How would you feel if you learned your baby carriage was made from radioactive metals? How about the car you drive each day or the frying pan you use to cook with every night? This is what watchdog groups fear will happen if a recent proposal by the U.S. Department of Energy is approved. The proposal would allow for recycling of radioactive scrap metals from government nuclear sites.
David Ritter, policy analyst for the group Public Citizen, said that DOEs plan would permit radioactive metals to be released into municipal landfills or recycled into everyday household products and industrial materials.
"We are talking about the possibilities of materials contaminated with radiation being recycled and used in everyday household products," Ritter said, "like braces for teeth, frying pans, staplers -- everything made out of carbon steel, nickel, copper or aluminum."
Supporters of recycling contend that radioactive scrap metals can be reused safely and that recycling is a useful way to dispose of materials left by the decommissioning of Cold War-era facilities. A DOE memo, acquired by the Associated Press, stated: "The purpose of this action is to reduce site inventories in radiological areas of scrap metals that have not been radioactively contained by DOE activities and operations."
The memo also outlines the procedures that DOE facilities should follow if allowed to release metals from areas where radiation has been present. This involves testing the metals and documenting their release. The DOE did not return calls for comment.
Text on a Web site operated by Environmental Assessment Division, part of Argomme National Laboratory, the DOEs largest research center, indicated that recycling involves low levels of overall risks: "Recycling radioactive scrap metals is advantageous in terms of risk, cost and environmental impact. However questions remain regarding public acceptability, sensitive industrial uses of metals and international flows of RSMs."
Some argue that the low levels of radiation found in recycled scrap metals pale in comparison to the amount of radiation people receive from cosmic rays, radon seeping out of the earth, and radioactive substances in soil and food.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the process of establishing standards for the amount of radiation that can be present in household products. But according to Diane DArrigo, a radioactive-waste project director at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C., the way in which the tests are being conducted is misleading.
"They are setting standards that are not verifiable or enforceable by a member of the public," said DArrigo. "They are trying to do it based on an allowable dose or allowable risk rather than an allowable amount of contamination. So even if you measure contamination, theyll put it through their computer model and say its an acceptable dose."
Critics charge that all metals from nuclear sites should be treated as radioactive waste because of the difficulty in ensuring that they are uncontaminated. "Even diluting radiation through recycling cannot reduce the risks to society as a whole," said Ritter, "because the total number of people exposed to it will increase as more and more products contain radiation."
Ritter said that decades of research show that exposure to radiation is a threat to human health. "Any exposure, no matter how small," he said, "can result in a plethora of health risks including cancer, mutagenic effects [mutation effects on cells], that could be passed on to children, and birth defects."
The release of metals from radiological areas of nuclear sites was banned by the Clinton administration in 2000. But in July, the Bush administration began an environmental assessment study to evaluate the policy. The DOE is conducting an environmental review on how to handle the metals, a process that includes a planned public-comment period and hearings on various alternatives. The DOE said it would continue the ban during the review.
But DArrigo said that they the DOE already is letting out other types of contaminated materials including plastics and concrete. "They have these regulations," said DArrigo. "They are called internal orders. They are using this to justify letting out contaminated materials, so its going out now. We are looking at the floodgates opening, and what has been trickling out quietly under their own internal orders will soon be whole sites either letting [metal] out directly or processing and releasing it into commerce."
DArrigio also said that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is allowing the importation of radioactive metals from foreign nuclear reactors, which may be recycled into American products.
Is the federal government's Muslim-American voluntary interview program violating civil rights?
Last week, when Nabil, a Muslim-American store owner, heard that the United States Department of Justice would be requesting interviews from 5,000 legal immigrants of Middle Eastern decent, his first reaction was fear. It wasn't that he was scared to participate, if asked. Rather, he said, it was the idea that the government was requesting people to come in based solely on their country of origin and when they entered the United States.
"The people who are getting questioned are being called in for no reason," said Nabil, who asked that his real name be withheld. "It seems like racial profiling, and it scares me because they are just picking people out and nobody really knows what they are calling them in for. Just because you are Muslim doesn't mean you are an extremist."
"The Justice Department is requesting the interviews in hopes of obtaining information about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11," said assistant U.S. attorney Robert Storch. The interviews are to be conducted by various law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, local police departments and other antiterrorist task forces.
"There was a directive from the attorney general [John Ashcroft]," said Storch. "We certainly are going to follow that, given the nature of the threat against the country and what happened on Sept. 11. We are trying to do everything we can to gather information that might be helpful in combating some future tragedy."
