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When Prison Builders Become Prison Profiteers

Reading Liberally Page Turner
by Amanda Milstein, Living Liberally

A friend said Hi to me on the subway while I was reading Prison Profiteers, an anthology of shocking articles about the privatization of prisons edited by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright. I had to send him an e-mail explaining that if I had looked like I was about to throw up it was not because of him, but rather because I was totally and utterly disgusted by the account I was reading about medical conditions going untreated in prisons managed by private corporations.

The paragraph I was reading when my friend saw me was about the medical neglect of a 57 year old man who was imprisoned for rape:

David stood now to show me the belly and the hernias, the condition his body had arrived at through an utter lack of attention… His belly was enormous, taut and pasty, seemingly glued to his gaunt frame. At the front of it, a hot-pink hernia, about the size of a grapefruit, seemed barely attached where the belly buttons should have been, giving David's midsection the overall contour of a giant breast and nipple…

…To describe David's scrotum as swollen and red would be a failure of language. It was about the size of a rugby ball, so raw and irritated, shiny and crimson, that it almost seemed to be covered with blood. David hung his head. "They give me aspirin," he said.

Later, when I heard that David had died of indeterminate causes and that his body had been cremated, I realized that I had probably been the last person outside the prison staff to see David alive, to see what his body had become from all those years of mistreatment, and I wondered: can such a secret be kept?

A rapist, David might not be the most sympathetic of criminals — but no one deserves to be forced into an environment where their medical needs will not be met. Furthermore many of those receiving atrocious care are not rapists, but drug dealers or minor criminals, who have not been sentenced to death or illness by neglect. Medical neglect is not the only problem faced by prisoners—in the United States prisons are often run by corporations who put the bottom line ahead of prisoner safety, the security of the general population, and pretty much everything else.

We now live in a country where one out of a hundred adult Americans is currently in prison. Prison Profiteers describes a system where corporations have significant control and very little accountability to the public—where a prisoner's spider bite can go untreated until his foot requires amputation due to lack of antibiotics, where medical appointments are deliberately scheduled on court dates, and when sometimes the only way to a safety and job training is to join a Christian missionary group, and where prisons have particularly high phone rates that can financially destroy family members with whom they are trying to stay connected.

I have been able to talk about little else but prison reform since finishing this book — my desire to discuss it with one friend was so great that I shipped him a copy even though he lives in England. As progressives we talk a lot about the need for healthy food for children, welfare benefits, and a living wage—but we also need to be talking about issues that impact the 1% of American adults that are incarcerated, and why our government is farming vital work out to corporations who seem to be doing a terrible job of it.

The Explosive Truth About Twinkies, The Industrial-Strength Snack Cake

Eating Liberally Food For Thought
by Kerry Trueman

There are simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates, and then there’s the Twinkie, made from military industrial-complex carbohydrates. It’s got some of the same ingredients as tracer bullets and artillery shells, as I learned from reading Steve Ettlinger’s Twinkie, Deconstructed.

Ettlinger’s book, just out in paperback, documents the 39 ingredients it now takes to make a Twinkie, many of them minerals and chemicals, some derived from crude oil. This petroleum-based pastry is about a million food miles removed from your grandma’s yellow sponge cake, which had a shelf life of maybe two days, max.

Today’s Twinkie, on the other hand, stays frighteningly “fresh” for an unnaturally long time (officially, 25 days, but we all know it’s really more like 25 months.) Real butter turns rancid too fast, so the Twinkie gets its butter-like taste and texture from petrochemical-based ingredients like diacetyl, a close cousin to acetylene welding gas, and butyric acid, a flavor which Ettlinger gleefully informs us is “a natural component of Parmesan cheese, rancid butter, and, unbelievably, vomit and perspiration."

Twinkie, Deconstructed may amaze and appall you, but the fact is that while a Twinkie is not particularly good for you, it’s not all that bad for you, either. It’s just an amalgam of industrial ingredients and artificial flavors posing as an actual pastry. How did we ever fall for this oily oblong cake with the mystery “cream” filling?

