Friday, May 16, 2014

Incarcenation: In Pursuit of Liberty in American's Broken Prison System

My article for Voice of Russia

A 2014 report published by the National Research Council asserts that the prison population of the United States "is by far the largest in the world. Just under one-quarter of the world's prisoners are held in American prisons." There are currently 2.3 million people behind bars. Since 1980, the federal prison population has grown 721 percent, according to a recently released Human Rights Watch Report.
“In the last 40 years, there has been a historic marked expansion in the US prison system. There are 7 times as many people in the prison system today than in the 1970s,” says Marc Mauer, Director of The Sentencing Project, a non-profit that documents trends and calls attention to policies.
The exponential rise in imprisonment rates is, sadly, not a reflection of rising crime rates. The prevailing consensus points a finger squarely at politicians and their push for policy changes in a much more punitive direction, intended to send more people to prison and to keep them there longer. According to a national study, 88 percent of the increase in incarceration rates between 1980 and 1996 was due to policymakers’ decisions to lengthen sentences, impose incarceration (as opposed to probation), and ensure that offenders spent an increased amount of their sentence in person (for example, by reducing parole).
In the 1980s, with rising crime rates, simmering racial tensions, and the spread of crack cocaine, legislators adopted a “tough on crime” stance. The “war on drugs,” that gained tremendous political speed during the Reagan administration, contributed significantly to the skyrocketing rates of incarceration. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to nearly 500,000 by 2000. The political hysteria led to the passage of draconian penalties at the state and federal levels. Even as the drug scare faded from the public mind, the tough-on-crime stance became a default for most politicians.
“Mandatory sentencing laws took away the power of discretion from judges to consider the personal circumstances of the offenders. ‘Three strikes and you are out,’ the war on drugs, and a number of other policies have all combined to make the system much harsher,” says Mauer. If all of this was intended to safeguard public safety, how has increased incarceration impacted crime rates? “The broad consensus is that while the threat of prison has some effect on crime, as the system has grossly expanded, we very much have a case of diminishing returns.” According to an ACLU report, over half of prisoners with a sentence of one year or more are serving time for a non-violent offense. Life sentences are often imposed on recidivists for property or drug-related crimes.
On average, it costs $25,000 to keep someone in prison for a year. With almost 700,000 people returning home from prison each year, “they find it hard to establish themselves since in most cases, they did not pick up any substantial work skills or education in prison that would enable them to reintegrate back,” Mauer explains. As a result, recidivism rates remain high, he adds—66% for violent crimes, 78% for property crimes, and 71% for drug re-arrests.
Who stands to profit from the massive incarceration? One obvious culprit, the private prison industry, interestingly enough, is not as deeply enmeshed in the system as one would think. Mauer points out that only 130,000 inmates are held in the private prison system, which amounts to roughly 8% of the total prison population. The industry has, instead, focused its profit-seeking efforts on immigration detention as the new area for expansion and has spent over 45 million in lobbying funds to ensure that immigration reform remains mired in a legislative quagmire. With a record number of deportations taking place, imprisonment is turning into the solution of choice when it should be the last option.
And prison labor has become the new sweatshop labor. Nearly a million prisoners are performing labor for private corporations, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day, giving new meaning to the term “confinement at hard labor.” The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM. In 1979, Congress created the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program to establish employment opportunities for inmates "that approximate private sector work opportunities”—a far cry from the tidy profit-making scheme for corporations that exploit the captive labor force it has devolved to. The worst abuses have taken place in the agricultural sector, especially in states like Arizona that require inmates to work, earning between 10 and 50 cents an hour, hardly approximating “private sector work opportunities.”
So what should be the priorities in seeking to reform the system? “Sentencing policy change is the most important. Reforming or eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing laws that prevent judges from being able to tailor sentences to the individual crime and the particular defendant is vital. Extremely long sentences are far too common. Far too many 25 year olds are sentenced to life in prison when their progress should be reviewed and they could be released back into the community,” states Mauer.

