Category Archives: Justice

The Department of Justice Loves Publicizing Arrests of Alleged Terrorists — but Not the White Nationalist Coast Guard Officer

SILVER SPRING, MD -  FEBRUARY 21:  In this undated handout photo provided by U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, the collection of weapons and ammunition federal agents say they found in Christopher Paul Hasson's Silver Spring apartment are shown in Maryland. A member of the U.S. Coast Guard, 49-year-old Hasson, was arrested on weapons and drugs violations and is accused of plotting a major terror attack against Americans. (Photo by U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland via Getty Images)

An undated handout photo provided by U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland shows the collection of weapons and ammunition federal agents say they found in Christopher Paul Hasson’s Silver Spring, Maryland, apartment.

Photo: U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland via Getty Images

The Justice Department is not usually shy about publicizing alleged terrorism plots that it uncovers in the United States. This week, however, news broke of a violent extremist plot in the United States that court documents chillingly noted would have led to the “murder of innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.” Outside of the court filings, however, the Justice Department did not say a word.

The plot involved Christopher Hasson, 49, a self-described white nationalist. Hasson is a lieutenant in the United States Coast Guard and had amassed a terrifying arsenal of weaponry, along with a hit list of prominent liberal politicians and media figures in the country that he had allegedly been planning to kill. Hasson had been arrested on gun and drug charges but was described in court documents as a “domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect governmental conduct.” Among those he was planning to target included Democratic politicians Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., as well as Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. He also, according to court documents, planned to target CNN host Don Lemon and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, among others.

Normally, the Justice Department  issues a press release to let the public know about their successful investigation — even in cases that at first glance appear to be much less serious.

Normally, when an alleged terrorist plot is uncovered in the U.S., the Justice Department issues a press release to let the public know about their successful investigation — even in cases that at first glance appear to be much less serious than an extremist who had already put together their own hit list and weapons cache. In this case, however, there was no such release.

Instead, the news broke to the public through the Twitter feed of Seamus Hughes, a deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, a D.C.-based counterterrorism think tank. Hughes shared the documents with the allegations against Hasson, which had apparently been posted to the court’s online docket. Without the sort of press release that tends to accompany major terrorism arrests, Hughes found Hassan’s case because he habitually checks court filings.

The administration’s silence fits a pattern. A study published last year by the Washington-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding showed that the Justice Department was six times more likely to issue press releases in alleged plots that involved Muslims than non-Muslims. The press releases are particularly important since they tend to trigger news coverage and public awareness of cases.

The information about Hasson gleaned from the documents paints the picture of a man obsessed with far-right conspiracy theories and visions of destroying the existing social order. According to the allegations against him, Hasson was obsessed with the need for a “white homeland” and had made preparations for acts of violence intended to plunge the U.S. into political turmoil. His alleged plot appears to have drawn heavily from the manifesto of Anders Breivik, an anti-Muslim radical who killed 77 people in a deadly rampage in Norway in 2011. Breivik’s actions remain an inspiration to many on the extremist fringe today, including Hasson, whose plot allegedly corresponded with many of the instructions contained in Breivik’s manifesto.

In a draft email contained in filings against Hasson, he spoke in terms also distinctly similar to those associated with the “alt-right” movement and the network of extremist supporters of President Donald Trump. “Liberalist/globalist ideology is destroying traditional peoples esp white. No way to counteract without violence,” Hasson wrote. “It should push for more crack down bringing more people to our side. Much blood will have to be spilled to get whitey off the couch.”

Last year, a Institute for Social Policy and Understanding study found that cases of attempted violence involving Muslim suspects received 7 1/2 times more coverage from major media outlets than those involving non-Muslims. While Hasson’s case was picked up after court filings were posted on social media, it seems that in this case, the government was uninterested in publicizing information about a white nationalist terrorism plot that its own filings claim would have resulted in catastrophic violence. This selectivity also seems to be part of a pattern.

While the allegations against him have yet to be tested in court, at first glance Hasson’s case seems to add to concerns about the growth of far-right violence in the United States. Gauging the true scale and scope of this phenomenon is a difficult task. In future, though — and to dispel accusations of bias — it’d be helpful if the Justice Department would at least let the public know about it.

The post The Department of Justice Loves Publicizing Arrests of Alleged Terrorists — but Not the White Nationalist Coast Guard Officer appeared first on The Intercept.

Beyond the Rising Tide: Reparations for Slavery Have to Be More Than a Threat

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listen as Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Friday, Sept. 28, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. The committee advanced Brett Kavanaugh's nomination for the Supreme Court after agreeing to a late call from Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., for a one week investigation into sexual assault allegations against the high court nominee. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Sen. Cory Booker, left, and Sen. Kamala Harris listen during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 28, 2018.

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

When hip-hop radio host Charlamagne tha God asked Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris if they had a “specific agenda” for black Americans on his show, “The Breakfast Club,” earlier this month, it was clear that neither did.

“I have a specific agenda for the American people,” started Booker. But for Charlamagne, and many other black Americans, a generalized American agenda isn’t a substitute for a plan that specifically addresses the needs of black folks.

“They always say a rising tide lifts all boats,” Charlamagne interrupted, “but we don’t really see that in our communities.”

Charlamagne elaborated on this idea during his interview with Harris: “I think when it comes to black people in America, Democrats, for whatever reason, when you ask them … usually we get that whole ‘rising tides raise all boats’ or ‘all Americans’ rhetoric, and I think black people just want to hear specific things for them, and I always wonder, ‘Why are people afraid to say what they would specifically do for black people?’”

The desire expressed by Charlamagne is understandable and legitimate. After committing overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party for decades, black Americans have seen the racial wealth gap widen, not shrink. As a result, some are increasingly skeptical of the value of programs that aren’t narrowly tailored to accrue to our benefit.

While it is true that the neoliberal strategies embraced by the Democratic Party since the 1980s have failed to close the racial wealth gap, the growing disdain for programs that don’t accrue to the exclusive benefit of black Americans is a red herring.

The problem isn’t that universal or economically driven programs can’t significantly close the racial wealth gap. It’s that the means-tested programs backed by the Democratic Party simply don’t go far enough.

Sen. Bernie Sanders was buffeted repeatedly by criticism that he didn’t do enough to connect with black Americans in the course of his 2016 presidential run. Much of that criticism was fair. But Sanders’s failure was in articulating how his policies would benefit black Americans, not in advancing policies that would benefit us.

Prior to the 2016 election, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who ultimately voted for Sanders, wrote, “Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policy — doubling the minimum wage, offering single-payer health-care, delivering free higher education. This is the same ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’ thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation.”

But the Democratic Party has never backed anything approaching the redistributive goals contemplated by Sanders’s 2016 agenda. The party’s economic plan has historically focused on economic mobility, “access” to “opportunity,” and removing barriers to participating in a capitalist economy. Child care programs, paid sick leave, and job training initiatives are promoted as strategies to ensure that all Americans can participate in what most Democrats see as a fundamentally functional system.

By contrast, politicians like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren challenge the system itself, because they view it as fundamentally inequitable. Leftists support traditional interventions that meaningfully ease the burdens of those struggling under capitalism. But they also seek to change the fact that profits in this country currently flow disproportionately to a privileged few at the very top — at the expense of wage growth for the workers whose labor generates those profits. As Sanders argues, if 90 percent of profits go to the top 1 percent, having technical “access” to the 1 percent isn’t enough; the system itself must change.

This structural approach is a game changer for African-Americans. Because the value of wealth compounds, capitalism rewards the historical possession of wealth; the ability to invest today is worth more than the ability to do so in the future. That being the case, how can black Americans, first enslaved and then legally barred from participating in capitalism for the overwhelming majority of this country’s history, begin to catch up with a systemic adjustment to the system?

The answer is we can’t. There will be no racial equality under capitalism.

It would take an estimated 228 years for black Americans to earn as much wealth as white Americans possess today, at which point blacks still would not have drawn even, because whites would presumably have accrued more wealth during that time as well. Simply put, closing the racial wealth gap demands a systemic approach.

It is true that universal programs without race-specific interventions are not enough. The failures of the New Deal illustrate how universal solutions can inadequately provide for the needs of the marginalized. But the reality that universal programs don’t always go far enough should not be perverted into an argument that universal programs aren’t integral to the task of closing the racial wealth gap.

During his “Breakfast Club” interview, Booker tried explain that the issue with the “rising tides raise all ships” argument is not that the thesis is fundamentally flawed, but that universal programs historically were designed to either exclude African-Americans or, at best, were indifferent to structural reasons why African-Americans were less able to access benefits. “A lot of the programs that built the middle class in this country, African-Americans were excluded from,” said Booker, pointing to the Fair Housing Act and the GI Bill. “You had devaluations of American communities through mortgage lending and the like.”

But that’s not to say that a new New Deal shouldn’t be a goal. After all, New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps employed over 600,000 African-Americans. The Public Works Administration established quotas for the number of blacks to be hired for construction jobs, and New Deal education programs taught more than a million African-Americans how to read and write. It was in part because of the New Deal that African-Americans shifted their political allegiances to the Democratic Party in the first place. In the course of ensuring that we improve upon the New Deal’s mistakes, we shouldn’t lose sight of its benefits and the potential benefits of similar programs.

Unfortunately, in some circles, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Some liberal commentators affect indifference to the racial implications of policies that directly target the wealth gap because they aren’t explicitly cast as race policies. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” Hillary Clinton famously asked in the course of her 2016 campaign. “I would love to wake up in the morning and have my first thought be ‘I hate Wall Street,’” tweeted journalist Imani Gandy. “That’s the whitest shit I’ve ever heard.”

Similarly, when Booker offered up his baby bonds plan as part of a black-centric agenda, Charlamagne was skeptical on the basis that it wouldn’t exclusively help blacks. It “addresses all Americans,” Booker explained, “but it actually helps the racial wealth gap in a significant way,” by creating a savings account for low-income students.

Booker went on to make the case for his criminal justice bill, the beneficiaries of which are overwhelmingly African-American: “When you fix the system, you help poor white folks who get screwed by the system as well, but disproportionately, you’re gonna help those people who are most affected by an unjust criminal justice system,” he argued.

Booker is right. The unfortunate overlap between poverty and some historically marginalized identity groups means that when programs are equitably designed, a rising tide will disproportionately improve their fates: Since 1 out of 3 non-elderly Latinos and 1 out of 4 non-elderly blacks lack health insurance, those groups stand to be some of the biggest beneficiaries of “Medicare for All.” Blacks and Latinos are more likely to rely on Social Security benefits as an exclusive source of retirement income than whites, meaning attacks on Social Security threaten those groups disproportionately as well. Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented among minimum wage jobs, meaning we stand to gain more from a $15 minimum wage. And on, and on, and on.

In fact, most programs embraced as “race-specific” are economic programs or criminal justice programs — many of which, like bail reform, are race-neutral. Various “welfare programs” may be coded as “for black Americans,” but few are narrowly tailored to exclusively benefit us.

Arguably, Affirmative Action is race-based, but the biggest beneficiaries have been white women. And even though it was designed to address race-based disparities, it’s not clear that it has the intended reparative effect: The beneficiaries of Affirmative Action are disproportionately recent African and Caribbean immigrants, whose parents and grandparents were not victims of the pre-civil rights-era discrimination for which Affirmative Action is ostensibly supposed to compensate.

The one initiative that truly targets black people exclusively is reparations, for which Coates famously made a compelling case. But although he was incredibly successful at proving why African-Americans deserve reparations, at the end of his argument Coates is honest about not having a clear answer to how to deliver them, beyond Rep. John Conyers’s H.R.40 bill, which would provide resources to explore possible avenues for reparations. It’s a good start. But it’s just that — a start. That being the case, a push for reparations or any other unspecified, racially targeted policy shouldn’t come at the expense of the most radical redistributive policies this country has seen since the New Deal.

That’s especially true since the growing popularity of universal programs may actually lead to increased support for race-based reparations.

In a recent article, Vann Newkirk II spoke to William A. Darity, a professor at Duke University who is a foremost thinker on the question of reparations. “I have to say that the policies that have received the [most enthusiastic] reception are those that I might describe as universal policies that are not race-specific, but they are race-conscious,” Darity told Newkirk, referencing Booker’s baby bonds program as well as Warren’s housing grant initiative. But Darity thinks that the growing popularity of universal policies might “begin warming Americans up to the idea of reparations.”

As Newkirk tacitly admits, programs that target poverty do seem to be the best way to target the racial wealth gap — at least until more research is done. What’s not clear, however, is whether that message will go over well with a black electorate that is understandably skeptical of the notion that universal programs will ever “trickle down to them.”

For some, a black face heading a campaign will be reassurance enough that African-American interests are being advanced. But following Barack Obama’s presidency, the assumption that a black president will put black interests first has been complicated. Obama’s approach to the mortgage crisis famously bailed out big banks before homeowners, and black Americans were hit harder than any other group — losing 40 percent of our collective wealth in the crisis.

If online chatter is any indication, black voters are increasingly skeptical of representation that ends at the epidermis. Widespread criticism among African-Americans of Harris’s criminal justice record seems to suggest that identity isn’t a perfect defense for anti-black actions, though some have defended her on the basis that she had no other choice than to be tough on crime as a black woman held to higher standards.

Still, during her appearance on “The Breakfast Club,” Harris encountered none of the pushback Booker received, despite the two giving similar answers to the “black agenda” question. Harris argued that the black agenda “must include HBCUs,” and she pointed to her LIFT bill, which would give families making under $100,000 a year a monthly tax credit. She also referenced criminal justice reform and maternal mortality.

When asked specifically about reparations during her “Breakfast Club” interview, Harris “recognized” the discrimination that black Americans have historically faced, and made the case for why reparations are deserved. But like Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Sanders before her, she declined to support a specific reparations program. “There are a number of ways to do it,” she finally answered, before gesturing again to racially unspecific means-tested programs like her LIFT Act.

Harris still has no policies posted to her campaign website, but based on what she’s articulated so far, her agenda is no more “race-specific” than that of Sanders, whose universal health care plan specifically addressed treatment disparities, and whose free college plan provided support for HBCUs. If anything, Sanders’s plans go further than most — redistributing more wealth from the top, which is likely the reason he received so much pushback from establishment gatekeepers in 2016 and now).

When Charlamagne asked Harris why politicians seem uncomfortable speaking to black Americans’ specific concerns, she answered with what has become a very familiar refrain about “speaking truths” before elaborating: “On this subject, it’s about recognizing that there are huge disparities based on race. They cannot be denied, and they must be addressed.”

She’s absolutely right. And many 2020 contenders have done exactly that. But voters should be clear that “recognizing” disparities and doing something about them through aggressive, redistributive policies are not the same thing. To achieve results, it’s important for black voters to focus on material interventions and the ways in which they are tailored to address racial disparities — not just symbolic recognition. Equality depends on it.

The post Beyond the Rising Tide: Reparations for Slavery Have to Be More Than a Threat appeared first on The Intercept.

How the Federal Government Undermines Prison Education

Aaron Kinzel grew up poor in Toledo, Ohio, and from an early age, he was pulled into a life of crime. He didn’t know his father, and his mother’s partners encouraged him to break into houses, sell drugs, and engage in various forms of violence. “I just grew up around a lot of bullshit,” he says. “I was really groomed to be a professional criminal.”

He was a teenager on probation in 1997 when he left the Midwest on an ill-fated road trip to Maine with his girlfriend. He was carrying drugs and a loaded gun when he was pulled over by a state trooper. With the officer standing outside his car window, Kinzel panicked. He pulled his weapon and fired at the officer, who fired a return shot into the air as he dropped to the ground. That prompted the trooper’s partner to unload: He fired 15 rounds from a 9 mm Beretta into Kinzel’s car. Amazingly, no one was injured — not even the state trooper. Kinzel’s shot had missed him completely. “It was miraculous,” he recalls.

After a high-speed chase and a night on the lam, Kinzel and his girlfriend were apprehended. Kinzel was charged with the attempted murder of a police officer and sentenced to 19 years in prison.

Behind bars, his life changed. He earned a GED while awaiting trial, and once in prison, that made him eligible to take college-level classes. He was encouraged to do so not only by the teachers working inside his Maine correctional institution, but also by the lifers he met there. “They were scholars,” he recalls. “They have just been reading for decades and had changed their lives.” They told Kinzel to eschew a life of violence and pursue an education. While still incarcerated, he scraped up enough money to take one for-credit college course. He was hooked. Once he was released, at age 28, Kinzel kept going. He got bachelor’s and master’s degrees and is currently working on a doctorate at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, where he also teaches classes in criminal justice. “I think about the dumb shit I did as a kid and think, God, night and day as compared to how I am now.”

Kinzel’s story is included in a comprehensive new report from the Vera Institute of Justice and Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, which encourages the government to take an important step toward expanding access to postsecondary education for incarcerated individuals: reinstate access to federal Pell Grants for eligible students behind bars. Doing so would lower recidivism, pump millions into local economies, and save state taxpayers hundreds of millions in correctional costs, advocates argue. “It is a common-sense investment,” says Vera’s Fred Patrick, “and a win-win for states, the country, and for incarcerated individuals, because they’re able to come home and thrive.”

To Kinzel, this makes perfect sense. “I think formally incarcerated people, for the most part, are some of the hardest workers. If you give people the opportunity, nobody wants to go back to prison. Nobody wants to sell drugs and do all this grimy shit. It’s just sometimes, you don’t have a choice.”

A Counterproductive Ban

The federal Pell Grant program was created in 1972 to provide funding to students who lack the resources to pay for higher education, including incarcerated individuals. (Unlike typical federal student aid, a Pell Grant generally does not have to be repaid.) By 1982, there were 350 postsecondary education programs in prisons, and by the early 1990s, the number had risen to nearly 800 programs spread across some 1,300 facilities.

But in 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which helped to increase the nation’s ballooning prison population while also blocking incarcerated individuals from accessing Pell Grants. It was an ill-conceived move: Access to education behind bars, and the resulting boost to employment after release, wards against recidivism, which in the U.S. runs at roughly 50 percent during the first three years after release. (A government study tracking former inmates from 2005 to 2014 found that 83 percent would be rearrested at least once during those nine years.)

After the Pell Grant ban was implemented, the number of prison-based educational programs rapidly declined. Currently, some 60 percent of individuals in prison will not get any in-prison educational opportunities beyond a GED, though in 2014, 70 percent of people in prison expressed a desire to pursue postsecondary education.

The new report from Vera and the GCPI argues that providing the education that incarcerated individuals want would deliver rich rewards — not only lowering recidivism and saving the broader public millions per year in correctional costs, but also increasing wages and providing a foundation to break intergenerational cycles of poverty and crime.

The vast majority of incarcerated individuals are of prime working age — 78 percent of men and 83 percent of women are between the ages of 18 and 54 — yet they do not fare well in finding work upon release. According to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, just 55 percent of men report any income within a year of release; the median earnings for the group is roughly $10,000.

Vera estimates, conservatively, that if half of all state inmates eligible for Pell Grants (roughly 463,000) were given access to funding and educational programming, rates of employment would increase significantly, while earnings over the first year after release would collectively increase by more than $45 million. And because education relates to a significant drop in recidivism — lowering the odds by 48 percent — states would stand to save more than $365 million per year in correctional costs, according to the report. Texas and New York could each see annual savings of roughly $38 million; in California the annual savings would be almost $67 million.

Arthur Rizer, a former cop and federal prosecutor who now works for R Street, a center-right think tank, is a serious fan of the idea of bringing educational opportunities back into prisons. “It’s bat-shit crazy the way that we’ve handled this in the past,” he says. He notes that the vast majority of jobs require some postsecondary education, so providing that to inmates just makes sense — for individuals, businesses, and the community at large. “I call it trickle-down criminal justice.”

Ultimately, he says that data should be driving criminal justice reforms. “The takeaway for me is that this makes us safer. Period.”

There has been bipartisan support for legislation that would reinstate Pell Grant access. Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is chair of the chamber’s education and labor committee, has signaled a willingness to do so as part of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, while Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz has previously proposed a standalone bill — the Restoring Education and Learning Act of 2018 — to repeal the ban. “Most prisoners, sooner or later, are released from prison, and no one is helped when they do not have the skills to find a job,” Alexander told the New York Times last year. “Making Pell Grants available to them in the right circumstances is a good idea.”

Rizer says he is confident that there is an appetite in the White House for this reform too. Coming off passage of the First Step Act (despite the controversy surrounding it), he said he has heard from the White House that President Donald Trump sees criminal justice reform “as his legacy issue.” The iron “is really hot right now for these kinds of issues.”

And even if the feds drag their heels, he says there is plenty of energy in the states to return meaningful education to incarcerated students. Part of the energy is likely attributed to the Obama-era second-chance Pell pilot program, which is funded through 2020. As of fall 2017, enrollment in the program, which pairs 67 colleges with correctional institutions in 27 states, was up to just over 5,000 inmates. There’s movement in Texas, Michigan, and elsewhere to expand educational operations further. And despite the larger ban on access to Pell Grants, a number of institutions have longstanding partnerships to provide postsecondary education to incarcerated students. The Bard Prison Initiative has awarded nearly 550 degrees since 2001; Bard’s graduates have a less than 3 percent recidivism rate. Boston University has been educating students behind bars since 1972 through a program funded by alumni.

Jose Bou dropped out of high school in the 10th grade in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and ran away from home. He sustained himself mainly by stealing from unlocked cars. He was eventually caught and locked up for a couple of years and that got him thinking: no more stealing. He wanted something more lucrative, so he became a drug dealer. Eventually, he was busted after selling 300 grams of cocaine to an undercover cop. He pleaded guilty and got a 12-year prison sentence.

Like Kinzel, it was while he was down on that bid that he turned himself around. He enrolled in the BU program and four years later was awarded a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature. He graduated with a 3.98 grade-point average. He told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he remembered sitting in his prison bunk, feeling the raised lettering on his degree and thinking to himself: “This is … the first thing I’ve ever really finished.”

He mentored other prisoners as he finished out his time, and after his release, he enrolled in a master’s program in criminal justice at BU. He taught community college before taking on a new job as the manager of Equity, Family and Community Partnerships for the Holyoke School District. He has come full circle: Once a Holyoke district dropout, he now fosters engagement to keep kids in school and away from the prison pipeline in the same community where he grew up.

Bou is wary about having his story held out as an example, mostly because he knows that the way things are now, he was pretty lucky to end up at an institution with a robust educational program. “It was just cosmic luck,” he says. “Don’t look at Jose Bou and say, ‘Why don’t you do it just like Jose? Straighten up, just like Jose?’ Because they don’t have the opportunity.”

And he agrees that returning Pell Grant opportunities to incarcerated students is important. “You can see the change in people. That’s awesome to see. It’s more fulfilling than locking someone up — of course, we’re always going to need to lock some people up,” he said. “But what are we doing to prepare society for that individual to return?” It’s not as though people in prison don’t have any skills, he notes, but it’s a matter of trading those for more productive skills. “I’ve got other skills I can use: robbing, stealing, violence. So, if you don’t teach me new skills, I’m still going to survive. It’s just, what skills do you want me using?”

The post How the Federal Government Undermines Prison Education appeared first on The Intercept.

What Brett Kavanaugh’s Dishonest Anti-Abortion Dissent Reveals About His Supreme Court Agenda

The most obvious thing about the Supreme Court’s decision to stay a Louisiana law that would have shuttered two of the state’s three remaining abortion clinics is that it was Chief Justice John Roberts who stopped that from happening. Roberts joined the court’s four more liberal justices to deliver a 5-4 majority that maintains the status quo, for now, and keeps the clinics open.

What is perhaps less obvious, at least at first glance, is the level of intellectual dishonesty baked into a four-page dissent penned by the court’s newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh voted along with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch to deny the stay, but was the only justice to try to explain his thinking in writing. If he wanted to maintain the fidelity-to-precedent fiction he peddled at his confirmation hearings, it probably would have been better if he had stayed silent. The document is a mess of omissions and misrepresentations dressed up to appear anodyne.

At issue is a 2014 state law that would require abortion doctors in Louisiana to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinics where they work. It is identical in substance to a law passed in Texas a year earlier, a law that was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2016. There, the high court found that there was a “virtual absence” of any health benefit conferred by the law and that it amounted to an undue burden on abortion access. It was yet another reiteration of four decades of the court’s precedent upholding women’s reproductive right of choice.

The Kavanaugh dissent is a mess of omissions and misrepresentations dressed up to appear anodyne.

Nonetheless, the admitting privileges requirement remains a favorite among lawmakers bent on curbing access to abortion who claim it protects women’s health. But admitting privileges are a bureaucratic matter. They are not standardized, and a doctor can be rejected for pretty much any reason. Only one of the abortion doctors in Louisiana has admitting privileges. The others have tried repeatedly and have been rebuffed. One of the doctors sought privileges and was rejected by every hospital within 30 miles of the clinic in Shreveport. If the law were to take effect, that clinic and doctor would be unable to continue providing care. Two other doctors in the state were rejected precisely because they are abortionists.

The law has been tied up in litigation since its passage, and in January 2016 a district court judge issued a detailed, 112-page ruling blocking it from taking effect. The state appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — the same court that upheld the legality of Texas’s law before its error was corrected by the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, last fall a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit overturned the lower court’s ruling, engaging in serious mental gymnastics in order to conclude that women in Louisiana would not be burdened by the law’s impact. In fact, the panel majority suggested that the doctors had simply not tried hard enough to secure privileges — even though the evidence in the record is entirely to the contrary.

The Center for Reproductive Rights sought to have the entire court reconsider the panel’s ruling, but the court declined, teeing the case up for the Supreme Court. It is the first direct challenge to abortion rights to make it all the way to the reconstituted court, and the conventional wisdom is that the justices will consider the merits of the case during their next term, which begins in October.

The Kavanaugh “Compromise”

In the main, Kavanaugh proposes what sounds like a compromise. The court should deny the stay and allow Louisiana’s admitting privileges law to take effect. He notes that the state says it will take 45 days to implement the new law, giving the doctors a bit of extra time to secure privileges. If they can’t and the clinics close, then CRR could file a new legal challenge in district court — effectively starting back at square one.

There are a lot of things wrong with this scheme and its premise and I’ll get to that, but first it is worth noting that this is precisely the kind of alleged compromise that Kavanaugh suggested in his dissent in Garza v. Hargan, which involved the government’s efforts to block a 17-year-old migrant in its custody from getting an abortion. The teen, who was detained at a private shelter in Texas, had already obtained a judicial bypass — meaning that she could access care without a parent or guardian’s permission — but the government refused to allow her to go to a clinic. Instead, they forced her into counseling at a crisis pregnancy center. The American Civil Liberties Union sued on her behalf and won in the D.C. Circuit Court, prompting Kavanaugh’s dissent. There he suggested that the government should have more time to find the teen an immigration sponsor. That way, the government wouldn’t have to be involved in directly facilitating the abortion, and the teen would be in a position to get counseling from her adult sponsor before having the procedure. If the government couldn’t find a sponsor, the girl could again ask the court to intervene.

This was a disingenuous and ridiculous proposal. For starters, the government had already been trying to find the teen a sponsor and hadn’t been able to, so there was no reason to think that one would suddenly appear — and in the process, they had been blocking her access to abortion for more than a month. She’d already gone through judicial bypass, which isn’t exactly easy: During the process, a judge determines whether the teen is mature enough to make the decision on her own and often tests her resolve. The judge granted her request, so there was also no reason to think that she was suddenly going to change her mind after talking things over with one more random adult.

In essence, then, what Kavanaugh was selling as a procedural compromise was really nothing more than a solution that would give the state license to do as it pleased by placing additional unnecessary and unconstitutional barriers in front of a woman seeking abortion. With his opinion in the Louisiana case, he is offering the same sort of solution — and misrepresents or conveniently omits important facts of the case to do so.

In his supposed compromise in the Louisiana case — known as June Medical Services, LLC v. Gee — Kavanaugh leans heavily on the idea that there’s no immediate harm or foul because the state of Louisiana says that it will not be enforcing the law for 45 days after it takes effect. Meaning that in the interim, he writes, the abortion doctors could continue to provide care while also chasing admitting privileges. This is just wrong. The alleged 45-day ramp-up is a fiction. It wasn’t until just before the state’s lawyers filed a brief with the Supreme Court arguing against the stay that the state posted a notice to the health department’s website outlining how it would go about verifying admitting privileges for purposes of enforcing the law. So the 45-day waiting period never existed until the state was readying to argue that no harm would come to anyone by allowing the law to take effect.

Despite the state’s protestations to the contrary, there is evidence in the record that Louisiana lawmakers proposed the regulation not to improve patient safety, but solely to close abortion clinics.

Instead of seeing this for what it was — a brazen misdirect — Kavanaugh blithely adopted the fiction. And even though Kavanaugh asserts that Louisiana has said that during this interim period the doctors, “could lawfully continue to perform abortions,” there is nothing to suggest this is the case. The law itself contains both civil and criminal penalties for noncompliance, and nothing in the state’s health department notice changes this. Moreover, enforcement of the criminal portion of the statute lies with prosecutors, not the health department, so even if there was some sort of administrative interim period that doesn’t necessarily constrain any particular prosecutor from taking action.

Kavanaugh also doubles down on this notion that the doctors just need to try harder to obtain admitting privileges and that the 45-day reprieve will give them the opportunity to do so. This is insulting and adopts the 5th Circuit’s revisionist history of the case.

In its 2016 opinion blocking Louisiana’s law, the district court made detailed findings on this point — findings that the 5th Circuit’s 2-1 panel majority all but ignored. In fact, the panel leaned heavily on the idea that the doctors were to blame for not receiving privileges. Louisiana has run with this idea — writing in its brief to the Supreme Court that it shouldn’t be penalized “from the independent decisions of doctors not to seek in good faith to comply with the law” — and Kavanaugh has, again, simply adopted this reasoning: Allowing the law to take effect, he wrote, would allow time for the doctors to put forth “good-faith efforts” to comply.

All of this ignores the fact that Louisiana’s law was passed in 2014. The doctors have been trying to obtain privileges for more than four years. One was flat-out denied by every single hospital; two were denied because they provide abortions. There is no timeline for a hospital to make a determination on privileges, and some of the Louisiana doctors have had their applications pending for years, which amount to de facto denials.

And despite the state’s protestations to the contrary, there is evidence in the record that Louisiana lawmakers proposed the regulation not to improve patient safety, but solely to close abortion clinics. In its opinion, the district court pointed out that the state health department, anti-abortion advocacy groups, and the law’s primary sponsor, Rep. Katrina Jackson, undertook a coordinated effort to restrict abortion access in the state. In fact, in an email exchange, the vice president of an anti-abortion advocacy group wrote to Jackson to laud the law and point out that in Texas, the statute had “tremendous success in closing abortion clinics.”

The Case of the Missing Doe

And then there’s the matter of the Missing Doe. In his dissent, Kavanaugh essentially argues that all that’s at issue here is whether three Louisiana abortion doctors — designated as Doe 2, Doe 5, and Doe 6 — can obtain privileges. He notes that one doctor in the state already has privileges (without acknowledging that this is so only because the doctor has a private ob/gyn practice through which he admits a certain number of patients a year) and then pivots back to the idea that Does 2, 5, and 6 can use this 45-day period to give this all another shot. If they get privileges, then they can continue providing care and there will be no undue burden on abortion access, he concludes.

What he completely omits is any mention of Doe 1, one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Doe 1 is the doctor from Shreveport who sought privileges at every hospital in that area and has been denied privileges. So, a 45-day extension isn’t going to change anything for Doe 1 and if the law takes effect, the Shreveport clinic will close and leave thousands of women without meaningful access to care.

The omission of Doe 1 from Kavanaugh’s analysis seems particularly dishonest: Doe 1’s predicament belies the notion that there is any period of time that would be harmless for women seeking care and it suggests what is to come, because there is no reason to think that Doe 1 is somehow different than the other three doctors who have spent years seeking privileges without success. Meaning that if the law were to take effect, regardless of whether that happens tomorrow or 45 days from now, the most likely outcome, supported by actual facts, is that Louisiana would be left with just one doctor and one clinic to provide services to the roughly 10,000 women in the state who seek abortion care each year.

There is at least one additional problem with Kavanaugh’s dissent, and it has to do with the role of the 5th Circuit. In reviewing the district court’s findings that blocked the law, the appellate court was supposed to be analyzing the decision for “clear error” — meaning that if the trial court’s factual determinations, based on witnesses and evidence presented to it, are plausible in light of the entire record, the appellate court may not reverse the lower court opinion even if it would have decided it differently.

Clearly, the 5th Circuit did not do that here. The district court’s decision was fact-heavy and clearly supported. That the 5th Circuit didn’t like its conclusion — that enacting the law would be detrimental to women seeking abortion — is irrelevant. Instead, in order to justify its decision, the panel majority whipped out some fanciful math to come to the conclusion that no women would be unduly impacted by the regulation. They claim that even if the Shreveport clinic closes, two other doctors — doctors who have not been able to obtain admitting privileges — would merely have to obtain privileges and then, between them, would only have to work 3.6 additional hours per week to handle the increased patient load. And that, the court concluded, means women seeking abortion would only end up waiting an extra “54 minutes” to obtain services. There is literally nothing in the lower court record to plausibly support these assertions.

If the law were to take effect, the most likely outcome is that Louisiana would be left with just one doctor and one clinic to provide services to the roughly 10,000 women in the state who seek abortion care each year.

Not that it is entirely surprising that the 5th Circuit would substitute its judgment about the facts of the case — or that it would just make up its own “facts.” The court is notoriously ideological and results-oriented — and, with the addition of four new Trump-appointed judges, is poised to become even more so. In another abortion-related Texas case, Trump appointee Judge James Ho last summer wrote a startling opinion championing those who object to the “moral tragedy” of abortion and accusing a respected and long-serving district judge of being anti-Christian. And this is the same circuit court that upheld the Texas abortion provisions ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. At one point, in defending her position that the restrictions didn’t actually present a burden for women (even though they’d led to the closure of nearly half of the state’s clinics), Judge Edith Jones opined that Texas has uncongested roads and high speed limits, so traveling longer distances for care wasn’t really an issue.

So it’s hardly surprising that the panel would try to rejigger the facts in June Medical Services to bring them in line with the court’s outright hostility toward reproductive rights. What is more astounding is that in adopting the 5th Circuit’s conclusions, Kavanaugh has basically signed off on the court’s improper, if not simply rogue, approach to its work. Put another way, what the 5th Circuit has done is put itself into the position of being the final legal arbiter. It has positioned itself as both the district court and Supreme Court — making findings of fact and then applying precedent in a way that limits its meaning and allows an onerous restriction on abortion to all but eliminate access.

Paging Susan Collins

Perhaps there is no reason to be surprised that Kavanaugh would come out like this so soon and unabashedly, even though he tried to represent himself as a moderate who would respect precedent. Still, it is disturbing that he would so easily omit critical facts from his analysis and then couch the impact of his revisions as if they represent some benign compromise. Notably, none of the other justices signed on to his dissent.

Since the ruling, Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins has been widely criticized (again) for casting the deciding vote last fall in favor of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. At the time, she said that Kavanaugh had, both publicly and privately, assured her that he wasn’t gunning for Roe v. Wade, which he considered “precedent on precedent.” Defending her boss, Collins’s Communications Director Annie Clark said last week that it was “clear that a lot of the critics of Justice Kavanaugh’s dissenting opinion haven’t even read it.”

One has to wonder if Collins has done so.

“To say that this case,” she told CNN, “this most recent case, in which he wrote a very careful dissent, tells you that he’s going to repeal Roe v. Wade I think is absurd.”

Maybe. But Kavanaugh certainly seems to be trying to make Roe irrelevant.

The post What Brett Kavanaugh’s Dishonest Anti-Abortion Dissent Reveals About His Supreme Court Agenda appeared first on The Intercept.

Locked Inside a Freezing Federal Jail, They United to Protest Their Conditions — Only to Face Reprisals

Jordan remembers jolting awake in his cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, in the early-morning hours of Saturday, February 2. He had been hit with pepper spray to the face. Jordan, who The Intercept is identifying by a pseudonym, said guards sprayed and shackled him and his cellmate, then led them, partially blinded, to a shower area to rinse off. Next, he spent several hours in a “freezing” unit wearing only boxers and a T-shirt, before being transferred to solitary confinement.

“Their objective was to make an example out of my cellie and i,” Jordan, who has since been relocated to another federal detention facility, wrote to The Intercept.

The raid on the cell came after the men locked up on his unit — having endured six days without heat, electricity, phone access, or hot meals — decided to cover their cell doors with cardboard, towels, and toilet paper in order to disrupt the guards’ daily tally of incarcerated people. “We were tryin to demonstrate that enough was enough,” Jordan explained through email. “anybody with a brain and a tad bit of self respect would think to protest those conditions. we just wanted to be treated like humans.”

Later that morning, throngs of family members and others — including local and national elected officials — gathered outside in the parking lot for a weekend of protest against the jail conditions. With the news media looking on, people inside banged on their cell windows. Unbeknownst to those outside, however, the Metropolitan Detention Center was brimming with prisoners challenging their conditions in other ways: large and small acts, both individual and collective. All of them were met with reprisals.

Accounts from incarcerated people, their family members, and lawyers sketch a picture of widespread protests at the Sunset Park detention facility. People across multiple housing units undertook coordinated acts of nonviolent disobedience and at least three hunger strikes. Retaliation by Metropolitan Detention Center staff ranged from pepper spray and solitary confinement to shutting off toilets across entire units. All told, men on at least four housing units inside the jail say they took part in some sort of collective protest of their conditions. In each instance, they say their actions were met with official retaliation.

“When I see protests of the kind that took place at the Metropolitan Detention Center, I conclude that prisoners have really reached their breaking point.”

“When I see protests of the kind that took place at the Metropolitan Detention Center, I conclude that prisoners have really reached their breaking point, because they are taking — and they know they are taking — very significant risks,” said David Fathi, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “Retaliation against prisoners who protest is a common, everyday occurrence. Prisoners are a population who can, with very rare exceptions, be abused almost with impunity.”

Even when Rep. Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Bureau of Prisons, toured Metropolitan Detention Center during the power outage, incarcerated people told him that they were afraid to talk about what was going on for fear of reprisals by Bureau of Prisons staff. “They told him guards would come up and retaliate,” said Robert Gottheim, Nadler’s district director, who accompanied him on the tour.

The risk seemed worthwhile to some. “Police in here wilding on the inside,” one incarcerated person said in audio from inside the jail obtained and authenticated by The Intercept. “They trying to make us like, go against each other in here, but we’re not falling for their traps,” he added. “Everybody just trying to keep the peace amongst everybody in here, no matter what walk of life they coming from. We just trying to stay strong, but they trying every trick in they book.”

Because sources inside the Metropolitan Detention Center fear further retaliation for speaking about what took place there over recent weeks, The Intercept is withholding the names of people who are confined at the jail, as well as other information that might identify them, like the names of their individual lawyers and family members, or the housing units to which they are assigned.

The Bureau of Prisons, which runs the federal jail, declined to answer a list of questions about protests and reprisals at the Metropolitan Detention Center, citing an ongoing investigation. “Allegations of misconduct are thoroughly investigated and appropriate action is taken if such allegations are proven true,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 04: Metropolitan Detention Center security staff and Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons Special Operations Response Team patrol the grounds after reports of a bomb threat at the facility on February 4, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Power has been fully restored to the prison after inmates suffered the past week without heat and access to televisions, computers or telephones. On Monday morning, the facility received a bomb threat following a weekend of protests. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons Special Operations Response Team patrol the grounds at the Metropolitan Detention Center after reports of a bomb threat at the facility on February 4, 2019, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On one locked-down unit, according to two lawyers who each spoke with their clients there, residents were initially let out of their cells one at a time at mealtimes to retrieve a tray of food, but were ordered back into their cold, dark cells to eat.

On February 1, the sixth day of the power outage, one man from this unit decided to make a gesture of resistance, sitting down to eat his dinner in the unit’s common area — where the dim illumination of the emergency lights allowed him to see his food. Within seconds, as others looked on from their cells, eight guards in riot gear entered the area and removed the man in handcuffs, leaving those who witnessed the events to assume that he’d been moved to solitary confinement on the Special Housing Unit, or SHU.

The next day, February 2, no breakfast was ever served, even to those with diabetes and other medical conditions. When the first meal of the day finally came at 4:30 in the afternoon, guards in riot gear loomed over the food distribution to make sure no one tried to disobey again. At this point, the entire housing unit decided to go on a hunger strike. “Among themselves,” one lawyer said, relaying their client’s description of events, “they decided that they didn’t want the peaceful protest of their fellow inmate to mean nothing.”

“They went on a hunger strike because they weren’t getting their meals at proper times. He said people are in there, different kind of gangs, and everybody’s united.”

At least two other housing units also organized hunger strikes to protest their conditions during the power outage, according to lawyers, family members who have spoken with men on those units, and one incarcerated person.

“They went on a hunger strike because they weren’t getting their meals at proper times,” said a loved one of an incarcerated person who took part. “He said people are in there, different kind of gangs, and everybody’s united.”

While there’s a Bureau of Prisons rule that forbids “Conduct which disrupts or interferes with the security or orderly running of the institution,” no regulation says that people detained at the jail have to eat their food. That doesn’t mean the hunger strikes weren’t dangerous. “Corrections officials generally react quite strongly to even the most peaceful and rule-abiding of protests, so things like refusing a meal or some sort of quiet protest can be risky,” said Betsy Ginsberg, a professor and the director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Cardozo Law School, who represents clients at the Metropolitan Detention Center. “I’ve certainly heard of cases where people are severely disciplined, I think on a theory that a showing of that kind of use of authority is going to prevent further unrest or protest.”

On all three of those housing units where men collectively refused food, jail staff shut off the valves to the toilets in all of the cells, according to accounts relayed to lawyers. Confined to their cells on lockdown, deprived of light, the men on these units now found themselves shivering on their bunks with their heads inches from toilet bowls nearly overflowing with festering feces.

Jail staff has the capacity to shut off toilets from each housing unit’s control room, both in order to prevent contraband from being flushed away during a raid and to make sure that no one deliberately floods the housing unit by stopping up a toilet. But Fathi of the ACLU said toilet shut-offs are also a long-established technique of mass retaliation.

“It’s something that should almost never be done,” Fathi said. “Courts have been very clear that a working toilet is a necessity of life to which prisoners are legally entitled and depriving them of that for anything more than a very short time for a very compelling reason is presumptively unlawful.”

Retaliation during the blackout sometimes seemed arbitrary. On one unit, guards took a man out of his cell and into solitary confinement after he asked them when the heat would come back on, according to a lawyer who spoke with a client housed there. The remaining men on the unit took the move as a warning not to complain about the conditions. Another man on the same unit told his lawyer about an incident in which guards forcefully extracted a man from his cell using pepper spray and took him to the SHU after he complained about needing to take a shower.

Five times daily, according to the federal jail’s handbook, guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center conduct “the count,” during which — if they’re not already locked down — prisoners must return to their cells and be tallied. One man told his lawyer that even as he remained locked down in a lightless cell with no explanation, guards continued to mockingly repeat their ordinary call: “Lights on for the count!”

Jordan and his unit mates decided to cover their cell door windows with towels and paper in order to interrupt this routine. “You’re not helping them in terms of feeding them or anything else, so why should we allow you to do a count?” Jordan’s girlfriend told The Intercept, explaining their rationale.

The day after guards pepper-sprayed Jordan and his cellmate, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., visited the men in the segregated housing unit, where she says she heard Jordan’s story just as he relayed it to The Intercept. Velázquez, whose district includes the Metropolitan Detention Center, spoke to reporters and activists immediately after touring the facility. “I spoke to both of them,” she said. “They are doing well under their circumstances. Just because they covered the glass to protest the treatment they felt wasn’t fair, they were used as an example to the other inmates.”

“It was a very simple note. It just had a phone number and said ‘Please tell my wife and family that I’m OK.’”

Sabrina Shroff, a lawyer with the Federal Defenders of New York, stood in the parking lot outside the Metropolitan Detention Center on the morning of February 3, as temperatures finally crept into the 40s. It had been a week since the federal jail lost power. Shroff had been promised that this morning, for the first time in a week, she and other defense attorneys would be allowed inside to meet with clients to help them prepare for upcoming cases. But when she arrived, she was told that once again, lawyers and family members were barred from entering.

As she waited in the parking lot to see if jail officials would change their mind, Shroff gazed up and was surprised to see a paper airplane drifting down from one of the high windows. She followed it as it drifted in the air, but a prison guard stationed outside got to it first. Fortunately for Shroff, Velázquez, the House member, was also outside the jail, preparing to make another inspection of conditions inside. Shroff persuaded Velázquez to retrieve the paper plane.

“It was a very simple note, written in blue crayon on a visit form,” Shroff said. “There was no name attached. It just had a phone number and said ‘Please tell my wife and family that I’m OK.’”

Shroff tried repeatedly to reach the family over the next few days, but was unable to. The cellphone account attached to the number was out of credit.

The paper plane was just one instance of incarcerated people inside the Metropolitan Detention Center trying to get word out as the power outage dragged on — efforts that went up against tough odds and, in some cases, were met with punitive measures.

Veronica Matus, 42, an activist from Queens, left, embraces Catana Yehudah, 50, of the Bronx, as Yehuda speaks into the microphone  Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, in New York, at prisoners listening from inside their cells at the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal facility of all security levels, where prisoners have been without heat, hot water, electricity and proper sanitation due to an electrical failure since earlier in the week. Yehuda's brother Jason Smith, 40, is serving an 18-month sentence in the prison for gun possession. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Demonstrators outside of the Metropolitan Detention Center speak into the microphone on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, in New York.

Photo: Kathy Willens/AP

The growing protests in the parking lot outside the federal jail a week after the power outage provided a few opportunities: In addition to sending winged notes, incarcerated people lucky enough to have windows in their cells could answer questions from the demonstrators below, knocking on their windows in response. “Bang on your windows if you still don’t have heat!” a woman called out over a bullhorn from the parking lot on February 3. A clattering chorus echoed back the reply.

This kind of direct communication may have made prison officials uncomfortable. One woman says her brother saw guards with nonlethal beanbag guns walking along his housing unit after the lights were restored. They were “trying like to intimidate them,” she said, “telling them, stop banging on the windows, they have the lights now, what are they banging for?”

“It’s really stressful to him,” she added. “They’re treating them like animals and telling them, ‘Y’all getting treated like this because y’all don’t know how to act.’ But … how do you act when you’re in that predicament?”

Others had taken still more risky measures. On January 31, five days after the power went out, men on one housing unit took the opportunity of a brief respite from lockdown to gather in a cell and shoot a video on a contraband cellphone. “It’s freezing in here,” one said, a shirt around his head. Flipping the switch to no effect, the men demonstrated that the lights in the cell weren’t working. Neither was the toilet. People on the unit were getting sick, one of the men said — “They treat humans worse than animals.”

Within days, the video was circulating on social media and posted to the site WorldStarHipHop. People incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center aren’t allowed cellphones and, according to lawyers with clients on the housing unit, the response from jail authorities was swift. Men suspected of making the video were taken from their cells and put in the SHU.

Another man said he believes that he was sent to the SHU because of Facebook posts made by someone outside the prison that drew attention to conditions inside.

“It’s definitely causing a lot of stress for my family,” his loved one told The Intercept on February 11, a week after electricity was restored. “We can’t speak to him. It’s hard to sleep at night not knowing what he’s going through. My children can’t speak to their dad. They’re scared for him.”

Cold and left in the dark, the people locked up in the Metropolitan Detention Center were unable to leverage even official channels made available to complain about poor conditions. Under Bureau of Prisons protocols, incarcerated people can file formal complaints using a standardized form called a BP-8. Filing a BP-8 is the first step toward getting grievances about jail conditions addressed.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 required prisoners to exhaust the Bureau of Prisons’ internal grievance system before they are allowed to assert their rights in court. The result, say critics of the law, has been the weakening of one of the only mechanisms for independent oversight of jails and prisons. The act “allows prison officials to control prisoners’ access to the courts,” says Fathi of the ACLU. “They can do that by making their grievance system slow and technical and complicated, or just by making grievance forms unavailable.”

Grievance forms were indeed scarce at the Metropolitan Detention Center during and after the power outage, according to lawyers with the Federal Defenders who received a torrent of calls from many of the housing units inside. The clients complained that guards were denying requests for forms and telling anyone asking for them that “they were out of BP-8s.” When news of this reached Deirdre von Dornum, attorney-in-charge of the Federal Defenders for the Eastern District of New York, she immediately emailed Nicole McFarland and Adam Johnson, the jail’s legal liaisons.

“This is unacceptable,” von Dornum wrote. “Please let me know when and how this will be remedied.” McFarland wrote back: “I promptly looked into this issue and learned that there are BP-8 forms available throughout the facility.” Later that day, according to reports the Federal Defenders of New York got from their clients, BP-8s began to appear on the housing units.

As the people in MDC began to fill out the forms, however, many of them realized that there was another hurdle: They couldn’t submit the forms without the signature of their housing unit’s staff correctional counselor; but on several units, counselors were nowhere to be seen.

“Given the severity of the conditions that week at MDC, I’m concerned that these detainees may have been targeted for reprisals by senior leadership.”

One person who did manage to submit a complaint about the conditions of the past week soon had cause to regret it. According to his lawyer, within hours of submitting his BP-8, the man was taken from his cell while guards rummaged through and confiscated everyday items in what the man took to be retaliation for his complaint. Von Dornum said she has received multiple reports of people being subjected to disruptive cell searches after filing grievances in the days since the power outage.

The power is back on at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. As a result of public outcyy and lawmakers pressure, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General has launched an investigation into the response to the heat and electricity failures at the jail. Whether the scope of this inquest will include allegations that staff punished people for protesting their conditions remains unclear. In a statement to The Intercept, Velázquez said that any Department of Justice investigation should include these allegations of retaliation. “Given the severity of the conditions that week at MDC, I’m concerned that these detainees may have been targeted for reprisals by senior leadership,” she said.

Last week, when regular visitation resumed at the Metropolitan Detention Center, Jordan’s girlfriend was able to visit him for the first time since he’d been placed in the SHU. During the visit, she says, he described what he had endured, including the pepper spray and shackling. “He’s doing OK for the most part, but he’s still kind of jumpy,” she recalled. “Like, you know, when you hear a door open and you are jumping up?”

Jordan later summarized the cold, dark conditions that precipitated his unit’s protest. “Those are conditions that dog fighters subject their dogs to to make them more vicious,” he wrote. “leave em in the dark n feed em once in a while. it has a psychological effect on you.”

“Unless we speak out it’ll continue to go unnoticed and swept under the rug,” he added. “Right is right and wrong is wrong.”

The post Locked Inside a Freezing Federal Jail, They United to Protest Their Conditions — Only to Face Reprisals appeared first on The Intercept.

Jair Bolsonaro Praised the Genocide of Indigenous People. Now He’s Emboldening Attackers of Brazil’s Amazonian Communities.

“The Brazilian cavalry was very incompetent. Competent, yes, was the American cavalry that decimated its Indians in the past and nowadays does not have this problem in their country.” That’s the opinion of Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, expressed on the floor of Congress in 1998. His views appear to have changed little since then; in a video message to supporters 18 years later, he promised to revoke the protected status of an Indigenous reserve in 2019 and in the next breath added, “We’re going to give a rifle and a carry permit to every farmer.”

The protection of Indigenous lands is guaranteed by the Brazilian constitution to preserve the rights and cultures of groups that have been persecuted for centuries. Brazil is home to approximately 900,000 Indigenous citizens from 305 tribes, most of whom live on reserves, but more than half of the locations claimed by Indigenous groups have not yet received government recognition. Bolsonaro, consistent with his anti-Indigenous stance throughout his career, said in a televised interview shortly after his election that if it were up to him, “there won’t be any more demarcations of Indigenous land.”

Any rollback of protections for Indigenous lands would pose a dire threat to the Amazon rainforest, which is being rapidly cut down by ranchers, farmers, and extractive industries.

Bolsonaro’s attitudes toward Brazil’s Indigenous people and their lands are similar to those of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, during which time thousands of tribespeople were killed and thousands more were driven from their lands to make way for large infrastructure projects and farms.

In last year’s election, Bolsonaro campaigned hard on cuts to government funding for Indigenous services and freezing the expansion of federally protected reserves. He immediately moved to make good on these promises after his inauguration last month.

Meanwhile, armed bands of land grabbers, known as “grileiros,” have been staging attacks on Indigenous communities — a pattern of violence that has surged in the wake of Bolsonaro’s election, according to Indigenous leaders and allies interviewed for this article. “With Bolsonaro, the invaders are feeling more at ease,” Bitete Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, who lives on an Indigenous reserve, told The Intercept by telephone.

He referred to the invaders as “peons” sent by powerful bosses to cut down trees, burn undergrowth, and plant grass for cattle grazing — the first stage in the vastly profitable criminal enterprise of land-grabbing in the Amazon. From there, the lands are often sold several times over on the black market, meaning that poor states lose out on much-needed tax revenue.

Prosecutors have raised the alarm over four territories that have experienced, or are in grave danger of, invasion or attack, while advocacy groups say the number is at least six territories and fear that darker days are still to come. An investigation published this week by the NGO Repórter Brasil found that at least 14 fully protected Indigenous territories are currently under attack.


Indigenous Brazilians on the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory following an invasion by suspected land grabbers in January.

Photo: Puré Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau

Under Attack

Last month, the image of a bullet-riddled metal plaque reading “National Indigenous Foundation, Protected Territory” made the rounds on WhatsApp, Brazil’s most popular messaging app. The sign marks the entrance to one of several villages in the vast Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous reserve, in a lawless region of the Amazonian state of Rondônia, near the Bolivian border.

Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau leaders and local advocacy groups shared the solemn photograph with an accompanying audio message explaining that the gunshots were fresh, the latest attack in an ongoing “invasion” by groups of grileiros.

The tribe fears that a violent conflict with gun-toting outsiders is imminent. Recently, armed with bows and arrows, they managed to expel a group of grileiros from the reserve and filmed the confrontation. The trespassers promised to return.

“They want to take the land, divide it up into lots, and raise cattle,” Bitete Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau said. “They are getting very close.” The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau are not alone.

On his first day as president, Bolsonaro transferred the authority to protect Indigenous lands from Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, or FUNAI, a government entity tasked with the protection of Indigenous communities, to the Ministry of Agriculture, handing a victory to the powerful agribusiness sector that backed his campaign and has its eyes on large tracts of pristine forest. Sydney Possuelo, a veteran Indigenous observer and former FUNAI president, described the move as “the death” of FUNAI, in an interview with the Folha de São Paulo newspaper.

Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, now headed by Tereza Cristina Dias, a former member Congress from the powerful “ruralista” agricultural caucus, did not respond to The Intercept’s questions about whether the demarcation of Indigenous lands would continue.

Days after signing the decree, Bolsonaro tweeted a video clip of another one of his ministers who argued in a cable news interview that many of the existing Indigenous reserves were established using fraudulent documents, and called the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “spurious” and “treasonous.”

The Chamber of Indigenous Peoples and Traditional Communities of Brazil’s Public Prosecutors Office has sent an urgent memo to the justice minister warning that the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and three other communities were in danger. The Indigenous Missionary Council, or CIMI, a Catholic aid group, recorded attacks and threats in five states.

“What we are seeing is a new phase of illegal occupations of Indigenous lands,” said Cleber Buzatto, CIMI’s executive secretary.


A January analysis by the Indigenous Missionary Council found that, in the first weeks of 2019, eight Indigenous communities in five Brazilian states have either been attacked or experienced serious threats of invasion by grileiros.

Map: Rodrigo Bento for The Intercept

The Bolsonaro Effect

According to Daniel Azevedo Lôbo, a public prosecutor in Rondônia, the region surrounding the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory is rife with criminal groups constantly looking to illegally exploit Indigenous territories or forest conservation units. In January, he said that dozens of suspected grileiros were planning a major invasion, and another had already taken place this year. Federal Police arrested one suspect, while the rest fled into the forest.

Grileiros “see themselves as workers and producers, but they are criminals,” Lôbo told The Intercept. He said that land grabbers in Rondônia likely felt encouraged by the new administration. “They always look for a way to legitimize their illegal actions,” he said. “The government might have changed, but the law didn’t.”

The 7,200-square mile Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau reserve is larger than the U.S. states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Around 200 tribespeople of different Indigenous subgroups live in villages on the margins, and an unknown number of “isolated” Indigenous people who do not have direct contact with the outside world reside deeper within the borders.

Using satellite imagery, Brazil’s Social Environmental Institute concluded that only 2 percent of the reserve is deforested, as compared to 70 percent in the surrounding area.

Rondônia is one of the Brazilian Amazon’s most deforested states, and much of the remaining jungle is in Indigenous lands and federal conservation units, making them popular targets for criminal gangs. By no coincidence, the state recorded 17 murders related to land conflicts in 2017, one of the worst rates in the nation.

Last year, Bolsonaro won in Rondônia by a wide margin and a retired military police officer from Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party was elected governor.

The Karipuna Indigenous territory, also in Rondônia, is similarly under assault from land grabbers. Greenpeace’s investigative journalism unit, Unearthed, reported from the territory in 2017 after prosecutors said the tribe — with less than 60 members living on the site — was at risk of “genocide.” “They are close to the village now,” Adriano Karipuna told The Intercept recently. He visited the U.N. headquarters in New York last year to denounce a possible “massacre” against his people.

Federal Police have since seized tractors and other heavy machinery from the nearby community of União Bandeirantes and are investigating three suspects in connection with illegal logging. The Public Ministry, with the support of the Federal Police and FUNAI, is expected to request National Guard troops to defend the reserve.

FUNAI’s new president, Franklimberg de Freitas — an army reserve general who is currently the target of a government ethics enquiry for conflict of interest regarding his former consultancy gig for the Canadian mining firm Belo Sun — also visited Rondônia late last month following the recent invasions.

Next door in Mato Grosso state, prosecutors warned that they would meet any invasion of the Marãiwatsédé reserve of the Xavante people with an “energetic response.” In 2012, farmers illegally occupying the land were expelled by court order. Brazil’s O Globo newspaper reported that Nelson Barbudo — also known as “Bearded Nelson” — the state’s most popular congressperson and Bolsonaro ally, had encouraged the invasion, calling their removal “a crime against producers.”

Twelve hundred miles south, in Rio Grande do Sul state, local prosecutors have opened an investigation into a reported incident in which two hooded men made threats and opened fire at a small Mbyá-Guarani encampment in the capital, Porto Alegre.

In Maranhão state, Claudio da Silva, who leads a local forest guard on the Caru Indigenous territory told The Intercept that a group of farmers that was removed in 2014 following a court decision was threatening to come back. “With the proposals of Bolsonaro, they are organizing to return to the Awá territory,” he said. “We can’t just cross our arms.”


Members of the Karipuna Indigenous tribe in 2017. Grileiros have illegally invaded federally protected Karipuna territory in 2019 in the hope of taking over and exploiting the land for commercial purposes.

Photo: Tommaso Protti

From Bad to Worse

About 0.4 percent of Brazil’s population lives on federally protected Indigenous lands, which cover around 13 percent of national territory and contain some of the nation’s best-maintained forests. Climate scientists consider empowerment of Indigenous people and their lands as an important weapon in the fight against climate change. But regardless of who is running the nation, throughout recent history, those concerns have been sublimated to the short-term economic interests of major industries.

Before Bolsonaro, the situation was already increasingly dire for Brazil’s Indigenous communities as the agribusiness lobby has grown more powerful in state capitals and in the corridors of power in Brasília. In 2017, under President Michel Temer, FUNAI’s budget was cut by nearly half, and a law was passed that effectively gave amnesty to land grabbers who had continuously occupied lands since before 2011. A similar measure had already been passed in 2004.

Invasions of Indigenous lands jumped from 59 in 2016 to 96 in 2017, according to CIMI’s annual report “Violence Against Indigenous People in Brazil.” The study highlighted that “one can see a significant increase in invasions; theft of natural resources such as timber and minerals; illegal hunting and fishing; soil and water contamination by pesticides; and fires, among other criminal actions.” It was also one of Brazil’s bloodiest years on record for land dispute-related violence, with at least 70 killings, according to rural violence watchdog Comissão Pastoral da Terra.

Before Temer, President Dilma Rousseff’s administration recognized very few Indigenous lands, experts say, to appease allies in Congress who represented major agricultural interests.

During her mandate, she also inaugurated the controversial Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam. Before construction began in 2011, environmentalists warnedcorrectly — that it would cause enormous damage and subsequent deforestation in the region.

But under Bolsonaro, Indigenous leaders in the region believe that the actions of unscrupulous loggers and land grabbers will only get worse.

Leo Xipaya, an Indigenous leader who fought against Belo Monte for years, has no doubts about it: “Bolsonaro’s plans put Indigenous people at risk.”

The post Jair Bolsonaro Praised the Genocide of Indigenous People. Now He’s Emboldening Attackers of Brazil’s Amazonian Communities. appeared first on The Intercept.

Amazon Pullout Shows What Anti-Capitalist Organizing and Leftist Politicians Can Do

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26: People opposed to Amazon's plan to locate a headquarters in New York City hold a protest in Court House Square on November 26, 2018 in the Long Island City neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. Amazon recently named Long Island City as one of two locations that will house Amazon's second North American headquarters, known as HQ2.  (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

People opposed to Amazon’s plan to locate a headquarters in New York City hold a protest in Court House Square on Nov. 26, 2018 in the Long Island City neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

When Amazon, the monopsonistic retailer and ICE collaborator, announced last November that it would open its “second headquarters” in New York City, local resistance arose immediately. The day following the announcement, over 100 community activists, union leaders, and local politicians rallied in the Queens, New York, neighborhood of Long Island City — where Amazon planned to build – in opposition to the deal, which included $3 billion worth of government kickbacks.

Yet while resistance to Amazon’s HQ2 was swift and formidable, the task of stopping the deal appeared Sisyphean. So when Amazon announced on Thursday that it was canceling plans for the New York corporate campus, the news was met with delight and surprise. Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in history; Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised the company that he’d change his name to “Amazon Cuomo” were the deal to go through. It is rare to win against a corporate-government power nexus of this magnitude.

The plan’s thwarting offers a lesson in the possibility of forceful collective struggle against seemingly unbeatable Goliaths. It also proves the need for left-wing politicians and organizers to challenge and replace conservative, capitalist Democrats if we are to wrest control of neighborhoods, cities, and public resources away from corporate interests and towards the good of existing communities.

In its statement announcing the plan’s cancellation, Amazon was explicit that its decision was in response to strong opposition from certain lawmakers. “A number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward,’’ the company stated.

New York legislatures of old showed no sensitivity to anti-gentrification and anti-corporate sentiment.

It’s true that these politicians played a crucial role. Yet without consistent pressure and door-to-door canvassing from activist and community groups — including immigrant and worker advocate organizations Make the Road NY and Desis Rising Up and Moving, alongside Teamsters and Queens residents — many elected officials would not have taken up a stance against Amazon. New York legislatures of old showed no such sensitivity to anti-gentrification and anti-corporate sentiment.

“Let’s be clear who deserves the credit for this victory against Amazon — the working people of NYC who refused to let another company reap billions in corporate welfare at the expense of the City’s social welfare,” wrote New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, a longtime opponent to the Amazon deal, on Twitter. Citing his opposition to the retail giant’s anti-union policies and partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Menchaca added, “New York City cannot claim to be a sanctuary city if it gives taxpayer money to fund systems that spy, threaten, and deport our immigrant neighbors.”

Menchaca’s praise for working people is apt: Political pressure from local organizers, activists, and community groups informed those lawmakers and, indeed, helped elect the new cadre of left-wing Democrats willing to take such a stance.