Take a trip down Madison Avenue’s memory lane via YouTube with the classic seventies Twinkie ad at the top of this post and you'll find out. Watch the housewife-on-a-budget vow that no matter how tight money gets, she’ll never deprive her kids of “fresh, wholesome” Hostess Twinkies, because “you can’t skimp when it comes to your children.”

Fast forward to this series of Flickr photos taken last month entitled “It’s What’s For Breakfast,” in which a visibly disgusted mom in Portland, Oregon documented five days of the hot "food" served free to kids at her local public school in the morning before school. Stuff like “Bagel-ers,” which are some kind of bagel and cream cheese concoction, and a pancake-sausage-breakfast-sandwich that “tastes like sugar,” and a cereal bar made of whole grain oats glued together by “corn syrup, sugar, high fructose corn syrup. . . followed by a long list of other ingredients most of them with names only a chemist would understand.”

Or Steve Ettlinger. Twinkie, Deconstructed is not a Fast Food Nation/Omnivore’s Dilemma-style indictment of our food chain; it’s a science writer’s agenda-free foray into the peculiar world of processed foods, an odyssey Ettlinger embarked on in response to his daughter’s innocent question, “Daddy, what’s polysorbate 60?”

After reading Twinkie, Deconstructed I have a better understanding of what goes into the “cakelike cylinders (with creamlike fillings) called Twinkies that never grow stale,” as Michael Pollan describes them in In Defense of Food.

What I don’t understand is why our agricultural policies continue to promote these “edible foodlike substances” (Pollan's words, again.) It’s bad enough that your tax dollars are paying for all those amber waves of grain that get turned into nutritionally bankrupt foods and environmentally disastrous biofuels. But did you know that the USDA actually penalizes commodity crop growers who want to replant their fields with fruits or vegetables?

I didn’t, until I read Jack Hedin’s op-ed in last Saturday’s New York Times. Hedin, a small organic vegetable farmer in southern Minnesota, reveals that, at a time when farmers’ markets are popping up all over the country to meet the growing demand for fresh local produce, the USDA is working “deliberately and forcefully to prevent the local food movement from expanding.” Why in the world would they want to do that? Hedin explains:

Because national fruit and vegetable growers based in California, Florida and Texas fear competition from regional producers like myself. Through their control of Congressional delegations from those states, they have been able to virtually monopolize the country’s fresh produce markets.

The USDA actually fines farmers who have the audacity to switch from growing commodity grains to, say, melons or tomatoes, as Hedin learned the hard way. Talk about passive/aggressive. The USDA’s telling us we’ve got to eat more fruits and vegetables even as it’s thwarting the efforts of small family farmers to help us do just that.

At a time when Michael Pollan and those Skinny Bitches are convincing this nation of meatheads that a plant-based diet is better for us--not to mention our fellow creatures and the planet--our government is in cahoots with Agribiz and Big Food to keep us hooked on a chemical plant-based diet. And that’s a shame, because the epidemic of diseases caused by our Western diet poses a far greater threat to mankind than Middle Eastern terrorists.

Joe Wilson went off to Niger in search of “yellow cake” and came up famously empty-handed in the fiasco we’ve come to know as “PlameGate.” Little did he know we’ve got a yellow cake-based weapon of mass destruction right here at home.

Originally posted on

Shooting Liberally Takes Aim At Change

Drinking Liberally Shot of Truth

A month ago, we told you about the inaugural meeting of Shooting Liberally which would be coming up later that day. Well, the second meeting of Shooting liberally NYC is coming up (next Tuesday, in fact), and we wanted to report back to you on the first Shooting Liberally in the Empire State - what happens when a group of Manhattanite liberals bond over progressive politics and shooting ranges?One novice, Tim, summed it up this way:

A good time was had by all. Especially, it seems, by the ladies.

Which hints at an important aspect of the chapter - of the sixteen spaces we reserved at the range, a healthy majority were taken up by women. When Shooting Liberally was not busy shooting down bullseyed targets, they took turns shooting down gender stereotypes.

