Truthout Stories Mon, 22 Dec 2014 13:36:25 -0500 en-gb On the News With Thom Hartmann: Poverty and Inequality Are Getting Worse in the US, and More

In today's On the News segment: Even in the face of the so-called Recovery, poverty and inequality are getting worse in our country; the National Labor Relations Board says that employees can use company email to form a union; Sen. Bernie Sanders keeps moving towards progress; and more.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.


Thom Hartmann here – on the best of the rest of Economic and Labor News...

You need to know this. Even in the face of the so-called Recovery, poverty and inequality are getting worse in our country, and more wealth and power is flowing straight to the top. According to Paul Buchheit over at Alternet, this is the end result of winner-take-all capitalism, and this destruction of the working class has all been by design. Paul explained that more and more Americans are viewed as "disposable" by those at the top. The banksters and the corporate elite have used a six-step process to turn the working poor into nothing more than commodities or criminals that can be used and tossed aside like garbage. As Paul Buchheit explained, first they start by depleting our wealth, which was accomplished by destroying our pensions and decreasing the value of millions of our homes. After that, the corporate elite striped away our income by slashing wages and keeping them low for everyone except those at the top. Next they took away our homes with illegal foreclosures and rising rent prices, which meant more and more of us ended up on the street. Then they hit our wallets with everything from banking fees to traffic fines to rising interest rates to make sure that we never had a chance to get ahead. And, those fines lead to the next step, when the poor were turned into criminals over unpaid fees and court costs for trivial offenses. Lastly, they made us desperate by making our children suffer. About half of all food stamp recipients are kids, which means that millions of parents are willing to take demeaning work just to survive. This systematic destruction has taken decades to accomplish, but that doesn't mean that it can't be reversed. It won't be easy, but we can take back our economy and make it work for all of us. No American deserves to feel disposable and it's up to us to fight for a future in which we are valued as more than just a commodity.

The National Labor Relations Board says that employees can use company email to form a union. Earlier this month, the NLRB reversed a Bush-era policy that barred workers from using office email systems to discuss working conditions and wages – even when they weren't on company time. The recent decision stemmed from a case between the Communications Workers of America and a sign-language interpretation provider called Purple Communications. The NLRB ruled against Purple Communications, and struck down their restrictive policy, saying it focused, "too much on employers' property rights and too little on the importance of email as a means of workplace communication." They said that the earlier rule allowing the restriction "failed to adequately protect employees' rights." The new ruling does allow employers to restrict the use of email during company time, and states that only employees who already have company email access can use it to organize. Those reasonable limitations don't diminish the fact that this ruling is a victory for workers and for unions.

The wealth gap in the United States is the widest ever recorded. According to a new report from the Pew Research Center, the families in the top income brackets in our nation are, on average, 70 times richer than low-income families. The wealth divide has become so pronounced that the bottom 90 percent of all Americans actually lose wealth every year, while those in the top 10 percent continue to get richer. This problem started decades ago, when Reaganomics began to destroy the middle class, and it only got worse in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash. Since that financial disaster, most of the wealthiest Americans have recouped their losses and continued to build wealth, while the middle class and the working poor never recovered from the financial hit. The war on unions and working people left our wages stagnant for decades, and the housing market crash in the last decade wiped out the little bit of wealth that most Americans had left. The super-rich set out to make the American Dream a fantasy, and it only took them a few decades to pull it off. Now we're living with the final result of their scheme – levels of wealth inequality higher than any other time on record. The United States has literally become a nation of the haves and have-nots, and that is simply un-American. The only question left is when are we going to do something about it...

In 2006, San Francisco was the first city in our nation to enact a paid sick leave law. But even before then, that city led the way when it came to proving that good management practices are good for business. Companies that started in the area, like Costco and Trader Joe's, have long histories of treating workers better than their competitors, and histories of higher productivity and more sales per employee. These companies also benefit from lower turnover rates, less time and money spent training employees, and much stronger customer loyalty. And now, San Francisco is leading the way again with their recent "Retail Workers Bill of Rights," which will provide more protections to employees of retail businesses and restaurants. Just like their forward thinking on sick leave and higher wages, this new legislation will prove once again that treating workers well pays off for business.

And finally... While many of the Democrats in Congress continue to move to the Right, Senator Bernie Sanders keeps moving towards progress. In the final days of the 2014 Congress, Senator Sanders promised to push for new legislation to break up the big banks and expand Social Security. His suggestions came in response to the recent "Cromnibus" bill, which gave Wall Street new taxpayer-backed protections. Senator Sanders said, "Over the last several days, it has become abundantly clear that Congress does not regulate Wall Street, but Wall Street regulates Congress." He added, "It is time to break these too-big-to-fail banks up so that they can never again destroy the jobs, homes, and life savings of the American people." The banksters like to make us believe that this goal is just a pipe-dream, but our nation has taken on corporate behemoths before, and we can do it again.

And that's the way it is - for the Holidays of 2014 – I'm Thom Hartmann – on the Economic and Labor News.

News Mon, 22 Dec 2014 13:27:39 -0500
From Rust Belt to Blue Belt: Water, Climate Change and the Reordering of the Urban US

Taking a drive down State Route 224 through Northeast Ohio is in many ways akin to taking a trip back through time. At one point, before the interstate highway program, US 224 was an all-important route for truckers. Small towns and farms thrived along its edges. The construction of the expressway ultimately diverted much of the economic lifeblood of 224. And though much has been said about the subsequent decline of the small communities on the route, much less talked about is the disappearance of the farms. Vast stretches of fallow farmland are a common sight, not just around 224, but also around cities and towns of all varieties in Ohio Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan. However, that's likely to change-as is the position of these declining states. The exodus from the Great Lakes region, so lamented by many, will likely reverse itself in the coming decades. It won't be smart shrinkage, tech belts, or tax incentives that will arrest the region's decline, but the vagaries of climate change and the natural gift of fresh water.

In his monumental study of the most underappreciated resource on earth, investigative journalist Charles Fishman paints a picture of the price we will pay for our having taken water for granted: "We are entering a new age of water scarcity-not just in traditionally dry or hard-pressed places like the US Southwest and the Middle East, but in places we think of as water wealthy, like Atlanta and Melbourne. The three things we have taken to be the natural state of our water supply-abundant, cheap, and safe-will not be present together in the decades ahead."[1] This will hold especially true for the fastest growing regions of the United States.

California's Central Valley today is perhaps the most agriculturally important region in the country. Four out of the top five counties in total agricultural sales are in the valley, and a good portion of America relies on produce grown in and then shipped from California. The Central Valley, however, faces a growing number of problems that threaten its future as an agricultural mainstay. Increasing sprawl and population growth in Northern California is now moving into the San Joaquin Valley, threatening water supplies in an area already suffering from problems linked to increased salinity. If salinity rates continue on their present course for the next sixteen years, California will start to lose billions of dollars a year in revenue. Combine that with an estimated 131 percent increase in population in the San Joaquin Valley by mid-century, and you have an enormous threat to one quarter of the nation's domestic food supply.[2]

States in the American West and Southwest exist as they do today by the grace of two things: the Bureau of Land management and irrigation. A monumental governmental effort made the semi-arid and desert regions of the country habitable. Yet the habitability of these regions rests on the shakiest of foundations. As Mark Reisner, who in 1986, authored perhaps the most important book on water and the American West, puts it "…this water, which has turned the western plains and large portions of California green, will be mostly gone in one hundred years." [3] In Las Vegas alone, nearly 60,000 residents arrive annually, which necessitates an extra 100 million gallons of water per week.[4]

One of the most important rivers in America is also under siege after decades of mismanagement. The existentially threatened Colorado River is a ticking time bomb for Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Wyoming. Damns, diversions, aqueducts, and climate change have taken a heavy toll on a waterway that supports around 36 million people. Increased salinity is also destroying the river. With continued population growth and development in areas supported by the Colorado, the future of the river as a viable water source is questionable.

The disappearance of surface water sources like Lake Mead and the Colorado River aren't the only major concerns for states. Water tables across America, many of them formed hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago, are being over-pumped to compensate for out of control population growth and droughts linked to climate change. One of the most crucial of these is the Ogallala Aquifer. South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas all rely on the Ogallala. Irrigated agriculture has long been a mainstay in these states, especially in Kansas, often known as the "Breadbasket of the World." If drastic steps are not taken to reduce pumping of the Ogallala, it's estimated that 70 percent of the aquifer will be gone just past mid-century.[5]And in Texas, fracking-related industries are trying to acquire water resources even as municipal water levels plummet.

What is actually being described is what Lester Brown of the Earth Policy calls "peak water." From now on, water supply will be outstripped by demand. Already states like Georgia and Florida are fighting over access to dwindling water supplies. But this is not the case for the Great Lakes region, home to nearly one-fifth of the planet's surface freshwater supply. The region is now seeking to capitalize on the situation by creating something called the "Blue Economy." Michigan has already benefited from increased tourism, especially fishing in its abundant lakes and streams. Fishing alone is worth $2.5 billion a year for the state, wildlife-related tourism accounts for another $2 billion, and the boating industry in Michigan, sure to grow, supports thousands of jobs.[6]

Businesses and universities throughout the region are financing start-ups and water-related services. Milwaukee has already invested almost $100 million to attract and grow water-intensive businesses and industries. The Milwaukee Water Council is at the forefront of much of this type of work. Last year they opened the Global Water Center for research related to Blue Economy initiatives.[7]

A green economy is gradually growing in the region as well. Already, fallow farmland is being revived across Michigan and now in the Buckeye State. Ohio and other states in the Great Lakes region won't just be providing food domestically either. China, with a fast-growing population, a lack of arable farmland, and increasing desertification, is eyeing agricultural imports from the United States. China lacks the corn and feedstock necessary to nourish cattle for the country's rapidly expanding meat-eating population. Former Ohio State agricultural economist, Dr. Allan Lines, sees Ohio in a position to take advantage of China's issues with groundwater and arable land. Export markets to China could provide a huge boon for the state, especially as other agricultural centers in America face growing water problems.[8]

The decline of one other scarce resource will eventually bring back even the struggling cities clinging to the banks of the Great Lakes. As we are facing peak water, so will we eventually face peak oil. America's current fracking boom cannot and will not last. When gasoline prices eventually rise to the $16 a gallon range, America's system of growing food far from markets will be over; an economic model dependant on over-the-road shipping will collapse. The end of cheap gas will also mean the revitalization of urban areas, as density again becomes desirable-indeed, necessary. In his book $20 Per Gallon, civil engineer Christopher Steiner outlines how the end of cheap oil will revitalize cities everywhere, but he states that especially "cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, will see their stocks rise the fastest."[9] The end of cheap oil will itself end the moniker "Rust Belt," as production and manufacturing again become localized.