Some of the most vocal New York legislators who opposed HQ2 were newly elected through grassroots campaigns on democratic socialist platforms. House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and state Sen. Julia Salazar are perhaps the most famous among them. As the New York Times reported earlier this week, last year’s elections also “paved the way for the nomination of [state] Senator Michael Gianaris — now a prominent Amazon opponent — to a state board with veto power over the deal.” The nomination reportedly spooked the corporate leviathan.

The victory against Amazon — and its dealmaker allies in New York’s leadership — shows the immediate material effects of upsetting the state and city’s historically centrist and corporate-friendly order, as represented by the governor and the mayor. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Anything is possible: today was the day a group of dedicated, everyday New Yorkers & their neighbors defeated Amazon’s corporate greed, its worker exploitation, and the power of the richest man in the world.”

Amazon and its defenders are attempting to frame the deal’s cancellation as a coup by politicians acting against the will of New Yorkers. “Polls show that 70 percent of New Yorkers support our plans and investment,” the company statement read.

The idea that those non-unionized, predominantly six-figure jobs would have gone to local working-class people is laughable.

It is true that recent polls showed support for the project, especially among African-American and Latinx residents. But such polls do not account for the fact that Amazon’s promises to bring 25,000-plus “good” jobs and vast investment are poison pills. If Amazon’s original HQ in Seattle is anything to go by, the idea that those non-unionized, predominantly six-figure jobs would go to local working-class people is laughable. Meanwhile, HQ2 threatened to drive up already soaring property and retail prices in the area. And, as Ocasio-Cortez noted in response to criticism, “we were subsidizing those jobs” — with the $3 billion in tax breaks and other kickbacks for Amazon, a company that will pay nothing in federal taxes on $11.2 billion of profits made last year.

It hardly speaks to the democratic will of the people when polls frame corporate sweetheart deals and inequality generators as simple job creators. In this sense, Amazon’s claim to local popularity is about as legitimate as the misleading Brexit campaign’s claim to represent the general will among Britons.

Matt Stoller, an economist with the Open Markets Institute and critic of Amazon’s market control, noted how disingenuous it was for the company to claim such popularity. “If the question were framed differently the deal would be a lot less popular,” he wrote on Twitter. “For instance, ‘Would you personally pay $375 for each member of your family to Jeff Bezos so he would bring Amazon jobs to New York City?’” — referring to the fact that $3 billion of public money amounts to approximately $375 per New York City resident. Stoller added that while, of course, tax incentives don’t work that way, his alternative framing is no more misleading that the polling Amazon touted as proof of popularity: “Saying ‘would you accept great jobs in return for vague-sounding state and city incentives of up to $3 billion’ is going to get a high approval. ‘would you pay $375 to a billionaire for traffic jams and higher rent’ is not. This was not a popular deal.”

It is to the great credit of longtime community organizers — all too familiar with the empty, unfulfilled promises New York real estate developers — that an informed anti-gentrification politics won the day.

While the cancellation of HQ2 is a huge victory in and of itself, it also signals a welcome shift in political power away from the conservative Democrat status quo, and gives hope for further challenges to the corporate stranglehold on city development and resource allotment. The attorney and former candidate for attorney general, Zephyr Teachout, tweeted Thursday, “Oh, we are just beginning! Now let’s get a Congressional hearing on Amazon, labor, ICE, monopsony, how and why to break up Amazon.”

Checks on corporate hegemony and obscene inequality do not happen without pushing the Democratic Party to the left. When the Amazon deal was announced last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio remarked, “One of the biggest companies on earth next to the largest public housing unit in the country — the synergy is going to be extraordinary.” It is a welcome and overdue moment when a politician who utters such tone deaf, neoliberal paeans can no longer pass as progressive.

The post Amazon Pullout Shows What Anti-Capitalist Organizing and Leftist Politicians Can Do appeared first on The Intercept.

Immigrant Rights Groups Trash Border Deal: “Immigrant Families Will Pay the Price”

Immigrant rights groups are reacting angrily to the border deal to keep the government open, which President Donald Trump has said that he will sign into law, averting a shutdown. The bill, which has not yet officially been drafted, gives Trump more than $1 billion in funding for new barriers on the southern border, and funds a potential increase in immigrant detention capacity.

The barriers that the bill would fund are a rhetorical downgrade from Trump’s signature policy of erecting a border wall, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has repeatedly rejected to fund. Funding for immigration detention, which has soared under the Trump administration, was a key issue in talks over keeping the government open. Democrats had pushed for cuts to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention budget, but ceded that demand in the interest of moving negotiations forward. The bill would fund the government through September 30.

The central problem with the deal, leaders of the immigrant rights community say, is that Democrats, from a position of strength given their control of the House of Representatives, merely entrenched Trump’s immigration policy. The deal, they say, puts a bipartisan stamp of approval on the dark chapter of American history that Trump’s policies have brought upon us.

Ana María Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, said that Democrats appeared to be negotiating as if the November elections hadn’t happened. Trump made the midterms a referendum on his border wall, driving 24/7 news coverage of a migrant caravan walking through Central America. He declared the caravan a national crisis and sent the military to the border.

Voters responded by giving Democrats the biggest midterm win since Watergate.

Schumer needs to understand that his mandate is different. He’s negotiating as if the elections didn’t matter,” said Archila, referring to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “I think that the deal essentially accepts Trump’s paradigm that there is a security crisis at the border that needs more investment and enforcement. It displays a level of a lack of moral grounding in some ways. The country now knows what enforcement looks like. It’s ugly. It’s children in cages. It’s families that’ll never see each other again. That’s what this funding will do.”

Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make the Road NY, an immigration group, said that if the details of the deal match the reporting, he would urge Congress to reject it. His biggest objection is that it expands immigration enforcement, he said. “There’s been a national conversation about the role of ICE and detention, and folks expected we’d see something that actually decreased the level of detention and came with actual oversight. It’s not just about the wall. It’s the other enforcement mechanisms and the impact they’re having on our communities on a day-to-day basis.”

Republican leaders Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Kevin McCarthy are pushing the deal, but it is not entirely clear how the rest of the GOP caucus, many of whom wanted to see a wall built, will vote on the funding bill. In some ways, opposition from immigration groups and progressives could make the deal more likely to pass, as the outrage convinces Republicans that the deal Trump got does indeed expand his deportation regime.

There are, on average, about 50,000 people in immigration detention on any given day, even though a 2018 spending deal provided funding for 40,520 beds. Democrats had fought to shrink or limit the number of beds available to immigration authorities, in an effort to slow the expansion of the administration’s deportation infrastructure. But the party withdrew that demand under pressure from Republicans, and the new bill allows for the further increase of detention capacity from the current level.

Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, lambasted the deal for “making major concessions on detention.”

“The funding bill was a chance to put a check on the detention system, which is a key driver of mass deportations.”

“ICE’s budget has skyrocketed and despite this, they keep getting bailed out for overspending. Some action needs to be taken and reducing funding is a start,” Shah said. “The administration is quietly expanding detention all over the country in behind-the-scenes deals with local counties and private contractors, and the funding bill was a chance to put a check on the detention system, which is a key driver of mass deportations.”

Democrats were hamstrung in negotiations by their own previously enthusiastic support for deportations and border enforcement. Before Trump made the issue partisan by demanding a wall during his presidential campaign, both parties eagerly spent billions to militarize the southern border.

“For decades, both parties have built up the deportation [machine] without question, and this deal represents the ‘enforcement-only’ status quo that Washington has been stuck in for too long,” said Greisa Martinez Rosas, deputy executive director of United We Dream and a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. On Wednesday, activists from United We Dream, which advocates for immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, occupied a portion of the Cannon House Office Building.

“This was an old-fashioned shakedown — Trump threatened to shut down the government again unless Congress gave him and his deportation force more cash to execute their racist vision of mass deportation, and while Democrats gave him the money, immigrant families will pay the price,” Rosas said.

One senior Democratic aide, who was close to the negotiations but not authorized to speak publicly, said that the alternative to the deal that was struck was a continuing resolution, a temporary funding measure that would keep the system running as is. That meant that either way, there would be a further expansion of beds. “That’s the best argument,” he said.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said on Wednesday that she’s still trying to get all the details of the deal, but is strongly leaning toward voting no because of “the lack of accountability around the detention system” and the increased number of detention beds.

She said she would like a guarantee from the Trump administration that the Department of Homeland Security will use its funds as appropriated by Congress, instead of moving money around to fund the wall, as Trump has threatened. “Without that accountability, it becomes very difficult to approve that,” Jayapal said.  

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., said he’s “leaning as a strong no” on the deal. “I think for far too many times, Dreamers and immigration reform in general get pushed to the back,” Espaillat told The Intercept. “And we won’t have comprehensive immigration reform on a nice sunny day or on a spring morning. We will have it in the middle of a crisis that will yield a give and take, that will force people to reach a consensus, and I think we missed another opportunity.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., also told The Intercept she will “probably be voting no.”

The post Immigrant Rights Groups Trash Border Deal: “Immigrant Families Will Pay the Price” appeared first on The Intercept.

Rape Victim Who Smuggled DNA Evidence Out of Rikers Wins Settlement

The first time she filed a sexual abuse complaint against a Rikers guard, Jane Doe told investigators from the Inspector General’s office that the man was handing out cigarettes to female inmates in exchange for oral sex. But she never heard back from them, and she figured that they hadn’t taken her seriously because she had no evidence.

But even when there was evidence, women’s formal complaints seemed to go nowhere. Jane Doe had witnessed guards retaliate against another woman who had accused a male correctional officer of raping her. The woman had filed a complaint and handed over her underwear as proof to Department of Correction staff — but they discarded it and dismissed the complaint. That wasn’t an isolated instance: Darcell Marshall, a Rikers inmate who was raped by yet another male guard, and whose story was first told last year in a New York magazine article, rubbed the semen of the officer who raped her on her jeans and turned them over to investigators, but the jeans went missing for four days, and when they finally came back after testing, they contained traces of male DNA but no semen — a sign that they had been washed, according to a forensics expert.

Women to whom rape and sexual assault at the hands of guards have become an almost routine component of life at Rikers know they probably won’t be believed if they report their abusers. Worse, they fear that jail staff will cover up their allegations and retaliate against them. So when Jane Doe was brutally assaulted during a second stint at Rikers in 2015, she took no chances trusting the system.

On Monday, Jane Doe settled a civil lawsuit against the city, which she accused of “deliberate indifference” to the plight of women sexually abused by Rikers guards, according to a complaint filed last summer. As is standard with monetary settlements, the city denied all liability. Jane Doe’s story — one of dozens by women who reported being sexually assaulted and raped while detained at the infamous city jail — reveals just how challenging it is for abused detainees to seek justice in a system set up to offer none.


Illustration: Nicole Xu for The Intercept

Smuggled Evidence

The guard who sexually assaulted Jane Doe, Jose Cosme, had ejaculated onto her breasts. Back in her cell after the assault and still in shock, Jane Doe used a white T-shirt to wipe it off. Then she called for medical help and told a nurse that the officer had hurt her. Without examining her, a doctor decided that she was having a panic attack and instructed the nurse to “put ice on her,” then sent her back to her cell after less than 10 minutes. There, Jane Doe ripped the white T-shirt she had used to clean up and later that night, she went to an office at the jail where she worked a cleaning shift and mailed one piece of the shirt to her sister and another to a friend. Days later, during a visit, she gave that same friend another shirt she had been wearing at the time of the assault.

When she reported the assault, two weeks after it happened, investigators took Jane Doe back to the office where Cosme had cornered her. They videotaped her as she showed them how he had pushed her face against a Plexiglas wall in the room, smothering her 100 pounds with his 310. She told them she had screamed to be let go and banged on the Plexiglas, but that he had forced himself into her, taken a phone call while still inside her, and finally dropped her onto the floor and pulled her hair until it ripped to force her into oral sex. Then Jane Doe told the investigators that she had the DNA to prove it and that it was no longer at Rikers.

The DNA Jane Doe had smuggled out of Rikers matched Cosme’s, and in 2017, he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of sexually abusing her. As part of his plea deal, he was fired from his job, put on probation for 10 years, and required to register as a sex offender. But he served no prison time. Jane Doe had also accused a second officer, Leonard McNeil, of arranging for Cosme to rape her after Cosme discovered that they were having a sexual relationship — also considered rape under New York law. But she had no physical evidence against McNeil, and he was never prosecuted or disciplined, though jail authorities reassigned him to a different job at Rikers.

“If she hadn’t preserved the DNA evidence from the T-shirt, they never would have taken her seriously. And, of course, [Cosme] never would have been prosecuted,” said Marlen Bodden, a staff attorney with the special litigation unit at the Legal Aid Society, who represented Jane Doe. “At Rikers Island and at the DA’s office, they won’t prosecute corrections officers unless there’s DNA evidence, to our knowledge.”

In a complaint filed on her behalf by Legal Aid and the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Jane Doe accused the city of enabling her rape and subsequent retaliation against her. “The City has long been on notice that there is a significant risk that DOC staff sexually exploit women in its custody,” the complaint read. “The City, nevertheless, permits a culture of systemic rape, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment of women by staff to exist at the Rose M. Singer Center (”RMSC“), the women’s jail at Rikers.”

The lawsuit cited Mayor Bill de Blasio’s description of the jail — which after much pressure he pledged to close by 2027 — as a “dehumanizing environment” from which inmates are released “more broken than when they came in.” But the city’s recognition of Rikers’ problems did little to change the conditions there. “To date, neither policies and practices promulgated by the City nor the City’s approach to the women who brave retaliation from COs and other staff to complain of rape and other sexual abuse demonstrate any effort to change the status quo,” the complaint charged.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office referred questions to the DOC and the New York City Law Department. A spokesperson for the law department, which handles lawsuits against the city, wrote in a statement to The Intercept that Jane Doe’s settlement is “a fair resolution of the claims against the city and in the best interest of all parties.” A spokesperson for the DOC referred questions about the settlement to the law department and questions about the internal investigation of Cosme and McNeil to the Department of Investigation. The spokesperson said that although McNeil remains employed at Rikers he no longer has contact with inmates. Cosme and McNeil did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Diane Struzzi, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI), which oversees the Department of Corrections and investigates sexual abuse allegations involving corrections staff, told The Intercept in a statement that the DOI’s investigation resulted in officer Cosme’s arrest. She declined to comment on McNeil, writing that “this matter resides with DOC.”  Struzzi noted that since 2014, the DOI has arrested 62 correctional officers and DOC staff on an array of charges, including four over sexual abuse allegations.

Patrice O’Shaughnessy, a spokesperson for the Bronx District Attorney, which has jurisdiction over crimes committed on Rikers Island, wrote in a statement to The Intercept that the office “thoroughly investigated” the allegations against officer McNeil, but declined to comment further, citing sealed records in the case. O’Shaughnessy added that the Bronx DA has indicted a number of officers and a physician’s assistant for sexual abuse against inmates. “We take these cases seriously, investigate thoroughly and will prosecute if we have sufficient evidence to go forward with criminal charges,” she wrote. “We treat incarcerated victims as we would any victim of a crime.”

Attorneys for Jane Doe, who is currently serving a prison sentence upstate, declined to make her available for an interview. “This settlement is a small measure of justice for an exceptionally strong woman who has experienced unfathomable trauma,” said Brittany Sukiennik, an associate at Cravath. “Our hope is that her case will help foster reform aimed at ensuring both justice for other victims and protection of the rights of individuals in the City’s custody.”

Jane Doe’s $500,000 settlement follows a $1.2 million settlement last year with Darcell Marshall and another woman who had accused the same officer, Benny Santiago. After Legal Aid took on that case, more than 100 women contacted them about sex abuse at the RMSC, and attorneys there are planning to file more lawsuits. Santiago, who has denied the allegations of abuse, was not criminally prosecuted and according to New York magazine, continues to receive a paycheck from Rikers, even though, as of last spring, he appeared to be no longer reporting for work. Santiago didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

There was also the case of Kelly Spinelli, a former detainee who accused one guard of raping her and two others of sexually abusing her between 2015 and 2016. Surveillance video shows the first officer taking her into a broom closet in the middle of the night for several minutes, and a wire she wore per investigators’ instructions recorded another officer warning her “not to say anything to anybody,” according to her attorney. While Spinelli settled with the city, a criminal investigation of the officers’ conduct went nowhere, Paul Prestia, her attorney, told The Intercept. O’Shaughnessy, the Bronx DA’s spokesperson, did not specifically answer questions about Spinelli’s case, but said that the office’s Public Integrity Bureau, which District Attorney Darcel Clark created to investigate and prosecute crimes by public officials, civil servants, and members of uniformed services, including Rikers guards, has “a number of pending investigations.” Struzzi, the DOI spokesperson, declined to comment on the case.

Prestia, who also represented the family of Kalief Browder in their recent $3.3 million settlement with the city, said that when he last heard from prosecutors about Spinelli’s case, they were still investigating her allegations, two years after the abuse took place, and that all the officers involved continued to work at Rikers. “In my opinion that means they are not going forward with prosecuting them,” he said. “I can’t get over the fact that the Bronx district attorney refuses to or refrains from prosecuting these corrections officers when there’s evidence that would have any other civilian arrested.”

“It’s totally a double standard,” he added. “It’s completely baffling to me.”

More lawsuits alleging sexual abuse at Rikers are also pending, including that of a woman who accused two guards and a captain of taking her to an isolated part of the jail in 2013, handcuffing her to a broken toilet fixture, and assaulting her for hours, including by penetrating her with a flashlight, before one of the officers warned her, “This never happened.” In another case, a woman accused a transportation officer of raping her on a bus while another officer watched. In yet another case, first reported by The Intercept in 2015, a medical contractor working at the jail was charged with raping four women there, and the DOC was subsequently accused of regularly sending women to medical appointments with no chaperones, a violation of department policies.

Correctional officers were also accused of turning a blind eye as an inmate repeatedly raped fellow inmates, in full view of security cameras. And inmates aren’t the only ones experiencing sexual assault at Rikers: As The Intercept reported in 2015, female visitors there are also regularly subjected to invasive — and unlawful — strip searches.

But no matter how widespread, sexual abuse at Rikers is rarely criminally prosecuted — and internal investigations, when they happen, seldom result in the discipline or dismissal of those accused of misconduct. More often, the city settles with victims before their allegations can be tested in court and under public scrutiny.

“That’s why this has been such a problem for a long time, because of the failure to discipline and the failure to prosecute in a meaningful capacity,” said Barbara Hamilton, another Legal Aid attorney representing Jane Doe, in an interview. “Oftentimes, the victims of these types of crimes are detainees, so people don’t find them credible, or they don’t put their resources into proper investigations. Or even if there is a recommendation from the internal investigation at DOC to prosecute, the DA office often declines to do so.”

No Consent

There can be no consent between a guard and an inmate. New York law considers all sex between correctional staff and incarcerated individuals to be rape, a recognition of “the inherently coercive power that correctional officers wield” over incarcerated people, Jane Doe’s lawsuit notes. Still, forced, coerced, or transactional sex between inmates and guards, and particularly at the women’s wing of Rikers colloquially known as “Rosie’s,” is rampant.

A Department of Justice survey found that between 2011 and 2012, 8.6 percent of the women incarcerated at Rikers reported being sexually victimized there; 5.9 percent of the women said they were sexually assaulted by staff. That’s compared to 3.2 percent of incarcerated individuals reporting being sexually victimized nationwide. A different report by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, while not focused on sexual assault, warned that the DOC was “under-reporting” sexual assault allegations and questioned the department’s compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA.

But as evidence of abuse and neglect mounted in recent years, along with public scrutiny of the jail, some city officials appeared to dismiss the problem. In a 2016 meeting of the Board of Correction, the body tasked with oversight of the city’s correctional facilities, board member Gerard Bryant said that “as long as we are going to have prisons, we are going to have sexual abuse in prisons. That’s a reality. That’s what happens.” He added: “You can tell staff until they’re blue in the face, ‘Don’t have sex with inmates,’ and it’s still going to happen.”

That year, a “sexual safety assessment” report commissioned by the city was disclosed to the press. The report detailed “entrenched problems” in how officials dealt with sexual abuse allegations, including hotlines that were not private or were nonfunctioning, and investigations that didn’t include reviews of surveillance video or interviews with witnesses and the accused. The city didn’t move to implement national safety standards detailed under PREA until 2016 — 13 years after the bill was signed into law in 2003. Still, male correctional officers continued to be assigned to guard women, including in their dormitories at night, and “to posts in which they have unmonitored contact and complete discretion and control over incarcerated women,” Jane Doe’s lawsuit noted. To date, there have been no audits for compliance with PREA at Rikers — the first review, at the RMSC, is scheduled for this spring.

In fact, while the DOC acknowledged in 2016 that the reports of systemic abuse had been a “wake-up call,” change was slow to come to Rikers.

In a 55-page expert report filed in 2017 as part of the case against Benny Santiago, former prison warden Timothy Ryan wrote that the city’s practices showed “callous disregard for legal requirements and correctional professionalism and demonstrate deliberate indifference by the City to the sexual safety and well-being of the female detainees for which it is responsible.” Despite women reporting sexual assault at more than double the national average, Ryan found that their allegations were rarely substantiated and that department investigators quickly concluded that “assaults could not have occurred exactly as described and thus did not occur at all.”

Last year, the DOC quietly confirmed that assessment when it published statistics about the rising number of sexual assault allegations at city jails. According to the department, there were 374 allegations of sexual misconduct by staff in 2017, and 322 in 2016.

A separate report noted that in the first five months of 2016, medical staff alone reported 118 incidents of alleged sexual abuse, mostly by officers.

But it wasn’t just the number of allegations that raised red flags: The DOC report also showed that at the time, more than 1,850 allegations of sexual harassment or abuse were still unresolved months or years after being filed, including 90 percent of allegations from 2016 and 97 percent of allegations from 2017. The department is required to complete all investigations within 90 days.

The DOC claims that it is trying to fix the problem — even as in June 2018, it reported a 40 percent increase of sexual abuse and harassment complaints over the previous two years.

At a New York City Council hearing held last September, DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann claimed that the department had made “significant progress” in addressing sexual abuse and highlighted “top-to-bottom reform initiatives” it had put in place in recent years, including free calls to 311, a fully monitored and anonymous hotline, and contracts with an independent victim advocacy organization to provide support to sexual abuse victims. The department also hired PREA compliance managers, trained 7,300 staff on its zero-tolerance policies, and pledged to open investigations into all sexual abuse allegations within 72 hours of a report being filed. Still, Brann conceded that as of June 2018, the DOC had a backlog of 1,216 cases. The spokesperson for the DOC told The Intercept that the office was working to provide an update on the backlog.

At the same hearing, advocates and the Board of Correction said the department’s progress was hardly enough, particularly when it came to properly investigating and addressing complaints. “Since the new standards on sexual abuse, there is little evidence that the investigations process has improved or become more effective,” said Martha King, the board’s executive director, noting that the rate of substantiated complaints in New York was lower than the national average. “Without effective investigations, DOC’s efforts at prevention, accountability, and discipline will also be unsuccessful.”

“This should be disturbing to the council,” Kelsey De Avila, a jail services social workers with Brooklyn Defender Services, wrote in her testimony to the council. “Over 1,000 cases are still pending, and DOC staff are allowed to remain employed despite pending allegations, and no action will be taken against them until the case is officially closed.”

De Avila noted the irony that accused guards were allowed to keep watching over detainees, a majority of whom are held in pretrial detention at Rikers and are therefore also only accused of having committed crimes. “Notably,” she wrote, “our detained clients are subject to extremely punitive treatment and conditions — and exposed to this epidemic of sexual violence — while they fight criminal allegations against them.”


Illustration: Nicole Xu for The Intercept

A Coerced “Relationship”

Jane Doe was held at Rikers for eight months between 2015 and 2016, awaiting trial. Shortly after she arrived there, according to the lawsuit, McNeil “arranged to have undisturbed access to her” by requiring her to work for him as a sanitation worker, her lawsuit claims. McNeil would call Jane Doe into his station without filing the required paperwork and ordered her to stop working for other guards because he was “jealous,” becoming angry when she refused.

Jail staff were made aware of the sexual relationship between McNeil and Jane Doe on at least two occasions, the lawsuit contends. Once, a guard walked into McNeil’s office as he and Jane Doe were having intercourse, but never reported the incident. Another time, Jane Doe went to the jail’s health clinic to ask for an Abbott pregnancy test — which can detect a pregnancy early on — but was refused and given a different test because she had been in jail for two months, and staff “saw no need” for the early-detection one.

McNeil regularly gave Jane Doe contraband, including makeup, candy, and Starbucks coffee. He picked up clothes other detainees had left behind, told her “I want to see you in them,” and told her that when she was released, he wanted her to dye her hair blond and wear blue contact lenses. He let her use his cellphone to play games and call a friend, and even introduced her to his mother on the phone. He would go visit her in her housing area, and once he kissed her in front of two other detainees.

When Cosme learned of the encounters, he started making vulgar comments to Jane Doe, once asking her, in front of McNeil, for a “lap dance.” Then one day he passed her a note, threatening to report McNeil to superiors so that he would be fired and Cosme could take his place, the lawsuit alleged. When Jane Doe told McNeil, he became so angry, he flipped over a cart. Then a few days later, McNeil left Jane Doe alone at night in an isolated area of the jail, purportedly to make a call — even though he had made phone calls in her presence before, sometimes while she was performing oral sex on him.

There was a camera in that section of the jail, but it was not connected to the monitors in the control room, and it did not record or save footage. Staff and detainees knew that. That’s where Cosme, who was in a nearby office known as “the bubble” cornered Jane Doe. After raping her, according to the lawsuit, Cosme laughed at her and said, “At least my wife can have a break tonight.”

When she reported the sexual assault, Jane Doe was fired from her cleaning jobs at Rikers. A sign went up at “the bubble” warning COs not to take her out of her cell. Guards regularly refused to accompany her to religious services, group programs, and medical visits. Once, when she asked a guard why he wouldn’t let her go to church, he told her, “You run your mouth too much.” Guards also denied her toiletries, and on one occasion, they refused to escort her from a hearing back to the jail, leaving her behind at the courthouse.

There was verbal harassment too: Once, McNeil told another guard, in front of Jane Doe, “What you do with someone like her is two to the chest, one to the head, I can shoot.” Another time, he called her a “fucking snitch” and a “hoe.” Other COs called her a “bitch” and a “cracker,” and said that she was “just out for a pay day.” The retaliation followed her outside Rikers too, when she was sentenced to prison time at Bedford Hills, a prison in upstate New York. Someone there put a piece of onion in her pocket, and a CO said “that bitch stinks.”

Her attorneys said the experience made Jane Doe feel deeply isolated and left her suffering from nightmares and panic attacks. That’s far too common for incarcerated women, who often have a history of abuse even before arriving in jail.

Approximately 90 percent of incarcerated women have experienced sexual or physical abuse before being detained, and a majority are victims of domestic abuse, often leading to their incarceration in the first place, said Kandra Clark, who spent four months at Rikers in 2010. “There’s abuse before, during, and after incarceration,” she told The Intercept. Clark testified before the city council last year about how her experience at Rikers exacerbated her trauma. “Each and every night I spent on Rikers, I was fearful for my life and my body,” she said, describing how corrections officers would watch her go to the bathroom through the window of her cell or point a flashlight at her to watch as she tried to cover up with a sheet.

Clark now works with the Exodus Transitional Community and JustLeadershipUSA, one of the groups behind the #CloseRikers campaign that ultimately pushed the city to promise to shut down the jail within a decade — too slow a timeline, some advocates say. Clark also works with the “Beyond Rosie’s” campaign, an initiative of the Women’s Community Justice Association, which aims to tell the stories of women incarcerated at Rikers and is working with the mayor’s office and city council to ensure that the jails that will ultimately become substitutes are set up to combat abuse. “People are suffering every day while they’re in there so we definitely want it to move faster, but we also want to be really thoughtful about how we do it,” Clark said, listing top-down, trauma-informed training for all staff but also family-friendly spaces where incarcerated women’s children could spend a weekend. “What do we want these new facilities to look like? How can we really combat the trauma that so many women have faced?”

Yet others warned that until officers like those who abused Jane Doe face real consequences, the culture of impunity on the island will persist and simply spread to the smaller jails that will eventually replace it.

“These officers, they know that if they commit these heinous crimes, they’re going to get a slap on the wrist, and they’re not going to get fired. They’ll be moved around the island, they’ll still collect a paycheck, and they’ll still get a pension,” Redmond Haskins, a spokesperson for Legal Aid, told The Intercept. “Until corrections staff is truly held accountable, this will continue to happen.”

Update: Feb. 11, 2019, 3:05 p.m.

After publication, the New York City Law Department provided the following addition to its statement: “The health and safety of those in DOC custody remains a top priority. ”

The post Rape Victim Who Smuggled DNA Evidence Out of Rikers Wins Settlement appeared first on The Intercept.

Law Enforcement Complained About North Dakota’s Public Records Law Amid Reporting on Standing Rock. Now Lawmakers Want to Amend It.

North Dakota lawmakers are considering a bill to restrict the release of records related to security operations involving “critical infrastructure” — a category that includes fossil fuel pipelines. The bill comes after The Intercept and other media outlets published stories documenting law enforcement surveillance and coordination with private security during the Dakota Access pipeline protests, many of which were based on records released under the North Dakota Open Records Act.

The bill, known as Senate Bill 2209, would amend the North Dakota Century Code to bar the disclosure of public records involving “security planning, mitigation, or threats” pertaining to critical infrastructure facilities. It specifically forbids the release of any critical infrastructure “security systems plan,” which it defines as “records,” “information,” “photographs,” “videos,” and “communications” pertaining to the “security of any public facility” or any “privately owned or leased critical infrastructure.” Among several examples of critical infrastructure systems included in the bill are “utility services, fuel supply, energy, hazardous liquid, natural gas, or coal.”

According to Jesse Franzblau, a transparency law expert and policy analyst at Open the Government, while some of the language in the bill is similar to exemptions in federal laws that restrict public access to critical infrastructure information, “several parts of the bill obviously seem very tailored toward pipeline-related construction and also, given the timing, toward keeping information on security operations against pipeline protesters a secret.”

On January 22, the 47-member North Dakota Senate voted unanimously in favor of the bill. If approved by the state’s House of Representatives, it will head to Gov. Doug Burgum’s desk.

Proponents of the bill claim it is necessary to prevent cybersecurity attacks and other dangerous intrusions. “Whether it’s utilities or whether it’s any kind of other industry that we have, all of those are ripe for cyberattacks and that information needs to be secure,” Democratic Sen. Joan Heckaman, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, stated at a January 21 hearing.

Chip Gibbons, policy and legislative counsel at the group Defending Rights & Dissent, says the cybersecurity justification appears to be a smokescreen, particularly since hackers are unlikely to rely on freedom of information requests to carry out attacks. “To me, it just seems like a silly distraction,” Gibbons said. “Instead of having a conversation about protecting the public right to know about law enforcement responses to protests, such as collaboration with private security firms paid for by the pipeline companies, it focuses the conversation on something more people can agree on.”

Neither Heckaman nor Republican Sen. Jerry Klein, another co-sponsor of the bill, responded to requests to clarify its intent. Todd Kranda, a lobbyist for the bill, left a voicemail with The Intercept saying that Klein had passed on the comment request to him. Subsequent calls and emails to Kranda went unanswered.

During the January 21 hearing, Kranda testified in support of the bill on behalf of Missouri River Energy Services, a utility provider in four Upper Midwest states. Records from the North Dakota secretary of state show that Kranda is also a registered lobbyist for the North Dakota Petroleum Council and various fossil fuel companies, including the Keystone XL pipeline builder TransCanada. In 2017, Kranda was registered as a lobbyist for Alliance Pipeline, which recently announced a major expansion in North Dakota.

Behind the Scenes

The struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline galvanized a global movement, but it also led to intensive police monitoring, violent suppression of protests, and the prolonged prosecution of hundreds of activists. The overwhelming majority of charges brought against pipeline opponents were eventually dismissed due to lack of evidence. In numerous cases, lawyers and activists drew on documents that media outlets obtained via open records requests to defend those under prosecution.

Documents published as part of The Intercept’s Oil and Water series played a significant role in the criminal defense of Standing Rock Sioux tribal member Chase Iron Eyes and Oglala Lakota Sioux water protector Red Fawn Fallis. A class-action lawsuit alleging excessive brutality by North Dakota police also relied on The Intercept’s reporting, as did a lawsuit that state regulators filed against TigerSwan, the mercenary firm that oversaw the DAPL security operation.

“I think this is clearly a response to what you learned through freedom of information requests,” Jeffrey Haas, a civil rights attorney and member of the Water Protector Legal Collective, told me. “They did not like to have to disclose that information. This is an effort to prevent that in the future.”

Behind the scenes, law enforcement officers responded to the records requests with consternation. An April 2017 intelligence bulletin co-authored by the North Dakota State and Local Intelligence Center, which I obtained via a records request, bemoaned the independent media group Unicorn Riot’s use of the state’s public records law to pry out information on police activities.

“One non-credentialed media group, involved in high profile actions, would request publically [sic] available records to identify law enforcement agencies and persons involved,” the bulletin noted in a section on “observed protest tactics.”

I also obtained an internal law enforcement email exchange concerning an open records request I had filed with the city of Bismarck seeking information on intrusive surveillance of protesters. “The individual making the request was William Parrish out of California who claims to be a ‘journalist,’” Bismarck Police Lt. Lynn Wanner wrote in a May 2017 email to officials with the FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation. “I don’t have much information on him.”

BIA analyst Barry Cossey noted that he had consulted with an attorney about preventing the release of records I requested. “Is there a preemptive way to prevent the city of Bismarck from disclosing any law enforcement product produced by BIA personnel?” Cossey asked. An FBI agent chimed in by passing along information from the FBI’s Minneapolis associate division counsel, who asserted that the “FBI should be consulted on any emails touching on FBI equities” prior to the release of any documents.

Wanner also expressed frustration about North Dakota’s relatively strong open records law. “I’m still doing some checking on the legality of everything and what I am forced to release,” she wrote.


Email from Bismarck Police Lt. Lynn Wanner on May 4, 2017.

Screenshot: The Intercept


Email from Bureau of Indian Affairs analyst Barry Cossey on May 3, 2017.

Screenshot: The Intercept

The bill to amend the open records law comes as more than a dozen states have introduced or passed bills criminalizing protest related to fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Those bills are similar to a model created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national network that brings together corporations and right-wing legislators to draft industry-friendly policies.

A North Dakota version of ALEC’s model, introduced nine days prior to Senate Bill 2209, is among the harshest. It would make it a felony to trespass on a critical infrastructure site such as a pipeline construction right of way, and would assess a hefty fine on any organization “found to be a conspirator with an individual” who violates the law.

Gibbons says the effort to restrict access to records like those that shed light on the police response to the DAPL protests is particularly worrisome given law enforcement’s ongoing pattern of using excessive force against opponents of new fossil fuel development and infringing on their First Amendment rights.

“One of the great tools we have for fighting back against those kinds of abuses is the Freedom of Information Act and state-level public records laws, because that way we can find out what actually happened,” Gibbons said. “If we have a vague suspicion of something but can’t actually prove it, we can’t fight back against it.”

The post Law Enforcement Complained About North Dakota’s Public Records Law Amid Reporting on Standing Rock. Now Lawmakers Want to Amend It. appeared first on The Intercept.

How the U.S. Weaponized the Border Wall

Migrants die and disappear in staggeringly high numbers along the U.S.-Mexico border, as Washington over the years has shut down relatively safe, traditional urban entry points, forcing border crossers into hostile desert terrain. Migrants also sustain severe life-threatening or crippling injuries. They fall into mine shafts and break their backs. Dehydration damages their kidneys. Others are bitten by snakes or injured in chases. The tall metal fences that run as barriers along segments of the border also serve as weapons. Migrants sever limbs climbing the barriers and break bones falling off them.

“Border-related trauma is so common,” anthropologist Ieva Jusionyte writes, “that it has become normalized.”

First responders who work the borderlands around Nogales, Arizona, told Jusionyte that they believe the sheet-metal border fence that used to separate Nogales from its Mexican sister-city was intentionally designed to sever body parts. Border crossers, one Nogales firefighter said, regularly used to get their fingers cut off. That fence was replaced in 2011, but the new high bollard-style fence, 20 or 30 feet high in places, frequently causes broken bones when migrants fall from it.

In recent months, Border Patrol agents and federal troops have festooned long stretches of the border fence with razor wire, including in Nogales. “That wire is lethal, and I really don’t know what they’re thinking by putting it all the way down to the ground,” Nogales’s mayor complained. Now, six coils of concertina wire cover the fence like vines, facing a residential neighborhood, onto a street that serves as a route for school buses. Every weekday, the city’s children look out and can imagine that they are living inside a concentration camp. More than two years into the administration of Donald Trump, such gratuitous displays of cruelty are common, working to wear down on the nation’s moral sensibility.


Concertina wire, recently added by U.S. Army troops, covers the U.S. side of the border wall in Nogales, Arizona on Feb. 7, 2019.

Photo: Laura Saunders for The Intercept

But the use of border barriers to inflict pain, in the hope that news of injuries and deaths will serve as a deterrent to other would-be migrants, long predates the Trump presidency. The idea reaches back at least to the 1970s, to the presidency of Jimmy Carter, when the U.S. began to turn its attention away from Vietnam toward its southern border. A weaponized fence is a feature, not a bug, of federal policy.

Carter’s Fence

In 1978, Carter’s Immigration and Naturalization Service requested, and Congress approved, $4.3 million to build a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border. The plan was to quietly replace some 27 miles of existing slack, rusted chain-link around the ports of entry in San Ysidro, California, and El Paso, Texas, and then add a new fence along an additional 6 miles of border.

After consulting with the U.S. Army, the INS hired Potomac Research, a Virginia firm, to design the new barrier and then signed a $2 million federal contract with Houston-based Anchor Post Products to build the fence. The Carter administration had inherited the project from Richard Nixon, who was the first president to propose building some kind of barrier along the entire 2,000-mile border.

The project moved forward largely ignored by the press until October 1978. That month, a big-mouthed manager from Anchor Post named George Norris told a reporter that the “razor-sharp wall” was designed to be bloody, built with “punched-out metal that would leave edges sharp enough to cut off the toes of barefoot climbers.” Norris said that his company had double-checked with the engineers at Potomac Research whether they “wanted the metal deburred (filed) when we first got the job.” The engineers, according to Norris, said no. Leave it sharp, they instructed, as “part of the deterrent.” The cut metal was meant to sever body parts, Norris said; a climber would “leave his toe permanently embedded in it.”

The remarks were picked up by Mexican dailies. As outrage spread, representatives from the INS and Potomac Research issued denials. “Nobody in the INS ever told anyone to design a fence that would hurt people,” said one of Potomac Research’s engineers. “We were told explicitly that there could be no barbed wire. No barbed tape, no electrification.” But, Carter’s head of the INS, Leonardo Castillo, admitted, the proposed “steel latticework” did appear “sharper than it was intended to be.”

A construction worker pulls steel mesh into place on a section of the galvanized steel fence being built along the border between the United States and Mexico in 1979. The fence, intended to keep illegal aliens from crossing into the US, is known as the "Tortilla Curtain." (Photo by © Stephanie Maze/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

A construction worker pulls steel mesh into place on a section of the galvanized steel fence being built along the border between the U.S. and Mexico in 1979.

Photo: Stephanie Maze/Corbis via Getty Images

Carter, who would soon visit Mexico City, was caught off guard, telling a reporter that he didn’t know anything about the fence and that “any sort of fencing device that would injure people is certainly contrary to my own inclinations.” The “Tortilla Curtain,” as the scandal was soon dubbed, was condemned by Mexican politicians as an assault on national “dignity.” Mexico’s president, José López Portillo, claimed that he first learned of the fence from press reports, calling the matter “serious, very serious” and criticizing efforts to “form walls of separation in the world.”

“No more walls,” López Portillo said.

López Portillo was right to fear a new era of geopolitical barrier-building. A quick survey of State Department cables from the time reveal walls and fences going up in many places — along borders in South Africa, India, Israel, and Northern Ireland — with much diplomatic energy spent on figuring out how to justify them according to the principles of international law.

The Border Lobby

There existed, in the mid-1970s, a number of domestic constituencies in the United States pushing for more stringent border control, of the kind that a razor-sharp border fence might provide.

One was the INS itself, which around 1973 had become more vocal in lobbying Congress and the public to expand its power. The service was notoriously corrupt, involved in many of the illicit moneymaking operations associated with border crossing, including migrant, drug, and sex trafficking. Operation Clean Sweep, established by Nixon’s Justice Department in 1972, investigated hundreds of agents, revealing widespread Border Patrol and INS involvement in selling immigration documents, smuggling migrants, and running drugs. Agents also arranged visits to Mexican brothels for U.S. judges and congressmen, and then used knowledge of such visits as kompromat to secure favorable rulings and votes.

Operation Clean Sweep might have done to Border Patrol and the INS what the Church Committee, later in the 1970s, did to the CIA and FBI: reveal to the public rogue operations engaged in widespread, systemic abuse. It didn’t. The inquiry was sidelined when, as reported by New York Times’s John Crewdson, it turned up damaging information on Rep. Peter Rodino. An INS official — described by an informant as the service’s “chief pimp” whose job was to get U.S. officials “laid” in Mexico — had reportedly arranged for Rodino to visit a Juárez brothel. A New Jersey Democrat, Rodino was, as Crewdson wrote, too powerful a figure to bring down. He not only chaired the House Judiciary Committee, which oversaw the INS, but was in charge of the impeachment vote against Nixon.

Nixon resigned in April 1974, and Clean Sweep was shut down for good. Hundreds of agents had been investigated for “every federal crime,” as its lead investigator, Alan Murray, put it, “except bank robbery.” Few were indicted.

Rather than facing constraints on their activities — as the CIA and FBI soon would — Border Patrol and the INS’s power only increased. Their budgets and staff grew and new laws were passed giving them even more enforcement authority, and giving corrupt agents what in effect was a federally funded monopoly advantage as they competed with Mexican criminals over the routes used to traffic migrants and drugs.

A second constituency for border militarization came from Vietnam-era research-and-development firms. Founded in 1966, Potomac Research, the designer of the controversial fence, was one of many companies looking to keep signing federal contracts in the wake of the Vietnam drawdown. “War technology is Americanized,” wrote David Rorvik in Playboy in 1974, of the move to use Vietnam weapons and surveillance equipment for domestic policing. Sylvania Electronics successfully pushed for its ground sensors — developed as part of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s multibillion dollar project to build a physical and electronic fence separating North from South Vietnam — to be used on the border. “Vietnam’s $3250 million automated battlefield is coming home to America, the land where it was conceived,” wrote New Scientist in 1972; “Smugglers on the US/Mexican border are treading softly these days, now that the US Board Patrol (an arm of the Justice Department) has adopted the same anti-infiltration barrier used by the military to detect troop and truck movements on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.”

A third group that wanted less Mexican migration was organized labor, including both the AFL-CIO and the United Farm Workers, since it applied downward pressure on wages. For its part, the UFW — largely unprotected by New Deal labor laws guaranteeing the right to form unions — feared the use of undocumented workers as strikebreakers. For about three months in 1975, writes Frank Bardacke, in “Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers,” an extralegal “UFW Border Patrol” — comprised of between 35 and 300 people paid $10 a day — “hunted illegals” near Yuma, Arizona, with federal Border Patrol agents and local police officers happy to turn migrant interdiction into an intra-racial conflict.

And elected politicians, both law-and-order Republicans and reform Democrats allied with organized labor, supported increased border control. In 1978, the “unreconstructed” New York City liberal, James Scheuer (who, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez today, represented the Bronx and Queens) called for a “firm, hard sealing” of the border (it was around this time that the verb “to seal” — a phrase usually applied to more militarized, war-ravaged border zones, like the one that separated Israel from Gaza or West from East Berlin — began to be applied to the U.S.-Mexico border). Earlier, in 1964, Democrats pushed for the end of the guest-worker Bracero Program and, in 1965, for an unrealistically low quota on the number of visas available to Mexico. And in 1974, none other than Rodino, working with Sen. Edward Kennedy, sponsored legislation that would have made it illegal to hire undocumented migrants. The bill passed in the House, 336-30, but lost in the Senate.

By 1978, no one wanted the controversy sparked by Norris’s confession that the fence was meant to maim. But the idea of a fence itself was uncontroversial. “The new fences would be no more of a symbol of exclusion,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, “than are the present barriers.”

Members of Mexico?s Socialist Workers Party carry placard with anti-Carter slogan in Mexico City, Feb. 7, 1979. March was called by telephone workers protesting for higher wages, but they were joined by 15 to 20 other organizations which focused on Carter?s upcoming visit to Mexico Feb. 14 to 16. Police estimated 5,000 persons took part in the demonstration. (AP Photo/Valente Cotera)

Members of Mexico’s Socialist Workers Party carry placards with anti-Carter slogans in Mexico City on Feb. 7, 1979, ahead of Carter’s visit to the country.

Photo: Valente Cotera/AP

Cheap Labor and Cheap Oil

The weaponized fence was one complaint that López Portillo, the Mexican president, presented to Carter, when Carter landed in Mexico City on February 14, 1979. Another had to do with oil.

Two momentous events preceded Carter’s visit. First came the confirmation, in early 1977, that Mexico possessed much more petroleum, in vast onshore and offshore fields, than had heretofore been realized. Then, on January 16, 1979, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled Iran, marking the triumph of that country’s Islamic Revolution.

Washington already had been pushing Mexico, before the Shah’s downfall, to make up for the falling supply of Persian Gulf oil. An alliance with the Shah was key to Washington’s post-Vietnam pivot: Iran’s ample supply of crude mitigated the worst effects of the ongoing energy crisis, with the country’s petrodollars either deposited in New York banks or spent lavishly on U.S. weapons. In response to the crisis in Iran, which led to a drop in the nation’s oil exports, the Carter administration began pressuring Mexico in late 1978 to sell its fuel to the U.S. at below global market price. Mexico refused.

Then — just a few days before the story of the border fence’s “razor-sharp” design broke in the press — the White House voided a deal to buy Mexican natural gas. The move was meant to force Mexico to reconsider the asking price for its oil. With a pipeline to the U.S. half-finished, where else was the country going to sell its gas? Mexico was left “hanging like a paintbrush,” López Portillo said.

Mexico wasn’t a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. And its oligarchy and security forces were brutal to their own people. But its political elite were heirs to the economic nationalism of the Mexican Revolution. López Portillo was something like the Hugo Chávez of his decade, though more mannered: Petroleum, he said, was the “patrimony” of all of humanity, and its profits should be used to finance the development of “a more just international order.”

Access to cheap fuel and cheap labor are the two elements absolutely essential to the functioning of global capitalism, though they aren’t often linked together in discussions of foreign policy. López Portillo though, in response to Washington’s demand that Mexico serve as its private oil spigot, repeatedly — in discussions with China and Japan, even in sidebar talks with California’s governor, Jerry Brown — emphasized the connection between energy and migration. Mexico’s untapped oil reserves, he said, would help the country “enter the coming century as a country that offers full employment to its people. We either do that, or we risk a full financial failure and suffer the humiliation of becoming a country of wetbacks.”

Other Mexican policy and opinion-makers made similar connections between petroleum production and migration. One columnist warned of “big trouble along the border” were Mexico to capitulate to Washington and sell its fuel at below global market value. Economic inequality between the two countries would only grow worse, he said, predicting that by the year 2000, “Mexicans will flow into the U.S. at the rate of 5 million a year, instead of the 1 million a year now.” “Mexico will eat its gas,” said a Mexico City banker, “before it will sell it at less than $2.60” — then the going global rate.

And so Carter landed in Mexico City on Valentine’s Day to a cold welcome. The airport reception was cordial but brief, with López Portillo using his lunchtime remarks to lecture his U.S. counterpart. Referring to the borderlands as “scars,” López Portillo complained of Washington’s “sudden deception” and “abuse,” warning that manipulative policies on the part of the United States would only worsen the “silent migration” and deepen resentment and fear on both sides of the border.

Newspapers reported that Carter was “stung” by the criticisms, to which he responded with a joke that didn’t go over well: He said he first started jogging during an earlier visit to Mexico City, when he “discovered I was afflicted with Montezuma’s revenge.”

Terrorizing the Borderlands

Carter’s fence fiasco receded from public attention, after his administration promised a scaled-down, humane design. But the controversy, along with diplomatic tensions over energy policy, signaled a major realignment of politics on both sides of the border.

In the United States, the rising Chicano movement broke with the anti-immigrant position of both the United Farm Workers and the middle-class League of United Latin American Citizens (which earlier had supported Operation Wetback, as Border Patrol’s mass deportation campaign of the 1950s was called). Activists mobilized against the fence, and then against INS raids in East Los Angeles, describing them as a form of domestic terrorism. One INS officials admitted that the “symbolic content” of the green uniform worn by Border Patrol agents “is very high, sort of like showing a swastika in a synagogue.” Soon, both the United Farm Workers and LULAC (followed years later by the AFL) reversed their positions and began advocating on behalf of undocumented migrants.

BROWNSVILLE, TX - FEBRUARY 21:  Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officers arrest 20 February 1989 immigrants who have entered Texas from Mexico seeking asylum in the US. The INS plans to detain those seeking asylum in a facility near Brownsville while their applications are reviewed.  (Photo credit should read WALT FRERCK/AFP/Getty Images)

Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officers arrest migrants who had entered Texas via Mexico to seek asylum on Feb. 20, 1989.

Photo: Walt Frerck/AFP/Getty Images

The fence scandal likewise marked the growing importance of Mexican migration to domestic electoral politics.

For instance, Sen. Ted Kennedy, in April 1980 shortly after announcing that he would challenge Carter for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, flew to Mexico City to meet with López Portillo. Kennedy had a few years earlier backed legislation meant to crack down on the hiring of undocumented workers. Now, in Mexico City, he criticized Carter’s “unilateral” approach to border security and said that he favored an “amnesty” to legalize the status of undocumented residents in the United States. There was, the Massachusetts senator believed, a “growing consensus” within his country for such a solution. “Electric fences,” he said, are not the answer.

Ronald Reagan, shortly after securing the Republican nomination, also jumped on both the fence controversy and the energy crisis. “You don’t build a 9-foot fence along the border between two friendly nations,” he said on a campaign swing through Texas in September 1980. “You document the undocumented workers and let them come in here with a visa,” he continued, and let them stay “for whatever length of time they want to stay.” Reagan quickly gave up the idea, careful as he was, to thread between the business and nativist wings of the Republican Party. But he also, in response to the United States’s energy dispute with Mexico, put forward the first real proposal for what would evolve into the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The details of Reagan’s “North American Accord” were fuzzy, and the final NAFTA treaty, as negotiated by Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush and signed, in late 1993, into law by Bill Clinton, didn’t include, as Reagan had suggested, the integration of Mexican, U.S., and Canadian fuel markets. The agreement focused mostly on non-energy-related trade and investment. But in the decades following ratification, Washington steadily pushed to break the Mexican government’s monopoly on oil and gas production. That push was eventually successful, with Mexico’s Congress passing legislation in 2014 to open up its energy sector to U.S. corporations, a move which hastened the worldwide decline of energy prices.

The cost of labor, too, remains cheap. Back in 1978, the country’s “Roma”-era business elites, in contrast to the public indignation voiced by Mexico’s politicians, privately told U.S. diplomats that they supported the idea of a border fence, so long as it was put up without fanfare. A hardened border, they hoped, would keep their labor costs down. And so after López Portillo, Mexican presidents gave up the idea of creating a more just international order and instead promoted the opening of its economy, while at the same time, largely going along with Washington’s hardening of its border policy.

NAFTA freed investment and commodities, allowing them to cross borders at will. But the treaty didn’t grant the same freedom to workers. In fact, the opposite occurred. Continued militarization of the border — including the expansion of sharp-edged sheet-metal border fences that did sever body parts — limited the range of movement allowed to Mexican workers, ensuring that Mexico’s comparative advantage for the U.S. economy — low wages — remained intact.

Mexican wages today are among the lowest in the world, significantly lower than, for example, in China.

Meanwhile, after the “Tortilla Curtain” controversy died down, the border fence continued to expand, including, in the 1990s, using the Army Corp of Engineers to build 60 miles of fence out of old surplus steel landing pads that the military had used to land Hercules cargo planes and Huey helicopters in Vietnam. The pads included an “anti-climb guard” that regularly severed the fingers of migrants.

Those pads are now considered obsolete, though many are still in place in California, New Mexico, and Arizona.  And U.S. border policy is weaponized beyond anything imaginable to 1970s-era engineers. In the last months of Barack Obama’s presidency, the migrants’ rights organizations, No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, produced a series of harrowing reports examining how Border Patrol “treats the borderlands as a low-intensity war zone where federal agents commit violence with impunity.”

Border patrollers often violently tackle nonresisting migrants and beat those they catch, gratuitously destroying sources of drinking water and denying humanitarian aid. “Habitual acts of cruelty by agents are entirely consistent with the logic and objectives of deterrence,” one of the reports states, “which are premised on amplifying the risks and harms inflicted on border crossers in order to deter future crossing attempts.” Agents regularly use helicopters and terrain vehicles to scatter border crossers, chasing them over cliffs, into fast-flowing rivers, or deeper into the desert. Many, as a result, die from exhaustion of dehydration or simply disappear: The borderlands have “been transformed into a vast graveyard of the missing.”

The post How the U.S. Weaponized the Border Wall appeared first on The Intercept.

Why the Justice Department Can’t Be Trusted to Investigate Abysmal Conditions in Federal Prisons

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 04: An exterior view of the Metropolitan Detention Center on February 4, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Power has been fully restored to the prison after inmates suffered the past week without heat and access to televisions, computers or telephones. On Monday morning, the facility received a bomb threat following a weekend of protests. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Metropolitan Detention Center on Feb. 4, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The humanitarian crisis at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center will have come as a shock to many. It is horrifying. If there is one institution, however, which has no grounds for shock, nor the performance of it, it is the Justice Department.

As a late-January polar vortex hit New York with frigid temperatures, the Metropolitan Detention Center, a waterfront federal prison, experienced an electrical fire, leaving incarcerated people inside without heat, light, warm food, or access to legal counsel for days. Following a furious response from protesters and legal advocates, public officials and a federal judge toured the facility, witnessing inhumane conditions far beyond the temporary and harrowing loss of heat and power.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department, which oversees all federal prisons and jails through the Bureau of Prisons, announced that it has asked an internal watchdog to investigate the Metropolitan Detention Center’s response to the electrical fire and heating failure, as well as broader infrastructural problems. That is to say: After the very public revelation of torturous neglect and brutality in New York City’s largest federal detention facility, the Justice Department is going to investigate itself.

To have faith that such an investigation will lead to significant change, one would have to believe that recent events and conditions at Metropolitan Detention Center are anomalous in the facility and the broader prison system. They are not.

“Department of Justice attorneys, who represent the Bureau of Prisons, cannot be trusted to provide accurate information about the conditions at MDC Brooklyn, or to investigate the Bureau of Prisons.”

Abuse, misconduct, and neglect have consistently been found to pervade federal prisons — and the entire carceral system —  with internal investigations by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General often leading to little more than recommendations, window dressing reform, and the flimsy appearance of accountability.

“Department of Justice attorneys, who represent the Bureau of Prisons, cannot be trusted to provide accurate information about the conditions at MDC Brooklyn, or to investigate the Bureau of Prisons,” said New York-based civil rights lawyer Gideon Oliver, who assisted the legal counsel in hearings this week for two people incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

The proceedings, as Nick Pinto reported for The Intercept, uncovered that prison officials told numerous lies about the temperature and conditions in the facility — lies which their government attorneys repeated without hesitation. “Beyond the obvious conflict,” Oliver told The Intercept, “BOP attorneys, and the assistant U.S. attorneys representing the BOP, have undermined whatever credibility they might otherwise have enjoyed by providing defense attorneys and judges with misinformation about the recent conditions at MDC Brooklyn.”

It’s worth noting that it was not the Justice Department, but the tireless work of protesters, prisoners’ families, and lawyers that deserves credit for drawing necessary attention to last week’s freezing emergency. As a result, the power and heat are back on, and federal judges and lawmakers are — for a moment at least — paying attention to incarcerated people.

The Justice Department, on the other hand, has known about poor conditions at the detention facility and done little to resolve them. Indeed, there can be no pretense that the dire conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center, which holds 1,654 people, were previously unremarked upon.

A 2016 report by the National Association of Women Judges following visits to the jail described the conditions as “unconscionable.” Citing lack of light, air, medical services, and recreational space, the report claimed that the jail violated both the American Bar Association Standards on Treatment of Prisoners and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners.

In the last three years alone, three corrections officers — including two lieutenants — were convicted of raping women incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center. In the decade prior, guards at the facility were found to have beaten and violated the civil rights of Muslim people held in federal custody after post-9/11 arrest sweeps. Eleven guards, including a captain and three lieutenants, were indicted for brutal prisoner beatings between 2002 and 2007; four were sentenced in 2008 for the beatings and subsequent cover-up attempts.

There’s no evidence to put much stock in the Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons radically improving conditions, of which they have long been well aware, without ongoing and intense public pressure.

“Without sustained community pressure, courts and politicians may be fooled by the partial clean-up of common areas and cages, but we know better,” the community activist group No New Jails NYC said in a statement. “This recent crisis at MDC has brought new attention to an old reality. What has taken place at MDC is not exceptional.”

“This recent crisis at MDC has brought new attention to an old reality. What has taken place at MDC is not exceptional.”

Similar conditions to those reported at Metropolitan Detention Center — the cold, the dank, the dark, extreme isolation, untreated medical crises, ignored suicide attempts, neglect, and retaliation from guards — have been reported at various points in many of the U.S.’s 122 federal prisons. And New York’s federal facilities in particular have long been sites of abuse.

When the toilets broke in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, guards gave prisoners bags in which to defecate, according to 2015 lawsuit reviewed by Gothamist. In the lawsuit, a prisoner also stated that he had “found rats in his bed and seen rats crawling on inmates while they slept.” At the Metropolitan Correctional Center, numerous guards have been accused and convicted of sexually assaulting and beating prisoners over the last 15 years. Staff at the prison tried to cover up the 2017 fatal beating of 35-year-old Roberto Grant by telling his family that he overdosed; medical examiners found no drugs in his system.

When the elevators break — which happens at least once a month — at a high-rise federal facility in Houston, the whole prison is held on lockdown. During a record breaking heat wave in California last year, people incarcerated at the Mendota federal prison had to wrap their heads in wet towels when the air conditioning failed. Meanwhile, toxic mold — a problem at many detention facilities across the country — was found to have given staff and inmates respiratory diseases.

This is not to say that the the Justice Department’s investigations, conducted by the Office of the Inspector General, do not take note of problems found in Bureau of Prisons facilities. The ongoing barbarity at prisons like the Metropolitan Detention Center and  Metropolitan Correctional Center, however, betrays how little interest there is in relieving incarcerated peoples’ suffering. If that suffering were taken seriously, the Justice Department and government officials would dedicate their energies to abolishing the cash bail system and other efforts toward abating America’s mass incarceration crisis.

Plans like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s — slowly shuttering Rikers Island prison, only to open four new state-of-the-art city jails in its place — are not the challenge to mass incarceration we need. Nicer prisons are no substitute for the goal of fewer prisons. Yet, as No New Jails NYC note in their statement, “even as we organize for abolition, we recognize the necessity and urgency of ensuring that currently incarcerated people have access to the resources they need to survive.” With that aim prioritized, the task of providing federal prisoners with livable conditions cannot be entrusted to the government body that has overseen and permitted the very brutality in need of urgent remedy.

“There is a great need for the court to appoint an independent special master, at a minimum,” Oliver, the civil rights lawyer, told me. A special master would be a third party, often a retired judge, appointed by the court, accountable only to the court and the parties involved. That we not leave a historically neglectful government agency to investigate itself, when the issue at hand is no less than torture, should indeed be the absolute minimum.

The post Why the Justice Department Can’t Be Trusted to Investigate Abysmal Conditions in Federal Prisons appeared first on The Intercept.

Journalists, Lawyers, and Activists Working on the Border Face Coordinated Harassment From U.S. and Mexican Authorities

Four photojournalists gathered on the southern side of the U.S.-Mexico border wall shortly after Christmas in Tijuana. They were there to document the arrival of the migrant caravans from Central America, the latest chapter in a story that had drawn President Donald Trump’s increasing outrage.

As the photographers waited in the dark, a pair of Mexican police officers approached.

The officers wanted to know the photographers’ names and where they were from. They asked to see their passports and photographed the travel documents once they were handed over.

The photographers represented multiple nationalities and included American citizens and international award-winners contributing to the world’s best-known news organizations. They were an experienced crew, and, to a degree, were accustomed to being documented as they did their work. Still, having their passports photographed by Mexican cops was unusual.

In the weeks that followed, each of the photographers at the wall that night found themselves pulled into secondary screenings by U.S. and foreign officials while attempting to cross borders in multiple countries. In one case, a photojournalist was barred from re-entering Mexico. During questioning, a U.S. official later indicated that he knew about her encounter at the wall. In another case, a photojournalist was taken into a private room at a U.S. port of entry, shown a book full of images of border-based activists, and asked who he knew.

A Border Patrol officers uses his cell phone to take snapshots of the journalists after a Mexican migrant with her daughter jumped the border fence to get into the U.S. side to San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018. Discouraged by the long wait to apply for asylum through official ports of entry, many migrants from recent caravans are choosing to cross the U.S. border wall and hand themselves in to border patrol agents. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

A Border Patrol officer uses his cellphone to take photos of journalists after a Mexican migrant and her daughter jumped the border fence to get to San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 29, 2018.

Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP

In early January, a second group of photojournalists was approached by Mexican police while working near the wall. Again, their passports were photographed. When one of the photographers asked the officers why they were taking the photos, the answer that came back was “for the Americans.”

By the end of the month, at least one of those photojournalists had also been barred from re-entering Mexico.

Last week, two attorneys with a leading legal organization challenging the Trump administration’s border crackdown were denied entry into Mexico. In a press conference, the lawyers — Nora Phillips and Erika Pinheiro, senior litigators with the Los Angeles- and Tijuana-based organization Al Otro Lado — blamed the U.S. government for their removal. Pinheiro, a U.S. citizen living in Mexico, was heading home to her 10-month-old son. Phillips, Al Otro Lado’s legal director, was on her way to a long-planned vacation with her husband, her 7-year-old daughter, and her best friend when she was flagged by officials at the Guadalajara airport. She spent nine hours in detention without food or water.

“It was literally just hell on earth,” Phillips said in an interview with The Intercept.

The attorneys’ expulsion was the latest in a series of escalating tactics used by U.S. and Mexican law enforcement to target legal service providers, humanitarian groups, and journalists on the border.

Through interviews with journalists and advocates who have worked in the Tijuana area recently, The Intercept has uncovered a pattern of heightened U.S. law enforcement scrutiny aimed at individuals with a proximity to the migrant caravans.

Nineteen sources described law enforcement actions ranging from the barring and removal of journalists and lawyers from Mexico, to immigrant rights advocates being shackled to benches in U.S. detention cells for hours at a time. Multiple sources, including members of the press and advocates, described being forced to turn over their notes, cameras, and phones while plainclothes U.S. border officials pumped them for information about activists working with members of the caravans.

Secondary screenings in the San Diego area have become so routine, one source said, that he has taken to leaving several hours early for his cross-border trips, anticipating being held by U.S. border guards. The freelance photojournalists swept up in the dragnet, meanwhile, have been left to worry about whether they will be able to freely continue their profession, or if state interference — in some cases from their own government — will prevent them from documenting some of the most important stories of the Trump era.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency responsible for U.S. ports of entry, has denied responsibility for the immigration attorneys’ denied entry into Mexico. The Intercept sent CBP a series of questions on Monday regarding the targeting of journalists, lawyers, and immigration advocates. The agency did not provide responses on the record. The Mexican government did not respond to a request for comment.