Gender stereotypes weren't the only stereotypes that we took aim at, however - we also took aim at political stereotypes. Scott explains:

It felt quite odd at first, since the shooting range not only had many posters with sayings like, "Guns don't kill people, bullets kill people," and "Forget 911--I dial .357," but also a portrait of George W. Bush proudly displayed over the cases of ammunition in the office. Also, the heavy report of high-caliber handguns being fired in the range couldn't help but make you jump.

John, the safety instructor, had enough tattoos to moonlight at Coney Island, but he was friendly and patient and thorough. He sat all 16 of us in school desks in a side room to run us through weapon handling procedures. Then he handed out rifles to everyone. It was quite something to see a bunch of people who looked like they were in study hall, brandishing weapons.

Despite pre-game jitters, once on the range with the smell of gunpowder the card-carrying progressives took to it like fish to water. The women in the group were especially keen. Two or three ran through their clips of fifty rounds in no time and came out to buy more.

Afterward, we compared our paper targets and, surprisingly, most everyone had grouped their shots tightly in the center. It was exhilarating.

We all agreed that we had to do it again. And though we didn't talk about it much, I think we all felt better able to hang onto our democracy.

Which brings up an interesting issue - all of our Shooting Liberals are no slouches to the second word in the name. These are real lefties, and that includes believing in sensible gun control as well as responsible gun ownership. However, the last time we posted on this topic, we got a fair amount of comments from folks whose view of the 2nd amendment has changed a bit due to the radical nature of the Bush administration. Do you in the comments have any thoughts on this matter?

Our Pharmaceutically-Fouled Water Supply

My dad installed a reverse osmosis water filtration system in our house decades ago for religious reasons; as a Christian Scientist, he objected to the City of Los Angeles imposing its “medicated”—i.e. fluoridated---drinking water on us.

Looks like you were ahead of your time, Dad! The Associated Press has just released the results of an investigation showing that:

A vast array of pharmaceuticals -- including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones -- have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans…

…How do the drugs get into the water?

People take pills. Their bodies absorb some of the medication, but the rest of it passes through and is flushed down the toilet. The wastewater is treated before it is discharged into reservoirs, rivers or lakes. Then, some of the water is cleansed again at drinking water treatment plants and piped to consumers. But most treatments do not remove all drug residue.

And while researchers do not yet understand the exact risks from decades of persistent exposure to random combinations of low levels of pharmaceuticals, recent studies -- which have gone virtually unnoticed by the general public -- have found alarming effects on human cells and wildlife.

I blogged about this problem a year and a half ago in a post called “Sexually Confused Fish Popping Up In The Potomac,” about another AP report citing concerns that these “endocrine disruptors” were suspected in a dramatic rise in malformed male fish found in DC waterways. In that post I noted that:

Back in 1996, The EPA identified endocrine disruption as one of its top six research priorities, but ten years later, according to Newsday, the EPA has yet to begin testing any candidate chemicals for their endocrine-disrupting potential.

So, what’s the EPA’s reaction to the AP’s latest findings?

''We recognize it is a growing concern and we're taking it very seriously,'' said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Grumbles--great name for a guy whose primary duty probably involves a lot of fancy foot-dragging.

While the pharmaceutical industry is insisting, by and large, that this contamination of our water supply is not a cause for worry, the AP quotes Mary Buzby, director of environmental technology for drug manufacturer Merck, as saying ''There's no doubt about it, pharmaceuticals are being detected in the environment and there is genuine concern that these compounds, in the small concentrations that they're at, could be causing impacts to human health or to aquatic organisms.''

Americans are ingesting prescription drugs at record rates, but that’s not the only source of contamination. Veterinary drugs used to treat our pets for “arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, allergies, dementia, and even obesity,” and drugs used to treat livestock, are a factor, too, according to the AP. And the problem’s not limited to surface waters, either:

…Pharmaceuticals also permeate aquifers deep underground, source of 40 percent of the nation's water supply. Federal scientists who drew water in 24 states from aquifers near contaminant sources such as landfills and animal feed lots found minuscule levels of hormones, antibiotics and other drugs…

…Water sampled downstream of a Nebraska feedlot had steroid levels four times as high as the water taken upstream. Male fathead minnows living in that downstream area had low testosterone levels and small heads.

