Silja J.A. Talvi

Has Torture Become Normalized in Our Culture? It's Still Unbelievably Inhumane

What if we called torture by another name? Would torture begin to mean something again?

Keep reading... Show less

Women Refugees in Europe Wallow in Filth and Starvation

In the muddy, freezing border regions between Greece and Macedonia, in small villages like Idomeni, Greece, women refugees and their children are crying out for help on a daily basis. But most European leaders are unable or unwilling to see the torment in these women’s eyes.

Keep reading... Show less

As Many Governments Flail, Ordinary Europeans Are Making Extraordinary Gestures to Help Refugees

Helsinki, FINLANDThe gestures have been both grand and unexpected.       

Keep reading... Show less

Wrongfully Convicted, Leonard Peltier Is Turning 70 in Prison

This September, Leonard Peltier will spend his 70th birthday in pain and isolation. Prisoner # 89637-132 is exactly where the FBI wants him: locked up in one of America's largest federal supermaximum prisons in Coleman, Florida.

Keep reading... Show less

Women Behind Bars Are Deprived of Their Basic Rights

Three years ago, I journeyed back to Santa Fe to return to a city where I had once lived -- and that always seemed to call me back.

Keep reading... Show less

Drug War Traps Increasing Numbers of Women

Oklahoman Tina Thomas has been caught up in the American war on drugs.

In many respects, she fits the common profile of a woman doing time for a drug-related offense. Her crimes have ranged from possession to check forgery and theft, including an arrest for trying to steal a $64 comforter from Wal-Mart. Eventually sentenced to a two-year state prison term, Thomas admits that she committed her crimes to feed the “800-pound gorilla on my back that I just hadn’t been able to shake.”

Thomas is part of an alarming statistical trend and a modern-day American phenomenon. For starters, she is one of half a million people (roughly one-fourth of the total prison population) locked up on drug-related charges. Thomas is also an inmate in a state that locks up women at one of the highest per capita rates -- 129 per 100,000 residents, a figure that is right behind Texas, the federal system and California. Oklahoma’s imprisonment of women rose a stunning 1,237 percent from 1997 to 2004.

Drug addiction is what led Thomas down the river to prison, she admits freely. What’s a bit more unusual about her is that she holds a medical doctorate from the University of Illinois, and was a practicing neurologist and professor at a teaching hospital. She stood out in her field to such a degree that her colleagues felt uncomfortable around here, particularly after she disclosed she was a lesbian. What Thomas didn’t disclose, however, was an early childhood marred by incest, the lingering pain from which she used cocaine as an escape. Unfortunately, her cocaine use took a painful turn into a full-blown crack addiction.

Thomas and other women have had the misfortune of being sucked into what the federal government calls the “war on drugs.” We have our own “drug czar,” who sits atop the massive Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). President Nixon started this war in 1969, and President Reagan kicked it into high gear. It’s been a full-throttle battle since, even through the Clinton years.

By 1980, the number of drug-related arrests stood at 581,000. Just 10 years later, that number had nearly doubled to 1,090,000.

In 2005, the FBI reported that law enforcement officers made more arrests for drug-abuse violations (1.8 million) than for any other offense.

One of the most surprising facts about these figures, as far as police are concerned, is the drug of choice: marijuana. Cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug, which means that it is one of the most dangerous drugs imaginable.

Cocaine, on the other hand, a leading cause of overdose deaths, is classified as a Schedule II. So is PCP. Go figure.

In 2005, nearly 43 percent of all drug arrests were for cannabis possession (37.7 percent) or “sales and manufacture” (4.3 percent). That’s millions of arrests and billions of dollars -- and amounts to a lot of misery and money down the drain.

In 2008, the ONDCP drug-war budget will reach a record $12.9 billion, with $8 billion of this funding being funneled into law enforcement. Bear in mind that these are only the official numbers. Many criminal justice experts point out that the figure doesn’t incorporate the costs of incarcerating people sentenced for drug offenses. The real expenditure, including the costs of imprisonment, comes close to $22 billion, according to an analysis by the drug policy newsletter, Drug War Chronicle.

We’re not getting much of a bang for these big bucks. Unintentional drug overdoses have become the second-most common form of accidental death after car crashes. While the government increases funding for antidrug missions in Colombia and Afghanistan by tens of millions every year, federal allocations to the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention and the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment are being cut by $32 million in 2008.

A 2006 Government Accountability Office report revealed that our $1.4 billion antidrug media blitz wasn’t working, either. And it wasn’t the first organization to note this. In 2003, the White House Office of Management and Budget disclosed that it found these ads lacking in any demonstrable success.

What’s worse, the people who need help aren’t getting it. In the rest of the Western world, assistance with drug and alcohol problems is widely accessible. They predominantly view heavy drug use or full-blown addiction as public health issues, not behavioral issues subject to prosecution (except in cases involving other criminal activity).

In the United States, however, rehabilitation and counseling are difficult to access without money. The waiting lists for free or subsidized rehabilitation programs can run from a few months to a couple of years -- even in progressive cities like San Francisco or Seattle.

Most American women, as well as men, have used some form of intoxicant (legal or illegal) during their lives, and half of all women ages 15 to 54 admit to having used illegal drugs specifically.

An estimated 22 million Americans are currently dependent on alcohol, drugs or both, although the real number is likely to be much higher, particularly as the figure does not take into account the 71.5 million people age 12 and up who use tobacco -- many of whom are likely addicted to nicotine.