Texas and California in particular dominate the Sun Belt as the two most populous states with the largest economies. Much of the discussion surrounding their future trajectory of late has centered on taxes, regulation, housing, and energy, but less attention is paid to the very problematic climate future they both face. The changing climate is already disrupting (much sooner than expected) large swaths of the Sun Belt, especially in California and Texas. The amount of acreage burned every year by wildfires in the US could increase by as much as 100 percent in the next three decades. Much of this will likely occur in the ever-drier western states.[10]

Drought, the close cousin of the wildfire, is now seemingly a permanent condition for both the Golden State and the Lone Star State. The worsening situation of the Colorado River poses enormous problems for the ballooning Texas population. Six of the lowest inflows ever recorded for the lower Colorado River basin have occurred since 2006.[11] This is a real problem for the Highland Lakes of Texas, which were formed from the damning of the Colorado and are now well below maximum levels; they provide for recreational water activities and serve as an important buffer when drought hits. And drought has hit with a vengeful-like force.

In 2011, a dry spell of Biblical proportions descended-the worst in Texas history. Over three quarters of the state entered a period of "exceptional drought." El Paso received only slightly more rainfall than Baghdad in 2011. By April of 2012, well over $5 billion in agricultural losses had been sustained.[12]Hapless Governor Rick Perry even resorted to declaring prayer days dedicated to beseeching the divine for precipitation. Some communities came to close to running out of water altogether. Climatic events like the 2011-2012 drought are likely to increase as overall climate patterns shift, and studies conducted during the recent drought show that increased periods of aridity could radically impact organic matter in the soil and the ability of ecosystems to survive in the future. [13]Prolonged dry spells will imperil important urban centers like Austin, destabilizing their ability to grow and their economic base.

In his seminal work, The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Mike Davis describes the grossly unsustainable landscape that is modern Southern California: For generations, market driven urbanization has transgressed environmental common sense. Historic wildfire corridors have been turned into view-lot suburbs, wetland liquefaction zones into marinas, and floodplains into industrial districts and housing tracts. Monolithic public works have been substituted for regional planning and responsible land ethic. As a result, Southern California has reaped flood, fire, and earthquake tragedies that were as avoidable, as unnatural, as the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent explosion in the streets. In failing to conserve natural ecosystems it has also squandered much of charm and beauty. [14]

And the ever-growing urban footprint of Southern California has recently been caught in an epic drought on par with the disaster in Texas. The years 2011 and 2012 saw well-below average rainfall for the state, but 2013 marked the beginning of a record-breaking water crisis. It also saw the driest year in history in Los Angeles. By fall of 2014, the state had already witnessed over 1,000 more wildfires than average. Now, a deluge of record-breaking rain is causing extreme mudslides and erosion in areas denuded by wildfires. The state's troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta faces a myriad of extraordinary problems: levees are weakening, wetlands are drying up, and native species face extermination from habitat destruction. All of this has ominous portends for cities like Los Angeles, San Jose, and Sacramento.[15]

The climate of the future will rearrange the fortunes of urban America. Rising temperatures will scorch most of the Sun Belt even as drought and increasing storms batter economies in the mostly poorly planned boom cities of the South and West. Depressed industrial cities like Milwaukee and Detroit will shed their rust and become sought-after metros, positioned next to the natural wealth of the Great Lakes. Environmental economics professor Matthew Kahn predicts, "millions of people will be moving to these areas." According to Kahn, as the climate radically shifts, Detroit, in particular, will become "one of the nation's most desirable cities."[16]

The Great Lakes region has come to represent failure in the eyes of many over the past fifty years, but it could easily come to represent revitalization over the next half-century. The Sun Belt's pressing water problems, and the country's changing climate, will turn the pendulum back to the Great Lakes, remaking it in new and unexpected ways. In the meantime, careful stewardship of the lakes, restoration projects, planning for the contingencies of global warming, and a skeptical look at natural gas drilling will be necessary. But the day will come when the fallen urban giants of old industrial belt reawaken to take their place back at the forefront of a nation undergoing the painful transition to a new environmental reality.


1. Charles Fishman, The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water (New York: Free Press, 2009), 9.

2. Water Education Foundation, "Salinity in the Central Valley: A Critical Problem" (Accessed December 1, 2014).

3. Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986), 5.

4. Fishman, 55.

5. PNAS Plus - Physical Sciences - Sustainability Science: David R. Steward, Paul J. Bruss, Xiaoying Yang, Scott A. Staggenborg, Stephen M. Welch, and Michael D. Apley. Tapping unsustainable groundwater stores for agricultural production in the High Plains Aquifer of Kansas, projections to 2110, PNAS 2013 110 (37) E3477-E3486; published ahead of print August 26, 2013.

6. E regulations, "Michigan Fishing Guide

7. See Gunter Pauli, Blue Economy-10 Years, 100 Innovations, 100 Million Jobs (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2010).

8. Christina Nelson, "The Ten States Exporting the Most Goods to China," China Business Review, May 10, 2013. (Accessed December 3, 2014). 

9. Christopher Steiner, $20 a Gallon: How the Rising Cost of Gasoline Will Radically Change Our Lives (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2009), 55.

10. Peter Howard, Flammable Planet: Wildfires and the Social Cost of Carbon (Environmental Defense Fund, 2014).(Accessed December 3, 2014).

11. LCRA "Texas Drought

12. Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, The Impact of the 2011 Drought and Beyond, Susan Combs, Austin, Texas, 2012. (Accessed December 5, 2014).

13. Jon Cotton, T. Gardner, Jennifer Moore Kucera, Veronica Acosta Martinez and David Wester, "Soil Enzyme Activities During the 2011 Texas Record Drought/Heatwave and Implications to Biogeochemical Cycling and Organic Matter Dynamics," Elsevier, Applied Soil Ecology 75 (2014) 43-51.

14. Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 34.

15. Alexis C. Madrigal, "American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga," The Atlantic, February 24, 2014.

16. Jennifer A. Kingston, "On a Warmer Planet, Which Cities will be Safest?" The New York Times, September 22, 2014.

News Mon, 22 Dec 2014 11:23:18 -0500
Under Fire for Negligence, North Carolina Prisons Chief Seeks New Funding for Mental Health Treatment

North Carolina corrections chief David Guice wants more than $20 million to improve the treatment of people with mental illness in the state’s prisons. His request comes on the heels of two recent reports showing neglect and abuse of prisoners with psychiatric disabilities in North Carolina, and the death in custody of one such individual, Michael Anthony Kerr. According to autopsy report findings released in September, Kerr died last March of dehydration after being held in solitary confinement for 35 days.

Guice heads up the state’s prison system as commissioner of the Department of Public Safety’s Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice. His request was made last Thursday at a meeting of the state’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety, held to discuss North Carolina’s treatment of prisoners suffering from mental illnesses.

At the meeting, Guice cited the difficulties in providing adequate care for 4,600 people – 12 percent of the total prison population – requiring mental health services. The prison system wants the state’s upcoming budget to include funding for more than 300 additional mental health care staff statewide, 64 more for Central Prison’s mental health unit, and 76 probation officers.

As NCCapitol reports on the meeting:

Deputy Commissioner of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter told lawmakers he’d like them to receive more frequent treatment, “but every time a segregated inmate comes out of a cell, it takes two staff members” to escort the inmate to an appointment.“Are you keeping them in [their cells] for 23 hours?” committee co-chairwoman Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, asked Lassiter.“Yes, ma’am,” he answered.“Day after day after day?” she asked.“Yes, ma’am,” Lassiter responded.“Don’t they get worse?” Hurley asked.“Some do,” he answered.

According to the story, Guice stated that system has already started implementing changes, including crisis intervention training for prison workers and a review of all policies dealing with prisoners with mental health problems. He warned, however, that “the needed fixes – more therapy, more medical oversight, specialized units – won’t be cheap, especially in a system that’s already underfunded. For example, he said, budget cuts have emptied one-third of the beds at Central Prison’s inpatient unit for severely mentally ill inmates.”

Recent reports on the treatment of people with mental illness held in North Carolina assert that the state’s Division of Prisons has made little progress to date in protecting these individuals from neglect and abuse, including inadequate health care and the extensive use of solitary confinement.

Report: North Carolina State Prisons’ Use of Solitary Qualifies as “Torture”

One recent report, Solitary Confinement as Torture, published by the Human Rights Policy Seminar at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Law, is based on research and interviews with prisoners and focuses on the treatment of incarcerated people suffering from mental disorders and the use of isolation.

The 216-page report denounces the use of solitary confinement as “torture,” and reach the “straightforward and simple” conclusion that “solitary confinement is ineffective at decreasing violence within prisons; it is ineffective at preserving public safety; it is ineffective at managing scarce monetary resources; and it violates the boundaries of human dignity and justice. Prison officials and the courts must find a way to end the practice without delay.”

The report also documents North Carolina’s failure to provide the rehabilitation opportunities essential to successful reentry into society—in large part due to the prison system’s inclination to place people in solitary for petty offenses and “almost a complete disregard of prisoners’ average mental health needs.” In fact, according to the study, as much as 10 percent of North Carolina’s prison population has been held in prolonged solitary confinement at any given time in recent years.