Responding to The Intercept’s findings, Alex Ellerbeck, North America program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, and lead author of a recent report on CBP searches involving journalists, said that while “CPJ has documented dozens of cases of journalists asked about their work in secondary screening or asked to hand over their devices … the sheer number of cases back to back in a single point of entry and the incredibly blatant attempts to get journalists to act as informants for the government stand out as an escalation.”

“The government can’t use the border to prevent journalists from gathering information, especially on issues it would rather they not report on,” Hugh Handeyside, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, told The Intercept. “If CBP is interfering with or retaliating against journalists, that raises serious constitutional questions and bears further investigation.”

At least one U.S. lawmaker is already investigating.

Sen. Ron Wyden’s office confirmed to The Intercept the opening of an investigation into CBP’s newly revealed border crackdown, including specifically the barring of an American journalist’s re-entry into Mexico to continue her work.

“These are extremely disturbing reports,” Wyden said in a statement to The Intercept. “It would be an outrageous abuse of power for the Trump Administration and CBP to target people for searches based on their political beliefs or because they are journalists. CBP needs to explain exactly what happened in these cases, and whether this was an aberration, or a coordinated effort to punish political opponents.”

Migrants, journalists and U.S. activists run from tear gas on January 1, 2019 after US authorities fired tear gas over the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico. A group of approximately 150 migrants attempted to cross the border but their attempt was thwarted when CBP discovered where they were hiding and used several crowd control techniques to disperse the group.Photo by Kitra Cahana / MAPS

Migrants, journalists, and U.S. activists run from tear gas on Jan. 1, 2019, after U.S. authorities fired tear gas over the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico.

Photo: Kitra Cahana

The New Year’s Gassing

In the first hours of 2019, as many Americans were still ringing in the new year, a dramatic display was unfolding on the U.S.-Mexico border.

On one side of the wall separating Tijuana from San Diego were roughly 150 migrants, including women and children; a small group of American activists; and press from around the world. On the other side, in a dirt lot, was a considerable contingent of well-armed border guards.

CBP later claimed that what happened next began with rocks being thrown, which required the use of three volleys of tear gas and an unknown number of pepper-pellet rounds fired over the border. The Associated Press, however, reported that rocks were not thrown until after the gas canisters were launched.

By all accounts, the scene was chaotic, with white plumes of noxious smoke rising into the air, and migrants running to and from the border wall.

Kitra Cahana, a freelancer with dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship, was one of the photojournalists on the ground that night. Though she was shot in the leg with a nonlethal round, she continued on undeterred; her work at a migrant shelter days later was published on the front page of the New York Times. Cahana was also one of the four photojournalists whose passports were photographed by Mexican law enforcement days earlier.

Cahana arrived in Tijuana in late November, following the exodus of thousands of Central Americans who crossed Mexico before filtering into the border city. Like many of the photojournalists covering the caravan, she gravitated to the border wall and was soon shooting photos there on a daily basis. By late December, Cahana told The Intercept, the Border Patrol’s interactions with the photographers there were becoming increasingly hostile. By day, agents would snap photos of the press. At night, they would shine blinking flashlights capable of destroying a camera’s sensor at the photojournalists’ cameras as they worked.

Cahana left Tijuana in early January. She flew home to Quebec for a quick assignment, with plans to return to Mexico days later to continue her coverage of the migrant caravans. Cahana began her second journey on January 17, attempting to travel to Tapachula, Mexico, where a new caravan was set to take off, via Detroit, Michigan. That’s when the trouble started.

When Cahana put her American passport through the check-in machine at the Montreal airport, it printed out an image of her face with a huge X on it. Cahana approached an airport official, explaining what had happened. When Cahana told the official that she was a photojournalist heading to Mexico to cover the migrant caravan, she was taken to a back room to wait. A second official questioned Cahana about her assignment and how she made money, but eventually let her go to board her flight.

It was a little after 8 p.m. when Cahana landed in Mexico City. After telling Mexican customs officials of her plans to head to Tapachula, Cahana was taken to another back room, where she would begin 13 hours of cold, incommunicado detention.

Though conversational in multiple foreign languages, Cahana was a beginning Spanish speaker and struggled to understand what was happening. Her phone was confiscated and her requests for an interpreter, or contact with embassy officials, went nowhere. She worried about the photos on her hard drive being accessed — they included images of vulnerable asylum-seekers. Cahana was given an unofficial-looking document — later shared with The Intercept — consisting of 27 basic questions written in English. She quickly filled it out.

Cahana asked if she was being detained because she was a journalist.

“No, it’s not us,” she recalled a Mexican official saying. “It’s Interpol.”

“Interpol?” Cahana asked. “Yes,” the official said.

“Los americanos?” Cahana asked. “Yes,” the official replied.

Hours ticked away. After midnight, Cahana was taken to a separate room and urged to sign a Spanish-language document that would authorize her removal to the U.S. “Just sign here. I’m trying to help you. If you don’t sign, you will not be allowed to come back to Mexico for five years,” she recalled a Mexican official saying. Still without a translator, or any real explanation as to why she was being detained, Cahana refused to sign.

She was moved to a multiroom holding area where people were sleeping on mats on the floor. An official with Aeroméxico told her that she would be flown to Detroit in the morning. When she asked if she could be flown to Montreal instead, offering to pay her own way, she was told that would not be possible. While in detention, Cahana befriended a woman from Spain who spoke English.

Together with the woman, she spoke to a Mexican official overseeing the holding area. Cahana asked him if she could speak to someone from her embassy or someone who at least spoke good English. The man told her no. She again asked if she was being detained because she was a journalist. The man said it was because of the Americans, Cahana recalled, not the Mexicans.

Through the Spanish woman’s translation, the official told Cahana that in order to photograph the Americans by the wall, she needed written permits from U.S. and Mexican authorities. Cahana asked him if he meant CBP. “Yes,” he told her.

At that point, Cahana had gone hours without food or adequate sleep. She couldn’t tell if the man was describing some official policy or just offering his opinion.

At 9:10 a.m., Cahana flew out of Mexico City. When she landed in Detroit hours later, she again ran her passport through the check-in machine — again, it returned an image of her face with a giant X on it. After two airport officials tried and failed to scan her passport, Cahana was taken to another back room, where two plainclothes officials, who said they were from Homeland Security, arrived to question her. The officials, a man and a woman, were looking at a computer as they asked Cahana questions about her interactions with Mexican authorities on the border. The officials specifically asked about “the day after Christmas.”

“He kept prodding at that,” Cahana recalled. Somehow, staring at their computer, the officials seemed to know the date and place where her passport had been photographed.

Remember this, Cahana told herself, this is significant.

Cahana left the airport with plans to return to her work. On January 24, she flew to Guatemala, hoping that if she crossed the Mexico-Guatemala border by land, she might not have the same troubles that she experienced at the airport in Mexico City. Cahana arrived in Guatemala without any issues, but when she presented herself at the port of entry to Mexico two days later, she was denied, told that there was a “migration alert” on her passport.

A migrant stands on the border fence before jumping to get into the U.S. side to San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, Dec. 28, 2018. Discouraged by the long wait to apply for asylum through official ports of entry, many migrants from recent caravans are choosing to cross the U.S. border wall and hand themselves in to border patrol agents. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

A migrant stands on the border fence before jumping to get to San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 28, 2018.

Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP

A Pattern of Harassment

Cahana was not alone. From November 25 — the first time CBP used tear gas to repel members of the migrant caravan from the border — through the New Year’s Eve incident, tensions on the border had been mounting. Along the way, U.S. border enforcement came to see members of the press and immigrant rights advocates as part of the problem and took a series of steps in response.

On December 2, Guillermo Arias, a Mexican photojournalist with Agence France-Presse with years of experience covering the Tijuana area, headed to a canyon along the border to shoot photos of a family looking to cross. He wasn’t the only one.

Journalists from around the globe had descended to document the families seeking to cross the border and present themselves to the Border Patrol for asylum. The international media attention that came with them was new, both for local press and for local enforcement. In years past, Arias told The Intercept, Border Patrol agents alone in the field, with nobody watching, could turn away migrants who made it onto U.S. soil without having to process them.

“When you have media, you can’t do that,” Arias said.

Turning away asylum-seekers is against the law. On December 1, photographer Fabio Bucciarelli and videographer Francesca Tosarelli, both Italian citizens, captured video that appeared to show agents doing just that.

The day after the Italians shot the footage, Arias sensed a change at the border. That was the first day that Border Patrol agents “got really aggressive with us,” Arias said, yelling at journalists and routinely taking photos of them.

Carol Guzy, a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, also recalled the shift on December 2. “The agents were there, and they said women and children could come over, but not men. So a ton of women and children went over the border,” Guzy told The Intercept. “Afterwards, they came down to the fence, to the journalists that were standing on the Mexican side, with a camera, filming us all, basically yelling at us, saying we were the reason, we made these people climb that fence and we’re endangering children, and then all the while filming us.”

“It was so uncalled for and it was so ridiculous,” she said. Guzy, who was pulled into secondary screening in San Diego when she left Mexico later that month, added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a flag on my passport — that gives me the creeps that now they have a picture of all of us standing there. They must’ve done something with it.”

A week after the Border Patrol’s meltdown, tensions escalated even further. A video Bucciarelli and Tosarelli shot that day and shared with The Intercept shows a Border Patrol agent addressing members of the press through the border fence. “My agents say that some of you are aiding and abetting these people to enter the United States illegally, OK?” the agent, identified on his name patch as S. Gisler, told the press, informing them that they could be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony.

A journalist off-camera can be heard telling the agent that the accusations weren’t true.

“I’m just saying that if you come to the United States, we could conceivably get [an] arrest warrant for whoever was doing that, and if you ever come to the United States, we just charge you with that,” Gisler replied. “I don’t know if they’d actually prosecute you for it or not.” As he walked away, Gisler advised the press to let the migrants “just do what they’re gonna do,” and added, “some people say that reporters are helping them climb the fence.”

Video: Francesca Tosarelli

Four days later, Arias was back at the wall, shooting photos of migrants crossing the border to turn themselves in for asylum. As he returned to his vehicle, Arias was approached by a Mexican police officer. The officer said he was with Unidad de Enlace Internacional, a municipal Mexican police unit that works closely with its law enforcement counterparts on the northern side of the border.

With a decade of experience in Tijuana, including years covering the narco violence there, Arias was familiar with the unit and their relationship to the Americans. “These are the guys they call,” he said.

According to Arias, the officer told him that the unit was responding to a “suspicious activity” call from the Americans. Arias noticed the officer was holding a fistful of foreign journalists’ passports, Arias recalled. The two men argued about the law for about 15 minutes, with the officer claiming that the journalists did not have the credentials to shoot there, and Arias responding that the officer was trying to enforce laws that were not within his jurisdiction.

Arias was eventually allowed to leave. Two days later, the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector released a statement reporting that on December 13, surveillance footage had captured video of migrants illegally crossing the border “as photographers and media outlets filmed and, apparently, encouraged the group to cross illegally.”

The statement went on to claim that among more than 20 migrants were individuals “carrying professional-grade recording equipment, believed to be associated with the press.” It added that “agents reported hearing someone tell the group to climb over the [border] barrier,” and that camerapeople climbed to the top of the barrier as they crossed in “what appeared to be a staged event to capture the illegal crossing on video.” The Intercept requested to see the Border Patrol’s footage, but CBP did not provide it.

Cahana’s passport — along with the passports of the three other photojournalists she was working alongside — was photographed by Mexican police officers two weeks after the statement was issued. The municipal police department in Tijuana did not respond to a request for comment on its officers’ relationship to the press and U.S. law enforcement, but according to Arias, “They were pretty obsessed with the foreign journalists.”

On New Year’s Eve, hours before the tear gas was launched, the core group of foreign photojournalists documenting crossings over the international divide was back at the wall. It was dark and rainy. On the northern side of the border, four Border Patrol agents stood watch. Three were dressed in tactical kits. One shined a strobing flashlight at the journalists, while the other filmed them.

As shown on video footage provided to The Intercept, the agents accused the photographers of bringing migrant children out in the rain, so they could take photos of them attempting to cross the border. One agent turned his attention to a photographer with an umbrella. “That’s a man right there,” he said. “Yeah, I like that. That’s a fucking man right there. Yeah, the kids over there — who gives a fuck, right?”

A second agent added, “The reporters, they bring these people down so they can stand in the rain, so you guys can make a couple bucks. Shame on you, man. Shame on you. That should be the story. That’s the real story, how you guys are taking advantage of these poor people.”

“You guys are going to the shelters and telling them to come over here,” an agent said. “This is not happening naturally. You guys are enticing these people to come over here. You know it.”

According to Emilio Fraile, a Spanish freelance photojournalist, the agents’ comments at one point turned from condescending and accusatory to threatening. Fraile said he was focusing on shooting photos of a family preparing to cross when a fellow photojournalist told him, “They’re saying your name.”

Fraile didn’t believe it until he heard it for himself. “Where is Emilio?” the agents called out. “Where is Emilio?”

“They said it two or three more times,” Fraile told The Intercept in Spanish. “It was like, Fuck. Why do these people know my name?”

Fraile had not passed through a U.S. port or given his name to any agents on the line. The agents likely wanted the photographers to move back from the wall, Fraile said. “But of course, to a civilian, it’s quite a frightening gesture, right? To know your name, the American police, knowing who the president is in the United States.”

Mining for Intelligence

On January 3, Fraile and two other Spanish freelance photojournalists, Santi Palacios, and Daniel Ochoa de Olza, a longtime AP contributor whose coverage of the New Year’s Eve tear gassing was shared around the world, were approached by Mexican police.

Like Cahana and the others, the Spaniards’ passports were photographed. Palacios asked the officers why they were taking photos. It “was because the ‘Americans’ were asking them to do so,” Palacios told The Intercept. “They wanted to know who we were.”

“I asked if they send them to the police on the other side, and the officer said yes,” Palacios said.

According to Palacios, the officers then told the journalists that they couldn’t be in the area because they were on Mexican tourist visas and that if they saw them again, they would take them to the police station. Palacios added: “I also asked them if this was because of the collaborative police team that works on both sides of the border. They said yes, that they do work together and share info.”

Fraile, who also heard the exchange, added, “We were really surprised that the Mexican police told us they shared the information with the U.S. police.”

As the Los Angeles Times reported last week, Ochoa de Olza, who was with the other two Spaniards, was denied re-entry into Tijuana from San Diego in late January. Thus far, of the seven photojournalists known to have had their passports photographed by Mexican law enforcement, two have attempted re-entry into Mexico: Cahana and Ochoa de Olza. Both have been denied.

Days after their passports were photographed, Fraile and a colleague headed to the U.S. for a shopping trip via the San Ysidro port of entry. The two were directed to secondary screening, Fraile said. “They wouldn’t let us talk to each other,” he explained. “We were each taken to separate rooms where they interviewed us.” According to Fraile, the U.S. officials’ questions focused on the mood in Tijuana among participants in the caravan, and the activities of American activists there.

“He was asking us if there was any North American, anyone from the United States, collaborating with the migrants to help them cross the border,” Fraile said.

The Intercept interviewed the three other photojournalists who were with Cahana the night their passports were photographed — a week before the Spaniards’ encounter — and who similarly spent much of late December near the wall in Tijuana. Each described how, in the weeks that followed, they, too, were pulled into secondary screening by U.S. law enforcement as they returned to the U.S.

Aldo Ivan, 18 from Guatemala and Griselda, 22 from Honduras embrace on top of a cargo truck heading north bound towards Guadalajara on November 12, 2018 where they will stay overnight at a temporary migrant shelter set up by the Mexican government on their way to their Tijuana destination on the first migrant caravan. Photographer: Mark Abramson

Aldo Ivan, 18, from Guatemala, and Griselda, 22, from Honduras, embrace on top of a cargo truck heading north toward Guadalajara on Nov. 12, 2018, where they would stay overnight at a temporary migrant shelter set up by the Mexican government.

Photo: Mark Abramson

Mark Abramson, a freelancer whose December work in Tijuana was also featured in the New York Times, was pulled into secondary screening at the El Chaparral port of entry as he returned to the U.S. on January 5. It was approximately 3 a.m., Abramson told The Intercept, when he approached the port on foot. “I had a feeling that it would happen,” Abramson said. “Because I knew that people were being stopped.”

The moment he arrived at the port, he was taken to a lobby in the secondary screening area. CBP officials told Abramson to sit and put his phone down, as they began going through his backpack and notes. Abramson explained that he was a photojournalist. A plainclothes agent then led him to a windowless room, illuminated with florescent light. With Abramson’s phone and belongings now in a separate room, the agent began a 30-minute interview.

The conversation was cordial, Abramson said, but the agent “was mining for intelligence.” The agent first focused on the leadership of the caravan. Abramson reiterated that he was a photojournalist, and that he, too, was interested in those sorts of questions. “I don’t know much,” he recalled saying. “I just know that the people are suffering and they’re definitely running from something, and my job is just to make as powerful a picture as I can of the scenes.”

The agent had a clear familiarity with the migrant camps on the other side of the border, Abramson said, and took a particular interest in how freelance photojournalists earn their money. The agent asked Abramson if he planned to come back to Mexico. Abramson, who had never been through secondary screening before, said that he’d like to, but he wanted to know if this was the kind of experience he could expect to repeat on a return visit. The agent assured him that it was just because Abramson was new to CBP. Abramson had his doubts.

The agent then asked if Abramson had any information about groups on the southern side of the border that might be helping migrants. “I knew he was referring to the gassing on New Year’s Eve,” Abramson said.

The events that night had been complicated and chaotic, and included not only migrants and journalists, but also American activists who had responded to the scene. In the aftermath of the gassing, the activists maintained that they had come to help, while others accused them of antagonizing law enforcement and placing migrants at risk. Abramson told the agent that he had seen medics present but left it at that.

“I didn’t want to feed him information — that’s not my job,” he said. “But they’re clearly mining for something.”

Central American migrants ,who are trying to go to the US, rush to volunteer food distributor's car to get instant noodles on Christmas Day in the makeshift camp in Tijuana, Mexico on December 25, 2018.
Thousands of Central American migrants mostly for Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala spent their Christmas day far away from their home country.Go Nakamura

Central American migrants, en route to the U.S., rush to the car of a volunteer food distributor to get instant noodles at a makeshift camp in Tijuana on Dec. 25, 2018.

Photo: Go Nakamura

Bing Guan and Go Nakamura, both freelance photojournalists whose passports were photographed by Mexican police, described a similar experience. The two entered the San Ysidro port of entry by car early on the morning of December 29. Guan was driving and the vehicle was his. Just a few weeks before, he had crossed through the same port without any issues. This time, however, he was directed to secondary screening.

After roughly an hour of waiting, a pair of plainclothes officers separated the journalists for questioning. Guan was led to an interrogation room where one of the officers launched into a series of questions. Guan said the officer told him that his agency was looking for information on “instigators” on the border. He then presented Guan with a double-sided, multipage photo lineup.

“Maybe nine or 12 pictures per page of people who have been kind of around the caravan,” Guan recalled. “Including anti-migrant activists, as well activists who have been affiliated with the caravan, that have been kind of shepherding them through Mexico.”

Guan recognized three or four of the individuals included on the sheet. Two were anti-migrant activists, he said. A third, he believed, was associated with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the immigrant rights organization most prominently associated with the migrant caravan. “They’re pretty much just blatantly telling us that they’re pumping us for information and trying to ID people around the caravan,” Guan said. “Which is weird and highly problematic.”

According to Guan, the images in CBP’s possession were a mix of what looked like travel document headshots, mugshots, and surveillance photos. Nakumara described being shown a similar set of photos. After being presented with the lineup, Guan was then asked to open up the images on his camera. He complied, reasoning that his images were too dark to be useful in identifying anyone.

After 2 1/2 hours, Guan and Nakamura were released.

Journalists who were in Tijuana in December, but did not have their passports photographed, have also experienced unusual scrutiny when returning to the U.S.

Manuel Rapalo, a freelancer with Al Jazeera, was among the journalists at the wall on New Year’s Eve who Border Patrol accused of helping to facilitate migrant crossings. Since that night, Rapalo told The Intercept, he’s twice been pulled into secondary screening when flying back to the U.S. via Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. “They’re going through my bags, they’re going through my camera,” Rapalo said. “I’m used to that if I’m trying to enter Nicaragua, not trying to enter the United States.”

During the most recent screening, on January 18, Rapalo asked the officer who was detaining him why he keeps getting pulled aside. “The CBP officer told me it was likely due to the line of work I was in,” Rapalo said. Rapalo suspected that his New Year’s Eve exchange with Border Patrol might have had something to do with what’s been happening. The first time he had been pulled into secondary, Rapalo said, the first question he was asked was, “Why did you have trouble at the border?”

“Honestly, there’s no reason he should have even known that I was at the border,” Rapalo said, noting that nothing in his travel documents, which reflected a flight from Mexico City, said anything about the border. “That was the first question.”

A Central American migrant woman walks up a hill near a truck rest stop after jumping off a cargo truck carrying migrants from the Central American caravan on its way to the city of Santiago de Querétaro on November 10, 2018. Earlier that morning thousands of migrants from the first caravan exited Mexico City where for over a week they rested and waited to continue their journey northbound to Tijuana.Photographer: Mark Abramson

A Central American woman walks up a hill near a truck rest stop after jumping off a cargo truck carrying migrants to Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico, on Nov. 10, 2018.

Photo: Mark Abramson

Targeting Humanitarian Groups

Multiple sources who went through secondary screening in the San Diego area described CBP’s focus on border-based activists and humanitarian groups, as well as officials’ efforts to access personal electronics.

Sindbad Rumney Guggenheim, an independent documentary filmmaker who spent two months with the caravan, was sent to secondary screening in the last week of December and the first week of January. During his second encounter, he was questioned about the New Year’s Eve gassing and whether he was an activist. U.S. officials asked him to unlock his phone, which he did, and then they disappeared with the device for approximately 15 minutes.

“For all I know, maybe they cloned it,” Guggenheim said, adding that one of the women who questioned him wrote down his phone’s IMEI number. “They really took everything,” he said. “There was no privacy at that point that mattered.”

At least two volunteers with Border Angels, a humanitarian group that leaves water for migrants in the California desert, have been subjected to secondary CBP screening in the last two months. Volunteer Hugo Castro told The Intercept that he was detained by the agency for more than five hours on December 20. James Cordero, meanwhile, said he was first sent to secondary on Christmas Eve, when he was bringing a load of toys to children at a Tijuana shelter where many of the migrants who had participated in the caravan were staying.

Cordero described being taken into an interrogation room at El Chaparral, where a pair of plainclothes officers pressed him for information on who ran the shelter and what the mood was like there. Cordero, too, was then presented with a series of photographs.

“Some were like mugshots, some were like real bad security camera photos, and then some were photos from people’s driver’s licenses,” he recalled.

By the time he got to the last page, Cordero recognized three members of Pueblo Sin Fronteras — depicted in driver’s license photos — and a friend who organized rallies on the U.S. side of the border on issues like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Alex Mensing was one of the Pueblo Sin Fronteras volunteers included in CBP’s photo lineup. A longtime organizer with the group, Mensing told The Intercept that he began noticing an uptick in pressure from the border enforcement agency in the spring of 2018, during the first migrant caravan that drew Trump’s ire. “I started getting sent to secondary in May 2018,” Mensing said. That was around the same time that migrants taken into U.S. custody started reporting that they were being asked about Pueblo Sin Fronteras. Since then, Mensing estimates that he’s been pulled into the heightened screening process between 15 and 20 times.

When the most recent caravan arrived in Tijuana in November, giving Trump a pretext to deploy thousands of troops to the border, Mensing got a call from a fellow Pueblo Sin Fronteras volunteer who had been taken into secondary screening. “The very first thing they asked them was, Who is Alex Mensing?” he recalled. According to Mensing, the officer told the volunteer that while the agency did not suspect that they were involved in human trafficking, “that doesn’t mean that your friends aren’t.”

The pressure since then has been intense, Mensing said, with every Pueblo Sin Fronteras volunteer who has crossed the border since December — six people in total — having been sent to secondary screening.

Jeff Valenzuela, a Pueblo Sin Fronteras volunteer living in Tijuana, told The Intercept that he has been sent to secondary screening a half-dozen times since late December.

On Christmas Day, Valenzuela approached the El Chapparal entry on foot. After waiting for two hours, two plainclothes officers, both women, escorted him to an interview room where they asked a series of general questions about the caravan and the condition of the shelters in Tijuana. During the questioning, Valenzuela was told that the officers needed to look through his phone. “You can hold it the whole time,” he recalled being told. “It’s standard procedure to make sure you don’t have child pornography.” It was either that, Valenzuela was told, or the phone could be seized and sent to a second location.

Valenzuela did as he was requested, allowing the officers to watch as he scrolled through his photos for approximately 30 seconds. He was released roughly 2 1/2 hours after he arrived.

Two days later, Valenzuela again came to the border, this time by car. He was on his way to visit his family in Los Angeles. A pair of officers approached his vehicle and told him to get out and put his hands behind his back. As one of the officers reached for a pair of handcuffs, Valenzuela was told that he was not being placed under arrest. Again, he was told, “this is just standard procedure.” Valenzuela was led to a “discreet door” nearby, where he stepped into what he described as a “jail-like booking room.”

Valenzuela’s belongings were confiscated, and he was walked to a steel bench.

Valenzuela said the officers then shackled his ankle to the bench. “Meanwhile, they’re telling me that I’m not being arrested,” he said. According to Valenzuela, he spent more than four hours shackled to the bench before two plainclothes officers arrived and took him to another interview room. The questions were much the same as the last time, Valenzuela said. This time, however, the officers told him to unlock his phone. When Valenzuela questioned whether he could really be compelled to do that, he was presented with a document, which said that his phone had been “detained for further examination, which may include copying.”

“At that point, I had been there for about five hours,” Valenzuela said. He gave in and unlocked the phone. He now regrets the decision. When the phone was returned some 40 minutes to an hour later, Valenzuela discovered that his email had been refreshed, and it seemed that most of the apps on the device had been accessed. Valenzuela was pulled into secondary screening four more times in the weeks that followed and, on January 25, was again shackled to the steel bench in the nondescript processing room.

Now, Valenzuela told The Intercept, he gives himself several hours of lead time before heading into the U.S., makes sure multiple people know he’s crossing, and leaves his phone behind.

David Abud, another Pueblo Sin Fronteras volunteer, has been sent to secondary screening twice since December, with his longest interview taking place at Los Angeles International Airport in early January, following a trip to visit friends and family in Mexico and Honduras. “It’s an escalation of the attack on asylum rights,” Abud told The Intercept. He described it as a Trump administration experiment, one that began by targeting a highly marginalized population — noncitizen migrants — and steadily expanding outward.

“They’re threatened first by the migrants, and then they’re threatened also by the people that are supporting them,” he said. “I think it just sets a really dangerous precedent if there isn’t more pushback against this.”

A soldier is seen on the US side of the border fence while a Honduran migrant's hand is placed on the border fence on Mexico side in Tijuana, Mexico on November 16, 2018.Thousands of Central American migrants, who are trying to go to the US, arrived in the US/Mexico border town of Tijuana in mid November 2018 however most of them have hard time to find a way to cross the border to the US. Go Nakamura

A soldier can be seen on the U.S. side of the border fence, opposite Tijuana, on Nov. 16, 2018.

Photo: Go Nakamura

Shutting Down Coverage

While CBP has said that it did not flag Nora Phillips and Erika Pinheiro, the Al Otro Lado attorneys who were denied entry into Mexico last week, the lawyers are not taking the claim at face value.

Pinheiro suspected that U.S. officials called counterparts in Mexico and urged them to flag the lawyers themselves. Roughly a year ago, she said, Al Otro Lado learned that CBP had asked a Mexican official to inquire about the immigration status of one of the organization’s lawyers. “This isn’t the first time they’ve looked into our immigration status,” Pinheiro said in an interview from Los Angeles.

The lawyers are already moving to launch inquiries in Congress, in the Mexican government, and with Interpol. “I think we’ll get to the bottom of it,” Pinheiro said. “In the meantime, I’m stuck here.” For an American attorney residing in Mexico, who represents 43 parents who were deported without their children during the Trump administration’s family separation campaign, an inability to cross borders is no small matter.

All of the individuals who spoke to The Intercept about the disruptions of their work along the border described a profound impact on their lives. Valenzuela, the Pueblo Sin Fronteras volunteer living in Tijuana, has missed time with his family in California because of his repeated referrals to secondary screening, and he now worries about his ability to commute to a new job in San Diego. For the many photojournalists who worked in the Tijuana area in late 2018, particularly the freelancers who lack the institutional support of a news organization, there is deep concern about future trips.

For now, Kitra Cahana remains in Guatemala. She continues to shoot photos, documenting the families moving north through the country, though she can only follow them so far. She’s spoken to several lawyers and press advocacy organizations, and she hopes — though she does not necessarily expect — that something will give in her case. Keith Chu, a spokesperson for Wyden, told The Intercept that his office “has been in contact with Ms. Cahana, and is in the process of investigating her case.”

“It seems like both governments are pointing the finger at the other government,” Cahana said of the U.S. and Mexico. “Maybe that’s how they want it.”

Cahana feels an obligation to determine exactly what happened in her case and why, both for the sake of her colleagues — especially the freelancers now worried about whether a ticket to the border is worth the risk — and for the issues they cover. “There’s a lot of opaqueness around migration issues,” Cahana said. “It’s our duty as journalists to shed light and bring about some clarity so that the public can make more informed decisions.”

“If we can’t do that, then I think society at large suffers.”

The post Journalists, Lawyers, and Activists Working on the Border Face Coordinated Harassment From U.S. and Mexican Authorities appeared first on The Intercept.

Activists Avoid Jail in U.K. After Blocking Plane From Deporting Migrants

On Wednesday morning, a group of British activists entered Chelmsford Crown Court, about 30 miles northeast of London, carrying backpacks and tote bags stuffed full. The Stansted 15, as the group has become known, had arrived for a sentencing hearing, and some of them had come prepared to face years in jail. In December, the activists were found guilty of committing a terrorism-related offense after they broke into an airport and blocked the departure of a government-chartered plane that was set to deport migrants and asylum-seekers.

But the group need not have packed their bags. Twelve of the defendants received community orders of 12 months with 100 hours of unpaid work and a 12-month exclusion from Stansted Airport, the London airport where their protest took place. Due to health reasons, one of the 12 received a sentence with 20 days of rehabilitation in place of unpaid work. The other three defendants, who had previous convictions of aggravated trespass, received nine-month prison sentences with suspensions of 18 months, meaning they will not be imprisoned unless they commit another offense within that time. They also received 100-250 hours of unpaid work, varying due to personal circumstances, and the same exclusion as their fellow defendants.

As the sentencing hearing ended, the defendants rose to hug. Relief spread through the public gallery, which was so small that it failed to accommodate the family and friends of all 15 defendants (parents were given priority). Outside, hundreds of supporters gathered. People danced in the street; camerapersons trained their lenses on the doors, anxious to capture the activists’ exit.

The Stansted 15 addressed the crowd with a prepared statement: “These terror convictions and the 10-week trial that led to them are an injustice that has profound implications for our lives. The convictions will drastically limit our ability to work, travel, and take part in everyday life. Yet people seeking asylum in this country face worse than this: They are placed in destitution, and their lives in limbo, by the Home Office’s brutal system every single day.”

The Crown Prosecution Service released a statement saying it never suggested that the defendants were terrorists.

The activists aimed to prevent the deportees from being sent back to places where they faced threats of harm and death.

On March 28, 2017, the 15 defendants — members of the anti-deportation groups End Deportations and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, whose ages ranged from 27 to 44 years old — cut a hole through a fence at Stansted Airport and approached a Titan Airways Boeing 767. Splitting into two groups, some locked themselves around the plane’s front wheel, while others constructed a pyramid structure out of scaffolding poles under the plane’s left wing and then locked themselves around it.

The flight had been chartered by the Home Office — the government department responsible for immigration, security, and law and order — and was scheduled to deport migrants and asylum-seekers back to Nigeria and Ghana. Instead, the plane remained immobile until the next morning. In grounding the flight, the activists aimed to prevent the deportees from being sent back to places where they faced threats of harm and death. They also wanted to draw attention to the government’s practice of deporting people using private charter flights, where security personnel often outnumber deportees, there is little notice given to asylum-seekers in advance of their deportation, and reports tell of excessive restraint used on passengers.

Originally accused of aggravated trespass, the charges against the activists were later upgraded to intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome, which falls under the “endangering safety at aerodromes” section of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990. Created to fight terrorism, the law comes with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and had never before been used against peaceful protesters. Amnesty International, concerned about the use of a terrorism-related charge against nonviolent activists, observed the 10-week trial. In December, the Stansted 15 were found guilty, the verdict interpreted by many as a sign of the government criminalizing protest.

The hearing made clear the high cost of both the long trial and the conviction. The courtroom heard of loss of job and educational opportunities and of depression suffered by numerous defendants, including Emma Hughes, who had given birth five weeks earlier; of Nathan Clack’s fear of no longer being able to visit his American partner if the conviction were to cause U.S. authorities to refuse him entry; of how Melanie Strickland, in court against medical advice, was hospitalized for a sepsis-related emergency a week prior and was scheduled to have abdominal surgery the next day.

Given the gravity of the charge, a prison-free sentence hardly means a punishment-free future. In fact, their anxieties were well-founded, according to Raj Chada, a partner from Hodge Jones & Allen, who represented all 15 activists. “They may find it difficult to go into the United States or to other countries,” Chada said. “Some of them have very responsible jobs that will require notification to the authorities.”

They are now appealing, although it may be months before the case reaches the Court of Appeals. Their arguments are manifold: that the case should not have proceeded because it was an inappropriate charge; that Judge Christopher Morgan should have permitted the necessity defense, which states that the action was justified because it was done to prevent harm; that Morgan misinterpreted the law; and that he may have been biased in his summing up of the case to the jury.

How this case, and its use of a terrorism-related law against nonviolent activists, will impact the charges brought against activists in the future remains unclear. And yet, as the courtroom’s packed press section and the mass of supporters in the street showed, many are taking note.

“When a country uses draconian terror legislation against people for peaceful protest, snatches others from their homes in dawn raids, incarcerates them without time limit, and forces them onto planes in the middle of the night, due to take them to places where their lives might be at risk, something is very seriously wrong,” said the Stansted 15 in a statement issued on Wednesday. “Every single one of us should be very worried about our democracy and our future.”

The post Activists Avoid Jail in U.K. After Blocking Plane From Deporting Migrants appeared first on The Intercept.

In Her First Race, Kamala Harris Campaigned as Tough on Crime — and Unseated the Country’s Most Progressive Prosecutor

The 1990s were among the most punishing decades in the recent history of American justice. Zealous prosecutors competed to put the most people behind bars, and politicians were eager to pass new laws to extend sentences. In San Francisco, Terence Hallinan was one of only prosecutors in America bucking the trend.

A legendary civil rights activist, defense attorney, former city supervisor, and an outspoken advocate for marijuana legalization, Hallinan rode a wave of discontent and squeaked by in his election to become San Francisco district attorney in 1995. He swiftly fired senior prosecutors in order to hire more minorities and reformists. He instructed his deputies to avoid the practice of objecting to a proposed juror for a criminal trial — an unusual stance that weakened the hand of the DA’s office — to avoid empaneling all-white juries.

Sex work, said Hallinan, was a public health problem — not a criminal offense. He quickly made waves by claiming that he would fight for nonviolent offenders to receive social services over jail time and called drug use a victimless crime, an argument that invited contempt from law enforcement officials.

Yet Hallinan — considered one of the “most left-wing politicians in the country” — was expelled in 2003 after just two terms in office, despite San Francisco’s notorious liberal bent. An up-and-coming young career prosecutor named Kamala Harris, running in her first bid for public office, unseated him.

Many in San Francisco view the campaign as a defining moment for Harris, who carefully cultivated a base of support among police officers, domestic violence advocates, wealthy donors, and a diverse range of local officials and community leaders who had bristled at Hallinan’s leftist politics and abrasive style.

Despite starting the race as a relatively unknown candidate against an incumbent viewed as a radical icon, Harris vaulted over Hallinan and easily won a runoff election. The race launched Harris’s political career, which culminated in her announcement last month at a rally in Oakland to seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

Far from the “smart on crime” mantra she touted later, Harris’s first campaign reflected familiar tactics in an era of booming mass incarceration.

The 2003 race stands apart from the image she has projected in more recent years. Far from the “smart on crime” mantra she touted in her successful bid to become California’s attorney general or promoting her efforts to hold corporations accountable when she ran for the U.S. Senate, Harris’s first campaign reflected familiar tactics in an era of booming mass incarceration.

The Intercept reviewed debate records, news clips, and original campaign materials from the race between Harris, Hallinan, and Bill Fazio, another former prosecutor who ran for the seat. (Harris’s presidential campaign did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Hallinan.)

The 2003 race for San Francisco district attorney showcased a campaign strategy that has become a familiar and at times unseemly dynamic of America’s criminal justice system. Throughout much of the campaign, Harris attacked Hallinan as too weak and ineffective to keep communities safe from dangerous criminals. In contrast, Harris promised to get tough.

In the years leading up to the election, the DA’s office under Hallinan had the lowest felony conviction rates of any county in California. In 2001, the felony conviction rate in San Francisco was as low as 29 percent, far below the state average of 67.5 percent. Hallinan, defending his record, pointed out that his office expanded rehabilitative justice initiatives, diverting drug crimes into alternatives rather than turning to incarceration.

“We have 3,000 people who are in diversion,” Hallinan told the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s hell on your conviction rate.”

Cases that are diverted to rehabilitation programs in order to avoid criminal penalties count as a dismissal, resulting in a prosecution loss, the newspaper noted. Moreover, San Francisco’s jury pool is notoriously liberal, Hallinan argued, making convictions even for violent crimes difficult. His office also avoided “three strikes” prosecutions in many cases, to get out of having to seek mandatory life imprisonment for defendants.

If the conviction rate had been measured by actual cases pursued, rather than all cases referred by police, Hallinan said, his office would have had a conviction rate that was relatively similar to Los Angeles and other major cities.

And Hallinan was getting results. Overall, crime rates were plummeting. Violent crime had gone down close to 60 percent in San Francisco since Hallinan took office.

Still, the low conviction rate resulted in headline after headline about San Francisco’s permissive attitude toward crime, a media environment harnessed by the Harris campaign.

In one election flyer sent by the Harris campaign to mailboxes across the city, a tattooed and shirtless man, presumably Latino, is seen gripping a pistol and flashing a gang sign. “Enough Is Enough!” reads the title. Inside the flyer, the Harris campaign argued that Hallinan had failed to keep communities safe from surging gang violence, pointing to his low conviction rate.


Kamala Harris for District Attorney mailer. (Click here to see the full mailer.)

Photo: Lee Fang/The Intercept

“Each one of those cases, those violent cases, represents a victim who deserves to have a district attorney’s office that is competent and that is professional,” Harris argued during a debate on the San Francisco public radio station KQED, sharply critiquing her opponent’s conviction rate record. “And let’s be clear. I’m not running for public defender. We need in our city to have a district attorney who recognizes her responsibility for making sure the consequences occur for serious and violent crime.”

In campaign events across the city, Harris stoked anger at the lack of criminal convictions. In the Mission District, SF Weekly reported on a scene in which Harris sharply criticized Hallinan for failure to prosecute anti-war protesters for property destruction. “It is not progressive to be soft on crime,” Harris said.

“Terence Hallinan is lying to us about his domestic violence record, and women are dying because of it.”

Outside the Hall of Justice, the city’s criminal courthouse, Harris campaigned with the mother of Claire Tempongko, a woman slain by her estranged boyfriend. Tempongko, Harris said, had filed police reports that her boyfriend had abused her in violation of his parole. The failure of the DA’s office to act had left Tempongko defenseless, Harris argued.

“Terence Hallinan is lying to us about his domestic violence record,” she said at the event, “and women are dying because of it.”

Hallinan’s supporters, however, charged that Harris was exploiting the tragedy. The prosecutor who handled the domestic violence unit at the time said that she never saw a crucial police report filed by the victim because police had incorrectly labeled it as a drunk-in-public offense, rather than an incident of domestic violence.

Nonetheless, more tough-on-crime campaign advertisements flooded mailboxes around the city.


Kamala Harris for District Attorney flyer. (Click here to see the full mailer.)

Photo: Lee Fang/The Intercept

Inside another mailer, the Harris campaign produced a chart showing Hallinan’s low conviction rate and a list of lenient plea bargains struck by the district attorney. The outside of the mailer included a glossy image of a murder chalk outline, along with the message: “An Outline for Disaster. Which District Attorney has ranked last in convictions for the last eight years?”

The Harris campaign’s message got out to voters in part because she had gained the trust of much San Francisco’s political and donor class, including Vanessa Getty, one of the city’s wealthiest philanthropists. Early in the campaign, the San Francisco Ethics Commission, a city body that oversees local elections, handed Harris the largest fine in its history for breaking fundraising limits. She apologized for the error, but little could stop her fundraising machine.

As SF Weekly noted, Harris’s cash advantage came “from the city’s social and legal elites, people with power and money, people who respond well to Harris’ message that Hallinan is erratic, divisive, and soft on crime.” The Golden Gate Restaurant Association, a lobby group for the dining industry, backed Harris with independent campaign advertisements, and major real estate and professional societies donated to her campaign.

In the end, Harris built a campaign war chest of over $600,000 — twice the amount raised by Hallinan.

Harris also had the benefit of support from the outgoing San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Brown donated to Harris’s 2003 campaign and — without her consent — had worked his connections to raise money for her.

The other two candidates in the race seized on the issue. Though they had once been political allies, the relationship between Hallinan and Brown had soured. Hallinan had begun investigating City Hall officials for corruption, landing cases of graft between municipal officials and developers. Though Hallinan endorsed Brown for re-election in 1999, he showed up at a rally that year for Tom Ammiano, appearing to lend his support to the mayoral challenger.

Brown retaliated by openly mocking Hallinan. He asked California Attorney General Bill Lockyer to step in and prosecute drug dealers, claiming that Hallinan refused to do his job. In an interview, Brown called Hallinan a “son of a bitch [who] should have been recalled” over refusing to prosecute homeless people for public intoxication and defecating in the streets.

In his advocacy for a new approach to homelessness, Hallinan went so far as to hand out soup to homeless people alongside volunteers from Food Not Bombs.

Hallinan had indeed taken a liberal policy toward crimes related to homelessness. He notably reversed longstanding city policy around arresting and charging panhandlers. He also sought to clear charges brought against volunteers who had been cited for feeding homeless people, an illegal offense at the time. In his advocacy for a new approach to homelessness, Hallinan went so far as to hand out soup to homeless people alongside volunteers from Food Not Bombs — one of the criminalized groups — outside City Hall. After winning the election as the city’s top prosecutor, he dropped the charges against the volunteers. “This district attorney and this city intend to grapple in a different way with the homeless problem,” Hallinan said.

The Hallinan campaign trumpeted Harris’s ties to Brown, warning that she would not prosecute lingering corruption in the Brown administration. For many, this accusation reeked of sexism. Brown had briefly dated Harris, and she had left him shortly after he won his first mayoral race in 1995. The Fazio campaign hit a similar note, mailing a flyer to San Francisco residents stating that “Kamala accepted two appointments from Willie Brown to high-paying, part-time state boards — including one she had no training for — while being paid $100,000-year as a full-time county employee.”

Brown was known to reward friends and allies. He gave Harris a brand-new BMW and also appointed her to two commissions in state government where, according to SF Weekly, she was paid $400,000 over five years. One of the positions, an appointment to the California Medical Assistance Commission, paid a $99,000 annual salary for attending two meetings a month.

Harris largely brushed off the criticism. “Willie Brown is not going to be around. He’s gone — hello people, move on. If there is corruption, it will be prosecuted. It’s a no-brainer, but let’s please move on,” she said in one interview. “His career is over; I will be alive and kicking for the next 40 years. I do not owe him a thing.”

As soon as Hallinan won his seat in 1995, he was viewed as a fox in the henhouse by the San Francisco Police Department.

Hallinan was the city’s most unusual occupant in the DA’s office in its modern history. At age 22, he was charged with felony assault, though later acquitted. He was born to a famous left-wing family. His father, Vincent Hallinan, had defended union leaders over Red Scare-related charges and ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952. Terence Hallinan began his life as an amateur boxer and eventually gravitated to the practice of law.

He participated in civil disobedience protests over racial discrimination at the Palace Hotel and Bank of America, as well as at restaurants and businesses across San Francisco. In 1963, he spent the summer organizing African-American voters in Mississippi. Archival footage of the most iconic 1960s-era protests in the city are filled with appearances by Hallinan, who frequently served as counsel to striking workers, student sit-ins, and anti-war demonstrators. Later in life, he served as a criminal defense attorney to a range of clients, including drug dealers and accused murderers.

For nearly 40 years, it was Hallinan representing clients against San Francisco law enforcement. In at least one occasion, he was the victim of police assault. Now the shoe was on the other foot.

(Original Caption) 5/22/1968-San Francisco, CA- Attorney Terence Hallinan, his face bloody from a gash in his head, confronts the police officer he claims laid his head open while he was trying to help a girl to safety, away from the police. The incident took place after police arrested some 27 demonstrators who were conducting a sit-in in the Administration Building at San Francisco State College late 5/21.

Terence Hallinan confronts the police officer he claims beat his head open while he was trying to help a girl to safety away from the police during a sit-in at San Francisco State College, Calif., on May, 22, 1968.

Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

During his first campaign for district attorney, Hallinan pledged to crack down on police misconduct. “I will not hesitate to treat them like any other citizen and prosecute them,” he said of the city’s police department after his victory.

In 2002, three off-duty police officers beat two San Francisco men over a bag of fajitas. The incident sparked outrage and Hallinan indicted not only the officers, but also the police department’s top brass, alleging a conspiracy to cover up the crime. The case led to the creation of Proposition H, a successful city ballot measure, crafted in part by Hallinan, to expand oversight over the police department. The case against the police, however, fell apart, with a judge dismissing the charges.

The incident further strained relations between police and the DA’s office. Behind the scenes, Harris courted law enforcement officials, earning the endorsements of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, the incumbent sheriff, and a host of former prosecutors. In a recent Politico piece examining the history of the race, Gary Delagnes, a former police union official, remembered Harris coming up to him at a party, poking him in the chest and demanding, “You better endorse me, you better endorse me. You get it?”

The San Francisco police union’s 32-member board voted unanimously to endorse Harris after she advanced to the runoff election. “We should be working together, and she’s committed to that,” announced Chris Cunnie, the Police Officers Association president. “When the district attorney indicts 10 officers in one year, that’s a problem.”

In debates and events following the endorsement, Harris touted the law enforcement support. “We have, at best, a hostile relationship between the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and the San Francisco Police Department,” Harris said during a debate with Hallinan on KQED. She stressed her ability to repair relations with the police.

The conservative-leaning editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle cited support from the police and Hallinan’s low conviction rate in its endorsement of Harris. “Harris, for law and order,” the editorial’s headline blared.

Harris carried the runoff election by nearly 13 percent. Though she repeatedly slammed her opponent as soft on crime on the campaign trail, Harris struck a new approach at her inauguration, one that would later define her balanced approach to criminal justice. “Let’s put an end right here to the question about whether we are tough on crime or soft on crime,” she said. “Let’s be smart on crime.”

After taking office, Hallinan’s legacy could be seen throughout Harris’s work in many ways. As DA, her office extended the light-touch approach to most medical marijuana dispensaries and promoted drug-diversion programs. Harris repaired relations with the police department but faced backlash from law enforcement when she declined to seek the death penalty for a gang member convicted of murdering San Francisco police Officer Isaac Espinoza in 2004.

There was also sustained pressure to increase conviction rates and obtain longer sentences. SF Weekly interviewed a number of former prosecutors who said that Harris adopted inflexible charging procedures to look tough on crime in preparation for running for statewide office one day. In her re-election campaign four years later, she was touting a new felony conviction rate record, 67 percent, and a new focus on cracking down on drug dealers, quality of life crimes, and other criminals.

More recently, the landscape for criminal justice reform has changed drastically, with a wave of district attorneys embracing an approach resembling Hallinan’s. Newly elected district attorneys across the country — from St. Louis County’s Wesley Bell to Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner — are now promising to prioritize social justice over doling out brutal sentences and garnering higher conviction rates. There’s even a growing backlash against election season fearmongering on crime. An increasing number of liberals now view electoral penal populism as a factor that contributes to the country’s mass incarceration crisis.

On the campaign trail in 2019, Harris has been recast as an insurgent reformer who spent her entire career fighting against draconian criminal justice enforcement. At her presidential campaign announcement rally, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf opened the event by declaring, “When it was still popular to be ‘tough on crime,’ she was smart on crime.” The crowd cheered and clapped. The history, however, is a little more complicated.

The post In Her First Race, Kamala Harris Campaigned as Tough on Crime — and Unseated the Country’s Most Progressive Prosecutor appeared first on The Intercept.

Ohio’s Governor Stopped an Execution Over Fears It Would Feel Like Waterboarding

At the coroner’s office in Dayton, Ohio, Dr. Mark Edgar stood over the body of Robert Van Hook. The deceased 58-year-old weighed 228 pounds; he wore blue pants, a white shirt, and identification tags around his ankles. Edgar, a professor of pathology at Emory University School of Medicine, had done countless autopsies over the years. But this would be the first time he examined the body of someone executed by the state.

Van Hook had died one day earlier, on July 18, 2018, inside the death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. After a tearful apology to his victim’s family, he was injected with 500 milligrams of midazolam — the first of a three-drug formula adopted in 2017. Media witnesses described labored breathing from Van Hook shortly afterward, including “gasping and wheezing” loud enough to be heard from the witness room. Nevertheless, compared to recent executions in Ohio, things seemed to go smoothly.

Still, Edgar had cause for concern. For the past few years he had been examining the autopsy reports of men executed using midazolam across the country. He found a disturbing pattern. A majority showed signs of pulmonary edema, an accumulation of fluid in the lungs. Several showed bloody froth that oozed from the lungs during the autopsy — evidence that the buildup had been sudden, severe, and harrowing. In a medical context, where a life is to be saved, pulmonary edema is considered an emergency — it feels like drowning. Even if someone is to be deliberately killed by the state, the Constitution is supposed to prohibit cruel and unusual punishment. To Edgar, the autopsies showed the executed men felt the panic and terror of asphyxiation before they died.

Experts likened the effect to being buried alive while feeling fire in one’s veins.

Edgar’s findings compounded a more familiar problem with midazolam. Unlike the drugs used to provide anesthesia in previous execution protocols, it was a sedative, not a barbiturate. Anesthesiologists had warned for years that even at extremely high doses, midazolam did not have the properties to render a person insensate — immune to pain — for the purpose of lethal injection. The second and third drugs in Ohio’s protocol — a paralytic that stops respiration and potassium chloride to stop the heart — were known be excruciating if injected without a proper anesthetic. Experts likened the effect to being buried alive while feeling fire in one’s veins.

The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed this evidence in the 2015 ruling Glossip v. Gross, waving forth a slew of executions using midazolam. But Edgar’s findings were new. Days before arriving in Ohio to do the autopsy on Van Hook, he had presented them publicly for the first time at a trial in Nashville, Tennessee, where lawyers were challenging plans to kill a man named Billy Ray Irick. Among the witnesses who corroborated Edgar’s conclusions was a leading pharmacologist, Dr. David Greenblatt, who did some of the earliest clinical trials of midazolam. He explained how a massive dose of the acidic drug would almost immediately begin to destroy pulmonary capillaries and lung tissues upon injection, leading to pulmonary edema. Other witnesses gave firsthand accounts of executions in which the condemned had struggled to breathe. This was compelling — if not quite exhaustive — evidence. “The ideal situation would be for me to do these autopsies myself and see exactly what I was interested in,” Edgar said on the stand in Nashville. The next day, Ohio executed Van Hook.

Ohio does not conduct autopsies following executions. But Ohio Federal Public Defender Allen Bohnert secured permission on Edgar’s behalf. “The autopsy was conducted in the usual manner,” Edgar wrote in a subsequent report. He made a Y-shaped incision into the chest and abdomen. A technician removed and weighed Van Hook’s organs and Edgar examined them, looking for anything unusual. When he got to the lungs, he found “significant abnormalities.” They were unusually heavy — one telltale sign of congestion. When he cut into them, he found a mix of blood and frothy fluid.

Of the 27 previously available autopsy reports for people executed using midazolam, Edgar had found evidence of pulmonary edema in 23. Van Hook was the 24th. A few weeks later, Tennessee used midazolam to execute Irick, who moved and made choking sounds — another grim sign. In a motion seeking a stay of execution and preliminary injunction for Warren Keith Henness, who was scheduled to die in Ohio in February 2019, Bohnert urged a federal magistrate judge to consider these recent developments. “At some point the courts cannot explain away the ever-growing mountain of evidence” against midazolam, he wrote.

Magistrate Judge Michael Merz granted an evidentiary hearing. After four days of testimony, he issued a damning 148-page order on January 14. The evidence surrounding midazolam had become far more persuasive since Merz last presided over such a proceeding. Not only was he now convinced that midazolam had no analgesic properties, but the drug was “sure or very likely” to cause pulmonary edema, which was akin to “waterboarding.” Yet Merz said he could not stop Henness’s execution. Under Glossip, people challenging lethal injection protocols had to prove that there was an alternative method readily available for the state to use to kill them. Henness had not met this burden.

“This is not a result with which the court is comfortable,” Merz wrote. “If Ohio executes Warren Henness under its present protocol, it will almost certainly subject him to severe pain and needless suffering. Reading the plain language of the Eighth Amendment, that should be enough to constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”

Ohio seemed poised to carry out Henness’s execution. But then, on January 22, the governor’s office issued an order of its own. Newly inaugurated Gov. Mike DeWine granted a warrant of reprieve, delaying Henness’s execution until September. In the meantime, he ordered a review of the state’s options and an examination of “possible alternative drugs.”

“Agony and Horror”

Among those who have fought the legal battles over lethal injection, the events in Ohio were a big deal. Courts across the country have repeatedly upheld the use of midazolam despite mounting evidence of its dangers. Just last week, a federal judge in Alabama denied a request by Domineque Ray to be executed by nitrogen hypoxia instead of the state’s midazolam-based protocol. (That execution, scheduled for tonight, is currently on hold for unrelated reasons). Although Merz’s order did not stop Henness’s execution, his findings were blunt and unequivocal in a way that other judges have not been — which could influence future litigation.

The reprieve for Henness was also particularly notable coming from DeWine. As Ohio’s attorney general from 2011 through 2018, he spent much of the past decade fighting to push through executions, even as Ohio adopted new and untested protocols. Ever since U.S. executions first became derailed by a shortage of sodium thiopental — the fast-acting barbiturate long used for lethal injection — states across the country had been engaged in a macabre human experiment. Ohio was particularly eager to tinker with its formulas, adopting one-drug, two-drug, and three-drug protocols over time. After the state first used midazolam in the notoriously ugly 2014 execution of Dennis McGuire, DeWine was instrumental to passing legislation to conceal the identity of pharmaceutical companies that sold the state drugs for executions. But the risk of another botched execution appears to be of more concern now that DeWine is governor. When Henness’s attorney sent him a reprieve request highlighting Merz’s ruling, he acted within 24 hours.

Like other states that have used midazolam for executions, Ohio had been cautioned of its risks before killing McGuire — one anesthesiologist warned that it could cause “agony and horror.” The execution was a ghastly ordeal. Witnesses said he grunted and fought for air, “snorting, gurgling and arching his back,” as described in a lawsuit brought by McGuire’s family. According to the suit, one prison official “mouthed ‘I’m sorry’” to his relatives in the execution chamber.

For the next 3 1/2 years, Ohio did not carry out a single execution. But other states continued to use midazolam. Although protocols varied from state to state, each relied on quantities of the drug that were well above the average therapeutic dose. Witness accounts were consistent, often describing labored breathing from the condemned.

“If the individual was in any way aware of what was happening to them it would be unbearable.”

In 2017, Edgar reviewed the autopsy report of 39-year-old Ricky Gray, executed in Virginia that January. News reports had described unusual movements after the midazolam was administered. He “looked around, moved his toes and legs,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. “He appeared to take a number of deep breaths and he appeared to make snoring or groaning sounds.” Gray’s family requested his autopsy report, which was obtained by The Guardian. “It notes that ‘blood-tinged fluid is present from the mouth’ and that ‘the upper airways contains foamy liquid,’” reporter Ed Pilkington wrote. “It also finds that the body’s lungs were ‘severely congested’ and that there were ‘red cells present in the airways.’” Edgar told Pilkington it was evidence of acute pulmonary edema. “When it is this severe you can experience panic and terror,” he said. “If the individual was in any way aware of what was happening to them it would be unbearable.”

But the executions continued apace. Shortly after that revelation, Virginia used the same protocol to kill 35-year-old William Morva. Witnesses said he, too, appeared to move and gasp for air. In the fall of 2017, Ohio ended its de facto moratorium with a revamped midazolam protocol, killing Ronald Phillips and then Gary Otte, both of whom seemed to struggle, according to witnesses. A third execution, that of 69-year-old Alva Campbell, was aborted after the execution team failed to find a viable vein. (He died three months later.)

A Tipping Point

On the occasions when botched executions have made national news, prison officials have often been the ones in the spotlight. Governors and district attorneys have also attracted a share of the blame. News reports have repeatedly exposed cavalier (and sometimes illegal) attempts to find drugs for executions from sketchy sources. Yet outside legal circles, there has been comparatively little critique of the courts that have enabled such executions to go forward. In his motion before Merz, Bohnert framed the issue in terms of a deeply entrenched problem that goes beyond lethal injection: junk science and the courts’ stubborn refusal to allow new evidence to change existing law.

“This court, and others, have misapplied the science involved in lethal injection challenges involving midazolam, leading to conclusions that are inaccurate or simply not true from a scientific perspective,” Bohnert wrote. Litigants “untrained in medicine” have “muddied the factual picture,” he wrote, while judges, “typically facing the urgent press of an impending execution,” have often further distorted the issue in their rulings. Because courts base their decisions on legal precedent, Bohnert wrote, “each subsequent judicial decision has calcified those flaws, further insulating them from the rigorous re-evaluation that is necessary in the wake of executions that demonstrate a consistent pattern of troubling inmate reactions.”

“This court, and others, have misapplied the science involved in lethal injection challenges involving midazolam.”

To Edgar, this made Merz’s ruling a pleasant surprise. “He independently took a look at this information anew and came to his own conclusion,” he said. Like Bohnert, Edgar invoked examples of faulty forensics that have been exposed over the years and the duty to correct these problems in the courts. “There are so many examples of junk science,” he said. “If we’re not willing to accept and relearn [based on new findings], then we’re in serious trouble.”

When it comes to the case law on lethal injection, Glossip is a major part of the problem. Like other decisions that have enshrined junk science into law, the ruling gave legal legitimacy to the findings of a pharmacist who had been widely discredited even before Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments. Critically, Bohnert points out, the ruling conflated insensateness and unconsciousness, two concepts whose distinctions are hugely consequential. This error has been replicated by the lower courts, while execution after execution has shown that unconsciousness cannot protect people from the tortuous effects of lethal injection.

Bohnert points to an irony about Glossip and its legacy. “The fact that the states have been allowed to continue to execute using midazolam is in large part what allowed the evidence to accumulate,” he says. Although it is not clear what will happen next in Ohio, “I think we had a tipping point here.”

Elsewhere, midazolam is on its way out. Florida and Arizona have discarded the drug, while Tennessee has not used it since the Irick execution, turning instead to the electric chair — at the request of the condemned. If Alabama uses midazolam to kill Domineque Ray tonight, his execution stands to be another “data point,” in Merz’s words, more evidence that states may or may not be torturing people to death while the courts continue to look away.

The post Ohio’s Governor Stopped an Execution Over Fears It Would Feel Like Waterboarding appeared first on The Intercept.

The Power Is Back on at Brooklyn Jail, but a Visiting Federal Judge Found Untreated Gunshot Wound, “Black Blotchy Mold,” and Ongoing Crisis

The power is back on and the heat has been turned up at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, where incarcerated people endured freezing temperatures, dark cells, and deprivation of access to legal counsel for the past week, prompting outcry and the intervention of federal legislators.

While many celebrated the moment the lights came back on in the federal jail Sunday evening and looked forward to the hearings promised by concerned legislators, cases in federal court over the past two days have made it impossible to ignore the fact that the humanitarian crisis at the federal detention facility extend far beyond the electrical fire that shut down primary power to much of the facility on January 27.

Federal court hearings this week have revealed a staggering pattern of neglect — incarcerated people left on their own, in the dark and cold, to deal with medical crises and mental breakdowns. One incarcerated person had to physically stop their cellmate from hanging themselves. People housed at the federal jail reported that as many as nine incarcerated people were left without potentially lifesaving medical equipment because of the power shut down. Another incarcerated patient was left with an untreated gunshot wound.

“My problem is I don’t trust the representations coming out of BOP. I just don’t.”

The revelations have left federal judges in a slate of cases to hold the federal officials running the jail — as well as the U.S. Attorney’s offices stonewalling to defend the jail’s conduct — to account. Several of the judges have been openly incredulous as they dealt with the cases — evincing frustration with the federal lawyers as well as the Bureau of Prisons, or BOP, which runs the facility.

“My problem is I don’t trust the representations coming out of BOP,” said Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall, in a hearing in Brooklyn on February 4. “I just don’t.”

The legal actions kicked off when lawyers representing people locked up at the Metropolitan Detention Center began to realize that their clients were enduring arctic weather without adequate heat or clothing. They started filing dozens of motions in federal courts in Manhattan and Brooklyn seeking hearings to get their clients transferred, to get them released, or just to get some straight information about what was going on inside.

One of the first of those hearings took place Tuesday in Manhattan before Judge Analisa Torres. Across more than four hours of testimony by incarcerated people, employees, and observers, it became difficult to draw any conclusion other than that federal prison officials — including Metropolitan Detention Center Warden Herman Quay — had lied about conditions in the jail. (The Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment and U.S. Attorneys present in court declined to comment.)

“Warden Quay informed the Southern District District Executive directly that the heat was unaffected,” Deirdre von Dornum, attorney-in-charge for the Federal Defenders of New York, a non-profit legal organization that represents federal defendants and has many clients at the Metropolitan Detention Center, testified Tuesday. Having been in the building herself on February 1, von Dornum saw people shivering in freezing cells. In court, she said, “I have personal knowledge that what the Warden said was false.”

Von Dornum also testified that, though Bureau of Prisons officials had told Federal Defenders that medical care continued without a problem, they knew better. On von Dornum’s visit to the jail she witnessed a crisis of medical neglect in the facility, meeting patients with everything from suicidal psychiatric conditions to potentially fatal respiratory ailments to suppurating gunshot wounds continue to go without any medical treatment. “I spoke to some of those clients with Nicole McFarland standing next to me indifferently,” von Dornum said, referring to the Bureau of Prisons lawyer who accompanied her on her visit.

After hearing this testimony, Torres took the remarkable step of moving her hearing from the courtroom to the jail itself, touring the facility personally, and bringing along the lawyers arguing before her. She also brought along a court reporter to record what happened. The transcript of her narration of the conditions she observed, and of her conversations with incarcerated people, reveals a shocking level of negligence.