Anyone who has ever smoked cigarettes habitually can relate to what even heroin and other hard-drug users have told me on several occasions -- that nicotine is the most addictive drug they have ever taken, and the hardest substance to quit. (Small wonder that the tobacco ban in many prisons has started a fierce black market, where a single cigarette can cost between $5 and $10.)

Regardless of whether they are caught, more than 9 million women each year use illicit drugs, and another 3.7 million use prescription drugs without medical authorization.

One such woman, Danielle Pascu, 29, got hooked on prescription drugs after the birth of her daughter. At first she was grateful for the prescribed Vicodin that got her though the lingering pain from a caesarean section and untreated postpartum depression.

But it didn’t take Pascu long to develop a full-blown habit, where she was eventually falsifying her prescriptions in order to get more. Pascu had no criminal record, had never used drugs before and was generally unaware of the risks involved. These days, Pascu is serving nearly three years in the sun-baked and dilapidated Arizona State Prison Complex in Perryville.

At this point, drug violations and property offenses account for a majority (59 percent) of females in state prison. By comparison, men in both of these offense categories add up to just 39.5 percent. Meanwhile, in federal prison, women and men convicted of drug offenses constitute nearly 60 percent of inmates.

Tina Thomas knows that she has a quadruple strike to overcome. She’s a black female with a former cocaine addiction, in a state that prefers to lock people up for substance abuse and that will deprive her of public assistance when she gets out. She now faces a lifetime ban on federal benefits, including contracts, licenses and grants.

As a drug offender, Thomas won’t be able to get Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) if she should ever need it. Food assistance, higher-education funding and even income tax deductions for pursuing a college degree are all yanked away from most felony drug offenders.

Yet nearly every other category of ex-offender -- including sex offenders, murderers, arsonists and perpetrators of domestic violence -- is eligible for these benefits. And, as if all this isn’t bad enough, Thomas will find that even getting a job will be difficult, because she must report herself as an ex-felon.

I’m often asked whether African Americans might just be using drugs more than any other group of people. My response is always met with disbelief until I prove it with the government’s own health statistics: African Americans constitute only 15 percent of drug users nationwide.

FBI data, at first glance, appears to show Euro-Americans bearing the brunt of drug-related arrests. Numerically speaking, they do, in that they are still the majority of the U.S. population. But a closer look reveals something else: African Americans are arrested at three times the rate of their demographic representation.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Sentencing Project, asks the very pertinent question of whether police are arresting crack and cocaine users in general, or specifically going into communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods, where some people are using drugs and engaging in the street trade.

“Conducting drug arrests in minority neighborhoods does have advantages for law enforcement,” writes Mauer in his 2006 book, Race to Incarcerate. “First, it is far easier to make arrests in such areas, since drug dealing is more likely to take place in open-air drug markets. In contrast, drug dealing is suburban neighborhoods almost invariably takes place behind closed doors and is therefore not readily identifiable to passing police.”

This is a crucial point. Many substance users are men and women with professional careers. People with middle- to upper-class incomes tend to use their drugs behind doors in nice houses, in well-to-do neighborhoods. They slip under the drug war radar, just as college students do.

A quarter of full-time undergraduate students meet the criteria for substance abuse or dependence, something the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse calls “wasting the best and brightest.”

Yet none of this is anything that the Office of National Drug Control Policy cares to have mentioned, much less examine. It’s just another one of those inconvenient truths.

When the One You Love Is Behind Bars

A story like this needs to be told, but it's painful in the telling.

I write articles for a living, because I need to tell people's stories. It's a blessing -- and sometimes a painful aspect of my existence -- that people from all walks of life seem to want to tell me their stories, whether I ask to be told or not. Sometimes I seek those stories out to begin with, and sometimes I ask permission to turn their stories into articles that allow others to listen to them. Journalism comes naturally to me. But I think of my profession more as a way of letting the stories be heard and considered than as a "career" that I've chosen for one reason or another -- and wealth or fame are certainly not among them.

I love writing meaningful stories of all kinds, but there's one kind that's my particular passion: "muckraking" journalism. Within that broader field, I've specialized in criminal justice/prison issues for the past decade. Through personal interviews, statistical analysis, research studies -- and a wide variety of visits to jails and prisons nationwide -- I've always sought to uncover what really happens behind imposing, concrete structures, barbed wire and the confines of tiny prison cells which now contain 2.24 million Americans. (The U.S. has the highest per-capita rate of incarceration in the world.) My work has always been framed in the context of the imperative that our society should provide fundamental civil and human rights for all. As a result, I have a rather obsessive passion for getting to the bottom of things, to understand why people behave the way that they do, and how social trends and public policies evolve (or devolve) in the way that they do.

Again, my journalism been about other people, but this is a different kind of story, about the pain and lasting trauma of experiencing my loved one getting arrested on a nonviolent drug charge. It's about the struggle to keep both of us going both during and after he was thrown into the vortex of the prison system.

It had been an awful, nearly unbelievable coincidence that Tommy* was sentenced shortly after I signed a book contract to write about the plight of women in prison. For the first few months after his arrest and sentencing, I didn't know what to do with myself. I had seen and interviewed so many people moving through the various echelons of the system that I initially reasoned that I could handle it. After all, I thought I knew what to expect. I understood criminal law, and what I knew from prisoners about doing time. But when arrest and imprisonment happens to a loved one, it cuts so deep that you start to feel as if you're serving time along with him. I had to watch Tommy struggle visibly with the untreated mental illness that directly contributed to the behavior that got him arrested in the first place. I watched him get marched into depersonalized jail hearings and treated like trash.