Storch said the persons being asked to come in are young males between the ages of 18 and 33 who came into the country after January 2000 from countries identified as having terrorist activity -- more specifically, Al Qaeda activity. The questions asked, said Storch, are designed to determine if the interviewee has information that can aid in the investigation. He was not specific about the type of questions, but he emphasized that the interviews are voluntary, and that a person may refuse to participate.
"These people are not suspected of any criminal conduct," said Storch. "That is not how the list was created. The government keeps records of who comes to the United States in various immigration capacities. These names were obtained from those records."
The interviews have been characterized by the Bush administration as nothing more than a "relaxed chat," according to The New York Times.
"We are being kind and fair and gentle in terms of inviting people to participate," Ashcroft told the Times.
But for many civil libertarians, immigration lawyers and Arab-American groups, these so-called friendly chats, by their very nature, are coercive and threatening. They argue that the selection process is merely another form of racial profiling; as a result, they say, the questioning process violates the United States Constitution.
"It's a dragnet operation," said Louise Roback, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "They are targeting people solely because of their Middle Eastern descent, not because of any reasonable suspicion that they are involved in any criminal activity."
Roback said that with hundreds of people already in jail for minor immigration violations, the interviews could never be truly voluntary.
"Although they say the primary purpose of the interviews is not to inquire about a person's immigration status, they can ask about that," said Roback. "The threat of being detained, together with the atmosphere of a vast investigation, in and of itself is coercive."
Roback also noted that the Justice Department's guidelines for interviews do not instruct law enforcement to inform people of their right to remain silent or the right to have a lawyer present.
The ACLU Web site points out that some questions could put people in the "suspicious" category. For example, a person could be asked whether they support any cause that terrorists espouse -- that presumably includes Palestine statehood, which the Bush administration itself supports. The concern is that an honest response could trigger suspicion and further investigation.
"People may incriminate themselves unknowingly," said Roback. "Many of these people are from countries where they do not have these same laws, so they may not know their rights."
Bill Fanciullo, a criminal defense lawyer who served as a federal prosecutor for 10 years, said that he did not believe that the government's procedures are violating the rights of individuals being brought in for questioning. He said that since people are being asked to come forward voluntarily, federal officials and law enforcement agents are not violating civil rights, as law enforcement agents are permitted to ask people for information. The Fifth Amendment, he said, offers potential interviewees the right to refuse to speak to authorities, and the Fourth Amendment protects them from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Further, he said that it is not required in all cases for law enforcement to inform individuals of their rights; that, he said, is only required when someone is taken into police custody.
"There are legal guidelines in this country for these types of situations," he said. "And I am not seeing them violated."
But Mark Mishler, a lawyer at the firm of Walter, Thayer & Mishler, said that if people are being singled out based on criteria such as age, ethnicity or gender, then it's possible that rights are being violated.
"Arab-American background, age, gender, arrival into the United States at a certain time -- there is nothing inherently improper or criminal about that as a test for whether somebody is subject to law-enforcement interrogation," said Mishler. "This strikes me as violating rights that people have under the 14th amendment, which states that people are not supposed to be discriminated against."
Mishler voiced concerns about First Amendment rights, as well.
"Are Arab-Americans going to feel like they can't participate in certain community organizations out of fear that attending a meeting or a particular religious institution or ceremony might then target them for government harassment?" he asked. "These are all First Amendment issues."
But he said it is difficult to determine whether or not the interviews are violating civil rights without actually looking at each case individually.
"We can raise lots of concerns and questions," said Mishler. "But without really knowing what is going on, it is really difficult to make any categorical statements."
Storch insists that in this district the interviews will be conducted in a fair manner, and those conducting them will make it clear that it is voluntary.
"Nobody is being coercive, nobody is being dragged down to the station," said Storch. "This is being described as a roundup or dragnet operation and that is just not happening."
But for Nabil, who has lived here for more then 10 years, innocent people shouldn't be subject to this type of treatment.
"Just because I am from Pakistan and have a history of being involved with a political party makes me a candidate for questioning," he said. "My civil liberties? They are out the window."
Nancy Guerin is a staff writer at the Albany, New York alternative newsweekly, Metroland.
Start by repeating to yourself the following: "They want to give me my money back in exchange for returning this horrible piece of crap. I need only remove the obstacles they may feel duty bound to put in my way."
