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Steven Hsieh

Steven Hsieh

Stories that matter. Tips: shsieh@thenation.com.

‘You Know You’re Getting a Quality Product When the Slogan Is Don’t Tell Anyone Where You Got This’

On his show last night, Stephen Colbert dedicated a whole segment to the death penalty, skewering the cloak of secrecy shrouding many states’ execution protocols.

“Americans support the death penalty, but don’t want to know how the sausage is made,” the Comedy Central host said.

Colbert focused on Tennessee, where death row inmates sued to uncover who is supplying the drugs that will be used to carry out their executions. Tennessee is one of several states, including Georgia, Missouri and South Dakota, with laws granting anonymity to lethal injection drug suppliers.

Watch the full segment:

 

Rick Perry Says Texas Won’t Comply With Federal Standards to Curb Prison Rape

Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks during a discussion on "Criminal Justice Reform" at the CPAC Conference in Maryland, March 7, 2014. (AP Photo)

Texas Governor Rick Perry said in a letter that his state will not comply with some federal requirements intended to curb prison rape, the Associated Press reported.

In a March 28 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Perry wrote that Texas will not be able to meet standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), calling the law “a counterproductive and unnecessarily cumbersome and costly regulatory mess for the states.”

“The governor seems to be surrendering on issues of preventing sexual abuse in his state,” Chris Daley, Deputy Executive Director of Just Detention International, told The Nation. “It’s particularly alarming, given that Texas regularly shows up as one of the states with the worst rates of sexaul abuse in its prisons.”

Five of the ten US prisons with the highest rates of inmate-reported rapes are in Texas, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In two Texas prisons—Hughes Unit and Allred Unit—more than 7.6 percent of inmates reported being raped by another inmate, compared with 2.1 percent nationally.

President George W. Bush signed PREA in 2003, a landmark law that established a National Prison Rape Reduction Commission to conduct studies and put forth rules to eliminate prison rape. The commission’s rules, finalized in 2012, require prisons separate adult and juvenile inmates, stop cross-gender pat-downs of juveniles and restrict staff from viewing inmates of the opposite sex shower, change clothes or use the restroom.

Governor Perry claimed the cross-gender viewing provision would be impossible to implement, since women make up forty percent of Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDJC) correctional officers at all-male units. Perry also invoked states rights in objecting to a provision forcing prisons to stop treating seventeen-year-olds as adults, saying it would cost Texas too much.

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Daley objects to Perry’s claim that the PREA rules were “created in a vacuum with little regard for input from those who daily operate state prisons and local jails.” In fact, Daley notes, the PREA commission held several hearings and public comment sessions with corrections officials as it developed its guidelines. TDCJ officials provided comments and letters of input throughout the process.

Lance Lowry, president of a local corrections officers union in Huntsville, told the AP that refusing to adopt PREA standards could open up TDJC and its staff to lawsuits, calling Perry’s letter “short-sighted.” Amy Fettig, Senior Staff Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Texas is willfully refusing to take measures that would certainly protect some prisoners from rape.

“If they refuse to implement PREA, what they’re essentially saying is ‘We don’t take protecting people from sexual abuse seriously,’” Fettig told The Nation. “This is opening up Texas to a huge liability. You can bet we’re going to watch it.”

 

Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on the roots of the school-to-prison pipeline

Mississippi Grants Death Row Inmate Michelle Byrom a New Trial

Byrom

Michelle Byrom (AP Photo/Mississippi Department of Corrections)

The Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a new trial for death row inmate Michelle Byrom Monday, just days after the high court denied the state’s request for an execution date last week.

In the two-page order, Justice Josiah Coleman called the reversal “extraordinary and extremely rare in the petition for leave to pursue post conviction relief.”

The court’s decision reverses Byrom’s 2000 capital murder conviction for conspiring to kill her husband. Prosecutors accused Byrom of hiring Joey Gillis to kill her husband Edward Byrom Sr. in 1999. Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner sentenced Byrom to death for the murder-for-hire.

In an appeal, Ms. Byrom noted that her son Edward Byrom Jr. admitted to murdering his abusive father—in two jailhouse letters and an interview with a court-appointed psychologist—but jurors never saw or heard any of these confessions. The Jackson Free Press published excerpts from Byrom Jr’s letters last week, drawing the attention of national media.

The Supreme Court ordered the state assign a different judge in Byrom’s new trial.

Doctors at an Oklahoma Hospital Were Just Told They Can’t Prescribe Birth Control Anymore

Birth Control Pills

(Flikr user Nate Griggs, CC 2.0)

Catholic hospital administrators ordered doctors practicing in a small Oklahoma city to stop prescribing contraceptives for birth control purposes, according to a report by the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise.

