Around two and a half years ago, a well-publicized sexual-assault scandal rocked the Air Force's basic training program in San Antonio. Nearly 70 people came forward to accuse more than 30 training instructors of offenses including unwanted touching, inappropriate relationships, and rape. General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, described sexual assault as a "cancer" infecting the culture of the base.
In the wake of the scandal, the Air Force set up 24-hour hotlines in dorms, launched leadership training for basic training instructors, increased the number of female training instructors, and implemented dozens of other changes. The Air Force has bragged about a reduction in sexual assaults, including at the Air Force Academy, where assaults dropped from 45 in 2013 to 27 in 2014. The entire military heralds higher reporting rates, and lower numbers in actual assaults that appeared in two recent surveys. But victims' advocates, former military officers, and lawmakers assert that sexual assault in the military remains an epidemic, and that as long as victims' commanders are responsible for initiating investigations for sexual assaults, victims will continue to find it difficult to report assaults and justifiably fear reprisals for doing so.
"They need to prosecute rapists," says Paula Coughlin, the former US Navy lieutenant whose report of her own assault at the Tailhook convention in 1991 sparked one of the first major investigations into sexual abuse in the military. "Everything else is just fluffery."
After having implemented 45 other recommendations, the Air Force will focus its effort to fight back against rape at the very beginning of military service with the Capstone Program, a five-day interactive course designed to instill the values of the Air Force with its trainees. They will learn the behavior of perpetrators; how to change negative behaviors "before a crime occurs"; how to help victims; the neuroscience of trauma; and what resources are available to victims, explains Lt. Colonel Kirsten Reimann, an Air Force spokeswoman. Some are optimistic about the course, including Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), a former Army commander, who tells me it seems like "a good first step."
But five days of training is unlikely to change the behavior of young people, says Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired Army brigadier general and psychiatrist who has worked extensively with young soldiers. "These courses can be okay for laying out the ground rules…but they don't change attitudes," he notes. Young people entering basic training come from various backgrounds, with different habits, dispositions, and value systems that probably won't change after five days of training.
Retired Chaplain Colonel Herman Kaiser says that "morality training" has been around for his entire 40 years in the US Army and that he has been one of its instructors. He describes it as disjointed, "weak and subjective," disliked by the instructors, and largely ineffective. He explains that the programs were ineffective because they lacked clear direction, didn't change behavior, and often got mixed up in conflicting religious and ethical debates.
"Training programs are important, but they will not fix an inherently unfair system," adds retired Colonel Don Christensen, a former military prosecutor who is now the president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates for military victims of sexual assault.
Military regulations allow victims of sexual abuse to request health care and other services without revealing their identities. But if they choose to press charges, they must make a report to law enforcement or a supervisor first. However, according the Christensen, the culture of the military is to always report everything to your commander, from an illness to an assault. Moreover, during basic training, it's nearly impossible to make an off-base phone call to law enforcement. The supervisor becomes the obvious choice.
That supervisor must then evaluate the complaint's legitimacy and determine whether or not to move it up the chain of command. At this stage, many victims lose their nerve. Since most military sexual assaults occur within units, that supervisor is often the commander of both the victim and the accused—a fact that can lead to retaliation against people who report assaults. Sixty-two percent of respondents in a 2014 RAND Corporation survey of all service members who reported assaults said they experienced some social or professional retaliation after making the claim, including a reduction in rank, a decrease in pay, or being forced out of the military entirely.
"In the military, your rapists' boss decides whether or not a sexual-assault allegation is investigated," Christensen says. "This puts commanders in an impossible position."
One reason commanders might brush off reports of assault or harassment is that they don't want the black mark of a crime tainting their records, and there are few consequences for not reporting the crime. "Military justice implies it's a requirement" to report rape, says Paula Coughlin, but "it isn't enforced." When Christensen was a prosecutor, commanders would constantly reschedule meetings and ignore phone calls to keep him from speaking with witnesses. In the past, including during the Lackland scandal, military officers who did not report instances of sexual assault were suspended or officially reprimanded, but rarely seriously charged.