The visit began in the jail’s Special Housing Unit, or SHU, where people are held in solitary confinement. Torres peered into a cell and described the scene: “I can see abundant water damage,” she said. “Towards the back is a rectangular shaped cell. On the ceiling you can see copious amounts of paint peeling and hanging from the ceiling. The ceiling is painted white, but the water-damaged area has a kind of a golden tone to it. It almost looks like wet tissues hanging from the ceiling.”

Helping to guide Torres was von Dornum, who had asked to tour the facility the week before, but was refused by Quay, the warden. Only after von Dornum secured a court order was she able to finally visit on February 1. On that visit, she told Torres, the person housed in the dank and dripping cell had told her that water runs in whenever it rains, or snow melts, or there’s condensation, and that his sheets were soaking wet and hadn’t been changed for a week. A correctional officer confirmed the incarcerated man’s account, von Dornum told Torres.

The judge turned to Quay. “Excuse me, Warden, is there a way that I can ask him questions through the door?” she asked. As she questioned the man through a crack in the door, his responses were too faint for the court reporter to hear, so the judge relayed them for the record: “I just heard you say it was like sleeping under a waterfall, and you said that happened during the black-out, correct?” Yes, the man answered. The showers were freezing cold. He had asked for an extra blanket and was ignored. As he was speaking, Torres was looking at the water running into the cell from the ceiling. “You can see it, it is abundant,” Torres said. “It is plain as day.”

He “literally had to take the noose off his cellmate’s hand, he was trying to kill himself.”

The man sharing the cell told Torres he had tried to warn the guards of his bunk-mate’s suicidal breakdown but was ignored. He “physically had to take the – literally had to take the noose off his cellmate’s hand, he was trying to kill himself,” he told her. In response to his repeated calls for medical help, guards put a box over the opening to further isolate him and his roommate.

“Sorry to hear that,” Torres said. “Thank you for telling me.”

“Thank you for being worried about us, ma’am, and treating us like human beings,” the man replied.

“I’m very worried about you,” she said.

Torres moved on to more cells with leaking water, damp and yellowed blankets, and light fixtures covered in “black blotchy mold.” The group descended to the seventh floor, where incarcerated people were circulating freely in their unit and the lights were on. When von Dornum had visited four days earlier, there was frost on the windows, she said. A man told Torres his unit had only received blankets the day before, on February 4. “We went a whole week with it being freezing, no lighting, my toilet not working,” he said. “They’re not letting us take showers. They’re not feeding us properly.”

In another housing unit on the seventh floor, a man with colitis and psychiatric needs told Torres all of his medical issues were going unattended to. “I have a rash that’s bleeding,” he said. “I showed the officer my underwear, and they said ‘it’s above my pay grade.’”

Another man with obstructive sleep apnea told Torres he was forced to sleep without a potentially life-saving CPAP machine because his cell was without power for seven days before jail officials finally moved him into the adjoining building, which still had power. “I’m not alone,” he told her. “I think there were eight other people in the building that had obstructive sleep apnea.”

Von Dornum found even the cases she’d highlighted had still gone untreated.

On down to the sixth floor, where four days earlier von Dornum had met a man with a gunshot wound to his hand whose dressing hadn’t been changed in two weeks, pus leaking out from the bandages. As with many of the other people she had met on that tour, von Dornum had flagged their cases to McFarland, the Bureau of Prisons lawyer accompanying her, and stressed the importance that they receive medical care. In the intervening days, conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center had become a national news story and a focus of congressional oversight, but von Dornum found even the cases she’d highlighted had still gone untreated.

“I got these bandages on for over three weeks,” the man with the gunshot wound told Torres when she found him Tuesday. “They still didn’t take me out the building to change the bandages.” The man also has glaucoma, he told her, which was also going untreated. “I kept asking them,” he said. “I seen flashes in my eyes and I’m supposed to go immediately if I see flashes in my eye. And I was telling the officers, and they was just completely ignoring me.”

“All right,” Torres answered. “I’m certainly hoping you get to see the doctor soon.”

Returning to her Manhattan courtroom, Torres wrapped up the hearing briskly and issued a ruling: The two defendants whose bail applications had opened the door to this fact-finding mission would not be released or transferred, she said, because in all of the day’s evidence and testimony, the defendants’ lawyers hadn’t presented any evidence specific to their clients’ own claims of medical necessity and fear of reprisal.

If that ruling was disappointing for the defendants and their attorneys, however, those calling for greater oversight at the Metropolitan Detention Center saw the day’s proceedings as a massive victory. Torres’s visit, transcribed word-for-word and published on the record, peeled back the lid of secrecy on the prison even more vividly than the accounts powerful politicians gave to the media of their own inspections over the weekend. The BOP did not respond to questions from The Intercept by the time of publication.

Prisoners call out to protesters and family members gathered outside the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal facility of all security levels, where prisoners have been without heat, hot water, electricity and proper sanitation due to an electrical failure since earlier in the week, including through the recent frigid cold spell, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Incarcerated people call out to protesters and family members gathered outside the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal facility of all security levels, where incarcerated people have been without heat, hot water, electricity and proper sanitation due to an electrical failure since earlier in the week, including through the recent frigid cold spell, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)


Beyond the nightmarish conditions inside the Metropolitan Detention Center, federal courts are also shining a light on the habitual opacity, misdirection, and outright deception by detention center officials that have allowed those conditions to fester.

John Maffeo, the facility manager for the Metropolitan Detention Center, testified Tuesday that he realized “it was going to be a long-term issue” once he learned the nature of the fire and how it had affected the building’s power system. “I knew it was not going to be a quick overnight return-to-service type of repair,” he said.

What emerged in the government’s responses to their requests was an official account contradicted by incarcerated people and the prison’s own employees.

Even with the knowledge that power would be out for the “long-term,” though, emails introduced as evidence in a separate civil suit filed in a Brooklyn federal court on Monday show that Metropolitan Detention Center officials kept the knowledge to themselves. These separate revelations came as part of a case where a group of federal public defenders filed a suit claiming violations of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel — since they had been repeatedly denied access to their clients. What emerged in the government’s responses to their requests — leading up to the case and in court itself — was an official account contradicted by incarcerated people and the prison’s own employees.

“I’m trying to figure out if I am to rely on the information that at least resulted in inconsistent statements by those who are responsible for the custody of those housed at the MDC,” said DeArcy Hall, the judge who is presiding over the suit, at one point in a Monday hearing, apparently unnerved at the prevarications of prison officials.

At one point, a federal government lawyer tried to hand the judge a spreadsheet that purported to show temperatures in different parts of the massive federal jail. DeArcy Hall declined to take it seriously: “Given the fact that it’s been widely reported that there are inconsistencies between what was being said with respect to the people who are housed at the MDC and what MDC officials are reporting out,” she told the lawyer, “I appreciate you offering it to me, but it’s unhelpful.”

In an email to public defenders the day of the fire, prison officials said only that incarcerated people would not be allowed to meet their lawyers the following day. When the defense lawyers, who had heard rumors of some sort of incident, pressed for details the following day, Adam Johnson, a lawyer for the Bureau of Prisons, wrote, “I have been informed that the heat is operational and that the inmates are currently out of their cells in the units.” The next day, Johnson wrote again to say simply that “legal visiting remains suspended today.” Over subsequent days, Metropolitan Detention Center officials didn’t even bother to tell lawyers that they wouldn’t be able to visit their clients, and when lawyers asked, their emails went unanswered.

By February 1, some federal judges who had gotten wind that there was something going on at Metropolitan Detention Center were asking questions. Edward Friedland, a top official with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, wanted an explanation from Quay, the Metropolitan Detention Center warden. Quay gave the prosecutor a status report: There had been a fire that knocked out power, he said, but “inmates have not been confined to their cells and are still allowed leisure/recreational activities.” That was simply not true, according to the accounts that more than 60 people inside Metropolitan Detention Center gave to von Dornum. Incarcerated people were confined to their cells on lockdown for at least 24 hours after the fire, and again for much of the rest of the week.

Each of these claims in Quay’s report have been widely contradicted by people inside the federal jail.

“Heat has never been impacted,” Quay told Friedland, and “is in the high 60s and low 70s.” This too, is more or less universally contradicted by public accounts of staff and people incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center. “Hot water has not been impacted,” Quay said. “Prisoners are still receiving hot meals…. There is no problem with medical.” Each of these claims in Quay’s report have been widely contradicted by people inside the federal jail, who report cold meals, cold showers, and catastrophically inadequate medical attention.

At the same time, Metropolitan Detention Center officials were peddling the same nothing-to-see-here line to the press. Quay’s spokesperson told the New York Times on February 1 that people incarcerated at the jail had heat, light, hot water, and hot meals. On February 2, Quay himself told another reporter to her face that there were no heat problems or lockdowns.

As the Bureau of Prisons continues to insist everything’s fine in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and the U.S. attorneys who represent the bureau in court continue to take their client’s bald assertions as fact, those strategies are losing credibility with judges.

There’s also evidence the Bureau of Prisons sought to deceive lawmakers. When von Dornum made her visit on February 1, she arrived, by coincidence, at the same time as Rep. Nydia Velazquez, who had heard reports of problems at MDC and wanted to make her own visit. Von Dornum proposed that they tour the facility together, since von Dornum is familiar with MDC, but BOP officials refused to allow this. Instead, von Dornum testified, once Bureau of Prisons officials had separated Velazquez and von Dornum, they told the member of Congress she wouldn’t be able to talk to any incarcerated people directly, as they were all locked up for the regularly scheduled “count.” Had von Dornum been with her, the lawyer said, she would have told Velazquez that excuse didn’t hold water. “The count only lasts 20 to 30 minutes, so obviously she could have waited it out,” von Dornum said. Thwarted, Velazquez returned the next day with a larger delegation of elected officials, and managed to speak to some incarcerated people.

The hearing that kicked off Monday, for the Federal Defenders of New York suit, was part of an effort to ask for a court-appointed special master to oversee the Metropolitan Detention Center. At their first hearing before DeArcy Hall that morning, they sought a temporary restraining order, forbidding Metropolitan Detention Center officials from denying incarcerated people their Sixth-Amendment right to meet with a lawyer. If some emergency condition necessitated the suspension of lawyer visits, the warden should have to swear out an affidavit justifying the suspension and submitting it to a judge.

“They’re lying to us, and I want them on the hook if they’re lying to the judge.”

“They’re lying to us, and I want them on the hook if they’re lying to the judge,” David Patton, the executive director of the Federal Defenders, said in court during conversations with government lawyers during a recess. When Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Riley argued that no oversight was necessary because Bureau of Prison officials had told her the problems at Metropolitan Detention Center were resolved, DeArcy Hall made it clear that the uncorroborated word of the Bureau of Prisons held little weight in her courtroom.

DeArcy Hall directed government lawyers to take half an hour to cooperate with the Federal Defenders in drafting language for an order that would commit the Metropolitan Detention Center to explaining any suspensions of legal visitation to a judge while still offering flexibility in the face of a security emergency. The judge then left the courtroom, but in her absence the government lawyers representing the Bureau of Prisons refused to negotiate. “I’ve got a client, just like you,” Riley told Sean Hecker, who represented the Federal Defenders.

The stonewalling sent DeArcy Hall into a rage when she returned more than hour later to find no progress. “Was my time wasted?” she demanded. Not at all, Riley assured her. The Bureau of Prisons was happy to give a reason for any suspensions of legal visiting at Metropolitan Detention Center, she said, it just didn’t want to be ordered to do so and it couldn’t agree to an order making it swear to those reasons before a court. “You’ll agree to what I order,” Hall said, cutting her off, and promptly issuing a temporary restraining order requiring just what the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Attorney’s Office had been resisting. A hearing to consider the broader question of the appointment of a special master to oversee Metropolitan Detention Center is slated for February 13.

For von Dornum, the defense lawyer, the hearing was a perfect illustration of why an independent monitor is necessary for the Metropolitan Detention Center. “The U.S. Attorneys appear to be representing their client, the Bureau of Prisons,” she said, “as opposed to representing their client, the Department of Justice, which has an obligation to protect the constitution.”

The post The Power Is Back on at Brooklyn Jail, but a Visiting Federal Judge Found Untreated Gunshot Wound, “Black Blotchy Mold,” and Ongoing Crisis appeared first on The Intercept.

Trump Ripped This Immigrant Family Apart. They Watched the State of the Union Together From the Congressional Gallery.

Last summer, Albertina Contreras could never have imagined that she would be spending an early February evening sitting in the gilded chamber of the U.S. Congress. In May, Contreras was locked in solitary confinement for eight days, without her daughter, Yakelyn — who had recently been taken from her by armed border guards.

Last night, Contreras was in Washington, D.C., listening to the man whose signature policies had incited those guards to tear Yakelyn away from her. President Donald Trump’s deluded fulminations against people like Contreras came to the fore again on Tuesday, as he stood on the dais and proclaimed that he was creating a “safe, lawful, modern, and secure” immigration system. And there Contreras was, with Yakelyn — it was the young girl’s 12th birthday — as special guests of Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., watching Trump spout his anti-immigrant anger to the nation.

“It’s still a hard reality for all the moms and dads who are still not reunited with their kids. Really, it’s a moment of desperation.”

Trump — in line with his Republican Party’s agenda — took the time to bring up the tragic cases of people whose family members were allegedly killed by undocumented immigrants, noting “the heartache they have had to endure.” The children who recently died in Border Patrol custody went unremarked upon; nothing was said of the humanitarian aid workers being prosecuted and convicted for leaving water on trails where migrants die of thirst; no thought was spared for the heartache endured by families — like Contreras’s — who were torn apart by government agents, nor for those who remain separated from one another.

“Very happy,” Contreras said when I asked, a few hours before the State of the Union, how she would feel about being in the same room as Trump. “Thankful to be here. I don’t feel fear.” What would she say to Trump if she got a chance to speak directly to him? “I’d tell him that he should look into his conscience, that as migrants we have rights, that we are all worthy of that.”


Yakelyn holds up an official invitation to the State of the Union address.

Photo: Courtesy of Taylor Levy

Contreras knows that even as she sits free in the congressional gallery, others face the same fate she once did. A recent report from the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General revealed that not only are family separations continuing, but the thousands of officially reported cases did not include all of the separations. “It’s still a hard reality for all the moms and dads who are still not reunited with their kids,” Contreras said. “Really, it’s a moment of desperation.”

Contreras is one of a handful of immigrant guests at the State of the Union — their stories highlighting the injustices of Trump’s bigotries and his policies toward people who come to the U.S. seeking refuge. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., invited Yeni González, another mother who was separated from her three children at the border. And Victorina Morales, an undocumented woman, worked as a housekeeper for years at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. She will attend the speech as the guest of Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J. “I’m not scared to show my face,” Morales, who recently quit her job and came forward, told the New York Times after being invited to Washington. “I am not speaking for me, I’m speaking on behalf of millions of undocumented immigrants who live in the United States.”

Trump’s immigration policies have led to a broad crackdown on people like Morales and Contreras — those who seek to come here out of desperation and, in some cases, arrive only to continue living in insecurity. Trump has used U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the interior to chase down people who are in the country without authorization. ICE has targeted their places of work of work, their homes, hospitals, and courts, as well as the sanctuaries where they organize to help those forced to navigate the byzantine bureaucracies of immigration law. The result has been devastated families and communities. Simultaneously, Trump uses the rhetoric of nativist demagogues to create the impression of a migration crisis at the border — when the real crises have been of his own making. The activists who work to help immigrants on the border have, again, been targeted, to say nothing of the families that were ripped apart in a jarring display of American cruelty — the kind of cruelty Contreras experienced firsthand.

Trump’s rhetoric at the House of Representatives Tuesday, though bowdlerized for a national audience, mirrors the sort of language Contreras encountered when she first crossed the border. “You’re animals,” a border guard told her. “Don’t you watch the news? We don’t want to see more immigrants here.” The venomous guards prompted Contreras’s daughter, Yakelyn, and other children to scream, but Contreras was used to that kind of language, that kind of cruelty — it was why she was fleeing Guatemala.

“You’re animals. Don’t you watch the news? We don’t want to see more immigrants here.”

Guatemala has one of the highest rates of deadly violence against women in the world, and Contreras’s ex-boyfriend regularly beat her in front of her children, she said. After going to the police for help and realizing they weren’t going to protect her, she set out for the United States. While she left her two youngest boys with her sister, Contreras didn’t want to leave her daughter, who would soon be a teenager, to suffer gender-based scorn and physical abuse.

For the last few years, the U.S. had served as an inconsistent refuge for women fleeing such violence. But last fall, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled on a case limiting women fleeing domestic violence from access to asylum protections. (The ruling applies to other countries as well.) Sessions’s argument was that domestic violence is a “private” crime — a notion that leaves women unprotected by the law and reinforces misogynistic tropes.

Such a senseless overturning of a legal precedent was pulled off without much fanfare, perhaps because it came in a country where violence against women remains entrenched — indeed, in a country where the president, who stood tonight before Contreras to give a celebrated speech, has lewdly boasted of groping women.

It’s not hard to imagine Contreras cringing when she heard Trump say, “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” Contreras twice tried to cross the bridge in El Paso, Texas, to ask for asylum — an act that is legal under both U.S. and international law. Both times, Customs and Border Protection guards turned her away, forcing her to make a dangerous crossing with her daughter.

After suffering the first eight days of her detention at the border in solitary confinement, Contreras was held for more than 40 additional days before she was released in El Paso. She found temporary refuge at the Annunciation House, a faith-based charity that operates a shelter. At that point, she hadn’t spoken to her daughter for over 50 days, according to Taylor Levy, the legal coordinator at Annunciation House. Yakelyn, meanwhile, was almost 12 hours away in an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility in the southern tip of Texas. Levy told me Yakelyn attended classes and was comfortable there, but she was also scared. She recalled watching other separated children getting calls from their parents and bursting into tears. Some of the kids were learning that they or their parents were being deported — without being reunified first. Yakelyn’s tribulation was to know nothing: She hadn’t heard from her mother.

Finally, with the help of Levy, Contreras and her daughter were reunited. They moved to Tennessee to fight their immigration case. Another attorney representing the mother-daughter pair, Andrew Free, told me that Yakelyn is pursuing Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, a classification afforded to children who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected by their parents — in Yakelyn’s case, her father. And Contreras is applying for “withholding of removal,” a legal status that protects people from deportation but does not allow them to become citizens or travel outside of the country.

Free said that newly discovered memos by senior administrators and legal decisions in federal courts cast Trump’s family separation policy as an act comparable to kidnapping. What happened to Yakelyn “contains all of the essential elements of kidnapping,” he said. If Contreras doesn’t receive the protection of withholding of removal, Free explained, she may qualify for a U-visa, which is for people who have suffered a crime and are willing to work with law enforcement. “It shouldn’t matter that the people who effectuated the kidnapping, who took someone against their will and without legal justification,” are the U.S. government, he said.

Contreras, for her part, had a message for the family members still separated from each other: “That they have faith and patience. And that they be very courageous, like we’ve had to be.” She told me she wants to speak up and be present at the State of the Union for their sakes. She said, “I hope they get their kids back soon.”

The post Trump Ripped This Immigrant Family Apart. They Watched the State of the Union Together From the Congressional Gallery. appeared first on The Intercept.

GOP Leadership Instructs Lawmakers to Play Up Gruesome Murders and Rapes by Immigrants

House Republican lawmakers are being encouraged by their party’s leadership to play up gruesome murders, rapes, and other crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in the United States.

In a newsletter sent on Friday, House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., provided the caucus and staff with a messaging update that compiled immigrant crimes by date and congressional district. The newsletter is used by the GOP caucus to provide talking points and messaging guidance. The edition of the newsletter dealing with immigrant crimes, which was obtained by The Intercept, offered a messaging opportunity to leverage the government shutdown against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“Speaker Pelosi made one thing clear during the government shutdown: she doesn’t care about the tragic consequences of illegal immigration on American families,” the newsletter says.

Under the header “The Democrats’ far-left immigration agenda has tragic real-world consequences,” the newsletter goes on to list crimes committed over the last two decades.

The list includes alleged crimes and points out which Republican House members’ districts the events took place in. In one case, “an illegal immigrant from El Salvador was charged with murdering four people” in Rep. Mark Amodei’s Nevada district, the newsletter says. In another, it recounts “the story of a 16-year-old, who was killed in 2000 by an illegal immigrant in a car crash on Father’s Day” in Rep. Barry Loudermilk’s Georgia district. Yet another bullet point describes “an illegal immigrant who previously had been deported in 2015 for a felony drug trafficking conviction [who] was charged with first degree rape” in Rep. Gary Palmer’s Alabama district.

The congressional document mirrors recent tweets by President Donald Trump linking crimes committed by immigrants to the need to expand the wall along the U.S. southern border with Mexico.

Just before the midterm election last year, Trump tweeted a 53-second video featuring Luis Bracamontes boasting about murdering two sheriff’s deputies in 2014. After the clip of Bracamontes, the video flashes text that claims, “Democrats let him into our country … Democrats let him stay.” As independent fact-checkers noted, the message was highly misleading. Bracamontes was deported under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

The House Republican Conference messaging document includes several stories that were simply shared by Republican lawmakers without any names or news stories attached. The House Republican Conference spokesperson declined to comment on the newsletter.

Studies have consistently shown that crime rates are actually lower among foreign immigrants than among native-born Americans. But the strategy does not appear to be a fair-minded discussion of immigration policy — or crime, for that matter.

Across the world, demagogues have deftly exploited bigotry to whip up anger using incidents of murder and rape. Increasingly, social media has become an effective way to weaponize tragic acts and use them for partisan political goals. In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany party has singularly focused on several cases of murders committed by refugees to intensify hatred of Middle Eastern immigrants. In Myanmar, lurid stories posted on Facebook detailing purported acts of rape and murder by the Muslim Rohingya minority against the Buddhist majority were used to justify a brutal ethnic cleaning in the northwest Rakhine State. In some cases, the stories were false. Viral stories that focus on the identity of killers to stoke ethnic tension can also be found in India, Sri LankaNigeria, and beyond.

In the U.S., there is a long history of racist violence following politicians’ focus on crimes — real or imagined — by particular minority groups. Across the ideological spectrum, many on social media continue to fixate on the racial or ethnic identity of criminals. Trump’s embrace of the strategy now appears to have reverberated across the Republican Party, with GOP lawmakers now openly encouraged to stoke fear over immigrant crime.

The post GOP Leadership Instructs Lawmakers to Play Up Gruesome Murders and Rapes by Immigrants appeared first on The Intercept.

Louisiana Tests the New Supreme Court on Abortion

The Supreme Court will decide this week whether to intervene in a case that could lead to the closure of all but one abortion clinic in Louisiana, potentially leaving tens of thousands of women without meaningful access to care. It is the first of more than a dozen abortion-related cases that are moving through the system and toward the high court. Unless the court takes action, two of Louisiana’s three remaining clinics would likely shutter operations.

At issue is a state law passed in 2014 that requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion clinics where they practice. It is identical to a law passed a year earlier in Texas — a law that was stuck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 2016 decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

The admitting privileges law is what is known as a targeted restriction on abortion providers, or TRAP law. Theoretically, it is designed to ensure a continuum of care in the exceedingly rare event that serious complications arise from an abortion procedure. The problem, however, is that it can be nearly impossible for abortionists to obtain admitting privileges — for example, some hospitals require a certain number of admissions as a requisite for granting privileges, but because abortion is so safe, doctors are unable to meet that threshold. (Serious complications requiring hospitalization occur in just .05 percent of first-trimester abortions.) The requirements for obtaining admitting privileges vary from hospital to hospital and can be decided based on politics alone. In Louisiana, two doctors were denied privileges precisely because they provide abortion care, according to court documents filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is challenging the state law.

In Texas, the admitting privileges law in part led to the closure of roughly half of the state’s clinics. CRR challenged that law, and in 2016 the Supreme Court ruled that it could not stand. While the alleged purpose of the regulation was to protect the health and safety of women seeking care, the law did not do that. The court ruled that in order to survive a legal challenge, the actual medical benefit of such a restriction must outweigh the burden it places on abortion access.

While both the Texas and Louisiana laws were making their way through the legal system, a federal district judge in Louisiana blocked that state’s law in a meticulous 112-page ruling. “Without an injunction, Louisiana women will suffer significantly reduced access to constitutionally protected abortion services, which will likely have serious health consequences,” Judge John W. deGravelles concluded in January 2016, roughly five months before the Supreme Court would rule in the Texas case. “The substantial injury threatened by enforcement of the Act — namely irreparable harm to women and the violation of their constitutional rights — clearly outweighs the impact of an injunction” on the state.

Louisiana appealed the ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, the intermediate court that handles appeals coming out of Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana — the same court that ultimately concluded that Texas’s restriction passed legal muster before being slapped down by the Supreme Court. The Texas law, the high court ruled in the Whole Woman’s Health case, “provides few, if any, health benefits for women, poses a substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions, and constitutes an ‘undue burden’ on their constitutional right to do so.”

Theoretically at least, that should have signaled the fate of the Louisiana law. Instead, in a confounding opinion, the majority of a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit in late September 2018 upheld the Louisiana law. In invalidating the measure, the district court had “overlooked that the facts in the instant case are remarkably different from those that occasioned the invalidation of the Texas statute,” the 5th Circuit Court wrote, and placed the blame for whatever clinics might close squarely on the abortion doctors who the court decided simply had not worked hard enough to secure privileges.

In a strenuous dissent, Senior Circuit Judge Patrick Higginbotham called out his colleagues, writing that the “divergence between the findings of the district court and the majority is striking — a dissonance in findings of fact inexplicable to these eyes.” The ruling, he wrote “ought not stand.” The Center for Reproductive Rights asked the full court to reconsider the panel’s decision, but on a 9-6 vote, the court declined. All four of President Donald Trump’s appointees to the 5th Circuit voted against rehearing the case.

On January 25, CRR took its case to the Supreme Court, asking it to intervene and reverse the appellate court decision. Without action from the court, the law would have taken effect on February 4, leaving a single clinic and doctor left in the state to provide care for the roughly 10,000 women who annually seek abortion in the state, a clearly impossible situation. There are nearly 1 million women of reproductive age in the state.

Late on Friday, February 1, Justice Samuel Alito filed a brief order, staying the case until February 7 to allow the court time to review the court filings. The order, he wrote, does not reflect “any view” on the merits of the case.

The case is the first of nearly 30 involving reproductive rights that are making their way through the court system and will likely signal what direction the new court — now with two Trump appointees — will take in deciding challenges to women’s reproductive autonomy. Indeed, Trump long ago promised that he would appoint only “pro-life” judges to the bench who would be willing to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide. While the Louisiana case is unlikely to upset Roe, it could reveal the court’s willingness to chip away at the right to abortion by upholding medically unnecessary restrictions that have been passed by dozens of states across the country.

In a stinging op-ed published last week in the New York Times, Nancy Northup, head of the Center for Reproductive Rights, called out the 5th Circuit for going “rogue,” and warned of dire consequences if the high court fails to follow precedent and allows the Louisiana law to stand. “Anti-abortion politicians are hoping that the Supreme Court will stand by and let them legislate abortion out of reach — without the court ever having to reverse Roe v. Wade and related cases assuring access to abortion. That would be death to Roe by a thousand cuts,” she wrote. “The rule of law is on the line, and so is the ability of women in Louisiana and beyond to make their own health decisions and control their own fate.”

The post Louisiana Tests the New Supreme Court on Abortion appeared first on The Intercept.

Officers Accused of Abuses Are Leading Chicago Police’s “Implicit Bias” Training Program

Sergio Herrera, a Chicago police officer, was accused in a 2010 lawsuit of teaming up with another officer to mace and beat a black man for no reason. The man was sitting in his parked car when Herrera’s colleague approached the vehicle. As the man went to retrieve his identification, the officer told him to “cuff up,” at which point Herrera entered the fray, spraying the man with mace according to the lawsuit. Both officers then allegedly proceeded to throw the man to the ground, strike him in the head with handcuffs, and dig their knees into his back. When the man asked for medical assistance, his pleas were ignored. Instead, the police took him to the station.

The lawsuit charges that the man’s ribs were fractured, and that he was left with permanent injuries as a result of the incident. The city of Chicago ended up paying the victim a settlement of $75,000, without admitting wrongdoing. Out-of-court settlements for civil rights violations are a common outcome for the department, which is plagued by lawsuits.

The trainings are part of Chicago’s efforts to reform its notoriously abusive police force, but the trainings have in many cases been overseen by the alleged abusers themselves.

Now, Herrera has a new assignment: to be one of several officers who oversee the Chicago Police Department’s “implicit bias” trainings, a program intended to curb incidents of racist police violence.

Herrera’s role is part of a troubling pattern: The trainings are a key part of the city’s efforts to reform its notoriously abusive police force, but revamped trainings that debuted in 2017 have in many cases been overseen by some of the alleged abusers themselves.

Sixteen of the 17 police officers — excluding only Officer Angela McLaurin — who have provided instruction for the procedural justice training program since the start of 2017 have together garnered a total of 111 misconduct complaints, according to police documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The misconduct complaints range from false arrests to illegal searches and include use of excessive force, often against people of color in Chicago. One officer who provided training has faced seven accusations of mistreating black people since 2011. Six other officers have together been accused of abuses in at least ten civil rights lawsuits, with at least half of those cases resulting in settlements or payments to the plaintiffs.

“Over the past two years, the Chicago Police Department has aggressively marched forward on expanding the quantity and quality of in-service training available to officers,” said Sergeant Cindy Guerra of the Chicago police’s Office of the Superintendent, in a statement to The Intercept. “By incorporating national best practices, CPD’s revised training supports officers’ abilities to be successful in the performance of their duties, and ensures sustainable reform.” Guerra, who declined to speak to the outcomes of legal cases, added, “All allegations made against a Chicago Police Officer are taken seriously and thoroughly investigated.”

For activists working on policing issues in Chicago, the track records of police officers who have or are giving trainings underscore the problems with pushing for “improved training” as the solution for police violence. “The urgency around policing is valid and real, but the insistence that what we need is better training is leading to massive amounts of money to an already over-inflated arsenal and budget of CPD,” Page May, co-founder of Assata’s Daughters, a collective of black women in Chicago who identify their work as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, told The Intercept.

The trainings were instituted in the wake of a massive public relations crisis for the Chicago Police Department and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The 2014 police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and subsequent cover-up by city officials pushed policing issues to the fore in the city, leading to protests and, eventually, a damning 2017 Department of Justice investigation. In response, the police department pledged to reform itself, in part by providing better internal trainings with an emphasis on addressing implicit bias.

The Chicago Police Department followed up with a report last April outlining its “Next Steps for Reform.” The department — which has a pattern of racist harassment, civil rights violations, and “unreasonable killings,” according to the Department of Justice — trumpeted its plan as a solution to public concerns. “The 2018 Next Steps for Reform framework is our continued promise to the communities we serve that CPD is serious about addressing the historical challenges we face,” Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said at the time.

The police plan emphasized its “procedural justice” training program as a key component of its reform strategy. One of the courses in the training program will focus on implicit bias, or the pervasive and deep-seated prejudices that shape behavior, the police report says. While the department has shared little public information about the content of these trainings, a sympathetic article in the Chicago Sun-Times billed it as a “sensitivity-training course,” noting that the term “procedural justice” is a popular buzzword among police departments under scrutiny for patterns of racist violence. According to the Chicago Police Department report, all officers are mandated to complete the entire training series by the end of 2020.

“Stomping” a Black Man

Many of the instructors who have taught their fellow police officers how to deal with biases, however, are trailed by a litany of civilian complaints. Eleven of the 17 officers who have provided procedural justice trainings since the start of 2017 have been accused of violating the rights of black people, and nine have been accused two times or more of mistreating black people, according to public information collected by the Citizens Police Data Project, a project of the journalism nonprofit Invisible Institute and the University of Chicago Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. The number may be low: Many of the civilian complaints against these officers did not note the race of the complainants.

Only three of the 111 complaints of misconduct were sustained in the processes that adjudicate these complaints, but that comes amid a system that infrequently holds cops to account. Fewer than 2 percent of misconduct accusations against Chicago police officers are sustained — a “low” rate, according to the Department of Justice. Responding to a question from The Intercept about the complaints against four of the officers who have provided trainings, Guerra, the police spokesperson, said, “In reference to the four officers you mentioned, none of these officers have any sustained allegations against them.” (The Intercept requested comment on and interviews with the five officers named in this story for having participated in trainings while also having records of civilian complains or civil rights lawsuits.)

Some of these alleged acts were violent. According to one civilian complaint obtained through a FOIA request, one of the officers who has provided trainings, Officer Daniel Goetz, allegedly “stomped” a black man while he was prostrate on the ground outside a Shell gas station in October 2015. The man had attracted the police’s attention simply for urinating outdoors after he was turned away from the gas station bathroom; when the police asked the man to approach their car, he fled.

The officers who were with Goetz threatened bystanders for attempting to document the alleged injustice, according to the complaint. Witnesses approached to film the police’s actions but were allegedly “warned by the accused officer that if they video recorded anything,” the man would be punished more severely. (In Illinois, it is legal to record most police interactions with the public.) A medical report “noted bruising to [the victim’s] left side,” and that he sought medical care on two separate occasions as a result. The Independent Police Review Authority investigator noted the witnesses declined to testify and, after fellow police officers denied the accusations against Goetz, the complaint process halted, with the evidence deemed insufficient to prove or disprove the allegations. (In its statement, the Chicago police indicated that Goetz is not currently giving procedural justice trainings, though he was listed in a FOIA document as one of the individuals who had done so since the start of 2017.)

In another civilian complaint, also obtained through a FOIA request, Goetz was accused of grabbing a black man by the arm before another officer allegedly said, “I will lock your black fucking ass up.” That complaint also was not sustained after the officers who were present denied the allegations.

The civil rights lawsuits against six of the officers who have provided training are even more harrowing.

The civil rights lawsuits against six of the officers who have provided training are even more harrowing, particularly those involving Wasim Said, a Chicago police officer since 2002 who has been employed in the department’s education and training division. (Like Goetz, the police indicated in their statement to The Intercept that Said was not currently giving procedural justice trainings.) In one suit from 2008, Said was accused of participating in a police raid on a home in which officers pointed their guns at the heads of an adult with a heart condition, a 6-year-old child, and a 4-month-old infant. The 6-year-old “began to vomit as a result of defendants’ actions,” the lawsuit alleges, noting that no criminal charges were ultimately filed. The case settled with $35,000 awarded to the plaintiffs.

According to a separate lawsuit filed the same year, Said and another officer responded violently to an alleged physical assault of a young girl by an adult woman. The suit charges that the officers slammed the girl’s head “extremely hard” onto the hood of a car and held her there despite pleas from her mother that she was only 10 years old. The following morning, the child received treatment at a hospital for “neck strain and head trauma,” alleges the lawsuit, which resulted in a dismissal.

Said is not alone. In 2007, Officer Reginald Weatherly was sued for his alleged participation in a group beating. “One or more of Defendant Officers repeatedly struck Plaintiff in the leg with a blackjack club, breaking his ankle and causing Plaintiff severe pain and suffering,” according to the suit. The suit, which resulted in settlement and dismissal, states that the other officers named in the suit “had the opportunity to intervene to prevent it, but failed to do so.” (In its statement to The Intercept, the Chicago Police Department indicated that Weatherly was not currently giving procedural justice trainings.)

Beyond formal charges, the social media conduct of at least one of the police trainers raises further cause for concern. An officer named Phil Visor, who also serves as an instructor of the procedural justice training, published Facebook posts that include images and rhetoric associated with Blue Lives Matter, a reactionary movement that arose in opposition to Black Lives Matter. One of his profile photos, uploaded on December 23, 2015 — when Chicago was in the grips of protests responding to the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video — shows an image of a group of officers in riot gear that reads, “Sometimes There’s Justice. Sometimes There’s Just Us.” This image, along with other profile photos depicting the “thin blue line” — the mantra that police are the only thing separating society from chaos — demonstrates an affinity with precisely the “us versus them” mentality Visor has been tasked with eradicating.

Guerra, the Chicago police spokesperson, told The Intercept: “[A]s part of our commitment to improved and expanded in-service training under the consent decree, impartial policing concepts, to include proper use of social media, will be provided for all officers, including supervisors and command staff.”

Yet the promise of improved trainings given by police — despite the fact that most of the officers who have given trainings faced formal accusations of troubling misconduct — is being used to justify the funneling of public funds into the police department. In his budget for 2018, Emanuel cited the need for “best practice training for officers and supervisors.” He called for “$103.5 million worth of new investments in police and first responders.”

Joey Mogul, a partner at the People’s Law Office who represents victims of police torture, told The Intercept that the troubling track records of these police officers show that the department cannot train its way out of a crisis of public legitimacy. “The issues we have with the CPD and several municipal police departments are not only willful and egregious violations of the law, but officers coming together to cover those things up,” Mogul said.

Mogul cited the case of Jason Van Dyke, the officer who was convicted last October of second-degree murder for killing McDonald. Notably, Van Dyke was trained at the police academy and had been awarded 22 Honorable Mentions over his career — in addition to having a long list of misconduct complaints.

“In the case of Van Dyke, what additional training did that officer need in order to not go out and shoot and kill someone like Laquan McDonald the way he did?” Mogul said. “Look at the officers who went out of their way and made false statements. They could tell from looking at the video that they were false statements. What training did those officers need to tell them you can’t lie?”

The post Officers Accused of Abuses Are Leading Chicago Police’s “Implicit Bias” Training Program appeared first on The Intercept.

“‘Vicious’ And ‘Brutal’” — Life Inside a Freezing Federal Prison With No Heat

On Saturday morning, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., arrived at the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York City to demand answers.

Hundreds of people incarcerated at the federal detention facility in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn have been living without heat, light, telephone access, and lawyers for the past week, as the region endured arctic temperatures. After touring the facility with other elected officials, Nadler, the newly seated chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said what he found was disturbing.

“There’s a total lack of urgency or concern on the part of the prison administration with respect to getting the heat and the hot water.”

“There’s a total lack of urgency or concern on the part of the prison administration with respect to getting the heat and the hot water, getting the services we need,” he said on the steps of the detention facility after his visit. Several hundred people, many of whom have family members inside, had gathered in protest outside the facility. While some cells did have heat, others were extremely cold, Nadler said, and all were without power.

While the elected officials toured the detention facility, the Metropolitan Detention Center’s surroundings echoed with the sound of incarcerated people banging on their windows in protest. In answer, hundreds of their family members and other supporters massed outside, chanting, “Humane treatment for all! Get those lights on! Get that heat on!”

“I’m just worried about my son’s health,” said Tina Mongo, through tears. “I haven’t been able to speak with him, and I haven’t been able to visit, and I don’t know if he’s alright. I just don’t know.”

A number of people incarcerated at Metropolitan Detention Center have a medical condition called sleep apnea and without functioning medical equipment they run the risk of a stroke, Nadler said. “When I said to the warden, how many people do you have people with CPAP machines, he said he didn’t know. I said, ‘Did you know there was a problem?’ He said, ‘No one raised it to me until now.’ Basic medical conditions are being ignored.”

Prison officials are in no rush to improve the situation, he said. “In an emergency condition, they are so eager to solve this condition that the contractors have left for the day and won’t be back until Monday.” Nadler said. “This shows the complete lack of urgency.”


Hundreds rally in front of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, on Feb. 2, 2019, in protest of conditions at the federal prison facility.

Photo: Josh Begley

Other elected officials who toured the prison described similar medical concerns. New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams said he spoke to an incarcerated person with an untreated eye infection and another in need of psychiatric care who was not receiving it.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn, told The Intercept he was shown a cell in which an asthmatic man deprived of a nebulizer was lying on the floor of a poorly ventilated cell trying to suck air through the gap under the door.

“I saw a young man on the floor, holding a bright red inhaler, and he was saying through tears that he doesn’t know if he’s going to wake up tomorrow.”

“As they took us inside, I saw a young man on the floor, holding a bright red inhaler, and he was saying through tears that he doesn’t know if he’s going to wake up tomorrow,” Myrie said. “This man is pre-trial, he hasn’t been convicted of anything. I grew up using a nebulizer, so I know what it’s like to need it and not have it.”

Bureau of Prisons Warden Herman Quay was standing next to Myrie during the exchange inside the prison, the state senator said. The warden was apparently unmoved. “There was no sense of urgency,” Myrie said. “He was extremely elusive, and all of his answers to our questions were non-committal.”

New York City Council Member Brad Lander, who toured the Metropolitan Detention Center with other elected officials, described the prison’s Facilities Manager John Maffeo as “openly contemptuous” of the congressional representatives’ inquiry into conditions at the incarceration site.

The Metropolitan Detention Center houses more than 1,600 federal prisoners, ranging from around a half-dozen people convicted on federal terrorism charges to defendants who have not yet been found guilty of any crime. Union officials representing prison employees told the New York Times that power first went out at the jail on January 5, but that the heating issues began in earnest the week before last. On January 27, an electrical fire knocked out primary power to the jail. Under emergency power, lights were kept on in hallways, but not in the cells, and the prison went into lockdown.

“It’s awful,” said David Patton, the head of the public-interest legal advocates Federal Defenders of New York, who also toured the facility. “They’ve been on lockdown. There is no lighting. There is some heat, but it’s sporadic unit-to-unit. We were in one cell where the temperature was 50 degrees and there was water leaking into the cell.”

In some units, the heat is functioning, Patton said. “But even then,” he added, “you’re talking about the high 60s, and people are wearing essentially short-sleeve hospital scrubs.”

Patton said his office began getting frantic reports about conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center on Wednesday. He and his colleagues began filing dozens of emergency bail applications and applications to modify incarcerated people’s conditions of confinement in an effort to get people out of the freezing jail. Those motions are pending, but the earliest hearings scheduled aren’t until Monday in the Eastern District of New York and Tuesday in the Southern District.

The hearings, which will include testimony on conditions inside the prison, will force Bureau of Prison officials to defend their public assertions — contradicted by accounts from inside — that all cells in the prison have light, that the incarcerated people are receiving hot meals, and that the detention facility’s heat has been unaffected throughout the ordeal.

“He described the past week as ‘torturous,’ ‘vicious’ and ‘brutal;’ a ‘mindfuck.’ He was desperate for a hot cup of tea.”

Armed with a court order, one defense lawyer made it into the Metropolitan Detention Center on Saturday to meet with this client. A publicly filed letter to the court from the lawyer, Anthony Cecutti, describes what he found. His client “arrived shivering and sick, with a cough and runny nose,” Cecutti wrote. “He described the past week as ‘torturous,’ ‘vicious’ and ‘brutal;’ a ‘mindfuck.’ He was desperate for a hot cup of tea, and grateful to walk from his unit to the West Building. He described himself as ‘broken.’” Cecutti’s client described a detention unit in which the cells are dark, meals are cold, and there continues to be neither heat nor hot water.

A spokesperson for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city has offered the jail assistance in the form of generators, blankets, and handwarmers, but has so far been rebuffed. In a tweet sent Saturday evening, de Blasio announced the aid was coming anyway, “whether they like it or not.”

The Bureau of Prisons did not answer emailed questions Saturday, referring instead to a press release. “A work ticket has been submitted by the electrical contractor to schedule a work crew to restore power to the new temporary service switch,” the release reads in part. “The current estimate is that the work is expected be completed by Monday.” The release states that incarcerated people are receiving medical care and notes that the detention facility is accepting blankets from the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., who was part of the delegation that visited the federal detention facility Saturday afternoon, announced on Twitter afterwards that she had spoken with the director of the Bureau of Prisons, who agreed that the situation was unacceptable.

For many family members gathered outside the Metropolitan Detention Center Saturday, the most resonant statement seemed to come from Williams, the city council member. “Those people in there do not care what’s happening,” Williams told the gathered crowd. “The only way they probably would have cared is if it was white, preppy students who were in there.”

In the wake of the fire, “nobody had a plan to make this system run; nobody cared about the people who were in there,” Williams said. “Whatever happened here only exacerbated the problem that already existed. When the heat finally comes on, we have to make sure that people are getting medical. We have to make sure people are treated as human beings.”

The post “‘Vicious’ And ‘Brutal'” — Life Inside a Freezing Federal Prison With No Heat appeared first on The Intercept.

Entire Industries Are Being Blacklisted by Insurers Over #MeToo Liability

Sixteen months into #MeToo, companies seeking sexual harassment insurance are facing intense scrutiny from insurers — a trend that could put pressure on firms to institute organizational change.

A recent report, authored by an insurance industry consultant, reveals new measures that insurers are taking to mitigate the risks of writing harassment policies, including decisions to exclude entire industries from their portfolios.

The increased vigilance comes as harassment complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are on the rise, perhaps sparked by the wave of #MeToo revelations. The EEOC received 7,609 sexual harassment charges in its 2018 fiscal year, up nearly 14 percent from 2017. These numbers don’t include an unknown number of complaints settled by victims who never contacted the federal regulator.

Ten of the 32 insurance companies polled by Richard S. Betterley, publisher of the Betterley Report, said they were not underwriting the legal industry. Financial firms, including brokers, investment banks, and venture capital operations landed on the prohibited lists of eight insurers. Seven insurers said they’d blacklisted companies in the entertainment industry. Betterley shared a copy of his report, completed in December, exclusively with The Intercept and Type Investigations.

Betterley reached out to the biggest companies offering what is called “employment practices liability insurance,” or EPLI, which covers sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and other employee claims. Among the companies responding to Betterley’s survey were AIG, Chubb, The Hartford, and Travelers.

EPLI insurers christen their products with names like “ForceField” and “Employment Edge” and sometimes market their wares with #MeToo paranoia in mind. A blogger at a Manhattan insurance brokerage asks readers, “Is your industry a snake pit for sexual harassment claims?” At Nationwide, a webpage devoted to EPLI insurance warns that “a business is more likely to have an employment claim than experience a fire.” To attract clients for their expensive policies, which can demand seven-figure premiums for large firms, some insurers offer extras, such as free consultations with an outside law firm and sample employee handbooks.

Betterley said in an interview that, with dozens of insurers offering EPLI policies, being blocked by some major providers doesn’t mean that companies in frowned-upon industries can’t get insurance at all. But it could now mean agreeing to higher premiums and deductibles and demonstrating that their problems “are under control and have been addressed,” he said. 

For example, a problem company might have to show that it had set up a confidential outside service for employees to report complaints anonymously, Betterley said. Or that the company had circulated anti-harassment policies and set up sexual harassment compliance programs. A large employer with a history of harassment complaints might see a deductible soar from $1 million to $5 million, he said.

Companies with high-profile executives, big-name stars, or iffy corporate cultures are getting increased scrutiny, several insurers who participated in the survey told Betterley. One insurer said it had become more cautious about underwriting “any account with celebrity involvement.” Another said it was taking a more in-depth look at companies’ track records on pay equity.

When Betterley began tracking the insurance market for sexual harassment and other employee claims in 1991, he said, there were only five companies in the business. “But EPLI really got big after Anita Hill testified in the Clarence Thomas hearings, when insurance companies saw a business opportunity,” said Paula Brantner, senior adviser to Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit organization that advocates for workers’ rights. By the end of the 1990s, in the wake of several high-profile sex discrimination lawsuits against Wall Street firms, 10 firms were offering the coverage. Today, 50 to 55 companies are in the business, according to Betterley.

Employers paid $2.5 billion in premiums for EPLI insurance in 2017, before #MeToo, according to ISO MarketStance, a data provider. ISO estimates that premiums for U.S. firms will total more than $2.7 billion this year.

I read the application forms for five of the insurers that participated in Betterley’s survey. They ask expansive questions about a company’s procedures, including queries as to whether the firm has put in place formal procedures for terminations and employee complaints. They also, of course, demand detailed information about previous charges of sexual harassment. One insurer wanted a list of all incidents, including ones that have not triggered a formal complaint, with the name of the claimant, the allegations made, the settlement amount any complainant received, and what remedial actions were taken.

“Past is prologue from an underwriter’s standpoint,” said Betterley. “If you have a history of problems, it’s probably a problem for the insurer too.” Along with collecting hard data from an applicant, though, underwriters may factor in whether a company’s reputation is, in Betterley’s words, “a little on the sleazy side.” Insurers don’t necessarily raise their rates after a single sexual harassment case, he said, but companies with a pattern of harassment complaints are at risk of paying more. And companies with egregious histories might find that no one will insure them at all anymore.

Betterley said that some industries were viewed as risky long before #MeToo. “Sales mentality industries have been in deep trouble from an employment practices standpoint and maybe always will be,” he said. That puts car dealerships and stock brokerage firms on insurers’ high-risk lists, he said. Some of the best salespeople can be “a little egotistical and a little tone deaf and a little locker-roomy,” Betterley explained, adding that management often shields big producers when harassment complaints are made. Law firms, which can have their own culture of tolerating aggressive behavior by high-billing rainmakers, are similarly viewed by harassment insurers as high risk.

Several insurers told Betterley that their underwriters were increasing scrutiny of financial firms. Spokespeople at Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, and Morgan Stanley either declined to comment or didn’t respond to emails asking if they were experiencing difficulty getting EPLI insurance or were facing higher premiums or higher deductibles.

Insurers also told Betterley that in the wake of widespread allegations of sexual harassment and assault across industries during the #MeToo era, they are increasingly vigilant about vetting companies in the entertainment business. Queries to the Walt Disney Co., Sony Pictures, and Viacom, owner of Paramount Pictures, went unanswered.

AM Best, a global ratings firm for the insurance industry, suggested in a January 28 report that to combat corporate misconduct, companies “may choose to be proactive” by providing training and education for employees. Training, though, gets mixed reviews. Brantner, the employee advocate, said training programs have historically been focused on limiting a company’s liability — not necessarily on improving the workplace.

And even a well-constructed training program has its limits, said Betterley. “There are real jerks out there in employment land,” he said. “If they were trainable, wouldn’t it have happened by now?”

This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations, where Susan Antilla is a reporting fellow.

The post Entire Industries Are Being Blacklisted by Insurers Over #MeToo Liability appeared first on The Intercept.

Mohammed bin Salman Is Running Saudi Arabia Like a Man Who Got Away With Murder

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives to meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May on the steps of number 10 Downing Street on March 7, 2018 in London, England. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made wide-ranging changes at home supporting a more liberal Islam. Whilst visiting the UK he will meet with several members of the Royal family and the Prime Minister. (Photo by Dan Kitwood /Getty Images)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives to meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London, England, on March 7, 2018.

Photo: Dan Kitwood /Getty Images

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority announced 2019 as the “Year of Entertainment” in the kingdom. With a $64 billion budget granted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the plan comes complete with a social media platform and an app — Enjoy_Saudi — and aims to “transform the Kingdom into one of the top ten international entertainment destinations.” The authority said it is negotiating contracts to bring international stars, such as Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, Trevor Noah, Chris Rock, and Seth Rogan, among others, to the kingdom.

The same week, Amnesty International published new reports of systematic torture and sexual abuse of numerous female activists currently being held in Saudi prisons. Most of the women are now in their ninth month of detention, where they’ve been held without charges or legal representation. Evidence linked the women’s mistreatment to Saud al-Qahtani, a former top adviser to bin Salman who has been implicated in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “Not only have they been depriving them of their liberty for months now, simply for peacefully expressing their views, they are also subjecting them to horrendous physical suffering,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s Middle East research director. The Saudi Ministry of Media has rejected the claims of torture as “baseless,” and has denied human rights observers any access to the prisoners.

“Not only have they been depriving them of their liberty for months now, simply for peacefully expressing their views, they are also subjecting them to horrendous physical suffering.”

It should come as no surprise that the Saudi regime has little to say on the matter. Such dismissiveness is to be expected from a monarch who, far from being deposed by the Khashoggi scandal, now has the confidence of a man who has gotten away with murder. Unleashed and unrepentant, bin Salman’s campaign against dissent continues unabated — and, as the Amnesty report shows, has targeted the women he promised to liberate in unprecedented ways.

The coinciding reports from the General Entertainment Authority and Amnesty represent more than dark irony: They are also a re-enactment of one of bin Salman’s earliest tactics. Such aggressively enthusiastic, Western-centric campaigns were a prominent feature of the early years of bin Salman’s reign, when the ascendant prince wowed the world by re-introducing movie theaters and live concerts to the kingdom. At the time, many Saudis and non-Saudis alike were so struck with the spectacle of Saudi’s sudden embrace of Hollywood films and Cirque du Soleils that the crown prince’s emerging authoritarianism went largely unnoticed. Busy remarking on superficial social reforms, Western media neglected — or declined — to press bin Salman on his crackdowns on free speech, his censorship of the local press, the ongoing carnage in Yemen, or his failure to address the country’s legalized gender discrimination.

This reckless silence extended even as the crown prince’s abuses grew more brazen. In May, bin Salman, who is often known by his initials, MBS, began his crackdown on peaceful women’s rights advocates. The women included internationally recognized activists, such as Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan, as well as Samar Badawi, a recipient of the State Department’s International Women of Courage award. Renowned academics, such as Hatoon al-Fassi, were also rolled up in the crackdown.

The arrest of these women demonstrated bin Salman’s expanding practice of jailing and intimidating even the most moderate of his critics — or those who he feared might eventually undermine his messaging. Many of the women had voiced their willingness to work alongside the government to accomplish reform, including an end to the country’s notorious male guardianship law. Several of them, after being warned by the Royal Court to abandon their activism, had already fallen virtually silent. Yet the Saudi government followed their arrests with a series of smear campaigns, alleging without evidence that several of the women had been involved in a foreign plot against the government.

Even after the arrests, the world persisted in lauding bin Salman as a pioneer of reform. Meanwhile, he was quietly bringing Saudi’s human rights record to new lows. According to human rights organizations, the women detainees suffered floggings and electric shocks at the hands of their captors. At least one woman was reported as being hung from the ceiling. Another had a water hose forced into her mouth, while two other women were made to kiss one another while leering guards looked on. Other methods of sexual and psychological abuse were also reported.

Such mistreatment is not only an egregious violation of international law, but also a dramatic departure in the context of patriarchal codes of decency in the kingdom.

Such mistreatment is not only an egregious violation of international law, but also a dramatic departure in the context of patriarchal codes of decency in the kingdom. These social conventions can frequently be covers for gender violence and oppression, yet they also generally constrain what is acceptable in the public sector. The tabloidesque defamation of al-Hathloul and others, as well as the blatantly sexual nature of their abuse, transgresses them all.

As one regional human rights observer told me, women political prisoners were rare before bin Salman, and such public smear campaigns and physical violence “would have been unheard of just a few years before.” In keeping with this grim trend, Saudi Arabia announced in August that it would seek the death penalty for Israa al-Ghomgham, an activist from Saudi Arabia’s repressed Shia minority and the first female rights advocate to face capital punishment.

Such shocking new tactics should have been taken as a warning, but the women’s arrests in the summer of 2018 generated little more than a murmur from the foreign press. At the time, too many were still enamored with bin Salman and distracted by the long-awaited end to the ban on women drivers. While some noted the irony that many of the women who had championed the cause of women drivers for years or decades would be behind bars on that historic day, most found the narrative allure of women “taking the wheel” too poetic to resist. On the ground in Riyadh and Jeddah last summer, I watched the international press corps, herded by Saudi handlers, flock from photo-op to photo-op, gleefully reaching cameras and pencils in the direction of smiling women in driving simulators and luxury cars. On the morning when the ban was official lifted, they sent home dispatches published with glowing headlines touting a new day for gender empowerment in Saudi Arabia.

Since then, the global scandal of Khashoggi’s murder forced a much-belated reckoning with the true nature of bin Salman’s rule. For a moment, international outrage seemed to approach proportionality with the regime’s ongoing crimes, perhaps strong enough to diminish bin Salman’s influence for good.

Yet the reckoning was fleeting. As the weeks passed and the kingdom’s key allies and trading partners — most notably the U.S. but also many European nations — failed to meaningfully sanction the crown prince, bin Salman began to maneuver back into the global political landscape. With U.S. President Donald Trump’s early, frequent, and vociferous defenses ringing in his ear — as well as the ongoing trade and diplomatic relations with countries like the U.K. and France — the message bin Salman received was not one of censure, but of tacit absolution.

The crown prince has not only maintained his power, but intends push forward his unilateral “Vision 2030” agenda, complete with self-congratulatory fanfare. Since Khashoggi’s death, bin Salman has continued to court global capital. He held his own “Davos in the Desert” — hosted at the same Riyadh Ritz-Carlton where bin Salman imprisoned hundreds of his own citizens in 2017 — and attended the G-20 summit, where he was warmly greeted by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

Inside the kingdom, many ordinary Saudi citizens now avoid any type of social or political speech, even on anonymous Twitter accounts, fearing that they’ll somehow trigger one of the kingdom’s expanding, and increasingly enforced, anti-terrorism and “anti-cybercrime” laws. Others, while enjoying the occasional movie or concert, worry more often about rising costs of living and wonder when, if ever, bin Salman’s lofty promises for economic prosperity will trickle down to them. Women, even those who benefit from the ability to drive, still face a myriad of legal and cultural obstacles to equality, most notably the male guardianship laws.

While the Saudi government under bin Salman pursues American entertainers, opens wax museums, and rolls out hashtags, untold numbers of political prisoners remain in detention, inaccessible to international observers, lawyers, and family members alike. As with Khashoggi, the Saudi regime has only deigned to issue scant, unpersuasive denials in the face of mounting evidence of their abuse of the female prisoners and its ongoing violations of international law.

It is hard to imagine what, if not the global scandals of Jamal Khashoggi and Rahaf al-Qanun, will prompt enough meaningful action to censure bin Salman. As bin Salman resumes his efforts to distract and entertain his way back into popular acclaim, it is incumbent on the watching world to refuse, anymore, to blink.

The post Mohammed bin Salman Is Running Saudi Arabia Like a Man Who Got Away With Murder appeared first on The Intercept.

U.S. Court Finds Syria Responsible for Killing American Journalist Marie Colvin

A federal judge in Washington, D.C. has ordered the Syrian government to pay $302 million in damages for the murders of journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in a 2012 artillery strike. The decision, issued on Wednesday, marks the first time in the seven-year conflict that a court has declared Syrian forces loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad responsible for deliberately attacking civilians.

“A targeted murder of an American citizen, whose courageous work was not only important, but vital to our understanding of warzones and of wars generally, is outrageous, and therefore a punitive damages award that [multiplies] the impact on the responsible state is warranted,” wrote Judge Amy Berman Jackson.

The Syrian government did not respond to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Colvin’s niece and nephew, leading to a default judgement. The suit followed from a six-year investigation by the Center for Justice and Accountability, which unearthed testimony and documentary evidence detailing how Assad’s commanders tracked and killed Colvin and her colleague on the morning of February 22, 2012 in Homs, Syria. Colvin was among the few Western journalists working from Homs, where she reported on the government’s use of rocket and artillery strikes against the civilian population trapped in the city. Also hurt in the attack that killed Colvin and Ochlik, a French photojournalist, were photographer Paul Conroy, journalist Edith Bouvier, and media activist Khaled Abu Salah.

Undated  photo of French photographer Remi Ochlik who died Wednesday Feb. 22, 2012  in Homs, Syria.  French photojournalist Remi Ochlik  and an American journalist Marie Colvin working for a British newspaper were killed Wednesday by Syrian government shelling of the opposition stronghold of Homs, France's government said.(AP Photo/Julien de Rosa)

An undated photo of French photographer Remi Ochlik, who died on Feb. 22, 2012 in Homs, Syria.

Photo: Julien de Rosa/AP

The Assad government will almost certainly never pay the damages, but the finding establishes a significant precedent for the press, according to Scott Gilmore, the attorney who investigated and litigated the case. The ruling “recognizes that attacks designed to intimidate journalists and stifle reporting cause broad social harm and merit severe condemnation,” he told The Intercept. “The Colvin case joins Terry Anderson’s suit against Iran (circa 2000) as twin precedents establishing the specific harms to free expression when journalists are killed or detained.”

A representative at the Syrian delegation to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. In a 2016 interview with NBC News, Assad blamed Colvin for her own death.

The judge ordered $11,836 to cover funeral expenses, a $2.5 million solatium payment to Colvin’s sister, Cathleen, and $300 million in punitive damages; however, Jackson rejected a request for $2,370,640 in lost income as “too high.”

While recouping the full damages may be difficult for the family, a portion can be sought from the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, created by Congress in 2015 to compensate survivors of terrorist attacks. The fund has paid out $800 million in claims to date.

The ruling comes as the Trump administration seeks to exit Syria and as Assad edges his way out of political isolation, beginning to re-establish diplomatic ties severed during the war. The U.S. government has previously negotiated victim compensation as part of re-establishing diplomatic relations. In 2008, for instance, Libya set aside $1.5 billion to compensate the surviving family members of Pan Am Flight 103, which was destroyed in a bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

The post U.S. Court Finds Syria Responsible for Killing American Journalist Marie Colvin appeared first on The Intercept.

Police Make More Than 10 Million Arrests a Year, but That Doesn’t Mean They’re Solving Crimes

Someone is arrested in the United States every three seconds. While arrests are the first entryway into a criminal justice system most acknowledge is in dire need of reform, we know remarkably little about who is arrested, where, and why. Advocates and legislators have pushed in recent years for policy changes at various points of the justice process, from pretrial to sentencing, but arrests remain one of the largest and least scrutinized contributors to the country’s mass incarceration and policing crises.

The FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics collect arrest data from the country’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies — but those agencies self-report on a voluntary basis, and there are significant disparities in the information they share. The data, for the most part, remains inaccessible to the broader public, and statistics on crime are isolated from data about the effectiveness of enforcement.

In an effort to better inform conversations about criminal justice, a team of researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization, took more than two years to combine eight different federal databases into a tool that allows users to analyze arrest trends at the national, state, and county levels against a series of variables, including offense types, demographic factors, and solved crimes.

The project was born “out of this moment of frustration over the past number of years that there isn’t very much information on policing, people feeling like it’s a black box,” said Rebecca Neusteter, co-author of a report Vera released Thursday alongside the new data tool. “We wanted to be able to demonstrate that there is some information. There are gaps in knowledge, for sure, but there are lots of pieces of information that the government is spending a lot of money to collect. It just hasn’t been released for people to look at previously.”

That data shows that of more than 10.5 million arrests made every year, the bulk are for noncriminal behavior, drug violations, and low-level offenses. Since 1980, arrests for drug violations have increased by 170 percent, and racial disparities in enforcement have grown even more stark. Still, a majority of victims don’t report their experiences to police, and police solve only a fraction of the crimes that are reported.

In recent years, after a series of police killings sparked nationwide protests, a growing movement for police accountability also exposed systemic problems with everyday policing practices. Most arrests are ultimately dismissed, but aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses, especially in communities of color, causes long-term damage to those communities and their relationship with police.

“There’s a growing understanding that the problems of policing are not limited to a few high-profile deaths but are the result of a broader problem of over-policing,” said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and author of a book that argues for alternatives to policing rather than police reform. “The solution to this is not making police arrests friendlier or more professional: It’s to quit relying on arrests to solve any problem under the sun.”

The Persistent Harms of “Broken Windows”

The Vera tool analyzes arrest trends between 1980 and 2016. The data shows that overall arrests have declined by nearly 25 percent over the last decade. But it also shows that, while arrests for serious crimes have dropped consistent with declining crime rates nationwide, they are increasingly being substituted with arrests for minor misconduct.

Among the most common causes for arrest are low-level offenses like “disorderly conduct” and a broad, largely unexplained category the FBI refers to as “all other offenses,” which can include a variety of non-traffic offenses, violations of local ordinances, and civil violations like failure to pay fines or child support. Together with drug violations, these offenses account for more than 80 percent of arrests, while serious, violent offenses make up less than 5 percent of arrests.

