Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Of Prisons, Dwarves and Lawsuits

In 2002, I interned for a semester at the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project, a non-profit that advocates for prisoner rights within the prison system. The Project sought to ensure the proper treatment of inmates and to hold correctional systems accountable for misdeeds. It primarily dealt with issues like inadequate prison facilities, proper access to medical care, religious freedom, and prison guard misconduct. As an intern, my job was to sort through all of the incoming mail (the "intake") and respond to it. I first had to dispense of letters that:
(A) had no point (with the amount of time prisoners have on their hands, trust me, there were a lot of these)
(B) requested services we didn't offer (e.g., help on criminal appeals) or
(C) made claims that stretched the imagination (prisoners can get surprisingly creative)
I responded to these with a standard form letter that explained the scope of the Project's mission and suggested other organizations that might be in a better position to help (ain't nothin' quite like pawning someone off on someone else, eh?). I then would sift through the rest of the letters and determine which I thought would be a good use of the Project's meager resources. This determination typically required me to get more details about whatever the alleged problem was through written correspondence and, often, prison visits (to conduct more thorough interviews and clarify key points at issue). I then would write a memorandum with my recommendations of what should be done in a particular case and present it to the Project's Executive Director. Often I would be directed to write a letter or make a phone call to the relevant authority to ask for some corrective action. This usually brought about a back and forth with the prison bureaucracy and eventually some sort of acceptable resolution. If all else failed we would then consider filing suit on the prisoner's behalf.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, since my internship I've become fairly attuned to issues involving the efficacy of our correctional system. News stories along these lines usually catch my eye and, because of my experiences, I can spot a winner. What's a winner look like? Well… this one’s a gem:

A 4’1” dwarf who served 20 months for dealing marijuana and possessing methamphetamine is suing the prison he was incarcerated at for injuries he sustained as a result of negligence by the prison.

Byron "B.J." Rhodan, an aspiring rapper also known as "Lil Dirty," claims that two years ago while he was confined at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia, a guard ordered him to shave. When Rhodan couldn’t reach the mirror above the sink in his cell, the guard told him to stand on the sink. Rhodan claims he slipped in his attempt and landed hard on cement floor. The fall severely aggravated a back condition caused by his dwarfism, one for which he had already undergone multiple surgeries. Rhodan alleges a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and he’s seeking unspecified monetary damages.

Now in my four months at the Project, I handled a ton of cases. Many of which involved prison guards and/or prison facilities. Few were this entertaining though. Inmates accused guards of a lot of things... overlooking violence, arranging for enemies to be near one another (let's just say shivs' aren't folklore), denying vital medical care (e.g., insulin shots and even cancer treatment), refusing to cater to religious dietary restrictions (everyone wants to be Muslim in the joint... apparently their food's better), running drugs (how did you think the smack gets in there), excessive beatings (seems to happen frequently), and even demanding sex for favors (usually more of a problem with female inmates). They also complained endlessly about shabby prison facilities... toilets that shot water up into the air (do they know people pay for that in some countries?), very large spiders/cockroaches/rats (TFB better not get incarcerated), and cellblocks without cable television (how they supposed to watch their Oz?!) .

Sometimes listening to people complain was about all we could do for them... other times the situation gave us leverage (e.g., we once got a paraplegic transferred from Leavenworth because the place has no wheelchair ramps). I can't say I ever remember a case involving dwarfs though. Wish I had had one. Writing the warden on a case like that would have been good times. Interviewing Lil Dirty might have been even better. You have to admit, the little guy seems to have a point... prison's gotta' be tough for a four-footer in a six-foot world. And shaving on that sink must have been a bitch. Not sure how much this case is worth monetarily, but I say we certainly could have had fun with it at the Project.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

And The Winner Is...

Who says Brigham Young University is no longer a dynasty? For the ninth straight year BYU tops Princeton Review's list of "Stone-Cold Sober" schools (a ranking based on a combination of survey questions concerning the use of alcohol and drugs, hours of study each day, and the popularity of fraternities). BYU also placed first in the "Don't Inhale" and "Got Milk" categories (on how widely the student body partakes of beer and marijuana, respectively), and came in a strong second in the "Scotch and Soda, Hold the Scotch" category (on how widely hard liquor is enjoyed). Wait a minute... is that right? Do jack Mormons at the 'Coug (along with the one or two of BYU's ten non-LDS students) really like their Jim Beam a wee bit more than their Bud Light?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Blueberry Memories Revisited

Just over eight months ago I wrote about an odd memento that sits atop my desk... or should I say sat. It was a nine-year-old blueberry bagel loaded with sentimental value. Now all that sentimental value is rotting in my dog's digestive tract.

