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Sunday Pleasures and Must Reads – UPDATED

September 30th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


GOT YANKED OFF LINE for reasons that remain mysterious. Ghosts in the machine. So I’ve deleted the West LA Book fair part of the post as, sadly, it’s too late for that, and have replaced it with a TRUE must read flagged by WLA poster, “LA Resident.”



Feel you’re not earning quite enough
as a teacher/writer/registered nurse/university professor? Drop whatever you’re doing and apply for a job at the DWP. The first two paragraphs of this well-researched Daily News story make clear the reasons:

As the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power seeks a hefty taxpayer rate hike, a Daily News review of salary data shows the average utility worker makes $76,949 a year – or nearly 20 percent more than the average civilian city worker.

More than 1,140 of the utility’s employees – or about 13 percent – take home more than $100,000 a year. And General Manager Ron Deaton, who is on medical leave, rakes in $344,624 a year – making him the city’s highest- paid worker.

But while the article is good, the Daily News has gone one better and provided a searchable database that allows you to look up the salary of every single DWP worker—by name or by job.

OKay, I’ll bite. I just randomly looked up “Assistant Communications Cable Worker.” Salary: $73,414.08

(Newsflash, dudes, if any of you owe back child support and have been pleading poorhouse, you’re SOL now!)

But these guys (cable wranglers seem to be guys) are only assistants, so out of curiosity I tried “Air Conditioner Mechanic.” Alright! Salary, a healthy: $82,058.40

Hmmm. What might be further up the food chain? Maybe Assistant Director Information Systems?
Yep, jackpot! There are two of them:


Hey, what’s this? Street Tree Superintendent? Wonder what he or she makes? And what the hell does a Street Tree Superintendent do anyway? In any case, here’s what they’re paid (and again there are two):


Then, just for the heck of it, I tried Executive Assistant to the General Manager, which is still further up the food chain, but nonetheless an assistant, when you get right down to it. In any case, at the DWP there are eight such people. Here they are together with their salaries:


Amazing. (And not in a good way.)



The New York Times’ A.O. Scott has a nice, up-close-and-personal interview/encounter with Bruce Springsteen that’s fun to read for the Boss-o-philes among us (and maybe even for you nonbelievers). The occasion is a new Springsteen album that is the first with the full E Street band to be released since the post-9/11 “The Rising.”

So why is Bruce’s new album a social issue? Because of the lyric content silly! Springsteen is not a happy camper about some of the things he sees going on in these United States right. He has written about what he perceives on this CD. Some of the songs are plain old, E-Street rockers. But some have a lot more going on, much of it subtly referencing issue like the war in Iraq. For example, below are the lyrics to “Gypsy Biker,” a snapshot of life, riddled with private grief and loss.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Life in general, literature, social justice | 10 Comments »

Light Posting….

September 29th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon

This weekend there will be light posting only as I’m running off to be on some kind of new media-related panel at USC Annenberg (I’d tell you more about it, but I’m not really sure myself), and on to other writing-related events after that.

But back in force by Monday A.M. at latest. And sooner if news dictates.

Posted in Life in general | 6 Comments »

Charlie Beck’s Enlightened Gang War

September 28th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


Los Angeles has had a big drop in murders this year.
LAPD Chief Bill Bratton says that if the numbers continue to hold, 2007 will end with the lowest number of homicides in 37 years.

Bratton believes some of that change has to do with smarter and more targeted policing. But, with the numbers diving the most dramatically in certain South LA neighborhoods—nearly 50 percent in Watts—the change may have more to do with a new, enlightened approach to gang policing recently embraced by the head of LAPD’s South Bureau, Deputy Chief Charlie Beck.

Today, the LA Times has a good story about the homicide decline, and the strategy that Beck has been using:

….In its most radical shift, the LAPD is putting aside decades of suspicion and turning for help to gang intervention workers, many of whom were gang members.

“For the first time, we’re requiring captains
to call the gang interventionists, give them the word on the shooting and get out there and avert another homicide,” Deputy Police Chief Charlie Beck said.

We are pretty good at solving homicides, but we are trying to get better at preventing the next homicide.”

When I saw Beck a few weeks ago, he talked in more detail about some of his thoughts on gang policing.

“Gang homicides are the hardest to solve
,” he said, “and they’re the kind of homicides that generate future homicides—next week, or next year. We’d been doing a pretty good job on the enforcement piece. But that hadn’t gotten us the kind of results that we’d like. So we started working with some of the hard core intervention people in an effort to prevent the next homicide.”

