01/09/08 - Paul Wright

Alison Chinn Holcomb of ACLU of Washington Foundation discusses marijuana laws + Report on cadmium poisoning of federal prisoners with Karen Garrison whose son Lawrence was exposed plus Paul Wright, publisher of Prison Legal News.

Program: 
Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Date: 
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Guest: 
Paul Wright
Organization: 
Prison Legal News
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Drug Truth Network, Cultural Baggage, January 9, 2008

Broadcasting on the Drug Truth Network, this is Cultural Baggage.

My name is Dean Becker. I don’t condone or encourage the use of any drugs, legal or illegal. I report the unvarnished truth about the phamaceutical, banking, prison, and judicial nightmare that feeds on eternal drug war.

Hello my friends, welcome to this edition of Cultural Baggage. Today we’re going to have a rather in-depth look at a situation in Ohio and in fact across America that deals with the fact that prisoners are being paid way, way less than minimum wage to serve in jobs where they inhale lead and radioactive cadmium, but first I want to bring in our guest from Seattle, she is with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington State and I want to welcome Allison Holcomb.

Hello Allsion.

Allison: Hello, Dean.

Dean: Hello, how are you Allison?

Allison; I’m doing well, thanks. Thanks for having me on the show.

Dean: Well, thank you so much. The way I understand it you have been involved for years now in the efforts to re-negotiate, realign the laws regarding drugs in Washington State but in particular in regards to medical marijuana. Is that a fair assumption?

Allison: That’s correct Dean, before I joined the American Civil Liberties Union last year I was a criminal defense attorney in private practice and the practice focused primarily on marijuana offenses and other drug offenses, defending people that were charged with crimes related to drugs and I was active in our community, as you know Seattle’s got a fairly active drug reform community, I’ve been active with the King County Bar Association drug policy project as well as the Seattle City Council’s marijuana policy review panel.

Dean: Now you, meaning Seattle, have much in common with, let’s say, the city of San Francisco and a few other towns and burgs across America that are starting to re-evaluate the way they deal with medical marijuana in particular and much the same way as the mayor and the council in San Francisco worked for that improvement, you have at least some allies doing that in Seattle, do you not?

Allison: That’s true we do. Washington State passed a medical marijuana initiative in 1998 but ever since it passed we’ve had some challenges in implementing the law and making sure that patients and their doctors and their providers have been protected. Seattle, the city of Seattle has been at the forefront in really trying to embrace the spirit of our medical marijuana law and protect medical marijuana patients and avoid arrests. But you know our marijuana activism and progressivism here in Seattle extends even beyond medical marijuana as with the Initiative 75 that was passed in 2003. That’s looking specifically at marijuana related offenses where marijuana was intended for adult personal use regardless of whether it was medical or not.

Dean: OK, you know we have in Houston just a dire situation. The state legislature and the governor signed a bill that would allow them to stop arresting people for less than four ounces of marijuana and yet all but one district attorney in this state says “no, we can’t implement that law.” Do you have similar, stumbling blocks with your district attorney?

Allison: You know, we have little bits of a discussion, I’ll say, with Tom Carr, who is the Seattle city attorney, and he was the person...well, let me back up just a second and say that what Initiative 75 did when it was passed in September, 2003 was that it said to the city of Seattle that the Seattle police department and the city attorney’s office shall make the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of marijuana offenses, when the marijuana was intended for adult personal use, the city’s lowest law enforcement priority. So the people that were really called upon to affect this law were Tom Carr, the Seattle city attorney, and our Seattle police department and Tom Carr did express some reservations about making marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority in Seattle when Washington State law still requires a mandatory day in jail and a mandatory $250 fine for even misdemeanor marijuana possession or possession of 40 grams or less.

Now as we worked with him on the panel, he was one of the panel members, he did say that his office was implementing the initiative in good faith and we, unlike Texas, have seen arrests go down and referrals of marijuana cases go down so I think that our city officials have been working to implement the law in good faith and I think that’s a stark contrast with what I’m hearing about what’s happening in Texas.