Like most drug-possession-related defendants in this country, Tommy pleaded guilty at the recommendation of just about everyone involved in his case. I didn't disagree, especially if it meant the possibility of a shorter sentence. The hard evidence was overwhelming, obtained through a number of "snitches" and two undercover buy operations. Tommy was selling ecstasy, actually eating most of it himself in an ill-fated attempt to try to stay "happy" after he lost custody of his kids; survived several suicide attempts; and had been living on the streets for several months.

Say what you will, but I had taken Tommy in six months before his arrest. All of this started with a chance meeting at a bus stop downtown. I sat alone, the way that I do almost everywhere I go, holding my own against any kind of chaos that might swirl around me. But Tommy broke through with the look in his eyes: sincere, kind, and a bit of an awkward goofiness that made me smile. After that, I kept running into him all across the city. Tommy's eyes still lit up, and he still had that goofy grin when he saw me, but he seemed worse for the wear. A couple of months later, I saw that the man with the gentle smile was on the verge of giving up altogether. He had nothing left, and I had something to give: a warm home, a couch, and the knowledge that he would not steal from or take advantage of me. People thought me crazy, but I knew that he needed to know, unconditionally, that someone actually gave a damn about whether he lived or died.

No matter what you think of that -- and there are many reading this who find the very idea of taking in a homeless person or his drug use reprehensible -- I saw the remnants of a brilliant, beautiful spirit in Tommy. In a way that was quite familiar to me, I saw that he was self-destructive, trying to stay afloat in the only way that made seemed to make sense to him at the time. I can't explain it, but we fell in love. Tommy moved in, and I set about trying to help him make it through.

But that love wasn't enough to get him the help he needed, fast enough. I had finally gotten Tommy to agree that he was in serious trouble. I was going to accompany him to the Seattle Indian Health Board to get the treatment he desperately needed. That was to be the next morning, the night after the collect call came from the Port Orchard jail. Tommy was in the throes of a full, psychotic break. I knew that the situation had just turned for worse. He could barely talk. Nothing made sense. The only thing I could think was that maybe, just maybe, he would finally get the help he needed.

Seeing clear evidence of the shape he was in, the prosecutors still slapped him with every charge imaginable, including trafficking and manufacturing, something that bumped up his bail to an incredible $50,000, up to ten times as as much as many violent offenders are held on. These charges were patently absurd, and everyone knew it. (In King County, as many criminal defense lawyers have subsequently told me, most of this wouldn't have stuck past the first court hearing.)

But Tommy was busted in Kitsap County, where the resident population is overwhelmingly Euro-American. Everyone in the courtroom involved with his case was white; we decided not to risk a jury trial. So when Tommy was sentenced to two years in state prison by a judge who didn't hear anything about his personal background until the day of his sentencing -- when I was allowed to get up and speak on his behalf -- it was at least it was nowhere near as bad as the staggering 15 years that the prosecutors had originally talked about.

These are the broad strokes of the early challenges that we faced, but the devil is in the details of what was to come. So here's a small snapshot of what it was like when Tommy "fell," as the prison jargon goes, likening the experience to trying to survive on a battlefield.

If Tommy was in the line of fire, then I was in the background, minding the fort. While Tommy dealt with physical attacks by white racists, verbal and physical abuse at the hands of prison guards, illness-inducing food, and terrifying bouts in solitary confinement, I dealt with isolation, depression, an overriding sense of helplessness, and massive collect call phone bills. (Washington's are $4.00 per every monitored and timed 15-minute call.) Most of my friends and even family members dropped off, as though I had gotten leprosy. Shoulder leaning wasn't an opportunity I was afforded except by a small handful of people. I started to become horrified by my own behavior when I began to break down and cry in public, something I had never done before. I drank too much, sat in darkness in my apartment and fell apart far too many times to count.

In the midst of this, I started on the most intensive travel and research portion of my book, heading everywhere from the nation's largest federal prison complex in central Florida to the world's largest women's prison complex in central California. I went to prisons in London, Finland and Canada along the way. As a journalist working on a book about a subject that doesn't usually get covered, I actually got treated relatively well in prisons -- even being allowed to interview inmates in prisons where pre-arranged interviews were verboten. I moved through prison yards with ease, while Tommy considered himself lucky if he got an officer to even look or talk to him as though he were human.

He was a captive. I was a reporter writing about captives. Our roles in society couldn't have been more different.

Each time I schlepped to visit Tommy at the McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC) -- one of a total of six jails, prisons and work release centers to which he was shuffled throughout his prison term -- I had to make a three-and-a-half hour trip from Seattle to Steilacoom, taking four buses to get there. (Oddly enough, the MICC depot is located on the grounds of the Western State public hospital.) It's there that civilians are checked, from head to toe, for anything forbidden by prison code-- no more than one set of earrings, one necklace, open-toed shoes without stockings, skirts that rise more than three inches above the knee, and so forth. Visitors can't carry anything on board the ferry except for vending-machine cards, IDs and locker and/or car keys. Even mothers of infants are limited to the number of diapers and baby food jars they can bring in. (Those rules sometimes changed from week to week.)