Maybe it’s time for the researchers to stop focusing on male fathead minnows and start taking a closer look at how all this stuff is affecting two-legged male fatheads. In the meantime, the beverage industry is ramping up production of “enhanced” bottled waters fortified with all kinds of supposedly nifty nutrients. Save your money, folks! Take it from the tap—apparently, it’s got traces of every prescription drug you could possibly need, and then some. Unless, of course, that’s against your religion.

Originally posted on


The Greenhorns: A New Breed Of American Idol?

While some of us moan and groan about the unmitigated awfulness of industrial agriculture and our craptastic food chain, others are literally sowing the seeds of an agrarian revival. The idealistic young farmers and gardeners fueling this ag-revolt have been christened “The Greenhorns” by one extraordinary, exuberant young farmer/filmmaker, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, who’s documenting their horticultural heroics in a film by the same name.

America’s got more prisoners than farmers these days, and the average age of the farmers we do have is over sixty years old. Strip mall sprawl has displaced the small family farmers who once nourished our nation. Monocrop madness is sucking the life out of our precious topsoil, poisoning our air and water, and giving us really lousy food, to boot.

But Severine sees salvation in the Greenhorns:

We young farmers are an emergent social movement. We exist. There are a lot of us from coast to coast, and all sorts of unexpected places between—all over the world. We are serious, and if there were about 20 million of us, we could probably feed the whole United States.

My premise is simple. If I can make a movie showing you what is possible, introduce you to these myriad rockstars, I believe I can inspire more of my generation to become farmers. Our job in this generation is to rethink, recycle, retrofit and restore our land and our community; the Greenhorns have come to this revelation and taken action.

This film is a way to convene a movement that is for now quite thinly spread out on the ground. Population density of young farmers might be as low as 1-2 per county in America. Yet, once seen as a whole in the film, you will find it an attractive and coherent sub-culture: proud, strong, tough, and a little bit nuts.

Actually, that description sounds a bit like Severine herself; she’s thrown herself into this project with a passion, but no deep-pocketed patrons to finance the film. So right now she and her feisty team are scrambling to scrape up a few thousand dollars to finish a short version of The Greenhorns to submit to Slow Food on Film’s International Festival this May in Bologna, Italy.

We watched the trailer last night at a fundraiser for The Greenhorns held in a perfectly pastoral Brooklyn loft full of biodynamic young movers and shakers who shared with us their lovingly prepared local food. They are “onto something good, and real,” as Peter Hale, one of the film’s fundraisers and host of the party, said.

And essential, I'd add. Sadly, Matt and I had to leave before they broke out the s’mores made with homemade graham crackers, but we headed back to Manhattan heady with hope that Severine and her Greenhorns could lure a new generation back to the land to reclaim our food chain.

With dwindling resources, global food shortages, climate change, and the triple threats of peak oil, peak soil, and peak water nipping at our heedless heels, industrial agriculture is becoming a “luxury” we can’t afford.

What we have come to call “conventional” farming is, in fact, a total aberration from the way food was produced the world over for centuries. The UK’s Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett decried “the malign influence of an unthinking worship of technology” at a lecture in London last year:

“I am convinced that the era of industrial and intensive farming will be seen as a brief blip, a wrong turn, from which we hopefully recovered fairly quickly…

…The evidence shows that we will have to make radical changes in the ways in which food is produced and distributed to meet the challenges of climate change...

...If climate change has one positive lesson for us, it is that we can't conquer nature. We are part of, not superior to, or in charge of, the natural world.

This is a lesson that Agribiz advocates have yet to learn, but while they’re busy cloning cows, shoving bogus bio-tech breakthroughs down our throats, and declaring dominion over the American dinner table, Severine and her merry band of urban and rural rebels are plotting to overthrow King Corn and declare our independence from industrial agriculture. You’d better hope this revolution takes root, because we are dying for a better way to live in this country.

Originally posted on

Speaking Your Peace for the Chicago 10

Screening Liberally Big Picture

It's rare that we talk here about the selling of movies, preferring to talk about the movies themselves. But tonight we make an exception, with a quick note about the recent film about the post-1968 Chicago convention trial, Chicago 10.