Repackage the item so that it looks as identical as possible to the way it appeared on the shelf. Store managers love that, and it's the reason I hang onto all packaging for many weeks. Present the package and your receipt to customer service with a plausible explanation of the problem. Try to make it as technical as possible, and speak in a monotone. ("The thing only runs off the USB port, and my PC doesn't have one.")
Be aware of the store's return policy. If you're not supposed to get a cash refund after 30 days and you waited for more than a month to take back the thing, practice your look of astonishment in the mirror. Then play it like this:
Service Rep: "I'm sorry, but all we can offer is an exchange for another item."
You, jaw dropping: "What? What!? I can't get my money back? You sell me something like this and I'm supposed to trust that some other product in here is gonna work?"
At which point the clerk either will relent or dig in the heels and get even more obstinate. Time to switch gears: "You know, the consumer protection laws in this state supersede the tiny print on the wall back there. I'm entitled to a full 90 days to get my money back. Now, I don't want this to get ugly, and I sure don't want to dump on you, but the law's the law."
Try to do a difficult return like this as close to closing time as possible, so the clerk will be motivated by the going-home imperative. Definitely do it after midnight at a 24-hour store.
It is even possible to return things you didn't buy at a store through the simple expedient of making up a phony cash register receipt. This requires that you keep a supply of register receipts from various emporia, noting the coding and printing (dot-matrix, inkjet). These you can duplicate on your computer. Unfortunately, many transactions now are tied by transaction number to the store's computer network ... but keep in mind that sales clerks are quick to point the finger of blame at the computer and not at you. Home Depot and Wal-Mart employees are continually pissed off at their stores' computers.
Wal-Mart, by the way, will take your stuff without a receipt as long as it's stuff likely to be found in Wal-Mart. Even if not, you can claim another store of origin. I unloaded a useless rug shampooer (in-law gift) at the Gloversville Wal-Mart simply by insisting I'd bought it at the Albany store and lost my receipt.
Sometimes the return threatens to be a huge challenge. I was stupid enough to let a malfunctioning snowblower sit in a backyard shed throughout the winter. I used it once, after which it never started -- and it ended up blocked into my tiny backyard. So it wasn't until April that I boxed up a December purchase and headed for Montgomery Ward.
My wife and I prepared for the occasion by dressing in farmer-style clothes (plaid shirts, overalls) and affecting back-country accents. And we planned a good-cop-bad-cop scenario, that played out like so as we stood in the crowded customer-service area:
Me: Got a snowblower to take back.
Clerk: Can I see your receipt? You bought this in December! I can't take this back!
Me: It don't work! I spent six hunnerd dollars on this an' it don't work! 'Sbeen stuck in my backyard all winter!
Clerk: I'm sorry, I can't --
Me: I saved up six hunnerd dollars t'buy this, and you're tryin' to rob me o' my money!? (Addressing the crowd:) That's what they do, yuh know! They rob you! They take your money away! Goddammit, they're STEALING FROM ME!
(The crowd started murmuring in assent. A wonderfully ugly mood hit the air.)
My Wife: Honey, don't get this way! Calm down! (To the clerk:) I'm sorry, but he gets this --
Me: DON'T TELL ME HOW TO BEHAVE! THEY AIN'T GONNA STEAL MY MONEY!
My Wife: Please, dear --
(Then I threw in the magic phrase, that gets your adversary instantly off the hook:)
Me: Does this have to be your decision?
The clerk shot into action, fetching a manager from the bowels of the store. I heard the manager ask, "Does the snowblower look OK?" and the clerk answered, "It looks new." Said the manager: "Then give him his money back."
We claim no responsibility for the store being out of business.
At 5 feet tall and weighing in at less than 90 pounds, young William P. most likely could not have lasted long defending himself against a cellmate the size of a grown man. A troubled boy diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, William P. was no doubt a handful -- by 1996, he was involuntarily committed to a South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice correctional facility -- but probably no more or less difficult to handle than other teens with similar emotional and disciplinary problems.
In July 1996, William P. was transferred, with 400 other boys, from South Carolina's overcrowded Broad River Road juvenile institution to the Columbia Training Center, a newly renovated psychiatric hospital-turned-"secure training school" in Columbia, S.C.
The new detention center was a little different than the institutions to which boys such as William P. were accustomed. Unlike the other facilities used to detain juvenile offenders in South Carolina, which were operated by the state's Department of Juvenile Justice, the Columbia Training Center was a private, for-profit institution designed, built and financed by the Corrections Corporation of America, one of the fastest-growing multinational, private operators of so-called "prisons for profit." And unlike the facilities that boys such as William P. had been in before, the Center was plagued by problems that CCA would later call "operational challenges."
