole. He then spent the next 11 years forging a new life for himself by gaining a college degree and bettering the community by working as an advocate for the homeless. One day, while helping a homeless man, he was arrested due to the other man’s goods. The police claimed that the clothes and electronics were stolen. But the court found Perry not guilty. Unfortunately, the state parole board found that this series of events violated his earlier parole and sent him back to prison. After 30 years of not committing any crimes, Perry would have to fight again to be free. After months of appeals, he eventually was released. However, he was released on parole, again.

Parole is not a free pass. Millions of Americans are living with the fear of being sent back to prison. Even, as in the case of Donald Perry, when they are trying to do the right thing.

How to Solve All of This

The United States was founded on slavery. That economic model of oppression, especially against people of colour, continues to live on today. It lives on through all segments of society, including racial and class inequality within the American criminal justice system. Until the U.S. recognizes this history fully and the modern consequences, it will be difficult to change. Campaign Zero and other movements are proposing comprehensive solutions. But beyond police reforms and and other issues described above, people in the U.S. needs to see each other as equal human beings.


Policy solutions by Campaign Zero

Today, many prisoners and parolees do not have the right to vote. Because this segment of the population is largely young black men, racial justice through political means is out of their reach. The move by President Obama to visit a prison – the first time in American history – was a brave start but needs to be matched with real reform. Giving prisoners and parolees the right to vote would help start the process of ending disenfranchisement.

Outside prisons, another social problem that must be addressed is mass poverty in the U.S. resulting from income inequality. Lack of jobs leads to financial insecurity. The lack of employment opportunities for prisoners after they are released leads to a vicious circle of recidivism. Three-quarters of released prisoners were rearrested within five years of release. Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half were arrested by the end of the first year. These statistics are even more shocking in light of the countless innocent men and women who go to prison under wrongful convictions.

It’s time for America to change.

‘Friends of Medecins Sans Frontieres’ UK National Conference

ayzf0blpvq6crijicbrrLast month, I was lucky to attend the Friends of Medecins Sans Frontieres (FoMSF) UK National Conference at Imperial College, London. You might know MSF by its English translation: Doctors Without Borders.

After a warm welcome from Vickie Hawkins, Executive Director of MSF UK, FoMSF student societies from all around England, Scotland and Northern Ireland presented their successes from the year. Groups held fundraisers, movie nights, guest MSF speakers and even a Map-a-Thon (more on this last one later).

Throughout the day, we attended a number of workshops on recent and future MSF initiatives. Each presentation gave us inside knowledge into how MSF operates and how they improve peoples lives. I will now share three of them.

1. Ebola Response

ebola_mapThe Ebola outbreak in West Africa filled much of the news last year. Throughout the response, MSF doctors, nurses, expatriate and local staff were at the forefront, treating the virus and preventing its spread.

Working in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, MSF filled the gap resulting from an underdeveloped health care system; see map. MSF nurse, Andy Dennis, described to us his work in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, treating and ultimately releasing Ebola-infected patients.

From children to the elderly, so many people had their lives changed. Some had to travel by moto-van for over a day to reach the nearest MSF center.

The medical staff, who treated patients, faced an almost unthinkable challenge – working with a deadly virus. Long days and extremely tight health and safety protocols were in store. Andy walked us through the personal protective equipment, or PPE, involved; see below. As MSF staff could only work in the quarantine zone for 60 minutes max, the process of suiting up then down, discarding used gloves and other non-reusable gear, and washing your hands at every possible interlude would be exhausting, even for the most fit person.

Another challenge is the cost. The total bill for one complete set of PPE cost £38.18. As MSF in an international NGO reliant on donations, these costs can add up. Hopefully, suppliers will think first about saving lives and not the profits to be reaped.

Andy also gave us a virtual tour of an Ebola Treatment Center, which includes several safety measure. Operating like a hospital, but with stricter rules and regulations (like absolutely zero physical contact with anyone), these centers are in some of the most remote areas of Western Africa.

2. Access to Medicines

logoThe Access Campaign was launched by MSF in 1999 and continues to fight to provide affordable medication to the most vulnerable and most in need. Their latest report, The Right Shot, sheds light on the rising costs of vaccines. Polly Markandya, MSF Head of Communications, walked us through the report and new campaign.

Among its revelations, the report notes that for the 16 essential immunizations that MSF uses the price between 2001 and 2014 has increased 68-fold! This is a startling finding and one that should shame many pharmaceutical companies who profit while children die because of lack of money.

The pharmaceutical sector has also faced public pressure for its views again generic drugs and more equitable patent laws. Going back to the days of $10,000 AIDS treatment, many organizations and patient groups fought Big Pharma for a better system. Together, they reduced costs and saved peoples lives. So, this fight is one that carries that same spirit.

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3. Missing Maps

missing_maps_screenshotMaps are the the last thing you think of, but the first thing you need when responding to emergencies.

I first heard of the idea of Open Street Maps during their use in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Within hours, volunteers from around the world banded together and helped to map the streets, homes and infrastructure of this nation facing a major catastrophe (see video: https://vimeo.com/9182869). This data and easy-to-read maps allowed humanitarian staff to be more successful during their response effort.

But Haiti isn’t the only country without proper maps.

Countries, and importantly governments, need maps to have accurate information on hand for planning projects and delivering services. Humanitarian and development organizations also need maps, like when they respond to emergencies or if they need to find a remote village and a hand-drawn map won’t do; see below. A good map can be the difference between life and death.