Dean: Well, you know the good thing is our District Attorney is now on his way out, he will not be running for reelection, he wasn’t caught with his pants down, more like pulling his zipper up I suppose. But he has also been caught in the last few days with other emails he had shared that involved obscene pictures, sexual innuendo jokes and racist jokes. So I can only say good riddance to the man.

Now, as I understand it, Seattle is very enlightened but there is, if I dare say, some disparity, some racial bias in the implementation of these laws. Is that a fair assumption?

Allison: Well, you know what’s interesting is that what we learned, and I think this is actually one of the benefits of I-75 passing: when I-75 passed, in addition to making marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority, it also put together an eleven member panel that was an oversight committee essentially that looked at how are marijuana offenses being enforced in Seattle and what specifically is the impact that I-75 is having on how marijuana offenses are implemented, excuse me, how the offenses are looked at, investigated, prosecuted, and whether or not there are any negative impacts to passing an initiative like this. And the panel was made of two people from the Seattle City Council as well as the Seattle City Attorney, a representative from the Seattle Police Department, a representative from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office, two citizen members, a drug abuse prevention counselor, a harm reduction advocate, and two criminal defense attorneys. And the benefit of this is that we really took a look at what’s going on with Seattle marijuana law enforcement and we did discover that before I-75 was passed that there was a racial disparity in how misdemeanor marijuana offenses were being arrested and prosecuted in Seattle. And this is fairly consistent with what we’re seeing out of other cities such as New York and places that, you know New York is a de-criminalization state and they have this problem with racial disparities. The good news is that while there was this racial disparity leading up to the passage of I-75, I-75 passed in the fall of 2003 and in 2004 we saw a marked decrease in that disparity, the disparity still existed but the number of people of color who were being referred for marijuana prosecution actually dropped off significantly more than the number of prosecutions against white people. And unfortunately since 2004, in the years 2005 and 2006, we’ve seen that disparity start to show itself again and when we reported this to the Seattle City Council on Monday we were heartened that the council members looked at that, were concerned about that, and its one of the reasons that they support the initiative remaining on the books and for the Seattle City Attorney to continue reporting what’s going on with their marijuana referrals and filings for the foreseeable future on an annual basis so that we can go back and continue to look at that issue and dig into why is it that we’re seeing this racial disparity in marijuana prosecutions. And that’s something we might not have ever discovered if I-75 hadn’t been passed.

Dean: And its wonderful that, as you say, there’s a lot of good activists in Seattle. I think your city probably has more than the whole state of Texas combined. But its wonderful that you can stay on top of it, you can hold people’s feet to the fire, you can examine, as you say, this accumulated data as evidence, if you will, and to make further progressive steps based on that new understanding. But without that ongoing effort by you guys it could backslide. I understand that just today it was announced that the U.K. prime minister Gordon Brown is now wanting to reclassify marijuana from a C level to a B level which would give him a chance to incarcerate more people for possession saying that marijuana is more dangerous. Its just reefer madness everywhere if people don’t stay on their toes. Am I right?

Allison: That’s absolutely right, Dean, and the most important thing to take away from our report on I-75 is the conclusions, the conclusions and recommendations that we reached and the conclusions that we reached included that with I-75 passage even though we are making marijuana offenses our lowest law enforcement priority we saw no increase in marijuana use among youth and young adults, which is something I think all of us are concerned about, none of us think that its, we’re not saying that its good to smoke marijuana, we’re not saying its good to smoke tobacco or its good to drink alcohol, and we’re concerned especially that out youth protect their health until they reach an adult age where they’re in a better place both physically and mentally and emotionally to address whether or not to try these substances. And we didn’t see any increase in youth use. We also saw no increase in crime and no adverse impact on public health. And so those are really important conclusions because the question that it poses is, is using a criminal sanction, arresting people and prosecuting them for using marijuana really necessary? Its very expensive, it’s a tremendous waste of resources and that was another conclusion that we drew was that we’re seeing a reduction in the number of police officer hours and prosecutor hours and judge hours. They have to go towards these minor marijuana offenses that are being committed by other-wise law abiding responsible adults and those are resources that can be put to much better purposes. We have a lot of very serious crime and not enough criminal justice resources to approach those. So what are we doing with our resources and if we’re really concerned about marijuana as a health issue, which I think that all of us can agree, it really is a matter between you and your doctor and couldn’t we better be approaching marijuana policy in some fashion other than the criminal system, because we know that’s not working and its disheartening to hear that some political leaders like in the U.K. might be backsliding because to me it shows a lack of really analyzing what’s going on, what’s important, and where are our resources best used.