From there, visitors pile on to an old, rickety school bus. For 10 minutes, we bounce along toward the ferry dock, walk accompanied by another prison guard and then shuffle toward another waiting room. Over the course of this journey to MICC, family members, wives, girlfriends, children and friends of prisoners must wait a very long time during every step of the way, with nothing to read, nothing to do but fold our hands. Then it's onto the ferry where visitors are told how they can or cannot sit on board. After a 20-minute ride, we arrive at MICC, a lush, state-owned island where deer and squirrels roam free, but men do not. All visitors must wait again until a prison guard shows up to escort us. We walk single-file, across a bridge and down a hill, and then enter MICC through two barbed wire-lined gates to the sterile visiting room.

One of the times that I made this journey in the wintertime, it had been nearly one-third of a year since I had last seen Tommy. Before that, I had seen him just about every other week, after the Washington Department of Corrections handled his request for psychological assistance, while in work release, by throwing him against a wall, shackling him and placing him back in the 23-hour lock-down DOC "reception" facility in Shelton, a place where bewildered, sometimes angry men find themselves face to face with what it feels like to become a number and not a human being. The first day there, Tommy (whose ethnic background is a mix of black, Aleut and Samoan) heard his first command: "Negro," two white guards told him, "get to steppin'." Altogether, Tommy wound up serving almost six months of his sentence in this prison, without access to education, counseling or prison employment, in a three-man cell designed for two. (The third man sleeps on the floor, by the toilet, and is called "the rug.")

After carelessly doled out psychotropics that left Tommy in a zombie-like state, someone finally paid enough attention to get him the medication he needed -- and a psychiatrist who took genuine interest in him while he was still at MICC. (In my experience this is more than most prisoners suffering from mental illness can say.) I wish I could say this story had a happy ending, but it's far from being anywhere near it. Instead, Tommy came out of prison with a whole, new set of traumas.

Men and women come into prison as human beings -- no matter how flawed, troubled, disturbed or angry they might be. If they eventually have the chance to leave prison, as more than 95 percent do, these men and women have to relearn what it is to be treated as a human being without a number attached to every aspect of their existence. Even more importantly, they have to relearn what it is to live without constant commands to do this or that, even to feel what it is to be a human being worthy of any measure of respect and dignity. Small wonder that most former prisoners recidivate, or relapse -- largely for parole violations of one kind of another -- amounting to more than two-thirds of the 700,000 people who are released from captivity each year. While they are still locked up, prisoners' lives are predicated on the fact that they are not respected as such, and correctional employees are in the position of telling them what to do, all day long. The only decision-making power that most prisoners have is whether to obey or disobey even the smallest commands without question. The latter is fraught with all manner of consequences upon re-entry into society.

Prison is supposed to serve a "correctional" purpose in making our society a safer place to be, but the fact remains that genuine rehabilitation is usually the last thing on the agenda. While in prison, employment is scarce and low-paying. (When he was briefly employed as a carpenter at MICC, Tommy made 28 cents an hour.) Prisoners in Washington State are released with $40 in what's called "gate money." There is almost nothing by way of a safety net to help former prisoners, whether in terms of finding a job, securing housing or public assistance, accessing medical or psychiatric care, or obtaining the quality of educational or vocational training that would help these men and women improve their chances at staying out of the criminalized side of the American economy.

After too many baffling and enraging twists and turns during his period of incarceration, Tommy is finally under what's called "community supervision." Regrettably, things are hardly looking good. The list of challenges is a long one and quite familiar to those who have done prison time. Namely, Tommy hasn't been able to find a regular job because of the check box on employment applications that legally mandates him to list any kind of felony conviction -- and the clear discrimination that follows his honest disclosure. All the while, we live on a freelancer's income and so money is hardly flowing our way, something made worse by the fact that I was Tommy's primary financial support while he was incarcerated. To make matters worse, most of our old friends (and some family members) have long since stopped talking to us because of their stated or implied disapproval of Tommy's arrest.

We also live with the knowledge that employees from the Department of Corrections (DOC) can show up unannounced and legally demand to enter or search our domicile, as they already have. Many police officers know he's been in prison, and follow Tommy around when he's downtown, which is one of the many off-limits DOC-designated "drug" zones. These areas encompass not only incredibly huge swath of Seattle's neighborhoods, but actually includes our own street! (To be exact, former drug offenders are technically not allowed to be in these areas unless they're traveling to and from work, or to appointments.) Tommy's no longer eligible for federal education assistance or for most forms of public assistance outside of food stamps -- a small concession thanks to former Gov. Gary Locke's willingness to bypass federal legislation that denies even that to former prisoners sentenced on drug felonies. According to the terms of his parole, Tommy can't even sit at a bar -- although his crime had nothing to do with alcohol. And if he's even "caught" talking to another former prisoner, it can also be a punishable offense.

Yet now that Tommy has come home, we are grateful, every day, for the love that has held us together. But the fact remains that the odds are truly stacked against him and, by extension, the very health of our relationship. There are the incessant DOC obligations that have him bouncing from one Community Corrections Officer to another; the social stigma; the lack of any transitionary assistance around his need for continued medical and psychiatric care -- the latter being something that's now been diagnosed and can be managed well with the right combination of medicine and counseling. Much to his alarm, Tommy will also be denied the right to vote until his legal financial obligations are entirely paid off. In addition to a monthly fee for his DOC community supervision, Tommy must pay off the cost of his own public defense, fees for his own incarceration and "reimbursement" for the trouble that law enforcement went to in order to arrange the sting operation. The last time we received a bill for his LFOs -- three months after Tommy's release -- the amount had already grown to $3,500, including accrued interest of $500.

