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G-Dog Movie Opens in Selected Theaters, April 22

April 19th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon

This documentary about Father Greg Boyle and his Homeboy Industries, directed by Academy Award winner, Frieda Mock,
is opening in theaters next week.

Then it will shortly be available for purchase or download, but it’s one of those films that it’s satisfying to see in the theater, as a shared experience.

To be honest, if you live in this city, you should see this movie. If you’re a youth worker or a teacher, or a member of law enforcement, a prosecutor, a public defender, or a judge, you should definitely see this movie.

If you just plain want to feel more hopeful about the race to which we all claim membership, you should see this movie.

Here’s where you can see G-Dog thus far.

Arizona Phoenix/Scottsdale – Harkins Shea-Scottsdale

California Encino – Laemmle Town Center
Los Angeles – Laemmle Claremont
Los Angeles – Laemmle Monica*
Los Angeles – Laemmle NoHo
Palm Desert – Cinémas Palme d’Or
Pasadena – Laemmle Playhouse
San Diego – Media Arts Center

Connecticut Hartford – Cinema City at the Palace

New Haven – Criterion Cinemas @ Movieland

Montana Helena – Myrna Loy Center

New York Manhattan – Cinema Village
Ithaca – Cinemapolis
Ohio Cleveland – Cedar Lee
Columbus – Gateway Film Center

Pennsylvania Pittsburgh – Southside Works

Texas Austin – Alamo Drafthouse Village
Austin – Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane
San Antonio – Alamo Drafthouse Park North

Virginia Richmond – Criterion Cinemas @ Movieland

NOTE: Father Greg Boyle will participate in a Q&A following the 7:30 PM premiere screening on Thursday, April 25 at Laemmle Santa Monica.

Posted in American voices, art and culture, Gangs, Homeboy Industries | No Comments »

BOOK LOVERS ALERT: Come to the West Hollywood Book Fair Sunday!

September 28th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

It used to be that the LA Times Festival of Books was the only game in town
, but in the 11 years since it started, the West Hollywood Book Fair has become its own major So Cal literary event attracting big crowds and featuring a long and excellent list of authors and poets.

This year, I’ll be moderating a panel called Women in Crime at 11:45 am until 12:45. My stellar panelist are April Smith, AGS Johnson and Amelia Gray, all three are incredibly talented women, each with very different approaches to crime writing.

And then at 4 pm, I’ll be interviewing the remarkable Luis Rodriguez, author of the LA classic, Always Running, and most recently, the moving sequel It Calls You Back-—among his works.

But mine are only two out of a list of great panels.

Here’s the full schedule.

Check it out. There are many treats that await all book lovers, I promise you.

11th Annual West Hollywood Book Fair
Sunday, September 30, 2012
10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
West Hollywood Library and West Hollywood Park
625 North San Vicente Boulevard.

Photo from Good Gay LA

Posted in American voices, art and culture, arts, writers and writing | No Comments »

Sheriff Baca’s Racked Up Absences from LA During Jails Scandal, Flawed Civilian Oversight of LASD, Automatic Arrest-Tracking Software…and More

September 25th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


As we look toward the Jails Commission report Friday, LA Weekly calls our attention to data showing that Sheriff Lee Baca was absent from the county for over a month between January and July at the height of LASD’s expanding scandal. The information came to light as a result of a records request by eagle-eye county-watcher Eric Preven.

LA Weekly’s Simone Wilson has the story. Here’s a clip:

Instead of providing answers to dozens of black-and-blue L.A. County jail inmates and the ACLU, or addressing his deputies’ brutal, gang-like policing tactics…

… Baca apparently split town as much as his travel budget would allow, making himself into some kind of international ambassador for feel-good cop philosophies like “public trust policing” and “education-based incarceration.” (Although we’re really not sure how anyone takes him seriously on those issues, considering that the level of mistrust between his department and the Los Angeles public is at an all-time high.)

Baca’s travel record shows that he took a total of 18 trips between January and July, spending thousands of taxpayer dollars on flights and hotel rooms so that he could sprinkle his L.A. Sheriff’s wisdoms all across the globe.

Here, his five strangest/silliest appearances in 2012 so far:

Feb. 11 in Washington, D.C.: Meeting with Foreign Minister of Turkey
April 13-14 in Seattle, Washington: The Pacific Institute Spirit Board Meeting
April 21-23 in Las Vegas, Nevada: Baker to Vegas Challenge Cup Relay
May 18-22 in Doha, Qatar: Doha Forum
June 22 in Washington, D.C.: Keynote Speaker at American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Conference


The LA Times reports flaws in civilian oversight of the sheriff’s dept. Jack Leonard and Robert Faturechi have the story. Here’s how it opens:

Revelations of brutality by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies and cover-ups inside the jails have exposed significant shortcomings in the department’s civilian watchdog system, which was created to prevent such misconduct.