A comparison of a hand-drawn MSF map in Katanga, DRC, with a map of Lubumbashi, DRC, made with Open Street Map. The Lubumbashi map was plotted by students of the University of Lubumbashi and the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team.

Together, MSF and the Red Cross are working to improve the situation. Volunteers and students from the UK and around the world are going online, and with each keystroke of their computer, they turn satellite images into detailed, open-source maps. Unlike other online map, mostly limited to road information, these maps include items like homes, streams and other information critical for organizations.

I hope to attend a Map-a-Thon myself one day and help make a difference.

In all, the FoMSF Conference was an amazing day, filled with inspiring, amazing people, who do amazing things to make the lives of others better. One of the best organizations out there!

P.S. Thanks to Pam O’Brien and all the organizers, Imperial College for hosing, and everyone at MSF for all your work!

Bringing the Hospital to You: KIHEFO Health Camps in Rural Uganda

KIHEFO (Kigezi Healthcare Foundation) is providing health care to not only the urban residents of Kabale but also to people in the outlying villages. In many of these remote, rural areas someone might go months or more than a year without seeing a healthcare provider, due to the cost of seeing a doctor and the distance of travel.

In Uganda, health care covers a range of services. There are the Village Health Teams at the very bottom of the health pyramid; they do some public health services and coordinate with others if needed. Higher up, there are the Health Center II’s, III’s (might have beds), and IV’s which offer a wider range of services. And at the very top, there are the private and government hospitals, where doctors midwives, and all sorts of services are found.

KIHEFO bridges these gaps by bringing hospital-quality staff to the village level. At a major outreach, like the one I attended in Kakarisa, there was the General Clinic, where doctors check patients’ wide assortment of needs. If a patient requires blood work or other testing, they send it to the Laboratory. If they finish their examination but need medication before they leave, they will take their doctor’s note to the Dispensary. For anyone with Eye or Dental needs, there are separate areas with specialists on hand. Lastly, there is also Family Planning where women (and hopefully men) can come to receive guidance in their sexual and reproductive health.

In Kakarisa, our venue was the local primary school. This venue offered two major benefits to the KIHEFO team. Firstly, it was vacant, as students were on break. It had several rooms, which could be transformed into the health areas I noted above. It had a large grassed area in the middle, for a waiting area. And, lastly, it was centrally located in town and easy for everyone to find.

As someone without any medical background, I was unsure where to help. Some of the other students started in the Dispensary, helping to un-box medications and sort them for distribution later in the day. Some shadowed the doctors, while other assisted in the lab with testing. I was less eager, so I stood outside the makeshift hospital areas and eventually landed on a bench in the center of all the newcomers, in Intake.

Coordination was relatively simple. The administrators to my left created an information slip for every patient that arrived. It had their name, age, gender, village on the top. They were then asked to stand on a scale to acquire their weight, which was also added to the form. My role was to then hand them one of three sheets, each with a number on it to represent their place in line. There was one stack for general clinic, another for dental, and a final pile for eyes. In the end, we had seen over 200 patients for general clinic and over 30 for the dental and eye clinics each.

It was extremely fast-paced with commotion as people waited hours (not including their travel time walking) to see a doctor. But there was some humor during the day. One woman who wanted a second slip of paper pretended that she was a twin and had not received anything yet. As the level of English here was low to nonexistent, I heard many of these things after the fact, usually by asking why the women were laughing.

In the afternoon, after things began to slow down in Intake, I walked around and tried to peek inside the rooms to see what everyone else was up to. I eventually landed outside of the General Clinic, asking how I could help. One of the coordinators handed me about five of the information forms I had seen at the start of the day and told me to manage the queue. On the outset I was quite disoriented, mostly because there was no queue, everyone was sitting in front of me, like an audience.

I announced the name on the top of the stack as one of the three nurses inside released their current patient. After a while, one of the nurses pointed out where the queue starts – where the foot path cut the grass into two – and I began to enforce it vigorously. The men on the left were trying to jump the queue. I was having none of it. I would grab another five slips and politely ignore their attempts to thrust their papers into my hand. After a few cycles of this, they got the message and stood in line like all the other men, women, and children were doing. Order restored!

On my second outreach, to the village of Rubira, I would be working inside a clinic, not on the outside. I would spend the day with Joanne, a dentist, acting as her assistant. This was a much smaller outreach, as KIHEFO comes here monthly and the village is much closer to town than Kakarisa.

Our first patient was a girl of only 14 years whose mother requested two ‘extractions’. Due to a number of overlapping reasons – poor oral hygiene or just being poor – this girl was to have two teeth removed, permanently. Her fear was palpable. Simply looking inside her mouth with the traditional tool of a mirror caused her to wince and cry. It was not going to get easier. Joanne administered a local anesthesia to allow for the extraction to take place with a minimum level of pain. But this action – inserting a syringe into the gums and releasing the fluid – caused its own pain. A metal object with a pick at one end and a handle is then wedged on both side of the tooth removed. The last implement, a pair of dental pliers, pulls the tooth out. This required the mother to hold down the girl and Joanne to move quickly. I have never seen so much fear in a person’s eyes. Well, I was going to see a lot more of it.

Joanne and I saw 4 patients under the age of 18 who together lost 6 teeth that day. An older man also visited the clinic but didn’t actually need any dental treatments. Many of the teeth we removed that day could be saved, but the opportunity to receive a ‘free’ tooth extraction was too good of an offer to pass up – the cost of filling a tooth would be too much for anyone in Rubira. Sadly.