A number of efforts have been made to address this problem through legislation, and the concern about the reporting chain has been a rallying cry for critics for more than two decades. For several years, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) has sponsored the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (STOP), which would implement a third-party oversight board composed of civilians and military personnel to take control of assault cases. We "cannot condone a system that is designed to protect the perpetrators and punish the survivors," notes a press release on Speier's website. The bill has 159 cosponsors, supportfromcountlessadvocacy groups, and is currently stalled in committee. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) sponsored a similar bill, which didn't pass the Senate.
But many in and out of the Air Force remain opposed to removing commanders from the sexual-assault adjudication process. The presence of outsiders when sensitive questions of sexual assault arise can often make the process "adversarial," warns Xenakis. Instead, he argues, commanders should have more incentives for cracking down on sexual assault, and more severe punishment for ignoring it. "Commanders at senior levels understand that these things undermine the health of the whole force," Xenakis says. "They need programs themselves to help them identify when these problems are happening."
Colonel Charles Killion, the director of the Air Force's judiciary wing, agrees, noting that the Air Force considered an independent oversight body but concluded that excluding the commander was not "going to have a positive impact on sexual assault reporting, investigations, or prosecutions."
Capt. Jason Smith, a spokesman for the Air Force, points to the success of the Air Force efforts by noting that 30 months have passed since the last sexual misconduct conviction at Lackland. A lack of convictions might also suggest that victims continue to be afraid to come forward and that the process itself is still flawed. "If anyone believes that fewer convictions is a sign of success…they don't understand the scope of the problem," says victim advocate Paula Coughlin.
At last week's Conservative Political Action Conference, GOP chairman Reince Priebus had some strong words about how President Barack Obama prioritizes threats to national security.
"Democrats tell us they understand the world, but then they call climate change, not radical Islamic terrorism, the greatest threat to national security," he said. "Look, I think we all care about our planet, but melting icebergs aren't beheading Christians in the Middle East."
The comment came after the president, in a lengthy interview with Vox, said that the media often overplays the danger of terrorism relative to climate change. It's not the first time Obama has made a point along those lines. In his State of the Union address in January, he said that "no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations" than climate change. A few weeks later, in his 2015 national security strategy, the president referred to global warming as an "urgent and growing threat" to national security.
But while Priebus's jab earned him a hearty round of applause at CPAC, new research indicates that his iceberg comment doesn't hold water.
For the last couple years, Middle East experts have pointed to the ongoing civil war in Syria as a prime example of how climate change can contribute to violent conflict. The country's worst drought on record arrived just as widespread outrage with President Bashar al-Assad's dictatorial regime was reaching critical mass; as crops failed, an estimated 1.5 million people were driven off rural farms and into cities. While grievances with the Assad regime are many, from economic stagnation to violent crackdowns on protesters, the impacts of the drought were likely the final straw.
The narrative in Syria fit perfectly with what many top military leaders, including at the Pentagon, were beginning to project: In parts of the world where tensions are already high, the impacts of natural disasters and competition for resources are increasingly likely to ignite violence. A 2013 study by analysts at Princeton found that in some parts of the world, global warming could lead to a 50 percent increase in conflict by mid-century.
But in Syria, there was some uncertainty about whether that drought in particular was a product of man-made climate change. In other words, is the climate-driven conflict there merely representative of what might happen more often in the future, or is it an actual consequence of burning fossil fuels?
An answer to that question was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Colin Kelley, a geographer at the University of California-Santa Barbara, found that a multiyear drought as severe as the one that hit Syria from 2007 to 2010 was made two to three times more likely because of climate change, compared to natural variability alone.
The study is the first to examine a century's worth of precipitation and temperature data for the Fertile Crescent (the lush region surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that was hit hardest by the drought) for clues about a possible human fingerprint on the recent drought. Sure enough, the data shows that "three of the four most severe multiyear droughts have occurred in the last 25 years, the period during which external anthropogenic forcing has seen its largest increase." Here's the relevant data from the study:
Kelley et al, PNAS 2015
The lines in both charts proceed chronologically, starting at 1900, with a tick mark every 20 years. In the top chart, a regional warming trend is clearly visible, with the red box highlighting the recent period where temperatures were consistently above the long-term average. The bottom chart shows the Palmer Drought Severity Index, a standard metric for measuring drought in agricultural areas that combines temperature, precipitation, and soil moisture data (lower numbers are more severe). The brown boxes show droughts (where the PDSI is below the long-term trend) of at least three years.