The UNC report  recommends specific “systemic reforms,” including decreasing prison populations, increasing efforts at rehabilitation, changing the “institutional culture” in prisons and ultimately abolishing the use of solitary confinement.

In an email response to Solitary Watch, UNC law professor Deborah M. Weissman, a collaborating author of the report, wrote:

Mental health systems in NC are underfunded and fail to provide critical care and services to many individuals who, as a consequence of their mental health illnesses, wind up in prison. Either due to a lack of care, lack of training, or lack of other alternatives, individuals whose mental illness manifests as criminal behavior are sent to prison where their situation further deteriorates. Many of these individuals wind up in solitary confinement due to their inability to comply with prison system directives. The harm they suffer is egregious and likely permanent.

Weissman noted that “necessary reforms that have been clearly identified have not been fully implemented.”

Investigation: Mass Shortages Found in NC State Prisons’ Mental Healthcare Personnel

A recent investigative report by the publication INDY Week, “Prison System Short on Psychologists, Long on Mentally Ill Inmates,” finds that the North Carolina state prison system has a serious shortage of mental health personnel. According to the report, “Two years ago, the North Carolina prison system promised change after blaming staff shortfalls for the problem of mentally ill prisoners left isolated in cells splattered with human waste,” but “mental health advocates say they are still waiting for prison officials to deliver on that promise.”

The article includes the following table, highlighting the mental health staff vacancy rates in the North Carolina state prison system:

Vacancy rates, state prison system

 2012 (%)2014 (%)
Psychiatrists 16 11
Psych Program Manager 47 11
Psych Services Coordinator 5 21
Senior Psychologist 71 60
Staff psychologist 22 28
Social work 11 2.5

Source: Indy Week

North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) spokesperson Pam Walker told INDY Weekthat almost one-third of the 98 positions for prison psychologists were unoccupied as of November 3. Not only are 60 percent of senior psychologist positions vacant, but 22 percent of the prisons’ 1,314 nursing positions – which are critical to providing people with mental health disorders daily assessments – remain open.

Terri Catlett, deputy director of health services for state prisons, denied that prisoners suffering from mental illnesses were “in any additional danger because of the staff vacancies.”

The INDY Week investigation notes that, according to a 2010 report by the Wake County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), approximately 5,513 prisoners, or 14.6 percent of the state prison population, were diagnosed as “severely mentally ill” in 2006, and the number of incarcerated people with mental illnesses was increasing sharply—a trend that would suggest an increased need in personnel to provide adequate care and treatment.

Vicki Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Disability Rights NC, believes the prison system’s unremitting personnel shortages were a cause in Michael Anthony Kerr’s death. Quoting Smith, the INDY Week study states:

“In any facility where you find a high rate of vacancy, you have a lot of workers putting in overtime. If you have people working a lot of overtime, they’re not letting downtime. Poorly trained, overworked staff always contribute to abuse and neglect.”Disability Rights N.C. opened an independent investigation into Kerr’s death and found “severe deficiencies” in the care for mentally ill prisoners. The group asked Gov. Pat McCrory to declare a hiring emergency in North Carolina prisons and to authorize an expedited hiring system to fill the vacancies.

Solitary Watch obtained a copy of the Disability Rights NC’s letter making the request to commission an accelerated employment system. Dated October 3, 2014, the letter urges the governor to immediately address the severe statewide mental health staffing shortages in the NC DPS.

In another story, INDY Week reports that the Disability Rights NC’s investigation into Kerr’s death, noting that, according to Smith, the probe found “severe deficiencies in the provision of services to inmates to mental illness—such significant problems that constitutional rights are implicated.”

Smith also said that prisoners suffering from mental illness will no longer be held in solitary confinement for more than several days if health care staff find that it would be detrimental. She further stated that prisoners will no longer be placed in isolation based on their symptoms.

In an email response to Solitary Watch, Smith wrote:

The inadequacies of treatment for people with mental illness start long before they end up in prison. Many prisoners like Michael Kerr are in prison because of the criminalization of the symptoms of their mental illness.Failing to offer affordable, accessible mental health community based service has both an immediate and long term cost. But budget writers are motivated to look only at what those services cost in the short run and err on the side of short term savings.As a result police are often the first responders to a mental health crisis. Jails are filled with repeat offenders jailed for having untreated symptoms. They are put on a path that ends in prison where they continue to be punished for having a mental illness.What is happening in our state prisons is horrendous and requires reform. Segregation is used to manage behaviors related to mental illness and minimize the disruption to the general population. It is cruel and inhumane but if you look at the path of prisoners like Mr. Kerr, we failed him much earlier when his mental health needs where ignored. A travesty from beginning to end.

The Death of Michael Anthony Kerr

Michael Anthony Kerr spent 35 days in”restrictive housing” – solitary confinement – at the Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, NC. The man was transferred to Central Prison’s hospital in Raleigh via prison van but was dead by the time he arrived. According to his recently released autopsy report, Kerr died from dehydration in his solitary cell March 12 of this year. The report also shows that Kerr was not receiving treatment for his schizoaffective disorder.

During his 35 days in isolation, Kerr was cited for flooding his cell on two different occasions. Prison staff responded by shutting off the water supply to the man’s cell, which, according to the NC DPS, is permissible when a prisoner abuses plumbing facilities.

The NC DPS, which has released almost no information on Kerr’s death, responded to prison officials’ negligence by terminating a total of nine employees, including Captain Shawn Blackburn, the former captain who ordered that Kerr remain handcuffed for five days. Blackburn appealed his termination, but last week lost his case.

Th NC DPS said that 30 staff members have been disciplined or demoted as a result of Kerr’s death. But a state investigation revealed that the prison discipline system is not equipped to manage people with mental illnesses.

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) opened a criminal investigation into Kerr’s death days after the autopsy report was released, with a federal grand jury in Raleigh, NC, issuing subpoenas to obtain related records from the NC DPS after the agency’s lack of cooperation became public.

Track Record of Prisoner Abuses in North Carolina Prisons

The North Carolina prison system has for many years faced criticism for its track record of the mistreatment of people with mental health disorders.

An incident similar to the Kerr tragedy took place at Central Prison in 1997, when an audit found that Vietnam veteran Glen Mabrey, who suffered from mental illness, died of thirst after being held in solitary confinement. Like Kerr, Mabrey’s water had been cut off, in this case for four days, after he had intentionally flooded his cell.

In 2011, an internal review of conditions inside North Carolina’s Central Prison found that prison staff neglected the needs of prisoners suffering from serious mental illnesses. According to the News Observer:

Years of budget cuts, hiring freezes and high turnover led to staffing shortages in critical jobs, especially nurses and doctors. Staff failed to maintain up-to-date records, track medications or respond to calls for medical help.The report says that nurses acknowledged not knowing which inmates were which and that patients were given too much prescribed medication or none at all.

According to the story, the report also said there have been multiple deaths resulting from medical conditions, including the case of Levon Wilson, who suffered from bipolar disorder. An autopsy report shows Wilson, who was arrested on misdemeanor charges, was moved from Central Prison to WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh in September of 2010, with “moderately high levels” of the medication lithium in his bloodstream. The News Observer reports:

[Wilson’s] cause of death is listed as “complications of lithium therapy,” which led to kidney and bowel problems. Still, the state doctor performing the autopsy declared Wilson’s death as “natural.”

DOC officials refused to release a separate internal review of Wilson’s death, citing federal medical privacy laws.

The story also reports that the same internal review also says that, due to staffing shortages, patients were left unsupervised:

Inmates cut themselves and swallowed nails, batteries and shards from plastic eating utensils. The review found numerous inconsistencies and contradictions in written records of observational rounds.The report also found that inmates in “therapeutic seclusion” were often locked in cells for extended periods without being let out for meals, recreation time or to shower.

A 2012 INDY Week article describes what life is like in solitary confinement in North Carolina prisons. The story describes conditions in the intensive control unit, or ICON, at Central Prison, focusing on the story of Chris McBride, who was placed in ICON after he and a group of other prisoners held a work-stoppage to protest their long hours. According to a letter from McBride:

Solitary confinement is hell. I agree with the public—it is a form of torture. It is a tiny cell about 6 feet by 8 feet. . .We are in this cell 23 hours a day. We are allowed to come out for recreation five times a week for one hour. The rec is a cage. They just stick us in a little cage and we can walk around. That’s it. We are only allowed to take three showers a week. . .So if you add up five 1-hour recs, and three 10-minute showers, that’s 5½ hours. Let’s round that up to 6 hours. There’s your answer. Out of the 168 hours in a week, we are out of our cell 6 hours. . .. . . Normal rules don’t apply to solitary. They are supposed to, but they don’t.

In yet another incident of prisoner abuse at Central Prison, where around 600 people are held in “Close Custody,” prisoners launched a hunger strike in 2012 protest of various prison conditions, the demands of which included “[a]n immediate end to the physical and mental abuse inflicted by officers” and “[t]he end of cell restrictions.

In May of last year, Solitary Watch reported on a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of eight people held in solitary confinement at Central Prison against officers and administrators at the prison. According to the suit, guards used “blind spots” – areas in the prison out of view of surveillance cameras – to beat handcuffed and shackled prisoners.

The beatings took place in Unit One, a cell block commonly known as “The Hole,” where people are held in isolation.

The abuse claims made by the eight prisoners were substantiated by medical records which documented “blunt force injuries,” including broken bones and concussions, sustained while they were isolated from other prisoners. One man was unable to walk for months after his hip was fractured.

The lawsuit named 21 guards accused of participating in the abuse at the maximum security prison in Raleigh as defendants.

Followings hearing on the suit, the judge ordered that additional cameras be installed that would provide surveillance of the blind spots and that digital videos of the surveillance be kept sufficiently long enough to be used by any prisoners who file complaints.