Still, Tommy and I actually consider ourselves among the very fortunate. We have a safe space in which to live, enough food to eat and plenty of love to keep us moving forward. I have passion for the work that I do and Tommy is there for me, every step of the way. He left prison with all manner of physical and psychological trauma, but those experiences do not define who he is and what he wants to become.

I wish that I could say the same for every other person who walks out of those prison gates with $40 in his or her pocket, with no one waiting to help them survive. The odds are stacked against them to the degree that it's only a surprise that our society even expects them to make it. For most former prisoners released this way, freedom from their captivity quickly begins to feel like a farce.

All of it amounts to little more than a recipe for failure and disgrace. Were that the rest of us would begin to feel that this set-up for their failure amounts to a failure of our own.

* I've assigned a pseudonym to protect "Tommy's" identity while he transitions into the free world and seeks employment.

Tupperware-Style Taser Parties

The SUV-driving, stun-gun-wielding housewife is coming to a suburb near you. In Arizona, Tupperware-style Taser parties have become all the rage, thanks to the enterprising savvy of saleswoman Dana Shafman, founder of Shieldher Inc.

Shafman's little soirees aren't just popular, they're also highly profitable. Over light conversation and snacks, women are invited to handle the palm-sized C2, the latest (and smallest) civilian version of a Taser stun gun. The C2 is also the most affordable Taser to hit the market, starting at $299.99 -- with an option to upgrade the C2 with a $50 laser beam to better the chances of debilitating a human target. Because practice makes perfect, the women in attendance are encouraged to grab a C2 and take turns shooting at a cardboard cutout representing a male attacker.

"I felt that we have Tupperware parties and candle parties to protect our food and house, so why not have a Taser party to learn how to protect our lives and bodies?" Shafman told the the Arizona Republic. Shafman projects that the parties will be held in at least a half-dozen other states by March.

The C2 comes in four iPod-matching metallic colors: "Hot pink" has been the top seller since the weapon hit the consumer market last summer. While the company admits that men, too, might benefit from carrying the mini-stunner, Taser's marketing strategy has been directed at the phobic and fashion-forward female consumer.

Last July, The New York Times previewed the C2's debut with a feature article titled, "Feeling Secure With a Little Shocking Pink." Accompanying the article was a glamour-action photo of Taser International President Kathy Hanrahan with the weapon in hand. Hanrahan made no bones about the C2's direct marketing strategy and conceptual design: "It's a woman's product," she said.

In a number of promotional media appearances and technology conference presentations since that time, Taser officials have even gone so far as to dub the C2 the "Lady Taser."

"When you're going out to a nightclub or you have the device clipped onto your belt at a business meeting, you don't want to look like Dirty Harry," company spokesperson Steve Tuttle told ABC News last summer.

In what could have easily passed as a terribly tacky infomercial, ABC News ran a December 2007 "Money Matters" segment praising the palm-sized stunner as an exciting holiday gift for women, in which anchor Laura Marquez described the C2 as a "Taser with a softened look."

Despite a plethora of headline-making news over the course of the year -- including the notorious "Don't Tase Me, Bro" incident during Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) University of Florida speech in September 2007 -- ABC News showcased Taser's own video montage of alleged male criminals being stunned into submission. For the ABC News segment, the network opted for a large-font text banner to accompany the images: "Tasers Sold to Protect Women."

None of those video snippets actually depicted women being attacked, and the network's Taser-friendly sloganeering (and Marquez's ridiculously soft-balled questions) didn't seem coincidental in the least.

The Scottsdale, Ariz., corporation has spent years honing a relentless public relations campaign -- complete with a Rolodex of at-the-ready medical, legal and law enforcement stun technology "experts" -- that seems to have convinced many news outlets that Taser's word is gospel truth.

The success of Taser's C2 sales over the past several months can largely be attributed to the company's aggressive strategy to play on women's worst fears of assault and rape. While the C2 might look cute, it is utterly debilitating -- a serious step up, as it were, from older self-defense products like mace and pepper spray.

Just as with the "professional" model, a triggered mini stun gun shoots out two, thin nitrogen-fueled wires with dart-like tips that penetrate clothing and embed in the skin. These darts are juiced to deliver an incapacitating 50,000 volts of electricity for 30 uninterrupted seconds -- ostensibly to allow the Taser-wielder to make a quick getaway.

Aside from the various bells and whistles that would appeal to paramilitary-minded weapon owners, the key difference between C2s and the much more costly civilian and "professional" versions of X-26s is that they enable the "stunner" to shock the "stunnee" over and over again.

Whether we're talking about cutesy mini-stunners, or their beefed-up big brothers, Taser has become a household name and a veritable pop culture phenomenon rooted in either opposition or celebration of this futuristic weapon that was once but a gleam in Gene Roddenberry's creative eye. (Unlike the Taser, the sci-fi Star Trek "phaser" could specifically be set to a specific stun level, all the way up to a deadly jolt.)

Devoted Trekkies with "Set Phasers to Stun!" T-shirts were likely never the cool kids on the block, but "Don't Tase Me, Bro" bumper stickers and T-shirts are a different story. Some are wearing the shirts to express their outrage toward the prevalence of Tasers in use by "campus cops" on college, high school, middle school and even elementary school grounds -- as well as in political demonstrations as a terrifying method of crowd control.