The study also includes data from a model that compared two sets of projected temperatures in the Fertile Crescent, one with greenhouse gas influence and one without. The observed record matches closely with the greenhouse gas model, suggesting that climate change played a critical role in shaping conditions in the region.
"The bottom line is, what we're trying to show is that these trends are due to the climate change signal," Kelley said of the charts above. "There's no natural signal for that."
In other words, Kelley said, there's a clear line of causation from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions to the deaths of 200,000 Syrians in the civil war.
With that said, Kelley added that there are a number of other factors at play here. The impact of the most recent drought was made worse by the fact that it came on the heels of two other severe droughts, so groundwater supplies were already low and farmers already struggling. Moreover, Assad's predecessor and father, Hafez al-Assad, instituted a system of agricultural policies that encouraged farming in water-scarce areas, setting farmers there up to be highly vulnerable to future drought. And it's impossible to know how the drought would have affected the political climate in the absence of Assad's other unpopular practices; it's possible that a more stable government would have been able to better weather the drought.
Still, the study carries important implications for the future of the region, said Francesco Femia, co-director of the Center for Climate and Security. The climate trends highlighted in this study indicate that replacing Assad won't be enough to secure stability in the region.
"If or when the conflict in Syria comes to an end, will its farmers and herders be able to regain their livelihoods?" Femia said. "Given the continued instability and a forecast of increased drying in the region, this issue should be better integrated into the international security agenda."
The US Department of Justice may have passed on filing federal charges against former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson after he shot and killed Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb last summer, but the department isn't letting the city's police force totally off the hook. According to the New York Times, the DOJ is about to release a report that accuses the Ferguson Police Department—and the city itself—of systemically mistreating the community's African American population with discriminatory traffic stops; disproportionate ticketing, arrests, and court fines; and physical abuse at the hands of police officers.
According to the Times' Matt Apuzzo, the DOJ will recommend a series of changes at the department. If the city doesn't agree, the DOJ could sue to force reforms. The DOJ has court-backed agreements with nearly two dozen police departments around the country (including the island-wide force in Puerto Rico), and is fighting four other departments in court over proposed changes.
If the Times is right, the report will bolster and likely add to information that has been documented in the past by activists, advocates, and at least one state-level agency in Missouri. As Mother Jones reported in September 2014, fines and court fees are Ferguson's second-larges revenue source, and warrants were issued in 2013 at a rate of three per household (25,000 in a city of 21,000 people).
Another Mother Jones report—based off findings from the Missouri Attorney General's office—noted that in 2013 in Ferguson, 86 percent of traffic stops and 92 percent of searches of individuals involved African American. That's in a city that's around 60% black (and one that had, at the time of Brown's death, just three black police officers). Despite the cops' focus on Ferguson's black residents, just one in five black people police searched were found to be carrying contraband. For white people, that number was one in three.
I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son By Kent Russell
Halfway through his engrossing book of essays and reportage, I realized Kent Russell was the kid brother of Swamplandia author Karen Russell, and then it all made sense: the hilariously dysfunctional Florida family. The language you can chew on. Russell's characters shoal along walls or "move about like a violent decision." His own small hands are "furtive-looking" and his feet are "a hindrance, dry-land flippers." When he's not psychoanalyzing friends and relations (or himself), he's off communing with various lunatics. He attends a mass gathering of Juggalos (the mostly poor, white, and highly perverse followers of the band Insane Clown Posse). He tracks down a legendary hockey enforcer—Russell is obsessed with the sport—in Nova Scotia. He powwows with guys who dose themselves with snake venom or squat near-deserted islands. All you need do is grip your armrests and live vicariously.
Throughout the controversy set off by a recent Mother Jonesarticle about Bill O'Reilly's mischaracterizations of his wartime reporting experience, the Fox News host has angrily insisted that "everything" he has said about his journalistic track record has been accurate. But his accounts have been contradicted by O'Reilly's former colleagues and other eyewitnesses—and, it turns out, by O'Reilly's own reporting at the time. Mother Jones has obtained the CBS News report O'Reilly filed at the end of the Falklands war. It makes no reference to the dramatic and warlike action—soldiers "gunning down" Argentine civilians with "real bullets"—O'Reilly has claimed he witnessed.