The watchdogs have come under scrutiny from county supervisors and investigators for a commission examining jail abuse. The investigators found that neither of the two main civilian monitors regularly analyzed data that tracks violent encounters between deputies and inmates or examined how the department handled inmate complaints.


Pennsylvania reporter Andrew McGill developed an arrest-tracking tool called Philly Rap Sheet. “It’s a small entry in the growing tradition of data-journalism innovation on the cops-and-courts beat — from to EveryBlock to Crime L.A. and many more,” writes Adrienne LaFrance of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab. This may be a good thing to consider for compiling statistics in other parts of the nation. While this technology is pulling data from public records that anyone can access, there seem to be some questions of ethics in regard to publishing—via mass email alerts—the names of those who later get their charges dropped or their records expunged.

LaFrance interviewed Andrew McGill on his arrest-tracking tool. Here’s a clip from the Q & A:

LaFrance: So what’s your vision for this thing?

McGill: I don’t know. It’s tough. I want to add historical data. So I spent a little bit of money to get data back to around 2005, which is not that far back, but at least it’s historical data. I want to backload that in. But in terms of the next step, it’s tough to say.

I want to get into a little bit more analytics. I think it’d be nice to add more realms of information to cross reference. I might look again at some things and see if I can pull some more data out of the existing sheets. Geography-wise, I do have what police district arrests are in, and I haven’t done a lot with that. So I want to try to start doing that, and maybe have a newsletter. Right now, I just have alerts.

LaFrance: And as a reporter, those are so helpful, I’m sure. You can be tracking all the murders.

McGill: That’s what I have set up for my alert. Unfortunately, it also pulls in attempted murder and stuff like that. I want to be able to get a summation newsletter out that you sign up for and say, “Okay, you’re in this neighborhood, and these crimes happened in your vicinity, and this is how it compared to last year,” and you would get this once a month or something. I don’t want to inundate people, but I think there’s room for a little more statistics pushing.


By the way, this Saturday is Smithsonian’s “Museum Day Live!”, a day of free museum entry across the nation. Of course, there are lots of museums and art exhibits you can visit for free all year long (like the California Science Center’s permanent exhibits and the Getty), but for those participating museums you can’t visit any time, you can download two free tickets per person here. Beware: this weekend is Carmageddon Part 2, so take that into consideration and plan accordingly.

Posted in art and culture, journalism, LASD, Sheriff Lee Baca | 18 Comments »

Life-Skills Programs Combat Juvie Crime, Baca’s Legal Issues, and “Breaking Bad”

July 16th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


Enrolling disadvantaged teens in life-skills programs may bring down juvenile arrests for violent crime by as much as 44%, according to a report released Friday by the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

The Crime Report has the story. Here’s a clip:

Researchers analyzed the impact of enrolling 2,740 disadvantaged seventh through 10th grade boys in Becoming A Man (BAM)—Sports Edition, a Chicago program which focuses on developing cognitive skills related to emotional regulation and other social behaviors. In addition to the reduction in violent-crime arrests, the study found an increase in schooling outcomes that could translate to a 10 to 23 percent increase in graduation rates among participants.

The report itself is worth reading. Here’s a clip:

Our findings show that program participation significantly increased school engagement and performance by 0.14 standard deviations during the program year and by 0.19 standard deviations in the follow-up year, impacts that imply future graduation rate increases of about 10 to 23 percent of the control group’s graduation rate. Program participation also reduced violent crime arrests by 44 percent (8 fewer arrests per 100 participants) and arrests in the ‘other’ (miscellaneous) category, which includes vandalism and weapons crime, by 36 percent (11.5 fewer arrests per 100 participants) during the program year. These findings are particularly noteworthy given the challenging settings in which the intervention took place. (In fact, our study is closer to what evaluation researchers would call an effectiveness trial of how a program would operate at scale than it is to the sort of smaller-scale efficacy trials carried out under ideal conditions by program developers and researchers.) The positive program effects provide the most rigorous, large-scale evidence to date that a social-cognitive skill intervention can improve both schooling and delinquency outcomes for disadvantaged youth.


The San Francisco Chronicle ran a long story over the weekend about LA County Sheriff Lee Baca’s expanding list of serious legal challenges, including the ACLU’s most recent lawsuits against the department (that WitnessLA reported here and here), the issues raised at the jails commission hearings, the 200 newly recalled department badges that had been passed out unwisely to civilians—and a lot more.

SF Gate’s Greg Risling has the detailed story. Here’s a clip:

“We could call for his resignation daily, but it’s not going to do any good,” said Peter Eliasberg, the ACLU Southern California legal director, who called for Baca to step down late last year. “If he stays on, he’s got to fix these problems. There are some glimmers of hope, but it’s far from what we’d like to see.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, a constant critic of the sheriff and a court-appointed monitor of jail conditions, sued Tuesday, alleging that inmates charged with assaulting deputies have been unable to get evidence that could help exonerate them.

