The sneaky politics of “Suicide Squad”

Published: Salon (August 5, 2016)

[Note: The end of this essay contains spoilers for the ending of “Suicide Squad.”] 

If the critics at RottenTomatoes are to be believed, Suicide Squad is a terrible movie with “a muddled plot, thinly written characters, and choppy directing.” (Salon’s ownAndrew O’Hehir calls it “profoundly second-rate … at every level of conception and execution.”) This puts me in a distinct minority when I write: I actually loved this movie.

I thought the characters were colorful and entertaining. The plot, though a tad formulaic, was far more streamlined and coherent than a lot of the cluttered fare we’ve seen in recent superhero films (including many outside of the DC Extended Universe). Based on the screening I attended, I can attest that audiences seemed to genuinely enjoy the jokes and get swept up in the action sequences.

Most notable of all, though, is the fact that this movie had a pretty daring political subtext.

How else would you describe a movie in which, during the opening scenes, we see prison guards blatantly abuse their power so they can sadistically torture characters like Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie)? Or how about a plot that moves forward because a sociopathic government official (Viola Davis) brags about her skill at coercing people to work against their own self-interest for the national security of the United States? What is the message of a film that depicts the state itself as, at best, incompetent, at worst, no more trustworthy than the super-powered beings they fear?

The mind wanders to our current national debate over the prison-industrial complex. America has the largest prison population in the world, with 1 out of 110 adults incarcerated in a prison or local jail and 1 out of 35 under some form of correctional control. A disproportionately large number of these are African American or Hispanic, and even Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton have been responsible for draconian legislation that has lined the pockets of private corporations that build prisons at the expense of the civil liberties of those who commit even non-violent offenses (like breaking our drug laws).

And this doesn’t even touch on the rise of #BlackLivesMatter in response to growing concerns that law enforcement officials, despite swearing to equally protect all citizens, have a history of violence toward minorities.

None of these themes are directly broached in “Suicide Squad” (aside from a passing joke by Deadshot that a government official “white people that thing” to help his daughter inflate her grades), but they’re unmistakably embedded in its overall atmosphere. The film itself feels gritty and anarchistic — a seedy group of characters in an even seedier world — and law enforcement, instead of striving to serve and protect, seems determined to act as the most ruthless and powerful gang of them all.

Viola Davis’ government agent callously disregards the lives not only of the Suicide Squad members but of ordinary people as well. When one character jokes that she is “God,” his jab works because she is indeed all-powerful — so much so that, despite her heinous actions, she alone among the major evildoers never receives her ultimate comeuppance.

This socio-political commentary is not entirely out of place in the work of “Suicide Squad” director David Ayer. His filmography is full of crime thrillers, including the acclaimed 2012 cop drama “End of Watch.” Ayers also wrote “Training Day” (2001), which, like “Suicide Squad,” depicts a world in which the difference between the hardened criminals on the streets and the law enforcement officials who claim to police them is often non-existent. Although Denzel Washington’s police officer Alonzo Harris (a role for which he won an Oscar) claims that his unorthodox behavior is a necessity born of having to control a dangerous neighborhood, it quickly becomes clear that he is simply indulging in his own most corrupt instincts because he has the power to get away with it. Ayer makes this same point in 2005’s underrated “Harsh Times,” in which Christian Bale stars as a former Army Ranger with PTSD who is disturbingly comfortable with violently abusing whatever power he is given. Both of those movies, like this one, challenge the quaint notion that there is a clear line of demarcation separating those who use violence to break the law and those who do so in the name of upholding it. From Ayer’s perspective, both groups are moral equivalents, and dramatically speaking, their tale is that of a bald power struggle rather than a battle between good and evil.

If the politics of “Batman v. Superman” were distrustful of power concentrated in the hands of individuals (a theme I analyzed in a previous article), then Suicide Squad extends that theme to look at how it can be abused when concentrated in the hands of a government. To balance this, it also establishes how the villains in the Suicide Squad — though undeniably nefarious — still have their own humanity. This seems to be a sticking point for many critics, who seem to have wanted the villains to be more unambiguously dark and sinister, but as I watched the movie I thought it made the power dynamics more complex and intriguing. Instead of allowing viewers to perceive the Suicide Squad as monsters who need to be kept in place, it forces us to see that they had hopes, dreams, loves and fears of their own — that even the most vile “scum,” as they are frequently regarded, are still human beings.

Perhaps this is why the film resonated so deeply with the audience which saw it with me. Critics may have already settled into their anti-DC bias in our comic book movie era, but I appreciate any film that upends our established understanding of social structures, even if it is only for the sake of telling a superhero story with a punk aesthetic.

Warning: Spoilers to follow. Stop reading now if you don’t want to read about the ending of “Suicide Squad.”