In December 2013, Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman locked up at a men's state prison in Georgia, found herself in solitary confinement. Rutledge State Prison warden Shay Hatcher, she says, put her there for "pretending to be a woman." The 36-year-old Diamond, who was first diagnosed with gender dysphoria as a teenager, had been denied hormone therapy since entering the prison system in 2012. She still identified as a woman, even as her body was becoming more masculine, causing her extreme anxiety and physical pain.
Later that month, Diamond claims, Hatcher sent her to solitary for a second time after she met with lawyers. About six days later, still in isolation, Diamond told him that she was not pretending, but rather had serious medical needs requiring treatment—and that she was suicidal due to her lack of care. That same day, Diamond tried to cut off her penis with a razor and kill herself; she was hospitalized on an emergency basis. She then received a letter from the medical director of the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC), saying that the officials who had confiscated her women's clothes and refused to provide her with hormone therapy had handled matters "appropriately."
Now, Diamond is taking her grievances to court. Earlier this month, the Southern Poverty Law Center initiated a lawsuit on her behalf that accuses eight current and former GDC employees of wrongfully denying her hormone therapy against the recommendations of doctors, and of failing to protect her from at least seven cases of sexual assault. Court documents, including copies of correspondences between Diamond and prison authorities, allege numerous incidents in which officials mistreated and outright harassed her. (The GDC declined to comment.)
Since stopping her hormone therapy, Diamond says she has experienced chest pain, muscle spasms, heart palpitations, vomiting, dizziness, hot flashes, and weight loss. Stephen Sloan, a GDC psychologist who met with Diamond in both December and January, noted that she is staying in a prison where the atmosphere is homophobic, with little support for sexual minorities. "She continues to require hormone therapy and gender role change if she is to receive adequate care," he wrote in a report after the second meeting. "Withholding this therapy from her increases her risk of self-harm."
As her body has transformed, Diamond has tried to kill herself at least three times and has tried to castrate herself four times, in addition to attempting to cut off her penis. She is seeking an injunction requiring the resumption of hormone therapy; the right to express her female identity through grooming, pronoun, and dress; and safe placement in a medium security or transitional facility. She secretly filmed a video statement from behind bars; here's what she had to say:
Transgender women inmates are among the most vulnerable in American prisons, facing a high risk of sexual violence and harassment from other inmates as well as staff, who often house them with men and refer to them with the wrong pronoun. One study in 2007 found that 59 percent of transgender women detained in men's facilities in California were sexually abused, compared with 4 percent of male inmates. Laverne Cox, the first openly transgender actress to be nominated for an Emmy, has helped bring broader attention to some of these issues with her role on as Sophia Burset, a trans inmate forced to stop estrogen therapy on the hit TV show Orange Is the New Black.And in a high-profile legal case earlier this month, Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning, the soldier who was convicted of sending classified documents to WikiLeaks) made national headlines when she received the go-ahead to begin hormone therapy in a military correctional facility after suing the government.
Federal prisons are required to provide inmates with individualized medical care, including hormone therapy, but at the state level it's a different story. While some states do require individualized medical care at prisons, others, like Georgia, have policies in place that specifically prevent transgender inmates from accessing treatment despite recommendations from medical professionals. (BuzzFeed's Jessica Testa has written at length about the state's treatment of trans inmates, including Diamond and Zahara Green.)
Something extremely bizarre took place in the early decades of the 20th century, inspired by a confluence of trends. Scientists had recently developed a deeper understanding of genetics and inherited traits; at the same time, the very first eugenics policies were being enacted in the United States. And, as the population grew, the public wanted cheaper meat and milk. As a result, in the 1920s, the USDA encouraged rural communities around the United States to put bulls on the witness stand—to hold a legal trial, complete with lawyers and witnesses and a watching public—to determine whether the bull was fit to breed.
In 1900, the average dairy cow in America produced 424 gallons of milk each year. By 2000, that figure had more than quadrupled, to 2,116 gallons. In the latest episode of Gastropod—a podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history—we explore the incredible science that transformed the American cow into a milk machine. But we also uncover the disturbing history of prejudice and animal cruelty that accompanied it.