Now, Beck says, with every homicide, South LA officers contact the gang interventionists immediately. “We’ve been doing this for almost a year now, and we’ve been getting results.”

But the LAPD is a department that has spent the last quarter century using an us-versus-them philosophy of gang enforcement, and changing that mind set has not been all that easy, says Beck. His biggest problem has been getting his officers to work amicably with the gang intervention people.

“Intervention and enforcement
are by nature mistrustful of each other,” he says. “I was a CRASH officer 25 years ago, and I thought of intervention as a way of hiding people that I needed to put in prison. But,” he laughs, “I’ve gotten a little older and wiser.”

So Beck resorted to therapy-like exercises between officers and gang intervention workers. “We had them do roll playing together and that sort of thing. And every time we get a group together, I tell them that they have much more in common with each other than they think. But it isn’t always an easy sell,” he says.

Still, something seems to be working. Homicides in South Bureau over all are down 20 percent, and in Watt’s more than 40. What is more, South LA community members who, for decades, have been suspicious of police are starting to talk to officers, even at times giving them tips.

“Recently we had a homicide in Nickerson Gardens
where it was guaranteed that there’d be a retaliation,” he says. “But through gang intervention, we were able to buy some time, and we made an arrest, in part due to information we got from the community.”

But, Beck is realistic. “One year of success is nice to talk about, but it doesn’t prove anything.”

Yet he admits he’s pleased with the progress. “Locking people up is a solution,” said Beck. “But it certainly hasn’t been the solution.”

Posted in Gangs, LAPD | 21 Comments »


September 28th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


Here’s a passel of updates
while I work on work on another deadline. Included is the latest on the Dream Act, creepy quotes from the Jena District Attorney, and more.


On Wednesday, Dick Durbin faced the fact that he was
not able to get enough Republican support to keep the Dream Act alive as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill, and so Harry Reid told him to spike it. Then, on the Senate floor, Reid professed undying love for the Dream Act and said he’d “move the measure forward by Nov. 16.”

Mary Ann Zehr of Education Week, has good info on a few of the nuances of the bill including this:

While for years the DREAM Act contained a provision clarifying that states could provide in-state college tuition rates for undocumented students who were eligible to benefit from the act, that provision was dropped in the version of the act filed in the U.S. Senate last week



The good news out of Jena yesterday was that Mychal Bell’s, the main kid of the so-called Jena six, was released on $45,000 bail, after the DA on the case announced that he won’t fight the recent appellate court ruling demanding that Bell’s case be transferred to juvenile court.

The fact that District Attorney Reed Walters won’t push for adult charges means that Bell, who had faced a maximum of 15 years in prison on his aggravated second-degree battery conviction last month, instead can only be held in juvenile lock-up until he turns 21 if he is convicted in juvenile court.

The creepy quote came earlier in the week when the ever-chatty DA Walters had a lot more to say about various Jena-related issues, according to the Chicago Tribune:

Meanwhile, the Louisiana district attorney whose prosecution of the Jena 6 defendants sparked the civil rights protest declared that only through the intervention of Jesus Christ was Jena spared from a “disaster” last week when more than 20,000 African American demonstrators marched peacefully through the town.

“I firmly believe that
had it not been for the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ last Thursday, a disaster would have happened,” LaSalle Parish District Atty. Reed Walters told a nationally televised press conference.

Okie dokie, Reed, honey. We surely are grateful that Jesus saw fit to keep those rowdy dark-skinned people in line.

Good gravy.

For the rest click here
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Posted in Civil Rights, Courts, crime and punishment, Death Penalty, immigration, Supreme Court | 8 Comments »

The Great Prison Book Purge – UPDATED

September 27th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


Earlier this month it came to light
that, since June of this year, US Federal prison authorities had been quietly directing chaplains nationwide to get rid of thousands of the religious books that prisoners had been reading. Everything that wasn’t on a brand new list of “approved” religious books was ordered tossed out by the Bureau of Prisons.

Here’s how the Bureau’s report explained it: “The presence of extremist chaplains
, contractors or volunteers in the BOP’s correctional facilities can pose a threat to institutional security and could implicate national security if inmates are encouraged to commit terrorist acts against the United States.”

(Extremist chaplains???)

According to today’s New New York Times it appears that, after civil libertarians
, religious groups and members of congress collectively flipped out, the BOP relented a little.

But, first, to give you a fuller picture of the idiocy of this book purging plan, here’s a bit of backstory from an earlier NY Times article about the banning:

The chaplains were directed by the Bureau of Prisons
to clear the shelves of any books, tapes, CDs and videos that are not on a list of approved resources. In some prisons, the chaplains have recently dismantled libraries that had thousands of texts collected over decades, bought by the prisons, or donated by churches and religious groups.