Advocates Call for Greater Oversight of State Prisons

Asked by Solitary Watch to comment on the state of the North Carolina prison system, North Carolina Cure (NC-CURE) Director Elizabeth Forbes responded:

There have been countless issues of abuses of mentally ill prisoners, including the most recent incident– the death of Michael Anthony Kerr. I think this was one reason for Dr. John Carbone’s demotion. It’s just one more lawsuit resulting from his negative and cavalier attitude toward the mentally ill.Regarding Kerr, our inside sources told us that the guards specifically punished him and he was taken off his mental illness medication…The problems in North Carolina state prisons originate from severe staff shortages and lack of oversight.

Solitary Watch also contacted North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services attorney Michele Luecking-Sunman, who stated in a telephone interview:

There have definitely been some horrific things that have happened in North Carolina’s prisons in the last several years, and we have and do have pending litigation to try to address the deficiencies that are causing these acts that are occurring.

There’s always a need for greater oversight of mental healthcare in prisons and there is some evidence that there has been some ongoing oversight in North Carolina, but I think that there needs to be more. When there are experts brought in or experts who look at the system to the extent that their recommendations can be followed, they should be followed.A lot of times prisons are under pressure in terms of funding or what not, but the pressure needs to be there for experts in mental health fields to be the ones that are determining how people are housed when they have mental illness and they shouldn’t always default to custody level people. We need to see treatment instead of punishment when somebody is acting out in a manner that is because of their mental illness.

News Mon, 22 Dec 2014 11:01:10 -0500
Should Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and CIA Officials Be Tried for Torture? War Crimes Case Filed in Germany

A human rights group in Berlin, Germany, has filed a criminal complaint against the architects of the George W. Bush administration’s torture program. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights has accused former Bush administration officials, including CIA Director George Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, of war crimes, and called for an immediate investigation by a German prosecutor. The move follows the release of a Senate report on CIA torture which includes the case of a German citizen, Khalid El-Masri, who was captured by CIA agents in 2004 due to mistaken identity and tortured at a secret prison in Afghanistan. So far, no one involved in the CIA torture program has been charged with a crime — except the whistleblower John Kiriakou, who exposed it. We speak to Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights and chairman of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, and longtime defense attorney Martin Garbus.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A human rights group in Berlin, Germany, has filed a criminal complaint against the architects of the George W. Bush administration’s torture program. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights has accused former Bush administration officials, including CIA Director George Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, of war crimes, and called for an immediate investigation by a German prosecutor. The move follows the release of a Senate report on CIA torture, which includes the case of a German citizen, Khalid El-Masri, who was captured by CIA agents in 2004 due to mistaken identity and tortured at a secret prison in Afghanistan. So far, no one involved in the CIA torture program has been charged with a crime—except the whistleblower John Kiriakou, who exposed it.

AMY GOODMAN: In a statement earlier this week, Wolfgang Kaleck, general secretary of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, said, "By investigating members of the Bush administration, Germany can help to ensure that those responsible for abduction, abuse and illegal detention do not go unpunished," unquote.

Meanwhile, President Obama is standing by his long-standing refusal to investigate or prosecute Bush administration officials for the torture program. In a statement, he called on the nation not to, quote, "refight old arguments." As Obama continues to reject a criminal probe of Bush-era torture, former Vice President Dick Cheney has said he would do it all again. Cheney spoke to NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday.

DICK CHENEY: With respect to trying to define that as torture, I come back to the proposition torture was what the al-Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation. ... It worked. It worked now. For 13 years we’ve avoided another mass casualty attack against the United States. We did capture bin Laden. We did capture an awful lot of the senior guys of al-Qaeda who were responsible for that attack on 9/11. I’d do it again in a minute.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Cheney’s claim that he would approve torture again highlights a key question: Are top officials above the law, and will the impunity of today lead to more abuses in the future? The question spans a wide chain of command from Cheney, President Bush and other White House officials, who kickstarted the torture program after 9/11; to the lawyers in the Justice Department, who drafted the memos providing legal cover; to the CIA officials, who implemented the abuses and misled Congress and the public; and to the military psychologists, who helped devise the techniques inflicted on prisoners at U.S. military prisons and secret black sites across the globe.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about this, we’re joined now by two guests. Michael Ratner is back with us, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. CCR has been working with the European Center to file criminal complaints against Bush administration officials complicit in the use of torture. He’s also the author of The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book.

Martin Garbus is also back with us, one of the leading attorneys in the U.S. Time magazine calls him "one of the best trial lawyers in the country." National Law Journal has named him one of the country’s top 10 litigators.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Yesterday we were talking to you both about Cuba; today we’re talking about all the news that has come out. Martin Garbus, should President Bush, should George Tenet, should Donald Rumsfeld, should Dick Cheney be put on trial for torture?

MARTIN GARBUS: They should be. The bad thing about it is they all have a defense they can rely on: They have the defense of the lawyers’ opinions that were given to them—the opinions of Gonzales, Bybee and John Yoo. And unless you can pierce those decisions, you have a very tough time. It seems to me a prosecution that ends badly—and I think it would end badly in the United States—might not be one that will be brought. But what should happen is with respect to those lawyers. When Jay Bybee was elected to the court of appeals in 2002—was nominated and then voted upon by the Senate—and John Yoo presently teaches at Berkeley university. At the—

AMY GOODMAN: At University of California, Berkeley, law school.

MARTIN GARBUS: California. At the time that Yoo was appointed to Berkeley, there was a mass demonstration of students against him. At the time that Bybee was nominated for the judgeship by Bush, he was criticized, but you did not yet have all this information. What Senator Leahy has said, that if you had all this information, Jay Bybee never would have passed. Clearly, if you had all this information that you have now, John Yoo wouldn’t be appointed. What should happen is there should be complaints filed in the bar associations. They should be suspended and disbarred. Then, perhaps, if you have a prosecution, you already have established the faultiness, the horrific faultiness, of the legal opinions. So it seems to me, at least in this country, a condition precedent, as we lawyers say, before you can have a prosecution, has to be the invalidation of the legal opinions.


MICHAEL RATNER: I want to just say, I’m not here to debate Marty on this. And he’s a defense lawyer. But I strongly disagree that Bush, Cheney, et al., would have a defense. This wasn’t like these memos just appeared independently from the Justice Department. These memos were facilitated by the very people—Cheney, etc.—who we believe should be indicted. This was part of a conspiracy so they could get away with torture. But that’s not the subject here now. I just want to—so, that is clear to me.

Secondly, whatever we think of those memos, they’re of uselessness in Europe. Europe doesn’t accept this, quote, "golden shield" of a legal defense. Either it’s torture or it’s not. Either you did it or you didn’t. And that’s one of the reasons, among others, why we’re going to Europe and why we went to Europe to bring these cases through the European Center.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But I wanted to ask you about that, because—as the clip we played of President Obama saying it’s no use refighting old arguments, but you are in essence refighting arguments in Europe that the United States refuses to deal with.

MICHAEL RATNER: But, of course, you know, Cheney just showed us exactly why you have to—have to prosecute torture. Because if you don’t prosecute it, the next guy down the line is going to torture again. And that’s what Cheney said: "I would do it again."

And now, the European case is really interesting. We did try this in 2004—you covered it here. We tried it in 2006—you covered it here. But now, because of the Senate report, we have a much stronger case in Germany than we ever had, particularly with regard to a German citizen, Khalid El-Masri, who was taken off the streets of Macedonia, sent to the Salt Pit, which is known as Cobalt in the Senate report.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, explain, though.


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us that story. It’s a remarkable story. He was on a bus?

MICHAEL RATNER: He was on a bus to take a vacation in Skopje in Macedonia, and he gets pulled off by agents of our government, gets taken off the bus, gets, you know, sodomized, essentially, with a drug, and then gets taken from there to the Salt Pit in Afghanistan, which is a CIA black site torture center, known as Cobalt in the report. He’s there for four months. Everybody knows by—at some point along, this is a mistake. There was another guy with a similar name. It wasn’t this guy. Even after they’re told that it’s a mistake, they leave him in there, and they leave him to be tortured. They finally, at the end of this, just take him out of there, and they drop him off somewhere—

AMY GOODMAN: Condoleezza Rice was involved with this, right?

MICHAEL RATNER: Condoleezza Rice, and so was this woman—

AMY GOODMAN: They held him further because they realized they had been torturing the wrong man.

MICHAEL RATNER: That’s correct. And the European Court of Human Rights actually weighed in on this case. And what they did is they held Macedonia liable for allowing that kidnapping on their streets, and fined them. And they found that what happened to him on the streets of Macedonia was torture. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Who else was involved?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we—I want to go to Khalid El-Masri in his own words, describing his time inside a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan.

KHALID EL-MASRI: [translated] I was the only one in this prison in Kabul who was actually treated slightly better than the other inmates. But it was known among the prisoners that other prisoners were constantly tortured with blasts of loud music, exposed to constant onslaughts of loud music. And they were—for up to five days, they were just sort of left hanging from the ceiling, completely naked in ice-cold conditions. The man from Tanzania, whom I mentioned before, had his arm broken in three places. He had injuries, trauma to the head, and his teeth had been damaged. They also locked him up in a suitcase for long periods of time, foul-smelling suitcase that made him vomit all the time. Other people experienced forms of torture whereby their heads were being pushed down and held under water.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Khalid El-Masri describing his torture in a CIA black site. Michael?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, yes, and they knew he was innocent. And there’s a woman who was just identified—who has been identified for a long time, who works for the CIA. Her name is Bikowsky, Alfreda Frances Bikowsky, who apparently was one of the people who insisted, even though there was people in the agency saying that "We’ve got the wrong guy," who insisted on having him picked up and taken there. She’s also, apparently, one of the models for the woman in Zero Dark Thirty. And Jane Mayer recently wrote an article about her; it’s, I think, called "The Queen of Torture" or something like that ["The Unidentified Queen of Torture"]—didn’t identify her by name. But she is one of the defendants in the lawsuit in Germany.