Livestock breeding was a normal part of American life at the dawn of the 20th century, according to historian Gabriel Rosenberg. The United States, he told Gastropod, was "still largely a rural and agricultural society," and farm animals—and thus some more-or-less scientific forms of selective breeding—were ubiquitous in American life.
Meanwhile, the eugenics movement was on the rise. Founded by Charles Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, eugenics held that the human race could improve itself by guided evolution—which meant that criminals, the mentally ill, and others of "inferior stock" should not be allowed to procreate and pass on their defective genes. America led the way, passing the first eugenic policies in the world. By the Second World War, 29 states had passed legislation that empowered officials to forcibly sterilize "unfit" individuals.
Combine the growing population, the desire for cheap meat and milk, and the increasing popularity of eugenics, and the result, Rosenberg said, was the "Better Sires: Better Stock" program, launched by the USDA in 1919. In an accompanying essay, "Harnessing Heredity to Improve the Nation's Live Stock," the USDA's Bureau of Animal Industry proclaimed that, each year, "a round billion dollars is lost because heredity has been permitted to work with too little control." The implication: Humans needed to take control—and stop letting inferior or "scrub" bulls reproduce!
The "Better Sires: Better Stock" campaign included a variety of elements to encourage farmers to mate "purebred" rather than "scrub" or "degenerate" sires with their female animals. Anyone who pledged to only use purebred stock to expand their herd was awarded a handsome certificate. USDA field agents distributed pamphlets entitled "Runts—and the Remedy" and "From Scrubs to Quality Stock," packed with charts showing incremental increases of dollar value with each improved generation as well as testimonials from enrolled farmers.
The USDA's script for prosecuting an inferior bull. The document was unearthed by Duke historian Gabriel Rosenberg, who is writing a book on the subject.
By far the most peculiar aspect of the campaign, however, came in 1924, when the USDA published its "Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial." This mimeographed pamphlet, which Rosenberg recently unearthed, contained detailed instructions on how to hold a legal trial of a non-purebred bull, in order to publicly condemn it as unfit to reproduce. The pamphlet calls for a cast of characters to include a judge, a jury, attorneys, and witnesses for the prosecution and the defense, as well as a sheriff, who should "wear a large metal star and carry a gun," and whose role, given the trial's foregone conclusion, was "to have charge of the slaughter of the condemned scrub sire and to superintend the barbecue."
In addition to an optional funeral oration for the scrub sire and detailed instructions regarding the barbecue or other refreshments ("bologna sandwiches, boiled wieners, or similar products related to bull meat" are recommended), the pamphlet also includes a script that begins with the immortal lines: "Hear ye! Hear ye! The honorable court of bovine justice of ___ County is now in session." The county's case against the scrub bull is laid out: that he is a thief for consuming "valuable provender" while providing no value in return, that he is an "unworthy father," and that his very existence is "detrimental to the progress and prosperity of the public at large." Several pages and roughly two hours later, the trial concludes with the following stage direction: "The bull is led away and a few moments later a shot is fired."
In case you were thinking this was a Southern thing, here's a cartoon from the Lake County, Illinois trial. pic.twitter.com/xdawzOufaR
Within a month of publication, the USDA reported receiving more than 500 requests for its scrub-sire trial pamphlets. Across the country, the court of bovine justice was convened at county fairs, cattle auctions, and regional farmers' association meetings, forming a popular and educational entertainment.
These bull trials may seem like a forgotten, bizarre, and ultimately amusing quirk of history, but, as Rosenberg reminded Gastropod, "They are talking about a lot more than just cattle genetics here."
Lewiston, ME 1929 scrub bull trial:"Cleaves told jury that rule holds in breeding of dairy animals as in human family that like begets like"
Indeed, the very same year—1924—that the USDA published its "Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial," the state of Virginia passed its Eugenical Sterilization Act. Immediately, Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, Director of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, filed a petition to sterilize Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old whom he claimed had a mental age of 9, and who had already given birth to a supposedly feeble-minded daughter (following a rape). Buck's case went all the way to the Supreme Court, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. upholding the decision in a 1927 ruling that concluded: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Historians estimate that more than 60,000 Americans were sterilized in the decades leading up to the Second World War, with many more persecuted under racist immigration laws and marriage restrictions.