Within a few months of its opening, the Center came under intense scrutiny from the public. A CCA-employed social worker claimed to have documented abuse and mismanagement at the facility, and later claimed he was fired for airing his complaints to outside sources; the center's staff were accused of using unorthodox and unacceptable disciplinary methods with unruly residents; and by August 1996, CCA was confronted with a shortage of staff members to supervise the 350 to 400 boys who populated the facility at any given time.
William P. quickly found out that Columbia Training Center could be a frightening and dangerous place. According to a federal lawsuit filed on his behalf in 1998 by Columbia, S.C., attorney Gaston Fairey, there was a "lack of control in the CTC facility,"which resulted in the use of abusive techniques to deal with disciplinary problems. The lawsuit claims that CCA permitted the center's staff to routinely terrorize and abuse the boys in their care with "inappropriate use of chemical munitions; excessive force; the inappropriate use of isolation rooms by intentionally placing an excessive number of juveniles into the rooms. ... [and] the use of older, larger juveniles as 'enforcers' or 'strawmen' to abuse younger or smaller juveniles as a means of discipline or control."
The lawsuit claims that in the less than six months that William P. was a resident at the Center, staffers subjected him to "inappropriate use of mace" and repeatedly threatened to lock him up with big, aggressive and violent juvenile offenders who would assault him. The lawsuit also alleges that he was "hog-tied" (a practice in which a juvenile's wrists and ankles are shackled together behind the back) as a disciplinary procedure; and that he was confined to a lock-up cell with a 6-foot-4, 225-pound inmate who, according to the suit, was "known by staff to abuse young, small juveniles such as William P. The other juvenile was placed in the cell by CCA staff with the knowledge and expectation that the other juvenile would assault William P."
By the end of the year, William P. allegedly had been physically brutalized by the larger boy and hog-tied as many as 30 times.
In January 1997, he was committed to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, covered with bruises and threatening to injure himself. He was hospitalized in an acute care psychiatric unit at a state-run mental-health facility until December 1997 -- almost one full year -- after only six months of detention at the CCA-run center.
"[The] plaintiff's guardian is informed and believes that William P. presently suffers from dissociative reaction disorder (post-traumatic stress disorder) and/or other psychological injuries as a direct and proximate result of the inhuman and torturous abuse inflicted upon the plaintiff by CCA," William P.'s legal complaint charges. "It is expected that he will require care and treatment for the indefinite future as a direct and proximate result of the abuse he suffered while in CCA's custody at CTC. Due to William P.'s present mental condition, he is unable to completely describe the details of the abuse and events that occurred at CTC at this time."
An unfortunate, isolated incident? Not at all -- in fact, according to a representative of the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice, 10 similar suits have been filed against CCA by William P.'s lawyer. Five have been settled, the department says, and five more will go to court this fall -- and, as a result of the operating problems at the Columbia Training Center, South Carolina terminated its contract with the company after just one year.
"It was decided by both parties not to renew," explains Monica Newman of the Department of Juvenile Justice. "I think both parties realized that the privatization of a large juvenile facility just, in fact, was not working ... I wouldn't say that one particular juvenile case had any bearing on the ... decision not to renew [CCA's contract]. I think it was just the privatization issue in general."
CCA responded to the bad press that ensued from the Columbia incident -- not to mention myriad other incidents at CCA-operated facilities across the country -- with a 10-point press release stating, among other things, that "inmates at all prisons, private and public, will do anything they can to circumvent both the physical security measures in a facility and the employees responsible for the operations inside the facility ... The history of CCA's South Carolina contract often has been misrepresented ... the operational challenge [the South Carolina contract] presented to CCA and the states also were unprecedented and drew intense public scrutiny. The cloud of negative publicity that resulted undermined the state's faith in CCA."
It works like this: A financially strapped community, searching for ways to pump money into its economy, is approached by a company such as Corrections Corporation of America or Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (the world's largest for-profit prison operator), willing to put underutilized properties back on the tax rolls, create hundreds of long-term jobs that pay moderately well, and (usually) ask for little in return. Further, the companies promise, they will provide a public service -- housing, feeding and rehabilitating prisoners or juvenile offenders -- at significantly lower cost to the taxpayer than a government-run facility.