Not surprisingly, the movie ends in a very traditional way: the state re-incarcerates those members of the squad who haven’t died during the course of the film’s events. That said, while some of the characters are given little trinkets of compensation for their work, none are offered the full extent of what was promised to them by the government for their help. Even though “Suicide Squad” can’t allow the villains to be outright released (this would go against the grain of the comic book movie format), it establishes that the government can only keep them behind bars by breaking its word. As the characters often state themselves, there is no honor among thieves. One can easily infer the judicial system is just as much of a thief as any of the criminals.

Could Gary Johnson end the drug war? Libertarian candidate’s presidential bid could put sane drug policy in our grasp

Published: Salon (June 1, 2016)

A recent survey found that Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who was just nominated to be the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, does surprisingly well against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump. Although his 10 percent is nothing compared to Clinton’s 38 percent and Trump’s 35 percent, it’s enough to make his candidacy relevant to our national conversation.

This is where Johnson’s bold and unorthodox view on drug policy could alter the course of American history.

Johnson is perhaps best known for his unabashed support for marijuana legalization. Back in 2000, he became the highest ranking American political official to ever call for ending the prohibition against recreational cannabis use; later that same year, Hawaii Governor Benjamin J. Cayetano and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura joined him in calling for the federal government to decriminalize pot and treat drug abuse as a public health issue rather than a crime. In the years since, Johnson has remained boldly iconoclastic on these issues, admitting to The Weekly Standard that he smoked pot from 2005 to 2008 to recover from a paragliding injury and vowing during his 2012 presidential campaign that he would pardon marijuana offenders and “defang” the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

There are good reasons for wanting to cut the DEA down to size. According, America spends $51 billion annually (that’s billion with a ‘b’) in its so-called war on drugs, a program that exists for no other reason than to tell American citizens what they can and cannot do with their own bodies. Nearly 1.3 million people were arrested in 2014 alone merely for possessing contraband substances (83 percent of all drug arrests), more than 600,000 of whom were taken in for marijuana possession (88 percent of all marijuana-related arrests). All of this is occurring as America continues to house the world’s largest prison population, of whom adisproportionate number are African American or Latino (even though, when it comes to drug-related offenses, they are no more likely to use than whites). Not surprisingly, a 2015 Gallup Poll found that 58 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana – the highest number in the survey’s history – with that number rising to 71 percent for 18-to-34 year olds.

Of course, Johnson isn’t simply saying that marijuana should be legalized; he is arguing that, unless a drug user poses a direct risk to others (for example, driving while under the influence), their actions shouldn’t be criminalized at all. The logic here is very similar to that employed in supporting gay marriage (which Johnson does) and a woman’s right to choose (which Johnson also does up to 24 weeks, although as a fiscal conservative he opposes government funding for organizations that perform abortions). While socially conservative Americans have every right to disapprove of recreational drug use, it is profoundly troubling that they are able to use our government to impose their personal moral beliefs on other people… especially considering that, as President Obama admitted last year, the war on drugs has been “very unproductive.”

While there is an inexorable logic of completely legalizing marijuana – Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. have already done so — Clinton and Trump haven’t gone nearly as far as Johnson. Characteristically, Donald Trump has been deliberately vague about all matters related to drug policy; although he supports medical marijuana, his main criticism of the war on drugs is that “we do such a poor job of policing.”  By contrast (and to her credit), Clinton has been much more specific, advocatingrescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance (which would allow further research into its health benefits), supporting its use for medical purposes, condemning the wildly disproportionate racial disparities in drug-related arrests and sentencing, and vowing not to interfere with states that have legalized it entirely. That said, she doesn’t support outright legalization of marijuana, and although she supports sentencing reform for other drug-related offenses (in particular singling out the disparity between cocaine powder and crack cocaine), she still backs both the DEA and the underlying policy goals of the war on drugs – one that, notably, her husband’s administration did a great deal to worsen.

Fortunately for drug policy reformers, a viable Johnson candidacy could be a game-changer. Third-party candidates have a long history of supporting ideas that are ultimately picked up and implemented by one or both of the major parties: Two of the most famous examples include the Populist Party in 1892, which introduced American voters to the secret ballot, the direct election of US Senators, banking reform, and the graduated income tax, and the Progressive Party in 1912, which called for the prohibition of child labor, mandatory workplace safety laws, workers’ compensation, and many of the business regulations later implemented by the New Deal. Because the presidential candidates of those parties (General James B. Weaver and former President Theodore Roosevelt, respectively) outperformed most third-party candidacies, future Democratic and Republican candidates saw the practical as well as moral wisdom in adopting their more reasonable policy proposals.