The directive would affect all doctors affiliated with Jane Phillips Medical Center, leaving just one OB-GYN who can prescribe birth control in a city with more than 18,500 women.

A spokesperson for St. John Health System, which owns Jane Phillips, says St. John denies giving such an order. 

“I was told that my physician has been instructed that they can no longer write prescriptions for birth control as birth control. This effects me because I take birth control as birth control. There are other ways to receive birth control, for example headaches, cramps, excessive bleeding — but I have none of those symptoms,” a local woman, who requested anonymity, told the Examiner-Enterprise.

Doctors were instructed to stop prescribing contraceptive for birth control during a closed-door meeting on Wednesday, according to the Examiner-Enterprise.  St. John spokesperson Joy McGill would not comment on the alleged meeting.

Jane Phillips, like most Catholic hospitals, operates under the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services, guidelines from the Church that bar doctors from “promoting or condoning” contraceptive practices. The Directives do not prohibit contraceptive prescriptions outright.

“While our physicians agree to abide by the Directives, they also have the ability to prescribe medications, including hormonal medications, in accordance with their independent professional medical judgment,” a St. John representative said in a statement.

The order to restrict contraceptives reportedly came from Ascension Health, a non-profit Catholic health services company that acquired St. John Health System in 2013. Women’s health advocates warn that the growing influence of Catholic health systems nationally bodes poorly for reproductive services, as seen in Bartlesville. According to a joint report by the American Civil Liberties Union and the MergerWatch Project, ten of the twenty-five largest hospital systems in 2011 were Catholic-sponsored.

Sheila Reynerston, Advocacy Coordinator for the MergerWatch Project, told The Nation that Ascension’s directive to Bartlesville doctors represents “an unacceptable intrusion into local health care, denying women the health care they need and handcuffing physicians who want to practice medicine appropriately.”

A Facebook page protesting the alleged directive garnered more than 700 “likes” in less than three days. “We believe that everyone has a right to healthcare that is free from religious agenda,” reads the page’s description.

No one from Ascension Health could be reached for comment.

UPDATE (03/31/2014, 9:10 PM): This post has been updated to include further comment from St. John Medical System.

Judges: Texas and Oklahoma Must Lift Veil of Secrecy on Execution Drug Suppliers

Oklahoma execution chamber

The gurney in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary (AP Photo, File)

Judges in Oklahoma and Texas ruled this week that prison officials must disclose the identities of lethal injection drug suppliers, two victories for transparency advocates in the growing legal battle contesting the veil of secrecy over execution procedures.

A Texas judge ordered on Thursday the state Department of Criminal Justice reveal the supplier of a new batch of lethal injection drugs, which are planned to be used to execute two inmates next month.

Just a day before, Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish ruled that a statute protecting execution drug suppliers' anonymity is unconstitutional. Parrish said the secrecy statute violates inmates' due process rights.

Judge Parrish’s ruling could further delay the executions of two Oklahoma inmates, Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner, both currently scheduled to die next month. The state already pushed back their execution dates once, after officials were unable to procure the necessary lethal injection drugs.

Since European pharmaceutical firms stopped selling drugs to prisons, citing objections to the death penalty, states have turned to shadier options to meet their capital punishment needs, including poorly-regulated compounding pharmacies. Attorneys for death row inmates say secrecy statutes make it impossible to know whether drugs procured from these suppliers meet standards commensurate with the constitution—that they won’t force inmates to endure cruel and unusual punishment.

The news from Oklahoma and Texas comes amid a recent wave of legal challenges related to anonymous execution drug suppliers. Earlier this month, a federal judge ordered Louisiana officials disclose the manufacturer and supplier of the state’s lethal injection drugs. And Georgia’s Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the state’s secrecy statute.

Is Mississippi About to Execute an Innocent Woman? (Update)

Michelle Byrom

Michelle Byrom (AP Photo/Mississippi Department of Corrections)

UPDATE (3/28/2014): Michelle Byrom was not executed on March 27. The Mississippi Supreme Court, which has the final word on executions, did not sign off on Attorney General Jim Hood's request for yesterday's execution date. “That means that the court is not going to set a date at this time,” said court spokesperson Beverly Kraft." The court is also reviewing a post-conviction motion, filed by Byrom's attorneys, to review new evidence in her case.

***

Mississippi could execute a mentally ill woman by lethal injection tomorrow, despite objections from legal experts and advocates saying she did not receive a fair trial, as well as evidence, unseen by the jury during trial, that places her guilt in doubt.