According to Susan Hart, vice president of communications for CCA, some of her company's business comes from state and municipal government bidding processes -- that is, a government decides that it will contract with a private firm for corrections management -- and a good portion comes from pure speculation. The company singles out facilities that are close to capacity, builds its own facility nearby and steps in to take some of the overflow prisoners at a set cost per head.
"One part of our company growth is from anticipating the needs of government and investing in a particular project because you know that a state or federal system has a severe overcrowding problem," Hart explains. "We are anticipating their needs without costing government or taxpayers any capital."
The company makes its money by billing government agencies for its services; Hart says that her company works hand-in-hand with government officials to "erase the line between public and private" and streamline the bureaucracy-heavy, state-administered system.
"We are a publicly held company -- we have investors and we borrow money, just like everyone else," Hart says. "If you sort of compared us to homebuilding, we basically establish a line of credit, which we must pay back ... There's no magic to that part. What is quote-unquote magical is it doesn't cost taxpayers, in many instances, up-front tax dollars."
But, according to private-prison critics, including Eric Lotke of the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project, the way the private-prison industry makes its money is much less benign than company spokespeople make it sound.
"Right at the time when the state is out of space in the prison -- and right at the time when the voters would have to approve a bond issue for prison expansion, the time when people might suddenly say, 'Hey why are we locking up all these nickel-bag drug offenders at $32,000 a head?' -- right at that time, CCA or Wackenhut walks up and says, 'Hey, guess what -- we already have a prison. All you have to do is ship us your guys."
Once the prison is built, every dollar not spent on a prisoner's care is a dollar that goes back to the company's stockholders -- and for companies such as CCA, which is actually traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the interests of stockholders legally must come first -- so quality care becomes secondary to profit.
"The biggest problem, probably, is in the fact that private corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize their profits," explains Judith Greene, a senior Soros justice fellow for the Open Society Institute's Center on Crime, Communities and Culture. "In the last two years, both of the two largest companies -- CCA and Wackenhut, who really dominate the industry -- between the two of them, they own or operate 75 percent of the private bids. Both of those companies have had really serious problems in their facilities ... Take [Wackenhut's] Jena [juvenile prison] in Louisiana, for example. The chief government expert, Nancy Ray, is writing about how so many of those kids didn't have any shoes and were walking around the prison with no shoes or with just dirty socks ... The sneakers they issue cost $9.90 at Wal-Mart. But they sell sneakers at the prison's canteen for $30 a pair. You see that kind of thing all the time. CCA in Florida charges a 30 percent mark-up for batteries for headphones. ... Prisoners I interviewed in Minnesota said that they were issued just one towel."
Just as troubling as the corner-cutting, private-prison critics say, is that the industry makes its money by trading human beings -- hence the private prison industry's nickname, the "New Slavery."
According to Lotke, whose organization was involved in a class-action lawsuit against the notorious CCA-operated Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio, America's experiment with private prisons has proven that most companies do not do a good job.
"I used to not be troubled too much by the problems with private prisons," Lotke says. "I said, 'Look, it's a new industry -- cut them a little slack, they've got to get the wrinkles out still.' I sort of felt that way in the first generation of private prisons and prison companies. Now, I've come to feel differently about that."
After CCA established itself in Youngstown -- once the nation's leader in steel production, now an economically struggling town where abandoned factories and vacant warehouses dot the landscape -- the company made a $182 million deal with the District of Columbia. CCA agreed to take some of the most difficult inmates from D.C.'s troubled prison complex in Lorton, Va., and house them at the Northeast Ohio facility.
Shortly after the experiment began, Lotke claims, he and his staff began to hear horror stories. "These were our folks, 1,400 of them, and they went down there, and they started to die," he recalls, his voice breaking with anger. "There was the Bryson Chisley death, the Derrick Davis death -- in the opening month, there were all these murders. And then the medical deaths started trickling in -- I think there were nine medical deaths in the first year. We yelled and screamed and yelled and screamed, for example, to get this one guy with a lump on his neck, to have it investigated. They said, 'Oh, we looked at it,' and they said, 'Oh it's just a node.' Six months later, maybe more than that, we finally got the thing biopsied, and it was lymphatic cancer. And now we think he's gonna die. And we will hold CCA accountable for that."
So far, D.C. Prisoner's Legal Services Project has managed to hold CCA accountable for some of its more egregious actions. Citing the deaths, stabbings, insufficient medical attention, abusive treatment and undertrained staff, the nonprofit organization filed a class-action lawsuit against CCA and was awarded nearly $2 million in 1999 on behalf of Northeast's inmates.