Given that he has already cracked double-digits in early polls, Johnson is in an excellent position to play a comparable role in this election. After all, it isn’t like Clinton and Trump aren’t already in considerable trouble. Both of them have higher unfavorability ratings than any major party candidates since the dawn of modern polling, and each has alienated large swathes of their party’s bases in order to become their presumptive nominees. If Johnson continues to poll well and increases his mainstream media exposure, he could pose a simultaneous threat to Clinton from the left (he is more liberal than her on a number of social issues) and Trump on the right (he is more conservative than him on a number of economic issues). In order to stave Johnson off, both Clinton and Trump will need to peel off his voters by moving closer to his positions… and, as the surveys of public opinion make clear, drug policy is a shoo-in to be one of them.

This is why, although I’m not a libertarian myself, I can’t help but wish Johnson a fare-thee-well in his upcoming presidential bid. His statements about America’s war on drugs have been courageous and ahead-of-the-curve, and we would benefit enormously if they were enacted into public policy. The 2016 presidential election is already a historic one – from Clinton becoming the first major female candidate to Trump breaking the GOP establishment’s half-century lock on their party’s nomination process – but that doesn’t mean further history can’t be made here. If Johnson’s campaign is able to pressure our next president into doing the right thing about marijuana specifically, and our war on drugs in general, he will have cemented his place as one of America’s great champions of social justice and personal freedom.

On the Police

Published: The Good Men Project (May 26, 2016)

As a progressive, I’ve found there is an argument that seems to be effective in debates with conservatives on law and order issues.

What I’ll say is that police officers have an inherent civic responsibility to be responsive to the concerns of their left-wing critics because they are, in a literal sense, the most important and powerful agents of the state. There are plenty of state officials who have greater overall power over our lives, of course, but a police officer is the one with whom the vast majority of us will directly interact in our day-to-day lives. Even the word “police” is derived from the French “policier,” involving the conduct of public affairs.

As such, the best way to understood the responsibilities of a police officer as an agent of the state in a democratic society is to temporarily sweep away race and other issues and simply establish the relations that should exist between an individual police officer and an individual citizen, regardless of any demographic details.

What Police Owe Us: A recognition that they embody the state in its purest form – they provide a vital service (fighting crime, maintaining order) and can completely overtake any citizen in any way. In a democratic state, the ordinary citizen must be the de facto boss of the police, for the same reason that a voter must be the de facto boss of any politician. If it is otherwise, police officers – as the literal agents of power under the social contract of the most powerful nation in the world – can become petty tyrants in their individual-to-individual interactions.

What We Owe Police: The Golden Rule. We do this both for the same moral reason that justifies democracy in the first place – i.e., the fact that because they are human beings, they deserve to be treated well – but because it establishes, not our subordination to them, but our fundamental equality with them. When we cooperate with reasonable requests and treat police officers like fellow human beings, we recognize that their power does not define them; it is merely the role they play in the game of society. On the other hand, when we treat them with inherent suspicion or hostility, or by being anti-cop in general, we do the very thing that will make it “us versus them” instead of “us.”

Right now, a large number of individuals from racial minority backgrounds believe that the police discriminate against them. By virtue of the fact that an individual police officer is the employee of the individual citizen, the police have an ethical responsibility to be receptive to criticisms such as these, which come from a large number of citizens. When commonsense solutions present themselves, like body cameras, they should be embraced, and even harsh critics like #BlackLivesMatter or Quentin Tarantino should be viewed as citizens asserting their interests to the state that is supposed to be by end of them.

This is my musing of the day.

Ireland is right—it’s time to rethink how we treat heroin users

Published: The Daily Dot (November 5, 2015)

This week, Ireland took a bold step in ending the war on drugs: The nationannounced this week that—as part of a broader program to decriminalize not only cannabis but cocaine and heroin—the country will create specially designated rooms in Dublin where addicts can safely and legally inject themselves with small amounts of their drugs. This plan coincides with recent bill introduced by Sen.Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to legalize recreational marijuana—to which the Internet responded with predictable enthusiasm.

It makes sense that Web users would be inclined to applaud Sanders’ legislative proposal. A Pew Research Center survey taken in April found that 53 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, including 68 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 and 52 percent of those between the ages of 35 and 50; well over 80 percent of Americans in those age brackets actively use the Internet in their day-to-day lives.

This generation has largely fueled the movement to legalize marijuana in the U.S—with states like California, Maine, and Maryland allowing personal use of cannabis. And it’s time for the Internet to follow Ireland’s lead by pushing for the decriminalize heroin.

The country will create specially designated rooms in Dublin where addicts can safely and legally inject themselves with small amounts of their drugs.

For one thing, the underlying issues involved in Ireland’s new policy on addressing heroin addiction are very similar to the ones at play when it comes to marijuana legalization. In a recent speech explaining his position on pot, Sanders explained that there is a racial dimension to the issue. “Although about the same proportion of blacks and whites use marijuana, a black person is almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person,” he argued.