Michelle Byrom, 53, was sentenced to death in 2000 for plotting to murder her abusive husband, Edward Sr. Prosecutors said Michelle masterminded a plan with her son, Edward Jr., and his friend, Joey Gillis, to kill Edward Sr. and collect on his life insurance plan. According to this version of events, the one presented to a jury, Gillis fatally shot Edward Sr. as he slept in his bed on June 4, 1999. Edward Jr. found his dead father and called 911. Questioned by police, he copped to taking part of a conspiracy, orchestrated by his mother Michelle, to murder his father.

As several media outlets—including The Atlantic and the Jackson Free Press—have documented, there are serious holes in that story. The problem is jurors never saw key pieces of evidence casting doubt on Michelle’s guilt, including letters penned by her son confessing to the crime. On top of that, Michelle’s attorneys made several errors throughout her trial that had detrimental consequences on her fate.

Here’s a rundown of the most troubling aspects of Michelle’s case:

Michelle’s son Edward Byrom Jr. confessed multiple times to killing his father. The jury did not hear any of these confessions.

On four different occasions, Edward Jr. confessed that he, not Gillis, pulled the trigger on his father. Three of these confessions came by way of jailhouse letters, smuggled to his mother as she sat on death row. In one letter, Edward Jr. writes that he shot Edward Sr. in a fit of rage after his father hurled insults at him:

I sit in my room for a good 1 1/2-2 hours, and dad comes in my room, and goes off on me, calling me bastard, nogood, mistake, and telling me I'm inconciderate [sic] and just care about my self, and he slaps me, then goes back to his room.

As I sat on my bed, tears of rage flowing, remembering my childhood my anger kept building and building, and I went to my car, got the 9mm, and walked to his room, peeked in, and he was asleep. I walked about 2 steps in the door, and screamed, and shut my eyes, when I heard him move, I started firing. When I opened my eyes again, I freaked! I grabbed what casings I saw, and threw them into the bushes, grabbed the gun, and went to town.

Edward Jr. also admitted to killing his father in a statement given to a court-appointed psychologist. Trial judge Thomas Gardner, who sentenced Michelle to death, was made aware of this statement, according to the Jackson Free Press. But Gardner did not disclose the statement to jurors and also did not permit the confessional letters to be entered into evidence.

Edward Byrom Jr. also admitted to fabricating the alleged murder plot.

One of the key pieces of evidence presented at trial was a statement from Edward Jr. to police. In that statement, Edward Jr. laid out a conspiracy to kill his father, supposedly orchestrated by his mother Michelle and executed by his friend Gillis. But in a letter, Edward Jr. says he completely made up that story:

I was so scared, confused, and high, I just started spitting the first thought out, which turned into this big conspiracy thing, for money, which was all BS, that's why I had so many different stories.

This letter was not presented to jurors as evidence.

Michelle Byrom’s attorneys withheld evidence about her history with domestic abuse and mental illness.

Michelle Byrom had a long history of enduring sexual and domestic abuse. Her stepfather sexually abused her as a child and forced her to work as a prostitute. She entered her relationship with Edward Byrom when she was fifteen years old. He was thirty-one. According to court affidavits, Edward Sr. physically abused his wife and forced her to have sex with other men while he videotaped.

Dr. Keith A. Caruso, a psychiatrist who evaluated Michelle, linked her history of abuse to a long list of mental disorders that caused selfdestructive behavior. Caruso diagnosed her with depression, alcohol dependence, Borderline Personality Disorder and Münchausen syndrome. He wrote in a post-trial affidavit:

If I had been called to testify at the penalty phase of Michelle Byrom's trial, I would have offered the opinion that…she was inclined to harm herself and act in a self-defeating manner, so that she was psychologically unable to leave the abusive relationship with her husband.

Byrom’s attorneys mentioned her history with abuse and mental illness in their opening statement, but never called on Caruso to testify, believing his testimony would be more effective during an appeal.

Michelle Byrom’s attorneys gave her detrimental legal advice.

Michelle’s legal team, trying their first capital murder case, advised her to waive her right to a jury sentencing, erroneously assuming that it could be unconstitutional. That left her fate up to Judge Gardner, who sentenced her to death.  

Michelle appealed to the state Supreme Court in 2006, on grounds that her attorneys were incompetent. The court rejected her appeal five to three. Dissenting Justice Jess Dickinson wrote, “I have attempted to conjure up in my imagination a more egregious case of ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of a capital case," wrote in his dissent. "I cannot.”