According to Alphonse Gerhardstein, an attorney who joined D.C. Prisoner's Legal Services Project in the suit, the company failed to address complaints and was reluctant to take responsibility for its shortcomings: "We had a combination of very high levels of violence and very low levels of medical care, but CCA said everything was fine and [that] we were just crying wolf.
"I do a lot of prison litigation," he continues. "Most of my work has been against public prisons, so I'm not an apologist for the public system -- I have plenty of gripes against them, too -- but when my name came up [for the Northeast Ohio case], and when they wrote to me about it, I knew this smelled bad. I had never been in a private prison before, never even seen one. When I walked in that first time, I just knew the place was out of control. No one checked my bag -- they just opened the gates and let me in because I said I was an attorney there for an attorney interview."
Garhardstein says that during the visit, he saw inmates wandering through the prison "pods" unsupervised; when he asked guards where certain prisoners were going, or why they were wandering freely, he was met with a markedly cavalier attitude.
"I saw an inmate going into Pod B unsupervised, and I said, 'What's going on here? Do you know where that person is going?'" Gerhardstein recalls. "The hall guard said no. He wasn't concerned. I said, 'Isn't it your job as the hall-monitor officer to check why they are going places?' He said, 'No, I figure if someone let him out, he must know where he's going."
Currently, there are only two states that outlaw the practice of prisons for profit: One is Illinois, the other New York. The private-prison question in New York was settled -- at least for now -- in 1997, when CCA bought a tract of land in the town of Fallsburg, then announced its intention to build a 1,000-bed, minimum-security drug-treatment center at the site of a former resort hotel.
Council 82, the labor union that represents prison guards in the state, banded together with members of the Civil Service Employees' Association and successfully lobbied for a law that would prohibit anyone other than local or state corrections officers to supervise inmates at county and state correctional facilities. A bill passed in the Assembly and Senate declared New York's borders closed to prison privateers -- but that doesn't mean that private correctional facilities can't find a backdoor into the market.
The New York law, for example, declares it illegal for private companies to house state inmates, but there is no law on the books precluding them from housing federal prisoners. In 1997, Wackenhut opened, for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, New York's one and (so far) only private prison, the Queens Private Correctional Facility in New York City.
And just because a state may declare private prisons illegal today, a document linked to CCA's Web site points out, doesn't mean they'll be illegal forever.
"Statutes are inherently subject to change," the document, prepared by retired University of Florida criminology professor Charles Thomas, states. "The effect of this reality is that research results that are valid at one point in time are swiftly invalidated by subsequent legislative actions."
Which is why U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio), a former guard at a maximum-security prison, has proposed legislation at the federal level that, if passed, would significantly restrict the private-prison industry by tying federal grant programs to the prohibition of outsourcing corrections contracts.
"My purpose is twofold," Strickland explains, "to prevent the privatization of any federal prison facility, and [to] significantly discourage the state leaders choosing to further privatize prisons in their states."
The bill, dubbed the Public Safety Act, would require all federal prisoners to be held in government-owned and -operated prison facilities; further, it would prohibit all states receiving grants under the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (most states receive these grants) from contracting out prison services. So far, Strickland says, his bill has the bipartisan support of more than 110 members of Congress.
"The bottom line for me is that incarceration should remain the responsibility of the public," Strickland says. "The public should not only to be responsible for the various parts of our criminal-justice apparatus -- that consists of the courts and juries and judges -- but also incarceration. Incarceration, in my view, is part of our criminal-justice apparatus. It's part of how we, as a nation, administer justice, and to take a part of that and turn it over to a private, for-profit concern is just wrong, and can lead to all kinds of abuses."
And abuses seem to be happening all the time: the murders and stabbings and escapes that happened at the Northeast Ohio facility; the problems at Jena, where juvenile prisoners were not provided with basic necessities, such as shoes; and even the unorthodox disciplinary procedures at the Columbia Training Center, which may have scarred the young William P. for life.
But instead of taking these incidents as early warning signs that the private prisons don't work, Lotke says, municipalities and state governments, looking for a quick cash fix, continue to embrace private prisons. In fact, he says, the District of Columbia recently passed a local law that mandates that at least half of its prisoners be locked up in privately run facilities -- an ordinance that, Lotke says, flies in the face of good sense, considering the problems that clearly plague the prisons-for-profit industry.