At the core of the problems facing the department is how its deputies treat some of the estimated 15,000 inmates in county jails. The ACLU has filed another lawsuit accusing Baca and some other department officials of condoning violence against inmates.

Last year the civil rights group released a report that documented more than 70 cases of alleged abuse and other misconduct by deputies, many of which occurred at Men’s Central Jail. The FBI has launched its own investigation and asked for internal department records dealing with inmate abuse.

On July 6, Capt. Michael Bornman testified before a county commission looking into deputy abuse in the jails that the former head of the jail, Capt. Daniel Cruz, resisted efforts to investigate employees who were accused of excessive force. Bornman described a culture of brutality where Cruz allegedly joked about not hitting inmates in their face so marks wouldn’t be visible. Cruz has denied the accusations.

However, Bornman said his boss has been addressing and correcting the problems in the jails.

Baca, 70, who has said he’s to blame for deputy misconduct against inmates and wasn’t available for comment Friday, pointed out in a letter to the Los Angeles Times that some of the media coverage has been unfair.

“Criticism is necessary; so are all the facts,” Baca wrote to the paper’s editor on Friday regarding Bornman’s testimony. “I simply ask you to present both.”

You can read the rest of Baca’s letter to the LA Times here.


AMC’s “Breaking Bad”, whose fifth (and final) season premiered Sunday, is actually a pretty accurate depiction of the meth business–from the drug production to the Mexican cartels.

The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe has the story. Here’s a clip:

…“Breaking Bad” is a chamber piece, relying on the shifting alliances and betrayals of the same handful of players. The show presents a challenge, for Gilligan and his writers, to configure and reconfigure, like playing an endless game of Scrabble using only the same eight letters.

So it’s somewhat surprising that in depicting the mechanics of the meth business, “Breaking Bad” is so notably realistic. I spent the past six months interviewing drug traffickers and D.E.A. agents for an article about the business side of a Mexican drug cartel, and, having been an ardent fan of “Breaking Bad,” I was startled by how much the show gets right. On one level, the show is a parable about the impossibility of running a mom-and-pop business in a world of rapacious multinational conglomerates. In this sense, it shares a basic template with Oliver Stone’s lurid “Savages”—or, for that matter, with “You’ve Got Mail.” The difference in the case of Walter White, the show’s protagonist, is that Pop ends up waging bloody war on the conglomerate. And winning.

Photo by WitnessLA

Posted in ACLU, art and culture, criminal justice, LA County Jail, LASD, media, prison policy, Sheriff Lee Baca | 2 Comments »

“Walstock” Protest Saturday, Gov. Brown Signs CDCR Blueprint Plan…and More

June 29th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


Saturday’s protest against Chinatown’s new planned Walmart, expected to draw 20,000, has some surprising musical advocates. Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) and Ben Harper are said to perform at what LA Weekly is now referring to as “Walstock.”

LA Weekly’s Dennis Romero has the story. Here’s how it opens:

Walmart has been bracing itself for what union organizers are calling the largest ever protest against the big-box chain, scheduled this weekend. The store even hosted a traditional Chinese lion dance to ward off bad luck (really). But can Walmart really prepare for the rage against its non-union machine that is … Tom Morello?

As part of Saturday’s massive protest against the Chinatown Walmart (it’s actually planned as a little baby Walmart and not a fullsized, fill-your-SUV-with-crap-you-don’t-need Walmart)…

…labor leaders say Morello is going to perform. Ben Harper will be there with his blend of mellow anti-capitalism as well. And heck, Steve Earle says he’d be there if he wasn’t working in the studio in Nashville.


Gov. Jerry Brown signed a huge corrections reform plan, called Blueprint, into the California budget Thursday. CDCR Press Secretery Jeffrey Callison told WitnessLA that the drop in prison overcrowding has made room in the budget to increase rehabilitation programs. (We’ll be tracking this to make sure it happens.) Blueprint also calls for the closure of the California Rehabilitation Center–an old, cost-ineffective facility that was once a resort for 1920′s-30′s biggest Hollywood names. Callison said that the CDCR will move those beds at the CRC into “more modern cost-effective facilities.”

You can read the press release on the CDCR’s blog. Here’s how it opens:

Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. on Wednesday signed into law an historic reform of California’s penal system. Known as the blueprint, the plan will cut billions in spending, comply with multiple federal court orders for inmate medical, mental health and dental care, and significantly improve the operation of California’s prison system. The Governor’s approval of the blueprint follows its release by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in April and its approval by the State Legislature yesterday.

The multi-year plan for CDCR will cut billions in spending, enable the State to comply with multiple federal court orders concerning inmate health care, and significantly improve the operation of California’s prison system.

“We appreciate the confidence of the Legislature in our plan for a safer and more efficient correctional system,” said CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate. “The passage of our blueprint will show the federal courts that California is serious about ending the long-standing lawsuits overseeing much of our operations.”