The BOP’s stated purpose was to get rid of books that might incite to violence. Yet, instead of simply removing the few objectionable volumes, Federal prison officials, in their infinite wisdom, began making lists of “acceptable” books, which arbitrarily left thousands of important and classic volumes out of the new catalog of those approved.

“It’s swatting a fly with a sledgehammer,” said Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian group. “There’s no need to get rid of literally hundreds of thousands of books that are fine simply because you have a problem with an isolated book or piece of literature that presents extremism.”

Jewish inmates in some prisons said that even the Torah was removed.

(Prison chaplains were particularly irritated because they say they already routinely got rid of any books that were too extreme.)

This week, although prison officials agreed to put the books back for the time being, they have said they aren’t abandoning the strategy. (sigh.)



Two New York prisoners
filed a lawsuit last month against the what the BOP has (absurdly) named “The Chapel Library Project.”

Among the books banned at their prison were “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, and “The Purpose-Driven Life” by the Rev. Rick Warren, the lawsuit said.

But even more sadly
predictable is this (reported by the AP):

The Muslim portion of the chapel library
has been reduced to the Quran and two other titles after the removal of prayer books, prayer guides and the Hadith, the most important source for Muslim practice and faith after the Quran, the lawsuit says.

Well, in fairness, although that might have been true for one New York prison, the nationwide list for Islam is a little longer that that. (You can take a look for yourself here.)

But, the problem with the Islamic list can be easily illustrated by its treatment of the 13th century Sufi poet, Jalal Al-Din Rumi. There is, indeed, one Rumi volume on the list, the Colman Barks translated, “Essential Rumi.” And there is also a book and film about Rumi. But that’s it. For instance, in a truly bizarre omission, there is no allowed Rumi book published in the original Persian.

Even on my own home book shelves, I have four books of Rumi’s poetry. According to the Bureau of Prisons, three of those ultra dangerous volumes would be banned—a good thing, of course, since they include obviously anarchic sentiments like these:

Find the real world, give it endlessly away.
Grow rich, fling gold to all who ask.
Live at the empty heart of Paradox.
I’ll dance there with you, cheek to cheek.

– Rumi

Posted in Civil Liberties, Freedom of Information, prison, prison policy | 32 Comments »

LA Homeboys – Then & Now

September 26th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


Last night I was going through scores of old snapshots
for possible use in a new edition of my gang book, G-Dog and the Homeboys. The photos were all taken around fifteen years ago during the time I was researching the book, and they brought back a torrent of memories. All of the young men and women were in their teens or early 20′s when the camera caught them. Now they’re in their 30′s. (If they’re alive, that is.) Some have since gone to prison. Yet a lot have managed to steer clear of danger and have made good lives for themselves.

Just for the heck of it, I figured I’d post a tiny sampling of the photos here, together with notes about what those photographed are doing now.

Street name, Cartoon. Wild, funny, with a cyclone of a temper in his youth. Now he’s a working man and enthusiastic father who, last time I saw him, was horrified to find himself dealing with a dating daughter.

Green, at the center, was at a young homeboy’s funeral in this photo. An unlikely gang leader who tested well into the gifted range before he dropped out of school, he was the king of fast and funny street patter. I always felt if Green could just make it to adulthood without something horrible happening, he’d be okay. And he is okay. Better than okay. Once he started working, there was no stopping him. He is now a husband, a dad—and an associate producer on a long-running, very popular network TV series, the name of which you would assuredly know. Eventually he wants to direct. (He’s also in the midst of writing his own feature script. Naturally. )

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Posted in Gangs, Life in general | 24 Comments »

The Governator Vs. the Union

September 25th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


In the running of California’s prisons,
one would assume that the warden is pretty much the boss of the place. Not so. For instance, the warden doesn’t have the power to select which guards should be assigned to what tasks inside the facility—even critical jobs like checking for contraband, working gang issues, or the transportation of prisoners. Nor does he (or she) decide how many guards should staff various work details, or when inmates are allowed to go to outside hospitals.

Incredibly, all those decisions—and a whole lot more—are left up to the prison guards’ union.

Last week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger drew a line in the sand in an effort to change all that—or at least some of it.