“We really want to see a national conversation about whether or not this is a good use of resources,” said Neusteter. “Are we potentially creating more harm than good by arresting people for what are essentially really low-level, trivial offenses?”

While there is little integration between court data and police data, and it’s hard to track a case from arrest through prosecution, a majority of arrests are dismissed. Still, police continue to use them as an enforcement tool of their own, rather than a way to funnel criminal behavior into the justice system.

“That’s the broken windows theory,” said Vitale, referring to the largely discredited but still widely applied criminological view that low-level misconduct fuels more serious crime. “The arrest itself is the tool we are using to try to fix the problem.”

“There’s still profound political imperatives to use policing to solve every social problem, especially in poor communities and communities of color,” he added. “They’re getting complaints about kids on a street corner, so they are looking for any excuse to arrest these kids, and they don’t care if it’s prosecuted.”


Graphic: Moiz Syed/The Intercept

What the FBI refers to as “drug abuse violations” lead to 1.5 million arrests annually, the Vera report found. And while the FBI doesn’t differentiate in how it categorizes drug violations, federal statistics have consistently shown that a vast majority of them are over simple possession, most often of marijuana.

The report also highlights the vast racial disparities in arrest rates, particularly when it comes to drug enforcement — and even in places where drug enforcement policies have been loosened. “In just about every state that’s made changes to how laws around marijuana are enforced, we see major racial disparities in enforcement,” Neusteter said.

Black people nationwide are an estimated 2.39 times more likely to be arrested for “drug abuse violations” than white people — even though drug use rates are similar across the two groups. The estimated number of arrests of black people across the country has risen by 23 percent in the last four decades. African-Americans now make up 12 percent of the U.S. population and an estimated 28 percent of all arrests.

Amid a push for more progressive polices in prosecutors’ offices, a growing number of district attorneys have announced that they will no longer prosecute marijuana possession. But that hasn’t necessarily translated into a drop in arrests yet.

“There’s some type of disconnect between what’s going on in the prosecutors’ offices and what’s going on with the police,” said Vitale, noting that police maintain significant discretion to make arrests over pretextual reasons. “Failure to prosecute doesn’t mean that the police can’t still arrest you, put you through the system, bring you to arraignment.”

“There’s this discourse out there that with the opioid crisis, there’s more openness to talking about treatment and how this is a medical problem, but this is not what we see in the arrests numbers,” he added. “There’s been some change in the discourse, but not in the actual underlying police practices.”


Graphic: Moiz Syed/The Intercept

Arresting Everyone Doesn’t Make Anyone Safer

Perhaps the report’s most revealing finding, however, is that such aggressive enforcement doesn’t seem to do much to improve public safety or solve crime. Only 40 percent of crime victims report their experiences to police, Vera found, and fewer than 25 percent of reported crimes are cleared by arrests.

“This television-inspired myth-making that police are out there all day solving serious crimes is just completely erroneous,” said Vitale. “We have this myth that if we didn’t have the police, crime would be out of control, when the reality is very little crime is reported to the police, and even less is solved by the police. There’s just no reason to equate police with public safety in this way.”

Arrests have an enormous impact on individuals: They can exacerbate economic disparities, harm an individual’s capacity to retain housing and jobs, and lead to devastating consequences like the loss of child custody or deportation. The mental health cost, too, is significant. But the huge number of arrests also comes at a cost to the safety of the community at large: both at the moment of the arrest itself, which can put those arrested, bystanders, and officers at risk of harm, and in the long run, as relationships between over-policed communities and law enforcement deteriorate, sometimes irreparably.

While that seems far too high a price, police continue to focus their attention on the enforcement of low-level offenses and noncriminal behavior, reinforcing a cycle of mistrust. That’s in part in response to arrest quotas and other incentives police get for productivity, as well as financial gains for agencies and municipalities that rely on punitive enforcement for funding. Vitale pointed to the controversial “collars for dollars” practice, by which officers will sometimes make arrests toward the end of their shifts in order to earn overtime pay, as they are required to remain with the person they arrested through the booking process. “A marijuana possession arrest at the end of the shift can be worth several hundred dollars for the officer,” he noted.

But part of the problem is also that police are the go-to solution for all kinds of complaints in communities with no meaningful alternatives. “The vast majority of police work is in response to 911 calls for service,” said Neusteter. “I think that the major component of the large number of arrests for low-level offenses has to do with the fact that police are being called as the default responders for these quality-of-life issues.”

There are some bright sides to the Vera report, which the authors hope will inspire further analysis and reform. Arrests of minors, for instance, decreased by more than 50 percent between 1980 and 2014, as juvenile-specific offenses like running away or curfew violations were decriminalized, and non-punitive programs were instituted in lieu of arrest. The solution, the report makes clear, is to find alternatives to enforcement for much of the behavior police currently address with arrest.

“People do not go to jail, they do not go to prison, without being arrested first,” said Neusteter. “But we haven’t seen enforcement and arrests tied very clearly to those conversations and ultimately to the strategies that are attached to improving them. That’s our ultimate goal here.”

The post Police Make More Than 10 Million Arrests a Year, but That Doesn’t Mean They’re Solving Crimes appeared first on The Intercept.

Epilogue: Unanswered Questions

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After the new evidence comes to light, we look back at the investigation into the murder of Donna Brown. And share some information we didn’t quite know what to do with — information about some key players who we know shaped the outcome of the case. Players we still have questions about. One is an elusive police detective with a bad reputation. The other is a witness we’ve talked about before. Or, maybe she’s a suspect. It’s hard to tell.


Jordan Smith: Okay. So, by now you pretty much know the story. Devonia Inman has been behind bars for nearly 20 years for a crime he almost certainly did not commit.

Liliana Segura: He was sentenced to life in prison for the 1998 robbery and murder of Donna Brown, a manager at the Taco Bell in Adel, Georgia. It would be the first of four brutal murders in this tiny town of just more than 5,000 people. One of those murders, of a man named Shailesh Patel, remains unsolved. Just months later two beloved members of the community, William Carroll Bennett and Rebecca Browning, were bludgeoned to death in broad daylight.

Jordan Smith: A man named Hercules Brown was quickly arrested for that crime and sent to prison for life. Nine years later, DNA evidence taken from a mask found in Donna Brown’s car was matched to Hercules. And only to Hercules. And that raised a whole bunch of questions. And the biggest question? Why didn’t the police ever consider Hercules a suspect in Donna Brown’s death?

Liliana Segura: That’s the question we’ve come back to over and over again while reporting this story. Remember, people around town had told investigators that Hercules was responsible for her murder and that he’d even confessed to the crime. He was known to police and he had a violent streak.  It just seems like if we could answer that question, we could get closer to the truth of what happened — not just at the Taco Bell, but during this violent period that traumatized so many people in Adel. For The Intercept, I’m Liliana Segura.

Jordan Smith: And I’m Jordan Smith.  Welcome back to Murderville, Georgia.  When we set out to report this story, we wanted to get to understand why Devonia Inman was convicted. We learned a lot, but didn’t come away with a definitive answer. Why? Partly because — if you noticed — we got a lot of doors slammed in our face. Key law enforcement just didn’t want to talk.

Liliana Segura: But we didn’t give up. We kept trying. In this final episode, we wanted to give you a glimpse of what’s that like. First up, tracking down Adel police detective Jimmy Hill.

Earline Goodman:  I think Jimmy Hill is the reason why this case- I think because he was the lead investigator and if y’all could talk with Jimmy Hill, I think that’s who you need to talk to.

Liliana Segura: Why? You started to say you think he’s the reason that this didn’t …

Earline Goodman: I just think his investigation- he was the head investigator of the police department. I think he’s the one that put the case together.

Liliana Segura: That’s Earline Goodman. She was part of Inman’s original defense team. Remember, the Adel police department was so small that it didn’t have the resources to handle a big murder case. So they called in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. GBI Agent Jamy Steinberg took charge. Jimmy Hill was his local partner. But people like Earline Goodman thought Hill was the real driving force behind the investigation.

Earline Goodman: He’s the one you guys need to talk with. Ask him why did he think Devonia done it.

Liliana Segura: My question to him would be, “Why didn’t you pursue Hercules Brown as a suspect?”

Earline Goodman: Very good question. That’s a very good question.

Jordan Smith: We spent a lot of time trying to ask him that question and we really didn’t get anywhere. For one, Hill was hard to track down. Not because we didn’t know where he worked — after leaving the Adel police force, he went to work for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. In one of the only photos we found of him, he’s standing behind a group of smiling sheriff’s deputies. He is wearing a blue shirt and a bright red tie — everyone else is in uniform. And he’s got a look on his face that we think is supposed to be a smile, but looks more like he’s in mid-growl.

Liliana Segura: But even though he’s still active in law enforcement in this small, rural place, Hill proved amazingly elusive. We went to his house, we left messages with a good friend, we camped out in the lobby of the sheriff’s department and left multiple notes for him. Yet, no Jimmy Hill. Finally, on the way out of town after our last visit to Adel, the phone rang.

Jordan Smith: Oh. Oh my gosh. Gosh, gosh, gosh. Yeah, we’ve got to find to somewhere that we can pull over because that call was definitely from the sheriff’s office.

Liliana Segura: Yeah. Holy fucking shit. Sorry. Oh. Yep.

Jordan Smith: Sheriff’s office just called twice but-

Liliana Segura: Two times in a row.

Jordan Smith: -no messages. It’s vexing.

Liliana Segura: Yeah. Oh my god. I mean it can only be him. Who else would be calling?

Jordan Smith:  Nobody.

Liliana Segura: We were about an hour-and-a-half north of Adel. We found a gas station and pulled over. We called him back.

Jimmy Hill:  Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

Jordan Smith:  Is this Chief Deputy Hill?

Jimmy Hill: Yes, ma’am.

Jordan Smith:  Well, hey, this is Jordan Smith. It’s great to hear your voice. How are you doing?

Jimmy Hill: I’m doing fine.

Jordan Smith: So we’ve been trying to get in touch with you because we’ve been working on a-

Jimmy Hill: Isn’t it a clue when I don’t return your call I don’t intend to talk to you?

Jordan Smith: Well, no, not necessarily.

Jimmy Hill: Well, I’m not talking to you.

Jordan Smith: Can you tell me why not?

Jimmy Hill: I’ve got nothing- Yeah. I don’t want to.

Jordan Smith: Well, can you tell me why not?

Jimmy Hill: Yes, because I don’t want to talk to you.

Jordan Smith: But I mean is there-

Jimmy Hill: Now you have a nice day.

Jordan Smith: I’m sorry? Wow. That was hostile.

Liliana Segura: I think he said you have a nice day.

Jordan Smith: Well, you have a nice day too, Mr. Hill.

Liliana Segura: I don’t think he meant it.

Jordan Smith: Oh.

Jordan Smith: It was hardly a satisfying exchange. And it certainly didn’t get us any closer to understanding his role in the investigation. And that’s a problem. Because his name is all over the GBI report on Donna Brown’s murder. He’s clearly involved in key interviews. He provides Agent Steinberg with important evidence and with information about Inman, but none of the entries in the report were actually written by him.

Liliana Segura: This isn’t exactly surprising. None of the local cops who first responded to the call about a body at the Taco Bell wrote reports. There were no observations from the scene. This basic information is just absent from the GBI report. In fact, there are no reports written by the Adel officers at all. At Inman’s trial, Adel police Chief Kirk Gordon testified that his officers didn’t write reports “because we’re not going to interfere” with the GBI. Even when an officer was the first to get a tip or to develop some sort of lead. “What’s the use in writing it down when you can just explain it to them face to face?” he asked.

Jordan Smith: I’m sorry, but this is crazy. The point of writing a police report is so that there is an actual report — a detailed record of what steps were taken, when, and by whom. It is critical to understanding why leads were followed and perhaps why others weren’t. Police reports often serve as a window into who might’ve exerted influence on various players in the case or on the overall direction of the investigation. Without a full accounting written by the individuals who actually handled specific tasks, there is simply no way to know.  And certainly no way to know what might’ve fallen through the cracks, or was ignored, or was left out of the record on purpose.

Liliana Segura: But there was another reason we really, really wanted to talk to Jimmy Hill. It wasn’t just about the murder at Taco Bell. It was also about figuring out why there seemed to be no trace of an investigation into the killing of Shailesh Patel. Remember the page on the GBI website listing unsolved homicides? The one with the short entry about Patel that has that weird sketch of a possible witness but no actual suspect? There are two investigators listed on that page: one, an agent with the GBI. And the other is Jimmy Hill. We tried him again.

Jimmy Hill: Cook County Sheriff’s  Office.

Liliana Segura: Hi, this is Liliana.  Is this Jim Hill?

Jimmy Hill: Yes.

Liliana Segura: Well, you  spoke to my colleague a  day or two ago. We’ve been  trying to get in touch about this  project we’ve been working on, and she  didn’t really, you know-

Jimmy Hill: Ma’am, I told  you, I don’t want  to talk with you people.

Liliana Segura: Well-

Jimmy Hill: And,  I’m not going to  talk to you people.

Liliana Segura: I  just have a very  important question, which  is-

Jimmy Hill: You  have a nice day.

Liliana Segura: Did  you know about the  DNA-

Liliana Segura: The phone calls really didn’t amount to much, but they did give us a sense of what was behind Hill’s reputation.

Johnny Daugherty: He’s the most hated guy in Cook County, there’s no doubt about it, from one end of the county to the other.

Liliana Segura: This is Johnny Daugherty, the former Cook County Sheriff. And one of the only people who would talk with us on-the-record about Jimmy Hill.

Johnny Daugherty:  He’s a vicious little man. He is a vicious little man. He’s always threatening. He’s threatening something all the time. If you go in to talk to him, first thing you’re going to find out is he thinks he’s already smarter than you are when you walk in the room. And I can tell you what he would say if you walked in the room, as soon as you walked out of the room, “That bunch of dumb bitches.” That’s Jim Hill. I don’t know how else to put it, but that’s Jim Hill.

Liliana Segura: The prosecutors in Inman’s case described Hill in very different terms. They said he was an aggressive investigator with a strong personality. Maybe a little rough around the edges, but he got the job done. One called him a “true detective.”

Jordan Smith: But Inman’s family said he targeted black people. Here’s Takeisha Pickett, Inman’s cousin.

Takeisha Pickett: I just heard that he was always not a good cop. He was just always trying to get the black people off the streets, he wasn’t giving you a chance. I just always known him to not be a good person.

Jordan Smith: And Inman’s aunt, Ethel Pickett.

Jordan Smith: Is Jimmy  Hill’s reputation so terrible?  What was it?

Ethel: ’Cause  he always doing  stuff to people. He- Jimmy  Hill always doing to young, you  know, young black mens. He was always  pinning stuff on them and then make it stick  ’cause of what he say. You know? What he say  goes. That’s the type of reputation he got.

Liliana Segura: Inman’s family says that this, combined with Hill’s vindictiveness, drove him to go after Inman for Donna Brown’s murder. Dinah Ray, Inman’s mother, remembers her son calling her after his arrest.

Dinah Ray: My son, I spoke to him on the phone when he was in jail and he told me that he had smart-mouthed a police officer.

Liliana Segura: She’s convinced this is why Hill was out to get him.

Dinah Ray: I strongly believe this is the reason. Him disrespecting authority, does that equal to life in prison?

Liliana Segura: In the end, it’s hard to know exactly how this went. We never really got to know Jimmy Hill at all. Except by reputation. So we still don’t know how deeply he influenced the case.

Jordan Smith: There’s another character in this story that we want to come back to. One we know far better. But one whose influence on the case, or even potential involvement in the crime, is a similar mystery. That person? Marquetta Thomas.

Jordan Smith: If you remember, Marquetta Thomas was the sister of Inman’s girlfriend, Christy Lima, and she really hated Inman for the way he treated her sister. So when the cops came around asking where Inman was the night of Donna Brown’s murder, Thomas threw him under the bus. Said he hadn’t been around that night. And worse, later she said that he’d talked about “jacking and robbing” places around town. Eventually she said he’d talked about robbing Taco Bell.

Liliana Segura: Then, she took it all back. She testified at Inman’s trial that she’d been coerced by the GBI into implicating him. When we met Thomas, she was filled with remorse. She had only recently gotten out of prison herself and her son was serving an 80-year sentence for a robbery murder. She told us she thinks about Inman all the time.

Marquetta Thomas: I haven’t spoke with him. I would like to, but I don’t know if I could handle his rage if he is angry or mad or hurt because of what I said or did, which I’ll accept, but I would like forgiveness. That would be peace.

Liliana Segura: She also told us that she had worked hard to turn her life around. She became involved with a ministry while in prison. When she got out, they put her up in an apartment and paid the rent for three months so that she could get job training. She found work in a warehouse and devoted herself to her church. Now she’s a youth minister and sings in a traveling choir.

Jordan Smith: You should sing for us.

Marquetta Thomas: I will. I can. I can. I’m not shy, it’s a gift. Let me see what I could sing. Here’s just a worship song that we sing. It’s called How Great Our God. Let me get my breath right.


Jordan Smith: Look. We liked Thomas. She was personable and open. But, you know, she’s also- what’s the word? Complicated. This too comes back to the GBI report. We’ve talked a lot about how confusing it is. And about how some key things — like really any mention of Hercules — seem to be absent. But what we haven’t said before is that Marquetta Thomas is all over it and not just as the person that implicates Inman. A lot of people around town seem to think she had something to do with the murder at Taco Bell. We didn’t bring this up before because, honestly, it raises way more questions than answers.

Earline Goodman: Marquetta, I’ll never forget Marquetta. Marquetta was something else. Do I believe Marquetta was involved? Yes, I think so, because Marquetta was involved in everything in Adel it seemed like.

Liliana Segura: That’s Earline Goodman again. She’s not the only one with that impression of Thomas. When it came to the murder at Taco Bell, a bunch of people had stories for the cops that somehow involved Thomas. One was her manager at Waffle House. Remember, Thomas worked the night shift there. But the night of Donna Brown’s murder, the manager said Thomas didn’t show up for work. Then, the next day, she showed up acting so nervous the manager sent her home. A different woman, who worked at the Hampton Inn, had some third-hand information to share. She’d heard that Thomas was initially planning to rob a convenience store with her sister’s boyfriend. In other words, Inman. But when they got there it was closed, so they decided to rob the Taco Bell instead. This was pretty sketchy stuff, but we asked Thomas about it.

Jordan Smith: What’s weird is in the big police report, there are places in there where people are basically pointing at you as possibly having been involved in that crime.

Marquetta Thomas: Right, I heard about that a while later, but it didn’t bother me because I didn’t have anything to do with it or I wasn’t around, so it really didn’t bother me at all, didn’t penetrate me, because I was like, “Yeah, whatever. Yeah right.”

Jordan Smith: Whatever might’ve been behind these various rumors, it’s hard to know what the cops made of them, if anything. In part, because the GBI report, as you know, is totally opaque. In fact, the report was so confusing, at a certain point Liliana decided to make a master timeline. One that included everything that happened in Adel over a period of about two years, and including all four murders. It was to get a better sense of how all the pieces fit. It became an epic document, like 15 pages long. And when you read it? There are things that really jump out.

Liliana Segura: One of the main things is what happens after November 11, 1998 — roughly two months after Donna Brown’s murder. Until then, the cops don’t seem to be all that interested in what people have said about Thomas, only what she said about Inman. But on that day, the Adel News Tribune runs a front page story identifying Inman as the “prime” suspect in the murder at Taco Bell. That same day, Thomas is booked into jail in a neighboring county on a totally unrelated charge. And then it just gets weird. Within a week, Agent Steinberg is all over Thomas. Interviewing all kinds of people about her.

Jordan Smith: There are a couple possible reasons for the sudden interest. The first? Virginia Tatem. Remember, she’s the newspaper carrier who had a dramatic story about seeing Inman fleeing the Taco Bell the night of the murder. A story she never bothered to mention until after there was a hefty reward offered for information about the crime. And a story that was totally implausible. A story that her fellow newspaper carrier, Lee Grimes, says was a total lie. Tatem also told the GBI she saw a woman in a second car that night, one the cops decided looked like Marquetta Thomas. This could explain their sudden interest in her. It could explain it. But what it doesn’t explain is the one thing that Thomas has insisted on for years: that early on she had recanted her story about Inman’s involvement in the murder. This is conspicuously absent from the GBI report.

Marquetta Thomas: And I was like, “Yeah, he didn’t do it.” I don’t know if they recorded it…

Liliana Segura: There’s something even bigger that is also missing from the GBI report. Something we only discovered earlier this year at the end of our reporting. That there was another person who came forward with information that should have made investigators question whether Inman was really the right suspect. And that’s Kim Brooks.

Jordan Smith: Brooks is the woman who took over as Taco Bell manager after Donna Brown died and who tried to tell the police that her co-worker, Hercules Brown, was acting odd and that he’d all but confessed his involvement in the murder. Remember, this is the new evidence contained an appeal filed last winter. It is still pending. According to Brooks, she came forward with this information by December of 1998. But, as usual, instead of looking at Hercules, the cops looked away. They seemed to obsess over Marquetta Thomas. It’s pretty inexplicable, but totally par for the course.

Liliana Segura: They talked to a couple of Thomas’ old school counselors, then a guard and a nurse at the jail, and then a bunch of jailhouse snitches. Women who said Thomas had variously confessed to being involved in Donna Brown’s murder. One said she mentioned having $800 from the crime. Another said Thomas had bragged about burying the gun. A third mentioned something pretty out there about Thomas having made a bomb from a Coke can.

Jordan Smith: This is how they spent the month of December. No sign of Hercules in the report. By the end of the year, Steinberg had refocused all of his attention on Inman. There is one sign in the report that Hercules was on their radar. Less than a week before Inman was indicted for murder, on January 4, 1999, Steinberg got a tip that Hercules shot Donna Brown and tossed the gun behind a convenience store. That same day, he went to the store. He didn’t find anything. And that was it, it was over.

Liliana Segura: So, what does this all mean? Jordan and I have had this conversation too many times to count.

Jordan Smith: To me, it’s just that GBI report is just a hot mess. It’s a pretty crappy narrative of a pretty important investigation. So you’ve got a woman, Donna Brown, brutally murdered, and she deserves justice. But you’ve also got someone who could potentially be sentenced to death. Inman wasn’t, but that was on the table. I mean, there’s a premium on getting this shit right. And it doesn’t seem that anyone really cared about that. And the one thing we know for sure is that Hercules was in Donna Brown’s car. And he’s the only one that the evidence shows was involved in her murder. The only one. And they completely ignored him. Even when they were told multiple times about his involvement. And then even more egregious, when they found out there was DNA tying him to the crime, they essentially shrugged their shoulders.

Liliana Segura: For me, when I back up and look at everything that happened after Kim Brooks comes forward, it’s just so damning. Here was this woman who was courageous enough to contact police, not just to share information that might be relevant to the murder of Donna Brown, but to warn them that Hercules was a dangerous man. If you look at the overall timeline, every time Hercules comes up after Inman is indicted, he’s committing some kind of violence. There’s the woman he beats up in June of 1999, then the man he sent to the hospital the following summer. And then, just a month and a half before Hercules kills Bennett and Browning, there’s his run-in with police, where they find a gun and a black cloth cap with two eye holes cut out. It’s like this rolling disaster in slow motion.

Jordan Smith: And then there’s Shailesh Patel.

Liliana Segura: Right. He’s killed right in the middle of all of this. And his murder is still unsolved.

Jordan Smith: Exactly. Is there a connection? We don’t know.

Liliana Segura: Did anyone look for one? We don’t know that either.

Jordan Smith: We decided to check in one last time, to see if the GBI had any updates about that supposedly ongoing investigation. We called agent Mark Pro.

Mark Pro: We’re trying to do some stuff, the case agent has got some stuff that he’s trying to do as far as any physical evidence that they’re trying to work on. Basically that’s where he’s at. He’s got some people that he has to make contact with. Once he does that and secures stuff with him, we’re going to have to have that stuff tested. Then we’ll kind of go and see what we got once we do that, that could be something that could be, I don’t want to say something that will…

Jordan Smith: Again, it was a bunch of bullshit.

Mark Pro: …help us in a direction that we need to go based on what he’s looking at right now because we’ve been going in a direction but if the information doesn’t pan out the way we think it will, we’ll have to take a new direction.

Liliana Segura: Okay, just to be clear, the physical evidence you’re talking about for testing, is that new evidence?

Mark Pro: No, we’re just following up on existing evidence that we have. It’s nothing new.

Liliana Segura: Is there a potential suspect in the case?

Mark Pro: No, not right now.

Jordan Smith: Not very enlightening.

Liliana Segura: Over the last 20 years, Inman has been transferred a bunch of times, to prisons all over the state. We sent him a card around Christmas last year, but we never heard back. Then in January his mom, Dinah Ray, told us he’d been transferred again, to one of the most notoriously violent prisons in Georgia. She sends us emails pretty regularly, asking about our investigation. But sometimes, she also talks about how she’s feeling and her guilt about sending Inman to Adel in the first place.

Jordan Smith: She wrote to us: “I have taken over half my son’s life away by leaving him there. Never in a million years did I think this would ever happen to him, I still think this is a dream that I can’t wake up from.”  She wrote that Inman tells her that he doesn’t blame her, that it isn’t her fault.

Liliana Segura: “But it was,” she wrote. “A mom is suppose to protect her kids and I failed him and I will have to live with that for the rest of my life.”

Jordan Smith: She tries to keep busy. Because, “when I sit still,” she wrote, “I can hear my son saying to me over and over, mom, don’t leave me. It’s like a recorder I can’t turn off.”

Liliana Segura: For now, she’s waiting to find out if her son’s appeal will be granted and she’s grateful for all the people who are trying to help him. “It gives us hope,” she wrote. “I just pray that whoever has the authority to make it right, does so.”

Murderville, Georgia is a production of The Intercept and Topic Studios. Alisa Roth is our producer. Ben Adair is our editor. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Bryan Pugh. Production assistance from Isabel Robertson. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. For The Intercept, Roger Hodge is our editor and Betsy Reed is the editor-in-chief. I’m Liliana Segura. And I’m Jordan Smith. You can read our series and see photos at You can also follow us on Twitter @lilianasegura and @chronic_jordan. Thanks for listening.

The post Epilogue: Unanswered Questions appeared first on The Intercept.

How Police, Private Security, and Energy Companies Are Preparing for a New Pipeline Standoff

Minnesota police have spent 18 months preparing for a major standoff over Enbridge Line 3, a tar sands oil pipeline that has yet to receive the green light to build in the state. Records obtained by The Intercept show that law enforcement has engaged in a coordinated effort to identify potential anti-pipeline camps and monitor individual protesters, repeatedly turning for guidance to the North Dakota officials responsible for the militarized response at Standing Rock in 2016.

Enbridge, a Canada-based energy company that claims to own the world’s longest fossil fuel transportation network, has labeled Line 3 the largest project in its history. If completed, it would replace 1,031 miles of a corroded existing pipeline that spans from Alberta’s tar sands region to refineries and a major shipping terminal in Wisconsin, expanding the pipeline’s capacity by hundreds of thousands of barrels per day.

The expanded Line 3 would pass through the territories of several Ojibwe bands in northern Minnesota, home to sensitive wild rice lakes central to the Native communities’ spiritual and physical sustenance. Given that tar sands are among the world’s most carbon-intensive fuel sources, Line 3 opponents underline that the pipeline is exactly the kind of infrastructure that must be rapidly phased out to meet scientists’ prescriptions for mitigating climate disasters.

The Line 3 documents, which were obtained via freedom of information requests, illustrate law enforcement’s anxiety that pipeline opponents could galvanize support on a scale similar to the Dakota Access pipeline struggle, which drew thousands of protesters to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in southern North Dakota.

A police response like the one in North Dakota is a significant concern for Line 3 opponents. At Standing Rock, law enforcement used water cannons, rubber bullets, armored personnel carriers, and sound cannons in an operation that resulted in serious injuries. Aided by private intelligence and security firms working for the pipeline, they gathered information on protesters via aerial surveillance, online monitoring, embedded informants, and eavesdropping on radio signals. In a time of growing resistance to fossil fuel industries, the public-private partnership served as a chilling example of law enforcement agencies acting as bulwarks of the oil industry.

Police use a water cannon on protesters during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith - D1BEUOBKNBAA

Police use a water cannon against Dakota Access pipeline protesters near Cannon Ball, N.D., on Nov. 20, 2016.

Photo: Stephanie Keith/Reuters

In 2017, Enbridge began construction on the tiny portion of Line 3 that cuts into Wisconsin. Local police reports describe two security firms, Raven Executive and Security Services and Securitas, keeping tabs on protesters and reporting their activities to law enforcement. It was the protests in Wisconsin that sparked the multistate coordination led by Minnesota. The state’s fusion center developed a reputation as “the keepers of information for the Enbridge protests,” as one sheriff’s analyst put it, receiving information on Line 3 opponents from police departments in at least three states. While fusion centers were originally established to facilitate counterterrorism intelligence-sharing, they have increasingly played a role in monitoring, interpreting, and criminalizing political activity.

Meanwhile, opposition research firms that market their services to energy companies have also singled out Line 3 as the next likely flashpoint of opposition to a U.S. pipeline project. Executives of the public relations firm Off the Record Strategies and the private intelligence firm Delve, which the National Sheriffs’ Association contracted in 2016 to dig up information on DAPL opponents, gave an overview of their work at a pipeline industry conference in 2017. “If you look at Line 3, they’re already arresting activists in Minneapolis. They’re already doing encampments in Wisconsin,” Delve CEO Jeff Berkowitz told conference attendees, according to audio obtained by The Intercept. “I think the next one is potentially going to be worse than DAPL.”

Tribal attorney Tara Houska, who is Ojibwe from the Couchiching First Nation and the national campaigns director for Honor the Earth, has been deeply involved in organizing against Line 3.

“It’s clear that Enbridge is doing everything they can to have a very highly skilled force of security and law enforcement at their fingertips to do what they can to stop any resistance to Line 3,” said Houska, who also took part in the struggle at Standing Rock. “And if anything, it seems like what they’re doing is much more coordinated than what we saw in North Dakota.”


Map: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

Tipping Off Law Enforcement

As Line 3 construction got underway in Wisconsin, protesters stalled the pipeline’s progress by locking themselves to equipment and using disabled cars to erect a blockade. Between August and September 2017, police arrested at least 13 people. Incident reports turned over by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office show that during this time, Enbridge security guards routinely contacted sheriff’s deputies to report the activities of pipeline opponents.

In July, a security guard whose LinkedIn page indicated that he worked for Raven Executive and Security Services informed a sheriff’s deputy that his company “monitors the online activities of the pipeline protesters.” Another security officer reported that the company’s excavators had mysteriously been moved, then used his audience with the sheriff’s office to mention a vague tip about Winona LaDuke, the Ojibwe former vice-presidential candidate and a staunch Line 3 opponent. LaDuke had been seen in the area recently, the security officer said, and her “boyfriend” had been heard stating that he wanted to “do something to the pipeline.”

Throughout August, Neo Gabo Benais, who is from Ojibwe country, posted the coordinates of Line 3 construction sites on social media and shared photos and videos taken from inside the sites. The same month, an Enbridge security guard reported to the sheriff’s office that he had “posted threatening messages on Facebook.” Another caller identified as a Securitas employee said he had been seen “driving slowly around the pipeline 3.”

Neo Gabo Benais told The Intercept that in 2002, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured near where he lived and fished in Minnesota, spilling 252,000 gallons of crude into a marsh. “I’m just trying to spend their money up,” he said. “It’s really a waste of time, them surveilling me.”

According to its website, Raven is “owned and operated by current and former law enforcement professionals.” In 2015, the company launched Raven Executive Unmanned Aerial Vehicle services. A filing with Federal Aviation Administration indicates that Raven intended to utilize its drones to inspect “energy pipelines.”

Securitas is an enormous, publicly traded corporation with operations in over 50 countries. It owns the nation’s oldest private security company, Pinkerton, which became notorious for its union-breaking activities and infiltration of leftist organizations at the turn of the 20th century.

Neither Raven nor Securitas responded to requests for comment. Enbridge did not respond to requests for comment.

Winona Laduke? and others demonstrate at a rally held at the Wisconsin-Minnesota border on the morning after Line 3 is approved, Friday, June 29, 2018. They're vowing to fight to keep the oil pipeline from being built across Minnesota. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Thursday determined the project is necessary and approved the Canadian company's preferred route across northern Minnesota, with modifications and conditions that Enbridge considers minor. (Dan Kraker/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

Winona LaDuke and other water protectors rally at the Wisconsin-Minnesota border on June 29, 2018.

Photo: Dan Kraker/Minnesota Public Radio via AP

“The Keepers of Information”

In September 2017, the Wisconsin Statewide Intelligence Center emailed information about recent arrestees to the fusion centers in their home states of Minnesota, South Dakota, Michigan, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana.

The next month, an analyst from the Minnesota Fusion Center pledged to ensure that law enforcement in disparate counties would be “well-informed of any potential hazards relating to the Line 3 project.” In an email sent to the fusion center, a crime analyst from Minnesota’s Beltrami County noted, “There is concern about Winona LaDuke.” The analyst listed four properties that LaDuke was suspected of owning and speculated about which might be used to put up protesters.

Another email sent to the fusion center noted that Jackie Fielder, a San Francisco-based organizer with the fossil fuel divestment organization Mazaska Talks, had arrived at one of the protest camps in Minnesota. The report speculated not on criminal activity but on whether her presence could signal “increased support from Mazaska Talks and its connections.”

“A fusion center has no business keeping track of a nonviolent divestment campaign that aims to promote Indigenous rights,” Fielder told The Intercept.

LaDuke agreed. “I don’t understand why I’m being looked at as a criminal when a corporation is proposing to destroy my water,” she said. “I am not a criminal, I am a water protector.”

By May 2018, the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office had established a shared web resource concerning Line 3 opposition, to which 19 police officers in eight jurisdictions had access, as well as the fusion center.

“The Minnesota Fusion Center recognizes and values citizens’ constitutionally protected rights to speak, assemble, and demonstrate peacefully,” Drew Evans, superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, said in a statement. “Because public demonstrations are sometimes targeted by individuals seeking to commit crimes or promote violence, the fusion center routinely monitors public sources for potential hazards to the people of Minnesota and its critical infrastructure.”

Brendan McQuade, assistant sociology professor at SUNY Cortland and author of a forthcoming book on fusion centers, sees the Minnesota records as part of a more troubling trend. “What the police aren’t mentioning is that people will likely be living lives of terror and privation by the end of the century due to climate change, and it’s these battles right now that will decide whether that happens,” he said. “Instead, they are casting even entirely nonviolent actions as threats to so-called critical infrastructure.”

Morton County (ND) Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, left, and Cass County (ND) Sheriff Paul Laney attend a pretrial conference for defendant Chase Iron Eyes at the Morton County Courthouse on Wednesday, April 4, 2018, in Mandan, N. D. Iron Eyes is charged with felony inciting a riot and misdemeanor criminal trespass related to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests on Feb. 1, 2017. (Mike McCleary /The Bismarck Tribune via AP)

Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, left, and Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney at the Morton County Courthouse on April 4, 2018, in Mandan, N.D.

Photo: Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune via AP

Putting “a Marker Down”

As law enforcement and emergency managers tightened their coordination and intelligence-sharing on protesters, they repeatedly turned for guidance to North Dakota officials who had been involved in repressing the Standing Rock fight.

In September 2017, Cody Schulz, then-disaster recovery chief for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, gave a quasi-scientific overview of NoDAPL at a Minnesota emergency managers conference. He claimed that at any given time, around 400 protesters at Standing Rock were “willing to commit criminal acts,” while 80 were “willing to commit dangerous or violent acts.” Other slides attempted to justify the use of fire hoses and dogs to quell protests and stressed the need for a robust public relations operation.

In late 2017 and early 2018, members of the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, a major architect of the DAPL police operation, gave three more presentations on lessons learned in North Dakota to law enforcement in Wisconsin and Minnesota, including an association of SWAT officers.


At the Platts Pipeline Expansion and Development Conference in November 2017, Delve CEO Jeff Berkowitz and Off the Record Strategies CEO Mark Pfeifle gave a presentation to pipeline executives on how to prepare should opposition to future infrastructure projects develop the way NoDAPL did.

As part of law enforcement’s counterinformation campaign in response to NoDAPL, Berkowitz said, Delve developed “sort of fake ‘wanted’ posters, with the rap sheets of some of these folks.”

Pfeifle said one of his company’s goals was to deter protesters from becoming involved in the movement to begin with. “A lot of things that we were doing were being done to put a marker down for the protesters. And, ‘OK, if you’re going to go protest somewhere? There’s going to be consequences from it.’”

Prior to their work for the National Sheriffs’ Association, both executives spent years as elite Republican spin doctors. Pfeifle worked as an Iraq War public relations specialist for the George W. Bush administration, while Berkowitz directed the Republican National Committee’s multimillion-dollar opposition research operation.

Neither Delve nor Off the Record Strategies responded to requests for comment.

In an Aug. 21, 2017 photo, workers make sure that each section of the replacement Line 3 that is joined passes muster. Enbridge already has started building the 14-mile stretch of Line 3 from the Minnesota line to its terminal in Superior, Wis. In filings with the Public Utilities Commission Monday, Sept. 11, The Minnesota Department of Commerce says Enbridge Energy has failed to establish the need for its proposal to replace its aging Line 3 crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota. Instead, the department says it might be better to just shut down the existing line.  (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP)

Workers inspect sections of the replacement Line 3 pipeline on Aug. 21, 2017.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune/AP

Worth Fighting For

Construction is already complete across most of Line 3’s route, and Enbridge has told shareholders that it intends to have oil flowing by November. But it awaits final approvals in Minnesota from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and several permitting agencies. This past June, despite receiving 68,000 comments opposing Line 3, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission unanimously voted to grant Enbridge a “certificate of need” for the project.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce filed a lawsuit challenging the approval last month — a rare instance of one state agency suing another over a major infrastructure project. Outgoing Gov. Mark Dayton made a statement opposing the project on the grounds that most of the tar sands bitumen would not meet demand in Minnesota but would instead “flow through our state to supply other states and countries.” Gov. Tim Waltz told reporters in January that he was weighing whether to drop the lawsuit.

Resistance to new pipelines has taken a major toll on the tar sands industry. In August, a Canadian judge scuttled federal permits for the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline expansion, ruling that the federal government had failed to adequately consult with Indigenous nations in the pipeline’s path. In November, responding to a lawsuit by tribal and environmental groups, a federal judge in Montana ordered the U.S. State Department to complete a new environmental impact review of the Keystone XL pipeline.

In December, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced that her government would curtail the province’s oil production, particularly from tar sands, saying that there wasn’t enough pipeline capacity to ship the crude to market, although sagging prices and market saturation are also major factors.

“Enbridge — they need this to stay alive. This is their last vampire suck of blood. I’m looking at this vampire, and I’m like, I’ll do everything I can for you not to get that,” LaDuke said. “From Lake Superior to the border to the river where the pipeline will come in if they are allowed to go forward — the majority of this area is water, 10,000 lakes. It is a beautiful place, so it is worth fighting for.”

The post How Police, Private Security, and Energy Companies Are Preparing for a New Pipeline Standoff appeared first on The Intercept.

Prisons Across the U.S. Are Quietly Building Databases of Incarcerated People’s Voice Prints

Roughly six months ago at New York’s Sing Sing prison, John Dukes says he was brought out with cellmates to meet a corrections counselor. He recalls her giving him a paper with some phrases and offering him a strange choice: He could go up to the phone and utter the phrases that an automated voice would ask him to read, or he could choose not to and lose his phone access altogether.

Dukes did not know why he was being asked to make this decision, but he felt troubled as he heard other men ahead of him speaking into the phone and repeating certain phrases from the sheets the counselors had given them.

“I was contemplating, ‘Should I do it? I don’t want my voice to be on this machine,’” he recalls. “But I still had to contact my family, even though I only had a few months left.”

So when it was his turn, he walked up to the phone, picked up the receiver, and followed a series of automated instructions. “It said, ‘Say this phrase, blah, blah, blah,’ and if you didn’t say it clearly, they would say, ‘Say this phrase again,’ like ‘cat’ or ‘I’m a citizen of the United States of America.’” Dukes said he repeated such phrases for a minute or two. The voice then told him the process was complete.

“Here’s another part of myself that I had to give away again in this prison system,” he remembers thinking as he walked back to the cell.

Dukes, who was released in October, says he was never told about what that procedure was meant to do. But contracting documents for New York’s new prison phone system, obtained by The Appeal in partnership with The Intercept, and follow-up interviews with prison authorities, indicate that Dukes was right to be suspicious: His audio sample was being “enrolled” into a new voice surveillance system.

In New York and other states across the country, authorities are acquiring technology to extract and digitize the voices of incarcerated people into unique biometric signatures, known as voice prints. Prison authorities have quietly enrolled hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people’s voice prints into large-scale biometric databases. Computer algorithms then draw on these databases to identify the voices taking part in a call and to search for other calls in which the voices of interest are detected. Some programs, like New York’s, even analyze the voices of call recipients outside prisons to track which outsiders speak to multiple prisoners regularly.

Corrections officials representing the states of Texas, Florida, and Arkansas, along with Arizona’s Yavapai and Pinal counties; Alachua County, Florida; and Travis County, Texas, also confirmed that they are actively using voice recognition technology today. And a review of contracting documents identified other jurisdictions that have acquired similar voice-print capture capabilities: Connecticut and Georgia state corrections officials have signed contracts for the technology (Connecticut did not respond to repeated interview requests; Georgia declined to answer questions on the matter).

Authorities and prison technology companies say this mass biometric surveillance supports prison security and fraud prevention efforts. But civil liberties advocates argue that the biometric buildup has been neither transparent nor consensual. Some jurisdictions, for example, limit incarcerated people’s phone access if they refuse to enroll in the voice recognition system, while others enroll incarcerated people without their knowledge. Once the data exists, they note, it could potentially be used by other agencies, without any say from the public.

It’s particularly alarming, they add, that the technology’s use in prisons can ensnare people beyond their walls. “Why am I giving up my rights because I’m receiving a call from somebody who has been convicted of a crime?” asks Jerome Greco, a digital forensics attorney at New York’s Legal Aid Society. Greco argues that the mining of outside parties’ voice prints should require a warrant. “If you have a family member convicted of a crime, yet you haven’t been, why are you now having your information being used for government investigations?”


Illustration: Alexander Glandien for The Intercept

The Spread of Voice Recognition Technology

Voice-print technology works by dissecting physical features that distinguish individuals’ voices, such as their pitch. With this data, the program’s algorithm generates a computer model of their vocal signatures, known as “voice prints,” which can be stored in a database for comparisons with utterances recorded in the future.

In recent years, voice recognition technology has come to be associated with consumer offerings, like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, but the technology was originally developed for military and intelligence applications. Over a decade ago, as The Intercept reported, U.S. intelligence agencies were using voice recognition programs to identify the voices of top Al Qaeda officials in their online audio postings.

Similarly, the algorithms and structure behind the prison telecommunications firm Securus Technologies’ particular voice software, known as Investigator Pro, were developed in part through a $50 million grant from the Department of Defense. The software was licensed to JLG Technologies, a company that Securus acquired in 2014. According to Securus’s 2017 proposal for New York, the technology was developed because “DOD needed to identify terrorist calls out of the millions of calls made to and from the United States every day.”

But it wasn’t long before major prison technology firms, such as Securus and Global Tel Link, began marketing the technology to U.S. jurisdictions that were seeking to extract and store voice prints associated with incarcerated people in their systems. “IPRO [Investigator Pro] has a 10-year track record of providing pinpoint voice accuracy capability country-wide in 243 states, county, and local correctional agencies,” notes Securus in the Pinal County contract.

The enrollment of incarcerated people’s voice prints allows corrections authorities to biometrically identify all prisoners’ voices on prison calls, and find past prison calls in which the same voice prints are detected. Such systems can also automatically flag “suspicious” calls, enabling investigators to review discrepancies between the incarcerated person’s ID for the call and the voice print detected. Securus did not respond to a request for comment on how it defined “suspicious.” The company’s Investigator Pro also provides a voice probability score, rating the likelihood that an incarcerated person’s voice was heard on a call.

Michael Lynch, an intelligence coordinator for the Alachua County Jail in northern Florida, confirmed that his county recently agreed to purchase Securus’s voice recognition program. Lynch said that the voice prints produced by the program will be permanently archived at Securus’s facility in Texas. He said the jail hopes the technology will address the problem of incarcerated people using each others’ personal identification numbers, or PINs. “The problem is inmates that are committing other criminal acts or contacting victims or witnesses and using other inmates’ PIN to do that,” he said in a phone call. “Voice [biometrics] will tell us who’s making the calls.”

Image of Securus’s Investigator Pro VoiceSearch tool from a 2017 approved contract proposal to Pinal County, Ariz.

Screenshot: The Investigator Pro

Securus’s voice recognition program can also identify the voices of people outside prisons, both former prisoners and those who have never been incarcerated but communicate with people inside.

New York and Texas state corrections officials confirmed that their agencies retain the voice prints of formerly incarcerated people, like Dukes, allowing them to identify them by name if currently incarcerated people call them in the future.

And New York and Pinal County, Arizona, confirmed that their voice recognition programs can identify the voices of outside callers.

New York’s contract proposal with Securus states that outsiders’ voice samples can be used to “search for all other calls” in their recorded call database to find where those voices occur. In an email, New York prison officials confirmed that this program will give investigators the ability to extract a voice print from an outside caller and use it to “identify that a call recipient has participated in multiple phone calls.” They added that the program will not have names associated with outsiders’ voice prints.

In a statement, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Navideh Forghani also confirmed this outsider voice-tracking capability, noting that while their software does not identify non-incarcerated people by name, it can track “suspicious activities,” such as “multiple inmates speaking to one person on the outside on a reoccurring basis.”

With this technology, a press release for Investigator Pro notes, an investigator can now answer questions like, “What other inmates are talking to this particular called party?” and “Are any of my current inmates talking to this released inmate?”

Prisoners’ rights advocates worry that outsider voice surveillance technology could also be used to coordinate crackdowns against prison organizing campaigns.

“Using this technology to trace the voices of outside callers and flag those who speak with more than one person in a system, staff can use calls with outside organizers to quickly identify the incarcerated activist they support,” said Bianca Tylek, director of the Corrections Accountability Project, which works to curb the influence of commercial interests in the criminal justice system. Tylek noted that during the 2018 national prison strike, corrections staff routinely retaliated against incarcerated activists by using tactics like solitary confinement, job termination, and facility reassignment.


Illustration: Alexander Glandien for The Intercept

The Pressure to Participate

Advocates assert that corrections agencies have been building up large-scale voice-print databases with limited input from the public or from incarcerated people and their families. While some state corrections agencies have put out public notices to families about payment options for new phone systems, they seldom mention the voice-print databases, which are rarely discussed outside of industry conferences and internal talks with contractors.

“Every time there’s a new contract, there’s new surveillance, but they don’t say anything,” said Tylek. “I’ve never seen authorities post a public notice about new surveillance updates or tell families.”

Keeping their plans opaque has allowed authorities to quietly pressure incarcerated people into giving up their biometric data — or to enroll them without their knowledge. According to Securus’s 2019 Investigator Pro contract with Alachua County, Florida (which includes Gainesville), “Inmates will participate in a covert voice print enrollment process.”

In Texas, state prisoners must enroll in the voice recognition program if they want to make calls. According to Jeremy Desel, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Investigator Pro’s voice enrollment process is “the lock and key” to the Texas state prison phone system. Likewise, in Pinal County, Arizona, phone access is severely limited for prisoners who decline to enroll in the voice recognition program. “If inmates choose not to participate, they can still utilize the phone system but only to make phone calls to their attorneys,” said Forghani, the county sheriff’s office spokesperson.

In some cases, prisoners participate without even knowing, said Martin Garcia, a 33-year-old who is incarcerated at Sing Sing in New York.

“A lot of guys don’t know technology,” he said. “They’ve been in there so long, they’ve never heard of Google.” The voice enrollment procedure, he continued, is seen as “just another thing they follow to talk to their family.”

Garcia was upset to hear that Securus’s voice-tracking capabilities, as described in its approved contract with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, could mine prison call databases to identify which other prisoners outside callers had contacted. “Are they criminals just because they’re talking to someone incarcerated?” he said. “To me, you’re criminalizing relationships. Some people may be hesitant to interact with me if they could be put in a database.”

After being briefed by The Appeal and The Intercept about the program, New York State Assembly Member David Weprin publicly called on the state Department of Corrections to give incarcerated people more choice regarding the voice recognition program. At a Tuesday hearing, Weprin, chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Correction, asked the Department of Corrections’ acting commissioner, Anthony J. Annucci, to add a provision that allows incarcerated people with legitimate concerns about voice surveillance to “not be denied phone privileges.” Annucci did not immediately agree to the request, instead pointing out that people have the option to make unmonitored calls to their attorneys.

In a statement to The Appeal and The Intercept, Weprin said he is “concerned with the deployment and use of voice recognition software” in New York state prisons and will be working with his colleagues to further investigate the technology.

Building the Databases

The rapid, secretive growth of voice-print databases is “probably not a legal issue, not because it shouldn’t be, but because it’s something laws haven’t entertained yet,” noted Clare Garvie, a senior associate at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology. “It’s not surprising that we’re seeing this around prisons, just because it can be collected easily,” she continued, referring to biometric voice data. “We’re building these databases from the ground up.”

The scale of prisons’ emerging voice biometric databases has not been comprehensively documented nationwide, but, at minimum, they already hold more than 200,000 incarcerated people’s voice prints.

New York’s Department of Corrections, which incarcerates just under 50,000 people, confirmed that approximately 92 percent of its population had been enrolled in the voice recognition system. State corrections authorities for Florida, Texas, and Arkansas, which hold about 260,000 prisoners combined, also confirmed that they are using Investigator Pro’s voice recognition technology. Connecticut and Georgia’s state corrections systems, which incarcerate roughly 13,000 and roughly 52,000 people, respectively, have also purchased Securus’s voice-print technology.

The databases of recorded calls from which prison authorities could search for outsiders’ voice samples could also potentially include millions of recorded calls for state and countywide systems. According to the design requirements New York’s Department of Corrections gave to Securus, for example, the company must be able to record every call, archive all call recordings for a year, and maintain any calls flagged for investigative purposes “indefinitely” through the life of the contract, which ends in 2021. (In the documents, Securus estimated that 7 percent of prison calls made per year would total 1.5 million calls, suggesting that the call database could retain over 20 million calls.)

Greco of the Legal Aid Society says he understands the value of such monitoring capabilities, pointing out that incarcerated people do sometimes have to deal with other prisoners taking their PINs or threatening their families for money. But the extension of this technology into the monitoring of people outside prisons, and the lack of transparency and regulation of these new databases concerns him. If voice prints were shared with police, for example, they could try to compare them with voices caught on a wiretap, he notes, despite scientists’ skepticism about the reliability of voice print matches for criminal prosecutions. New York State’s Department of Corrections declined to answer questions regarding whether it would share the data with other agencies.

Either way, Greco said, there’s cause for concern. “Once the data exists, and it becomes an accepted part of what’s happening, it’s very hard to protect it or limit its use in the future,” he said.

That has implications far beyond prisons, argues Garcia, the man incarcerated at Sing Sing. “First you use this on the people marginalized in society, criminalizing the families of those incarcerated,” he said. “But, especially in Trump’s America, the sky is the limit with this.”

The post Prisons Across the U.S. Are Quietly Building Databases of Incarcerated People’s Voice Prints appeared first on The Intercept.

A Member of Congress Tried to Go to an Immigration Activist’s ICE Check-in. ICE Tried to Block Her.

Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., said that what she saw Monday morning while accompanying a New York immigration activist to his mandated check-in at the New York field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement left her with serious concerns about the agency’s secrecy and the way it treats the people it summons to its offices.

“It is very clear to me that there has been some skirting of the law, that the free flow of the public has been obstructed arbitrarily and unilaterally to create a pressurized environment in which human rights could be violated,” Clarke told the immigration activist’s friends and supporters at Foley Square, outside the federal building where the ICE check-in had taken place.

“It is very clear to me that there has been some skirting of the law, that the free flow of the public has been obstructed arbitrarily and unilaterally to create a pressurized environment in which human rights could be violated.”

Clarke was accompanying Ravi Ragbir, the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, whose attempted deportation by ICE a year ago during a check-in generated a massive street protest and a strident condemnation from the federal bench. Ragbir has several ongoing legal proceedings — including a First Amendment lawsuit alleging that ICE is targeting him for deportation based on his political speech — and federal courts in both the 2nd and 3rd Circuits of the U.S. Court of Appeals have issued stays forbidding ICE from deporting him until those proceedings are resolved.

Even so, Ragbir’s supporters weren’t entirely sure that ICE officials wouldn’t attempt to deport him anyway, and so they asked elected officials, including Clarke and current as well as former members of the New York City Council, to escort Ragbir when he kept his appointment at 26 Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan.

Elected officials have joined Ragbir for many of his ICE check-ins in recent years. While there’s no telling whether their presence has made a difference in his treatment, it’s done a great deal to shine a public light on the quotidian workings of the deportation bureaucracy.

When Ragbir attended a check-in in 2017, then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito was moved to tears by her conversations with mothers and children waiting without legal representation for meetings that could end in deportation. City Council Member Jumaane Williams called the spectacle “the most un-American thing I’ve seen.”

The City Council members were ordered to leave the hallway afterward by a man who, though he would not identify himself at the time, proved to be Scott Mechkowski, who as deputy director of ICE’s New York field office oversaw the attempted deportation of Ragbir last year. According to Ragbir’s First Amendment lawsuit, Mechkowski later told Ragbir’s lawyers that he still felt “resentment” over the encounter, naming Mark-Viverito and identifying Williams as “that guy from Brooklyn.”

In the interval, ICE has changed its policy, restricting access to the ninth-floor waiting room where people present themselves to find out whether they are being deported. Sara Gozalo, an organizer with the New Sanctuary Coalition, which organizes volunteers to accompany people to their ICE check-ins, said the restrictions began in the summer of 2017. “Their excuse was capacity issues,” Gozalo said, “but I personally accompanied people when the waiting room was empty, and was told I couldn’t go in.” Next, she said, ICE began denying family members entrance to the waiting room, making them wait three floors below in the sixth-floor cafeteria. “I’ve been with people just waiting in the cafeteria for hours, and they don’t know anything until they get the phone call saying their spouse is being deported,” Gozalo said. (ICE did not respond to emailed questions.)

Barring family and supporters from the waiting room isn’t just cruel to people facing difficult circumstances, Gozalo said. “It’s a way for ICE to continue doing their work in the shadows, like secret police,” she said. “It’s much easier to detain someone when nobody’s watching. You don’t have to account for what you’re doing, or deal with a family breaking down, or acknowledge all of the damage you’re doing.”

“It’s a way for ICE to continue doing their work in the shadows, like secret police. It’s much easier to detain someone when nobody’s watching.”

When Ragbir took the elevator to the ninth floor this morning, he was accompanied by his lawyers; his wife, Amy Gottlieb; and Clarke. Outside the waiting room, an officer in a Department of Homeland Security uniform, who refused to identify himself beyond the first name “Matt,” informed the group that they had been instructed specifically that only Ragbir and one of his lawyers, Alina Das, would be allowed in. “The wife can’t go in,” the DHS officer said.

Das asked whose order the officer was enforcing, and whether she could speak to him. The officer disappeared briefly, then returned and reiterated the order: The lawyer and the client could go in. Ragbir’s wife and the elected officials supporting him could not. As for the request to discuss the matter, the DHS officer said the ICE supervisor wouldn’t speak to Ragbir’s entourage. “He says he doesn’t have to talk with you,” the DHS officer said of the person giving the orders.

“That’s not true,” responded Clarke, who was recently named to the House Homeland Security Committee, now controlled by fellow Democrats. Clarke eventually made it past the guards, where she began pressing ICE officials to justify the ban. A delegation of current and former City Council members, including Williams and Mark-Viverito, soon joined the delegation on the ninth floor, but were again refused access by the Homeland Security officer.

“I remember last year, it was supposed to be civil, and it wasn’t civil,” the officer said, presumably referring to the street protest that attempted to block Ragbir’s unlawful deportation last January. “So I’m being pre-emptive.”

If the officer remembered some members of the delegation, they remembered him as well. Rhiya Trivedi, one of Williams’s defense lawyers in his trial on obstruction and disorderly conduct stemming from last January’s protest, recognized the officer from the hours of video of the protest she reviewed in preparation for the case. “He’s all over the tape shoving people,” Trivedi said.

After a quarter-hour or more, Clarke emerged into the hallway to announce that after her conversation with ICE officials, Gottlieb and the elected officials would be allowed into the waiting room. But she was quickly countermanded by the Homeland Security officer, and the stand-off continued until Ragbir and Das emerged from the meeting room. He was free to go, but must check in again in six months.

Back downstairs, Clarke said she found the entire episode troubling.

“I observed what I believe are a number of unilateral policies that aren’t necessarily in law or statute that we’ll be reviewing,” she said. “I am not casting aspersions on the workers here at all; they are simply following instructions. I found it interesting that in the back and forth about the public space, a call was made to Washington for guidance. So we know where these unilateral decisions are coming from, and it is now my responsibility, along with my colleagues, to get this right. Every elected official here should have the right to be by Ravi’s side observing the governance of this place. Amy, his wife, deserves to be by his side during this time of trial.”

Clarke, who was returning to Washington immediately, said her first order of business would be to speak with the new Democratic Homeland Security Committee chair “about the policies, practices and procedures in respect to removal, due process, and public accommodation for those who have to utilize the services of the Department of Homeland Security.”

Looking drained after the morning’s events, Gottlieb, Ragbir’s wife, said the new rules are needlessly cruel. “If there’s no public safety reason to not have people in there, why do this, except with the intention to really dehumanize?” she asked. “ICE refuses to be subjected to any oversight, and we’re going to continue to do everything we can to expose that.”

The post A Member of Congress Tried to Go to an Immigration Activist’s ICE Check-in. ICE Tried to Block Her. appeared first on The Intercept.

ICE Courthouse Arrests in New York Increased 1,700 Percent Under Trump

More than two years after Donald Trump’s inauguration ushered in sweeping changes to the nation’s immigration enforcement system, accounts of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arresting undocumented immigrants in and around New York courts have increased by 1,700 percent, according to a new report.

The expanded courthouse operations have been coupled with increased reports of New York-based immigration agents using physical force to take undocumented immigrants into custody, the Immigrant Defense Project said Monday.

“ICE operations increased not only in absolute number but grew in brutality and geographic scope” from 2017 to 2018, the IDP report found, with plainclothes agents in New York relying on “intrusive surveillance and violent force to execute arrests.”

Included in the new report are accounts of New York-based agents grabbing people off the street as they attempt to go to or leave court, shuffling them into unmarked cars, and refusing to identify themselves as bewildered family members look on.

“This report shows that ICE is expanding surveillance and arrests in courthouses across the state, creating a crisis for immigrants who need access to the courts,” Alisa Wellek, IDP’s Executive Director, said in statement. “We cannot allow ICE to turn New York’s courts into traps for immigrants.”

ICE did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Relying on a network of attorneys, legal organizations, and a publicly accessible hotline, IDP has tracked ICE enforcement tactics for years. According to the organization, Trump’s ascent to the White House was followed by a surge in courthouse arrests unlike anything advocates in New York had ever seen before, with the total number of arrests reported in 2017 and 2018 numbering 374 compared to 11 in 2016.

IDP has also tracked ICE tactics outside courts and in New York communities, releasing an interactive map in 2018 documenting the agency’s increased use of predawn raids and ruses — often involving ICE agents pretending to be New York City police officers — in order to arrest undocumented immigrants.

Last year not only saw an increase in reported courthouse arrests in New York City, IDP’s latest report found. The organization also documented courthouse arrests in new locations, including several upstate New York counties, and what the advocacy group described as the targeting of “particularly vulnerable immigrants including survivors of human trafficking, survivors of domestic violence, and youth” at court.

“In the vast majority of operations, ICE agents refused to identify themselves, explain why an individual is being arrested, or offer proof that they have reason to believe that the individual they’re arresting is deportable,” the report said. “This occurred despite the fact that internal agency regulations require them to provide this information.”

The increase in courthouse arrests in New York followed the issuance of a new directive on such operations, signed by former ICE acting director Thomas Homan, who once told lawmakers that undocumented people should live in fear of his agency.

Echoing the administration’s anti-Sanctuary city rhetoric, the January 10 directive argued that “courthouse arrests are often necessitated by the unwillingness of jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the transfer of custody of aliens from their prisons and jails.”

The directive went on to say that family members and friends encountered during a courthouse arrest “will not be subject to civil immigration enforcement action, absent special circumstances,” and “ICE officers and agents should generally avoid enforcement actions in courthouses, or areas within courthouses that are dedicated to non-criminal (e.g., family court, small claims court) proceedings.”

According to the IDP report, ICE has not only expanded courthouse arrests since the directive was issued, its New York agents have also arrested family members present during operations and carried out arrests in non-criminal courts.

Physical Assaults by ICE Agents

In November, The Intercept published video, originally obtained by IDP, of ICE agents and New York state court officers arresting an undocumented man outside the Queens County Criminal Court. Included in Monday’s report, the man’s arrest is part of a broader pattern described by IDP as “one of the most striking changes in ICE operations” in 2018.

“Over the past year, IDP has received reports of ICE agents tackling individuals to the ground, slamming family members against walls, and dragging individuals from cars in front of their children,” the report said. “They have also pulled guns on individuals leaving court. In one incident, ICE officers physically assaulted an attorney who was 8 months pregnant.”

In one case documented in the report, a mother and son were leaving Brooklyn’s criminal court when two men in plainclothes grabbed the son and began dragging him towards an unmarked car. Fearing that she was witnessing her son’s kidnapping, the woman asked the men who they were but received no answer. A third officer, according to the report, showed up and shoved the woman against the wall, repeatedly telling her to “shut up.”

“The officers then drove away, leaving his mother sobbing on the street, panicked that her son had been kidnapped,” the report said. “She did not know it was ICE agents who arrested him until she received a call from her son in an ICE processing facility later that day.”

A second incident documented in the report also invoked the sense of kidnapping in progress.

“A man was leaving the Brooklyn Supreme Court with his attorney and family when he was suddenly surrounded by plainclothes ICE agents,” the report said. After throwing him against a wall and refusing to identify themselves to his attorney, the agents bundled the young man into an unmarked car with no license plates.

According to the report, “several bystanders witnessed the commotion and one woman, believing that the man was being kidnapped, called 911.”

The IDP is now pushing for legislation — the Protect Our Courts Act — to put an end to ICE’s use of courthouse arrests in New York. According to Wellek, the IDP executive director, “The New York State legislature must act now to pass the Protect Our Courts Act to prevent ICE from continuing these harmful practices.”

The post ICE Courthouse Arrests in New York Increased 1,700 Percent Under Trump appeared first on The Intercept.

The Rape of Anna Chambers Led to a Change in New York Law — but She Can’t Benefit From It

A detail including the badge and shield of one of the newest members of the New York City police is seen during his graduation ceremony, Thursday, June 29, 2017, in New York. Over 400 men and women took the oath of office and pledged to protect the people of New York City in a in a ceremony held at the Madison Square Garden Theatre. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

A New York Police Department officer at a Police Academy graduation ceremony in New York on June 29, 2017.

Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP

Last March, the New York State Senate unanimously passed a bill that should have always been a law. Senate bill S7708 asserts that when a person is “under arrest, detention or otherwise in actual custody” by a police officer or other law enforcement official, that person is incapable of consenting to a sexual encounter. That is to say the obvious: There’s no uncoerced sex in police custody — there’s only rape.