The same is true for harder drugs: Statistics show that drugs more likely to be used by racial minorities (e.g., heroin) are given particularly severe punishments, and African-Americans are more likely to serve time than whites for the same drug-related offenses. As T. C. Sottek of the Verge put it, “the war on drugs is one of the reasons blacks make up just 13 percent of the population but roughly half of all prison inmates.”

The war on drugs also helps explain why police tactics have become increasingly militarized. Because America’s drug policy focuses on arresting offenders rather than providing addiction treatment, police officers are inevitably encouraged to come up with increasingly sophisticated ways of putting drug users behind bars.

As recently as last year, the United States Department of Defense provided $4 billion in surplus military equipment to local police for free in part to more effectively apprehend drug dealers and users. “The war on drugs has created a culture of violence and puts police in an impossible situation,” explained Sen.Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a speech during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Finally, America’s current approach to combatting drug use is needlessly expensive. Although the United States only contains 5 percent of the world’s population, it holds 20 percent of its prisoners, making it by far the world’s largest jailer. As of 2013, this cost taxpayers $40 billion each year, with much of that money going into the coffers of the private corporations that build our prisons. Many of these groups actively (and successfully) push for harsher drug policies because they know it will increase the number of inmates and, thus, help their bottom line.

Yet while all of these facts strongly suggest America needs to reevaluate its drug policies, none of them prove that the Irish approach should be considered as a substitute. There is a very simple reason why that is the case: It works.

This brings us back to the fundamental question: Is the ultimate objective simply to punish people or to reduce drug abuse and help its victims?

While it may seem counterintuitive to give free heroin to heroin addicts, the symptoms of heroin withdrawal are so serious that it is often practically impossible for severe addicts to overcome them. As a result, European countries like Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have set up programs where chronic abusers can take heroin injections under medical supervision and receive regular counseling.

In Switzerland, this almost immediately resulted in a noticeable decline in the crime rate, including a 55 percent drop in vehicle thefts and 80 percent fewer muggings and burglaries. Meanwhile, less than 15 percent of the program’s patients relapsed back into daily use. Similar results have been reported in the other European countries that have adopted this approach.

This approach isn’t without its critics, of course. After a similar program was implemented in the Canadian city of Vancouver, Al-Jazeera correspondent Allen Schauffler argued that the policy was comparable to blackmail.

“What it says to these people is, ‘Yep, you are heroin addicts. A certain number of you, the most severely addicted are heroin addicts, you’ll always be heroin addicts, there is no hope of you getting off heroin, therefore let’s provide you with heroin so you are the least dangerous drug addict you can possibly be,’” he wrote. “It’s a very odd… moral line to walk.”

While there is merit to these concerns, even critics like Schauffler acknowledge that most of the addicts who use the program claim to have been helped by it. Considering the program’s success, it makes sense that Ireland would implement a similar initiative as part of what the country’s chief of National Drugs Strategyreferred to as “a radical cultural shift.”

This brings us back to the fundamental question: Is the ultimate objective simply to punish people or to reduce drug abuse and help its victims?

If America aims to do the latter, then it will be necessary for our leaders to implement bold, even unorthodox approaches to this problem. In this respect, the policy of offering safe spaces for heroin addicts to use in moderation has the dual advantage of both being known to work and reducing the stigma associated with drug use. After all, by treating the heroin use as a disease to be treated rather than a crime to be punished, countries like Switzerland and Canada have simultaneously improved the lives of drug abusers and significantly reduced violent crime rates.

Should the Internet be looking for its next great cause, marijuana legalization supporters should look no further.

A prisoner was dragged 107 feet by guards and died 9 days later—where’s his hashtag?

Published: The Daily Dot (September 25, 2015)

Back in October, 59-year-old Wayne County Jail inmate Abdul Akbar suffered multiple bodily injuries—after prison guards tried to restrain him. Reports obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request claim that Akbar became violent after he overslept and missed breakfast, destroying a computer and resisting guards’ orders when they tried to control the situation. Video footage from jail cameras—which has since gone viral—showed Akbar’s unconscious body being dragged 107 feet across the floor to an elevator, clearly violating proper protocol regarding prisoners’ rights.

Akbar died nine days later.

Although prisoners do sacrifice many of their rights upon being incarcerated (such as the right to vote or purchase certain weapons), they have not forfeited the right to have their bodies treated with respect. As the Supreme Court explained in its 1987 ruling Turner v. Safley, “prison walls do not form a barrier separating inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” Unfortunately, as a string of incidents involving prisoner abuse by corrections officers has made clear, this protection is not widely recognized by the modern prison-industrial complex.

At a time when #BlackLivesMatter shines a light on police brutality, it’s time to recognize that injustice also reflects on our prison population: Prisoners lives’ matter, too. A handful of Twitter users have been hashtagging these everyday abuses, but #PrisonersLivesMatter has yet to go viral—stirring public debate and creating a widespread movement for reform. That needs to change.