Social justice photographer Pete Brook’s “Cruel and Unusual” exhibit–displayed in shipping containers in Brooklyn–has brought together photos depicting juvenile and adult incarceration across the nation.

Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s Daryl Kahn has the story. Here’s a clip:

The geo-physicist turned documentary photographer had never been behind the walls of the juvenile detention facilities that dot the outskirts of Los Angeles along the spine of Interstate 5 in the Central Valley, but the following morning he was going to take his camera, walk in, and take pictures of killers and gangsters.

“I expected the worst,” he said. “The worst of the worst; The ones glaring at you in those orange jumpsuits. You see how they’re portrayed. I expected them to be standoffish, imminently violent, unstable. Ready to do anything.”

What he encountered subverted his anxious expectations. He found a teenager, a piano prodigy before he was tried as an adult and put behind bars. The young inmate was tinkering with an electric piano, and in the grey gloom of the facility echoed the same funereal, haunting sonata he heard in the comfort of his son’s nursery the evening before. The inmate played Beethoven with precision and feeling.

“What I met weren’t monsters,” Oshagan, now 47, said. “They were normal kids. I knew the system wasn’t working — I didn’t know exactly how bad it was until I started talking to these kids and seeing what happens to them.”

The pictures Oshagan took that day and for years after from 2001 to 2005, are part of a exhibition called “Cruel and Unusual” on display inside a massive 40-foot long shipping container stacked on the uplands of Pier 3 along the Waterfront in Brooklyn. The show features a collection of pictures by photographers from across the country chronicling life behind bars, some of which were gathered by co-curator Pete Brook during what he calls the Prison Photography on the Road.

You can take a look at Brook’s fascinating work here.

Photo taken from Tom Morello’s Nightwatchmen site.

Posted in art and culture, California budget, CDCR, criminal justice, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), prison policy | No Comments »

In an Era of Library Cutbacks, LA County Opens a New Library—in Topanga

January 23rd, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

The prevailing mood was utter giddiness when the brand new 11,293 square foot LA County library
opened on Saturday morning in Topanga Canyon with Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and actress (and longtime Topangan) Wendie Malick the duel masters of ceremonies for the speechifying part of the festivities that also featured Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Al Martinez, and others. Then, just before the ribbon cutting, Henry Smith, a Native American canyon resident of more than 50-years duration, (and a man with a character-sculpted visage well-suited to Mt. Rushmore) gave the building its requisite blessing.

In the past, Topanga residents—in general a community of maniacal readers— had depended on a weekly bookmobile for their library urges. Either that or they found a city library, since the closest county library was in Malibu, too far away for homework forays, especially after school during rush hour.

Nevertheless, after several years of draconian cutbacks in the city’s library system (with disaster averted only when the voters passed Measure L last March), it seemed impossible that the county would actually manage to add a library, what with librarians’ hours getting whacked every time one turned around.

In truth, this new addition to the LA County system had been in the works for over a decade, and broke ground in 2008—right about the time the nation’s economy was collapsing. But once having cleared the land and dug the foundation, it seemed like a good idea to somehow struggle forward.

Still, the place was to have opened in the summer of 2009, but got bogged down with seemingly a zillion set backs. There were the expected money problems, plus the discovery of Native American artifacts on the site, and some issues with the design and….well, nothing seems to be simple in the world of public works.

Plus there’s the fact that Topangans tend to be a meddling group so they wanted to weigh in on everything. (I live in Topanga, so I can say this with affection.)

Despite the hurdles, Yaroslavsky’s office championed the project, and managed to shove it back on track during the instances it fell off. It helped that two of Zev’s field deputies, Susan Nissman and Cynthia Scott, both happen to live in the canyon and were ferociously determined to see the damned thing get built.

As the $19.6 million building neared completion—with its silver LEED certified green construction strategies and its whimsical public art pieces made by canyon artists—locals who had been grousing noisily for months about the library construction crews blocking part of the road, screwing up their work commute, now suddenly were wonderstruck that this sprawling new thing had finally managed to bloom at the canyon’s center, and that it was actually going to belong to everyone.

On Saturday morning, after the speeches had been given, the ribbon was finally cut, and the packed-to-the-rafters crowd and their kids gushed at a near run into the library building itself for the first time, all at once several hundred people became simultaneously goofy with delight, myself included.

In our digital-centric age to see so much obvious happiness over a structure devoted mostly to books, literature and reading—well, it was a very nice thing to behold.

“It’s as if the community finally has a physical heart,” one neighbor said to me, “And it’s a library, of all things! How cool is that?!”"

Very cool indeed.

Okay, now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Posted in art and culture, LA County Board of Supervisors | 8 Comments »

Party for Jim Newton’s Ike Bio Draws LA Politicos & Journos

October 17th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

A pile of journalist and editor types plus a gaggle of politicos
gathered late Sunday afternoon to hear LA Times’ columnist/editor-at-large Jim Newton talk about his new biography, Eisenhower: The White House Years. The lit party was thrown by longtime Newton friends, former LA Times reporter (now UC Irvine law and literary journalism prof) Henry Weinstein and his wife, author and former Times staffer, Laurie Becklund.