Here’s a bit of back story:
In a 2001 contract, then-Governor Gray Davis handed over much of the running over California prisons to the CCPOA—the California Correctional Peace Officers Association—AKA, the union. When Schwarzenegger first was elected to office, he swore he’d stand up to the union leadership and the millions of dollars the CCPOA pours into strategically-placed politicians’ campaign coffers. But guards’ union officials easily outplayed the governor in the game of political poker. And, when the smoke cleared in the renegotiation of the guards’ contract—Schwarzenegger had given the union virtually everything it wanted.

This contract go-round, however, the governor is determined to wrench some of the power back into the hands of state prison officials, according to today’s LA Times. How successful he’ll be remains to be seen.

I’m not particularly a fan of Arnold’s
but, on criminal justice issues, philosophically at least, he’s far more sensible and rehabilitation-minded than either Gray Davis or Gray’s law-n’-order predecessor, Pete Wilson. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know it by Arnold’s actions, which have been largely held hostage by the union.

Schwarzenegger’s inability to stand up to the CCPOA has come at a high cost. Here’s how the Times explains it:

On his watch, federal courts have appointed a receiver to oversee prison healthcare and are weighing whether to intervene again with an inmate cap — or even a possible prisoner release — to relieve pressure on the teeming lockups. Hundreds of inmates die each year, and in many cases there have been allegations of abuse or neglect.

The union is a major roadblock
for Schwarzenegger and his aides as they attempt to surmount the crisis, corrections officials say.

“I need some of my management rights back
,” James Tilton, secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in an interview. “I’ve said, ‘I’m responsible for running the department.’ My goals are to make sure we make decisions as necessary, and that’s what we intend to do.”

Now that his back is really against a wall with the Feds, Arnold has finally gathered the courage to issue take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to the union.

This has meant that the already lengthy contract fight, has become a full-on knock-down-drag-out this past week. The CCOPA has already slammed back at Schwarzenegger, filing a slew of grievances against the state, a tool that the guards have used before to intimidate wardens and state officials. “Don’t get punked,” says the opening pager of the union’s website. “The state’s ‘deal’ is a screw job.”

But before you shed any crocodile tears for the poor abused union,
keep in mind that Schwarzenegger’s proposed a “last, best and final offer” includes a very hefty pay raise, reports the Sacramento Bee.

It’s not as if Schwarzenegger is getting stingy: He offered the officers 5 percent annual raises for three years, plus benefit boosts that would mean a total increase of 20 percent over the life of the contract.

A fully trained beginning officer who now makes about $60,600 a year would be getting $70,221, plus enhancements for physical fitness, language fluency and working in hard-to-fill jobs. A veteran officer would top out with a base salary of more than $85,000 a year.

And that’s before you get to overtime
and other bonus payments that can blow guards’ salaries up into six figures. (Thirty-four prison employees earned more than $100,000 in overtime alone last year, and hundreds more earned than $100,000 in combined salary and overtime, said Seth Unger, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, according to the San Diego Union.)

In reaction to Arnold’s offer
, CCPOA President Mike Jimenez said the state could “shove it.”

There will assuredly be more drama to come.
I don’t know that I’m ready to bet the ranch on Arnold just yet. But I’m certainly rooting for him.

Posted in prison policy, State government, unions | 9 Comments »

The Judge…and the Student…

September 24th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


As we think about what kind of Attorney General Judge Mukasey
might make, it is worth reading today’s troubling New York Times story, the heart of which has to do with a student from San Diego, California, who was held in detention as a possible federal witness and it, appears, beaten, before being cleared of perjury five years later. (He has recently graduated with honors from San Diego State University). I’m running off for the day, so am not commenting further than simply to post the piece, but the situation speaks for itself:

The 21-year-old Jordanian immigrant was in shackles when he was brought into the courtroom of Judge Michael B. Mukasey in Federal District Court in Manhattan.

It was Oct. 2, 2001, and the prisoner, Osama Awadallah, then a college student in San Diego with no criminal record, was one of dozens of Arab men detained around the country in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks as potential witnesses in the terrorism investigation.

Before the hearing, Mr. Awadallah told his lawyer that he had been beaten in the federal detention center in Manhattan, producing bruises that were hidden beneath his orange prison jumpsuit. But when his lawyer told this to Judge Mukasey, the judge seemed little concerned.

Here’s the rest of the story.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Courts, criminal justice, National politics | 6 Comments »

LA’s New (Cough) Schools (Cough, Cough)

September 24th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


Just when I was starting to feel a teensy, weensy bit optimistic
that the LAUSD board had finally knocked some sense into itself, I open the LA Times this morning and read this:

Despite a state law that seeks to prevent schools from being built near freeways and mounting evidence that road pollutants harm children’s lungs, the Los Angeles Unified School District is in the process of adding seven new schools to the more than 70 already located close to highways.