Video footage from jail cameras—which has since gone viral—showed Akbar’s unconscious body being dragged 107 feet across the floor to an elevator.

The number of incidents indicating this trend is disturbing and growing. At the Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York, a mentally unstable inmate named Samuel Harrellwas kicked and punched to death by more than 20 officers—who were nicknamed “the beat-up squad” for their zeal in using physical force to subdue prisoners. In Georgia, four corrections officerswere sent to prison after pleading guilty to regularly beating up inmates and then covering up the abuse. The most notorious incident involved a prisoner who was handcuffed, escorted to a gymnasium where there were no surveillance cameras, and then beaten to the point that he received traumatic brain injury.

Meanwhile, a Maryland inmate named Sandy Brown was held in administrative segregation solely because she was transgender, where she was subjected to physical and verbal harassment for more than two months. In a landmark decision, Brown recently won her suit against the correctional facility.

But in Akbar’s case, despite telling medical personnel that he “got stomped in the face” and was beaten by multiple guards, he never received any tests for possible bleeding in his brain (and the Wayne County Medical Examiner insists there was no evidence of such during the autopsy). He also reported a sore jaw and pain in both his left leg and the right part of his chest. Despite dying of a heart ailment, the county prosecutor decided that there couldn’t have been a connection between the injuries he sustained and his subsequent death.

Along with violent assault, the most common form of inmate abuse is sexual assault. Although corrections officers used to overwhelmingly deny that prison rape was a prevalent problem, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has discoveredthrough a series of studies that sexual assault is actually disturbingly common in American prisons today—with mentally ill inmates disproportionately likely to experience sexual abuse. In 2011 alone, more than 200,000 people were sexually abused in American prisons, and nearly half of all the sexual assault allegations made that year were directed against prison guards and staff.

What can Americans do to address this problem?

To begin, we need to acknowledge that there is a big difference between private, for-profit prisons and publicly-owned facilities. For instance, a study in Mississippi back in 2013 found that inmates were two to three times more likely to be assaulted in that state’s private prisons than they were in the public ones.

The most notorious incident involved a prisoner who was handcuffed, escorted to a gymnasium where there were no surveillance cameras, and then beaten to the point that he received traumatic brain injury.

Even setting aside cases of officer-on-inmate abuse, the data still indicates that prisons are more likely to be violent when privately managed. A national study in 2013 determined that assaults on guards by inmates were 49 percent more frequent in private prisons, while assaults on fellow inmates were 65 percent more common. The report also found that private prisons were more likely to withhold medical care after an inmate was injured, presumably to protect their bottom line.

Similarly, a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that abuse against immigrants is rampant in privately owned prisons, from substandard living conditions and overcrowding to overuse of isolation units against inmates. Considering that the prison-industrial complex has already caused America to develop the world’s largest prison population, the strong correlation between inmate abuse and private facilities only reinforces the need to end the practice of allowing prisons to be run for profit.

In addition, we need to confront the cultural assumptions that allow us to turn a blind eye to prisoner abuse. There is an undeniable stigma attached to going to prison, one that strips prisoners of their humanity. This makes it exceptionally difficult for ex-cons to obtain gainful employment and encourages America to employ penal practices (such as the death penalty) that have been abolished in most other developed nations. After all, if prisoners are less than human, their deaths don’t matter as much.

In addition to legacies of systemic racism, one could argue that the rampant stories of racial profiling and excessive force among police officers against unarmed black men they suspected of criminal behavior—from Michael Brown toFreddie Gray—is part of this same larger story. After all, if so many Americans are willing to believe that a person’s basic rights can be forfeited simply because they are suspected of wrongdoing, how easy will it be to convince them that someone who has already been convicted is still entitled to not have his or her body and mind subjected to abuse?

In the end, the same Twitter users and social justice advocates who stand with hashtag campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter have a responsibility to support everyone who is harmed by America’s systemic injustices. Until we address the brutality that takes place every day behind bars, we will continue to fight for some Americans’ safety while continuing to ignore others.

How American taxpayers are spending billions to keep innocent men behind bars

Published: Daily Dot (July 14, 2015)

As talk show host John Oliver explained in a segment last month, America’s bail bond system discriminates against low-income Americans who can’t afford to make bail. “Jail can do for your actual life what being in a marching band can do for your social life,” Oliver quipped. “Even if you’re just in for a little while, it can destroy you.”

After going viral, Oliver’s video is now returning to the news cycle by virtue of New York City’s recent announcement that they will gradually start replacing bail with various other supervising options for low-risk, nonviolent defendants. It’s a step that the New York Civil Liberties Union’s senior attorney Corey Stoughton referred to as a “tremendous development” that could be the first step toward outright abolition of bail.