There was a big LA Times crowd—present and former—including Steve Lopez, Barry Sieigel and wife Marti Devore, Lorenza Munoz, Times legal counsel, Karlene Goller, and more (plus a few non-LA Times journos like….well…me).

The politicos who chatted and sipped wine in the name of literature included Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky,, along with former LA Mayor Richard Riordan and right-now LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Antonio came late and had another event scheduled afterward so couldn’t stay too long, said his young and smart-seeming aide. But the rest of the political types were there early, and showed no signs of restlessness by the time I left.

Newton is a very good writer in general and is deeply enamored with the process of—as Weinstein put it when he introduced him—”peeling the onion” whenever he focuses his attention on a problem, question or, as in this case, the life of a U.S. president.

I’m on a fiction kick and thus I can’t tell you how much I wasn’t interested in reading a book about a former president right now, but after Newton read from his book that was released at the beginning of this month, I suddenly became convinced that Eisenhower was precisely the guy whose life I wanted to examine, forthwith.

There are many connections that make his life relevant to the moment. For example, he was truly a consensus president, a goal which Obama repeatedly aspires to achieve, but rarely reaches, even briefly. As commander-in-chief, Ike faced a list of impressively huge temptations to take Americans into battle. But, unlike our last four presidents, he avoided all of them. (Newton noted that one single American service person was killed in Ike’s two terms as president.) And there’re lots more.

Bottom line…if you’re a biography fan, take a look at Jim Newton’s new Eisenhower book. See if it calls to you.

Surprisingly, I find it calls to me.

PS: Not surprisingly, the subject of Sheriff Baca and the jails scandal surfaced in several conversations during the afternoon. More on that tomorrow—plus news of another very different LA literary event.


Posted in American voices, art and culture, writers and writing | 1 Comment »

Monday Must Reads (Views and Listens)

September 12th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


The terrible fact is that a staggering 48-percent of all African American males will drop out of high school. Tavis Smiley explores what amounts to a national tragedy and looks at what to do about it.

The PBS show debuts Tuesday night in LA, but check listings for your cable provider to find out what time and which PBS station will have it.


The Times editorial board makes an interesting and worthwhile argument. I still don’t happen to agree with them, but their points in Monday’s editorial are good ones and essential to consider as you make up your own mind.


This story is from Sunday’s Wired Magazine by Ryan Singel, and is a definite must read. Here’s a clip:

Former AT&T engineer Mark Klein handed a sheaf of papers in January 2006 to lawyers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, providing smoking-gun evidence that the National Security Agency, with the cooperation of AT&T, was illegally sucking up American citizens’ internet usage and funneling it into a database.

The documents became the heart of civil liberties lawsuits against the government and AT&T. But Congress, including then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois), voted in July 2008 to override the rights of American citizens to petition for a redress of grievances.

Congress passed a law that absolved AT&T of any legal liability for cooperating with the warrantless spying. The bill, signed quickly into law by President George W. Bush, also largely legalized the government’s secret domestic-wiretapping program.

Obama pledged to revisit and roll back those increased powers if he became president. But, he did not.

Mark Klein faded into history without a single congressional committee asking him to testify. And with that, the government won the battle to turn the net into a permanent spying apparatus immune to oversight from the nation’s courts.

Klein’s story encapsulates the state of civil liberties 10 years after the shattering attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. After a decade, the country is left with a legacy of secret and unilateral executive-branch actions, a surveillance infrastructure whose scope and inner workings remain secret with little oversight, a compliant judiciary system that obsequiously bows to claims of secrecy by the executive branch, and a populace that has no idea how its government uses its power or who is watching out for abuses.

Read the rest.


Hector Tobar’s LA Times story is one you shouldn’t miss. Here’s a clip from the story’s opening:

Before this week, the last time I’d seen Obed Silva was in an immigration court in downtown L.A. On that day, he rolled his wheelchair to the witness box and explained to a judge why he shouldn’t be deported.

That was in 2009. Born in Mexico but raised in Orange County, Silva is a 32-year-old former gang member paralyzed from a gunshot injury who reinvented himself as a scholar. It was the errors of his youth — as a teenager he shot and wounded a man at an O.C. party — that led to the deportation proceeding.

Professors at his alma mater, Cal State L.A., testified in immigration court on his behalf. After I told his story in this column, even a conservative talk-show host said he deserved to stay in the U.S. And in December, the government agreed to stop the deportation proceedings against him.

After nearly four years of court dates and adjournments, Silva’s final appearance before a judge lasted only a few minutes, he recalled. “Next thing I knew, the judge said, ‘You’re free to go.’”