***

Though Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood requested Michelle’s execution take place tomorrow, the Supreme Court still needs to give its stamp of approval to proceed.

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It's unclear whether that will happen. What's clear is Michelle's advocates have laid out a compelling case that her trial was not carried out fairly. On top of that, key evidence suggests she could be innocent. An editorial, published in the Jackson Free Press last week, made clear what's at stake: “To execute Michelle Byrom for a crime that she did not commit would be one of the worst miscarriages of justices in modern Mississippi history."

 

Read Next: Why did Oklahoma inject drugs into the corpses of death row convicts?

The ‘Single Largest Environmental Health Risk’ Is Causing 1 in 8 Deaths Worldwide

China smog

A woman wears a mask as she walks under smog in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

Air pollution killed 7 million people worldwide in 2012, about one-in-eight of all deaths, according to new estimates released Tuesday by the World Health Organization.

That figure more than doubles previous estimates, making air pollution the single greatest environmental health risk today. WHO, the United Nations’ public health agency, linked outdoor air pollution to 3.7 million premature deaths in 2012. Indoor air pollution accounted for 4.3 million deaths that year.

The death toll falls disproportionately on low- and middle-income countries, particularly in WHO’s South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regions, where more than 70 percent of all air pollution deaths occurred. China, where clouds of smog envelop entire cities, accounts for a sizable chunk of global air pollution deaths. A separate study, published in the Lancet, linked outdoor air pollution to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010.

Scientists have linked air pollution exposure to heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute lower respiratory infections in children.

Indoor air pollution primarily affects households that still use solid fuels for cooking and heating. The smoke produced from burning coal, wood or dung can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

“Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves,” said WHO Assistant Director Dr. Flavia Bustreo in a statement.

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WHO linked deaths caused by outdoor air pollution to “unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, waste management and industry.” The report urged policymakers to look towards cleaner options.

“In most cases, healthier strategies will also be more economical in the long term due to health-care cost savings as well as climate gains,” said WHO Coordinator for Public Health Dr Carlos Dora in a statement. “WHO and health sectors have a unique role in translating scientific evidence on air pollution into policies that can deliver impact and improvements that will save lives.”

 

Read Next: A look at how pesticides affect the young brain.

Albuquerque Police Fatally Shoot Homeless Man Who Was Illegally Camping

APD

This screenshot shows the scene at Albuquerque foothills, just moments before officers fatally shot James Boyd. (Courtesy of KRQE News 13)

Newly released video showing Albuquerque police fatally shooting a homeless man has placed the city’s police department, already fraught with abuse allegations, under increased scrutiny.

Police shot James Boyd, 38, on March 16, after they tried to detain him for sleeping in an unauthorized area. Helmet camera footage shows Boyd finally cooperating after three hours of confrontation, picking up his belongings and approaching the officers, when one of the officers lobs a flashbang at his feet. Disoriented, Boyd appears to pull out two knives, makes a threatening gesture and then briefly turns his back to the officers. At that moment, two officers fire multiple live rounds at Boyd, hitting him at least once.

Boyd falls the ground. Blood can be seen on the rock above his head. He died at a hospital the next day.

Albuquerque Police Chief Gordon Eden maintains that the officers involved—Dominique Perez and Keith Sandy—were “justified” in shooting Boyd, claiming he posed a “direct threat.”

But civil rights advocates and some city officials say the video clearly shows that Boyd’s death could have been avoided. Demonstrators are scheduled to protest the shooting tomorrow, with plans to march to Albuquerque's police headquarters.

"I am disturbed and I am troubled by what I saw,” said Albuquerque City Council president Ken Sanchez, “What alarms me the most is that the chief would come out so quickly and make comments that justify this shooting,"

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The advocacy group ProgressNow New Mexico notes that this month’s shooting is just the latest in a long string of questionable use-of-force incidents involving APD officers. Albuquerque police have shot thirty-six people, twenty-three fatally, since 2010. In that time, police misconduct lawsuits have cost APD more than $24 million.

An ongoing Department of Justice probe seeks to “determine whether APD engages in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force in violation of the Constitution and federal law.” Council president Sanchez said Boyd’s case should be added to the DOJ’s investigation.

 

Read Next: Did Oklahoma inject drugs into the corpses of death row convicts?

14 Disturbing Stats About Racial Inequality in American Public Schools

A child reads

(AP Photo/ Jose F. Moreno)

Comprehensive data released Friday by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights offers a striking glance at the extent of racial inequality plaguing the nation’s education system.