"This was their audition -- this was their coming-out party," Lotke says, unable to hide the venom in his voice. "If they couldn't perform during their test run, when all eyes are on them, why would they be able to perform better later on, when nobody cares? Ten years from now, when these guys are just part of the landscape, nobody's gonna care if these guys screw up. If they're doing this in year one, what are they going to do in year five, when they're not being watched anymore? You promised us a better product at a better price -- that's what you promised. We're now a couple of years into this, and you still haven't shown us that."
The facts of the case seem reasonably straightforward: On Feb. 4, 1999, four New York City police officers were cruising a Bronx neighborhood on assignment with the NYPD's special Street Crime Unit. Officers Kenneth Boss, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon and Richard Murphy, all dressed in plain clothes, got out of their car and approached 22-year-old Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant with no criminal record.When the brief encounter was over, Diallo lay dead in the vestibule of his apartment building, having been struck by 19 of the 41 bullets the police fired in his direction. Their explanation for the deadly barrage centered on their claims that Diallo resembled a neighborhood rape suspect and that they thought he had pulled a gun. The only item found in the dead man's hand was his wallet.The killing sparked outrage in New York City and beyond, and on March 31, 1999, the four officers were indicted on charges of second-degree murder and first-degree reckless endangerment. On Dec. 16, the trial venue was changed to Albany -- a move heavily criticized as being unfair to the prosecution, who would have benefited from a jury familiar with the history of police-community relations in the Bronx.Last Friday, Feb. 26, the racially mixed jury (four blacks, eight whites) returned "not guilty" verdicts on all charges against all four officers, including lesser charges the court had agreed to consider. While some have applauded the verdict, characterizing the killing as not a crime but a "tragic mistake," others have responded with anger, frustration, protest, charges of incompetent prosecution and judicial bias, and calls for a federal civil-rights prosecution."Judge [Joseph C.] Teresi allowed context favorable to the officers but not context favorable to the prosecution," claims Vickie Smith, co-chair of Albany's Justice for Diallo Committee. "He didn't allow, and the prosecution made little attempt to offer, testimony that they and the Street Crimes Unit routinely engaged in racial profiling, three of them had shot before, they had harassed innocent youth on the very same night that they murdered Amadou Diallo."One New York activist sees a silver lining to the cloud of helplessness the Diallo verdict left hanging on African-American communities in the Bronx and elsewhere."I was surprised that they were totally exonerated," says Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice. "I think they should have been held accountable for some part of what they had done." But Green disagrees with those who say the verdict means it's now "open season" on people of color -- because, she says, it's already been that way for a long time.Instead, Green feels the high profile of the case finally has average citizens questioning police procedures in high-crime neighborhoods. In fact, she says, she has received an unusually large number of calls from people who are fed up with racial profiling and the aggressive tactics of special crime units that target minority neighborhoods. "I'm feeling optimistic that we're going to make some difference," she says. "We haven't seen this kid of activity on criminal justice in a long time."
Charles Barron was prepared to be angry -- in fact, he says he had a whole bunch of angry statements ready for when the jury came back with a judgment of criminally negligent homicide or manslaughter.What he wasn't prepared for, however, was the jury's verdict on Friday exonerating the four police officers who gunned down Amadou Diallo in the Bronx early last year."I am burnt! I am outraged," he seethes. "Outraged to say the least. This jury must have been from another planet. They couldn't have been viewing what we were viewing in that court."Barron is a community organizer from New York City who, for the last year and a half, has been working with the family of a black man who suffered a fate strikingly similar to Diallo's. On Halloween night 1997, 22-year-old Patrick Bailey, an aspiring stockbroker and son of Jamaican immigrants living in Brooklyn, was shot by none other than Street Crime Unit Officer Kenneth Boss, one of the four recently acquitted in the Diallo trial. Police officers alleged that Bailey had been menacing people outside of his home with a sawed-off shotgun that night, and when the SCU arrived on the scene, they claimed, Bailey aimed the gun at them before running into a building. SCU officers followed him inside, and Boss fired two shots that hit Bailey in the thigh and hip, severing a major artery. Bailey waited 40 minutes for an ambulance to arrive on the scene and bled to death at the hospital.Bailey's parents insist that their son was not armed and even say they can produce eyewitnesses to attest to it; prosecutors allegedly refused to interview them. An unloaded, inoperable shotgun was found at the scene, but Barron argues that even if Bailey had so much as pointed it, as the officers said he did, he probably would have been shot dead long before he could have run back into the building. After an investigation by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, Boss was cleared of any wrongdoing in Bailey's death. The Bailey family