This week Silva and I met again, at his mother’s home in Buena Park. I’d come to see what he was doing with his second chance.

He’s teaching writing at Cypress College and tackling his own painful story in a book. Much of his manuscript is about another man born in Mexico, a heavy drinker who was deported many years ago, and who isn’t missed on this side of the border:

Obed’s father, the late Juan Silva.

Juan Silva was, as Obed writes, “an alcoholic, a drug-addict and a wife beater.” Juan Silva, aged 48 at his death, was one of those fraught men who live hard and leave a lifetime of wreckage in their wake.

“I came to this country to run away from him,” Obed’s mother, Marcela Mendoza, told me. Juan Silva was, by Mendoza’s account, obsessed with the family that had escaped him. Soon after they left, he followed them northward……


“The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In the spring and summer of 2010, law professor and researcher Lucian Dervan
, traveled to prisons in the United States, The Netherlands, and Israel to “compare the way each country detains its most violent and culpable residents.” The results of this research, he wrote afterward, “indicate something quite striking about what makes prisons around the world successful.” His results also indicated an alarming view of the way the United States treats its prisoners and what results from that dehumanizing treatment.

Here is a long clip from Dervan’s conclusions. (You can download the entire paper here.)

What makes one prison a violent and uncontrollable badland, while another is a calm, relatively safe, and productive facility for both staff and inmates? From my travels to three continents in search of an answer to this question, one aspect of each prison seems to contribute significantly to its success or failure. Where prisoners believed they were treated like human beings and were provided with reasonable living conditions and opportunities to utilize their time in meaningful ways, the prison environment was relatively healthy and rates of violence were low. In comparison, [in U.S. prisons] where prisoners were subjected to abhorrent living conditions and no efforts were made to treat them with a modicum of respect or provide them with even a scintilla of meaningful stimulation during the day, the prison environment was poisoned and violence ran rampant.

One final story from my travels will summarize the distinction between treating inmates like human beings and treating prisoners as mere objects for confinement.

[W]hen I traveled to Israel three prisoners were asked if they would volunteer to meet with me and, for their services, they were personally thanked by a prison official. During my visit to the state maximum-security prison, however, the treatment of the prisoners was quite different. At one point, a prisoner was sitting inside his cell reading a book. A
guard, who was showing me this particular wing of the facility, decided to demonstrate how he could control the lights inside this prisoner’s cell from outside. Without acknowledging the prisoner was even present, the guard then began switching the light on and off several times. When he was finished with his demonstration, still not having even acknowledged the presence of the prisoner inside the cell, he simply continued to walk down the corridor. It is striking to observe that the guards at this state facility treated prisoners with considerably less respect than the officers tasked with supervising convicted terrorists in Israel.

In conclusion, it is important to clarify why we care what type of environment exists inside a prison. It is certainly not clear that how prisoners are treated has any positive impact on recidivism rates. In fact, of the four prison systems examined in this Article, the one with the highest rate of recidivism is The Netherlands.Nevertheless, the environment inside prisons is vitally important. First, prisons in which inmates feel a sense of community appear to be less violent than those that serve as little more than warehouses for the one out of every hundred Americans currently behind bars. Second, prisons with high rates of violence are expensive facilities to administer because they require large staffs and incur incidental costs associated with medical treatment, overtime, and sick days. As such, prison systems can perform their functions in a more economically efficient manner by creating environments where prisoners are provided with incentives to cooperate and reject violence. Finally, treating prisoners as human beings and creating positive prison environments is simply the morally correct manner in which to administer a penitentiary.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky stated, “The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.” Even without the significant added benefits of reducing violence and lessening the administrative costs of running our prison systems, treating prisoners with dignity is the moral duty of any government. That abiding by this duty creates a safer environment for both staff and inmates and provides for the possibility of creating better prisons with less money should merely be considered a significant and
wonderful ancillary benefit.


Like most news outlets, NPR had a string of good 9/11 stories. This, about the death of NY City Fire Department chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, is a particularly sweet one.

Father Mychal Judge was a Franciscan friar and a chaplain to the New York City Fire Department. He was also a true New York character. Born in Brooklyn, Mychal Judge seemed to know everyone in the city, from the homeless to the mayor.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Father Mychal arrived at the World Trade Center shortly after the first plane hit. And as firefighters and other rescue personnel ran into the North Tower, he went with them.

Bill Cosgrove, a police lieutenant, was also there. When the South Tower collapsed, it sent debris flying into the neighboring building. When the dust cleared, Mychal Judge was dead. Soon after, Cosgrove found him. Then, Cosgrove and a group of firefighters emerged from the rubble, carrying Father Mychal’s body….

Listen to the rest here.


As you may or may not know by now, Fox Sports ran a video about the inclusion of two more college teams—Utah and Colorado— in the PAC 10, which will now be the PAC 12. In order to publicize the change on Fox’s college sports show, the show’s “reporter” Bob Oschack interviewed students at USC about their reaction to the new of the change, and asked them to “give a good old fashioned American welcome” the two new schools. Oschack, however, did not interview just any USC students. He picked only Asian students and only Asian students with strong accents. The result was racial caricature that was utterly flabbergasting in its creepiness.