And let me just say, Germany—whatever happened before, between the NSA spying on Germany and the fact that their citizen has now been revealed to have been kept in a torture place, when it was known that he was innocent, I’m pretty sure that Germany is going to take this very seriously.

And I just spoke to a person you’ve had on here before, Scott Horton, who’s the columnist for Harper’s, as well as an expert on national security, and Scott tells me that because of these cases we have filed in Europe, that over a hundred CIA agents have been given advice that they should not leave the United States. Let me just say, what we’re going to win here in the end, I can’t say, but that already to me is a major victory.

MARTIN GARBUS: A major victory would be to prosecute the lawyers themselves—

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Garbus.

MARTIN GARBUS: —because otherwise what’s going to happen in the future is you’re going to have activities, like Cheney or whomever, you’ll have people in the CIA and the NSA relying on faulty legal opinion. So I think a strong emphasis in the United States has to be stop future lawyers from doing the same thing as was done here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your point is that these memos, they consciously knew that they were violating torture statutes.

MARTIN GARBUS: They consciously knew. And I think Michael is right, of course, that they were doing it under the chain of command—Cheney and the other people. But I think that’s very difficult to prove, and I think you should go after the lawyers immediately now.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, since that time, John Yoo is an eminent professor at University of California, Berkeley, law school, and Bybee—

MARTIN GARBUS: Jay Bybee is a respected federal judge. "Respected."

AMY GOODMAN: —was elevated to a judgeship.

News Mon, 22 Dec 2014 10:49:38 -0500
Let Us Speak! Let Us Speak! Let Us Speak! Voices From Ferguson to Sharpton

It was a beautiful day in Washington, D.C. The scheduled lineup of speakers included, Michael Eric Dyson, Cheerleader-In-Chief Al Sharpton, the NAACP. MSNBC was fully present as throngs of loyal, irate, passionate demonstrators from around the country massed to send a clear unequivocal message to the government—this shit has got to change—all standing politely in Freedom Plaza, with speakers exhorting chants of "Hands Up, Don't Shoot!, I Can't Breathe! Justice for Michael Brown! Justice for Eric Garner!"

We had actually talked about whether or not to attend a rally with Rev. Sharpton its titular leader. We spoke with cohorts and black leaders, many expressing their misgivings about how representative Sharpton can be now that he is ensconced with his own TV show; after having watched his coziness with the White House, even after the president appointed Charles Ramsey the former Washington, D.C. police chief who presided over harsh police crackdowns on protesters that ultimately cost Washington taxpayers a fine of over $100 million in a lawsuit in which the protesters prevailed.

Ultimately two determinants swayed us to attend: we had to give the devil his due in the sense that Rev. Sharpton has been a stalwart against police brutality for a long time; and more importantly, the people in Ferguson were asking for a huge turn out over the weekend. So we went, expecting to hold our noses while taking one for the team.

A few details were immediately apparent from the periphery of Freedom Plaza: It is a sprawling, open space that, by virtue of its being elevated, makes seeing and photographing the full extent of the crowd impossible; the speakers, even with amplifiers, were largely unintelligible in the din; and many conversations were underway throughout the mass of people about what tactical actions could have been taken to shut down the city with that many people—were there the inclination among the march's organizers.

Then, as the people in Ferguson have demonstrated time and again, something unexpected happened—at first with a chant that began growing at the edge of the stage—Let Us Speak! Let Us Speak! This, from the contingent who had come the thousand miles from Ferguson to add their voice to Sharpton's rally—only to find themselves, ignored, blackballed and pushed to the side by the event planners in favor of more palatable—and predictable—voices.

Let Us Speak! Let Us Speak! Let Us Speak!

As the chant grew louder, the emcee admonished them to show some respect, declaring that Michael Brown, Sr. would now put these miscreants in their place.

And then the nearly miraculous!

When the emcee turned her back to the podium briefly, local activist, Erica Totten, saw her opportunity. Erica has been on the ground in Ferguson and witnessed the plural realities of what is happening as against how what is happening is portrayed in the media. She has also been in the thick of shutting down roads, interstates and business as usual in Washington. It's all a matter of timing.

Erica saw an opening and took it. She walked to the stage and took the microphone. “We love you, sister, but the youth are here from Ferguson. They’ve travelled a long way to attend this demonstration and they have a right to speak.”

Despite the resources, despite the planning, despite the concerted effort to keep the 'rabble rousers' sidelined, the jig was up. The sheer determination of those at the heart of the uprising born in Ferguson prevailed yet again. Call it doggedness. Call it passion. Call it creative engagement. Whatever its name, at the end of the day it is the humanity of the Ferguson uprising that trumps all comers.

It is the affront to common decency of leaving a shattered body uncovered in the street for four and a half hours. It is the police-gang murder by suffocation of a man begging to be allowed to breathe. It is the odious misuse of the grand jury process by jurisdictions nationwide that no amount of choreography can disguise. Al Sharpton cannot manufacture that. He cannot deliver that. The White House (how apt its name) would do well to take note.

In a recent Washington Post cum Roots article entitled: "Sharpton Responds to Criticism That His Movement Excludes Younger Activists", Sharpton said: “This was not a revolutionary march, and I don’t apologize for that.” He added that he had not yet arrived at the rally when a group of protesters, whom he did not know, stormed the stage and demanded to speak. He said that when he arrived on the scene later, he granted the activists speaking time after they assured him that they were not going to call for violence or promote inflammatory rhetoric against nonblacks….This was not promoted as a town hall meeting.” Erika Totten responded to Sharpton, “The youth in Ferguson have been protesting in the streets for 128 days and they deserve to be heard."

Sharpton’s assertion that the people from Ferguson would be violent is more consistent with the position of the police than with the people of Ferguson. It is precisely this assumption that black people are violent that is getting blacks folks all over the country killed.

Opinion Mon, 22 Dec 2014 10:49:17 -0500
Assata Shakur: What Does New US-Cuba Pact Mean for Exiled Black Panther Wanted in New Jersey?

Authorities in New Jersey have said they hope a historic warming of ties between the United States and Cuba will help them capture and imprison Black Panther Assata Shakur. "We view any changes in relations with Cuba as an opportunity to bring her back to the United States to finish her sentence for the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper in 1973," said State Police Superintendent Colonel Rick Fuentes. The encounter left both the officer and a fellow Black Panther, Zayd Malik Shakur, dead. Shakur has said she was shot by police with both arms in the air, and then again from the back. She was sentenced to life in prison but managed to escape and flee to Cuba, where she has lived since 1984. What will happen to Shakur now? We put the question to two attorneys: Michael Ratner and Martin Garbus.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I wanted to switch gears before the end of the show and go back to Cuba—massive news this week about the beginning of normalization of relations. And I wanted to ask you about the issue of Assata Shakur. Authorities in New Jersey have said they hope a historic warming of ties between the U.S. and Cuba will help them capture and imprison Black Panther Assata Shakur. In a statement, State Police Superintendent Colonel Rick Fuentes said, "We view any changes in relations with Cuba as an opportunity to bring her back to the United States to finish her sentence for the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper in 1973."

The encounter left both the officer and a fellow Black Panther, Zayd Malik Shakur, dead. Assata Shakur has said she was shot by police with both arms in the air, and then again from the back. She was sentenced to life in prison, managed to escape, fled to Cuba, where she has lived since 1984. I got to see her there a few years later. In 1998, Democracy Now! aired Assata Shakur reading an open letter to Pope John Paul II during his trip to Cuba. She wrote the message after New Jersey state troopers sent the pope a letter asking him to call for her extradition.

ASSATA SHAKUR: I later joined the Black Panther Party, an organization that was targeted by the COINTELPRO program, a program that was set up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to eliminate all political opposition to the U.S. government’s policies, to destroy the Black Liberation Movement in the United States, to discredit activists and to eliminate potential leaders.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Assata Shakur reading an open letter to, at the time, Pope John Paul II. Martin Garbus, what will happen to Assata Shakur?

MARTIN GARBUS: She will not be returned. Fidel Castro, when she came there, said that she would be allowed to stay in Cuba indefinitely. I had a meeting about a month ago with five congresspeople, including Representative Barbara Lee, and they were also absolutely clear that they would oppose any attempts on the United States to succeed that would get Assata Shakur back. So, to me, it’s absolutely clear she’s not coming back.

AMY GOODMAN: Black Panther Sundiata Acoli has been ordered released on parole, a state New Jersey—appeals court in New Jersey, after more than four decades in prison, but New Jersey has appealed, so he’s remaining in prison. The significance of this, Michael Ratner?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, New Jersey has been outrageous about these cases. I mean, think about Assata’s case. And think about driving while black in New Jersey. Think about what’s happened from Ferguson to Garner in New York. And I ask you, "What do we think about what happened to Assata?" And I agree with Marty: There is a 100 percent chance that she will not be forced out of Cuba. A hundred percent. I don’t even question it. But, of course, you see New Jersey. They’ve raised the reward on her to $10 million. The FBI put her on their most wanted list, etc. So they’re clearly after her. But I’m completely confident, as Marty is, that the Cubans will not have her extradited to the United States.


MARTIN GARBUS: If Menendez is indicted, that will be helpful.

MICHAEL RATNER: What? I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll link to our pieces—what did you say?

MARTIN GARBUS: If Menendez is indicted, that will be helpful.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll link to our pieces on Assata Shakur at That does it for our show. Michael Ratner, thanks so much for joining us, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights and chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. As well, Martin Garbus, thanks so much for being with us, a leading attorney in this country.