Let’s hope Stoughton is right: Until bail is abolished, American taxpayers will be spending billions of dollars on a system that reduces low-income citizens, and particularly racial minorities, to second-class citizenship in the eyes of our legal system.

“There is a very real human cost to how our criminal justice system treats people while they wait for trial,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio explained in a statement. “Money bail is a problem because—as the system currently operates in New York—some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose.”

Certainly this was what happened with Kalief Browder, a New York City teenager who spent more than three years in custody without ever standing trial because he couldn’t afford the $3,000 bail. Ever since it came out that Browder’s recent suicide was due in part to the trauma of his experience, de Blasio has been under pressure to reform the system that wrongly held him in the first place.

Until bail is abolished, American taxpayers will be spending billions of dollars on a system that reduces low-income citizens, and particularly racial minorities, to second-class citizenship in the eyes of our legal system.

According to a report by the Associated Press, de Blasio’s $17.8 million plan will start gradually, allowing judges “to replace money-bail for about 3,000 low-risk defendants [out of 45,500 in New York City] with supervision options including regular check-ins, text-message reminders, and connecting them with drug or behavioral therapy.”

Of course, this issue is hardly limited to New York City. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies (an English penological research group), the problem of bail-bond discrimination has reached the level of a humanitarian crisis—roughly 480,000 Americans spend time in jail every year simply because they can’t afford to make bail.

This is partially attributable to the fact that, despite only accounting for five percent of the world’s population, America has 25 percent of its prisoners. Indeed, although a recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice (a non-profit that focuses on justice policy) found that although crime rates haven’t been as low as they are today since the 1970s, America is sending more people to jail than ever—11.7 million in 2013 compared to only 6 million in 1983, with the average incarceration period rising from 14 days to 23 days within the same period.

As a result, America’s local jails hold more than 700,000 people on any given day (one-quarter of whom are there solely for drug-related offenses) and keeps them there for longer than ever: 23 days in 2013 compared to only 14 days in 1983.

While it may not receive as much attention as racial profiling, the bail-bond system also plays a significant role in exacerbating the racial inequalities that pervade our criminal justice system. “Nationally, African Americans are jailed at almost four times the rate of white Americans,” the Vera report found. “Despite making up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans account for 36 percent of the jail population,” with Latinos also being disproportionately represented among prison inmates.

This is partially because of the income gap that separates white people from racial minorities, making it harder to both pay bail and afford legal counsel. As Laura Shin of Forbes reported, “the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household.”

In addition, our criminal justice system has a pattern of being harsher on people of color than white folks: Racial minorities are stopped by police at much higher rates, are more likely to go to prison than whites for drug-related offenses despite both groups using illegal substances at comparable rates, and (in the case of black people) receive sentences that are 10 percent longer on average than those received by white people for the same crimes.

Even if you aren’t swayed by the humanitarian dimension of the bail-bond crisis, there is also a fiscal element to consider. As Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post pointed out, Americans taxpayers spend approximately $17 billion each year—almost as much as our budget for NASA—to keep people locked up who haven’t been convicted of a crime. This money then goes into the pockets of special interest groups who benefit from the status quo.

Despite only accounting for five percent of the world’s population, America has 25 percent of its prisoners.

Commercial bail bondsmen, for example, lobby aggressively for laws that force judges to set bail and lobby against pre-trial release programs that don’t require bail. The result is that bail bonds are now used in more than 40 percent of all felony cases.

Similarly, private prison companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group profit considerably from the bail-bond system. Although there isn’t much evidence that private prisons actually save taxpayers money, they lobby to criminalize more activities and increase sentencing, including by requiring bail-bond rates. Thanks to their efforts, the industry of constructing and maintaining for-profit prisons is now worth $70 billion.

Considering that our bail-bond system discriminates against Americans from low income and/or non-white backgrounds, it could only be justified if it served some constructive purpose—but, in fact, the exact opposite is true.

As Ingraham explains, Washington, D.C. stopped using bail in the 1960s. Although the city’s Pretrial Services Agency did decide to hold roughly 12 percent of defendants (usually because they were flight risks or a danger to others), it released the other 88 percent. The overwhelming majority of these defendants made their scheduled court appearances and did not get into further legal trouble while awaiting trial.

In light of all this, it’s difficult to come up with a logical argument in favor of maintaining our current bail-bond system. And if we’re serious about reforming America’s justice system, we shouldn’t forget about the institutions that continue to ensure that the United States remains unequal.

Debunking the 3 biggest myths about the death penalty

Published: Daily Dot (July 6, 2015), Salon (July 8, 2015)

After the Supreme Court issued a 5-to-4 ruling upholding the use of a lethal injection drug for death penalty cases last week, Justice Breyer’s dissent has lit up the Internet. In his opposition, Breyer not only opposes the controversial use of midazolam, a drug that’s been criticized as “cruel and unusual punishment,” but also condemns the death penalty altogether. His argument that the United States must rethink its stance on capital punishment.

However, Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion highlighted the difficulties in opposing the death penalty, as the debate on the issue continues to be riddled with misinformation. As the United States continues to be one of the top five nations with the most executions in the world, challenging these myths won’t just create necessary policy change—it’ll save lives.

1) The death penalty helps stop crime

In his opinion on the recent capital punishment case Glossip v. Gross, Scalia argued that “the suggestion that the incremental deterrent effect of capital punishment does not seem ‘significant’ reflects, it seems to me, a let-them-eat cake obliviousness to the needs of others.” It reflects an old argument: that the death penalty is necessary because it scares criminals into abiding by the law.

Yet a 2009 study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology revealed that 88 percent of the country’s top criminologists don’t believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicides, 87 percent believe abolishing it won’t have any effect on murder rates, and 75 percent agree that “debates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real crime solutions to crime problems.”

“We’re very hard pressed to find really strong evidence of deterrence,” explained Jeffrey Fagan, a student at Columbia Law School. When Fagan and two other researchers collaborated to compare crime rates in Hong Kong and Singapore—the former which abolished the death penalty in 1993 and the latter which uses it as mandatory for murder—they found little difference in violent crime rates between the two cities.

A similar study by Professors John J. Donohue of Yale Law School and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania compared rates of violence between states that used capital punishment and those which had abolished it and also failed to find any evidence of a deterrent effect.

2) Anti-death penalty activists are just protecting a bunch of killers

Back when he was governor of California, Ronald Reagan once explained to a group of reporters that he had told opponents of capital punishment, “If you toll your bells every time somebody is murdered, I won’t mind if you do it every time the state executes a killer.” The erroneous implication, of course, was that anti-death penalty activists care more about criminals than their victims and, for that matter, that all of the inmates on death row are guilty criminals.

As director of the ACLU Cassandra Stubbs wrote for MSNBC, there is good reason to suspect that many of the people put to death in this country have not been killers at all. Indeed, one of those men was cited by Scalia in an earlier legal case as proof of the need for capital punishment:

Henry McCollum was convicted and sentenced to death in North Carolina for the murder and rape of a young girl… McCollum was exonerated in 2014… But in 1986, two years after McCollum was convicted and sentenced, Justice Antonin Scalia held him up in a separate Supreme Court decision as the kind of person who demonstrates the need for the death penalty.

McCollum is hardly an isolated case. One paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Samuel R. Gross of the University of Michigan and Barbara O’Brien of Michigan State University found that at least four percent of people who get sentenced to death would ultimately be exonerated if their cases were closely examined over the next 21 years. That said, the ultimate number of people sent to die for crimes they didn’t commit is, in Gross’s own words, “not merely unknown but unknowable.”

Of course, considering that more than 150 prisoners on death row have been exonerated since 1973, the number is potentially staggering.

3) Lethal injection isn’t cruel and unusual punishment

Although Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in Glossip v. Gross argued that “the District Court did not establish that Oklahoma’s use of a massive dose of midazolam in its execution protocol entails a substantial risk of severe pain,” there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The creator of the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections today, Dr. Jay Chapman, told CNN in 2007 that it is cruel and unusual, that the guillotine would actually be more humane (“The person’s head is cut off and that’s the end of it”), and observing that “we kill animals more humanely than we kill people.”

Recent events have reinforced Dr. Chapman’s reservations, including three high-profile cases in 2014: Dennis McGuire of Ohio, who took nearly 25 minutes to die after choking and struggling throughout the procedure; Clayton Lockett of Oklahoma, whose execution was halted 20 minutes into the procedure due to an issue with his vein, began writhing on the gurney, and took 43 minutes in total to die; and Joseph Wood of Arizona, who gasped and snorted for nearly two hours before his lethal injection finally ended his life.

Despite these developments, lethal injection remains the most common form of execution used in the United States, with over 1,000 prisoners in this country meeting their end through that method since it was first implemented in 1982.

Although a growing number of states have moved to ban capital punishment, the best hope for ending the death penalty lies in spreading awareness of the issue to the general public. In the wake of the SCOTUS decision on lethal injection, the Internet is starting an overdue discussion on America’s culture of death. Last week’s decision may have been a setback, but the future of the issue depends the information age finally setting the record straight.

Solitary confinement is torture

Published: Daily Dot (June 24, 2015)

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution may not have as much political cachet as the First or Second, but it’s a safe bet you’re familiar with one of its most important phrases (italics added for emphasis): “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

This brings us to Barrett Brown, a self-described “mild-mannered freelance journalist, activist, and satirist” who was sentenced to 63 months in prison last January on a number of charges related to his work with the controversial hacktivist group Anonymous. His incarceration is troubling enough in its own right (Reporters Without Borders cited it as a main reason for downgrading America’s ranking on freedom in the press), but now his social media followers are reporting that prison officials have moved him to solitary confinement.