Eugenics, with its philosophical kinship to Nazism, largely fell out of favor in the United States by World War II. But the ideas promoted in the bull trials—that humans can and should take increasing control of animal genetics in order to design the perfect milk machine—have gained ground throughout the past century, as breeding has become ever more technologically advanced. As we discuss in this episode of Gastropod, the drive to improve dairy cattle through livestock breeding has led to huge innovations—in IVF, in genomics, and in big-data analysis—as well as much more milk. But it has also continued, for better and for worse, to highlight the ethical problems that stem from this kind of techno-utopian approach to reproduction.
In this episode of Gastropod, we find out about the bull trials of the 1920s and meet the most valuable bull in the world, as we explore the history and the high-tech genomic science behind livestock breeding today. Along the way, we tease out its larger, thought-provoking, and frequently deeply troubling implications for animal welfare and society in general. Listen below.
Gastropod is a podcast about the science and history of food. Each episode looks at the hidden history and surprising science behind a different food and/or farming-related topic—from aquaculture to ancient feasts, from cutlery to chili peppers, and from microbes to Malbec. It's hosted by Cynthia Graber, an award-winning science reporter, and Nicola Twilley, author of the popular blog Edible Geography. You can subscribe via iTunes, email, Stitcher, or RSS for a new episode every two weeks.
For close to four years, while he underwent chemotherapy, Rhett couldn't be vaccinated against dangerous and contagious diseases like measles and whooping cough. He had to rely on others around him for protection: As long they were vaccinated, transmissions were unlikely. But as a student in Marin County, California, an area where many parents file personal belief exemptions enabling their kids to opt out of required vaccines, Rhett was at risk.
In recent years, the number of parents who use nonmedical vaccine exemptions has been on the rise, contributing to record numbers of vaccine-preventable outbreaks. After the Disneyland measles outbreak, which accounts for most of the 150 new measles cases reported across 17 states since the beginning of the year, Rhett and his family began calling on legislators to put limits on vaccine exemptions—and they weren't alone.
Last Wednesday, in conjunction with advocacy organization MoveOn.org, Rhett helped deliver a petition, along with 21,000 signatures, calling on California legislators to support a new bill that would put an end to nonmedical vaccine exemptions and inform parents about immunization rates in California's schools.
California has been hit the hardest in the recent outbreak, but it's not the only state now seeking to curb vaccine exemptions. Nine other states—including Oregon, a state with one of the highest percentages of parents who file exemptions—have proposed legislation that would eliminate either personal belief exemptions or religious belief exemptions.
Other states have introduced vaccine bills that would make exemptions harder to obtain or increase the ability of health officials to track where vaccination gaps exist. Overall, since the beginning of this year, 79 vaccine bills have been introduced in 29 states.
Not everyone is happy about it. The National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), which describes itself as the "oldest and largest consumer led organization advocating for the institution of vaccine safety and informed consent protections," and issues online action alerts about legislation that would make it harder to opt out of vaccines—and instructs members on how to fight against it.
Vaccine advocates, however emphasize that the new bills are vital to public health. "This is not a matter of private health, like home birth or vitamin choices a family makes in their own home," MoveOn member Hannah Henry, a mother of four, wrote in a statement included with the California petition. "It is not about politics; it is about children's lives."
While the annual Conservative Political Action Conference attracts right-wingers all stripes, there was one thing virtually all attendees could agree on: this year's conference was young. Especially young. College and high school-aged conservatives packed the halls of CPAC, decked out in all manner of paraphernalia: retro Reagan-Bush '84 campaign shirts, American flag shorts, buttons that declared "I Love Capitalism" and "Kill the Death Tax." I spotted at least one "Barry Goldwater for President" button on a millennial's lapel.
What were these fired-up young conservatives—many of whom traveled long distances to attend—here to see? Which would-be GOP candidate did they intend to support? Their responses were diverse, but if the Millennial Primary were held today, it would be a dead heat between Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), with Ben Carson running close behind.
Inmates at California's New Folsom prison are slowly creating a sequel of sorts to Johnny Cash's hit record, and if an early preview of one song is any indication, their mix of folk, soul, blues, and hip-hop may be worth the wait.
