Tag Archives: Longreads

Obama pardons Valerie Bozeman: drug war reflections

Kyle Swenson has an excellent write up on Valerie Bozeman in the Broward Palm Beach New Times.  Bozeman was convicted of drug charges and received federal mandatory minimum penalties.  She was pardoned from her life sentence by President Obama after 23 years in prison.  This is an excellent read complete with a sympathetic protagonist, grimy drug kingpins, incompetent defense attorneys and a guilty judge.

Swenson does a good job explaining how low-level offenders were getting astounding sentences.

But as anxiety over crack grew, the statute was hijacked. The use of “851 enhancements,” as they came to be called, became a huge prosecutorial hammer. The marching orders for federal prosecutors were for no mercy.

In 1989, then-Attorney General Richard Thornburgh ordered U.S. attorneys to “charge the most serious, readily provable offense.” Victory in the courtroom was “measured by the length of sentence you could get if you secured that prosecution,” explains Price. So 851 enhancements — which could trigger a life sentence if an individual had two prior felony convictions — became an easy way for the government to notch a heavy win.

“It was a time when we turned our backs on rehabilitation and support, and our criminal justice system and sentencing law became much more punitive,” Price says. “We were locking up people who we didn’t like and were afraid of. But we were also locking up a lot of people who really didn’t deserve the lengthy sentences we were doling out.”

Source: Valerie Bozeman Is Pardoned by Obama as America Wrestles With Fallout From the War on Drugs | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Bozeman got a life sentence and learned about the 851 (mandatory minimum) penalties that sent her to prison only years later.  Note that the ‘old timers’ — the prisoners who are sentenced to life became a legal research unit under the direction of Bozeman.

In between chores, Bozeman shot off urgent letters to court-appointed lawyers, like SOS messages stuffed in bottles and pitched into the ocean. Most were ignored. Eventually, she received a letter from Judge Ungaro patiently explaining that Bozeman had been sentenced to life because of a statute known at “851 enhancement.”

With that phrase in her mind, she began visiting the prison law library, where she finally began to unlock what exactly had happened to her.

Soon, Bozeman called together the old-timers. Bozeman had a one-question pop quiz. “Do you know why you got a life sentence?”

Blank looks bounced back at her. One by one, Bozeman sent the women to their cells for their sentencing paperwork. Together they bushwhacked through the legalese until they found it: 851. “The ladies didn’t understand why they were sitting there with a life sentence,” she says today. “They just didn’t know.”

Source: Valerie Bozeman Is Pardoned by Obama as America Wrestles With Fallout From the War on Drugs | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

The essay is also ripe with some terrifying statistics about the drug war and incarceration.  In particular the use of the federal 851 statute (mandatory minimums) to coerce suspects to admit guilt.

Between 1980 and 2013, the number of drug defendants incarcerated in federal custody had exploded from 4,749 to 100,026 — a 2,006 percent uptick. Fifty percent of all federal inmates were serving time on drug charges.

Not only did mandatory minimums put small-time dealers in prison for long periods but 851 enhancements also had another harsh effect. Because the decision to file rested solely with the prosecution, it could be used as a threat: If you go to trial, we’ll file an enhancement.

A study by Human Rights Watch showed that in 2012, “the average sentence of federal drug offenders convicted after trial was three times higher (16 years) than that received after a guilty plea (5 years and 4 months).” When sentencing enhancements were in play for defendants with prior convictions, defendants “who went to trial were 8.4 times more likely to have the enhancement applied” than those who pleaded guilty.

New York Federal District Judge John Gleeson noted that use of 851s had gotten out of control. He wrote in an October 2013 decision that they brought on “the sentencing equivalent of a two-by-four to the forehead.” As a result, so many people chose to plead guilty rather than take chances at trial that a federal criminal trial was “on the endangered species list,” he said. “The government’s use of [851 enhancements] coerces guilty pleas and produces sentences so excessively severe they take your breath away.”

Proof was in the data: In 1980, only 69 percent of defendants in federal drug cases pleaded guilty and took plea deals; by 2010, 97 percent did.

Source: Valerie Bozeman Is Pardoned by Obama as America Wrestles With Fallout From the War on Drugs | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

This essay is a worthwhile read and a thoughtful reflection on the drug war.  Thanks to Longreads for the suggestion.

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Filed under capitalism, class, do-it-yourself, drugs, human rights, prisons, punishment, race, representation, resistance

Harm reduction, EDM & ‘Molly’

Longreads suggested the tell-all essay on so-called molly and Electronic Dance Music festivals written by Shane Morris.  It is a good read with snappy prose and a strong argument that the EDM festivals are locations where lots of people seek drugs from one-time drug dealers who may sell them almost anything.

But I’m more taken with his follow up essay where he not only answers many of the criticisms and also suggests a series of solutions.

Much of what he suggests is harm reduction – trying to make risky behavior (of almost any stripe) less likely to result in damage.  But it is also a sincere plea for bystander accountability and a change in the culture of drug-users and those promoters who make money on festivals.

I’m only saying that it’s time the EDM community starts acting like the family it espouses itself to be. No more secrets. No more “turning around and pretending you didn’t see that happen.” No more fearing what might happen if you ask for help. No more pretending people aren’t getting hooked on Molly. If everyone in the EDM community collectively decides to help themselves, rather than bending to legislation, we can fix this. If we advocate a culture of safety, health, and honesty, we can correct the course of this ship before it maroons itself on the rocks.