News Mon, 22 Dec 2014 10:44:13 -0500
From Free Pre-K to Paid Sick Leave to Pay Raises, NYC Mayor de Blasio Fulfills Progressive Promises

Democracy Now! co-host Juan González discusses his exclusive year-end interview with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. "The list of his accomplishments in just one year has shocked even me — a total skeptic after more 35 years of covering urban politics in this country," writes González in his latest column. "And it’s not just the big issues like education, affordable housing, reform of police-community relations, or new contracts and pay raises for city workers. It’s also a host of less publicized but important measures affecting ordinary New Yorkers. Things like paid sick leave and a living wage for low-income workers. Like the lowest rent increase in memory for 800,000."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, before we begin our first story, you had the exclusive year-end interview with New York Mayor de Blasio. You got the first interview of any reporter this year in this first year of his administration for the New York Daily News.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, I have a big article in today’s paper on—a series of articles, including my column.

And basically what the mayor told me in a half-hour interview earlier this week was that he saw his major accomplishments of his first rookie year as mayor being the achievement of the universal pre-K program that he rolled out, his—the beginning of an affordable housing program that he expects will produce 200,000 units of affordable housing in the city over the next 10 years, and a series of reforms he’s had on the—related to police-community relations.

Now, obviously, that almost seems like a contradiction, given all the protests over the Eric Garner case and Akai Gurley killings that have occurred over the last few months. And I asked him about that. But de Blasio basically said, "Look, we had instituted a series of reforms, had put in a new inspector general for the police department. We’d sharply reduced stop-and-frisk arrests by the police. We had ordered a sharp reduction in marijuana—low-level marijuana arrests in the city." And then the Garner case occurred and the Akai Gurley case occurred, and he said it was—the people were—people of New York saw a man killed before their very eyes, and that has created—

AMY GOODMAN: That videotape.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —an enormous pain among the residents of the city.

But he believes that the reforms that he’s instituted, including what’s going to happen next year, which is the massive retraining of all police officers, aimed at reducing violent incidents in everyday interaction between the police and citizens, that he believes that the long-term effects of this will be a change in the culture and in the relations of the police department. It remains to be seen if that’s going to happen, but he did seem to be optimistic, despite what has happened with Eric Garner and Akai Gurley and the continuing protests that have occurred. And then he also voiced support for the ability of people to continue to protest and express their viewpoints on these issues.

But the other thing is, he had pretty strong words on some other issues, especially on charter schools, which I’ve reported about quite a bit. He blasted the charter school advocates for several times in the past year closing down their schools in the middle of school days and taking all their students and their teachers on protests to Albany, New York. He said they were using children as political pawns and that he was willing to work with charter school advocates, but that they had to follow rules, like making sure that they were educating the same number of English-language learners and special ed kids as the normal public schools, and that his main commitment was to public education, to the public schools, where most of the children of New York City are educated.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you sense a changed man from the man who was elected a year ago?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in my column, because I write in the news story about the interview, but then in my column, the point I think I try to raise is that—I’ve been covering urban politics now for 35 years, more than 35 years. And the real shock of de Blasio is that this is a politician who actually, in his first year, has begun to implement many of the promises he made, and that’s unusual in and of itself, and that he’s actually moved forward on his program. And he’s created quite a bit of a ruckus, especially among the wealthy and the invisible government of New York City. But he hasn’t backed down on most of his major issues. So, I think that that’s a pretty unusual situation for a politician.

AMY GOODMAN: I just want to turn for one minute to a clip of Mayor de Blasio talking about his son Dante. You know, the protests around lack of police accountability in the Eric Garner case, New York City Mayor de Blasio said he and his wife Chirlane, who is African-American, fear for their teenage son Dante.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers he may face. Good young man, law-abiding young man, who never would think to do anything wrong, and yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him. And that painful sense of contradiction that our young people see first, that our police are here to protect us and we honor that, and the same time, there’s a history we have to overcome because for so many of our young people there’s a fear, and for so many of our families there’s a fear.

AMY GOODMAN: Dante, de Blasio’s son, became famous to all New Yorkers when he did that ad. A young African American with an afro is talking about supporting de Blasio for mayor, and a lot of people thought it was just a kid on the street that they were doing—using for a campaign ad, and at the end he said, "I support him, and it’s not just because he’s my dad."

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right. And one of the things in the interview also I got the mayor to do was make a New Year’s resolution, because he’s become almost now infamous for his lateness to all events, public events, press conferences, his chronic lateness. And he told me that he would make a New Year’s resolution to be more on time in 2015. So we’ll see if he holds to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll certainly continue to cover a person who’s been called one of the most progressive mayors of a major American city. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, a major decision by the governor of New York banning fracking. Then we will look more at the CIA intelligence report and about a new complaint that could lead—could it lead to a trial for Bush administration officials? Stay with us.

News Mon, 22 Dec 2014 10:38:13 -0500
As Hollywood Funds a SOPA Revival Through State Officials, Google (and the Internet) Respond

Almost three years ago, millions of Internet users joined together to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a disastrous bill that would have balkanized the Internet in the name of copyright and trademark enforcement. Over the past week, we've been tracking a host of revelations about an insidious campaign to accomplish the goals of SOPA by other means. The latest development: Google has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block enforcement of an overbroad and punitive subpoena seeking an extraordinary quantity of information about the company and its users. The subpoena, Google warns, is based on legal theories that could have disastrous consequences for the open Internet.

The subpoena was issued after months of battles between Google and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. According to the lawsuit, Hood has been using his office to pressure Google to restrict content accessible through the search engine.  Indeed, among other things, he sought "a “24-hour link through which attorneys general[]” can request that links to particular websites be removed from search results "within hours,” presumably without judicial review or an opportunity for operators of the target websites to be heard."  As Google states, "The Attorney General may prefer a pre-filtered Internet—but the Constitution and Congress have denied him the authority to mandate it."

The subpoena itself is bad enough, but here's what's really disturbing: the real force behind it appears to be the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which has been quietly supporting state-level prosecutors in various efforts to target the company and the open Internet. The clear aim of that campaign—dubbed "Project Goliath" in MPAA emails made public through the recent high profile breach of Sony's corporate network—is to achieve the goals of the defeated SOPA blacklist proposal without the public oversight of the legislative process. Previously, Google had responded with a sharply worded notice and a petition titled #ZombieSOPA.

According to Google, the MPAA intended to use the state prosecutors' offices to bring about the aims of SOPA after the bill's embarrassing public defeat nearly three years ago. In January 2012, legislators quickly distanced themselves from SOPA after a widespread online "blackout" campaign drew attention to the way the proposed law could be misused for censoring lawful speech. In addition, EFF helped coordinate a series of letters signed by prominent computer scientists explaining how the proposed blacklist technique—censoring at the DNS level—could undermine the fundamental architecture of the Internet, destabilizing core components in an ill considered effort to reduce copyright infringement.

The MPAA learned a lesson from that campaign, but it appears it was the wrong one. Instead of recognizing that an online blacklist was a fundamentally unworkable idea, they decided that it could only be pushed in secrecy. In one email, MPAA's Global General Counsel Steven Fabrizio includes a section titled "Technical Analyses," that suggests they did not seriously consider the technical concerns highlighted during the SOPA backlash:

Very little systematic work has been completed to understand the technical issues related to site blocking in the US and/or alternative measures IPSs might adopt. We will identify and retain a consulting technical expert to work with us to study these issues. In this context, we will explore which options might lead ISPs to cooperate with us.

Neither the MPAA nor the state attorneys general in question have challenged the authenticity of the leaked documents, which clearly outline a widespread campaign by the MPAA to direct at least $500,000, and potentially up to $1.175 million, to these political offices and towards these goals.

This coordinated campaign by the MPAA follows a trend of lobbyists funneling money and gifts to state attorneys general, who are subject to fewer restrictions and disclosure requirements than elected officials at the national level. The New York Times reported on this broader trend in a series of extensive articles beginning last October. In fact, one leaked Sony email consists of an MPAA official circulating the first in that series to 62 others, including numerous studio executivess and representatives of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

Some of the state attorneys on the receiving end of these benefits have undertaken legal efforts against Google, sending formal letters and subpoena-like documents called civil investigative demands (CIDs), both of which appear to be drafted in some cases by the MPAA or their attorneys at the firm Jenner & Block. Mississippi's Jim Hood of Mississippi in particular sent the current controversial 79-page subpoena to Google in October as a follow-up to a stern letter last year; a New York Times report demonstrates that the letter was drafted by the MPAA's law firm and delivered largely unedited to Google.

To be clear though: Google may be the target today, but the real target is the open Internet, which depends on free and uncensored platforms to survive. Any campaign to censor the Internet is cause for concern—and a secret one is all the more so. The public has clearly and unambiguously denounced the SOPA effort; it's shameful to see its backers try to revive its goals by dodging the scrutiny of the democratic process.

News Mon, 22 Dec 2014 10:26:23 -0500
Innovations or Hucksterism? Three Little-Known Infrastructure Privatization Problems

Highway construction(Image: Joey Gannon, Zachary Korb, Travel Aficionado, cmh2315fl; Edited: JR/TO)

On a recent Diane Rehm Show on the future of US Toll Roads, Robert Puentes, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institute's Metropolitan Policy Program, observed, "We had this program in the '50s that built out the interstates. That was a lot of federal money coming in." Those days, Puentes said, "are over."

Highway construction(Image: Joey Gannon, Zachary Korb, Travel Aficionado, cmh2315fl; Edited: JR/TO)

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On a recent Diane Rehm Show on the future of US Toll Roads, Robert Puentes, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institute's Metropolitan Policy Program, observed, "We had this program in the '50s that built out the interstates. That was a lot of federal money coming in." Those days, Puentes said, "are over."

Those days are indeed over - but this is no product of fate. The shift is due to the work of advocates for privatizing roads, who are undermining the legacy of President Eisenhower.

Today, these vocal privatization boosters have no real counterbalance; one of the most important and thoughtful advocates for high quality multimodal and interlinked transportation - Congressman Jim Oberstar (MN) - has left us with no advocate for public transportation infrastructure and no satisfactory form of transportation financing.