The Prison Music Project, the brainchild of Canada-born singer-songwriter Zoe Boekbinder, is a collaboration between artists on the outside and at least eight men currently or recently doing time at New Folsom, the maximum-security facility adjacent to the lockup where Cash recordedLive at Folsom Prison back in January 1968.
Boekbinder, a singer who mixes folk with pop, has released five albums of her own and toured all over Europe and North America. While volunteering in New Folsom's art program from 2010 through 2014, she got the idea to set the men's poetry and lyrics to music. She reached out for help from folk-rock icon Ani DiFranco, with whom she'd previously shared a stage. DiFranco agreed to produce the album—she's like "my co-pilot," Boekbinder says—helping envision how each song might sound and working out arrangements and instrumentation.
The inmates will sing on some tracks, Boekbinder on others. She's also reaching out to additional musicians, but, "aside from the folks in prison, I don't want any one artist, including me, to be featured," she says. "I want it to be about the people these stories belong to." She's already managed to record some tracks inside New Folsom, but access can be dodgy—she'll record others over the phone, if need be.
The songwriters, she says, focused on their experiences with foster care, drug-addicted parents, and gang violence—as well as their longing for home. In the blues-heartbreak "All Over Again" (listen below), 72-year-old Kenneth Blackburn sings of lost love and the skies outside his window. "A lot of his songs talk about death. His health is not good, so it's a common theme in his music," Boekbinder says.
And here's a version of the song with Boekbinder singing. (Down below, you can also watch her perform it at the House of Blues in New Orleans.)
Another song, "Villain," combines two poems by Nathen Jackson, a 40-year-old from Sacramento who was released last June. Incarcerated in 1997 for aggravated assault (Jackson says he was defending himself), he served two stints at New Folsom alongside lifers. "At level-four security," he says, "violence happens. You're surrounded by a bunch of individuals who have nothing to lose, they're not going anywhere." The prison's art program put these men into a room together, working on poetry and critiquing each other's writing. "It's amazing work, and it's the type of rehabilitative programs that we really need," Jackson says, adding that it was the only positive part of his time.
Spoon Jackson in his cell. Courtesy of Spoon Jackson and Zoe Boekbinder
"Villian," he says, describes the feeling of being isolated:"The people who are confined behind these walls are more than the crimes they were convicted of. We're fathers, brothers and sons. We were children at one time. Until people actually understand that, they'll still look at everyone behind bars as the stereotypical convict, like we're no good and we don't deserve to be rehabilitated."
Another contributor, 57-year-old Stanley "Spoon" Jackson (no relation to Nathen),is serving life without parole for a murder conviction in the late 1970s. Before his transfer to New Folsom, he caught the attention of a poetry teacher at San Quentin State Prison, who helped him get published. He eventually became an award-winning poet, author, and playwright. He played Pozzo in a prison production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and was featured in "At Night I Fly," a 2011 film that won Sweden's prestigious Guldbagge Award for the year's best documentary. Writing is "my niche, my bliss, my life," Jackson says. (He's now at yet another facility.) "It allows a huge part of me to be free, despite these bars."
Boekbinder recently asked another prisoner, 30-year-old Gregory Gadlin, who wrote a song called "Monster," how he felt about having her sing his words, despite her being from a different background. "I feel good about it, being able to give it to different audiences, in a different light, with your way of delivering it," he said in the recorded phone call. Gadlin was released two years ago, but convicted of another crime—he's now in a county jail, pending trial, and in the process of writing a new song, "Badd," which takes the perspective of two women. "I'm so into music," he told Boekbinder. "It doesn't matter to me who it's coming from, as long as the person, you, is giving it your all, being real about it, sincere."
Proceeds from the Prison Music Project, Boekbinder says, will be donated to nonprofits involved with prison arts and re-entry programs. But she's still trying to raise money to produce the album. It's been a slow process. She's aiming for a release date within two years, though. Filmmaker Alix Angelis is also on board, with the hope of turning the effort into a documentary.
One of the prisoners, Boekbinder told me, is set to be released next month after 13 years inside. She plans to meet him in Los Angeles and hook him up with a local gang-intervention group. He told her he wants to help forge a peace deal between the Bloods and Crips. (He's a Blood). "But that's a whole other story."