There is little common sense informing the legal battle that Anna Chambers currently faces in trying to prove that she was raped by two New York Police Department officers.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the legislation “common-sense reform” that closes an “egregious loophole.” That being said, there is little common sense informing the legal battle that Anna Chambers currently faces in trying to prove that she was raped by two New York Police Department officers who admit to having sex with her while she was in their custody in September 2017, as DNA tests confirmed. The latest updates in Chambers’s case demonstrate a judicial process continuing to operate under the pernicious logic of a perverse legal loophole — allowing cops to claim, impossibly, that consent was given — even as the loophole is being closed.

Chambers — who uses a pseudonym to protect her privacy — has remained consistent about the central aspects of her story since The Intercept first covered it in October 2017: On the night of September 15, 2017, she and two male friends were stopped by the police while driving in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn. The cops searched the car and found a small amount of drugs. Only Chambers was then detained, handcuffed, and placed in NYPD detectives Richard Hall and Edward Martins’s unmarked van. They drove a short distance and then Chambers was forced to perform oral sex on both officers and vaginal sex with Martins. Then the cops left her on a corner.

Chambers went to a hospital that night; a rape kit confirmed the presence of the officers’ semen in her mouth and vagina. Within hours of Chambers’s civil attorney Michael David filing a lawsuit against the NYPD, a story was leaked to the New York Post in which the officers claimed that the sex was consensual. “The police were trying to get ahead of the story,” David told me at the time.

The police officers are poised to continue using that defense in court, in a trial that was slated to begin this week.

“If the law [S7708] was on the books when the rape occurred, this case would be shut and closed already,” New York City Council Member Mark Treyger told me. Treyger, on hearing of Chambers’s case, was the first public official to call for a change in state legislation. “I’m disappointed in this latest turn of events,” Treyger said, “that Ms. Anna Chambers has to relive this trauma again, while every syllable she has said is tracked. What message are we sending when we have a confession, we have DNA evidence, and we still can’t guarantee her the justice she deserves?”

As of last week, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office prosecuting Hall and Martins — who have since been fired — for the first-degree rape of Chambers asked to be removed from the case and replaced with a special prosecutor. Defense lawyers in the case made the same rare request for a special prosecutor. As such, the trial, which was meant to begin on Tuesday, has been delayed as the judge reviews the request. The next scheduled court date is February 6.

Key among the reasons the prosecution cited for asking to be replaced is Chambers’s credibility as a witness. In its letter to the judge, the district attorney’s office claimed that Chambers, who was 18 at the time of the rape, made “a series of false, misleading, and inconsistent statements about the facts of this case and about collateral or unrelated matters.” The letter continued, “Most troubling, she made some false statements under oath.” The prosecutors cite Chambers’s “hostility” to their office and note that due to her “false, misleading and inconsistent statements … legal requirements prohibit us from calling her to testify under oath.”

With DNA evidence and admissions by the defendants of sex with a detainee, Chambers’s testimony should be irrelevant and unnecessary.

Therein lies the iniquity at the core of its case: With DNA evidence and admissions by the defendants of sex with a detainee, Chambers’s testimony should be irrelevant and unnecessary. Instead, it is the teen’s credibility and character under legal and public scrutiny. The defense has asked for a special prosecutor empowered to investigate the survivor herself for perjury and “related offenses” — a risk Chambers should not be facing were the DNA evidence and cops’ admissions considered sufficient to show rape.

Chambers took to Twitter last week to deny that she lied under oath. “No. I only said what the DA told me to say,” she wrote. But, again, if the case were not organized around an outdated and glaring legislative failure, Chambers would not need to testify to prove a rape occurred. It is an indictment of the legal system that the common sense of S7708 has not already been applied in this case. Sound legal judgement, even if not represented de jure law, should assert that the power dynamic between a police officer and a handcuffed detainee precludes consent. “If our system doesn’t get this case right, there will be a great chilling effect,” Treyger told me.

There’s a risk in suggesting that a legislative reform like the passage of S7708 will deliver justice to future survivors of police sexual assault — a risk within the broader mistake of conflating law with justice. It’s feasible that had the law already been on the books at the time of Chambers’s rape, her assaulters would not have admitted to sex on duty as a defense; perhaps they would have claimed that the sex occurred off-duty and yet again a grimy he-said-she-said of so many sexual assaults would have ensued.

Even once the laws around on-duty rape are expanded, there’s little doubt that police will continue to presume much of the impunity to which they are accustomed. Under New York penal law, for example, it is already the case that there can be no consensual sex between corrections officers and detainees. But a 2012 Justice Department report found that half of the 200,000-plus sexual assaults reported in U.S. detention centers every year cited prison guards or staff as the alleged abuser.

This, we know: Because of Chambers’s case — and the widespread recognition that what happened to her constituted rape — a grievous flaw in New York law came to light and has been addressed. It is an injustice on a historic scale that the 19-year-old survivor cannot rely upon the very law that her torturous experience helped change.

The post The Rape of Anna Chambers Led to a Change in New York Law — but She Can’t Benefit From It appeared first on The Intercept.

Portraying the MAGA Teens as Victims Is an Extension of Native American Erasure

A woman speaks during the Indigenous People's March on the National Mall at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on January 18, 2019. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)        (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

A woman speaks during the Indigenous Peoples March on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 18, 2019.

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

By now, millions around the world have seen the viral video of dozens of Catholic schoolboys sporting “Make America Great Again,” or MAGA, hats tomahawk-chopping and mocking a Native elder, who was drumming and singing at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Nathan Phillips, the military veteran and water protector from the Omaha Nation, waded into the crowd of high school students, as he tried to defuse a tense situation between the students and a group of black Israelites who were taunting Natives and passers-by with racist and homophobic comments. It was an iconic moment loaded with history. And what should have been a time of soul-searching for a nation founded on Indigenous genocide has instead morphed into an attack on Indigenous people.

Concern from both liberal and conservative media outlets shifted from confronting the issue of Indigenous erasure — why were Native people marching in D.C. in the first place? — to defending the innocence of white youth.

As soon as the jarring video made international news, an organized media campaign quickly spun the story — turning the jeering Covington Catholic High School students into victims. And concern from both liberal and conservative media outlets shifted from confronting the issue of Indigenous erasure — why were Native people marching in D.C. in the first place? — to defending the innocence of white youth.

Although disgusting, it’s not surprising. And, in perhaps the biggest shame, this pervasive counternarrative quickly wiped the hopeful signs of the weekend out of the national conversation.

Reckoning with the events requires first honoring all that happened last weekend. The confrontation between Phillips and the Covington boys was a single incident, and it shouldn’t eclipse an otherwise historic weekend. These times can be dark, but the Indigenous Peoples March offered a moment of hope: The issues that matter to Native people were put front and center in a show of solidarity. The odds may be daunting, but our communities showed that they’re coming together to fight — with a watchful eye on history and a necessary glance toward the future.

However, the Indigenous Peoples March, which I did not attend, wasn’t the only major event focused on a path forward. Like many, the day after the event, I participated in a local Women’s March in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Organized in concert with the march in Washington and other Women’s Marches around the country, the Women’s March centered life and death issues confronting Indigenous nations, such as the thousands of cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, the government shutdown that has devastated federal services to already hard-hit Native communities, and the extractive industries polluting Native lands.

It was also a celebration of the elections of the first two American Indian members of Congress, Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids. Indian Country hailed the elections of Haaland and Davids as a repudiation of President Donald Trump’s anti-Indian agenda and as an affirmation of Indigenous women’s leadership. In tandem with last Friday’s march in Washington, it was a weekend of solidarity and camaraderie with millions of Natives and non-Natives galvanized around Indigenous issues.

The last time there was a nationwide spotlight on Native rights of this magnitude was during Standing Rock in 2016, and the last time that thousands of Native people and their allies marched on Washington, D.C., was in March 2017 — to protest Trump’s escalated attack on Native sovereignty and lands. Native elders like Phillips have been a part of these movements at least since the 1970s.

So how did MAGA hats and a sneer steal the show?

The MAGA hat has become synonymous with white supremacy. It was proudly worn by neo-Nazis who marched, beat up protesters, and killed a woman in Charlottesville, North Carolina, in 2017. It is worn by the throngs of Trump supporters who are still chanting “build the wall!” The youthfulness of the movement shows that racism isn’t fading away with the clichéd image of white-hooded thugs sporting Confederate flags. Racism is alive and well — and it’s young and angry as hell.

It should come as no surprise that the MAGA hat is associated with the anti-choice marchers who descended on Washington at the same time as Indigenous protesters last Friday. After all, racism and misogyny are part of Trump’s brand of politics and the reason for mass protests against his administration.

With all this context, the media could not refute the clear image of anti-Indian racism unfolding that day: a sneering Nicholas Sandmann wearing a MAGA hat, staring down Nathan Phillips, a drumming and singing Indigenous elder. Young white kids wildly bounced up and down around them like a pack of rabid hyenas.

It was encouraging to see the initial coverage, even if it failed to contextualize the larger Indigenous movement for justice. But at least they got the racism part right.

There were many avenues to pursue with this story, among them the setting. The confrontation unfolded at the feet of President Abraham Lincoln, who ordered the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men days before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It took place in a city that sits atop Piscataway land and whose NFL team name is a dictionary-defined racial slur celebrating the scalping of Native people. The students’ tomahawk chops reinforced that sort of all-too-casual pervasive bigotry, a familiar gesture for sports fans of Indian mascots. All of it taking place in the heart of American empire.

In the face of hostility, Phillips sang the American Indian Movement song, known as the “Raymond Yellow Thunder Song” in honor of the Oglala elder brutally murdered by white vigilantes in February 1972.

In the face of this hostility, Phillips sang the American Indian Movement song, known as the “Raymond Yellow Thunder Song” in honor of the Oglala elder brutally murdered by white vigilantes in February 1972. It’s a song of resistance and remembrance, and it was sung during the Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973 and at the frontlines of Standing Rock in 2016.

The waves of history and emotion washed over me when I heard Phillips sing. I remember white boys from my high school chanting, “Get the fuck out of our country, faggot!” at me and my friends when we refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I remember being told, “Go back to where you came from!” by a white woman outside Los Angeles International Airport when I marched against Trump’s Muslim ban. I remember seeing my Native friends spat on by MAGA hat-wearing white men at a Trump rally in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I remember white men shouting, “Go back to the reservation!” at water protectors holding a prayer circle in a mall in Bismarck, North Dakota. In some of those moments of terrible danger, we sang the “Yellow Thunder Song” too and didn’t strike out against the threats in front of us.

This is what many of us saw in that video: steadfast resilience and discipline. We relive these feelings in our daily lives over and over again.

Instead of focusing on the DNA of this settler nation and its profound inability to confront its own history, however, we found out that the sneering MAGA kid’s mom is vice president of Fidelity Investments. The well-to-do family sent their son to a private Catholic school, whose students were once pictured in blackface taunting a Black basketball player in a photo circulating the internet. Sandmann’s family also hired a PR firm to protect his image.

On NBC’s “Today” Show, Savannah Guthrie interviewed Sandmann. The entire history of Indigenous erasure on that day boiled down to a single white boy’s testimony. He appeared without his MAGA hat and calmly mischaracterized his encounter with the Phillips.

You could feel the air being sucked out of the room.

“Umm, I just stood there,” he told Guthrie when asked if he should apologize. With that, the tables switched, and Phillips became the aggressor.

The fault, however, is not with the individual acts of one white kid; it lies with how this story was told and how it has obfuscated a movement and history. That was the greatest loss in this tale: This episode being twisted in order to reverse and then ignore the larger narrative.

Journalists are often the first to write history — and they are also the first to rewrite it. We’ve seen how cops killing Black kids is made to look like self-defense, how children crossing borders become “illegals,” or how Native elders singing songs become violent aggressors.

It’s the founding myth of this country: The cowboy will always be surrounded by hostile natives to make colonial invasion look like self-defense. That narrative won’t end unless we stop telling that story.

The post Portraying the MAGA Teens as Victims Is an Extension of Native American Erasure appeared first on The Intercept.

Five Years After Ferguson, St. Louis County’s New Prosecutor Confronts a Racist Criminal Justice System

Wesley Bell was sworn into office as St. Louis County’s first black prosecutor just after midnight on New Year’s Day, and by the end of his second day on the job, he had ordered a sweeping overhaul of many of the office’s policies.

Effective immediately, he wrote in a detailed interim memo, his office would no longer prosecute the possession of less than 100 grams of marijuana. Prosecutors would end cash bail requests for misdemeanor cases, and they would issue summonses, rather than warrants, for all misdemeanors and class D and E felonies. They would no longer criminally prosecute the failure to pay child support. They would not overcharge defendants to pressure them into pleas, nor would they threaten witnesses to force them to participate in prosecutions. They would not impose further conditions on those failing to appear in court unless they were flight risks, and they would disclose the entirety of their files to defense counsel.

Bell also fired a veteran assistant prosecutor who had been a key figure in the case of Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014. The case, which after weeks of foot-dragging by police and prosecutors ended with a grand jury declining to indict Wilson, sparked massive protests in Ferguson and across the country. But almost five years later, Brown’s killing also inspired a steadfast movement for racial justice and police accountability, and exposed district attorneys as the most powerful players in the country’s criminal justice system.

Since then, several old-school prosecutors have been voted out of office across the country and replaced by a wave of criminal justice reformers, including in cities as large as Chicago and Philadelphia. In Chicago, Kim Foxx ousted Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in 2016 after her botched handling of another police killing — that of Laquan McDonald. The grassroots campaign to run Alvarez out of office, and the viral #ByeAnita social media rallying cry that amplified it, became a model to build engagement around prosecutor’s races nationwide. Then, in 2017, Philadelphians elected Larry Krasner — a career criminal defense and civil rights lawyer who had never prosecuted a case but who had sued the Philadelphia Police Department more than 75 times — as their next district attorney. (Other prosecutors who have billed themselves as “progressive,” like former California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Manhattan DA Cy Vance, hardly deserve the title.)

FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 14:  Mia Swisher says a prayer during a visit to a memorial to Michael Brown outside the Canfield Green apartments where he was shot and killed by a police officer last August on March 14, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri.  The town of Ferguson has experienced many protests, which have often been violent, since Brown's death. On Wednesday evening two police officers were shot while they were securing the Ferguson police station during a protest.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Mia Swisher says a prayer at a Michael Brown memorial outside the Canfield Green apartments on March 14, 2015, in Ferguson, Mo.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

But the push to put progressive prosecutors into office really took off after Ferguson, where the disastrous investigation of Brown’s killing opened the public’s eyes to prosecutors’ unique power to decide whom and when to prosecute. With Bell’s election, the Ferguson protests’ impact on the politics of criminal justice finally came home to St. Louis County.

“I absolutely feel like I am part of a momentum that’s continuing to grow,” Bell told me in a recent interview, adding that he draws inspiration from Krasner, Foxx, and other progressive prosecutors who preceded him. “I think that we have a real opportunity.”

Now nearly a month into the job, Bell hasn’t slowed down. He announced treatment and diversion programs, in partnership with local health organizations, to address rather than criminalize addiction and mental illness. And after promising voters he would never seek the death penalty, he declared that he would seek life imprisonment in a murder and sexual assault case that took place at a Catholic Supply store and rocked the area last fall.

It’s hard to understate how radical these changes are in St. Louis County.

If the Ferguson protests made this collection of more than 80 municipalities and suburbs, home to just under a million people, synonymous with police brutality and racism, they also exposed ingrained inequities in a local government system that funds itself on the criminalization of its poor residents, and whose leadership and power structure are starkly unrepresentative of its population. The St. Louis metropolitan area, which includes both the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County, regularly boasts the grim record of being one of the most dangerous in America — though much of the violence happens in a few pockets of the city. Homicides and violent crime have also been on the rise in the county, which like the city is deeply segregated. Many go unsolved.

But other statistics are equally revealing of law enforcement culture in St. Louis County. Missouri has been one of the country’s leading executioners in recent decades, trailing only Texas, but local disparities can be stark within the state. A 2015 study found that a person convicted of homicide in St. Louis County is three times more likely to be executed than someone convicted elsewhere in the state — and 13 times more likely to be executed than a person convicted in St. Louis City. In 2017, there were 530 criminal prosecutions for nonpayment of child support in the county, versus about 40 in the city and 12 on average in other counties across the state.

In the aftermath of the Ferguson protests, the Justice Department issued a damning report denouncing “clear racial disparities” in the ways the county’s police and courts operated. “The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities,” the report stated, zeroing in on Ferguson. “Over time, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the police department, undermining law enforcement legitimacy among African Americans in particular.”

Three newly elected members of the Ferguson City Council, from left, Brian Fletcher, Ella Jones and Wesley Bell embrace after being sworn in during a monthly meeting of the council Tuesday, April 21, 2015, in Ferguson, Mo. With the election, half of the six-member city council in Ferguson, a town where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black, will now be African-American. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Three newly elected members of the Ferguson City Council, from left, Brian Fletcher, Ella Jones and Wesley Bell, embrace after being sworn on April 21, 2015, in Ferguson, Mo.

Photo: Jeff Roberson/AP

Bell, 44, is the son of a cop and has served as public defender, municipal court prosecutor, and judge. He ran for the Ferguson City Council after the protests and worked on a team that negotiated a federal consent decree following Brown’s killing. “That was a learning experience, working with the Department of Justice and seeing some of these same issues from a different light,” he said. “For the first time, being confronted with the idea that the culture that I was raised in legally did need to change.”

Voters seemed to agree. His campaign against Bob McCulloch — a seven-term incumbent first elected in 1991, when Bell was in high school — seemed improbable at first. But it was propelled by tireless grassroots organizing, a viral #ByeBob social media campaign modeled after Chicago’s #ByeAnita, and the backing of some national players that have prioritized transforming the culture of district attorney’s offices nationwide. His victory in the Democratic primary was both stunning and decisive. With a record turnout, he beat the incumbent by a 14 percent margin.

“There’s a lot of ways to approach a culture change, and that is often times a slower change,” Bell told me in his second week on the job. Yet he seemed to have no interest in taking it slow. His staff was still waiting for building access cards, and packed boxes lined the walls of the office, where a pink print thanked McCulloch for his 27 years of service. But the reforms already underway were transforming an office unaccustomed to change. “I think what we started with is setting clear expectations and making sure that people in this office understand what the policies are,” Bell said.

“He came out of the gate in a way that’s been overt and clear, and he has the support in the community for the stuff he’s moving,” said Montague Simmons, a longtime organizer in St. Louis County. “He’s going to be able to get some stuff done. The question is, what the resistance to that is going to look like.”

CLAYTON, MO - MARCH 13:  Robert P. "Bob" McCulloch, Prosecuting Attorney for St. Louis County speaks to the media during a news conference on March 13, 2017 in Clayton, Missouri. Tension and protest in Ferguson has arisen in response to video footage of slain 18 year-old Michael Brown in a recent documentary. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

Bob McCulloch, then-Prosecuting Attorney for St. Louis County, speaks to the media during a news conference on March 13, 2017 in Clayton, Mo.

Photo: Michael Thomas/Getty Images

Resisting Change

Resistance to Bell has already been fierce, a testament in part to the challenge he faces in reforming a system that many key players within the system itself do not want disrupted.

McCulloch, the son of a police officer who was killed in the line of duty, was criticized in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests for being too close to law enforcement. A traditional, tough-on-crime prosecuting attorney who billed himself as “the most experienced prosecutor in the country’s history,” McCulloch never prosecuted a police killing. And he looked a lot like most of the other 2,400 elected district attorneys in the U.S. It’s a remarkably homogeneous group: 96 percent are white, 80 percent are male, and 75 percent run for office unopposed, according to figures provided by the civil rights group Color of Change, which has become one of the leading advocates for prosecutor accountability in recent years.

McCulloch faced few challengers during his tenure, and he was re-elected for a seventh term just days before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. His handling of the investigation enraged the community that had come to the streets to protest the killing, but also illuminated the largely unchecked power with which prosecutors operate, as well as their deep connections to law enforcement. Although the next election was years away, many pledged that it would be McCulloch’s last.

McCulloch did not respond to an interview request, nor did Kathi Alizadeh, the lead prosecutor in the Darren Wilson case, whom Bell fired on his second day in office. Bell also fired two others prosecutors, including Ed McSweeney, who had posted on Facebook after the primary that “voters will soon regret what they did.” “My boss was shockingly defeated in Tuesday’s primary after 28 years,” McSweeney wrote in a thread that revealed the panic ensuing in some circles after Bell’s win. “Defeated by a Ferguson councilman with no trial experience.”

Bell declined to comment on the terminations, which he called “pending employee matters.” A spokesperson for his campaign pointed out at the time of McSweeney’s comments that Bell had plenty of trial experience — as a defense attorney. McSweeney declined to comment.

Last December, before Bell was even sworn in, prosecutors in his own office voted to join the St. Louis County Police Association, the county’s largest police union, which had endorsed McCulloch in the race. That was an unprecedented move, criticized as a conflict of interest by watchdog groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. The union called for the reinstatement of the terminated employees. “Despite Mr. Bell’s rhetoric about building bridges with career prosecutors, he has apparently decided to suddenly discharge three dedicated public servants in his first hours in office,” a union spokesperson said in a statement. The union did not respond to additional requests for comment from The Intercept.

FERGUSON, MO -  MARCH 4: Protestors demonstrate outside the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Missouri on March 4, 2015. The Federal Department of Justice decided today not to charge then Ferguson Police Officer, Darren Wilson, of any wrongdoing in the August shooting of Michael Brown Jr. The Department of Justice investigation did happen to find Ferguson Police Departments involvement in racially based policing. (Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)

Protestors demonstrate outside the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Mo., on March 4, 2015.

Photo: Michael Thomas/Getty Images

Bell, for his part, told me that he supports prosecutors’ right to unionize, but that he has concerns with their particular choice of a police union. “As prosecutors, one of our obligations, one of our duties to the public, is to serve as a check on law enforcement, and so there are some concerns and potential conflicts with respect to the choice of their union.”

But the backlash — mostly from the police union — only seemed to intensify after Bell was sworn in. His interim policy memo, which he made clear was a work in progress pending internal feedback, was immediately leaked to the media, and the policies were quickly misrepresented. The union said in a statement that it was “disappointed and discouraged” by Bell’s policies and called on him to take “immediate action to stop some of these changes and find a better and safer path to implement this platform.”

In particular, Bell’s decision not to criminally prosecute failure to pay child support — a civil matter which he said should be pursued as such — prompted criticism and sensationalized headlines like “Deadbeat dads in St. Louis County are celebrating.” The union said Bell was putting the “livelihoods of hardworking single parents in jeopardy.”

To Bell, the child support policy, like his decision to end cash bail for misdemeanors, is consistent with his promises to the voters who elected him. “My guiding philosophy is that we cannot and will not prosecute poverty or operate the courts as debtors’ prisons,” he wrote in a Facebook post trying to clarify some of the rumors. “This type of misuse of prosecutorial discretion is why I ran for office in the first place. As we develop our final policies we will do exactly as promised: This office will no longer prosecute or recommend jail time solely because of someone’s lack of income.’”

Bell struck a conciliatory tone when asked about some of the obstruction he’s faced since coming into office. He called the leak and misrepresentation of his policies “unfortunate,” but said he’s received support for his plan both internally and from law enforcement, as well as from the broader public. “There’s going to be some pushback, but overall I’m very excited and very optimistic that everyone is getting on board,” he told me. “I think we’re all in the same place. We want to make sure that people are treated fairly regardless of where they’re from or their socio-economic situation or what have you. I think that we want to make sure we’re not contributing to mass incarceration and that we’re helping decrease prison populations.”

Bell’s hardly alone in facing pushback from law enforcement: Other reformist prosecutors have had to deal with a fair amount of resistance. In Philadelphia, the Fraternal Order of Police has gone to war with Krasner, most recently by suing him over his decision not to call on a list of police officers to testify in court who had a history of lying and racial bias. In Massachusetts, the National Police Association filed a wide-ranging bar complaint against Rachael Rollins, the newly elected district attorney of Suffolk County, which includes Boston, before she was even sworn in. And in Florida, former Gov. Rick Scott transferred more than two dozen cases from the jurisdiction of State Attorney Aramis Ayala after she pledged not to seek the death penalty. (Ayala sued Scott over the move, but the state Supreme Court sided with the former governor.)

“Watching local prosecutors align themselves so closely with the Fraternal Order of Police shows why these elections are so important,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, which focuses on black voter engagement. “For so long, prosecutor offices did not believe that they had to serve the communities. In fact, many of these offices saw black communities as enemy combatants.”

In St. Louis, where the Ferguson protests sparked long-due debate about the area’s segregation and racism, resistance to Bell’s reforms was seen as evidence of just how badly that change is needed.

“Oppression here really tends to be intransient,” said Simmons. “As hard as we push, the opposition will reorganize in whatever way they possibly can.”

“We knew the police officers would act a certain way,” he added. “We didn’t expect to see the prosecutors marry themselves to literally the most racist police union in the region. They are sending a message when they do that.”

But while the police union’s opposition dominated headlines, some in law enforcement defended Bell’s efforts and called out critics for their biases. “The reality is … Bob McCulloch lost,” said Heather Taylor, the president of St. Louis’s Ethical Society of Police. Taylor noted that crime, including the murder rate, steadily increased under McCulloch’s watch, while police and prosecutors devoted resources to policing low-level offenses — criminalizing entire communities while failing to keep them safe. “We lock everybody up. But ‘Let’s lock them up’ has done nothing for our community,” she said. “At least give him a chance to do his job. He hasn’t been there a month yet. You gave Bob McCulloch a chance for 30 years.”

St. Louis County Prosecutor, Wesley Bell greets supporters during a Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Event at the Monsanto Family YMCA on January 21, 2019 in St. Louis. (Photo: Michael Thomas for The Intercept)

Bell, left, greets supporters during a Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Event at the Monsanto Family YMCA on Jan. 21, 2019 in St. Louis.

Photo: Michael Thomas for The Intercept

A Movement Born in Ferguson

If relationships between law enforcement and St. Louis County’s most heavily policed communities have not improved much since the Ferguson protests, what has profoundly changed is those communities’ resolve to make their institutions and elected officials answer to them.

Just days after Brown’s death, organizers used the Ferguson protests to register voters. For months after the killing, local town hall meetings were standing-room-only, and activists held voter engagement and civic education campaigns. In January 2015, after a grand jury had declined to indict Wilson for Brown’s death, and after prosecutors’ many missteps in the case were exposed, local activists staged a mock “black people’s grand jury” to educate residents about the grand jury process. Some of those who voted for Bell are now hoping he will reopen the investigation into Brown’s killing, a prospect he declined to discuss.

Bell’s election was a direct result of the political engagement that the Ferguson protests ignited in many people, but the bulk of the change happened in the community itself, said Kalambayi Andenet, one of many residents who were propelled into activism by Brown’s killing. “People now are talking about how we control our police,” she told me. “Those conversations weren’t happening before Ferguson but they’re happening on a regular basis now.”

“His election is a testament to the hard, hard organizing work of a lot of people who really pounded the pavement,” echoed Vernon Mitchell Jr., a Ferguson activist and professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “The point now is to make sure that while he has our support, we also hold him accountable.”

St. Louis County Prosecutor, Wesley Bell has breakfast with members of his staff at Bob Evans Restaurant on January 21, 2019 in Bridgeton, Mo. (Photo: Michael Thomas for The Intercept)

Bell, far left, eats breakfast with members of his staff at a Bob Evans Restaurant in Bridgeton, Mo., on Jan. 21, 2019.

Photo: Michael Thomas for The Intercept

Accountability to the communities they serve — and particularly the black, brown, and poor communities that bear the brunt of the justice system’s inequities — has had little impact on elected prosecutors’ careers in the past.

“What, often times, we have felt is that prosecutors were not nervous about how they treated black communities,” said Robinson. “We had to work to make them nervous.”

Color of Change launched a platform to track district attorneys’ records in an effort to counter the lack of transparency that surrounds their work; organized black communities across the country around local elections; and sought to influence the cultural debate about justice, including by connecting players in the justice system to Hollywood producers shaping the public’s understanding of how law enforcement works. For instance, Robinson said, the group connected Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who unsuccessfully prosecuted the officers responsible for the 2015 death in custody of Freddie Gray, to the writers of the show “Seven Seconds,” about a black teen killed by a police officer, “so they could actually see what a bail hearing looks like, and how the DA acts, and how the judge acts.”

The group got behind more than a dozen district attorney races across the country, but its larger goal is to empower those most impacted by criminal justice policies to shape those policies. “This is not about making heroes of prosecutors,” said Robinson. “This is about building a movement so that those in power realize that they are accountable to us.”

The post Five Years After Ferguson, St. Louis County’s New Prosecutor Confronts a Racist Criminal Justice System appeared first on The Intercept.

Episode Six: New Evidence

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Jessica Cino is a dean at the Georgia State University law school — and Devonia Inman’s biggest advocate. His plight has shaken Cino’s faith in the criminal justice system. She’s poured hours into his case, trying to help him clear his name. But the odds are stacked against him, and she knows it. But then new evidence comes to light — something the cops should have known about all along.


Liliana Segura: In 1895, a case called Coffin v. United States came before the Supreme Court. It was a complicated case. Alleging, more or less, that three men had aided and abetted a fourth in committing bank fraud.

Jordan Smith: The most important thing that came out of that case: The idea that a person is to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Here’s how the court explained it: “The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary,” the court wrote, “and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.”

Liliana Segura: The presumption of innocence is fundamental, embedded in the guarantee of due process laid out in the Constitution. But there’s a flip side to this idea of innocent until proven guilty. It’s that once you’ve been found guilty of a crime it is really hard to prove you’re innocent, even when you are.

Jessica Cino: I think one of the biggest myths about the criminal justice system and the way it functions is that most of the time we get it right, but in the slim chance we get it wrong, we’ll be able to correct it down the road. That’s just not true. That’s not true on any level whatsoever.

Jordan Smith: That’s Jessica Cino. She’s a lawyer and a dean at the law school at Georgia State and Devonia Inman’s tireless and most determined advocate.

Jessica Cino: So the system, once you’re convicted, is, I won’t call it rigged, but once you’re convicted, it’s meant to keep you there.

Jordan Smith: That’s because the system operates with the idea of “finality” in mind. The Supreme Court has said as much. What really matters is that you got a “fair” trial. If the courts think you did, then that’s it. And that is, almost entirely, the final word.

Jessica Cino: That’s a complete design fault with the system. Like, it’s designed to keep people there, it’s designed to minimize challenges to convictions. It’s this notion of finality. So we will do everything possible to keep people where we think they belong.

Liliana Segura: But what if you didn’t get a fair trial? What if you’re found guilty, but you’re not? What if you’re Devonia Inman and you’ve been locked up for 20 years, insisting you’re innocent and almost no one with any power to help seems to give a damn? From The Intercept, I’m Liliana Segura.

Jordan Smith: And I’m Jordan Smith. Welcome back to Murderville, Georgia.

Liliana Segura: It’s been three years since we started reporting this story. And the whole time there have been lawyers working on the case too, trying to find a way to exonerate Devonia Inman. There are plenty of reasons to believe that he’s innocent, including new information only recently uncovered. So does he have a chance?

Jordan Smith: First, let’s review. Back in September 1998, Donna Brown was murdered in the parking lot of the Taco Bell in tiny Adel, Georgia. She was killed by a single bullet, fired at close range. It tore through her right eye. The Adel police quickly turned the case over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, or GBI. That’s pretty routine for small departments in rural Georgia when there’s a major crime to solve. In 1998, this crime and this town fit that bill.

Liliana Segura: GBI agent Jamy Steinberg led the investigation and he quickly focused on a 20-year-old man from California, Devonia Inman. His family had deep roots in Adel, but aside from yearly visits to see his relatives, he was pretty much an outsider. Focusing on Inman, Steinberg ignored other lead, good ones. In fact, as he homed in on Inman, folks around town were pointing to another man as the real killer: Hercules Brown. Some even told the investigators about him and that he was responsible for Donna Brown’s murder. They didn’t listen.

Jordan Smith: Inman insisted he had nothing to do with the crime and there was zero physical evidence tying him to it, but he was charged with it anyway. And after an equally messed up trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Liliana Segura: But even before that, even as Devonia Inman sat in jail waiting to be tried and facing the death penalty, there were three more vicious murders in Adel. In the spring of 2000 a man named Shailesh Patel was beaten to death in a relative’s home. Again, the GBI was brought in. And, again, there were rumors: Talk that Hercules Brown had something to do with it. Patel’s murder remains unsolved. And just months after that, more bloodshed. The gruesome bludgeoning death of  William Carroll Bennett, owner of a mom-and-pop grocery and lunch counter, and his employee, Rebecca Browning. They were killed in the store, just before lunchtime. Within an hour, a suspect was picked up. It was Hercules Brown. Steinberg had a hand in that case too. And, ultimately, Hercules pleaded guilty to the double murder, in exchange for prosecutors taking the death penalty off the table. He’s doing life in prison, too.

Jordan Smith: Devonia Inman had been locked up for more than a decade, when lawyers looking into his case went back to a key piece of evidence that had never been tested for DNA: a mask made from gray sweatpants. It had been left on the passenger seat of Donna Brown’s car the night she was killed. When Inman was on trial, the prosecutors said that it was worn by her killer. In 2011, the lawyers finally had it tested. There was DNA inside from a single source. It belonged to Hercules Brown.

Aimee Maxwell: I’m Aimee Maxwell.

Liliana Segura: Aimee Maxwell was the executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project when she received a letter from Devonia Inman asking for help to clear his name. When we met Maxwell, she and her team were working in a former nail salon in a strip mall in Decatur, next to a Wal-Mart. The old carpet had been ripped out to get rid of the smell of chemicals, but otherwise, the space still had all the remnants of the previous business, Nails 4 U, including the price list hanging on the wall.

Aimee Maxwell: Devonia first wrote us in 2002, I believe, so he’s case number 63 of- now we’re up to almost 6,500 cases that we’ve looked at. So we started looking at his case early on and have stayed with his case all through the many years.

Liliana Segura: Maxwell was really affected by the case. There was just so much wrong with it.

Aimee Maxwell: Probably one of the things that stands out first is how many of the witnesses recanted or changed their story and how many of them had to be brought to court from jail or prison. It was very telling who the witnesses were against him and, you know,  the recantations- the question is, do you believe them then or now? You can’t figure out when they’re telling the truth. Do you really want to put a man in prison with life without parole? That’s the shocking thing, and it could have possibly been death. Is that really the kind of evidence you want to use when you put somebody in prison?

Liliana Segura: And there was even more crappy evidence. There was the jailhouse snitch who said Inman had confessed to him and then asked what he might get in exchange for telling his story. And the newspaper carrier who came up with an elaborate and implausible claim about seeing Inman fleeing the scene in Donna Brown’s car and who only came forward after Inman had been arrested and after a $5,000 reward was offered. In short? Each of them had a clear incentive to testify against Inman.

Aimee Maxwell: So there really was no witness that put Devonia at the scene or in any involvement at all that wasn’t incentivized.

Liliana Segura: That’s why the DNA found on the mask inside the car was such a game-changer. The evidence against Inman at trial was just weak. And there were all those people who’d said that Hercules was responsible for Donna Brown’s murder. And now his DNA, and only his DNA, had been found on the mask. To Maxwell, it was clear that Inman deserved a new trial.

Jordan Smith: Maxwell and another attorney with the Georgia Innocence Project, Christina Cribbs, dove into Inman’s case. Thousands of pages of trial transcripts and police reports. They got volunteer lawyers from a big firm in Atlanta to help out. After getting the DNA results, they filed a motion with the court down in Cook County. Officially it’s known as an EMNT. An Extraordinary Motion for a New Trial. And it was granted. A judge down in Adel would hear what they had to say. That judge would consider the DNA evidence and decide if it was compelling enough to undermine Inman’s conviction and if Inman deserved a new trial. Meanwhile, the Cook County district attorney’s office, the one that was led by Bob Ellis at the time of Inman’s original trial, they would argue against them that the DNA was not important and that Inman was clearly guilty. Ellis wasn’t the DA anymore and he wouldn’t be at the hearing, but he agreed with the state’s position. We met him for lunch at a buffet restaurant. He talked with his mouth full and kept banging his hand on the table.

Bob Ellis: We never once thought that this defendant was not guilty. We tried to have integrity about what we did.

Jordan Smith: Right. Do you remember what it was in particular that really sealed that deal for you that made you think that he was guilty?

Bob Ellis: I honestly can’t remember.

Jordan Smith: The hearing got off to a rocky start. For one thing, there was the fact that the judge who would hear the case was the same judge who presided over Inman’s original trial.

Aimee Maxwell: It makes it so much more difficult because it’s really hard for anybody to say what happened- what I did may not have been the right thing. I sat- I was the judge on this case where there were mistakes made and we may have put an innocent person in prison. That’s a hard thing for any human being to say, to be okay with.

Jordan Smith: This is common — and not just in Georgia. And it does not inspire confidence. Then the judge made clear he didn’t have much time. Maxwell thought their evidence could take two days of testimony. The judge gave them half a day. If that wasn’t enough, he said, they could reschedule. But getting to this point had taken years, so Maxwell decided to go for it.

Aimee Maxwell: I think we were all pretty confident about what we had. I mean, obviously we were nervous because this is the one shot, right, and we had to convince the trial judge that let all that nonsense happen in trial. We’ve got to convince him that what- all those witnesses were all wrong and that what happened was wrong.

Jordan Smith: They told the judge about the DNA on the mask and why it was so critical.

Liliana Segura: Remember, Jamy Steinberg, the GBI agent, had gone to see Hercules in prison back when the DNA match first came up. And the interview is a little crazy. While questioning him, Steinberg gave Hercules every single “out” he could think of.

Jamy Steinberg: I mean, is there any way – I’m just tryin’ to figure out – is there any way that you could have tried this mask on or y’all had done something in the past? You know…

Liliana Segura: Is it possible, Steinberg asks, that Hercules tried on the mask at some point?

Hercules Brown: It been a long time man.

Liliana Segura: Then Steinberg tries to figure out what kind of relationship Hercules had with Devonia Inman.

Jamy Steinberg: What was your relationship with Devonia?

Hercules Brown: I didn’t have a relationship with Devonia.

Jamy Steinberg: And I’m not tryin’ to do smoke and mirrors, I’m asking, I mean, did you know that he was in town, even when that happened, he had not been in Adel very long.

Hercules Brown: I don’t know- I don’t remember that. I don’t know. I don’t know him.

Liliana Segura: If you didn’t catch that, Hercules said no. He said he’d seen Inman before. But he didn’t know him.

Jordan Smith: This is a crucial point. At Inman’s trial, the prosecutors, Bob Ellis and Tim Eidson, had pursued a conviction with a simple theory: Devonia Inman acted alone in robbing and killing Donna Brown. If that was the case, there is no reason why the only DNA found in her car belonged to Hercules Brown. Maxwell called Hercules as a witness during the hearing, but he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to testify. He wasn’t the only one. Maxwell wanted to question the newspaper carrier, Virginia Tatem, about her wild story and about whether she’d collected the reward money after testifying at Inman’s trial. She refused to answer questions, too. The judge said that was fine. And then there was the snitch, Kwame Spaulding. He did answer questions on the stand and said that the story he’d told about Inman confessing was just that: a story. He’d been coerced by the GBI, he said. The judge cut him off, basically said he didn’t want to hear about it. We wrote numerous letters to Spaulding, hoping he would talk to us about what had happened with the GBI.

Kwame Spaulding: Yo, hello, Jordan Smith, how you doing? It’s Kwame Spaulding. I was calling in reference to thousands of notifications you sent me. I’m just trying to figure out, like, how is this beneficial to me? You know what I’m saying? It’s going to be beneficial to me, you know?

Jordan Smith: Yeah, we knew what he meant.

Kwame Spaulding: Exactly what [inaudible] give me a call right now. Kind of dangerous, you know what I’m saying? [inaudible] in that position, so yeah, let me know. I’ll call you back.

Jordan Smith: Dangerous. We don’t know exactly what he was referring to, but we could certainly make some guesses. For one, no one wants to be out there talking smack about the GBI, or about a guy like Hercules, for that matter, even if he is in prison. So, in the end, he just didn’t talk to us.

Liliana Segura: He tried to speak up once and the people who could have done something about it did their best to ignore him. To the state, anything he had to say now didn’t matter and neither did the DNA. The prosecutors used a new theory to explain it away: The gray mask might have implicated Hercules, but it didn’t exonerate Devonia Inman. The two of them must have pulled off the murder together. They pushed this, even though it completely clashed with the theory they presented at trial. We talked to Tim Eidson about this. Remember, he’s the one who told us that Hercules’s mom had provided an alibi for her son and how police and prosecutors believed her, because she was a well-respected lady. When we met, Eidson had gone back to working as a defense attorney, traveling between south Georgia and eastern Alabama. We reached him on Facebook — he’s an avid user and has a penchant for selfies. He remembered how he found out about the DNA.

Tim Eidson: Now I know that my ex-wife called me one day and he was kind of in a tizzy because they had got a call from someone and she says, “Do you remember that mask that you found?” And I said yeah. She said, “Well, they found that it had Hercules Brown’s DNA in it.” Well, it wasn’t like it was a shocking revelation or anything. I just said, “Really?” She said, “Yeah, and they’re saying that he might have been involved in the Taco Bell murder.”

Liliana Segura: You might ask why his ex-wife found out about the DNA before he did. Well, that goes back to the kind of small town Adel was.

Tim Eidson: The reason she called is because Hercules Brown killed her uncle.

Liliana Segura: William Bennett, that is. The grocery store owner who was beaten to death with a bat.

Tim Eidson: And that was my ex-wife’s uncle. That’s how I knew all of these people. You know, I mean, that’s how I found out about Hercules Brown’s DNA. Nobody ever called me on the phone and said, “Hey, let’s tell you about that ski mask.” I hadn’t worked with the prosecution in several years. It wasn’t like it was shocking because his name kept popping up during the hearing.

Liliana Segura: Not just at the hearing, but at Inman’s trial, too. Back then, several people said Hercules either confessed to them or had asked them to rob the Taco Bell with him. But Eidson and Ellis had convinced the judge not to let any of them testify. At the hearing, Amy Maxwell reminded the judge that he had ruled against Inman’s lawyers when they tried to introduce that evidence at trial. “Is that a nice, euphemistic way of saying I screwed up?” the judge said. Maxwell said no, of course not.

Jordan Smith: The judge wasn’t the only one being defensive. When Steinberg, the GBI agent, took the stand, he was downright surly. Maxwell asked if he’d done any more investigation after he got the DNA match to Hercules. Steinberg said no.  Did he try to see if the fingerprints from Donna Brown’s car matched Hercules? “I just answered that question,” he said. If there was any doubt the judge wasn’t taking things all that seriously, his ruling would make it pretty clear. They lost the case and Inman would remain in prison. Adding insult to injury, the judge asked the prosecutor to write up his decision for him. That isn’t supposed to happen, but it does. This is Maxwell’s colleague, Christina Cribbs.

Christina Cribbs: He gave no reasoning, he allowed the state to draft the order, to explain why the ruling was coming their way. So we really had zero insight into what made the judge go one way or the other, and we never did. We do know that he told us in an email as well, that he wouldn’t be surprised if he was overturned on appeal, that he thought it was a really close case.

Jordan Smith: We asked Bob Ellis, the former prosecutor, if there was any chance the state might have gotten it wrong.

Bob Ellis: There’s a chance that the sun will rise in the west. You hope you get it right. I just don’t know. Based on what we had at the time, we felt strongly that we had the right guy or we wouldn’t have gone forward.

Jordan Smith: We tried the question a different way.

Liliana Segura: In light of the DNA testing that was done and the fact that there are people asking questions about this conviction, even if you have a different perspective, are you glad that the jury didn’t come back with a death sentence in this case?

Bob Ellis: I think I’m probably neutral. I think it is what it is.

Jordan Smith: It is what it is.

Liliana Segura: It’s easy to say that when you’re not sitting in a prison cell for a crime you didn’t commit. The ruling was confounding to Maxwell and Cribbs. They didn’t understand how the judge could shrug at a clear miscarriage of justice. He knew that the defense had always suspected Hercules Brown was guilty. Now that they DNA to prove it, he didn’t seem to care.

Christina Cribbs: So, to me, that was a no brainer. Here’s what you wanted. Here’s scientific evidence. Here’s objective proof that Hercules was involved in this, and how do you not get a new trial based on that? The jury should know. So let’s have a new trial, let’s present Hercules as an alternate suspect and let’s let the jury hear about the DNA and these people who said Hercules confessed to them. But the judge didn’t go for it.

Liliana Segura: And also, the state was now claiming that their entire theory of the case, that Inman acted alone, wasn’t their theory at all. Instead, Inman conspired with Hercules to kill Donna Brown. Maxwell and Cribbs knew they had to appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. But the law says that the Court doesn’t have to review the case if it doesn’t want to.

Christina Cribbs: The Supreme Court decides whether they want to look at the case or not. If they decide they don’t want to look at the case, then you’re stuck with the trial court’s decision and there’s nowhere to go from there.

Jordan Smith: And guess what? The Georgia Supreme Court wasn’t interested. They rejected the appeal.

Liliana Segura: The lawyers were devastated. They were certain Inman was innocent and that Hercules killed Donna Brown.

Aimee Maxwell: I pretty much think about this case almost every day. I can’t believe that this young man is in prison for the rest of his life based on a bunch of liars.

Liliana Segura: It wasn’t long after Maxwell received the news from the Georgia Supreme Court that Jessica Cino walked into her office. Since joining the faculty at Georgia State, Cino had developed a pretty close relationship with the Innocence Project.

Jessica Cino: I wanted to talk and hang out ’cause I love talking to other lawyers and learning about their cases, and they had just gotten the letter from the Georgia Supreme Court declining review and so Aimee started telling me about this case.

Liliana Segura: Cino was horrified.

Jessica Cino: I think even my own notions of how the criminal justice system worked and how pivotal DNA evidence is in cases was tested.

Liliana Segura: She started reading Inman’s case file. The more she did, the more disturbed she was. She knew she had to find a way to help Inman.

Jessica Cino: I don’t even necessarily know if there’s really a way to define what it is about the case other than it’s just so appalling and depressing that if I don’t try to do everything I can, then who I think of as myself as a lawyer doesn’t really matter much. This is a case that cries out for people to look at and to re-examine and I wouldn’t be able to just walk away from it.

Jordan Smith: There were all the recanting witnesses. The people who’d told the GBI that Hercules was responsible for the murder. The fact that Hercules was in prison for killing Bennett and Browning and the rumors that he’d also been involved in Patel’s death.

Jessica Cino: Yeah, I mean, it’s convenient, right? The minute he gets locked up, people stop dying in this little town. That says a lot and it would be great if he could answer questions about that.

Jordan Smith: We tried to reach Hercules Brown a bunch of times. He only responded once with a brief letter. He wrote that he had nothing to say. For Cino, one of the biggest red flags in the case was that the prosecutors changed their theory of the crime. Going from Inman acted alone to Inman and Hercules did it together.

Jessica Cino: I would call it a bait and switch, absolutely.

Jordan Smith: And what the prosecution did? It wasn’t legal.

Jessica Cino: The indictment that says that one and only one person committed this crime. And they never left room in the indictment for anybody else.

Jordan Smith: So how can they do that?

Jessica Cino: Under Georgia law, they should not be able to do that.

Jordan Smith: The case offended her. She gathered together a team of law students. They went to see Inman and made a number of trips to Adel to poke around. Finally, Cino enlisted the help of attorneys from Troutman Sanders, a prestigious Atlanta law firm. She convinced them to take over the case for free.

Liliana Segura: But there was a problem. The Georgia Supreme Court had refused to consider the case and that meant Inman was basically out of options. He had no easy avenue of appeal. Remember that notion of finality the criminal justice system loves so much? That’s what Inman was up against.

Jessica Cino: The US constitution does not guarantee that only guilty people get convicted. The US constitution merely guarantees that you are entitled to a fair trial and if the system has deemed that even you, innocent person, got a fair trial, then you’re screwed. You don’t have a constitutional right to come back and prove your innocence after you’ve been convicted. The whole point to it is we reinforce finality because we want the criminal justice system to be able to sleep at night, so we can’t go around just willy-nilly overturning convictions because that would be a serious problem.

Liliana Segura: The lawyers would have to find a way to squeeze back into court, and it wouldn’t be easy. While they worked on tackling the legal arguments, Cino became Inman’s lifeline to the outside world. For the hundreds of hours she’s poured into the case, in some ways, that’s the hardest part: managing his expectations.

Jessica Cino: It keeps me up at night. Because whenever I talk to him on the phone, and he always asks me “What are the chances of me getting out? Do I have a good chance?” He wants to be optimistic and the lawyer in me knows the reality of what he faces, of it being an uphill battle.

Liliana Segura: The lawyers wanted to prove that Inman is innocent. But in order to do so, they would need to show that his constitutional rights were violated at trial. Without that, the courts wouldn’t even consider another appeal. Not one based only on his claim of innocence. But the chances of finding something new, so many years later, was a longshot. And then they found it.

Jordan Smith: Last year, Troutman Sanders sent an investigator down to Adel to find more people to talk to. They found Kim Brooks. She had gone to work at the Taco Bell shortly after Donna Brown was murdered. In fact, she took over Brown’s position. Hercules was still working there at the time. And what Brooks remembers is a pretty big deal. Big enough that it could get Inman back into court. Brooks said that when she worked at the Taco Bell, Hercules harassed her. He would “play” like he was going to rob her and hurt her. More importantly, she said that Hercules Brown asked her to help him pull off an “inside job” to rob the store. He would “rough her up” to make it look realistic, and they would split the money. This is the same thing that Inman’s cousin Takeisha Pickett told us. She said Hercules had asked her to rob the Taco Bell too. But that’s not the only thing. Brooks says that at one point, Hercules confessed that he had done something “bad.” He didn’t say what. But she asked him if someone else was going to pay for it. He said, “It’s better their life than mine.”

Liliana Segura: This is pretty damning. But it’s not even the craziest part. Kim Brooks didn’t sit on this information. Hercules creeped her out enough that she decided to tell the cops. There was this one police sergeant, Joel Reddick, who would escort her to the bank to do the night deposits. She tried to tell him about Hercules’ suspicious behavior, but he brushed her off. Still, she wouldn’t let it go. So finally, he told her to call the GBI. Jamy Steinberg. In a legal filing, lawyers from Troutman Sanders describe what happened next:

“Ms. Brooks contacted Agent Steinberg to inform him that she believed Mr. Brown to be involved with Donna Brown’s murder. In response, Ms. Brooks was informed that Donna Brown’s murderer had been found, and that the case was closed. Ms. Brooks believes that this conversation occurred sometime in the months after the murder, but no later than December 1998.”

Jordan Smith: In December 1998, Devonia Inman hadn’t even been indicted yet. The information that Brooks provided to the GBI should have been included in the police report and shared with Inman’s lawyers before his trial. It’s what is known as “Brady material.” Facts and evidence that contradict the state’s case. But it wasn’t reported and it wasn’t handed over. That’s a constitutional violation. The kind of violation that could get Inman back into court.

Liliana Segura: This past January, the legal team at Troutman Sanders filed a special appeal seeking to overturn Inman’s conviction. It’s what is known as a “writ of habeas corpus.” The appeal is currently pending before a state district judge. It’s a major long shot and there’s no telling when the judge will rule. It could take years, because the law doesn’t put a deadline on such decisions. We tried to reach Steinberg again. He previously brushed us off, said Inman’s case was closed and he had nothing more to say about it.

Lisa: GBI, this is Lisa, how can I help you?

Liliana Segura: Hi, yes, I was hoping to reach Jamy Steinberg.

Lisa: He will return to the office tomorrow. Can I give him a message to return your call?

Liliana Segura: That’d be great, yea. My name is Liliana Segura…

Liliana Segura: He didn’t call us back. We were able to reach Joel Reddick, the Adel cop Brooks told about Hercules. He wasn’t particularly helpful either.

Liliana Segura: So yea, so Kim Brooks, the reason we were asking you about her is that in the weeks and months after Donna Brown died, she says that she knew you because apparently you used to be one of the police officers who would provide an escort when, you know-

Joel Reddick: Yeah.

Liliana Segura: Yeah. To make deposits at the bank, so she knew you from there and she says that she told you at one point that she had been disturbed by some behavior and some things that were said by Hercules Brown who she was working with at the night shift at the Taco Bell.

Joel Reddick: I don’t remember none of that. I- seriously I don’t. I didn’t even remember that Kim Brooks you just said.

Liliana Segura: This wasn’t a big surprise. For all the cops we’ve talked to over these last three years, hardly anyone remembers anything. To be honest, we didn’t remember who Reddick was until we went back to the GBI report. It turns out he was one of the first cops dispatched to the Taco Bell. Only he and his partner went to the wrong parking lot. Twice. First to the Waffle House and then the Huddle House, before finally finding the crime scene next door. To Cino, Brooks’ story was a bombshell.

Jessica Cino: So I think my reaction at first was, “oh my god, this is huge.” Right? There’s this feeling of elation of, you know, it’s not a smoking gun, but it certainly helps his case, especially from the perspective of, we have to clear some procedural legal hurdles in order for a court to hear this case. So in one aspect, it’s that. You think about it, like, she reported it. She tried to get them to do something. And this was, you know, decades ago. Like, it’s just- It’s staggering and it’s sad. It’s infuriating. And I’m not the one sitting in prison. I can’t imagine how he feels about this.

Jordan Smith: Talking to Devonia Inman is not easy. We’ve talked to him a number of times on the phone. He is despairing and quite often, deeply depressed.

Devonia Inman: These people don’t even care about messing, they don’t care about my life. How somebody can just find somebody guilty for something and they didn’t even did nothing?

Jordan Smith: He doesn’t understand why he is still in prison, even though DNA clears him. His parents, Dinah and David Ray, don’t understand it either.

Liliana Segura: Do you remember when you heard about the DNA evidence?

Dinah Ray: Yes. I remember we were sitting in front of my job in the car on our lunch break when Aimee called us and told us that the DNA had came back and it was Hercules Brown and all we could do was cry. We thought, this is it. He’s going to be coming home soon. But that didn’t happen.

David Ray: It’s been almost what, six years? Six years since they had the DNA evidence, and they still didn’t let him come home. That’s me and my wife, she wrote everybody. The president to everybody. And we still can’t believe this.

Jordan Smith: Jessica Cino has spent a lot of time trying to explain this to Inman and to his parents and to anyone else who will listen.

Jessica Cino: I think the issue that shocks the most people is how it is so different from what they read in the headlines of, oh, there’s DNA, points to somebody else, somebody else who we can actually go and look at who that person is and see, oh, they actually went on to commit similar crimes to this… and the courts don’t care. That they just don’t give a damn. And I think that to most people is probably what shocks them because it does not fit into any of those nice little boxes that we like to put wrongful convictions in. We like to think that they get solved and ultimately, the wheels of Justice turn the way they’re supposed to but in this case, it didn’t.

Liliana Segura: And it’s not just in this case. We’ve written a lot of stories about people who are in similar circumstances. Innocent and in prison, out of appeals, sometimes facing execution, and nobody seems to care. People think that mistakes in the criminal justice system are rare and just get sorted out on their own, but they don’t. In a way, Devonia Inman is lucky, because he has a dedicated legal team actively trying to help him. That’s not a given. Still, they may not be able to help him in the end. He may die in prison.

David Ray: This is supposed to be the justice system? My son been wrongly accused of this justice system. Something is wrong with this system. It needs to be checked again.

Jordan Smith: It’s not too late. But it’s up to Georgia now to fix it.

Murderville, Georgia is a production of The Intercept and Topic Studios. Alisa Roth is our producer. Ben Adair is our editor. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Bryan Pugh. Production assistance from Isabel Robertson. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. For The Intercept, Roger Hodge is our editor and Betsy Reed is the editor-in-chief. I’m Liliana Segura. And I’m Jordan Smith. You can read our series and see photos at You can also follow us on Twitter @lilianasegura and @chronic_jordan. Thanks for listening.

The post Episode Six: New Evidence appeared first on The Intercept.

Trump’s Shutdown Offer Creates a De Facto Asylum Ban for Central American Minors

President Donald Trump’s new offer to open the federal government in exchange for funding for his wall on the southern U.S. border includes a major change to immigration policy that was not included as part of his public announcement.

The Trump administration had claimed that it would support legislation known as the BRIDGE Act — which includes protections for Dreamers — in exchange for concessions by Democrats. Upon closer investigation, that turned out to be a lie.

Trump’s offer to Democrats, revealed Monday night, actually gives him even more of what he has wanted in immigration policy, which is an end to the legal process that allows people to present themselves at a U.S. port of entry and apply for asylum. Trump’s new policy would ban such asylum-seeking for Central American minors and require those fleeing violence or persecution to apply in their own country instead.

The Trump administration, however, has also made that process effectively impossible. The appropriations bill that’s currently on the negotiating table creates the “Central American Minors Protection Act,” which would allow minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras with a “qualified parent or guardian” in the United States to apply for asylum in their home countries. (The bill does not define “qualified” parent, and it’s unclear whether the program would be limited to the children of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.) But far from treating would-be asylum-seekers’ claims with urgency, the bill gives 240 days (about eight months) for the establishment of eight processing centers that would deal with these claims — even though the ban on requesting asylum at the border would go into effect immediately.

“There is no way to square the way the administration has described this plan with what it actually is.”

“There is no way to square the way the administration has described this plan with what it actually is,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, describing the proposal as a “de facto asylum ban” for the vast majority of cases. Central American minors who don’t have a qualified parent would no longer have a route to asylum, though they could ostensibly come to the border and request lesser protections with no route to citizenship, like withholding of removal or protections under the Convention Against Torture, Reichlin-Melnick noted.

The bill also caps the number of applications that can be processed at 50,000 per year, and says no more than 15,000 people can be granted asylum under the program annually. The Department of Homeland Security’s decision would not be subject to judicial review. If the legislation is passed, people who are eligible for the program will could be sent back to their home countries — without regard for their fear of persecution — if they trek to the U.S. and ask for asylum here.

The notion that asylum-seekers should apply back in their own countries is often presented with a veneer of humanitarian concern. Trump said in a speech on Saturday that the “heartbreaking realities that are hurting innocent, precious human beings every single day on both sides of the border” must end.

Indeed, even former President Barack Obama agreed to some extent that applying to emigrate while in one’s home country was better than asking for asylum at the U.S. border. And so, in 2014, as thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors were showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Obama administration created the little-known Central American Minors program to encourage people to do just that.

CAM allowed children who were fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — and who had family members legally in the United States — to be considered for refugee resettlement while they were still in their home countries. Those who didn’t meet the eligibility criteria for refugee admission could be granted humanitarian parole, a temporary designation that would allow them to spend two years in the United States. (Notably, the Obama-era program was a supplement to existing asylum protections. Unlike the current GOP proposal, it didn’t impact the process of requesting asylum at the border.)

CAM was created for the children of people like Carmen Polanco, who is in the United States under Temporary Protected Status and has not seen her 13-year-old son since she fled El Salvador in 2011. Shortly after she left, her son witnessed a gruesome gang murder, a traumatizing experience that’s been followed by years of intimidation and bullying by local gangs, said Polanco, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym to protect her family. In 2015, she applied to be reunited with her son under CAM. His refugee application was rejected, but in late 2016, Polanco’s son was conditionally approved for parole, and he was set to undergo a medical examination in early 2017.

Then Trump entered office, and Polanco’s son’s exam was inexplicably canceled. The government’s website continued to broadcast word of the program, yet applicants at various stages throughout the process began to notice that their applications were not moving. In August of that year, DHS finally announced that it was canceling the program. DHS also rescinded parole for about 2,700 people who, like Polanco’s son, had been conditionally approved for parole but had not yet traveled to the United States.

We now know, thanks to a lawsuit filed by the International Refugee Assistance Project, that the Trump administration shut down the CAM program — canceling interviews and blocking travel to the United States — in January 2017, without notifying the public.

“The sudden, unexplained shutdown of the CAM parole program, which was carried out in secret immediately after President Trump’s inauguration, can only be explained by the president’s animus toward Latinos and Central Americans,” said Linda Evarts, an attorney at IRAP.

Last month, U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler found that the administration’s mass rescission of conditional approvals of parole was illegal under the Administrative Procedure Act, which deals with the way federal administrative agencies propose and establish regulations. Beeler’s decision was narrow, but it represents yet another instance of the courts rejecting rash policy changes by the Trump administration that have the intended, if unspoken, effect of keeping Latin American migrants out of the United States, regardless of how they try to get here.

IRAP brought the lawsuit on behalf of 12 applicants and beneficiaries of the CAM program, charging that the abrupt termination of the program moving forward was also illegal under the APA, and that the Trump administration’s actions were unconstitutional. Beeler rejected those claims, and she has not yet ruled on IRAP’s motion for a preliminary injunction that would force the Trump administration to reverse its rescission.

Still, Evarts described Beeler’s ruling as “a very important first step,” because the judge’s finding that the government violated the APA could set the stage for how she will rule on the preliminary injunction.

“The proposed legislation…would create a second-class asylum system for Central American children that is irrational and cruel.”

The Trump administration’s new proposal for Central American minors does nothing for those impacted by the 2017 rescission of conditional parole, Evarts said. “The proposed legislation would eviscerate the humanitarian protection system for asylum seekers that has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades. It would create a second-class asylum system for Central American children that is irrational and cruel, requiring them to apply from their home countries or be denied asylum.”

In this Nov. 12, 2015, photo, Wendy Mejia, 16, hugs her aunt after her arrival from El Salvador at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Linthicum, Md. After 15 years apart, Wendy and her brother Brian reunited with their parents, becoming among the first teenagers to be granted refugee status and permission to travel legally to the United States through the State Department's Central American Minor program. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Wendy Mejia, 16, hugs her aunt after her arrival from El Salvador at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Nov. 12, 2015. After 15 years apart, Wendy and her brother Brian reunited with their parents, becoming among the first teenagers to be granted refugee status and permission to travel legally to the United States through the State Department’s Central American Minor program.

Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

By creating the CAM program, the Obama administration acknowledged that the threat posed by gangs and state security forces in the Northern Triangle countries could amount to persecution or a fear of persecution, one of the elements of a refugee claim. Typically, refugee resettlement is an option only available to individuals who’ve already fled their home countries, but the U.S. government wanted to discourage minors from making the perilous journey through Central America.

Within the first week of Trump’s presidency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is housed in DHS, canceled more than 2,000 CAM interviews that were scheduled in the first three months of 2017, according to court documents. The government also stopped issuing decisions to people who’d been interviewed under the program, stopped scheduling medical exams for people who had been conditionally approved for parole, and blocked travel for people who had cleared their medical exams. As all this was happening, “at least five webpages controlled by USCIS, the State Department, and the U.S. embassies in El Salvador and Honduras represented that the CAM program continued to be in operation,” Beeler wrote in her order.

The program was initially halted in anticipation of Trump’s January 27, 2017, executive order that is best known for containing the first iteration of the travel ban. Then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly issued a memo about implementing the executive order, in which he stressed that parole should be granted only “sparingly.”

In August 2017, the government said publicly for the first time that it had terminated the program and rescinded conditional offers of parole to 2,700 Central American minors. Those individuals were later told that they had 90 days to file a request for review of the denial of refugee status, in which they could present evidence that the officer who rejected their applications made a significant error, or that there are new facts that warrant a reconsideration of the officer’s decision. (There is no appeal process for such rejections, and it’s entirely within USCIS’s discretion whether to grant a review of an application.) “Many of those who filed [requests for review] in 2017 or early 2018 have not yet received decisions” on those requests, Beeler wrote.