But you might be just as likely to spot a clean-cut fraternity member wearing the same shirt -- only to find that he hasn't given a thought as to whether being hit repeatedly with 50,000 volts of electricity should be considered an act of torture.

There's been no shortage in the blogosphere of people poking fun of Andrew Meyer's appeals, moans and screams that accompanied the University of Florida incident. Indeed, sites like are further proof of the ways in which even the most serious issue can be trivialized and depleted of its power. Why pass up a perfect opportunity to make a bit of money ($29.95 per T-shirt, to be exact) on a popular slogan, even if it originated in the pleading moments before the sickening crack-snap-sizzle sound of a Taser shooting electrified darts into a person's skin?

Taking outright pleasure in the pain the weapon can inflict, the popular TV series "24" seems to have developed a love affair with this kind of weaponry. At least two "terrorists" have been stun-gunned thus far, in addition to Abu Ghraib-style electrical torture during interrogations.

Even low-budget Asian martial arts movies shown in the United States feature the occasional stun gun stunt, alongside more familiar, high-flying punches and kicks.

People who have been tased often liken the experience to the sensation of dying -- something that does not seem like an exaggeration in light of at least 250 Taser-related deaths in the United States since 2001, according to Amnesty International. The U.N. Committee Against Torture recently determined that the use of Tasers "causes acute pain, constituting a form of torture."

Until recently, reports of Taser-related incidents and deaths have tended to involve men, typically described by police as having behaved in deranged and/or dangerous ways before being stunned.

But what once amounted to a few reported Taser encounters per month has now taken the shape of daily accounts throughout North America, including several high-profile deaths in Canada.

Last September, the death of a non-English-speaking Polish immigrant at the hands of inexplicably aggressive, Taser-wielding Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the Vancouver Airport drew international outrage when a bystander's cell phone footage thwarted initial "official" efforts to downplay what had happened.

Increasingly, people being stunned aren't just people with limited English-speaking skills; they're also children, teenagers, the elderly and the disabled. In fact, with astonishing frequency, police are using Tasers on women and girls.

In November 2007, for instance, Chicago police tased an 82-year-old woman with dementia.

Last June, a homeless woman died outside an Oklahoma City shelter after she was thrown on the ground, handcuffed by police and then tased while incapacitated.

In Green Cove Springs, Fla., the family of an agitated 56-year-old wheelchair-bound woman filed suit last February after watching police shock her 10 times in response to their request for assistance. Her death was ruled a homicide.

Ohio has become an unexpected epicenter of the use of Tasers against women and girls. Last May, Crystalynn Coker, a 17-year-old African-American student was tased in Monroe, Ohio, when she refused to back down from a racist verbal barrage by a fellow student and staged her own form of a one-person, nonviolent sit-in after her teacher ordered her out of the classroom. According to Coker and her family, a police officer was called in without any justifiable cause to physically remove her from the room. Once the officer pulled Coker from her chair, he handcuffed and tased her three times without any explanation before, during or after the attack.

In the town of Warren, Ohio, footage emerged in September 2007 of a policeman shocking 38-year-old Heidi Gill repeatedly. In the video, Gill is shown crawling, moaning and pleading desperately as she tries to get away from the apparently trigger-happy officer. Footage shows Officer Rich Kovach handcuffing and dragging Gill's body around during much of the ordeal, which is now under investigation.

One of the strangest overreactions involving Taser use occurred in, of all places, a Best Buy electronics store in Daytona Beach, Fla. Amid frenetic rush of pre-Christmas shoppers, 35-year-old yoga instructor Elizabeth Beeland had been waiting in line to purchase a CD player with her credit card. When her cell phone rang, Beeland stepped outside the store's noisy environment to have a brief conversation. Although she left both the CD player and credit card with the cashier, the clerk somehow concluded that Beeland might be using a stolen card, and called police officer Claudia Wright over to handle the situation. Beeland took umbrage at the accusation, and raised her voice. Wright threatened to arrest her if she didn't stop yelling. In what has become an increasingly familiar scenario -- the rapid escalation from an initial encounter with a civilian, culminating with the infliction of horrendous pain, sometimes within just a few seconds -- Wright opted to use her X-26 over any number of more logical alternatives. On the surveillance tape, Beeland is seen trying to back away from the Taser-wielding cop, then falling to the floor in obvious pain after the stun gun wires pierced her flesh.

Worse yet, Tasers have already begun to be used in robberies, domestic violence and hostage situations.

Among other disturbing reports, a serial rapist in Modesto, Calif., kidnapped and brutally raped a 27-year-old woman in August 2006 after stunning her with a Taser.

For the sake of those schmooze, stun and sales parties, they might do well to keep this kind of information under a tightly sealed Tupperware lid.

Getting Busted for Pot Can Cost Your Right to Vote

When a person is sent to prison for the first time on a drug-related felony charge, there is little chance that he or she will be told about the "collateral consequences" of their sentence.

The severity of these residual punishments depends on the state. "Life Sentences: The Collateral Sanctions Associated with Marijuana Offenses," a report released in July by the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics (CCLE), ranks Florida, Delaware, Alabama, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Virginia, Utah, Arizona and South Carolina as the 10 states with the worst records for continuing the punishments of people who have already served their time.