That last detail is particularly important, since the United Nations has clearly stated that holding a prisoner in solitary confinement for longer than 15 days constitutes torture. Then again, the United Nations has also called for abolishing solitary confinement except in the most extreme cases, while our own Supreme Court has established an “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” standard for determining if conditions of confinement violate the Eighth Amendment.

Of course, because our nation’s top bench has yet to officially recognize that solitary confinement itself inflicts unnecessary pain, last year more than 80,000 Americans experienced some form of mandatory isolation. This practice must end.

“Solitary confinement involves isolating inmates in cells that are barely larger than a king-sized bed for 22 to 24 hours per day,” explained crime journalist Laura Dimon in the Atlantic. “It wreaks profound neurological and psychological damage, causing depression, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, anxiety, and anger.”

Because our nation’s top bench has yet to officially recognize that solitary confinement itself inflicts unnecessary pain, last year more than 80,000 Americans experienced some form of mandatory isolation.

Not surprisingly, studies of prisons in America’s three most populated states (California, Texas, and New York) have found that suicide rates are significantly higher among inmates who have been held in solitary confinement than within the general prison population.

In fact, the psychological harm caused by forced isolation is so devastating that scientific researchers rarely study its effects on civilians, although when McGill University attempted to pay graduate students to live in comparable conditions for six weeks in 1951 (for an experiment on the effects of sensory deprivation), none of them lasted more than seven days.

If you believe this is acceptable because only the most vile criminals are subjected to it, think again.

“You might assume all inmates sent to solitary are the ‘worst of the worst’—rapists and murderers who continue their violent ways even behind bars,” wrote Scientific American in a 2013 report. “But in fact, many are placed in solitary for nonviolent offenses, and some are not even criminals, having been arrested on immigration charges. Others are thrown into isolation cells ‘for their own protection’ because they are homosexual or transgender or have been raped by other inmates.”

This is why someone like Kalief Browder, a New York City teenager who spent more than three years in prison despite never being convicted of a crime, ended up spending so much time in solitary confinement while behind bars, despite posing little threat to those around him.

New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm told the International Business Times about the appalling conditions he was subjected to. “It was claustrophobic. It smelled like urine. There was graffiti on the walls and the paint was peeling,” said Dromm. “The bed was filled with dirt, grease, grime, and the blanket was covered with mildew and mold.”

Browder took his own life this June.

And Barrett Brown? “Someone made hooch (alcohol) and a bunch of inmates had been drinking it. Officials came and gave them all breathalyzers, and they all passed,” claims a campaign to “Free Barrett Brown” on TwitLonger. “Then they searched Barrett’s locker (his only) and found a glass he had hidden in there.”

Along with the accusation that Brown was “singled out” because of his political activities, the site claims that he was “not allowed to bring belongings, including his file of legal papers and his prescription” and that he has not been told how long he will be kept in isolation.

If there is a sliver of good news in all of this, it’s that many American political and judicial leaders have started speaking out against and working to abolish this practice. Last year Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) co-sponsored a prison reform bill that, among other things, would prohibit the use of solitary confinement at juvenile prisons except when necessary to protect the safety of others at the facility.

Studies of prisons in America’s three most populated states have found that suicide rates are significantly higher among inmates who have been held in solitary confinement than within the general prison population.

More recently, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy testified before a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in March that “total incarceration just isn’t working” and that “solitary confinement literally drives men mad.”

Kennedy is right, and it certainly doesn’t help that our prison-industrial complex is already a disgrace to the rest of the world. We have more prisoners than any other country (with more than 1.5 million people sitting behind bars as of December 31, 2013), racial minorities are disproportionately more likely to spend time in jail than their white criminal counterparts, and recent statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigations reveal that one out of three Americans is forced to go through life with the burden of a criminal record.

Even in the context of so much damning information about American prisons as a whole, however, our rampant use of solitary confinement stands out as particularly heinous: It is practically impossible to reconcile America’s use of solitary confinement with the civil liberties protected by our Bill of Rights. We shouldn’t need legislators or judges to tell us that it is cruel and unusual to punish nonviolent criminals in a way that will permanently damage their mental health.

Unfortunately, because the public continues to ignore the plight of its inmates, thousands of Americans continue to languish under mental torture every day. Some of them are political prisoners like Barrett Brown, others are wrongfully imprisoned innocents like Kalief Browder, and many are actually guilty of offenses that warrant incarceration.

None of them, however, should have to forfeit their basic constitutional or human rights. When that happens, we not only violate their rights, but desecrate our own most important ideals.