Polanco filed a request for review in her son’s case in December 2017, and she has not yet heard back from USCIS, she said. She’s so desperate to be reunited with him that she’s “even thought about leaving and going there and bringing him back with me, walking,” Polanco said, speaking through an interpreter. Her son left Polanco’s parent’s home and is now living with her sister, due to his fear of gang activity in his family’s neighborhood. “He cannot go to church anymore. He cannot go to the stores. He cannot get out of the house,” Polanco said.


In a December 2016 report, outgoing USCIS Ombudsman Maria Odom called CAM “one of the most important programs DHS has developed in the last four years,” though she cautioned that it formed just “one piece of a comprehensive regional response needed to address the Northern Triangle refugee crisis.”

The program, as important as it was, was also flawed. Odom identified eight issues of concern in her report, including lengthy processing times, narrow eligibility criteria, and high costs. Another shortcoming of the program identified by advocates, as The Intercept previously reported, is that already fearful Central Americans put themselves at risk merely by applying for protections under the program — by repeatedly traveling to capital cities for interviews, people risked being tracked and hunted down by gangs.

A 2016 report prepared by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and grassroots groups in Central America and the United States found that “few minors (according to our survey, 2.5%) who take the traditional migration route through Mexico to seek asylum in the United States are aware of the CAM program. And even fewer (according to our survey, 1%) feel CAM is a legitimate alternative for them. Most could not wait a year to flee or did not fit the eligibility criteria.”

The report authors recommended an expansion of the program. Instead, Trump got rid of it.  

During its short run, CAM provided a “lifeline” for many families, said Katie Shepherd, national advocacy counsel at the American Immigration Council. “It certainly wasn’t a perfect solution to a very systemic and difficult problem — that problem being pervasive gangs, domestic violence, and regional instability — but it did provide some avenue to some small portion of people, right? So it wasn’t a solution to the problem, but it did remedy the problem in some regards.”

The post Trump’s Shutdown Offer Creates a De Facto Asylum Ban for Central American Minors appeared first on The Intercept.

Trump’s Border Wall Would Destroy Historic Gravesites in South Texas

Ramiro R. Ramírez remembers his grandmother, when he was a young child, planting a red rose bush to mark the gravesite of Nathaniel Jackson, his great-great grandfather. With time, the rose bush vanished, like the wooden cross marking Jackson’s death in 1865. But Jackson’s legacy was not forgotten, nor that of his wife Matilda Hicks, an emancipated slave who forged a life with Nathaniel, a white man and son of a plantation owner.

The interracial couple, along with their eldest son Eli Jackson and six other children, fled a racist South and persecution under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, searching for acceptance and peace. Joined by 11 other former slaves, in five covered wagons, they set out from Alabama for a new life in Mexico, where slavery had been outlawed. When they arrived in 1857 at the Rio Grande, they decided to settle in Texas, since a lack of Spanish would be less of an impediment there. And Mexico was just across the river, a short boat journey to safety if they ever needed to escape.

The families living on Jackson Ranch in the small town of Pharr, near McAllen, Texas, prospered, with many of the African-American men and women marrying into local Tejano and Mexican families. And the ranch became an important outpost on the Underground Railroad, where Matilda and Nathaniel would spirit escaped slaves across the river to freedom in Mexico.

At the ranch, a multiracial community of tolerance thrived. Now 70, Ramírez and other descendants of the Jackson family are fighting to save their family’s legacy and the gravesites of Nathaniel and Matilda, which could be destroyed by a border wall up to 30 feet high, one of the first sec

tions of President Donald Trump’s wall slated to go up. This stretch would include not only a steel and concrete wall, but also a 150-foot-wide “enforcement zone” — an all-weather road and surveillance towers — that is slated to be built straight through the family cemetery in the coming year.

“They’re going to cut right through the heart of it,”Ramírez said of the Eli Jackson Cemetery, where Nathaniel and Matilda are buried. “We don’t know if they’re going to exhume the bodies or just run right over them. And we’re doing everything we can to stop it.”

Ramiro Roberto Ramírez, 70, sits in front of the Martin Jackson Church and Cemetery in San Juan, Tex. on Nov. 6, 2018. The church was built by his great-great grandfather in the late 1800s. The new proposed wall would leave this property on the south side of it.Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Ramiro Ramírez, 70, sits in front of the chapel at the Jackson Ranch and Cemetery in San Juan, Texas, on Nov. 6, 2018.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

But Ramírez and his family face a tough battle. A provision under the 2005 Real ID Act gives the secretary of Homeland Security unilateral authority to waive any federal law that would impede construction of the border wall, and exempts the wall from compliance with such laws as the Antiquities Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, which would normally require public hearings regarding the destruction of important historical, archeological, and burial sites, many of which now sit in the border wall’s path. Two waivers have already been filed by DHS to build walls nearby, but not yet on the segment of the border in Hidalgo County, which includes the Eli Jackson Cemetery and the Jackson Ranch Chapel and Cemetery. Both hold Jackson family ancestors. But the Eli Jackson Cemetery is more endangered, said Ramírez, because it lies adjacent to the levee where the wall will be built, which means that the enforcement zone south of the levee wall will run right through the cemetery. The other cemetery is far enough from the levee to not be harmed directly, he said. But it will be behind the wall, cut off from the rest of Texas.

In 2018, the Trump administration received $1.6 billion to build 33 miles of wall in the Rio Grande Valley, which encompasses the four border counties at the southernmost tip of Texas — Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron, and Willacy. In October and November, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued two contracts worth $312 million to a Texas-based construction firm, SLSCO, to build the first 14 miles through Hidalgo County near the cemeteries. Reports in the local newspaper that construction could begin as early as February sent a shock of alarm through the many descendants of the Jackson clan, said Sylvia Ramírez, Ramiro’s sister.

Sylvia said that despite their efforts to speak with officials at CBP, the agency overseeing the wall’s construction, they’ve received no response about the fate of the cemeteries. The family was further troubled when CBP announced that it would hold no public meetings on the wall’s construction — only online webinars. Sylvia said she posted a question online during the Q&A portion of the October 30 webinar, asking about the fate of the cemeteries and their relatives buried there. “They seemed to be unaware of the cemeteries in the area,” she told me. “They said they’d try to work with us, but I felt like they were only trying to appease me.”

Rattled by CBP’s lackadaisical response, Sylvia, Ramiro, and other Jackson family descendants hired a lawyer, who sent out a detailed letter to CBP in November with the geographical coordinates of the cemeteries holding their ancestors. “The Jackson Family is determined to protect the sacred gravesites of their ancestors and the historic Jackson Ranch Church from the negative impacts of the border wall,” the family wrote. “The building of the wall should not be undertaken until an exhaustive analysis is completed. The stakes are too high.”

Ramiro Roberto Ramírez’s parent’s graves at the Martin Jackson Church and Cemetery in San Juan, Tex. on Nov. 6, 2018. Ramírez, his wife and sister will be buried there where their headstones are already engraved with their names. The new proposed wall would leave this property on the south side of it.Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Ramiro Ramírez’s parent’s graves at the Jackson Church and Cemetery in San Juan, Texas, on Nov. 6, 2018. Ramírez, his wife, and sister plan to be buried there, where their headstones are already engraved with their names.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

But as of mid-January, the family had still not received a response from CBP. “We are just waiting and worrying,” Sylvia said. Trump’s announcement that he might call a “national emergency” and have the military quickly build the wall has caused further panic. “I feel like we’re ants under the heel of the government,” she said. “Just struggling to have our voices heard.”

Right now, Sylvia told me, they’re lacking even the most basic of information: When will construction begin?

In the last year, the agency has held only general information and invitation-only meetings with landowners and their legal representatives and done little public outreach in Spanish, which many residents speak in the Rio Grande Valley. Sylvia said that she had one brief phone call with a Border Patrol spokesperson at the request of a congressman, but beyond that, no members of the Jackson Family have been contacted by CBP about its plans. “He made it clear that it was going to happen,” she said of the Border Patrol representative she spoke with. “And the only input we’d have is whether the gate would remain open during the day, or we’d have an access code.”

Creating more confusion, during the October webinar, CBP released a map showing that a waiver had been filed for the segment of border wall that will go through the cemeteries. But there was no notice in the Federal Register that a waiver for that section had been filed. In mid-December, a CBP spokesperson confirmed this. “The area … is not part of the RGV 02/03 waiver,” Carlos Diaz, a CBP spokesperson, said by email. This could indicate that construction will not begin as soon as February on that segment, but Diaz confirmed that construction could start as early as next month on nearby tracts of land.

The Martin Jackson Church and Cemetery in San Juan, Tex. on Nov. 6, 2018. The new proposed wall would leave this property on the south side of it.Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

The chapel at the Jackson Ranch and Cemetery in San Juan, Texas, on Nov. 6, 2018.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Recently, I met with Ramiro, Sylvia, and other members of the family outside the small, white clapboard church at the Jackson Ranch and Cemetery. Ramiro, a horse breeder and psychologist, said he’d spent any spare hours he could muster rebuilding and maintaining the chapel, which was founded in 1874 by Nathaniel and Matilda’s son Martin and became the first Methodist Church in the region. The chapel held services until 2008, when it was flooded. Since the construction of the wall was announced, Ramiro has been working diligently to have the deed transferred to a newly created nonprofit trust run by the family that will care for the chapel and the cemetery, a registered Texas historic landmark.

“This is not just about the past, but also our future,” said Ramírez. He showed me his own granite headstone, which already stands next to his father’s gravesite in the shadow of the church. “It’s really upsetting knowing that I, my wife, and my children will be here one day with a wall between us and the rest of the country. If the wall goes up, I don’t think the church will survive,” he said, because a gate will block the road, which requires an access code from DHS. “We don’t know how people will be able to get in and out, and no one talks to us from the government.”

We climbed into Ramiro’s King Ranch double-cab pickup and bumped down a dirt road less than a quarter mile to the Eli Jackson Cemetery, where Nathaniel and Matilda are buried. Both graves are now unmarked, Ramiro told me, and their exact locations within the cemetery were lost after his grandmother died. “I know they are both here,” he told me scanning the cemetery, which holds at least 150 graves. “I just don’t know where.”

A grave at the Eli Jackson Cemetery in San Juan, Tex. on Nov. 6, 2018. The new proposed wall would leave this property on the south side of it. Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

A grave at the Eli Jackson Cemetery in San Juan, Texas, on Nov. 6, 2018.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

The tall grass and mesquite trees have run wild in the decades since he was a boy, obscuring many of the old gravesites dating back to the 1800s. Ramiro wants to locate their burial sites, and he and the family plan to rehabilitate the cemetery.

What many don’t realize in the rest of the country, Ramiro said, pointing toward the levee at the edge of the cemetery, is that the border wall is being built not on the river, the effective border with Mexico, but on the levee, which is about a mile in from the Rio Grande. “Then they want a 150-foot-wide enforcement zone south of the wall,” he said. “And that worries me.”

Ramírez has good cause for concern. During the first bout of border wall building in neighboring Cameron County a decade ago, at least one small historic ranching cemetery was bulldozed. That stretch of steel 18-foot fencing was built right on top of the gravesites, which probably dated back to the late 19th or early 20th century, according to Gene Fernandez, site manager of the Brownsville Museum and a local historian. Fernandez said Cameron County alone has anywhere between 100 and 120 hidden or forgotten ranching cemeteries.

Of the burial sites that were bulldozed, Fernandez described it as a small family plot, containing three or four burials. He does not know who they were, he said. “When the advance team was out there doing the earth moving, a local man told them there were some old burials there, a family plot, and the guy in charge just blatantly said, ‘We don’t have it on our map.’ And that’s as far as it went,” Fernandez said.

In 2008, Ned Norris Jr., chair of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona, testified during a congressional hearing that a similar incident had happened on ancestral land during the construction of a border barrier. “Fragments of human remains were observed in the tire tracks of the heavy construction equipment,” said Norris. “Imagine a bulldozer parking in your family graveyard, turning up bones. This is our reality.”

Curious to learn more about what happened in Brownsville, I tracked down the local man, and he confirmed what Fernandez had told me, though he asked me not to use his name because he fears retaliation. He said the bulldozing of the burial sites in Brownsville had happened in June 2009. “The contractor said he had no knowledge of the burial sites on his map when I told him about it. They just kept building.” He said he did not remember the names of the people who were buried there, but that there were once wooden crosses there. The crosses had disappeared by 2009, he said, though there were still empty glass votive candles around the gravesites.

Kiewit, the company in charge of the construction in 2009, declined to comment, referring the request to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Fernandez, who is also chair of the Cemeteries Committee for the Cameron County Historical Commission, said the destruction of the burial site in Brownsville is the only such incident he’s aware of, and it happened “before I was active down here.” Fernandez says he now serves as a liaison on a CBP border security committee to make sure no other historic graves are destroyed.

In Cameron County, some historic cemeteries have already ended up behind the wall in the roughly mile-wide strip of land between the Rio Grande and the steel and concrete barrier — what many locals now call “no man’s land.”

Estela Aguilar Hernandez, left, and her daughter Cecilia Hernandez carry flowers for the graves of deceased relatives into the Santa Rosalia Cemetery on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in Brownsville, Texas. Hernandez' grandparents and many other relatives are buried at the cemetery, which is located south of the border wall just north of the Rio Grande. Hernandez fears last year's approval of border gate funding will limit access to the cemetery.  (Nathan Lambrecht/The Monitor via AP)

Estela Aguilar Hernandez, left, and her daughter Cecilia Hernandez carry flowers for the graves of deceased relatives into the Santa Rosalia Cemetery on Oct. 24, 2017, in Brownsville, Texas.

Photo: Nathan Lambrecht/The Monitor via AP

Three generations of Juan Jose Gonzalez’s family are buried in the Santa Rosalia Cemetery, which dates back to the 1800s and is now behind an 18-foot border fence in Brownsville.

“The wall is very intimidating,” said Gonzalez. “People think they can’t go there because it’s not safe, or it’s Mexico. And if they are undocumented, they won’t take the chance because there are Border Patrol agents roaming around and visible at all times.”

Gonzalez, a local middle school teacher, started the Santa Rosalia Cemetery Preservation Society two years ago to make sure the cemetery was not forgotten behind the imposing barrier. He said he encourages relatives to visit their loved ones there, despite the wall. “I tell them it’s safe to go, it’s OK.”

But now he’s worried that their access to their loved ones at the cemetery could be cut off. For the last decade, there has been a gap in the wall where a road leads to the cemetery’s entrance. CBP is building a large metal gate there now, which concerns Gonzalez. “I haven’t spoken with CBP myself, but I’ve heard they may keep it open during the day, but close it at night,” he said. “No one really knows.”

Sylvia Ramírez fears something similar will happen to her ancestors at Jackson Ranch and the Eli Jackson Cemetery. They’ll be walled off from their descendants, or even worse, their graves desecrated to make way for Trump’s wall. “We’re not under any illusion that we can stop it,” she said. “But maybe if there’s enough of us, we can still make some noise and slow it down.”

In Hidalgo County, the historic cemeteries the Jackson clan is fighting to save have a better chance than most, because they are so well-documented. Roseann Bacha-Garza, a historian with the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, has been piecing together the history of Jackson Ranch and its importance in the Underground Railroad during the Civil War era. “This history is so little known and not enough attention has been paid to it,” said Bacha-Garza. “Most Americans have no idea that the last land battle of the Civil War actually happened here — and a month after the war was technically over. The waters of the Rio Grande were considered neutral territory, because of Mexico, and the Union could not blockade the Confederacy, some of who were flying Mexican flags on their ships. Tejanos fought here, the U.S. Colored Troops too,” she said.

Four years ago, Bacha-Garza and other scholars at the university launched a program called the RGV Civil War Trail Project to document important cultural artifacts and history in the region. So far, they’ve created a series of bilingual podcasts and a tourism guide of Civil War history in the area, a history that is now being taught in the schools for the first time. “We’ve developed a curriculum and lesson plans and been working with teachers, so they can take their students on field trips up and down the 200-mile Civil War Trail in the Rio Grande Valley,” she said. “We’re trying to instill community pride and uncover the past so that children can get a sense of their cultural heritage.”

The trail largely follows the present-day Military Highway, which runs east and west along the border. In the Civil War era, it was a well-trodden route between Fort Ringgold in rural Starr County and Fort Brown in the busy port city of Brownsville, which was used by both Confederate and Union troops.

Ramiro Roberto Ramírez’s walks into Eli Jackson Cemetery where his ancestors are buried in San Juan, Tex. on Nov. 6, 2018. The new proposed wall would leave this property on the south side of it. Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Ramiro Ramírez walks toward the Eli Jackson Cemetery on Nov. 6, 2018.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Jackson Ranch was an important stopping point along the way. Nathaniel Jackson was a loyal Unionist. Another member of the community, Abraham Rutledge, fought as a partisan ranger for the Confederacy. Cemeteries from these old ranching communities, like Jackson Ranch, dot both sides of the Military Highway along the river.

Bacha-Garza said she’s deeply saddened by the idea that Jackson Ranch and other historical sites they’ve mapped in the last four years will soon be behind a border wall.

The story of Jackson Ranch should be better known, she said. During a tumultuous time in America’s history, when brother fought against brother, people of different races and religions formed a vibrant mixed community on the Texas border that still flourishes. “It’s very important regional history,” she said. “And this heritage will be cut off from us.”

This article was produced in partnership with Type Investigations, where Melissa del Bosque is a Lannan reporting fellow.

The post Trump’s Border Wall Would Destroy Historic Gravesites in South Texas appeared first on The Intercept.

Meet the Team Behind CNN Brasil: A Businessman Accused of Exploiting Slave Labor and An Executive From a Fox News-style Outlet

Last Monday, CNN announced that it will launch a Portuguese-language channel in Brazil. The U.S.-based cable news channel will roll out the latest foreign operation to bear the CNN brand through a license. However, the scandal-prone records of the two Brazilian partners behind the venture are already raising questions over the forthcoming channel’s credibility.

Principal funding for the venture will come from the new channel’s chair of the board, Rubens Menin, a construction magnate who is a vocal cheerleader for far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and whose company has been caught multiple times using modern slave labor. CNN Brasil also announced that it will bring on Douglas Tavolaro as its CEO. Tavolaro previously served as vice president for news of Rede Record, a channel that in 2018 earned the nickname “Fox News Brasil” for its fawning coverage of Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign and the preferential access it secured as a result. When orders from on high at Record demanded that journalists cease criticism of Bolsonaro and increase negative coverage of his competitor, a minor staff revolt ensued and multiple journalists resigned in protest.

On Friday, the two figures behind CNN Brasil — Menin and Tavolaro — met with Bolsonaro and his son Eduardo at the presidential palace. Earlier this week, Eduardo tweeted his skepticism of the new outlet.

CNN Brasil said it plans to hire 400 journalists and begin operations during the second half of 2019. A press release noted that the 24-hour news channel will have total editorial independence, as well as the rights to rebroadcast CNN’s non-Portuguese language content. CNN Brasil appears to be swimming against the tide in an industry in which wave after wave of layoffs in major TV and print news organizations have thinned out Brazil’s newsrooms in recent years.

Over the last 20 years, CNN has made several attempts to create a Brazilian channel, but previous negotiations have never gotten off the ground. A representative from CNN declined to respond to The Intercept’s questions and instead issued the following statement: “CNN does a comprehensive audit of all its licensing partners. This is the case of the licensees who will operate CNN Brasil, who have our full support. As with all licensing agreements, CNN Brasil will program the channel independently, but in line with CNN standards and practices.” But, according to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas-Austin,  CNN-licensed media companies abroad are not always viewed as hewing to the guidelines that govern the U.S.-based CNN operation’s journalism.

Brazil’s corporate media landscape is extremely consolidated and uniformly pro-business. In 2016, nearly every major publisher supported the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and her replacement by Michel Temer, who immediately undertook a campaign of austerity and neoliberal reforms.

Bolsonaro, for his part, regularly puts the media in his crosshairs, at times sounding like a carbon copy of U.S. President Donald Trump. In recent months, multiple outlets like Record and the television network SBT have scampered to curry his administration’s favor, often serving as an unofficial mouthpiece in exchange for exclusive interviews and the prospect of an increased cut of the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual government ad spending. SBT even gave Bolsonaro his own show. Other publishers, worried that they might lose this crucial revenue, have quietly ordered journalists to tone down their coverage and refrain from calling Bolsonaro “far-right” or “extremist.”

TOPSHOT - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is silhouetted during the appointment ceremony of the new heads of public banks, at Planalto Palace in Brasilia on January 7, 2019. - Brazil's Finance Minister Paulo Guedes appointed the new presidents of the country's public banks. (Photo by EVARISTO SA / AFP)        (Photo credit should read EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is silhouetted during the appointment ceremony of the new heads of public banks, at Planalto Palace in Brasilia on January 7, 2019.

Photo: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

In English, CNN news articles have regularly used the term “far-right” to describe Bolsonaro and have regularly referred to him with some variation of “Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian politician known for misogynistic, racist and homophobic remarks.” Ahead of Bolsonaro’s presidential runoff victory, a CNN columnist wrote, “While Bolsonaro is currently competing in a democratic election, we want to flag his previous statements calling for a return to Brazil’s dictatorship in light of what he’s called ‘irresponsible democracy’” — exactly the type of critical coverage that is unlikely to appear at kowtowing and deferential Brazilian outlets, like Record under Tavolaro.

In an interview with the newspaper Correio Braziliense early last month, Menin, CNN Brasil’s principal funder, sang Bolsonaro’s praises and said business leaders are “euphoric about Brazil’s future.” He said the three most positive aspects of the Bolsonaro government are the makeup of his economic team, the deep involvement of military officers in the administration, and the hands-on role of Bolsonaro’s sons. “This isn’t nepotism,” Menin said. “What father doesn’t want his sons close by?” He referred to the Bolsonaro children as “100 percent ethical.” A day later, the Estado de São Paulo newspaper revealed a possible corruption scheme centered around an aide to Bolsonaro’s son Flavio, which included a large payment to the first lady.

Rubens Menin, chairman and chief executive officer of MRV Engenharia e Participacoes SA, speaks during the 2017 Exame Chief Executive Office (CEO) event in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. Executives from companies based in Brazil meet to discuss strategies to succeed in today's Brazilian economy. Photographer: Patricia Monteiro/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rubens Menin, founder and chairman of MRV Engenharia e Participacoes SA, speaks during the 2017 Exame Chief Executive Office (CEO) event in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017.

Photo: Patricia Monteiro/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Slave Labor

Since 2011, CNN has run an ongoing series called the “Freedom Project” dedicated to “shining a light on modern-day slavery.” The brief mission statement for the initiative says: “Amplifying the voices of survivors. Holding governments and businesses accountable. Slavery is not a thing of the past.” In 2019, slavery endures — and CNN is issuing a license to a businessman associated with the modern-day version of the practice.

Menin, who will fund CNN Brasil, has been repeatedly accused of profiting off workers in situations analogous to slave labor. he is the founder of the largest homebuilder in Brazil, MRV Engenharia. The company was placed on a government slave labor “dirty list” for violations at three different work sites.

A 2014 report from the nonprofit Repórter Brasil said that, in five incidents up until that time, more than 200 workers have been rescued  by authorities from work in slave-like conditions at MRV worksites. MRV was accused of degrading work conditions — such as toilets overflowing with fecal matter, and a dining area that reeked of urine — as well as debt bondage and human trafficking. (In a statement to Repórter Brasil at the time, MRV denied charges that it held workers in slave-like conditions.)

More than just a reputational stain, the list prevents companies caught using slave labor from getting government loans. When MRV was placed on the list, Menin vehemently defended his company and began to work doggedly to derail Brazil’s fight against slave labor. The Brazilian real estate developers’ trade association, led by Menin, filed a constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court to suspend the slave labor “dirty list.”

Menin’s clout was on full display during the challenge: His request was handled by the president of the Supreme Court, Ricardo Lewandowski, during the Christmas recess. In a notoriously sluggish justice system, in which important cases can drag on for decades, Menin received a favorable ruling in a mere four days, and the list, considered a model program internationally, was immediately dismantled. Eventually, the “dirty list” was revived, but with less expansive criteria, fewer names, and reduced penalties — and MRV was no longer included.

Menin’s fortune was built quickly — almost miraculously. In four years, his company jumped from 12th to first place in the ranking of Brazilian homebuilding firms, where it remains. In 2014, Forbes estimated Menin’s net worth to be $1.2 billion.

Although Menin defends free-market economic values in his columns and interviews, he amassed his millions thanks to government spending. MRV is the main builder for Brazil’s affordable housing program, “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” (“My House, My Life”), the largest of its kind in national history. Under the program, created in 2009, the federal government has subsidized or financed the construction of hundreds of thousands of low-income housing units built by private contractors at great profits.

Known for being reserved and media shy, Menin has been called a “hidden billionaire” in the local and international press. Behind the scenes, however, he was extremely close with the last three Brazilian presidents. Now he’s making moves to cozy up to Bolsonaro. With an eye on his business interests, Menin didn’t declare his support for any candidate during the presidential election. But, after Bolsonaro’s victory, he quickly began heaping effusive praise on Bolsonaro and defending him from critics.


From left, Douglas Tavolaro, José Serra, and Zacarias Pagnanelli at the studios of TV Record in July 29, 2010.

Photo: Cacalos Garrastazu/ObritoNews

Brazil’s Fox News

Menin announced the new television station alongside his partner and future CNN Brasil CEO Douglas Tavolaro. For almost 10 years, Tavolaro served as vice president of journalism for Record TV, a network that has become an unofficial mouthpiece for Bolsonaro and his right-wing agenda. The Record Group is owned by Edir Macedo, the scandal-plagued billionaire founder of the conservative evangelical Universal Church. Macedo is Tavolaro’s uncle.

Tavolaro was a key player in establishing Bolsonaro’s new cozy relationship with the station, which came to be dubbed the “Brazilian Fox News.” And he was responsible for establishing the dialogue and subsequent alliance between Bolsonaro and Macedo.

After a handful of disastrous TV appearances during the campaign, Bolsonaro decided to tightly control media access and pull out of all future presidential debates. Record obliged and, controversially, broadcast a fawning interview with him in the same time slot as a debate on rival network TV Globo, sucking away the debate’s audience and giving Bolsonaro valuable, uncontested airtime. When Bolsonaro backed out of a debate Record was to host, the channel canceled the broadcast altogether.

Last year, The Intercept Brasil published a lengthy statement from a journalist working for Record who complained about new editorial guidelines that censored reporting to benefit the Bolsonaro campaign. Under Tavolaro’s leadership, various Record properties responded by launching a series of attacks against The Intercept Brasil and its journalists. Record’s online site R7, published a rushed hit piece on The Intercept Brasil and an investigative reporter for Record TV began researching a more in-depth piece that never aired.

In recent years, Tavolaro had reportedly stepped away from some of the day-to-day journalism duties to co-author the biography of and two screenplays about his uncle. He now appears to be stepping away from Macedo to launch the Brazilian CNN, a brand licensed from the Turner Broadcasting System, a division of AT&T, for an unknown sum.

This is not the first time someone linked to the Record media empire has sought to bring the CNN brand to Brazil. Record itself reportedly approached CNN in 2007 and again more recently. But the Atlanta-based broadcaster rejected its offers, not wanting to be associated with Macedo’s powerful evangelical mega-church. (A spokesperson for CNN Brasil told The Intercept that Macedo has no connection to the new network.)

Tavolaro’s political dealings did not begin with Bolsonaro. Last year, police wiretaps revealed Tavolaro talking with two intermediaries — a government minister and a senator who were under investigation for corruption — to offer a presumably softball interview on Record with then-President Michel Temer. In exchange, Tavolaro wanted Temer’s minister to lean on the state bank Caixa Econômica Federal to approve a sponsorship request that they’d submitted. But the bank denied the request and the interview never happened.

Last March, The Intercept Brasil revealed that Tavolaro’s wife, Raissa Caroline Lima — who was a well-paid staffer in the São Paulo State Assembly — was regularly traveling the world with her husband during key votes. The Intercept Brasil was unable to locate her at her office. Remote work for staffers is strictly forbidden in the Assembly, a measure to crack down against phantom employees fraudulently collecting paychecks. A few months later, Lima was quietly let go from her position.

For years, the Brazilian right has been clamoring for its own version of Fox News, and while Record and another channel, SBT, have taken steps in that direction, it’s a dream that has never been fully realized. The key to unlocking that dream might lie in the combination of Rubens Menin and Douglas Tavolaro under the banner of CNN Brasil.

Not everyone, however, is convinced. Far-right activists closely aligned with Bolsonaro have already taken to Twitter to criticize the new network. “CNN Brasil will hire 400 journalists to defame the change that Brazil is going through,” one popular right-wing blogger tweeted. “It’s [George] Soros that will call the shots there” — referring to the liberal philanthropist, a frequent boogeyman of the global far-right conspiracy theories whose fund owns a minor stake in CNN’s parent company. Luciano Hang, a businessman who has so fervently lobbied in support of Bolsonaro that prosecutors want him to pay a $27 million fine for coercing votes from his employees, also tweeted critically about the deal: “Another communist TV channel in Brazil. Can someone create a Fox?”

So will CNN Brasil be a Soros-backed communist conspiracy chomping at the bit to tear down the Bolsonaro movement? As Menin responded to Hang, “Luciano, don’t fall for that story.”

The post Meet the Team Behind CNN Brasil: A Businessman Accused of Exploiting Slave Labor and An Executive From a Fox News-style Outlet appeared first on The Intercept.

Millions of Women Already Live in a Post-Roe America: A Journey Through the Anti-Abortion South

I met Danielle in the counseling room of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Jackson, Mississippi, which sits on a busy corner in the city’s arts district. Its vibrant pink paint job has earned it the name “the Pink House,” and it is the state’s only remaining abortion clinic.

Dressed in gray sweatpants and a T-shirt, Danielle looked pensive as she sat in a narrow room in the back of the building alongside 12 other women there for abortion care. Betty Thompson, a counselor who has worked at the clinic for 24 years, stood before the women, ready to walk them through the necessary paperwork and go over next steps.

Twenty four years old with two young children, Danielle had just found out she was pregnant again. She had a fling with a co-worker, only to learn that he had sabotaged the condom they used. She was now four weeks pregnant. After weighing her options, she decided to terminate her pregnancy. She’d become pregnant via deception, she thought, and that didn’t exactly suggest stability on the part of the man she would be bound to if she were to carry the pregnancy to term. But more importantly, she told me that she just wasn’t in a position to have another child. A single mom, she takes pains to ensure that her two kids, ages 4 and 2, have everything they need to thrive. It’s a struggle and a lot of responsibility, and she didn’t think it would be fair to anyone to bring another child into the mix. “I got my kids in a place where they can take piano lessons and they can take swimming lessons; they’re having a great life,” she said. “I would feel like a bad mom if I couldn’t do that for them. So I don’t regret doing this now. And every woman should have a choice with her body, what to do with her body.”

On August 7, Danielle boarded a Greyhound bus for the three-hour trip to Jackson. She left the kids with their grandmother, and she packed a duffle bag because she’d be gone at least three days — Mississippi law requires abortion patients to have an initial visit in which they’re counseled on the choice they’re making, and then a second appointment for the abortion itself. In between is a state-mandated 24-hour waiting period, allegedly necessary to allow the patient extra time to wrestle with the gravity of her decision.

This meant that in addition to the bus fare and the $450 she needed to pay for the abortion, she would also have to come up with money for a hotel, meals, and cab rides back and forth to the clinic, all of which posed a significant burden, especially since Danielle was between jobs. By the time she left Jackson three days later, Danielle estimated that she would have less than $30 to cover family expenses for the rest of the month.

Danielle’s story is familiar in substance and circumstance. Like Danielle, many women who seek abortion care are already mothers, and a majority cite economics or competing responsibilities as a factor in their decision to terminate. And like Danielle, in order to obtain an abortion, women in a number of states must also navigate a byzantine maze of regulations ostensibly meant to ensure their health and safety. But in reality, the rules are enacted solely to frustrate women’s ability to access constitutionally protected health care.

With the elevation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, reproductive rights advocates fear that things will only get worse. Kavanaugh’s thin yet troubling record on abortion indicates that he is no fan of reproductive autonomy. And President Donald Trump long ago indicated that he has a litmus test for high court nominees: They must be “pro-life” judges, he said, who will vote to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion.

So it was really no surprise that the hand-wringing began almost immediately after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the court last summer. A slew of headlines signaled that the demise of Roe was imminent. Despite the fact that Roe is settled law — and has been for nearly 46 years — I was worried too. But I also felt that a lot of the early coverage missed a crucial point: Millions of U.S. women already live in what amounts to a post-Roe America.

I wanted to write about the impact of Kennedy’s retirement and Kavanaugh’s nomination, but I wanted to do it in a different way: I wanted to show what it looks like on the ground for women who live in parts of the country where the right conferred by Roe — and reaffirmed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and again in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt — has already been significantly eroded.

To do this, I rented a Toyota minivan and teamed up with award-winning documentarian Maisie Crow for a three-state, 1,400-mile road trip through Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mississippi, contiguous states that have each enacted some of the strictest abortion laws in the country — and are surrounded by states that demonstrate similar, if not even more extreme, hostility to abortion rights. Together, they form a landscape encompassing a large swath of the country where millions of women live with a legal right to abortion, but often without meaningful access to exercise it.

Even if the Supreme Court does not overturn Roe outright and instead backs away from precedent in order to uphold the legality of the onerous restrictions passed by these states, the situation could quickly worsen. Currently, there are 20 states poised to outlaw abortion if given the opportunity, which would impact more than 25 million women of child-bearing age — and disproportionately poor and minority women. There are at least 16 abortion-related lawsuits just a step away from the Supreme Court, including one from Arkansas. In all, there are nearly 30 lawsuits related to reproductive rights that could make it to the court in the near future.


Priya Desai and Danielle Williams being interviewed in Williams’s home in Oklahoma City.

Production still from Reproductive Rights Roadtrip

Oklahoma Goddamn

I first got to know some of the women who make up the all-volunteer advocacy group Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice in 2017 after reading one of their legislative alerts about a bill pending in the state House that would require a woman to get her sexual partner’s permission before seeking an abortion.

In explaining to me the purpose of his proposal, state Rep. Justin Humphrey lamented that one of the “breakdowns in our society” is that men have been excluded from “these types of decisions.” He said he understood that women feel like they should be able to do what they want with their own bodies, but we needed to recognize that where pregnancy is concerned, we’re actually just a “host.” If you have sex and get pregnant, that’s your fault, he told me. “Your body is your body and be responsible with it. But after you’re irresponsible, then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.”

The bill didn’t go anywhere and hasn’t been filed again, almost certainly because it is blatantly unconstitutional, at least by current standards. But dubious legality doesn’t appear to concern many Oklahoma lawmakers. Currently, the state is in court over several abortion restrictions it has passed in recent years — including one that seeks to ban the most common method of later-term abortion, one that would force doctors to use an outdated protocol for administering medication abortion (available in the earliest weeks of pregnancy), and one that has replaced the state’s 24-hour waiting period with a 72-hour “reflection” period, the longest waiting time required by any state.

If there were a three-day waiting period in Mississippi, Danielle would have had to stay in Jackson for at least a week in order to obtain her abortion — provided that she could get her two appointments to align — or make two six-hour round-trip bus rides to the city to obtain care.

In a quiet neighborhood northwest of downtown Oklahoma City, we met with Priya Desai and Danielle Williams, current co-chairs of OCRJ. Desai handed me a 10-page spreadsheet listing all the bills — good, bad, and terrible — that OCRJ has tracked through the capitol over the years. Among them are at least 128 bills related to abortion. It may sound like a lot, but it is fairly par for the course in states like Oklahoma, where grandstanding over abortion is an every-session affair.

Keeping on top of what legislators are doing to try to restrict access can be challenging, Williams told us, in part because lawmakers often file shell bills, legislation with a number and title, but without text. “So we could have a shell bill that is filed in February, and then all of a sudden, they fill it in April,” just a month before the end of the annual session, “and it’s an anti-abortion bill that we had no way of knowing what it would be.” Such a move seems designed, at least in part, to gin up support for a proposal behind closed doors without giving advocates time to organize in opposition.

Still, OCRJ has dedicated supporters in the capitol who help to keep them as in the loop as possible, and when they haven’t been able to stave off a particular bill, they’ve taken their fight to court, serving as a plaintiff in five lawsuits challenging various restrictions. They’ve won four times. The fifth is still in litigation.

Women needed to recognize that where pregnancy is concerned, we’re actually just a “host.”

Whether they pass or not, the extreme measures proposed by Oklahoma lawmakers over the years have helped to sow confusion. Williams and Desai say they’ve heard from women who are confused about whether it is even legal to get an abortion in the state, or under what circumstances they’re allowed to do so. In response, OCRJ has published a guide (aptly titled “How to Get an Abortion in Oklahoma”) to help women navigate the hurdles.

This is a largely rural state, and not a particularly prosperous one, where the main population centers — Oklahoma City and Tulsa — are in its eastern half. This is also where the state’s abortion clinics are located, meaning that women in communities throughout Oklahoma must travel long distances, even hundreds of miles, for in-state access. They face a 72-hour waiting period, a 20-week gestational ban, medically inaccurate informed consent materials — which include the debunked warning that abortion could be linked to breast cancer — restrictions on access to medication abortion, a mandatory ultrasound law, and a ban on insurance coverage for abortion.

Restrictions like these do not make women safer. They force women to spend more money, travel greater distances, and carry their unwanted pregnancies far longer than necessary, if they don’t simply conscript them into parenthood.

When women can’t find services in-state and must cross state lines, they have to navigate a whole other regime of restrictions. In Arkansas and Mississippi — and, really, across the entire region, including Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama — lawmakers have essentially adopted the same goal: Legislate legal abortion out of existence.

Abortion restrictions fall into two basic categories. The first includes laws that supposedly aim at protecting the state’s interest in fetal life — things like mandatory ultrasounds, multiday waiting periods, and gestational bans. Some states have required a woman to view the ultrasound image and listen to the fetal heartbeat if one can be found, regardless of whether she wants to or not. Iowa and North Dakota have each passed a six-week gestational ban, before many women even know they’re pregnant. These laws have been blocked by the courts, for now. In December, Ohio lawmakers passed their own version of the law.

The second category includes what are known as targeted restrictions on abortion providers, or more commonly, TRAP laws. These are things that allegedly protect the health and safety of women seeking abortion care, but are medically useless, practically speaking. This category includes facility requirements — like mandating that abortion clinics be transformed into expensive, hospital-like surgical centers — as well as restrictions that attach to the abortion doctors themselves, like a requirement that abortionists have hospital-admitting privileges. This requirement is particularly dishonest: Doctors don’t get admitting privileges unless they regularly admit patients. Abortion is one of the safest medical procedures there is, so it is almost impossible for an abortion doctor to obtain admitting privileges — and the lawmakers who advocate for this restriction know that.


A protester outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Fayetteville, Ark.

Still from Reproductive Rights Road Trip

As a whole, these laws are based on junk science.

In addition to the more familiar anti-abortion lawmakers who soapbox for these kinds of restrictions, Oklahoma is also ground zero for the Abolish Human Abortion movement — “Our sincerest apologies to the rest of the world,” Williams told us — which was founded in Norman, a college town roughly 20 miles south of Oklahoma City. Where most anti-abortion lawmakers have taken the familiar, death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach to restricting the right to abortion, AHA is more direct: They disdain the incremental and champion only measures that seek to eliminate legal abortion immediately and altogether.

For the most part, AHA’s adherents are young and look, as Williams put it, “like your standard hipster.” They wear GoPro cameras affixed to their chests to record their public evangelizing to crowds gathered wherever and for whatever reason, including outside concert venues, sporting events, or as Desai noted, Norman High School. They fancy themselves the moral equivalent of 19th century abolitionists, and they believe that women who have abortions should be charged with murder.

The AHA has found some friends among the Oklahoma legislature. In 2016, one lawmaker filed a bill that would categorize abortion as first-degree murder, and a similar bill is already teed up for the 2019 session. Another lawmaker sought to pass a ballot measure that would amend the state constitution to outlaw all abortion (including the destruction of fertilized embryos created during in vitro fertilization) and to ban the use of certain contraceptives. Both measures were unsuccessful. In 2018, a former state lawmaker, Dan Fisher, ran for governor with the explicit promise of making abortion illegal in the state.

As it is across the country, the anti-abortion movement in Oklahoma has cloaked itself in religiosity and righteousness. Though what they seem to have forgotten is that the move to legalize abortion was also deeply tied to faith. Even in Oklahoma.


Cecilia Wessinger in Tulsa, Okla.

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A Whole Different World

Without traffic, it takes roughly two hours to drive from Oklahoma City north to Tulsa, a city known for its wealth of well-preserved art deco architecture. In a small theater on the edge of downtown, we met Cecilia Wessinger. She’s lived in Oklahoma for about a decade. Growing up in New York, Wessinger said that she didn’t think much about the politics of reproductive choice. “It’s very different being pro-choice and a feminist on the coasts than it is to be one in the middle of the country,” she said. “Oklahoma, it’s a whole different world.”

Wessinger didn’t grow up in a particularly religious family, but in Oklahoma, she joined the Unitarian church. Tulsa has one of the largest Unitarian congregations in the world. It was through the church that she got more deeply involved in reproductive rights and with the Oklahoma Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. “I can tell you that when I lived in New York, there were women that I respected,” she told me. “But when I moved to Oklahoma, I met women I wanted to be like.”

The women she met through the coalition encouraged her to start advocating for Planned Parenthood and work as a volunteer patient escort at Tulsa’s abortion clinic. She recalls manning a booth for Planned Parenthood at the state fair and being heckled by middle-aged white men, “who shouted some incredibly horrible things” while their kids stood by, “eating turkey legs.”

They also got her thinking more about the role of the church in reproductive choice. “I thought it was such an oxymoron, right? Where it’s religious, but it’s choice. And how does that work?”

In fact, there is a long history of faith leaders advocating for reproductive rights. In the pre-Roe years, a network of clergy helped hundreds of thousands of women access services because they saw the damage and death caused by illicit and self-induced abortions. What came to be known as the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion officially formed in New York in 1967, at a time when 42 percent of the city’s maternal deaths were due to unsafe abortions. At the center of the movement was the Rev. Howard Moody of the Judson Memorial Church. He brought together area ministers and rabbis to advocate for safe abortion, and they announced their intentions on the front page of the New York Times. In short order, the CCS grew to a network of more than 2,000 clergy members across the U.S. and Canada helping women to access safe abortion care.

The CCS opened one of the first free-standing abortion clinics in 1970, and after Roe legalized the procedure nationwide, the group continued to advocate for access, calling not only for equity in care for all women regardless of race or means, but also pushing for services to be provided in the least restrictive setting. In other words, the opposite of what many U.S. women currently experience in trying to access care.

The group eventually disbanded, but its work was carried forward by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice — of which the Oklahoma Coalition is a part. “As faith leaders, we all feel literally called — and supported by spirit on a daily basis — to model something different,” the Rev. Harry Knox, former president of the RCRC, told ThinkProgress. “Our message is that you are loved, loved, loved. God loves women who have abortions.”

In Tulsa, the faithful were equally active in helping to arrange pre-Roe abortion care. They met in the basement of the Unitarian church and put together a sort of “underground railroad,” Wessinger told us, to fund and facilitate abortion. One of the only women on staff at the University of Tulsa acted as a go-between, working in concert with the head of the school’s theology department, she said. Women would wait in a parking lot at the corner of Harvard Avenue and 30th Street, just southeast of downtown. After being picked up, they would lie face down on the car’s floor with a blanket over them, so they didn’t know where they were going, and would be driven to a doctor’s home to receive care. “That’s what abortion was like,” she said. “And those were the lucky ones, right?”

Video: Reproductive Rights Road Trip

Arkansas’s Bad Medicine

Fayetteville is a leafy college town nestled in the Ozark Mountains in the northwest corner of Arkansas. It’s about two hours east of Tulsa and roughly three hours northwest of the state’s capital, Little Rock.

The Planned Parenthood clinic here is in a mixed-use development on a main thoroughfare at the edge of town. There are apartments on the second floor above the clinic and a CPA office next door. It is one of only three abortion providers in the state (the others are in Little Rock), and it provides only medication abortion.

Medication abortion is a two-drug cocktail available to women up to the 10th week of pregnancy. It is highly effective and extremely safe — just .16 percent of women experience any complications — and is growing in popularity, not only because it allows for the earliest of terminations, but also because, unlike a common procedural abortion, it is noninvasive, and a woman can manage the process in the privacy of her own home.

In the simplest of terms, this is how it works: A woman first takes a drug called mifepristone, which blocks progesterone, a hormone needed to maintain pregnancy. Then 24 to 48 hours later, she takes a second drug called misoprostol, which causes the uterus to contract and expel the pregnancy. Medication abortion has been available in the U.S. since 2000. It has been used by more than 2 million women.

Because it can only be used in the earliest stages of pregnancy, the introduction of medication abortion was something of a game-changer, in part because it would seem to address many of the concerns held by anti-abortion activists chagrined by the termination of pregnancy later in gestation. It has not worked out that way. Instead, lawmakers in a number of states have pushed back against medication abortion, attempting to saddle providers with restrictions that they claim are necessary to protect women against its alleged harms. Nowhere have they done so more aggressively than in Arkansas.

In 2015, the state passed a law requiring medication abortion providers to contract with a doctor with admitting privileges. Theoretically this would create an extension of care, in case a patient were to develop a complication needing emergency medical treatment. Akin to the admitting privileges requirement that states like Texas had already imposed (before they were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court), it was sold as a way to demonstrate the state’s desire to ensure the health and safety of women.

But for that purpose, the law doesn’t make sense. For starters, it mandates only that a provider have a contract with a physician that has admitting privileges somewhere in the state, which encompasses some 53,000 square miles, meaning that there’s no requirement that the hospital in question be near the state’s abortion clinics or any particular abortion patient, many of whom have to travel hours to access services. Remember, medication abortion is self-administered by a woman at home (or wherever she chooses to be). In Arkansas, the first pill is taken at the clinic, but the pills that actually force expulsion of the pregnancy are taken days later. So if a patient were to face some sort of medical emergency while at home, there is literally no reason to think that they would drive hundreds of miles to a hospital somewhere else in the state. Instead, as with any other medical emergency, it is far more likely that they would seek care locally. And that isn’t even likely to happen: Just .06 percent of medication abortions result in a complication requiring hospitalization.

While pro-choice leaders scoffed at the law, the clinics nonetheless sought to comply with it — the problem is, they couldn’t. The clinic in Fayetteville sent out letters to doctors all over the state seeking a provider willing to help, but got no takers, in large part because anti-abortion rhetoric here has created a toxic situation, including for the hospitals that would have to agree to the arrangement.

Planned Parenthood and its Fayetteville doctor, Stephanie Ho, sued to block the measure from taking effect: The law was medically unnecessary, they argued, and would leave women across the state without meaningful access to abortion. If the law took effect, there would be just one provider in the entire state, Little Rock Family Planning Services — the only clinic that provides procedural as well as medication abortion — left to care for thousands of women each year. And it would force women who would otherwise opt for medication to undergo procedural (often called “surgical”) abortion.


Dr. Stephanie Ho at the Planned Parenthood in Fayetteville, Ark.

Still from Reproductive Rights Road Trip

Although a judge agreed to block the law temporarily, pending a full hearing, the state balked and appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

While the case was pending, however, the Supreme Court issued its landmark 2016 ruling in the Whole Woman’s Health case, striking down Texas’s admitting privileges requirement on the basis that the actual medical benefit of such a restriction must outweigh the burden it places on abortion access. With that, it appeared that the 8th Circuit would have the logic needed to decide the Arkansas case. But then a twist: Instead of rejecting the law, the court upheld it, claiming that the district judge hadn’t made specific findings on how many women would be negatively impacted by the law. And when the Supreme Court subsequently declined to intervene (without explanation or dissent), the law took effect.

The impact was immediate. Ho remembers clinic employees scrambling to try to contact all the patients who’d already scheduled their appointments. Some of them simply couldn’t be reached. “So they didn’t find out until they actually arrived at the clinic,” Ho told us. They “just had to be turned away,” she said. “It was incredibly stressful for the patients.”

The clinic tried to find providers in other states that might be able to help its patients. “But there were some women who, because of this, the state forced them to carry the pregnancy to term against their will because that’s not what their plan was.” Ho remembers one of the patients who hadn’t heard the news before arriving at the clinic. “When she walked in the room and saw me, she just immediately burst into tears,” she recalled. “She didn’t know what was going on because you can tell somebody that this is the law; this is what’s happening. But they’re not thinking that. They’re like, ‘This is my life. Now what am I going to do?’”

There was another related problem: The women had gone through the state’s mandated consent process for medication abortion, but not for a procedural abortion. That meant that even if they were able to get an appointment in Little Rock, they would have to start the process all over again — go in for an initial appointment, undergo another mandatory ultrasound, be provided the state-approved (and largely medically inaccurate) information on abortion, and then abide by the state’s required 48-hour waiting period before returning for the actual procedure. “Not one single woman was safer” because of the law, says Ho. “Not one single woman was more informed, and not one single woman was happy with the fact that her government decided … to make that decision for her.”

Finally, two-and-a-half weeks after the de facto ban on medication abortion began in Arkansas, the law was again blocked after a district judge issued a 148-page ruling laying out in detail how many women would be burdened by the restriction. After enumerating several strategies for getting at a hard number, the judge stepped back, observing that “every woman” seeking medication abortion (in 2017, there were 653 in Fayetteville alone) “faces a burden due to the contracted physician requirement.”

The state again vowed to appeal, but then in late November, Planned Parenthood told the court that it had found a doctor with admitting privileges to contract with the clinic, which made the lawsuit moot — at least for now. Planned Parenthood has asked the court to allow them to revive the suit if necessary.

The Defense Line

It was noisy outside the Little Rock Family Planning Services clinic, located in a nondescript office park on the city’s west side, when we arrived one morning in early August. Across the street, a crew was using heavy machinery to clear land where the Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center, a crisis pregnancy center, once stood.

CPCs like the one that used to be here are not clinics. They rarely provide any medical services — save for pregnancy tests and ultrasounds — and are mostly staffed by laypeople whose mission is to encourage women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. CPCs are often located close to abortion clinics, and have facades and signage that mimic an actual clinic. They collect lots of personal information about the women who come through their doors, but since they are not regulated like medical facilities, in Arkansas and elsewhere, they are not required to follow medical privacy laws. According to a directory of “helpful services” published by the Arkansas Department of Health, there are some 46 CPCs across the state. Their operations are subsidized by public money, and in many states, that includes money siphoned from federal welfare funds. In Texas, for example, millions in welfare dollars, as well as money earmarked for actual health care (including the provision of birth control for low-income residents), have been diverted to fund CPCs, most of which deliver an explicitly religious message.


Protesters outside the Little Rock Family Planning Services clinic.

Still from Reproductive Rights Road Trip

In Little Rock, protesters used to gather outside the Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center in an effort to divert traffic to the CPC. In May 2018, a fire tore through the building that housed the CPC, leveling it. The group recently resurfaced in an office building right next door to the clinic.

Still, in August, it was clear that the fire hadn’t deterred the protesters. As the clean-up crew worked to scrape the land across the street, a handful gathered at the clinic’s property line — including several men apparently affiliated with Abolish Human Abortion. One was wearing a GoPro on his chest pointed at women as they arrived at the clinic; another was sporting a “Dan Fisher for Oklahoma” T-shirt. The man with the GoPro wore dark sunglasses and held a small orange cone to his mouth to amplify his voice over the construction noise. “We’d love to help you!” he yelled to someone in the clinic parking lot. “Whatever you need!” No one in the parking lot was taking him up on the offer. He changed his approach: “Please don’t go in there! We’ve seen many women leave that place hurting,” he said. “I’ve … seen people leave that place in ambulances!”

Karen Musick and Leeann Bennett were there too. Musick is one of the founders of the Arkansas Abortion Support Network, and Bennett is the group’s membership director. Among the things that AASN does is provide an escort service for patients coming to the Little Rock clinic. They wear brightly colored, pullover vests and carry rainbow-striped umbrellas, which they use to provide privacy for women and their loved ones on their way in and out of the clinic, or to form a visual barrier against shouting protesters at the edge of the clinic’s driveway, an area Musick calls “the defense line.”

“We get two main groups here,” Bennett told me after lowering her umbrella and nodding to an older white man standing with a sign outside the clinic’s fence. That man and a few others across the street are part of what she calls “the Catholic cabal.” They mostly stand around quietly, holding signs and praying. On the other side though, she says, looking toward GoPro and his group, are the more confrontational ones. “They say horrible things to people as they’re coming through. Some are straight-up lies,” she says. “They’re the ones that are hard to take. Extremely hard sometimes.”

Scenes like this play out every day in front of clinics across the U.S. Some clinics like the one in Little Rock are fairly fortunate, in that they have a decent buffer between the property line and the actual entrance to the clinic. Others aren’t as lucky; the clinic in Louisville, Kentucky, for example, is on a busy downtown street with virtually no buffer, making it a favorite target of all kinds of anti-abortion protesters. Escorts there have seen hundreds of people descend on the clinic to harass patients as they come and go.

Generally, things are fairly under control in Little Rock — perhaps because AASN has a strict policy of nonengagement for its volunteer escorts. They go over this at length during their trainings: Ignore the cajoling protesters, volunteers are told. But occasionally things have gone sideways.

Musick first met Scott Skarda not long after she had started escorting at the clinic. He came up to her while she was in an overflow parking area and got in her face, she told us. He said she was the “face of evil.” The clinic’s security guard, a no-nonsense czar of order, later told her that Skarda was a pastor at a church in Hazen, a town about an hour east of Little Rock. At times wearing motorcycle chaps, he soon became a regular protester at the clinic.


Karen Musick, one of the founders of AASN, and Leeann Bennett, the group’s membership director, volunteering as escorts at the clinic in Little Rock, Ark.

Production still from Reproductive Rights Road Trip

The November 2015 shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, had the Little Rock clinic, and escorts like Musick, on edge. Musick began regularly using her phone to record the protesters. Skarda apparently did not like it; after telling her to stop, he ripped her phone from her hand. In another incident a few months later, as Musick was using her umbrella to shield a clinic patient from a female protester, Skarda grabbed it and broke it over his knee, later claiming that Musick had hit the woman with it. Both incidents were caught by the clinic’s surveillance cameras. In each instance, Musick called police. Skarda was ordered to stay away from her. After the umbrella incident, he was hauled into court on a harassment charge. He was acquitted of that but was found guilty of violating the no-contact order. Skarda denied any wrongdoing.

On a muggy evening at a public library not far from the clinic, a handful of people attended AASN’s August escort training. Roz Creed, who with her daughter and Musick founded AASN, stood before the group with a pointed question: How would they deal with heckling from protesters? From the audience, people called out to the newcomers: You should be ashamed of yourself! How do you sleep at night?

Creed, who is a retired transplant from upstate New York, offered up one of her favorite heckles. “I have heard, ‘You have so much gray hair, lady, you have one foot in the grave; you’re going to be meeting your maker pretty soon. I can’t believe you’re doing this. You need to repent.’”

The answer to dealing with the heckling and harassment is that you don’t respond, Creed told the group. You come up with a mantra to distract yourself, and you make small talk with the patients in order to distract them from the onslaught. Talking about the weather or a person’s shoes will usually do the trick.

Creed knows that the work is hard and can be upsetting. But she also knows it’s necessary — infuriatingly so. Part of AASN’s work is managing an abortion fund that provides financial assistance to women struggling to afford care. A loose network of such groups operates across the U.S., with the National Network of Abortion Funds and the National Abortion Federation, a professional association for abortion providers, acting as points of contact for assistance. Creed manages AASN’s donor-supported fund and since 2016, has granted $23,000 to help roughly 200 women access abortion.

The calls she gets can be heartbreaking — like the one from a woman whose 15-year-old granddaughter was pregnant. The girl’s mother had died, and her father was in prison. There wasn’t enough money to pay for the abortion. “‘I can help you out with that,’” Creed told the woman. “She just exploded to me: You have saved my life!” she recalls the grandmother telling her. “I mean, I’m sitting there crying. I’m like, It’s OK, it’s OK. I’m glad I was able to help.” Over the last two years, Creed has amassed dozens of similar stories — of young mothers who, like Danielle in Mississippi, are pregnant and aren’t ready for another child; of women who are in school and not ready for motherhood; of broken relationships and fathers who have split; of women who are homeless.


State Sen. Joyce Elliott being interviewed inside the Arkansas State Capitol.

Still from Reproductive Rights Road Trip

Shame and Fear

The Arkansas state Capitol sits just west of Woodlane Street, where it crosses West Capitol Avenue, just blocks from the Arkansas River. While it seems clear that West Capitol Avenue is meant to facilitate an unobstructed view of the capitol, it actually accentuates the fact that the capitol is offset from the avenue. It wasn’t planned this way; the capitol was built atop a state penitentiary that occupied the land before the statehouse took over its foundation. It was built with prison labor.

Inside, the building features all the gilt and grandeur of many state capitols — lots of golden lighting and wide marble stairways. Before we left Little Rock, Musick had arranged for us to come here to meet with state Sen. Joyce Elliott, one of Arkansas’s most ardent supporters of women’s reproductive rights.

Elliott spent 30 years as a teacher before entering politics — though she knew early on, during the John F. Kennedy years, that it was something she wanted to do. She was a state representative before transitioning to the state Senate, where she has represented part of Little Rock for the last nine years. During her time under the dome, she has been a tireless voice for equal rights, including for women’s reproductive autonomy, a cause that she sees as increasingly difficult and necessary to take on. She grew up in the pre-Roe years and saw the damage caused by illegal abortion, and she’s deeply concerned about her state (and the country) retreating into that past.

Arkansas is a relatively poor state with poor health outcomes, particularly in its most rural areas, like the fertile Arkansas Delta that runs along the Mississippi River in the eastern half of the state. And the state of affairs for women seeking to control their reproductive lives is especially grim, she says, defined by men making policy decisions about abortion while refusing to address other issues, like the statewide provision of high-quality health care and education, including comprehensive sex education.

“That kind of burden falls very disproportionately on poor women, on poor families. Because, I guarantee, if it’s a family of means, if they choose to have an abortion, it will happen. It always has. It will continue to be the case. And we will continue to punish that young woman … who could not make the same choice,” she said. “It is not serving our state well.”

It was hard not to think about our conversation with Elliott as we drove several hours east from Little Rock into the Delta. The land feels vast but haunted; there are few signs of vibrancy. The town of Helena, which abuts the Mississippi state line, is a perfect example. Kudzu has taken over the landscape. Downtown, there’s a crumbling brick building that still sports a faded, painted mural of country music singer Conway Twitty with his guitar, a Tweety Bird with a cowboy hat standing on its neck. A woman in Helena seeking abortion care would have to travel roughly two hours to the clinic in Little Rock; an hour and a half to the clinic in Memphis, Tennessee; or three hours to Jackson.

Just over the Mississippi River is the Isle of Capri Casino, which one Helena local told us is part of the reason her town has lost so much of its wealth — people like to gamble, and the slots there are tight. There really wasn’t anywhere else to stay, so we stopped at the casino for the night. Before going to sleep, I dumped a pile of papers on the bed. They were various pieces of anti-abortion propaganda that we’d picked up along the way. They each take a slightly different approach, but lean heavily on shame and fear to express the message that abortion is bad. And wrong. One, titled “This is Not Your Only Choice,” reminds women that “even though medical and surgical abortions carry different risks for the mother, both are EQUALLY FATAL to the baby.”

At her home in Little Rock, Musick had brought out her own propaganda collection, much of it collected from the windshields of cars in the clinic’s overflow parking lot. It included a number of black-and-white comic books, including one titled “Who Murdered Clarice?” that tells the story of an abortion doctor — “the butcher” — who “dismembered” little Clarice. He blows his brains out and meets God, who, needless to say, is super pissed off, but not about the suicide. “I performed that abortion at the mother’s request,” the dead doctor tells God. “It was perfectly legal. I worked within the law.”

“Not within My law … you committed murder and sold Clarice’s body parts,” God replies. “You devil … you sold her baby ears for $75 and I damn you to hell.”


Anti-abortion protesters outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Jackson, Miss.

Still from An Abortion in Mississippi

Old Mississippi

The roads in Jackson are riddled with potholes too large to avoid. Someone told me that a promising dancer who was a day shy of high school graduation died when she drove into a pothole that flipped her car. Someone else said that Jackson won a contest run by Domino’s Pizza, looking for cities with the worst potholes. The company offered to fix the holes to aid its drivers and protect the pies.

The stretch of North State Street that runs alongside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization is a mess. On the day we first drove up, there was a crew in the middle of the road cutting into the dilapidated asphalt using hand tools, as cars whizzed by in a dance of barely controlled chaos.

Along the sidewalk and in the street in front of the Pink House’s entrance, there was a similar chaos — and that’s typical, say clinic escorts Derenda Hancock and Kim Gibson. Gibson is a master of recording the “circus” on her phone, and regularly posts videos or livestreams to the Facebook page of the Pinkhouse Defenders. Unlike in Little Rock, the escorts here regularly engage with the protesters; they certainly don’t like one another, and the whole exercise has an odd quality of hostile politeness. “We’re polite because we’re Southern,” Gibson reminds me.

Many of the protesters here are older white men, which is pretty typical. But there is also a gaggle of children who are regulars, brought by Boyd Coleman, an area doctor. He and his wife ferry their home-schooled children to protest at the clinic — it’s part of their education, he told me, so they can grow up to be like their parents. The family brings a ladder, which they set up on the sidewalk, so they can see over the fence and watch the women as they come and go. Sometimes the kids, who range in age from toddlers to teenagers, stand on the ladder holding anti-abortion signage. They also work the sidewalk and the street, trying to get the attention of clinic patients, “counseling” them about their reproductive choices.

Coleman is adamant that his brand of Christianity is the correct one. I actually got into a bit of an argument with him about this — though I don’t know why I bothered. The point of having secular law, I said, was to protect against the imposition of rules informed by a particular religious view. That was wrong, he told me; his interpretation of God’s law was the only one that mattered, and we would all be judged by it.


Shannon Brewer, the director of the “Pink House,” walks with volunteer escort Derenda Hancock outside the clinic in Jackson, Miss.

Still from An Abortion in Mississippi

Shannon Brewer, who has worked at the Pink House for 17 years and has been its director for nine years, keeps an eye on all of this from her cluttered desk inside. The wall behind her is covered with Post-It notes and letters from clients and supporters praising the clinic. When you talk to Brewer here, her eyes constantly dart to her right, where a computer screen displays an array of video feeds from various security cameras around the property. She doesn’t usually engage with the protesters, she said. “Nothing you say is going to matter. Once you learn that, it’s like you’re talking to a brick wall. So you either stand there and listen to it, or you walk away. To keep my sanity, I just walk away. Sometimes I cuss them a few times, just to get my day going. Otherwise I walk away.”

Frankly, she’s got way too much work to do.

Mississippi lawmakers have been relentless in their efforts to shut down the Pink House. The state is one of four that has a trigger law on the books, meaning that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion will immediately become illegal. There’s a 24-hour waiting period, mandatory ultrasound, and requirement that medically inaccurate information on abortion be provided to each patient. Then there’s the requirement that the Pink House follow complicated surgical center regulations in order to be allowed to perform second-trimester abortions, and a requirement that only ob-gyns provide abortion care.