"Life Sentences" author Richard Boire writes that the long-term sanctions for drug crimes, even for relatively benign drugs like marijuana, can exceed those of violent crimes like premeditated assault, rape and murder. Intense criminalization of drugs began with the Nixon administration, which ignored its own appointed "marihuana" commission's recommendation that legalization for personal use was a logical alternative to costly and ineffective criminalization. The drug war intensified during the Reagan era and has since grown worse: Today, fully 45 percent of 1.5 million annual drug arrests are related to marijuana.

Up until the early '90s, people who smoked pot were rarely arrested in large numbers. If sentenced, most users and small-time dealers did not face long sentences. That has changed. According to the Washington D.C.-based Sentencing Project, marijuana-related arrests jumped up by 113 percent from 1990 to 2002, while overall drug arrests only increased by three percent during that time. Meanwhile, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has linked smoking weed to everything from teen violence to terrorism.

"ONDCP's crusade seems to get more incoherent and detached from reality every day," says Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "One minute they say marijuana makes you an apathetic slug, the next they say it turns you into a violent gangbanger. Neither has the remotest connection with reality, and these latest claims of a link between marijuana and violence are based on shameless manipulation of statistics taken completely out of context."

Government-funded propaganda has been disseminated everywhere, from ads in some progressive magazines, to press releases regurgitated as "news" on cable stations like FOX News, to websites such as, which recently posted an ONDCP article, "Early Marijuana Use an Early Warning Sign for Gang Involvement." For all of its hoopla about the consequences of drug use, the ONDCP hasn't shown an interest in documenting the problems faced by those convicted of felony drug charges after release.

Job applicants must inform potential employers, upon request, of past felonies, no matter how long ago they happened. The resulting job discrimination pushes many former prisoners back into the underground economy, contributing to the fact that two-thirds of former prisoners recidivate.

Former drug-related offenders have been further punished by stipulations signed into law in 1996, without congressional or public debate, as a part of the Welfare Reform Act. Former convicts can now be denied public housing, food stamps, Temporary Aid for Needy Families and scholarships for higher education. Other limits on freedoms include the denial of vocational licensing and certification for some professions, voting rights, suspension of driver's licenses -- regardless of whether the offense had anything to do with an automobile -- and lifetime bans on the adoption of a child.

Equally serious is that incarcerated men and women, especially those who do not have the physical size or prowess to fight off predators, can be extorted, bullied, beaten, molested or raped by guards and fellow inmates. "Stories from Inside: Prison Rape and the War on Drugs," a study released earlier this year by Los Angeles-based Stop Prisoner Rape, estimates that as many as one in four female and one in five male prisoners experience sexual violence while incarcerated. The real numbers are likely to be higher because of underreporting related to fear of repercussion or stigma.

"While anyone can be a victim of prisoner rape," the report states, "inmates convicted of a non-violent drug offense typically possess characteristics that put them at great risk for abuse. They tend to be young, unschooled in the ways of prison life, and lacking the street smarts necessary to protect themselves from other detainees."

Our Justice System Has Gone Mad

Every year, American taxpayers fund an estimated $60 billion for our incarceration system. This system staples together a network of public and corporate-run jails, prisons, pre- and post-release centers, juvenile detention centers and boot camps. All together, these facilities hold well over two million human beings, locked away without public oversight or scrutiny.

Yet throwing money at the perceived scourge of criminality in the United States doesn't appear to have had the desired effect: Despite the staggering incarceration statistics, violent crime has actually begun to creep up over the last two years, according to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Report.

In the last several years, some signs have emerged of an increasingly organized movement of citizens, family members of the incarcerated, independent-minded judges and correctional or criminal justice experts -- who stand in firm opposition to our punitive, nonrehabilitative incarceration system.

Viewed through an optimistic lens, the United States might genuinely be at the beginning of a trend toward real criminal justice reform. Meanwhile, millions of Americans have already paid far too high a price for shortsighted penological policies. Floridian Yraida Guanipa is among them.

Guanipa spent the last ten and a half years locked in federal penitentiaries in Florida, locked away from her Miami community, her extended family and two young boys.

Her offense: She agreed to pick up a sealed package for a friend, which turned out to contain cocaine. Although Guanipa had never been arrested before -- and had never been a drug user -- she was hit with a thirteen-year "drug conspiracy" prison sentence on par with a sentence that a major drug trafficker would have received. Guanipa's good standing in the community, her lack of criminal background and the fact that she had a 1-year-old and a 2-year old had no impact on her sentence.

The story has become sadly familiar to me, particularly as I have spent the last few years corresponding with, meeting and interviewing women like Guanipa in jails and prisons across the country.

In the decade of her imprisonment, Guanipa witnessed two suicides; countless incidents of medical negligence; the brutality of prison retaliation; and the everyday reality of sexual relations between male guards and female inmates.

Guanipa became an outspoken advocate for other prisoners as a self-educated jailhouse lawyer, but most prisoners talk about retreating within themselves to try to survive the ordeal. Concern for collective well-being is difficult, if not impossible, when individual survival is on the line.

"Unfortunately, that's what prison does to us," Guanipa explains. "It takes the human feelings out of our body, and we just try to survive."

Tasteless films like Let's Go to Prison notwithstanding, what really goes on in prisons is still a mystery to most Americans, as are the immeasurable collateral consequences of incarceration on families and communities. Arrest and incarceration are woven into the fabric of American life: Today, a black man has one chance in three of ending up in prison at some point in his life, and is more likely to go to prison than to graduate from college.