The standard method for selling a Hollywood movie is, well, pretty standard. You spend a lot of money saturating the market with ad buys, posters at bus stops, morning talk show interviews, and so on. Then, it either catches on, or it doesn't. But Chicago 10 is doing something a little different, something which might could help illustrate the potential for smaller films to become a little bigger thanks for the evangelizing of their most fervent fans.

This is the kick-off bid, by Morgan Spurlock, in a contest being held by Participant Media and Essentially, the associated website provides extensive video and audio clips to visitors, which they can utilize in their own videos. The idea is that you combine your own footage with the Chicago 10 materials to create a PSA on the issue you most care about in the upcoming Presidential election, with the winner selected by director Brett Morgen to be featured on the film's DVD.

Is this game-changing? No - there've been plenty of create-your-own-significant-length contests paired with the launch of relatively major films before. But it is the first such contest I can remember making such heavy use of a liberal distribution of the original film footage itself, and thait is a very exciting step in a positive direction.

Christopher Hitchens: As Right About Women as He is About Iraq

Laughing Liberally To Keep From Crying
by Katie Halper

A version of this post originally appeared on Take Part.

Dear Hamilton Nolan & Gawker:

I want to thank you for your post supporting Christopher Hitchens' claim that women aren't funny. I also I want to apologize for not writing sooner, but between getting my bikini line waxed, shopping, trying, in vain to be funny, and dealing with PMS, I had no time-- and was in no shape--to write anything. But I want to thank you for having the testosterone-drenched you know whats to say what nobody else, besides Christopher Hitchens and lots of men, will say: women comics Suck! And Christopher Hitchens Rocks! Responding to the unfunny and boring and (I know this is redundant) female-written Vanity Fair article Who Says Women Aren't Funny, you write

The problem they [female comics] have is they often talk about things that women can relate to--relationships with men, babies, periods, shopping, love. As a man, I can't relate to all that. That puts women comics at a distinct disadvantage when trying to win over me and my fellow men. This is obvious day, right here.

THANK YOU! I can't STAND when Sarah Silverman talks about her babies! Oh, right she doesn't have any, but I bet if she did she wouldn't shut up about them.


And Tina Fey, can you please stop talking about your period? I mean, I haven't hear her talk about it, but she's a woman and it happens once a month--I know, TMI, sorry :( -- and when it does we're really emotional, so I bet even if she didn't want to talk about her period, it would be biologically impossible for her to stop herself from talking about her hormones and her feelings. So I'm sure it comes up, right?And I too wonder why "girls," as you call us, bother getting their frilly pink panties all up in a bunch over Christopher Hitchens. I love your point that

Chris [that is SOOOO cool that you call him by his nickname!] Hitchens is a brilliant, repugnant slob of a man, and any argument he makes should be taken as one from a male point of view. For him to say that women aren't funny is for him to say that they're not funny to him, a man.

THANK YOU! That reminds me of when the PC Nazis spit up their fair trade soy organic lattes over my occasional harmless observations about black people's inferior intelligence. See, I'm a brilliant, appealing, slob of a white person, and any argument I make should be taken as one from a white point of view. For me to say that black people aren't that smart is for me to say that they're not smart to me, a white person. So take a chill pill ladies... and black people.

Do you actually think women are funny? Then take action and support the Hysterical Festival, New York's first female comedy festival ever.

Two Out-Of-Hand Vs. One In-The-Bush

Clinton calls a vote for Obama a gamble;
but a vote for McCain is a sure thing:
sure to bring more war, fewer jobs.

Obama suggests that Clinton lacks "judgment" --
while McCain's surrogates are a bit too judgmental:
anti-semitic, anti-gay, anti-American.

The Dems face months more of uncertainty...
but we know one thing for certain about the GOP:
their candidate is 100% Bush-approved.

And honestly...which would you rather have:
two out-of-hand or one in the Bush?

Wash out that taste of the "straight-talk express"
while discussing, drinking & perhaps debating,
at your local progressive social club.

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