Dean: Well we only have about a minute left. Allison, I was wanting to get y’all’s website where people can learn more about the work you’re doing.

Allison: Oh sure, its aclu-wa.org. That’s the ACLU of Washington. We’re in Seattle.

Dean: I want to thank you for being our guest. I want to thank all the good people of Seattle for being so rational in this regard and for their courage and commitment to actually bring about change because the positives that happened there will likely help lead to positives in our other locales. Allison Holcomb, thank you so much.

Allison: Thank you, Dean.

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Musical interlude:

Lyrics: What gods do make America so great? Its Guns, its Oil, its Drugs, its Slaves.

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You are listening to the Cultural Baggage radio program on the Drug Truth Network and Pacifica Radio.

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Name that drug by its side-effects:

Answer: cadmium.

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Dean: I couldn’t find a medical use for cadmium but I wanted you to know that prisoners across America are working in factories, smashing computers and being given the chance to inhale cadmium vapors for 6 cents an hour. First up we hear this report from WFMJ television:

Announcer: There are health concerns tonight for inmates and employees past and present who were exposed to dangerous and potentially deadly materials in the federal prison in Elkton, Columbiana County.

Reporter: A preliminary report from the Office of Inspector General revealed that inmates and the prison staff at Elkton have been exposed to levels of cadmium, a known cancer-causing agent, and lead 450 times higher than allowed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Prison Union Spokesman: Our big concern and our biggest fear is back in the initial days of the factory how bad was our staff exposed and to what levels were they exposed? Its terrifying to think of what could they have in their bodies.

Reporter: The exposure, dating back to 1997, came from a prison work factory known as UNICOR where inmates break down computer parts that contain cadmium and lead.

Prison Union Spokesman: When it first started, the breaking of the tubes and the recycling parts of the computers was done with no ventilation systems, no glass booths, no respirators, anything. It was just a hammer, a box, and breaking the glass and the dust would go out into the air.

Reporter: Medical teams will be brought into the Elkton Federal Prison in the near future to determine exposure levels to hundreds of prison staff members and thousands of inmates.

Prison Union Spokesman: When you go to work for the federal government you don’t expect those types of things to happen. Its not a sweatshop, it’s the federal government.

Reporter: Could there be other computer recycling operations in other federal prisons around the country where the same problem exists?

Prison Union Spokesman: Absolutely.

Announcer: Sources told me tonight that a federal grand jury has been impaneled in Cleveland to determine any possible criminal wrongdoing at the Elkton prison.
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Dean: Some of you may remember Karen Garrison, she was our guest on the Cultural Baggage show back on November 14. Well, she has a special interest in this situation.

Karen: I’m Karen Garrison, I’m the mother of Lawrence and Lamont Garrison. They’ve both been incarcerated on the crack cocaine laws. I currently work with a non-profit organization called Families Against Mandatory Minimums. I work for sentencing reform.

Dean: I just played for my audience a recording that we captured from WFMJ TV talking about a situation in the prison where your son Lawrence is held. Has he been breaking apart those computers?

Karen: Yes, at one time he was up at the SCI when they broke apart the computers, put them back in the boxes and sent them down to the warehouse where he worked, to take the other parts that they didn’t need or that they did need, out of there. So once they were broken and sent down there he had to reopen the box and everything was still there so he’s been exposed.

Dean: As the TV report indicated, they’re pretty concerned about the guards’ safety but, the truth be told, the guards didn’t spend the day working with their nose in those boxes or over these crushed parts, did they?

Karen: No, not at all. They would oversee, make sure everybody was still there when it was count time or something like that, you may have two guards there off and on during the day but they weren’t there the whole eight hours, 52 weeks, or five days a week I should say, 52 weeks a year.