Oberstar should be memorialized with a serious discussion as to how we will pay for high-quality transportation infrastructure, including roads, trains, bicycles, planes and other multimodal forms of transportation. Do we prefer to finance our roads with funding that has the laser-like clarity of a fuel tax indexed for inflation? What about privatized toll roads? How do we develop a robust ecosystem that draws on many sources to create a balanced system for financing transportation? And how do we best mitigate climate change?

Third, what is the quality of the process used to build large infrastructure projects?

These are important questions, but not the only questions that matter, just as cars and roads are not the only infrastructure that matters. Similar issues affect other vital public infrastructure, water, in particular, and privatization is being advanced as the solution to all our infrastructure problems. The advocates of privatization speak more forcefully, but this "solution" puts us on the road to nowhere good.

Here are three under-reported infrastructure privatization issues we need to pay attention to. First, who actually benefits from and pays for infrastructure? Second, how are opinion makers talking about privatized infrastructure? Third, what is the quality of the process used to build large infrastructure projects?

1. Are There Really Innovative Ways to Pay for Highway Construction?

Some hope that leasing infrastructure to private contractors will be a painless solution for cash-strapped state and local governments. However, the record shows that privatization as a "solution" comes at a cost to the public.

For example, a recent report on global water privatization by the Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU) "Troubled Waters: Misleading Industry PR and the Case for Public Water," found that the private "partners" fail to provide the promised quality and quantity of water. In fact, the PSIRU report found that no technological innovation was involved. In fact, the only "innovation" was providing up-front payments to the public "partner" that severely undervalued the public asset.

In the case of highways, the fuel tax that has long provided funding for roads has the nice feature of showing a connection between the tax we pay at the pump and the taxes paying for roads. The problematic funding issue for roads has been the failure to index the fuel tax for inflation.

More recently, the challenge has been tax fairness with the increase of high-mileage vehicles, hybrids, and other non-gasoline-powered cars. Many of these vehicles may avoid paying tax, or lower the amount of tax paid, compared to the damage done by driving.

The bankruptcy and sale of the road to a new buyer was not just an unfortunate situation. Rather . . . it is an integral part of a structure that makes money for the private investors.

Just linking the cost of an individual's driving and taxes misses key features of our transportation ecosystem. Almost everything we buy - and the raw materials for things we need - will get to us on a road at some point, and some level of fuel tax will have been paid.

Or, consider, that there are non-tax costs when our roads become so dangerous that they damage our cars or cause accidents and injuries.

2. Privatization Hype on Public Radio

On a recent Diane Rehm show, the question was, "What can we learn from innovative models for funding highway construction?" Unfortunately, that question missed the dynamics of the infrastructure privatization ecosystem.

Brookings Institution fellow Robert Puentes, saw the failed Indiana toll road as a positive: "They recently just went through a financial restructuring, and a new company is taking it over. But there's so much interest from the private sector in investing in this country . . ."

Research by highway expert Randy Salzman, finds that the magic of privatization has been highly exaggerated. According to Salzman:

In March, Fluor's senior vice president Richard Fierce bragged that his company was saving taxpayers $1.7 billion on the new bridge across the Hudson until one congressman offhandedly remarked that he'd heard the Tappan Zee project would cost $5 billion, not $3.1 billion as the contractor had claimed.  . . . 

"Design-build" is, in effect, "cost-plus," tailor-made for expensive change orders once construction is underway, when no politician can dare pull the plug on runaway spending. "P3s" are even more geared for lining the pockets of financiers; hence foreign money is flooding into US highway projects today. The costs and risks, it is consistently claimed, are dumped on the privates, but the reality is much more complex and, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), at best delays taxpayer pain. There is little, if any, long-term savings for citizens, the CBO notes, and the tiny amounts of private equity serve primarily to get construction underway quicker. (Emphasis added).

None of the Diane Rehm Show's panelists seemed aware that the bankruptcy and sale of the road to a new buyer was not just an unfortunate situation. Rather, as Randy Salzman has shown, it is an integral part of a structure that makes money for the private investors.

Part of that structure has depended on IRS tax breaks for Lease-In/Lease-Out (LILO) and Sale-In/Sale-Out (SILO) transactions.

Right now fierce lobbying is pushing for tax breaks as part of the new water law - the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA). If their lobbying is successful, these tax breaks will include tax-free Private Activity Bonds (PABs). Tax-free PABs would increase an investor's income while, of course, decreasing government revenues to spend on public needs, because "tax-free" means less tax money paid into the US Treasury.

And yet, the hype goes on.

Also on the same Diane Rehm Show on transportation was Cato Institute economist Chris Edwards. He claimed that, when the Indiana toll road went bankrupt, neither drivers nor taxpayers were hurt. Rather, he said, only the private company and the creditors were hurt. Said Edwards, "The companies - they didn't earn any profits. And I would say actually there's a benefit. If you have a liberal perspective, there's a benefit of private companies coming in and running roadways because those private companies will pay taxes on their profits, on their income tax. So it broadens the tax base to put some of these assets into the private sector."

However, that is not how the infrastructure privatization cookie actually crumbles.

According to highway expert, Randy Salzman, the international financiers play a deep game that most of us misread:

Beginning with the contracting stage, the evidence suggests toll operating public private partnerships are transportation shell companies for international financiers and contractors who blueprint future bankruptcies. Because Uncle Sam generally guarantees the bonds - by far the largest chunk of "private" money - if and when the private toll road or tunnel partner goes bankrupt, taxpayers are forced to pay off the bonds while absorbing all loans the state and federal governments gave the private shell company and any accumulated depreciation. Yet the shell company's parent firms get to keep years of actual toll income, on top of millions in design-build cost overruns.

US and state taxpayers are left paying off billions in debt to bondholders who have received amazing returns on their money, as much as 13 percent, as virtually all - if not all - of these private P3 toll operators go bankrupt within 15 years of what is usually a five-plus decade contract.

3. When Large Projects Fail

Edwards' Econ 101 analysis fails to take into account the reality of infrastructure privatization and the complexity and elegance of our tax code, which, as Salzman has explained, makes it possible for privatization investors to do very well indeed while doing bad for the rest of us.

While Salzman reveals how privateers make money using the tax and bankruptcy codes, University of Oxford Professor and Chair, Bent Flyvbjerg and his various coauthors have studied the processes that cause large construction projects to fail. Not all large building projects involve privatization, but all large infrastructure privatization projects are likely to be affected by similar problems.

Here is a small sample of published research by Flyvberg and his coauthors on infrastructure failure.

Their investigation into "Why the Worst Infrastructure Gets Built." draws on interviews and other information about the process of building large-scale projects. They find that the problem is one of incentives. The project managers' goal is getting projects funded and then built. The result of those incentives is that project managers and planners fail to get good quality project forecasts and fail to abide by the relevant codes of ethics.

In addition, the process depends on government officials with far less experience with big projects than the private contractors. In fact, the government officials are unlikely to know even what their interests are and what the pitfalls are. As this study observed:

If you do not know what your interests are, it is difficult to safeguard them. Contractors, on the other hand, who bid for and build such projects, do so all the time. Contractors, therefore, typically know much more than clients about the ins and outs of projects and contracts, including the many risks and pitfalls that apply, plus which lawyers, bankers and consultants to hire to safeguard their interests most effectively. This asymmetry has brought many a client to grief.

Is it any wonder, then, that outcomes for transportation projects that are given the green light have cost overruns of at least 45 percent and ridership 50-70 percent lower than forecast? Indeed, those who want to understand how transportation projects fail would be well advised to read the analyses of both Salzman and Flyvberg and his coauthors.

It is ironic that the authors of these studies will have undergone far more scrutiny of their articles than will be the case for multimillion-dollar projects.

"Why the Worst Infrastructure Gets Built" finds that forecasting errors are caused by "delusions or honest mistakes; deceptions or strategic manipulation of information or processes; or bad luck." Executives fall victim to the "planning fallacy," which causes managers to make decisions based on delusional optimism, which then causes them to "spin scenarios of success and overlook the potential for mistakes and miscalculations."

The authors do find that overreaching and other problems can be kept in check by safeguards, such as requiring all parties to share financial responsibility, to disclose information and to be rewarded for providing realistic estimates. In addition, forecasts should be critiqued by expert and independent peer review. It is ironic that the authors of these studies will have undergone far more scrutiny of their articles than will be the case for multimillion-dollar projects.

A second Flyvberg article asks, "Should We Build More Large Dams? The Actual Costs of Hydropower Megaproject Development."

Dams as infrastructure have long raised special issues. Their traditional purposes include providing flood control, diverting water for special uses and providing electrical power. However, each of these uses has had many problematic effects, including on fish and mammals, such as beavers. Some efforts to mitigate these constructed barriers include installing structures that allow the fish to travel to areas in which they can spawn.

The authors conclude that megaprojects result in an inverted Darwinism, i.e., the "survival of the unfittest."

This study found a number of problems associated with dams. For example, plans for one dam raised concerns over the site's "weak geology." Assurances were made that this problem could be dealt with. However, when the dam was built, the "weak geology" cost more than 96 percent of the dam's base cost.

The construction of another hydroelectric dam raised concerns about the exchange rate between the Colombian peso and the US dollar during the dam's seven-year construction. Many assurances were made that there would be no problem. As it turned out, the Colombian currency depreciated nearly 90 percent against the US dollar. This study found that "currency exposure consistently proves to be a fiscal hemorrhage for large projects." The study authors cautioned, "Although, following convention, our cost analysis excludes the effects of inflation; planners ought not to ignore the risks of  'unanticipated inflation,' " which can lead to cost overruns as high as 110 times the initial budget and lead to delay.

Flyvberg and his coauthors have also used their findings to create a rigorous process of review based on an examination of issues that have been shown to affect the success or failure of large infrastructure projects.

What You Should Know About Megaprojects and Why: An Overview

This study analyzed why people are attracted to specific types of megaprojects. Projects in the study included both public and private infrastructure. The study found that people connected with megaprojects fall into four groups:

Table 1:The "four sublimes" that drive megaproject development.