The story was first reported by the Colorado Daily Camera and in short order calls and emails began to stream into the network, Fox Sports at first issued a tepid apology that was little more than an “Ooops. Our bad.” Then, a few hours later, as the fury over the vile video grew, there were evidently some hurried meetings in FoxLand because the apology from the Fox Sports head got a little bit stronger—but not much.

We sincerely apologize to President [C. L. Max] Nikias and the entire USC community for the production and posting of the video. The context was clearly inappropriate and the video was removed as soon as we became aware of it. We will review our editorial process to determine where the breakdown occurred, and we will take steps to ensure something like this never happens again.

The fury continued, thus on Wed, Fox cancelled its college sports show, The College Experiment which had produced the horrid segment, yanked videos from the network site and Hulu, and apologized all over again. (Of course Fox couldn’t stop a million video flowers from blooming on YouTube and the like. For example, here at KCET in it is posted along with a commentary by blogger/teacher Ophelia Chong, which—by the way— is very much worth reading.

Although the news on the incident died down over the weekend, all is far from forgiven. After all, said one Asian commentator, Fox is the network that called Obama’s birthday party “a “hip-hop BBQ” that “didn’t create jobs”—and other fun racist moments. In other words, they created the environment in which it was only a matter of time that the racist crap on the news segments would bleed into areas like sports coverage.

Posted in art and culture, crime and punishment, criminal justice, Gangs, immigration, Middle East, Must Reads, National issues, prison, prison policy, race, racial justice | No Comments »

ChangeLA Fundraiser: Help Train LA’s Next Gen Leadership

September 9th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

If you want to go to a cool party this weekend
and congratulate yourself on doing a good deed at the same time, consider the ChangeLA Fundraiser, sponsored by Liberty Hill, an LA-based nonprofit that has a history of supporting small but significant LA projects that larger funders tend to overlook.

A featured speaker on Saturday is Manuel Criollo,
a young LA guy who is an organizer with a group called the Strategy Center, who will talk about his work trying to end what Harvard calls the “school to prison pipeline.”

One of the projects Manual worked on last year was a campaign to end the LAPD’s policy of handing out high-priced tickets to LAUSD students who were late to school. It seems that the Los Angeles Police Department had handed out 34,000 tickets in the last five years to tardy students. Those tickets cost $250, and often the kid and/or his parents didn’t have the extra $$ to pay up, especially if there was more than one ticket involved. Thus often the tickets went to warrant. And if the kid wanted to contest the ticket, the parent had to take off work to go to court and…. You get the picture. In any case, it was defeating cycle that did no one any good. (Did I mention that the tickets went, almost exclusively to Black and Latino students?)

Last April, student leaders working with Manual and the Strategy Center helped convince the LAPD to stop handing out those pricey tickets. As my friend Barbara Osborn of Liberty Hill (and host of KPFK’s DeadlineLA) put explained, “It was a big victory. That’s the sort of work we’re trying to raise more money for—to train more grassroots leaders around L.A.”

The party is on Saturday, September 10, from 3:30 to 5:30 PM at Station Hollywood at the W Hotel.

The tickets are $35 for students and employees of other nonprofits, $75 for everybody else (unless you’re affluent enough to pop for $125, which gets you a reserved seat on a tour that Liberty Hill does in October).

Posted in art and culture, children and adolescents | 2 Comments »

Blaming the Rape Victim, Changing 3-Strikes, Prison Theater…. & Hemingway

July 5th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


As the cable channels blared out the details of Dominique Strauss-Kahn being released from home confinement largely because his alleged victim turns out to have a less than squeaky clean life, the LA Times’ Sandy Banks found she has something to say about what the reversal means. Here’s a clip:

And Dominique Strauss-Kahn — a potential French presidential candidate — was a wealthy bully with a history of sexual faux pas, accused of attacking her while she cleaned his suite in a luxury hotel. In May, he was charged with attempted rape and sexual assault, and held on $6-million bond.

Then suddenly, on Friday, Strauss-Khan was set free. His accuser, it appears, is a liar and cheat.

She lied on her taxes and asylum application — claiming a child she didn’t have and a gang rape in Guinea that never happened. Her bank records and a taped phone conversation with her jailed fiance suggest she consorts with criminals linked to drug-dealing operations.

Does that prove that she wasn’t attacked and forced into sex by Strauss-Khan? No. But it does mean that his high-priced lawyers would tear her apart on the witness stand…..


Tracey Kaplan of the San Jose Mercury News and Andy Furillo of the Sacramento Bee
each have stories that have bearing on the future of the Free Strikes law. (Both Kaplan and Furillo are a part of the Three-strikes Fellowship that I covered here.)