has filed a $155 million civil-rights suit in U.S. District Court against the New York City police and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.Barron escorted Bailey's relatives to Albany when Boss took the stand in the Diallo trial. When Evadine Bailey, Patrick's mother, heard that Boss was free to walk again, Barron said she was "distraught, outraged and angered.""Here is a killer cop that got away with murder twice," Barron said. "They hoped for the sake of the Amadou Diallo family that they would finally see him off the street.... She [Evadine Bailey] tried to warn them in 1997 to take this killer cop and get him off the street before he kills again. On behalf of the Bailey family, I know that they are angered and were looking forward to having him put away, at least on this second offense."Barron says that the Bailey and Diallo cases are not isolated incidents in New York City -- and reports from the New York Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch back up his claim. In fact, Amnesty International's 1996 report, "Police Brutality and Excessive Force in the New York City Police Department," details more than 20 cases between 1990 and 1994 in which police shot suspects under questionable circumstances. The report indicates that of 35 cases studied by Amnesty International, "a disproportionate number of people shot in non-threatening or questionable circumstances in New York City are racial minorities" -- 16 were Latino, 15 black, one Asian, one white and two unknown -- but between 1977 and 1995, only one New York City police officer was convicted of homicide for an on-duty shooting.It's disparities like these, Barron says, that have minority communities -- in New York City especially, but also across the nation -- up in arms about police brutality and inequity in the criminal-justice system."Someone needs to protect us from our paid protectors," he says. "And I'll tell you something else that's more frightening than the police -- I'm afraid that my folk are not gonna take this much longer. This could become a very dangerous place because it's like a powder keg out there.... I'm not usually one who's a predictor of doom and self-fulfilling prophecy, but I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to predict that this will happen again. And when it does, what do we tell our people to do? Be cool? Let's go march and go to the DA's office?"According to Barron and Sen. Larry Seabrook (D-L-Bronx), it may fall on the state Legislature to begin policing the police. Barron says he has a four-tiered plan that he'd like to see implemented in New York, including a state review board independent of DA's offices and police departments; a security agency made up of retired black and Latino police officers to patrol the streets and monitor both police and civilian activities; an end to private grand jury testimonies in police brutality cases; and a change in the language that permits the use of "deadly force" by police officers."When a candy bar becomes reasonable use for deadly force and keys become reasonable and looking both ways before you go into your house becomes reasonable, then we know we need to change the language," he explains.Sen. Seabrook says that the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus of the New York State Legislature has "a number of things" it will propose. First on the list, Seabrook says, is the elimination of the "48-hour rule," which gives officers two full days before they are required to make a statement to supervisors about an incident. If the 48-hour rule had not been in effect for the Diallo case, Seabrook says, the four officers on trial "would never have been able to concoct a story" before talking to top brass.Seabrook also contends that state law should call for a special prosecutor when a police officer takes a life; all too often, he says, district attorneys and police officers share a cozy relationship. Although Seabrook did not directly criticize Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson for his handling of the Diallo case (some critics called the Diallo prosecution "weak" and speculate that the DA's office may have thrown the case), he did indicate that "the district attorney's offices, along with the police departments, work hand-in-hand in most cases -- police bring the district attorneys their clients."The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus may propose mandatory drug and alcohol testing immediately following the kind of shootings that took the lives of Diallo and Bailey. "If a person is operating a train in the city of New York, and there is a crash, they automatically have to have drug and alcohol testing -- why not with the police?" Seabrook wonders.Finally, he said, the caucus will call for an end to racial profiling, a practice the NYPD's SCU officers used routinely in their patrols of minority neighborhoods.Barron says the practice encourages "open season" on blacks and Latinos, a notion he contends is reinforced by the verdict in the Diallo case."Impunity for the police. There is no value to black or Latino life," he states simply, and takes a jab at Justice Jospeh C. Teresi, who reportedly made a friendly visit to the defense after the announcement of the verdict. "The DA will protect you with a softball prosecution. The judge will protect you ... and the judge might even come over to your house to party with you, like this judge did after the verdict."Seabrook agrees: "I went to that trial every day, stayed from morning until it was over," he concludes. "When I heard that verdict, I was numb. I could not believe that they didn't charge them with anything. It sends a message throughout this city, this state and this nation that black life doesn't count. It frightens you because that could just as easily been me."