Although there is ample evidence that other medical professionals, like nurse practitioners, can ably provide care, a number of states have implemented such a ban, which is a strategic move. There are a discrete number of abortion doctors across the country, which means that in many states, including Mississippi, doctors must be brought in to provide care. This in turn reduces the number of days that a clinic can provide services and creates a bottleneck in the system that increases waiting times. The Pink House has a doctor in house only a select number of days per month. The doctor was present for both of the days that we were there in August; over those two days, there were more than 100 appointments scheduled.

And then there is the state law passed last March that would ban abortion at 15 weeks, well below the point of fetal viability, which is generally considered to begin at roughly 24 weeks. Brewer wryly pointed out that during the debate on the bill, lawmakers asserted that the ban was needed to protect the humanity of the unborn child who, at this point in gestation, would already have teeth. “I had six kids,” she said. “Nine months, none of them had teeth when they came out.” Once the bill passed, the state had to rush to reprint its informed consent booklets, she noted, because the description of fetal development in the old books contradicted the assertions made by lawmakers.

The rush resulted in further mistakes: The pages in the book are out of order so that the description of fetal development jumps from 18 weeks to 32 weeks. Notably, the state cribbed the information in its new booklet from one created by the state of Alabama, which itself was already plagued by medical inaccuracies.

The clinic had been living under the specter of the ban until only recently. In late November, federal district Judge Carlton Reeves issued a blistering opinion blocking the law. He wrote that lawmakers’ “professed interest in ‘women’s health’ is pure gaslighting.” While they’ve taken a great interest in abortion, he noted, they’ve done nothing to address the state’s crippling maternal mortality rate, the highest in the country. “Leaders are proud to challenge Roe but choose not to lift a finger to address the tragedies lurking on the other side of the delivery room,” he wrote. “No, legislation like HB 1510 is closer to the old Mississippi — the Mississippi bent on controlling women and minorities.”

The state has appealed the ruling.


Danielle during her second appointment at the clinic in Jackson, Miss.

Still from An Abortion in Mississippi

I’ll Keep Walking

If it had taken effect, the 15-week ban would have been one Mississippi abortion law Danielle would not have had to contend with. She’d caught her pregnancy very early, and had acted with deliberation and determination to have it terminated.

Still, when she arrived in Jackson, she would be forced to navigate a handful of the state’s other abortion restrictions, as well as the protesters who were gathered around the clinic. She was baffled by their presence, she told us later, and frankly, pissed off by it. “I thought I was seeing some regular guy on the street. He said good morning to me. When I said good morning to him, he kinda ran me down and tried to force his religious views on me. And then he tried to force me, saying, ‘What if the baby has your eyes? What if the baby has your pinky toe?’” she recalled. “Crazy stuff.”

Once she’d been through counseling and set up her appointment for the following day, a process that took several hours, she walked across the street to a taco joint before catching a cab back to the nearby Red Roof Inn. A lot of women stay there when traveling to Jackson for care, the clinic counselor, Betty Thompson, told me. It’s relatively inexpensive — roughly $50 a night — and the rooms are serviceable, save for the water pressure, which just sucks. In the room, Danielle had a blanket from home sitting on the bed, and the TV was tuned to a channel showing a marathon of “Law and Order Special Victims Unit.” She’s a fan of the show; it’s formulaic and predictable in a way that, despite the subject matter, is comforting when you’re away from home but wish you weren’t.

Danielle was frustrated by just about everything in Jackson. It wasn’t just the protesters whose attitudes she found dismissive and ignorant. “They don’t have no business doing that. They don’t have no business walking up on women, being aggressive, you know? They make them feel like they’re ashamed of themselves for the decision that they’re making. But at the end of the day, how they feel shouldn’t have nothing to do with you.” It was also the state, which had imposed this totally arbitrary waiting period. “The 24-hour thing really does get you,” she said. “If I’m ready, I’m ready.”

There was also the money she was spending — the bus ticket, the cab rides, the meals, and motel room, not to mention the cost of the procedure itself, since the state bans the use of public or private insurance to cover care, unless the life of the mother is at stake. Back at the clinic, Thompson had given the women the telephone numbers for several organizations that help to fund abortion care, including the National Abortion Federation. That afternoon, Danielle tried to call NAF. Numerous times. The lines were busy. The best time to call, the recording announced, was early in the morning and especially on weekends.

Before bed, she got on the phone with her younger brother, Walter. The two would often talk for hours. Tonight was one of those nights. They lamented the situation that Danielle found herself in, and both were frustrated by the obstacles she faced in trying to exercise her right to control her reproductive future. It was all about politics, they concluded. And it was time for those lawmakers to retire, Walter said. “My thing is, it’s 2018, some of the older people need to just sit down, retire, go sip some tea on your porch or something, and let the younger generation take control. Their time is up.”

When we arrived at the motel the following morning to meet Danielle for the trip back to the clinic, she had some good news: She’d gotten up early and had gotten through to NAF. They only take the first six callers, she said she had been told, and she was No. 6. They would be providing $150 toward her abortion. The paperwork would be faxed to the clinic, and that amount would be deducted from her final bill. Now she would have a bit more money left in her pocket to take care of family expenses.

Before leaving, she packed up her duffle bag because she was heading to the Greyhound station as soon as she could get her pills. She missed her kids and really wanted to get home, where she could finish her abortion. When she arrived back at the clinic for her second appointment, the protesters were already offering platitudes while Gibson and Hancock had turned the volume to high on a large boombox playing a local radio station in an effort to drown them out. It was pretty much business as usual.

Inside, the clinic was bustling and women, some with their partners, family, or friends, packed the waiting room. Finally, Danielle was called into the doctor’s office. They sat across a desk from each other while the doctor went over the final paperwork. Danielle would be given a prescription for an antibiotic, which she would need to take, and a mild pain pill, which she could take if she wanted. The cramping could be pretty intense as the muscles worked to expel the pregnancy. She was handed a dose of mifepristone, which she was required to swallow in the doctor’s presence. She was also handed a small envelope and asked to open it, to make sure that there were four small misoprostol pills inside. Those she would take 24 to 48 hours later.

In the cab on the way to the Greyhound station, Danielle wondered aloud what would come next and if she’d get the “baby blues” — if her hormones would drop after the abortion and leave her feeling a bit down. Mostly, she said she felt relieved. “Everything was just backwards,” she observed. “But I feel stronger. I had a choice. I handled my business,” she said. “Everyone has an opinion, but I don’t live for them. I live for me.”

Now it was just about the next steps. “That’s life,” she said. “I’ll keep walking.”

The post Millions of Women Already Live in a Post-Roe America: A Journey Through the Anti-Abortion South appeared first on The Intercept.

Who Killed Marielle Franco? An Ex-Rio de Janeiro Cop With Ties to Organized Crime, Say Six Witnesses in Police Report

Last March, Rio de Janeiro City Council member Marielle Franco, a rising star in left-wing politics who regularly spoke out against police violence and corruption in her city, was assassinated by a gunman in an attack that also claimed the life of her driver, Anderson Gomes. Ten months later, no one has been arrested for the crime.

Now, however, six witnesses have identified a former officer in the police’s special operations unit as the man who pulled the trigger, according to a police report reviewed by The Intercept. The individual named in the report had previously been expelled from Rio’s Military Police force for involvement with one of the city’s main organized crime syndicates and has since became a full-time mercenary for illegal gambling rings, dirty politicians, and anyone else willing to pay for his services. His specialty: murder.

Last November, the Brazilian news channel Globo TV published two stories about the contents of the police report reviewed by The Intercept. But a state judge subsequently issued a gag order prohibiting Globo from publishing or reporting any more details from the document. Due to the sensitivity of the ongoing homicide investigation, The Intercept has decided to not disclose the suspect’s name.

Franco was killed as she was being driven home from an event on the evening of March 14, 2018, when a car pulled up alongside hers and unloaded a spray of automatic gunfire. The 38-year-old politician and her driver were instantly killed. The attack had been carried out in a carefully chosen location, and surveillance cameras at a nearby metro station had been switched off prior to the crime, suggesting a shocking level of sophistication and giving rise to speculation that powerful figures were behind the assassination. In the days after Franco’s killing, tens of thousands of mourners flooded the streets of Rio and cities across the country and around the world in acts of solidarity, creating massive pressure on authorities to solve the case that has not abated.

The witnesses cited in the police report had concluded that the hitman didn’t act alone. This would be in line with the way the suspect is known to work. The police wrote in their report that they believe at least two other former special operations officers from the same force — the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, known as BOPE — were involved in the killing.

BOPE Veterans

In Brazil, each state has a military and civil police force. BOPE, an elite unit within Rio’s Military Police force, was founded in 1978 to carry out hostage rescues and other lifesaving operations, but evolved into an urban warfare unit with numbers in the hundreds. Its members are known as “caveiras,” or skulls, and the unit’s sometimes brutal ends-justify-the-means approach to its work has been immortalized in films and cheered on by Brazilians who favor a tough law-and-order approach to societal problems.

The main suspect, an ex-captain, already had close ties to organized crime when he enrolled in the Dom João VI Military Police officers’ academy.

It is an open secret that some BOPE officers also work for organized crime. Like the main suspect, the two other former BOPE officers are elite soldiers trained at taxpayer expense who now market their deadly skills to the highest bidder. One of them is a colleague of the main suspect from their police academy days, according to the Civil Police report.

The main suspect fingered by the witnesses, an ex-captain, already had close ties to organized crime when he enrolled in the Dom João VI Military Police officers’ academy before joining BOPE, according to the police report. Officials have long known that criminal syndicates recruit individuals to enlist in and infiltrate the police ranks. These individuals then run protection for organized crime, both on the streets and internally as informants.

The ex-captain got his start this way, working for “bicheiros,” illegal gambling clans, according to the Civil Police’s report, but the homicide detectives ruled out the possibility that bicheiros were responsible for Franco and Gomes’s murders. Instead, the police believe that the individual or individuals who ordered the crime are part of a militia, a type of paramilitary group comprised of current and former police officers, firefighters, soldiers, and municipal guards.

MPs from the Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE) in Rio de Janeiro conducted an operation against drug trafficking in the main accesses to Morro do Dende, on Ilha do Governador, on the morning of this Tuesday, May 16, 2017 . (Photo by Fotoarena) *** Please Use Credit from Credit Field ***(Sipa via AP Images)

Officers from the Special Police Operations Battalion, or BOPE, in Rio de Janeiro, conduct an operation against drug trafficking on Ilha do Governador on May 16, 2017.

Photo: Sipa via AP Images

Old Crimes Offered a Lead

The Intercept reported last May that the main suspect had ties to BOPE, and the weapon used in the crime — likely one of three types of imported submachine guns — was rare on the streets in Brazil, but part of the arsenal of special ops commandos.

The Civil Police’s Homicide Division first arrived at the name of the suspect by interrogating potential witnesses and fleshed out their suspicions by reviewing unsolved investigations into the executions of two former police sergeants, Geraldo Antônio Pereira and Marcos Vieira de Souza. Souza, known as “Falcon,” was the former president of the Portela samba school and, at the time of his murder, was running for city council. Executed in 2016, both Pereira and Falcon had been investigated for involvement with militias and bicheiros.

In the case of Falcon’s killing, witnesses at the time told detectives that four hooded men carrying assault rifles conducted the hit. The group pulled up in front of his campaign headquarters in a silver Volkswagen Gol, and three of them got out of the vehicle, but only two entered the building. Falcon, unaccompanied by his security guards, was shot dead with bullets to the chest and head, before the assassins fled in their vehicle. More than two years later, detectives still have not identified the killers or the motive for the crime.

With these clues in hand, the most experienced investigators in the Civil Police were able to draw up a short list of those capable of organizing such clean hits.

Pereira was also gunned down by assault rifle. His murderers used vehicles with cloned license plates and were exceedingly careful to leave no clues behind, exhibiting a level of sophistication on par with the attack on Franco and Gomes.

With these clues in hand, the most experienced investigators in the Civil Police — well-acquainted with Rio’s underworld — were able to draw up a short list of those capable of organizing such clean hits. On that list was the crew of former BOPE officers, including the ex-captain. Police investigators then hit the streets, concentrating their efforts in the region of Rio das Pedras, in Rio’s West Zone, where the former BOPE captain leads a crew of mercenaries. After scouring the area for security camera recordings, they finally located footage of the Chevrolet Cobalt used in Franco’s assassination. The car had been filled up at a gas station in Rio das Pedras on the eve of the crime.

“Ghost Weapon”

Franco’s killers employed a bevy of sophisticated measures to cover their tracks, including the use of what are known as “ghost weapons,” according to the Civil Police report.

The strategy is simple. For instance, as with the spoils of war, corrupt police are known to assemble arsenals of arms seized in the course of their work, usually from operations against drug traffickers. Most weapons are turned in, kept in the custody of the state, as is required by law. But the best pieces seldom make it to the Civil Police warehouse — they are diverted to the private stockpiles of dirty cops. Sometimes, these illegal caches are stored in the armories that the Military Police battalions operate out of.

The quantity and size of these arsenals is unknown, since there are no police records and most of the arms are imported illegally by organized crime groups. Suspecting that a “ghost weapon” had been used in Franco’s killing, Homicide Division detectives ordered all 9mm submachine guns to be collected from Military Police units, including BOPE, and undergo ballistics testing.

Militias and a City Council Member

Without enough material evidence to directly link the former BOPE captain’s posse to Franco and her driver’s assassinations, the Civil Police detectives dug deeper into unsolved homicide cases in which they thought the group of former BOPE officers might have been involved. In addition to the deaths of ex-sergeants Pereira and Falcon, the investigators dusted off the files on the 2011 murder of José Luiz de Barros Lopes, known as “Zé Personal,” and the April 2017 killing of Myro Garcia. The victims in those cases were, respectively, the son-in-law and son of the bicheiro moneyman Waldomiro Paes Garcia, known as “Maninho,” who was himself killed in September 2004.

After following the threads of these investigations, the police and prosecutors’ office opened a separate investigation last October into the involvement of militias in illegal land grabs and clay mining in the city’s West Zone.

The investigation produced enough evidence for warrants to obtain the banking, telephone, and personal records of Rio City Council member Marcello Siciliano, according to court documents obtained by The Intercept. The case also resulted in a search warrant on his house and office.

In court filings, prosecutors argued that Siciliano had participated in more than 80 real estate transactions involving land in areas dominated by paramilitary groups over the last 10 years. The documents also cite a negotiation between Siciliano and a businessperson involved in clay mining, whose brother was arrested on charges of militia involvement. The city council member has publicly denied any association with paramilitaries and said that the real estate negotiations were legal and registered in a notary’s office.

According to an O Globo report in June, Siciliano had been accused by at least one witness of having ordered the hit against Franco, but Siciliano has vigorously denied any involvement. The allegation, according to the O Globo story, came from a witness who is not named. In their account, the witness said Siciliano was associated with a well-known militia member, who the witness said was asked to do the hit on Franco. In his denial, Siciliano said he did not even know the militia leader.

This week, however, the militia leader’s driver was arrested on unrelated homicide charges and, according to another O Globo report, told police that he drove his boss to meet with Siciliano on multiple occasions — contradicting Siciliano’s previous claim.

Less than a month after Franco’s killing, a staffer in Siciliano’s city council office was gunned down in Rio, along with a retired police officer. Both had alleged militia ties. At the time, police sources told The Intercept that the killings may have been an attempt to “burn the records” — silence individuals who may have been involved or knew too much about the assassinations.

Franco’s mentor and political ally, Marcelo Freixo, has publicly cast doubt on this theory. “I do not see the possibility of Marielle’s death having any connection with our work with the militias,” Freixo told O Globo. “If the [public security] secretary says that the motivation is the land issue or is the question of the militias, this statement has to be accompanied by evidence.”

The reconstruction of the murder of Rio de Janeiro city councilor, Marielle Franco (PSOL), and the driver Anderson Gomes, started at 10:53 pm on Thursday, 10, at the corner of Joao Paulo I and Joaquim Palhares streets, in Estacio, central region of Rio, where the crime was committed, ended at 4:20 this Friday, the 11th. The model of the weapon used in the crime, the distance and angle at which shots were fired and even the degree of skill of the killer are some of the information that the Homicide Division cops expect to get with the simulated replay that lasted five and a half hours. Photo: WILTON JUNIOR/ESTADAO CONTEUDO (Agencia Estado via AP Images)

The reconstruction of the murder of Rio de Janeiro City Councilor Marielle Franco and driver Anderson Gomes, at the corner of Joao Paulo I and Joaquim Palhares streets in Estacio on May 11, 2018.

Photo: Wilton Junior/Estadao Conteudo/Agencia Estado via AP

A Broken Street Sign

Ten months after the executions of Marielle Franco and Anderson Gomes, the Homicide Division and the Public Ministry at last seem close to putting together all of the pieces in this intricate puzzle. Gen. Walter Braga Netto, who led the federal government’s takeover of Rio’s public security apparatus until the end of last year, told the O Globo newspaper last week that investigations into the death of Franco and Gomes are advanced, and the results would come “soon.”

“I could have announced who we think it was, or told Richard” — Gen. Richard Nunes, the former secretary of public security — “to do it, but we wanted to do a really professional job,” he said at a military event in Brasília.

Whether these pieces end up fitting together, however, may be up to Rio Gov. Wilson Witzel, who took office this month after promising during his campaign to “slaughter criminals” and end the civilian secretariat that oversees state police forces. This week, Witzel posted a video of himself leading a session of pushups at BOPE headquarters. Last year, a viral photo from a campaign event showed Witzel, microphone in one hand, the other raised in a fist, standing on stage next to two other candidates who proudly displayed a Marielle Franco street sign they had broken in half.

The post Who Killed Marielle Franco? An Ex-Rio de Janeiro Cop With Ties to Organized Crime, Say Six Witnesses in Police Report appeared first on The Intercept.

As Trial Starts for Border Humanitarian Volunteers, New Documents Reveal Federal Bureaucrats’ Obsession With Stopping Activists

Trump administration prosecutors argued this week that members of the borderland faith-based organization No More Deaths broke the law by leaving jugs of water and cans of beans for migrants trekking through a remote wilderness refuge in the Sonoran Desert. The arguments came in the first of a series of high-profile federal trials in Tucson, Arizona, where humanitarian aid volunteers are facing prosecution under a litany of charges.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Wright, who is currently spearheading multiple cases against members of the humanitarian group, assured Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco that the evidence would clearly show that on the afternoon of August 13, 2017, four No More Deaths volunteers — Natalie Renee Hoffman, Oona Meagan Holcomb, Madeline Abbe Huse, and Zaachila I. Orozco-McCormick — broke the law when they drove onto the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, just outside the tiny town of Ajo, Arizona, and left humanitarian aid supplies for migrants passing through the region.

Christopher Dupont, an attorney for the defendants, argued that by devoting their time to putting out food and water in one of the world’s deadliest regions for migrants traveling on foot — where a minimum of 3,000 people have died making their way north since 2000 — the No More Deaths volunteers were acting on deeply held principles to confront a “crisis of the soul” that has turned much of southern Arizona’s most remote federal lands into a “veritable cemetery.”

There are currently two sets of separated but related cases stemming from a Trump administration crackdown on humanitarian aid volunteers in southern Arizona. The most serious charges have been leveled against Scott Warren, a 36-year-old academic, whom the government charged with three felony counts of harboring and conspiracy, for providing food, water, and a place to sleep to two undocumented men over three days last January. Warren faces 20 years in prison if convicted and sentenced to consecutive terms.

In addition to the felony case, Warren, who was not on trial this week, is one of nine No More Deaths volunteers accused of violating regulations on the Cabeza Prieta Refuge. Those cases are divided into three trials, with the first now underway.

Trump administration prosecutors are seeking to present the actions of No More Deaths volunteers on trial this week as straightforward violations of straightforward regulations. But hundreds of pages of internal government documents and communications, obtained by The Intercept through a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, map the deterioration of negotiations between No More Deaths and federal land managers, ultimately leading to the prosecutions.

The documents, many of which have taken center stage at this week’s trial, reveal the central role a supervisory official at a remote U.S. Fish and Wildlife office played in driving the prosecutions. They also show that, while Fish and Wildlife officers have been critical in collecting bodies in the Arizona desert, they have also actively removed food and water left by humanitarian groups in order to keep people from dying, while maintaining blacklists of the humanitarian volunteers that placed the supplies in the desert.

The newly released materials illustrate how generations of hard-line border enforcement measures collide with government wilderness preservation priorities, creating a situation in which thousands of people have died and the actions of those working to prevent further loss of life have been criminalized in the name of environmental conservation.

Federal Land Managers Crack Down

The No More Deaths trial unfolding in Tucson right now has as much to do with land management as with immigration. Two and a half decades of U.S. border enforcement policy has intentionally funneled generations of migrants into the sprawling landscape of the Sonoran Desert. Much of the area on the U.S. side is administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. military. But these Interior Department agencies, as well the Department of Defense, have largely escaped the scrutiny their Department of Homeland Security counterparts receive on matters of immigration — despite the fact that thousands of migrants have lost their lives on the lands these agencies administer.

Stretching along nearly 60 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, with its administrative office in Ajo, nearly all of the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge’s 860,000 acres are federally designated wilderness, making it the largest stretch of wilderness — a place where the impact of human activity is intended to be as limited as possible — in the state of Arizona. Bordered by the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range, which are managed by the National Park Service and the Defense Department, respectively, the refuge is one-third of a patchwork of federal land roughly the size of Connecticut that is devoid of any permanent human habitation. There are just three public roads on Cabeza Prieta, including El Camino del Diablo, or “the Devil’s Highway.” Used by indigenous residents of the Southwest for more than 1,000 years, the Devil’s Highway garnered national attention in 2001, when a group of 26 migrants became lost on the road. More than half died of dehydration or disappeared in the days that followed.

In 2014, amid a rise in missing persons reports coming in from the desert west of Tucson, No More Deaths began concentrating more of its humanitarian aid efforts in the so-called Ajo corridor, increasing water drops and exploration in the area. Soon, the number of human remains recovered in the region, particularly on Cabeza Prieta, began to increase. According to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, 19 sets of human remains were found on the refuge in 2015; 19 more were recovered in 2016; and 32 were found in 2017. In an email to The Intercept, Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist at the medical examiner’s office, said 40 of the 46 sets of human remains located by humanitarian groups in southern Arizona since 2000 were found after the 2014 push began, adding that “of these, 38 were in the Ajo District of our sheriff’s office, with most being west of Ajo” — namely, in Cabeza Prieta’s Growler Valley, where No More Deaths has focused much of its work.

No More Deaths’ expanded operations in the Ajo area brought the group into contact with Sidney Slone, the Fish and Wildlife manager of the Cabeza refuge. Slone did not return a request for comment Wednesday. In 2017, he declined to comment on The Intercept’s coverage of the No More Deaths cases, citing the likelihood that he will be called as a witness in the upcoming trials. On Wednesday, the land manager’s prediction came true. Slone’s testimony, coupled with the emails he sent during No More Deaths’ push, illustrate his concerns regarding the humanitarian group — a major factor that led to the prosecutions.

New Permitting Process

At the core of the current case is an adjustment to Cabeza Prieta’s permitting process, which requires visitors to initial a passage agreeing not to leave food or water on the refuge. The change went into effect on July 1, 2017, as No More Deaths’ work was helping to drive a record increase in human remains recovered on Cabeza Prieta. Emails show Slone workshopped the adjustment through the late spring and early summer of 2017, in consultation with regional Interior Department and military officials at the bombing range. As Slone later explained in an interview with the Arizona Republic, the “beefed up” measures were intended to “make it really clear so there’s no question in someone’s mind what the rules are.”

In his testimony Wednesday, Slone described the change in the permitting process as a “clarification” of existing rules, aimed at addressing the “ongoing issue” of No More Deaths volunteers leaving food and water on the refuge. “It was a joint effort,” Slone testified, explaining that the change involved input from regional Interior and Defense Department officials.

The consequential change came after an April 28 meeting in which No More Deaths volunteers and the group’s longtime attorney, Margo Cowan, met with Slone and Mary Kralovec, the assistant refuge manager at Cabeza Prieta, to discuss expanded humanitarian aid work on the refuge.

As the meeting approached, Slone emailed colleagues laying out his vision of humanitarian work and the people moving through the Ajo corridor. “I have told these organizations that I favor the deployment of more rescue beacons which Border Patrol puts out (at our urging sometimes) for the purpose of saving lives over them putting out water,” Slone said in an email to U.S. Fish and Wildlife colleague Beth Ullenberg. The land manager added that he preferred the use of fixed, 55-gallon drums of water in mutually agreed-upon locations to address the problem of migrants dying on the refuge. Humane Borders, another Arizona-based humanitarian group, has used such drums for years, including on Cabeza Prieta. Slone explained that he preferred the drums in part because they do “not include putting out food and clothing.”

Putting out food and clothing — or doing anything that might aid an individual in continuing to move through Cabeza Prieta — is a concern that appears repeatedly in Slone’s communications.

Putting out food and clothing — or doing anything that might aid an individual in continuing to move through Cabeza Prieta — is a concern that appears repeatedly in Slone’s communications. Responding to a 2016 op-ed published on the anniversary of the 2001 Devil’s Highway tragedy, Slone told a Fish and Wildlife public affairs specialist that the “big problem” stemmed from the fact that most of Cabeza Prieta is designated wilderness and to put water where water is needed would require giving humanitarian aid groups access to administrative roads, thus threatening the protected areas.

What’s more, Slone said, groups like No More Deaths were already putting one-gallon jugs of water in the desert, adding trash to the refuge. “Even worse,” he said in the email. “They are now putting our [sic] protein shakes and canned foods. This is beyond saving lives, as the added food can help energize folks to hike another day or two, thus continue their journey. And unlike the deaths in 2001, almost all our illegal border crossing traffic on the Refuge is folks smuggling marijuana, not mom and pop looking for work.”

Slone, who this week testified that he is not a law enforcement official and does not have law enforcement experience, returned to the subject in March 2017, emailing the head of the Border Patrol’s Ajo station to express concern that the chief had told local residents that 95 percent of the “illegal traffic coming through the Ajo area” was “people looking for work and sanctuary,” while just 5 percent had to do with drug trafficking.

“I assume that they misunderstood what you said and that the opposite is true,” he wrote. “Many of these local folks putting out water and food think they are saving folks that are here seeking jobs or sanctuary. I tell everyone that the illegal traffic on the Cabeza Prieta is almost all drug smuggling.”

Negotiations Between Feds and Humanitarians

The April meeting between the Cabeza Prieta land manager and No More Deaths ended without a resolution, according to a summary of the conversation circulated by Slone and Kralovec. “In the end, they basically stated that they will do what they have to do and if we issue them citations, so be it,” Slone wrote, adding that the group was seeking a meeting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson “to reach some accommodation.”

Scott Warren visits the site of the now closed copper mines, which operated until the 1970's. Scott's doctorate focused on the history of the town and it's role in shaping the border policies that are here today.

Scott Warren at the site of now-closed copper mines in the Arizona desert in July 2018.

Photo: Laura Saunders for The Intercept

As the permitting change was being finalized, the monitoring of No More Deaths volunteers on Cabeza Prieta intensified. In early June, Warren, the No More Deaths volunteer charged with three felonies, was stopped on the refuge while doing a water drop and told that he had strayed onto designated wilderness with his vehicle. By mid-month, Slone was informing other land managers that a change was coming — one that would respond to No More Deaths specifically.

In a June 19 email to Cabeza Prieta staffers that was referenced in court Tuesday, Slone wrote that he was in consultation with “Air Force and refuge solicitors” on the coming adjustments. In the meantime, he said, Cabeza Prieta staff were to withhold giving permits to Warren and the three other No More Deaths volunteers. “If folks come in for a permit and it appears that they are part of the No More Deaths group, get myself or Mary to talk with them,” he wrote.

When asked how his staff was to determine whether an individual was affiliated with No More Deaths, Slone told the court that there are “a number of ways.” Often, the land manager said, the volunteers would come in groups telling “the same story” about their plans to make a short hike onto the refuge. But Slone apparently knew better.

“If they were with No More Deaths, they had intentions to go out and put water out,” Slone testified — and he simply could not let that happen.

Five days after the permitting change became official, No More Deaths volunteers and the group’s longtime attorneys took part in a conference call with Arizona authorities. This time, representatives from nearly all of the major land management agencies were included, along with prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson. In a briefing document based on the meeting, Fish and Wildlife official Yurie Aitken noted that the Justice Department said that, with regard to humanitarian aid in the Ajo area, “95% of issues between the Government and NMD are with Department of Interior.” Aitken’s notes added that the Justice Department stated, “Tickets issued are dismissed/not prosecuted if the person shows up to court (DOJ has them ‘Commit’ to not violate again).”

“Not much (if anything) was agreed to and nothing was really proposed. NMD gave an overview of their efforts and expressed common goals they would like to work with the Government on to save lives.”

“Not much (if anything) was agreed to and nothing was really proposed,” Aitken concluded of the meeting. “NMD gave an overview of their efforts and expressed common goals they would like to work with the Government on to save lives.”

Aitken, too, appeared in court this week, taking the witness stand Wednesday morning. Under questioning from the No More Deaths defense team, he explained that his account of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s position on the prosecution of No More Deaths volunteers was based on the words of an assistant U.S. attorney, whose name he could not recall.

According to a sworn declaration submitted on behalf of the No More Deaths defendants last year, the prosecutor’s name was Larry Lee. For years, veteran attorneys with No More Deaths say they enjoyed a positive working relationship with Lee. In 2017, however, as the conflict on Cabeza Prieta was festering, Lee left Arizona for another job. Wright and Nathaniel Walters, both assistant U.S. attorneys, have taken over their office’s No More Deaths-related work. The two have been aggressively prosecuting those cases ever since.

On cross-examination Wednesday, Walters asked Aitken if anyone from the U.S. attorney’s offices had told No More Deaths volunteers that they had permission to enter Cabeza Prieta without permits, to drive on administrative roads, or to leave supplies on refuge grounds. Aitken said no.

Included among dozens of law enforcement incident reports stretching back to 2014, which were released to The Intercept, are grim accounts of Fish and Wildlife officers recovering bodies on the refuge, including both skeletal remains and the newly dead. In 2017, however, officers also began to describe encountering and removing humanitarian aid supplies on the refuge, and in at least one case, linking No More Deaths by name to the leaving of those supplies. As the encounters with his officers increased, Slone and his colleagues constructed a running blacklist of No More Deaths volunteers. A prominent figure on border issues in small-town Ajo, Warren was invariably the first person listed in the documents Slone had generated, though each of the current Cabeza Prieta-related defendants all eventually made appearances.

Throughout 2017, Slone regularly shared his expanding blacklists through email and formal letters with regional land management counterparts at the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Defense Department, urging them to join him in blocking No More Deaths volunteers from their lands. At one point, Randy English, an official at the military’s Barry M. Goldwater bombing range, reminded Slone that he could not pre-emptively bar individuals from receiving permits. “As discussed, until such time that they break the rules on BMGR West, I can’t really deny them a permit for BMGR West,” English wrote in a July email.

The Cabeza Prieta-related charges against the nine No More Deaths volunteers were simultaneously filed on December 6, 2017 — several months after the events in question actually took place — but it was clear as early as mid-summer of 2017 that Slone and other Cabeza officials hoped to see the No More Deaths volunteers punished in court. In a July letter to a Bureau of Land Management supervisor, sent the same day that No More Deaths volunteers met with regional land managers and U.S. attorneys in hopes of seeking a resolution, Slone said his office was “pursuing legal action against” Warren for driving on designated wilderness.

As The Intercept reported in September, Margot Bissell, a visitor services specialist at Cabeza Prieta, made similar comments in text messages to a local Border Patrol agent that same month.

Addressing his blacklists from the witness stand Wednesday, Slone testified that “folks on that list were folks that got caught violating rules and regulations.” He acknowledged, though, that not everyone who violates rules and regulations on Cabeza Prieta ends up on a government blacklist. Attorneys for the No More Deaths volunteers have argued that, in fact, Fish and Wildlife’s own records show that group’s members were specifically targeted. From 2015 to 2018, agents with the land management agency issued 14 citations for various violations of federal regulations or law in the Cabeza Prieta Refuge, the agency’s records show.

“None of these incidents were referred for prosecution or prosecuted, except for those involving No More Deaths volunteers,” the defense team noted in a September court filing.

Erasing Migrant Deaths

On Monday, before the current No More Deaths trial began, a hearing was held in Warren’s felony case that underscored a growing cloud of suspicion hanging over the No More Deaths prosecutions. At issue were secret communications, first reported by The Intercept, between government prosecutors and judge Velasco — the same judge Velasco overseeing the Cabeza Prieta-related cases.

Following the hearing, Warren’s attorneys filed a motion calling for “sanctions due to serious ethical violations” on the part of the Trump administration prosecutors. The lawyers argued for the indictment against Warren to be dropped, or at least for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona to be disqualified from the case.

As the No More Deaths trials go forward, the court will consider actions in a fixed time and place. But the subtext of the cases go much deeper, raising critical questions about the complicated interplay between law enforcement, land management, and humanitarian groups in a borderlands environment that has taken thousands of human lives. Two months before the Cabeza Prieta charges were filed, Warren, the No More Deaths volunteer now facing the greatest amount of time behind bars, published an essay in the South Atlantic Quarterly, an academic journal, addressing those issues head-on. Warren wrote that the work of humanitarian aid volunteers in southern Arizona does not aim to legitimize “the physical presence of smuggling organizations on public lands along the border.”

“Rather, humanitarian aid drops of water, food, socks, and blankets serve to acknowledge the struggle of migrants and force land managers and the public to recognize the ongoing humanitarian crisis,” he wrote. “Simply put, the very presence of humanitarian aid forces land managers to publicly acknowledge a problem that they may wish to push into the remotest and least touristed areas of the desert, keeping it invisible to everyone but law enforcement personnel.”

The post As Trial Starts for Border Humanitarian Volunteers, New Documents Reveal Federal Bureaucrats’ Obsession With Stopping Activists appeared first on The Intercept.

Episode Five: Hercules Brown

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Hercules Brown grew up in a well-respected family in Adel. Residents remember him as a good kid. But then something changed. He became violent and mean. And he had several run-ins with the law. But when he got in trouble, nothing seemed to stick. Until the murders of Bennett and Browning raised new questions about the Taco Bell and the Patel murders too. When DNA comes back as a match to Hercules on a key piece of evidence, will it be enough to help Devonia Inman?


Liliana Segura: In Greek mythology, Hercules was the illegitimate son of a mortal woman and Zeus, the king of the gods. Zeus’ wife, the goddess Hera, was furious about the infidelity and vengeful toward Hercules. She sent two snakes to kill the infant in his crib. It didn’t work. He was so strong that he crushed them both. Growing up, the mythical Hercules was known for his size and strength and athletic prowess. He learned wrestling and horseback riding. But he was also musical. He played the lyre and sang. Eventually, he would also be known for his murderous temper. He wore a lion skin with the head still attached. It came up over his head like a mask. And he carried a club, his favorite weapon.

Jordan Smith: Hercules Brown, a man from Adel, Georgia, had a lot in common with the original Hercules.

Daniel Connell: The name was very fitting. He was usually the biggest kid in our grade, very big, strong kid.

Jordan Smith: That’s Daniel Connell. He grew up in Adel and he still lives there. He’s a lawyer now. He went to grade school with Hercules Brown. They weren’t exactly best friends, but it was a small town and they were in the same grade.

Daniel Connell: Good athlete for the most part. He was usually the biggest football player or the guy that could hit home runs before everybody in baseball. Very mild-mannered, very well-spoken.

Jordan Smith: This Hercules played music, too. He was in the Cook County High School band. He played the trombone.

Daniel Connell: He never got in trouble that I recall in high school, was polite to teachers, never went to parties or anything like that that I’m aware of.

Liliana Segura: But Connell had heard rumors about a dark side. That, at some point, Hercules had changed. That he started having issues with drugs– using and maybe dealing. He became known for his horrible temper.

Christy Lima: This boy had a violent streak in him and everybody in Adel knew that about Hercules. Everybody was scared of him.

Liliana Segura: That’s Devonia Inman’s old girlfriend, Christy Lima. Of course, she had reason not to like Hercules Brown. When Donna Brown was killed at the Taco Bell, she heard that Hercules, and not Devonia Inman, had been responsible. But she wasn’t the only one aware of Hercules’ violent temper.

Jordan Smith: The cops in Adel cops knew about it too. There were vicious and seemingly unprovoked attacks on random people around town. Then an attempted robbery. And more rumors– that he was selling drugs out of the drive-through window at Taco Bell where he often worked nights as a closer. But for all the trouble he managed to find, for a long time Hercules Brown also managed to escape any real consequences.

Liliana Segura: From The Intercept, I’m Liliana Segura.

Jordan Smith: I’m Jordan Smith. And this is Murderville, Georgia. Were the rumors about Hercules true? That he’d killed Donna Brown and maybe even Shailesh Patel? If he’d killed Bennett and Browning at the corner store, was he the only person who could’ve killed the other two? And if so, how did he get away with it?

Liliana Segura: Police in Adel had arrested Hercules before. A couple of years before William Carroll Bennett and Rebecca Browning were murdered the grocery store, Hercules was accused of dragging a woman he knew, the mother of a drug dealer, out of her car. And beating her up. Badly. A random witness had to pull him off of her. Tim Balch, the former Adel cop we’ve been talking to, remembers this incident.  He was working at the police station when the woman came in to report the attack.

Tim Balch: It looked like she had been in a fight with Mike Tyson. Her eyes were shut. I asked her what had happened and she told me that Hercules Brown beat her up.

Liliana Segura: Hercules was charged with the assault. But the woman ultimately refused to cooperate. So the charge was dropped.

Jordan Smith: The next year, there was an even more violent attack. Hercules knocked a man from his bicycle and beat him in the head so savagely that the man went into convulsions. He had to be hospitalized. Hercules pleaded guilty to the assault and was sentenced to just a year of probation. Then there was the other grocery store robbery. Well, attempted anyway. Less than two months before Bennett and Browning were bludgeoned to death. Balch was working that day too. He got a call from one of his confidential informants saying that two men were on their way to Harvey’s Supermarket with a plan to rob it.

Tim Balch: They all pulled up in the car, and I stopped it. Got Hercules out. There was a ski mask, a gun. Found crack cocaine in the car, and I arrested him.

Jordan Smith: Balch put him in handcuffs and into the back of the squad car. But then something happened.

Tim Balch: No sooner got him to the police station, which is literally six blocks away, before Mom shows up cussing me out about how her son would never have done any of this and that it was all planted and a big conspiracy by the police and all this, that and the other on him getting in trouble.

Jordan Smith: He was rescued by his mom.

Liliana Segura: It sounds ridiculous, but for people in Adel, Hercules’ mom, Lucinda Brown, was a pretty big deal. She worked for the state Division of Family and Children Services—the agency responsible for benefits like food stamps and for taking kids out of abusive homes. Some thought she took advantage of her position in order to protect her son.

Tim Balch: Now his mother was always very, very, very overprotective. Anytime something happened and his name was brought up, “Oh, it can’t be my son,” type thing. So, when he started getting in trouble with school, she was always down there raising cane, and it was always somebody else’s fault, which kind of, I think, led to a lot of the problems that he’s getting into now.

Liliana Segura: People in Adel were afraid to drop the dime on Hercules Brown in case his mother got mad. They were scared she would find a reason to deny them food stamps or other things they needed.

Jordan Smith: Or take their kids away.

Liliana Segura: And it wasn’t just regular people who worried. Balch says the cops tiptoed around her, too, because they knew they needed her. Especially with child abuse investigations. They were afraid of getting on her bad side.

Tim Balch: So when she would come down there and get angry, it was easy not to get angry back because you didn’t want the kids to be caught in the middle of it, so you’d take the abuse. With her, I held my tongue, you know, and that’s kind of the way things were.

Liliana Segura: We called Lucinda Brown. She was not interested in talking to us.

Jordan Smith: A lot of people have been saying some things that aren’t all that nice about your son and we really wanted to see if you could help us out, because we just don’t know what’s true and what’s not.

Lucinda Brown: Well you will never know what’s true and what’s not. So I don’t have anything to give you.

Jordan Smith: Now, not everybody remembers the Browns playing the system that way. We asked Kirk Gordon, the former chief of police in Adel, if Hercules’ mom was always saving his ass. According to his version, Hercules didn’t really need his ass saved.

Kirk Gordon: There wasn’t that many run-ins with the police, because Hercules, when he was in high school, was a good kid. I never had any problems.

Jordan Smith: Still, Gordon had known Hercules a long time. Since he was a kid. And he was aware that, at some point, he changed.

Kirk Gordon: I’ve known Hercules since he’s a puppy.

Jordan Smith: What happened to him do you think?

Kirk Gordon: Drugs.

Jordan Smith: Was it something you could kinda see happening?

Kirk Gordon: I couldn’t. I know that- I mean, in the drug world, no. I didn’t have an every day contact with Hercules. I knew his mom and dad real well, and his sister. Just super good people.

Jordan Smith: But Tim Balch says it was almost like Hercules wanted to be bad.

Tim Balch: He would say, “Oh, yeah. Well, I did that. The police are stupid. They never solved it,” and you don’t know- I mean he is very braggadocious and he’s always been that way since I’ve known him. I think I even told one of the GBI guys. I was like, “Well, you know, if there’s ever an unsolved murder,” I said, “I could get 20 witnesses that would come in here and say Hercules Brown said he did it,” because that’s the way that he was.

Jordan Smith: But the murders of Bennett and Browning were a different story.

Liliana Segura: The evidence against Hercules Brown for the Bennett-Browning murders was strong. Two witnesses, Lloyd Crumley and Corbit Belflower — a.k.a. Cornbread — saw him and another man fleeing the store just after the murders. They also recorded the license plate number of the getaway car, a car known to belong to Hercules. Less than an hour after the killings, cops pulled him over in that car. But none of that stopped Hercules from trying to deny he had anything to do with it.

Jordan Smith: The investigation was being led by Jamy Steinberg, the GBI agent who’d handled the Donna Brown case. He’d talked to Hercules Brown during that investigation too, for about a hot minute. When Hercules was brought in for questioning in connection with the slaying of Bennett and Browning, Steinberg said he remembered him from back in 1998. Hercules feigned ignorance. Said his name was Al Railey. When Steinberg called in Jimmy Hill, the Adel PD detective, to positively ID him, Hercules relented. Yes, that was his name. But he swore he knew nothing about any double murder. He was booked into jail anyway. As police and prosecutors built a murder case against Hercules, there was one piece they couldn’t seem to figure out. Who was the second man with him that day? The man Crumley and Cornbread saw leaving the store and carrying a baseball bat? There was talk around town that the accomplice was Wesley Mason, a 21-year-old who lived not far from Bennett’s Cash and Carry and who worked with Hercules at the aluminum finishing plant in town.

Gail Bennett: I was very frustrated. As you know, it’s a small community.

Jordan Smith: Even the victim’s wife, Gail Bennett, had heard that Mason had a hand in her husband’s death.

Gail Bennett: We all knew who the second one was.

Jordan Smith: But it didn’t appear that Steinberg was in much of a hurry to figure it out. More than two months would pass before he finally brought Mason in for questioning. Mason denied any involvement and was released. Gail couldn’t understand it. She was frustrated. She pressed Steinberg for answers and she said he didn’t like that.

Gail Bennett: It took almost four or five weeks for the GBI to even talk to me. And that was after really showing my behind and sending letters and this and that and he came and he was very ugly and he looked at me and said, “I don’t have to tell you anything.” And I told him, I said, “No, Jamy, you don’t, but you will answer to my girls.” I said probably because of the connections we had, I probably knew more than he did.

Liliana Segura: None of this was exactly surprising. After Donna Brown was killed, Steinberg and his team ignored what they’d been told about Hercules Brown being responsible. Instead they cobbled together a sad array of questionable evidence to support their theory that Devonia Inman was guilty. And the family of Shailesh Patel says that the GBI didn’t even bother to talk to them for days after Patel was killed in April of 2000. The GBI still hasn’t solved that crime. And now, with the brazen murder of Bennett and Browning, Steinberg appeared to be sitting on his heels, ignoring the talk around town about Mason’s involvement.

Jordan Smith: I know you said Jamie said he didn’t have to give you any information, but did he ever explain anything about why it was taking so long?

Gail Bennett: Nope. They didn’t, they never would explain anything to me.

Liliana Segura: Part of the problem was Hercules Brown. He insisted he had nothing to do with the crime. So, naturally, he didn’t say a word about Wesley Mason. Even so, it seemed inevitable that Hercules would be convicted. Not only was there the positive ID by Crumley and Cornbread, there was also DNA evidence. The blood stains found on the white Nikes and blue jeans that Hercules was wearing that day matched William Bennett.

Jordan Smith: And after four murders, the people of Adel seemed ready for someone to pay. Charles Shiver works for the local paper, the Adel News-Tribune. He’s written a lot about crime, including the murders of Donna Brown and Shailesh Patel and the bludgeoning of Bennett and Browning. The ongoing violence had rocked the town.

Charles Shiver: It just seemed like the community was darkening, or I don’t know how to put it … At least some parts of it, you know?

Jordan Smith: In the summer of 2001, Devonia Inman had come within inches of being sentenced to death on far flimsier evidence than what the state had against Hercules and now the Bennett family was pushing hard for the death penalty. So just before his trial was scheduled to start, Hercules cut a deal with the prosecutors. He told them that Wesley Mason had helped him to rob the Cash and Carry and to kill Bennett and Browning. Actually, he said more than that. He said the whole thing had been Mason’s idea. Sure, he’d thrown the cash register at Lloyd Crumley. But that was Mason’s idea. And it was Mason who had beaten Bennett and Browning to death and who whacked the railroad conductor so hard that part of his scalp peeled back. Hercules said it was all Mason’s doing. In Hercules’ version of events, he was just a hapless victim too, in the wrong place at the wrong time. In exchange for his story, he was given a sentence of life without parole. Now, Wesley Mason was the only one facing a possible death sentence.

Liliana Segura: The prosecutors went for it, but there was every reason to question Hercules’ story. Apparently he and Mason knew each other only casually — as one tends to know everyone in a small town. So it was hard to imagine why Hercules Brown would agree to partner up with him to kill two people.

Liliana Segura: When police finally got Mason to talk, he flatly denied being involved in the murders. He said he went to the store with Hercules that day, but had no clue that anything was going to happen. Once they got inside the store, he said Hercules just went crazy.

Laura Mason: Hello?

Jordan Smith: Hi, I was trying to reach Laura Mason.

Liliana Segura: We tracked down Mason’s mom.

Laura Mason: Speaking.

Jordan Smith: Ms. Mason, My name is Jordan Smith and I’m a reporter-

Liliana Segura: She didn’t want to talk to us.

Laura Mason: You got the wrong person.

Jordan Smith: You’re not related to Wesley Mason?

Laura Mason: I am, but I don’t have anything to say, ma’am, I’m sorry.

Jordan Smith: Oh, did she hang up…

Liliana Segura: I think she hung up.

Jordan Smith: Yeah.

Liliana Segura:  We all know about the right to an attorney and that if you can’t afford one, the state will provide one for you. But when a person faces the death penalty, a whole different attorney apparatus kicks in. Defense lawyers who specialize in fighting capital cases.

Jordan Smith: Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be. Wesley Mason was appointed two attorneys. They were two very different people, with very different experience. The lead counselor was a local guy. A prosecutor from a neighboring county who handled misdemeanors. The second lawyer was Josh Moore.

Josh Moore: Okay. My name is Josh Moore and I represent clients facing the death penalty all across the state, have done about 15 years now.

Jordan Smith: He’s actually the appellate director for the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender. It’s a state office with attorneys who represent indigent clients. That’s pretty much everyone facing the death penalty. He’s sharp and to-the-point. The kind of guy that you know does not suffer fools lightly. When Moore got appointed, one of the first things he worried about was that Mason couldn’t possibly get a fair trial. For starters, a prosecutor had been tapped to lead the defense. It sounds bizarre, but Moore says that’s just about par for the course in South Georgia. Then there’s the fact that the crime had captivated the town. There was a lot of local press about it, much of it angry and vengeful.

Josh Moore: You’re dealing with Cook County, Georgia. This is not a place where the judicial system runs in any kind of recognizable way to most lawyers, right? And so there was no, you know- the notion of Wesley Mason getting a fair trial in Cook County, Georgia was almost laughable.

Jordan Smith: Moore also needed to figure out whether his client was actually responsible for murdering Bennett and Browning. Because when two people are accused of committing a crime, who exactly did what can mean the difference between an acquittal and a conviction. Or in this case, between life and death.

Josh Moore: So we were dealing with a client who had professed his innocence to the police when they interrogated him but admitted his presence. And so the question was, how much of it was Wesley Mason and how much of it was Hercules Brown?

Liliana Segura: It didn’t take long for Moore to reach a conclusion.

Josh Moore: It was absolutely clear based on the evidence in this case that Hercules Brown was the primary moving force behind this case.

Liliana Segura: So he started looking more deeply into Hercules Brown. And pretty soon, he heard about another murder Hercules had supposedly committed.

Josh Moore: I started focusing on what I was hearing about Hercules Brown and very quickly I was hearing that Hercules Brown had committed a previous murder and that was the Taco Bell case that Devonia Inman was convicted for.

Liliana Segura: But he’d also heard another rumor. That Hercules might’ve been involved with the unsolved murder of Shailesh Patel.

Josh Moore: I think it was somebody, maybe an Indian fellow who got murdered, maybe like a television or an air conditioner smashed over his head. I can’t really remember it very well.

Liliana Segura: The Patel murder.

Josh Moore: That’s what people were saying about Hercules that he had committed both of those two murders prior to the Bennett murder.

Liliana Segura: Moore stepped up his investigation. If he could show that Hercules had blood on his hands already, it would, at the very least, suggest something about his propensity for violence. The investigation didn’t last long.

Josh Moore: I started aggressively investigating the Taco Bell case in fairly short order and Clark Landrum, who was lead counsel on the case, basically got wind of it, I think from the GBI agents. I mean, this is a guy who is a prosecutor so… and had said to me, “You’re a real curious guy. I don’t know why you keep looking into this stuff.” And I explained to him why I thought it was important and he said, “Well, I’m directing you to stop looking into it anymore. And I’m lead counsel and I make that decision.”

Jordan Smith: Yup. You heard that right. The man who was the lead attorney appointed to represent Mason told Moore to quit investigating something that could save their client’s life. Moore said that lawyer, Clark Landrum, even wrote him an official letter laying it all out. Moore couldn’t find the letter when we visited him. And for his part, Landrum told us in an email that Moore’s version of events wasn’t accurate, that he didn’t tell Moore to stop doing anything.

The whole thing came to a head in a meeting with the judge assigned to preside over Mason’s case. The judge himself tried to kick Moore off the defense team. Moore was indignant. His client didn’t want Landrum defending him. He wanted Moore.

Josh Moore: I had said to the judge maybe there’s some confusion here, but we’re representing Mr. Mason and we’re not asking for any money from you, so you have absolutely no authority to bar me from having contact with him, he’s my client. The judge eventually understood that he was not going to be able to stop that and just said, “Well, I guess there’s not much that I can do, but you better sure as hell not ask for any money from me because I’m not giving you any money, but if you want to keep representing him on your own dime, then do it.”

Jordan Smith: Moore ended up representing Mason for free.

Liliana Segura: But then, a deal. The District Attorney was Bob Ellis, the same man who had prosecuted Devonia Inman for the murder of Donna Brown. He made Mason an offer: Plead guilty and no death penalty. Instead, life in prison. Mason took the deal.

Josh Moore: As you have seen, I’m sure, in looking into this again, a lot of doors close in your face and so ultimately whether we were in a position to prove that he did this other murder or not, you know, we didn’t follow that trail all the way through to the end.

Liliana Segura: Of course, Josh Moore wasn’t the first person to hear that Hercules Brown had been responsible for the murder at the Taco Bell. Back then, a lot of people in Adel said it was him.

Jordan Smith: Jamy Steinberg, the GBI agent, talked to Hercules the day after Donna Brown was murdered. It isn’t exactly clear why. He didn’t ask him much, save for whether he knew if Donna Brown had been having any man trouble. Hercules said, not as far as he knew. And that was it. According to the GBI report that was the only time anyone interviewed Hercules Brown. Nobody ever followed up. And we could never figure out why. We’d wondered about this from the start. Why did police and prosecutors ignore Hercules? It didn’t make any sense. Until we talked to Tim Eidson, one of the prosecutors who tried Devonia Inman. And we realized, again, it apparently came back to his mother. Lucinda Brown.

Tim Eidson: She gave an alibi for him. She gave an alibi and there wasn’t any reason to disbelieve her at the time, I mean, she was a well-respected citizen.

Jordan Smith: According to Eidson, this is what Lucinda told him.

Tim Eidson: At the time of the Taco Bell murder, Hercules Brown was at home asleep.

Jordan Smith: They never did anything to investigate or to corroborate her story, which is crazy. Imagine a murder in your neighborhood. There’s a suspect everyone is pointing at. And the police, they just ignore it. Because his mom tells them he’s at home in bed.

Liliana Segura: If they hadn’t been so quick to accept Lucinda Brown’s alibi for her own son, there would have been plenty to look at. But before we get into that, it might be useful to review the case against Devonia Inman. You might remember, it’s pretty flimsy. There’s the testimony of an incoherent drug dealer. Several teenagers who later recanted. Information from a jailhouse snitch who used the occasion to ask for leniency. And a newspaper carrier with a wholly unbelievable story who collected a five-thousand dollar reward for her “information.”

Jordan Smith: Then there’s the evidence against Hercules Brown. Hercules actually worked at the Taco Bell with the victim. He even handled the closing shift, so he would’ve known how the whole closing process worked. Then there’s the fact that Hercules actually talked about robbing the Taco Bell. Including Takeisha Pickett, one of his co-workers. Pickett is Devonia Inman’s cousin.

Takeisha Pickett: Me and him is the same age. We always been close. We always been close.

Jordan Smith: She worked as a night manager at Taco Bell for a while. One of the people she supervised was Hercules Brown. She says he tried to convince her to help him rob the place.

Takeisha Pickett: Yea, he gave me a ride home one night and then we came in for a little while. And that’s when he brought the conversation that was like, “Man, you should let me rob you one night,” or whatever. And I was like, “Man, there ain’t enough money to get robbed from there.” And, you know, we kind of- I brushed it off always and left it at that.

Jordan Smith: Neither the cops nor the GBI investigators took it any further than that. They didn’t investigate Pickett’s story and she didn’t get to testify at Inman’s trial. And she wasn’t the only one who told the cops they had information about the murder and then didn’t get to testify.

Liliana Segura: One man, Thomas Dewayne Edwards, a friend of Hercules Brown, even told the investigators that Hercules had confessed to him: Hercules told him that he shot Donna Brown with a single .44 caliber bullet. Edwards said Hercules told him that he wore a mask during the crime, because Donna Brown knew him as an employee at the Taco Bell. He said he wore a mask. Right after Donna Brown was killed, the cops found her car in a nearby parking lot. There was a lot of evidence in it—the keys, the purse, the fingerprints, and a mask, made from a piece of gray sweatpants.

Jordan Smith: At the time of the murder, nobody looked at it. In fact, nobody even realized it was there until nearly two weeks later. Even though you can clearly see it in the crime scene photos. And certainly, it was never tested for fingerprints or DNA. In 2002, Devonia Inman was in prison. Just starting his life sentence there. He was desperate and despairing. He wrote to the Georgia Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the wrongly convicted. The lawyers there started looking into his case right away. They were astonished by the quality of the investigation—the recanting witnesses, the lack of physical evidence. They devoured the transcripts. And the police reports. And they began a search for evidence they could test for DNA. Finally, they found the mask, and in 2011, it was tested. There was DNA from a single source.

Liliana Segura: Hercules Brown. Aimee Maxwell, the former head of the Georgia Innocence Project, remembers the video of Steinberg interviewing Hercules Brown in prison about why his DNA might be on the mask.

Jamy Steinberg: Have you ever been with Devonia Inman and had a mask on? Because it didn’t come back with any other DNA, I mean it came back with…

Liliana Segura: In the video, Hercules sits on a bench wearing white prison scrubs. White cinder block wall behind him. His head is shaved, his face impassive. Sometimes he seems bored. Even as Steinberg backs him into a corner. At first, Maxwell says, she thought Steinberg was trying to feed Hercules the ‘right’ answer.

Aimee Maxwell: But, he says no I barely knew Devonia, he was an acquaintance.

Liliana Segura: Maxwell remembers him saying.

Aimee Maxwell: I knew who he was but we didn’t hang out. I’ve never given him a mask, he’s never taken a mask, and so by the end, I realized it was this genius interrogation because they gave him all the outs. He took none of them. So they backed him into a corner and he has no place to go from now.

Liliana Segura: There was basically no way for Hercules to argue that Devonia Inman had killed Donna Brown and that he, Hercules, was innocent. In 2014, Devonia Inman was finally granted a hearing to ask for a new trial, in light of the evidence that had emerged.

Jordan Smith: On the next episode of Murderville: Devonia Inman goes back to court. But will the new evidence exonerate him?

Liliana Segura: Murderville, Georgia is a production of The Intercept and Topic Studios. Alisa Roth is our producer. Ben Adair is our editor. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Bryan Pugh. Production assistance from Isabel Robertson. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. For The Intercept, Roger Hodge is our editor and Betsy Reed is the editor-in-chief. I’m Liliana Segura. And I’m Jordan Smith. You can read our series and see photos at You can also follow us on Twitter @lilianasegura and @chronic_jordan. Talk to you next week.

The post Episode Five: Hercules Brown appeared first on The Intercept.

US government accuses Chinese hackers of stealing jet engine IP

The Justice Department has charged ten Chinese nationals -- two of which are intelligence officers -- of hacking into and stealing intellectual property from a pair of unnamed US and French companies between January 2015 to at least May of 2015. The hackers were after a type of turbofan (portmanteau of turbine and fan), a large commercial airline engine, to either circumvent its own development costs or avoid having to buy it. According to the complaint by the Department of Justice, a Chinese aerospace manufacturer was simultaneously working on making a comparable engine. The hack afflicted unnamed aerospace companies located in Arizona, Massachusetts and Oregon.

Via: ZD Net

Source: US Department of Justice

Computer Science and Diversity

Today I saw a tweet quoting Mark Guzdial's blog saying "In last five years, little progress in increasing the fraction of American CS BS degree recipients who are African Americans."  It is a problem I've given quite a bit of thought to, but in my thinking, diversity is a problem I approached from another angle.  I've always been pleased that a large number of women have decided to work on the problems I care about.  When I came to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) I didn't come to "teach Computer Science."  I came to try to change the way we train, recruit, and equip cyber crime fighters.  I was fortunate that our department chairs in Computer Science (Anthony Skjellum) and Justice Sciences (John Sloan) believed that was something worth doing.  Since then, we've moved from having a certificate in Computer Forensics, to a Masters in Computer Forensics and Security Management, to a full Bachelors degree in Digital Forensics.  But the passion has stayed the same.  How do we train, recruit, and equip cyber crime fighters?

I hadn't realized that we were necessarily doing something unique until I had a visit from Jenn Lesser in April of 2013.  At the time, Jenn was the Security Operations Manager for Facebook.  We had a full agenda of things we were hoping to discuss with her, but something happened that halted all of that.  She came into my office, closed the door, and said  "You have SIX WOMEN working in your lab!  Would you mind if we cancel everything else and just let me interview them?"  At the time my lab was much smaller and that represented about 1/3rd of my employees. What Jenn learned was that most of the women in the lab were there because they wanted to fight crime, right wrongs, and serve the cause of Justice.  When they realized that learning to program and analyze hard drives, network traffic, and email headers could help serve that cause better, they were all in.

This fall, I'll have interactions with 83 students in the classroom and 28 of them are women. 11 of the 48 people on my lab payroll today are women, and I hope we'll hire several more at our job fair later this week! I should note that these are not "Computer Science" courses, but rather Computer Forensics courses being taught for Criminal Justice credit.

How do we recruit women?  It's the same as what our ladies told Jenn Lesser back in 2013.  None of them come to our program because they want to write code.  They come because they want to dedicate themselves to the cause of Justice, and they have learned, perhaps in an introductory course from myself or my colleague Arsh Arora, or perhaps in an introductory course from Criminal Justice professor Martha Earwood, that being skilled in technology is a force multiplier.  If you want to protect the financial assets of the elderly, technology helps.  If you want to identify and stop child predators and human traffickers, technology helps.  If you want to fight against hate speech on the Internet or cyber bullying in the schools, technology helps.  If you want to identify and stop the malware that it is stealing our data, finances, and intellectual property, technology helps.

As I was reading through Guzdial's blog post and following the linked stories, I read Kenneth Bowman's post on African American Computer Science enrollment, and also the 2017 Taulbee Survey on Computer Science Enrollment from the Computer Research Association.

The Taulbee survey has some stark numbers for US Citizen, Female, and African American enrollment in Computer Science at all levels.

At the PhD Level

In the US and Canada, they found 124 Computer Science departments awarded 1,557 PhDs.  891 went to "non-resident aliens."  291 went to Females.  10 went to African Americans.  Of the 291 females, 164 were non-resident aliens.  Of the American females, 64 were White, 27 Asian, 4 Black, and 2 Hispanic.

Of 12,689 PhD students currently studying Computer Science in 135 departments, 8,058 (64.3%) are non-resident aliens, 2,734 (21.1%) are female, and 170 are African American.

What about Masters Level?

132 US Computer Science departments awarded 12,483 Masters degrees last year.  8,813 (73.8%) are non-resident aliens.  26.1% of those students who reported a gender were female (3,162 females and 8,956 males). 111 (0.9%) of the students were Black.  Of the 3,162 females, 2,462 (81%) were non-resident aliens.  Of the American females, 272 were Asian, 250 were White, 32 were Hispanic, and 24 were Black.

Of the 25,126 currently enrolled Masters students in Computer Science, 16,414 are non-resident aliens.  Of the 6,682 females, 5,183 are non-resident aliens.  Of the 1,499 resident females, 661 are White, 620 Asian, 95 Hispanic, and 81 Black.

And at the Bachelor's Level?

131 reporting US Computer Science departments awarded 19,907 Bachelors degrees last year. At the Bachelor's level, we have a much greater percentage of American students.  Only 12.5% of these were non-resident aliens.  But of those remaining 15,433 students, only 547 were Black.  Of the 3,198 female Bachelor's degrees awarded, 2669 went to Americans women.  Of these, 1,110 (35%) were White, 1,104 (35%) were Asian, 200 (6%) were Hispanic, and 93 (3%) were black.

Of the 86,569 students currently enrolled in Computer Science Bachelor's programs, 10,704 were non-resident aliens.  Of the 75,865 citizens in CS BS programs, 13,358 (17.6%) were female. By ethnicity, 39,416 (51.9%) were White, 21,113 (27.8%)  were Asian, 8,395 (11%) were Hispanic, and 3800 (5%) were Black.

The Question

The question that data like this leaves me with is this?  Could it be that the lack of interest in Computer Science from women and minorities (especially African Americans) is similar to what I've found in my lab?  Perhaps the key to encouraging Computer Science is to look at it rather than a Subject to be studied, but as a Tool to be Mastered to enable the study of something else?  Computer Science as a tool (in my case) to improving your ability to help fight for Justice.  Computer Science as a tool to improving your ability to fight disease and illness.  Computer Science as a tool to improving your ability in economics. Computer Science as a tool to improving your ability to fight poverty.

Instead of asking "How to we get more women (or blacks) to study Computer Science?" Perhaps we should be asking "How can we learn what women (and blacks) want to make their life's work and show them how Computer Science can help make them do their life's work better?"