Kaplan writes about 3-striker Kelly Turner whose future could have an impact—for good or ill— on the 3-strikes initiative that is expected to be on the ballot in fall 2012.

Here’s how it opens:

The luckiest woman in California may not be the Alameda secretary who recently won $93 million in the lottery, or the Marin woman who survived a Maui shark attack.

By some accounts, she’s Kelly Turner, a 42-year-old former thief once doomed by the state’s “three strikes” law to spend 25 years to life in state prison for writing a bad check for $146.16. Retired Santa Clara County Judge LaDoris Cordell, now San Jose’s independent police auditor, got the courts to release her after Turner spent 13 years locked up. She’s believed to be the only female “third-striker” to get out early.

“She’s turned her life around,” Cordell said.

But if Turner so much as steals a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, it’s not just her new life in a Central Valley town that could unravel. Also at risk could be an effort by a group of Stanford law professors to put an initiative on the ballot to temper the “three strikes” law, the strictest such sentencing law in the nation.

That’s because Turner’s behavior — and the conduct of all third-strikers, including the few who have been freed early and the thousands still inside — will take center stage if the measure qualifies and goes to voters next year, political experts say.

“The only thing voters will see when they get behind the curtain are their faces,” said Democratic political consultant Bob Mulholland, referring to the third-strikers. “Voters will vote with their gut or heart, not their thought process…..”

Furillo of the Sac Bee shows how the use and enforcement of Three-strikes has changed since its passage in 1994.

Furillo’s story explores the evolution of prosecutors’ attitudes toward the law and, in particular, highlights the manner in which LA District Attorney Steve Cooley led the way among prosecutors to a more proportionate application of Three Strikes.

Here are some clips;

Fifteen years after passage of the state’s landmark “three strikes” sentencing law, prosecutors in Sacramento and throughout California have become far more selective in applying the full force of the statute, reducing the number of lifetime prison terms being sought for third strikers to a relative trickle.

While it used to obtain the maximum sentences anywhere from 50 to nearly 100 times a year, the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office now asks for life terms for third strikers fewer than 20 times a year, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The office obtained 16 such sentences in 2010 compared with a high of 94 in 1996.

The trend bears out from Del Norte to Imperial counties. District attorneys across the state used to collectively pack off criminals on maximum three-strikes terms by the hundreds – more than 1,700 in 1996 alone. In the past three years, the numbers have dropped to well short of 200 annually. California prisons housed 8,727 three-strike lifers as of Dec. 31.


Prosecutors have always had discretion under the law to reduce potential life terms to lesser sentences, but many didn’t exercise it. Los Angeles County prosecutors, in particular, refrained from “striking strikes,” or dismissing prior serious or violent convictions for the purpose of lowering prison terms.

The approach changed when Steve Cooley was elected L.A. County district attorney in 2000. Elected largely on a platform of refining the law’s application, Cooley took the lead in putting a new policy in place. He reserved the heavier sentences for defendants with serious or violent third strikes, but built in exceptions to target offenders with horrific pasts even if their latest charge wasn’t so serious.

Cooley said over-application of the law by some California prosecutors – hitting people for third strikes for minor felonies such as drug possession and pizza theft – prompted a public backlash. A 2004 statewide ballot measure that would have dumped three strikes altogether came within three percentage points of winning.***

“If you have a good law, and you abuse it, you will predictably lose it,” Cooley said at a recent symposium on the three-strikes law in Los Angeles. “If somebody has a rock (of cocaine) in his sock, you give him 25 to life? Give me a break.”

***NOTE: Furillo has this one fact wrong. The 2004 ballot measure, Prop. 66, would not have done away with Three-Strikes altogether, but would have modified the law. People like Cooley, who is not at all averse to some modifications, felt Prop. 66 went too far.


Even non-Shakespeare fans know that a large part of the play of Hamlet features the play’s leading guy musing about whether or not he should kill Claudius. Okay, then, what if the play was performed by actors who actually had killed a person or persons?

The radio show This American life attempts to answer the question.

Reporter Jack Hitt spent 6 mos reporting on the casting, rehearsal and performance of Hamlet by maximum security prison inmates for TAL.

Jack Hitt begins his story about a group of prisoners at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center who are rehearsing and staging a production of Hamlet. The man who plays Hamlet gets in character by recalling times he’s wanted to hurt people, like the crime that sent him to prison, in which he shot two people and left them for dead. Big Hutch, who plays Horatio, explains how it would work if you set Hamlet in a prison, and why it would actually improve a flaw in the plot.

I love this show. Listen when you possibly can.


As LA Times book critic Ulin goes about answering the question, he writes a terrific essay. A must read for anyone with a love of literature and writing. It helped me sort out my own hot/cold feelings for Papa and his writing.

Posted in American voices, art and culture, crime and punishment, criminal justice, prison, prison policy, Sentencing, writers and writing | No Comments »

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