Part I. We need a return of safe, “cool down” areas to EDM events. If we all acknowledge that people are going to do drugs, and it’s just something that happens, then we should also be able to acknowledge that every person deserves to be safe, healthy, and well. If you’re not feeling OK, there needs to be a place you can go and sit down, chill out, drink water, maybe even get a bag of ice and put it on your head.

via Finding Molly: Reconstructing Dreamland | Bro Jackson.

Morris also suggests people “call out the idiots promoting overconsumption,” and for transparency (including drug testing kits for prospective users).   He also commits to making his own music events more safe and offers up “safe word” as the catchphrase for a campaign of communication:

Here is his explanation:

In BDSM circles, using a safeword means things have gotten too much for you to handle, and you need to stop, without judgement. In that regard, I feel its purpose is well served here as well. If you’re at an event, and things have spun out of control for you, a friend, or perhaps a stranger you’re just looking out for–you should be able to remove yourself from the situation and know your safety is the primary concern, without fear of repercussions or judgement.

via Finding Molly: Reconstructing Dreamland | Bro Jackson.

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Filed under communication, dance, do-it-yourself, drugs, health, music, punishment, vulnerability

Eating, ecosystems, settlers and loss

From an Orion essay by J. B. MacKinnon

The wild plants and animals that used to feed us are akin to keystone species, which give structure to entire ecological communities. Wild foods were the tethers that tied us to whole habitats. Forget the taste of acorns and it becomes reasonable to fragment the unbroken oak forests that, besides people, fed tens of millions of passenger pigeons. Fish the shad into obscurity and there is less of a case to be made against damming the rivers of the Eastern Seaboard, or using them as dumping grounds for industrial pollution. Stop gathering the edible flower bulbs of the Rocky Mountains, and abandon the clearest argument against grazing those meadows to nubs. To stand in for such distinct foods of place, there will be, wherever you may roam, broiler chickens from Georgia, Texas beef, Idaho’s famous potatoes.

via Appetite of Abundance: On the Benefits of Being Eaten | Longreads.

Despite the nostalgic tone, I think MacKinnon has a strong argument about the loss from changing ecosystems to support settler food habits.

The most dramatic example is surely the Great Plains, where tens of millions of plains bison have been replaced by 45 million cattle—a straight swap of buffalo steaks for beef burgers. Yet so much more had to change as well. Ninety percent of the tallgrass and shortgrass prairies, fueled by sunshine and watered by rainfall, was ultimately replaced by hard-grazed cattle range and farm-raised crops—often for livestock feed—that require fifty gallons of oil per acre and the irrigation of more than 20 million acres of land. With the vanishing of the bison began the slow fade of an estimated 100 million wallows that the pawing, rolling animals eroded into the grasslands, creating ephemeral water pools in the wet seasons and dust basins in the dry. As the wallows declined, so did the spadefoot and Great Plains toads that gathered to breed in them; so did the grasslands song of the western chorus frog; so did birds like the McCown’s longspur and mountain plover, the latter so fond of prairie balds that they’re now known to nest, with predictable risk, on farmers’ bare fields.

Without bison calves and carcasses to feed on, the plains grizzly faded not only from the landscape but also from memory. Gone, too, is the strange reciprocal relationship between bison and prairie dogs, with the bison mowing down the grass to make way for prairie dog colonies, which in turn improve the quality of forage for bison. The two animals’ fates were joined: wild bison now roam just 1 percent of their former range; prairie dogs number 2 percent of their former population. The buffalo bird, which once fed on insects spooked into the air by bison herds, simply came up for a name change. Today, it’s the cowbird.

via Appetite of Abundance: On the Benefits of Being Eaten | Longreads.

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Filed under Animals, colonialism, food, memorial, Native, nature

The last meals of condemned prisoners

Brent Cunningham has a fascinating write up about last meals in Lapham’s Quarterly.   Consider some of the distancing methods articulated during the execution phase:

The last meal as a cultural phenomenon grew even as capital punishment faded from public view, and in less than two centuries the country has gone from grisly public hangings, in which the prisoner was sometimes unintentionally decapitated or left to suffocate, to lethal injection, the most common form of execution in America today, in which death is “administered.” The condemned are often sedated before execution. They are generally not allowed to listen to music, lest it induce an emotional reaction. Last words are sometimes delivered in writing, rather than spoken; if they are spoken, it might be to prison personnel rather than the witnesses. The detachment is so complete that when scholar Robert Johnson, for his 1998 book Death Work, asked an execution-team officer what his job was, the officer replied: “the right leg.”

via Last Meals – Lapham’s Quarterly.

Good observation that the act of eating the food provided by one’s killer is really a kind of communication to justify the act.

What unites these customs is an emphasis on the needs of the living, not just the dead; so too with last meals before an execution. When Susanna Margarethe Brandt sat down to the Hangman’s Meal, she signaled that she was cooperating in her own death—that she forgave those who judged her and was reconciled to her fate. Whether she actually made those concessions or not is beside the point; the officials who rendered and carried out her sentence could fall asleep that night with a clear conscience.

via Last Meals – Lapham’s Quarterly.

Thanks to Longreads for the suggestion.

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Filed under communication, food, memorial, prisons, propaganda, representation