Dean: Now, as I understand it, your son was offered some sort of compensation for his exposure?

Karen: They showed him the report, the safety report, and they wanted him to sign this safety talk and they said that they wouldn’t let him keep it because he said “I want to keep this copy” and they said no, we’re not going to keep it because we’re trying to figure out what kind of compensation we’re going to give you so he wouldn’t sign it.

Dean: You get a chance to talk to him once a while, how is his health doing?

Karen: Well, you know that when Lawrence first went to Elkton, that’s when the computers were being warehoused the same place where the food was. He got sick and the doctor said that he didn’t know exactly what caused it but it’s like something elastic around you kidney or something. I think he was in the hospital over two months.

Dean: Insofar as the facility itself, are they facing an inspection?

Karen: There’s inspectors supposed to come one day next week, so right now they’re moving stuff out of the way so I guess the inspector won’t see all the bad stuff and the things that they’ve been breaking up.

Dean: And insofar as tending to the medical needs of these prisoners. What’s going on that way?

Karen: Well, what I understand is that after the safety talk and the prisoners start putting in forms to go to medical, for medical “cop-outs” they call it, for medical, that they’re asking that a professional or someone come in from the outside to test them for cadmium and lead because the facility’s not equipped to test for that.

Dean: This is exemplary, I think, of the lack of concern. Your thoughts, Ma’am, have things improved, have they gotten respirators or those face masks?

Karen: Never have they gotten them, they never had them, Lawrence said they never had them. I mean its just a sad thing that they don’t care about the guards either. The only way this really got blown up is because the guards went through their union and complained.

Dean: Well then, it’s a mighty large financial exposure for UNICOR, is it not?

Karen: Exactly. UNICOR is a, I mean that’s the big thing in prison, they get paid a little or nothing for doing a big job. If you had to have, if you had to be a computer specialist or something to be on the street they never thought about the exposure and they never had any face masks or anything. And it did go to court. And so something should be in Cleveland court, who they’re going to indict or who they’re going to do something to because they went before a grand jury.
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Dean: Next up we hear from Paul Wright, he’s editor of Prison Legal News and author of the brand-new book, Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money From Mass Incarceration.

Paul: Cadmium is just kind of a proverbial tip of the iceberg. Prisoners that work for UNICOR, the federal prison industry’s company, are exposed to a wide variety of toxic chemicals, liquids, heavy metals and other substances. The health effects, pretty much they can be very serious and debilitating up to and including death. We’ve done several feature stories on the topic in Prison Legal News. Ironically, the only people that have complained about it the most are the Bureau of Prison employees that are exposed to these toxic substances whereas the prisoners are viewed as pretty much expendable population.

Dean: Right. I saw some news stories out of Ohio in this regard and they seem to be focused primarily on the health of the guards who are not nose-over the work, right?

Paul: Right, and that’s, and I think this is also one of the things that’s kind of interesting about, as there’s a trend towards more environmental concern and stuff like that in computer recycling is that a number of large computer companies including Dell and Hewlitt-Packard have looked to contract with the Bureau of Prisons federal industry for the recycling of their computers, basically exploiting prison slave labor where you have prisoners that are untrained, unequipped and not provided with proper safety equipment to try to recycle these computers and the toxic exposure comes about when you have prisoners, literally, using sledge hammers to bash dozens or hundreds of computers a day to pieces to disassemble them.

Dean: Now, this situation in Ohio, its not the only one, is it?

Paul: No, its happening all over the country. In a Prison Legal News article I think there’s, the Bureau of Prisons has at least eight or nine prisons that are involved in this environmental recycling of computers but that’s not the only thing that they’re doing. For example, the Bureau of Prisons, UNICOR, its manufacturing group, they sell over 800 million dollars of military equipment to the Department of Defense every year, so you have prisoners making everything from body armor, kevlar helmets, uniforms, cluster bomb casings, TOW missile wires and a whole bunch of other stuff and pretty much the same environmental issues are still arising there, probably just not on as big a scale as it is in the computer recycling program.