Type of SublimeCharacteristic
Technological The excitement engineers and technologists get in pushing the envelope for what is possible in "longest-tallest-fastest" types of projects.
Political The rapture politicians get from building monuments to themselves and for their causes, and from the visibility this generates with the public and media.
Economic The delight business people and trade unions get from making lots of money and jobs from megaprojects, including money made for contractors, workers in construction and transportation, consultants, bankers, investors, landowners, lawyers and developers.
Aesthetic The pleasure designers and people who love good design get from building and using something very large that is also iconic and beautiful, such as the Golden Gate Bridge.

The study also found that a special characteristic of megaprojects are that they seem to be recession-proof. For example, the 2008 recession saw growth in megaprojects because the focus on stimulus spending was creating jobs and getting the economy back on track.

Another finding was that cost overruns in megaprojects can run very high - for example, 200 percent (Denver International Airport), 220 percent (the Boston Big Dig), and 1,400 percent (the Sydney Opera House). The authors conclude that megaprojects result in an inverted Darwinism, i.e., the "survival of the unfittest."


The studies by Flyvberg and his research partners provide important details about the dynamics of constructing projects. Of most importance, these studies warn against superficial and overly optimistic, unfounded claims about the value and operation of infrastructure and privatized infrastructure.

The Flyvberg studies and the Salzman analysis of infrastructure and infrastructure privatization are based on reality and experience and deserve to be heard. All too often, those findings are drowned out by unfounded beliefs and claims. And who actually pays? The public pays.

News Mon, 22 Dec 2014 11:19:22 -0500
Citizens Take Monitoring Into Own Hands as Eagle Ford Shale Boom Continues Undaunted

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Hugh Fitzsimons III, a buffalo rancher on the outskirts of Carrizo Springs, Texas, cautiously watches the fracking industry’s accelerating expansion. His 13,000-acre ranch is atop the southwestern part of the oil-rich Eagle Ford Shale, which stretches from Leon County in northeast Texas to Laredo, along the Mexican border.

During the last two years Fitzsimons has watched the fracking boom transform a rural locale into an industry hub. Desolate dirt roads are now packed with truck traffic, and commercial development to service the growing industry has sprung up along state highways, creating air and noise pollution.

Hugh A. Fitzsimons lll on a dirt road near his ranch in the Eagle Ford Shale.Hugh A. Fitzsimons lll on a dirt road near his ranch in the Eagle Ford Shale. (©2014 Julie Dermansky for Oceans 8 Films)

Though Fitzsimons stands to profit from oil extraction, he has not turned a blind eye to the industry’s damaging effects on the environment. He wants to make sure the expanding industry acts responsibly and is doing his part to ensure that happens, a tall order since a state-sponsored report estimates the number of wells could grow from 8,000 to 32,000 by 2018 and industry polices itself for the most part.

Hugh A. Fitzsimons lll's buffalo next to a pumpjack on his ranch.Hugh A. Fitzsimons lll's buffalo next to a pumpjack on his ranch. (©2014 Julie Dermansky for Oceans 8 Films)

The two Texas regulatory agencies that handle concerns and complaints about the fracking industry are the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). According to a report on the Eagle Ford Shale's air quality  by the center for Public Integrity, Inside Climate News and the Weather Channel, “Texas regulatory agencies reveal a system that does more to protect the industry than the public”.

One of the key findings in the report: “Texas’ air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the pollution in the Eagle Ford. Only five permanent air monitors are installed in the 20,000-square-mile region, and all are at the fringes of the shale play, far from the heavy drilling areas where emissions are highest.“ 

Furthermore, despite hundreds of complaints about polluted air in the last two fiscal years, the TCEQ has levied only 35 fines, according to the New York Times

And the Texas Railroad Commission has not been satisfied with scientists’ proof that the fracking industry has contaminated water in the state, despite mounting evidence.

Flare from a fracking industry site in Karnes County, Texas. Flare from a fracking industry site in Karnes County, Texas. (©2014 Julie Dermansky for Oceans 8 Films)

Fitzsimons served on the Wintergreen Water Conservation District for Dimmit County. He wants to get the fracking industry to utilize brackish water for frack jobs that each require millions of gallons of water, instead of permitting water from the aquifer or the Rio Grande River to be used.

The Rio Grande River is one of the most endangered rivers in the world,” he told DeSmogBlog, adding that the amount of water being drawn form the aquifer jeopardizes the region’s drinking water already threatened by drought. 

Recently his ranch foreman learned to operate a FLIR camera, a tool used by regulators that documents fumes not visible to the naked eye. With eight wells being drilled on his ranch in the coming months, he will supplement any monitoring the state can offer.

Frack job in Karnes County, Texas.Frack job in Karnes County, Texas. (©2014 Julie Dermansky for Oceans 8 Films)

It is a good idea, considering the experiences of residents of Karnes County, at the epicenter of the Eagle Ford Shale’s fracking boom. Some who have made air quality complaints to the TQEQ told DeSmogBlog it takes days before a regulator shows up and by then, the problem often has subsided. Emissions are also at their worst at night, but regulators normally only monitor the air during the day. 

Lynn D. Buehring, one of those residents, has called the TCEQ 125 time this year alone. There have been more then 50 wells drilled within 2.5 miles of her home. This summer, there was a drilling rig a couple of hundred feet behind her house and two flares burning at other sites visible from her front porch. 

Lynn D. Buehring often wears a respirator outside of her home in Karnes County.Lynn D. Buehring often wears a respirator outside of her home in Karnes County. (©2014 Julie Dermansky for Oceans 8 Films)

Flare at a fracking industry site near Lynn Buehring’s home in Karnes County.Flare at a fracking industry site near Lynn Buehring's home in Karnes County. (©2014 Julie Dermansky for Oceans 8 Films)

Buehring filed a lawsuit against Marathon Oil Corp, claiming the company’s operations have diminished her quality of life and negatively impacted her health. She developed breathing problems shortly after the fracking began and suffers from ailments often associated with exposure to toxic air including nose bleeds, heads aches and dizziness. The air is so bad some days, she doesn’t go outside at all. 

Buehring’s case is on hold, pending the outcome of a case filed by the Cerny family, Karnes County residents represented by Buehring’s lawyer Thomas Ramirez lll. A state district judge threw out the Cerny’s case in August. The judgment is now being appealed the Texas Court of Appeals.

Ramirez vehemently disagrees with the judge’s decision not to hear these cases. Besides believing the law is on his side, “People’s lives are in the balance,” he told DeSmogBlog. “It could take anywhere from nine months to two years before the Cerny’s case is considered.”  

One positive thing about the delay is mounting scientific evidence that backs the clients' claims.

Fighting against oil companies in Texas makes you an automatic underdog. The risk of experiencing a backlash if you speak up against fracking is daunting since most have family members who work in the industry. In Denton, Texas, those who fought and won a ban against fracking were met with McCarthy-era tactics; two Texas commissioners insinuated that those supporting the ban were funded by Russia.

Some choose to leave instead of fight. The Grassland Oasis Farm near Floresville, formerly run by Fred and Amber Lyssy, closed in November.  Six of their dogs died after fracking sites started operating next to the farm. Their concerns about the health of the livestock and family weighed on them. They considered fighting the industry, but chose to leave. Fred Lyssy will now be managing a farm in Virginia.  

Fred and Amber Lyssy with their children at the Grassland Oasis, now closed.Fred and Amber Lyssy with their children at the Grassland Oasis, now closed. (©2014 Julie Dermansky for Oceans 8 Films)

Grassfed livestock at the Grassland Oasis in June, now closed.Grassfed livestock at the Grassland Oasis in June, now closed. (©2014 Julie Dermansky for Oceans 8 Films)

Just how long will the boom last and what will be left in its wake?  

Fitzsimons questions the size of the supply of oil after he noticed pumpjacks being utilized in a shorter period of time after a frack job was completed than before.

This is a sign the newer wells might not be as productive as the earlier wells,” he says. Pumpjacks are used to help keep the oil flowing after a frack job, when the flow slows down. 

His observations match a prediction made by J. David Hughes, a geoscientist with Post Carbon Institute in his 2012 report for the institute. He wrote that the fracking industry would create a  “drilling treadmill.” Operators will need to drill more wells to keep production levels at the status quo because the  “sweet spots” were drilled first, maximizing production, leaving areas with less rich oil and gas bounties to be found and drilled.   

“Drilling Deeper,” a follow-up report Hughes coauthored for the Post Carbon Institute this year, predicts that Eagle Ford Shale's production will peak some time this decade and then drop to a fraction of today’s totals by 2040, far below the U.S. Energy Information Administration projections.  

Fracking industry site in Karnes County, the epicenter of the Eagle Ford Shale.Fracking industry site in Karnes County, the epicenter of the Eagle Ford Shale. (©2014 Julie Dermansky for Oceans 8 Films)

Falling gas prices have threatened to curtail the fracking boom sooner than expected. Operators in the Bakken Shale Region and the Permian Basin are in the red, according to a Business Insider report.

Though Eagle Ford Shale operators are still turning a profit, industry workers in Karnes County are beginning to worry about their jobs. Buehring's husband told her that potential layoffs are the conversation of the day at truck-stop cafes where he and other locals congregate with industry workers. 

Even if the boom comes to an end earlier than predicted, Fitzsimons worries the water will run out before the party is over.

The regulatory agencies have not kept up with technology. They need to revamp what they are doing,” Fitzsimons says. “We have 1930 rules regulating 21st century oil fields.”

“In Texas the oil and gas industry is king,” Ramirez says, but he is not one to walk away from what he sees as a righteous fight. As the boom continues, he thinks the tide will turn as more people experience health problems associated with the cumulative effects of breathing toxic emissions produced by the fracking industry. Although he, like Fitzsimons, hopes industry will correct its ways and operate more responsibly, he isn't holding his breath while he battles on.

News Mon, 22 Dec 2014 10:23:43 -0500