We came home from dinner Friday night to find Jäger sitting among the scattered remains of my petrified keepsake. From the look in his guilt-ridden eyes, it was clear he sensed he'd done wrong. I sentenced him to a couple of hours in the crate to think things over, but the deed was done. The bagel was no more.

Knowing how much it meant to me, my brother-in-law kindly suggested that I save Jäger's next poop and allow it to petrify until suitable for display. He reasoned that it wouldn't be anymore disgusting than setting a nearly-decade-old bagel out on public display. I thought about it for a minute, but ultimately decided against the petrified poop. Jäger's been known to eat that stuff too.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

This Week's Sign That The Apocalypse Is Upon Us

In the grand tradition of Sports Illustrated's long running Apocalypse watch, I give you this week's sign that the apocalypse is upon us: The textbook publisher Freeload Press is offering free college and graduate school textbooks that are laced with keyed advertisements.
"Textbook prices are soaring into the hundreds of dollars, but for some courses this fall, students won't pay a dime. The catch: Their textbooks will have ads for companies including FedEx Kinko's and Pura Vida coffee. A small Minnesota startup called Freeload Press will offer more than 100 titles this fall -- mostly for business courses -- free of charge. Students, or anyone else who fills out a five-minute survey, can download a PDF file of the book and store it on their hard drive to print."
But what if a University is worried about distracting or inappropriate ads? Have no fear:
"Freeload's ads won't be distracting, will be placed at natural breaks in the material and won't push products such as alcohol or tobacco. Schools with other concerns could customize their standards. For instance, Brigham Young University, founded by Mormons in Utah, could nix ads for caffeine products."
Gotta' love the incredibly random BYU plug in Washington Times, eh? So, what does a "non-distracting" advertisement look like you ask?

How's that for spicing up your homework? I guess if the ad pages are numbered, they might help you feel like you are making progress on your reading by giving you a few pages to skip. Honestly though, outside of giving you the munchies in class, I don't see that many drawbacks. But then again, I'm part of the Google generation that is selling my soul to advertisers. Considering the cost of most of my textbooks (even those bought used), I'll be the first to admit that I'd take the Freeload Press up on its ad-laden copies if they offered any textbooks I needed... just so long as they placed no ads for caffeinated products of course (err... except maybe Mountain Dew).

Monday, August 07, 2006


Patrick Swayze is the latest Celeb' to come to Mel Gibson's defense over anti-semitic remarks Gibson made during a DUI arrest this past week. Swayze says this incident won't end Gibson's career and... err... apparently we just need to slap the "pit bull" and move on?

"When you are a pit bull, and you love what you do and you are going to continue to grow, that talent will find its way out... Talent deserves to be honored. Hands deserve to be slapped if you do something stupid as well, but don't take it too far" (Washington Post).

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Rejecting Legislative Extortion

Cheers to the Senate Democrats for defeating a measure tonight that basically amounted to legislative extortion. Republicans, most of whom have staunchly opposed Democratic efforts to raise the minimum wage (and voted against raising it just over a month ago), attached a $2.00 an hour minimum wage hike to the permanent repeal of the estate tax (dubbed the "death tax" by opponents). The repeal would eliminate the tax on estates worth up to $5 million and drastically reduce the tax on estates worth up to $25 million (currently estates worth up to $2 million are spared the tax as are family-owned farms regardless of their worth). Previous attempts to permanently repeal the estate tax have continually failed, leaving the issue hopelessly stalled in the Senate. This is where the extortion comes in.

Republican opposition to raising the minimum wage is costing the party politically in the run up to the mid-term elections, as almost 83% of Americans support such an increase. So in a purely political move, Republicans threw the minimum wage increase into a bill that would have repealed the estate tax (something Democrats vehemently oppose). The idea was to force Democrats to vote against the minimum wage proposal in order to nullify any political advantage Democrats enjoyed on the issue. If, by some miracle, the measure passed, then Republicans would at least have secured a major political coup in repealing the tax and could also campaign on having raised the mininum wage they really didn't want to raise.

Democrats wisely didn't take the bait. Raising the mininum wage should be done on its own merit. We should not have to accept a misguided federal tax policy that centers on preserving aristocratic estates in order to give those scraping by on minimum wage a long awaited cost of living increase.