Okay, let me get this straight.
A state law passed in 2003 specifically prohibits public school districts from building campuses within 500 feet of a freeway “unless the district can mitigate the pollution or determines that space limitations are so severe that there are no other options.” The district already has 70 such campuses. So the board’s reaction is…..

To build more of them?

According to the Times, the reason LAUSD officials have decided to build additional schools in unhealthy locations is because…. the district’s “choices have become more and more limited.”

Oh, well, gee, then it’s perfectly okay. By the way, does this mean that those same officials will be willing to send their own kids (or grandkids) to one of these freeway-close campuses?

Right. I didn’t think so.

It could be worse, I guess. I mean what’s a little freeway pollution compared to building a school on a site loaded with toxic contaminates (cough-Belmont-cough). But, when multiple new studies show that kids going to schools near major thoroughfares are more likely to suffer from asthma and/or bronchitis, and with childhood asthma already alarmingly on the rise according to the CDC, particularly among inner city kids, then pushing that envelope still further doesn’t seem all that….you know…. smart.

Or kid friendly.

The deeper you read into the article, the more your want to start banging your head against the nearest hard surface.

For instance, when Angelo Bellomo, the head of district’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety, analyzed the two newest freeway-close schools in the works, he found “….both suffered from significant pollution and recommended three steps to mitigate damaging effects: air filtering, reduced outdoor activity when air quality is particularly bad and a 200-foot buffer from the freeway.”

In other words, kids at these schools will experience
few adverse health effects as long as they remain inside the school’s air-filtered classrooms, never go outside for recess, or play any kind of outdoor sports. Heck. Sure. That works!

He said that if the school board wants to build on the edge of a freeway anyway, it will have to find that the benefits outweigh the health risks.

“It would be very difficult to justify such a finding,”
Bellomo said. “We are trying to do a better job dissuading the real estate agents from even looking at properties that are close.”

Great. No wonder we have gang problems on our campuses. The LAUSD folks can’t even get their real estate agents to behave.

Anyway, read the article. Tell me what you think.

Posted in Education, environment, LAUSD | 35 Comments »

Shocking Children

September 22nd, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


This month’s Mother Jones Magazine (Sept/Oct) features a cover story by Jennifer Gonnerman
about the Judge Rotenberg Center, a controversial school in Boston for very troubled and autistic kids that, for $200 grand of public money, per child, uses so-called aversive therapy in the form of electric shocks delivered to the skin, to control difficult-to-handle kids that most schools don’t want to take. The shock gizmos are sometimes attached to the kid in the form of a back pack, as with the boy above. Sometimes the things are attached to legs, or arms, or multiple places on the body. “That way the kids have more trouble getting the devices off,” explained a staff member.

I don’t know Gonnerman personally
, but I’m very familiar with her work. She is generally known as a fine and very solid reporter. Her wonderful book, Life on the Outside, was shortlisted for the National Book Award. I like her writing for a lot of reasons—one of them being because she’s a Crusader Rabbit type, like me. I also have found her to be smart, thorough and fair minded. In other words, I’ve never sensed her shaving the dice as she digs for the facts.

I bring this up because, with her new “School of Shock” article,
she has unleashed a storm of criticism from the school’s founder, Mathew Israel, who—in addition to his own op ed printed here—has contacted various other news outlets, NPR included, in an effort to discredit Gonnerman and her report.

Gonnerman tried the shocks herself
and describes them as brief but very, very painful (think hoard of very pissed off wasps stinging you one after the other, all in the same place). The shocks are used, according the former staff members and by Gonnerman’s own observation, as a routine tool of discipline, but not just to control dangerous and self-destructive behavior. It seems children were shocked if they nagged, or swore, or didn’t sit when they were supposed to sit. An autistic student stood up and politely asked to go to the bathroom….and was shocked.

Every inch of the school is under surveillance—which is not necessarily a bad thing. Yet, even the watchers are themselves watched on camera. Former staff complain of an oppressive, almost paranoid environment, where they were asked to sign very agressive confidentiality agreements that are binding even after they leave the school’s employment. The agreements do not just pertain to the students—whose privacy must certainly be protected, certainly—but also to the methods used at the school. Since the school is operating with public money, one wonders why the secrecy.

Former staff say they were also encouraged to rat each other out, and told never to engage in personal conversations either with students or each other. All this may be perfectly fine and appropriate as a management strategy for staff dealing with unruly children…..but it doesn’t sound fine.


And then there’s the cost:

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Posted in Civil Liberties, Education, Public Health | 13 Comments »

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