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Friday, May 9, 2014

Fed Up Film Review

My review of Fed Up

In recent years, a number of powerful food documentaries have set out to pull the proverbial wool from our eyes and expose big agriculture and the Monsanto monster for what it is. Despite the glut of information available, however, making sense of the piecemeal data can be confounding. Fed Up, directed by Stephanie Soechtig and narrated by Katie Couric, is a rather cogent contribution despite covering some familiar ground.
Fed Up focuses on childhood obesity and its concomitant illnesses: Type 2 Diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Type 2 Diabetes amongst adolescents has gone from being non-existent in the ’80s to a staggering number of 57,638 cases today. The film follows three teenagers as they struggle to lose weight.
The film does an admirable job of definitively hammering the nail into the coffin of the “eat less, exercise more” myth of weight loss that has permeated public consciousness for so long. The fallacy of “all calories are the same” is conclusively laid to rest here as well, using the example of a soft drink vs. almonds, the fiber in which causes them to be digested qualitatively differently and cause much less of a spike in blood sugar and insulin levels. Similarly to sodas, juices also have no fiber, and the film argues that they’re essentially the same (makes you want to toss your Odwallas, huh?). With that, Fed Up also aims to squarely take on the personal responsibility model of obesity and supplant it by the disease model of drug addiction. “Food addiction is a biological fact,” states one of the many pundits in the film. In the same way that drugs can hijack neural pathways, so can hyper palatable foods (the study of the cocaine-addicted rats who consistently chose sugar water over cocaine is referenced).

So, what is making us fat? Fed Up points the finger at sugar, while also addressing the other co-variables. In 1977, the McGovern Report, strongly cautioned against the consumption of refined sugars. The sugar lobby fought vehemently against these standards, in the end succeeding in their removal from the report. The 1980s saw the rise of America’s obsession with a low-fat diet. The fat, predictably, was replaced with sugar. Since 1977, daily consumption of sugar has doubled. There are currently 600,000 products in the marketplace with sugar in them. The pundits in the movie do bring up a very hotly-contested topic — namely, they argue that a sugar calorie *is* a sugar calorie. Essentially, honey is just as bad as high-fructose corn syrup, they argue. While not exactly scientifically confirmed beyond doubt, this is certainly food for thought. Another fallout of the low-fat fixation: the explosion of the cheese industry. Once all the fat was removed from milk to make it skim, the dairy industry, in a stroke of Machiavellian genius, ramped up its cheese production, and spun cheese into the new “protein food,” causing a huge spike in cheese sales.
Fed Up argues that while the food lobby is incredibly powerful, the sugar lobby is especially so because with the creation of cheap additives like high-fructose corn syrup, the companies had a vested interested in keeping America (and especially its children) sugar-addicted. One of the scariest statistics in the film (and there were quite a few) is that we should be consuming between 6-9 teaspoons of sugar a day, and most American easily eat 4 times that amount. When the World Health Organization released its 916 TRS report in 2002, it unequivocally identified sugar as the cause of most metabolic diseases and set the limit to 10 percent of calories as sugar consumption. By the time (surprise) the food lobby was done with this, the WHO was forced to amend that to the alarmingly high 25 percent.
Fed Up also thoroughly explores the inherent conflict of interest facing the USDA: they must safeguard public health yet promote the food industry. It also delves into the bigger structural forces at play: how budget cuts in the National School Lunch Program during the Reagan era caused most school cafeterias to purchase their meals from fast food companies and not prepare food themselves. Fed Up takes a hard look at Michelle Obama’s “Let's Move” campaign, which while well-intentioned, just did not have the teeth to stand up to the food company lobby which quickly cried out with reductionistic “Nanny State” objections. By focusing mostly on one half of the problem, exercise, it largely ignored just how badly the deck is stacked against children’s ability to make sensible food choices. As one speaker put it rather succinctly, “Junk is still junk even if it is less junky.” The companies paid only so much lip service to improving their products, the film argues. Junk food marketing, especially to children, remained egregiously non-curtailed.
Not every data point in Fed Up is ground-breaking, but its focus on sugar certainly is. Ultimately, the film argues that as long as we allow private profit to be in charge of public health, we are in trouble, but knowing the facts about what one is eating is a sure first step in revolutionizing food industry and our role in it.