Analysts found that black, Latino and Native American students have less access to advanced math and science courses and are more likely to be taught by first-year instructors than white students. Black and Native American students are also suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates.

For the first time in history, the Education Department also examined school discipline at the pre-K level, finding that black students as young as four years old are already facing unequal treatment from school administrators.

The Education Department released four papers with the data, analyzing inequality in school discipline, early learning, college readiness and teacher equity (pdfs). Here’s a breakdown of some of the key findings, taken straight from those papers. During the 2011–12 school year:

  1. Black students accounted for 18 percent of the country’s pre-K enrollment, but made up 48 percent of preschoolers with multiple out-of-school suspensions.

  2. Black students were expelled at three times the rate of white students.

  3. American Indian and Native-Alaskan students represented less than 1 percent of students, but 3 percent of expulsions.

  4. Black girls were suspended at higher rates than all other girls and most boys.

  5. American Indian and Native-Alaskan girls were suspended at higher rates than white boys or girls.

  6. Nearly one in four boys of color, excepting Latino and Asian American students, with disabilities received an out-of-school suspension.

  7. One in five girls of color with disabilities received an out-of-school suspension.

  8. A quarter of the schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students did not offer Algebra II.

  9. A third of these schools did not offer chemistry.

  10. Less than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan high school students had access to the full range of math and science courses, which consists of Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry and physics.

  11. Black and Latino students accounted for 40 percent of enrollment at schools with gifted programs, but only represented 26 percent of students in such programs.

  12. Black, Latino and Native American students attended schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers (3 to 4 percent) than white students (1 percent).

  13. Black students were more than three times as likely to attend schools where fewer than 60 percent of teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements.

  14. Latino students were twice as likely to attend such schools.

The Department of Education’s civil rights survey examined all 97,000 public schools in the US, representing 49 million students. Explore the datasets, organized by school, state and district, here.

Officials Investigating Death of Mentally Ill Homeless Vet Who ‘Baked to Death’ in a New York City Jail Cell

Jerome Murdough

A picture of Jerome Murdough is held by his mother Alma Murdough. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

New York City’s Department of Corrections is investigating the death of a mentally ill homeless man who died last month in a jail cell that had reportedly reached scorching temperatures, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

Jerome Murdough, 56, was arrested in February for trespassing after being discovered sleeping in the stairwell of a Harlem public housing project. City officials locked him up at Rikers Island, setting bail at $2,500. He was found dead a week later in his cell, which had reportedly reached temperatures of at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit due to equipment malfunctions.

“He basically baked to death,” an official familiar with the situation told the AP’s Jake Pearson. An autopsy suggests that Murdoch, who was taking antipsychotic and antiseizure medication, may have died from extreme dehydration or heat stroke. Murdough had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, according to his mother. Here’s more from the report:

According to the city officials, Murdough was locked alone into his 6-by-10 cinderblock cell at about 10.30pm on February 14, a week after his arrest. Because he was in the mental-observation unit, he was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes as part of suicide watch, they said. But Murdough was not discovered until four hours later, at about 2.30am on February 15. He was slumped over in his bed and already dead.

The Department of Corrections released a statement Wednesday announcing the probe of Murdough’s death:

The department is conducting a full investigation of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Murdough’s unfortunate death, including issues of staff performance and the adequacy of procedures. While we cannot comment on the facts surrounding his death while the investigation is underway, preliminary information suggests there were unusually high temperatures in Mr. Murdough’s cell.

Conditions at Rikers Island came under media scrutiny earlier this week, when The New York Times reported a recent surge of violence at the jail. According to records, Rikers saw a 240 percent jump in corrections officers’ use of force this past decade, even as the jail’s population declined 15 percent. Just this year alone, fourteen inmates have been slashed or stabbed.

The Times report portrays a jail staff lacking the necessary training to handle mentally ill inmates, often relying on force or extra-punitive measures such as solitary confinement in response to unruly behavior.

According to DOC figures (pdf), the proportion of inmates with mental health diagnoses has steadily risen over recent years. About 40 percent of New York City’s prisoners have mental health diagnoses, up from 33 percent in 2012 and 20 percent in 2006.

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Advocates say Murdough’s death is a result of the city’s reliance on punishment rather than psychiatric care when mentally ill people commit misdemeanor crimes.

“So Mr Murdough violated the trespass law. So he suffered the consequences by going to jail,”Jennifer Parish, an attorney at the Urban Justice Center, told the AP. “But the jail system committed more serious harm to him. And the question is, ‘Will they ever be held responsible?’”

 

Read Next: The town that turned poverty into a prison sentence.

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