According to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the US prison and jail population hit a new high of 2,193,798 men and women at the end of 2005, representing a 2.7 percent increase over the previous year. A record number of more than 200,000 women are now doing time behind bars -- an estimated 80 percent of whom are mothers. Analysis by the Women's Prison Association has shown that female incarceration has jumped 757 percent since 1977.

More than 95,000 juveniles are also in custody, held in the kinds of facilities that only seem to make their lives more troubled than they were to begin with. As one 14-year-old girl put it to me in Seattle's King County Juvenile Detention Center, "This place just teaches us to be better criminals. It's like a criminal training school."

One in thirty-two US adults are now under some form of correctional supervision. Although Americans only constitute 5 percent of the world's population, one-quarter of the entire world's inmates are contained in our jails and prisons, something that baffles other democratic societies that have typically used prisons as a measure of last resort, especially for nonviolent offenders.

But mass incarceration in America remains a nonissue, largely because of a lack of any serious or effective discourse on the part of our political leaders. At most, election season brings out the kinds of get-tough-on-crime platforms that have already given us misguided Three Strikes and mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.

But there are now a few signs that today's insatiable carceral state might eventually find it harder to find bodies to fill our already dramatically overcrowded facilities. In December, 2006, a federal judge gave Republican Governor Schwarzenegger until June 2007 to devise a real plan to relieve severe overcrowding in California's thirty-three prisons. Designed to hold no more than 81,000 men and women, California's state prison system is overflowing with more than 173,000 inmates who are often crammed in eight-person cells or can be found sleeping on packed-to-capacity gym floors.

A New Year's weekend riot at a Chino State Prison involved hundreds of inmates and sent more than two dozen to the hospital. Schwarzenegger has already authorized shipment of California inmates to private prisons in other states as well as more money for building new prisons. Thankfully, this approach has failed to pass muster with the federal court that could step in to order early release of prisoners unless more productive solutions are found to further alleviate overcrowding. 

"I think the climate [for reform] has opened up," says Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy organization. "The issue is less emotional and politicized right now. "

Part of the reason for the slight climate shift has to do with the fact that taxpayers are growing increasingly tired of throwing money into fiscal sinkhole of multibillion-dollar corrections budgets. (California's corrections budget is a whopping $8.75 billion, yet two-thirds of prisoners still end up back in prison.) And then there is the fact that adult and juvenile violent crime rates have, until recently, been on an overall decline since 1993, and the hysteria generated by the crack cocaine epidemic has finally died down to a dull ebb.

As the public has slowly gained an understanding of serious drug abuse as a health and addiction issue, millions of American voters have signaled their own dissatisfaction with the one-size-fits-all-punishment model, voting for treatment diversion programs in a number of states, including the highly successful Proposition 36 in California.

Civil rights/liberties organizations ranging from the ACLU to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (the organization was instrumental in reversing convictions resulting from the Tulia, Texas, drug round-ups of primarily black citizens based on the uncorroborated accusations of one police officer), have made it clear that the grossly disproportionate incarceration of people of color and poor people should be an urgent, front-burner issue for the country as a whole.

In December, 2006, the subject of what it might take to dismantle the American carceral system brought some 500 attendees to New York City. The conference, "Punishment: The U.S. Record," was organized by The New School for Social Research. The event brought together the likes of renowned Princeton sociologist Bruce Western, US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner and Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights, in a unified call for radical, systemic change in the criminal justice system.

From Judge Gertner's perspective, this change necessitates a "re-education" of the judiciary, reclaiming their independence in a criminal justice system that has favored strict guidelines over judicial discretion -- especially in drug cases -- since the passage of the Reagan-era Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, the law that established the 100-to-one crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

With a new Democratic majority in Congress, a number of pending bills do seek to right some of the legislative wrongs of the past. Democratic Representative Charles Rangel has introduced HR 2456, the Crack -Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act, introduced in 2005 and still in committee, which would equalize the drug-quantity ratio and eliminate the mandatory minimum for simple possession. Even some conservatives have moved forward on criminal justice reform. Republican Senator Jeff Sessions's S 3725, the Drug Sentencing Reform Act, introduced in 2006, would reduce the drug quantity ratio to a twenty-to-one disparity and mandatory sentence for simple possession to one year.

Marie Gottschalk, author of The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America, cautioned progressives to remember that most political leaders have been slow to enact any significant reforms for fear of seeming weak on public safety issues. In some cases, she said, some of the most regressive legislation and leaps in incarceration numbers have actually occurred under Democratic stewardship, as was the case under former California Governor Gray Davis (with his unapologetically strong allegiance to the state's prison guard union, CCPOA) and President Clinton's signing of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely limited legal recourse for prisoners to appeal and their ability to plead for relief for abuses suffered while incarcerated.

While many people working in corrections take their jobs seriously, abusive or negligent behavior is a fact of prison life, as are sexual exploitation and violence, the use of restraint chairs, and chemical and electric weapons. Racism and race-based housing has contributed to major prison riots; extended use of supermax-style isolation cells; and shoddy and/or life-threatening medical care are all common problems. Add to this the fact that more than half of all prison and jail inmates report struggling with mild to severe mental-health problems, whose periods of incarceration only tend to exacerbate pre-existing problems.

Back at FCI Coleman in Central Florida, the relief that accompanied Guanipa's move to a halfway house last month -- and her eventual release to the "free world" six months from now -- is tempered by the knowledge of those she's leaving behind to face the day-to-day struggles of prison life.

"The hardships we endure here will be part of our lives when we are released," she says.


Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.