Dean: All right, once again your website:

Paul: Our website is www.prisonlegalnews.org and we have the most extensive coverage of prison slave labor issues anywhere in the world.
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Poppygate: Bizarre News about the U.S. Policy on Controlling Heroin, featuring Glenn Greenway.

U.S. client state Afghanistan now supplies 93% of the world's heroin; about 900 tons of pure product last year, about twice global annual demand, up 45-fold since the American invasion in 2001. Afghanistan heroin production rose 34% last year alone and is now responsible for more than half of the country's GDP.

Last week General Dan McNeill, the American officer in charge of NATO's Afghan mission, told reporters that he expects another year of "explosive growth" in the illegal trade. He added: "When I see a poppy field, I see it turning into money that turns into IEDs, Kalashnikovs and RPGs that are used to kill Afghans and members of the International Security Assistance Force."

Afghanistan is now facing extreme food shortages due to escalating violence and regional political uncertainty. Pakistani families are now fleeing their county to seek refuge in Afghanistan. According to the Afghan Economy Minister the price of bread has recently quadrupled.

925 Afghan police were killed last year. 221 allied troops were killed last year including 110 American soldiers, by far the highest death tolls of the six-plus-year war. Remarkably, the number of suicide attacks has increased nearly 6-fold in since 2005.

Looking back on last year William Wood, the current U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, had this to say regarding the country:

"I think that 2007 was a good year."

Happy New Year to you too, Mr. Wood, whatever planet you live on.

This is Glenn Greenway reporting for the Drug Truth Network.
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Doug McVay: Traditional law enforcement approaches don't work for controlling cannabis.

Most of our listeners already know this. One would think that more than
seventy years of experience would be proof enough. Now comes more evidence
from a team of researchers at the Institute for Criminal Policy Research
at King's College London, England. They found that any suspected link
between cannabis use and anti-social behavior was slim, if such a link
exists at all. The researchers suggested that alcohol use by young people
should be examined more closely because of its link to anti-social
behavior.

Researchers observed that the young people surveyed were aware of the
potential physical and mental health risks from cannabis use, and the
potential for abuse, but felt those risks were manageable. Most
significantly they found that young people were not deterred by the
prospect of arrest for cannabis use. The researchers concluded that
increasing the penalties for cannabis use would not be likely stop young
people from trying cannabis or becoming cannabis users.

Finally, young people and community members surveyed suggested that
creating more opportunities and more recreation and leisure facilities for
young people in local areas would reduce the number of calls authorities
receive regarding antisocial behavior.

A link to the report is now available through the Common Sense for Drug
Policy Blog. The link is at www.csdp.org.

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay, editor of Drug War Facts
dot org.
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Dean: OK, my friends. I hope you’ve enjoyed our program and that you’ll consider doing your part because that’s all that’s really lacking these days. Its fear that runs the Drug War, fear of reefer, fear of blacks on cocaine that you can’t even kill with a bullet, fear of Chinamen smoking opium and dragging white women into alley ways. That’s what makes the Drug War work and unless, and until you examine the evidence, until you embolden yourself with the knowledge, the information to stand forth against this inquisition, it will continue. You know there are some bad inquisitors out there, cops with roid-rage, there’s judges with just general rage and there’s district attorneys that are out of control. And you have to do your part. You have to step up and participate and the best place I can recommend for you to join up is to go to endprohibition.org, it’s a simple sign post, one-page website, has links to about a dozen of the best drug reform organizations on the planet. I want to announce we have transcripts available of our programs, yesterday’s Century of Lies is already online. Its at drugtruth.net. We’ll have this program up by tomorrow morning. And for you good folks out there, you know you’ve got to do your part and just remember, that because of prohibition you don’t know what’s in that bag and I urge you to please be careful.

To the Drug Truth Network listeners around the world, on behalf of engineer Phillip Guffy, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage and the unvarnished truth. This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston. www.kpft.org

Tap dancing on the edge on an abyss.

Transcript provided by Gee-Whiz Transcripts. Email: glenncg@zoominternet.net