FAREWELL, FRANK LAUTENBERG: The son of a New Jersey silk mill worker and the last World War II veteran serving in the Senate, Frank Lautenberg took his cues from another political time—a time when liberals were bold and unapologetic, when it was understood that government could and should do great things.
One of the few members of Congress who could remember listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the radio and going to college on the original GI Bill, Lautenberg served five terms in the Senate as a champion of great big infrastructure investments (especially for Amtrak and urban public transportation), as well as great big environmental regulations, consumer protections, and investigations of wrongdoing by Wall Street.
It can fairly be said that the New Jersey senator, who died on June 3 at age 89, kept the New Deal flame lit. Indeed, among his last major pieces of legislation was a proposal to renew one of FDR’s greatest legacies: the Works Progress Administration, which provided public-works employment for millions of Americans during the Great Depression that defined Lautenberg’s youth. A self-made millionaire, Lautenberg never forgot that government programs lifted him out of poverty. He refused to bend to the austerity fantasies of official Washington because he knew FDR was right: the country prospers when government serves the interests of all Americans—not just a privileged few.
For more on Lautenberg’s legacy and the debate over his replacement, visit TheNation.com. JOHN NICHOLS
PRISON ABUSE IN PENNSYLVANIA: In December 2011, the Justice Department announced that it would investigate allegations that the State Correctional Institution at Cresson, a medium-security prison in Pennsylvania, subjected “prisoners with serious mental illness to unnecessarily long periods of isolation,” failed to “prevent suicide and other self-harm,” and failed to “provide prisoners with adequate mental health treatment.”
Months later, The Nation published an in-depth investigation based on months of reporting and interviews with sources familiar with the prison’s inner workings [see Stroud, “Punishing Methods,” May 7, 2012]. It described a harrowing environment in which correctional officers denied prisoners food, water, toilet paper and access to psychiatric visits. Sources said COs routinely urged mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement to commit suicide and often fabricated charges to force them to stay in solitary for months, even years.
On May 31, the Justice Department confirmed The Nation’s findings in a scathing thirty-nine-page letter delivered to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett. Not only did the report find that employees at SCI Cresson—which is slated to close at the end of June—severely violated the civil rights of mentally ill prisoners, but the Justice Department announced that it will expand its investigation to the state’s “system-wide policies and individual instances that may reflect inappropriate placements of prisoners with serious mental illness into prolonged isolation,” among other civil rights violations.
In other words, Pennsylvania prisons will now be under prolonged federal scrutiny. In response, Pennsylvania Prison Secretary John Wetzel issued a brief statement: “While we may not completely agree with every assertion in the U.S. DOJ’s findings, we certainly agree that we can always strive to do better.” MATT STROUD
THE BRITS AND UNPAID INTERNSHIPS: Alarmed about “the number of companies recruiting young people to work for nothing,” British tax officials are forcing nine firms to pay some $300,000 in back wages to unpaid interns. The action by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, reported in a front-page article by The Times of London on June 3, cited the companies for “breaching minimum wage legislation.” Under British law, a position that has “set hours and set duties” is a job subject to the laws establishing a minimum wage.
“Unpaid internships can provide valuable opportunities” to young people, said Michelle Wyer, assistant director of the government’s national minimum wage team, speaking to The Times. “However, we are clear that employing unpaid interns instead of workers to avoid the national minimum wage is wrong.”
The government has set up a “pay and work rights helpline” where interns can register complaints anonymously. Each of the fines announced thus far resulted from a complaint filed by an intern.
The firms fined for minimum-wage violations included Arcadia, the country’s largest privately held retailer, which owns Topshop and other well-known British stores. Ben Lyons, co-founder of the group Intern Aware, told The Times that British tax officials “have only scratched the surface of Britain’s unpaid intern problem.” The government, he said, “needs to name and shame companies that refuse to pay their interns and use its powers to prosecute the worst offenders.”
Several of Britain’s leading universities are now refusing to advertise unpaid internships because of what The Times called “growing concern over the exploitation of graduates.” Those joining the boycott include Oxford, York, Leeds, Liverpool, Essex, Sussex and Nottingham.
More information can be found at InternAware.org. JON WIENER
BRADLEY MANNING GOES ON TRIAL: On June 3, three years after Pfc. Bradley Manning was arrested for releasing a trove of sensitive materials to WikiLeaks, he finally went on trial in a military courtroom in Fort Meade, Maryland. Although he has already pleaded guilty to ten of the lesser counts (which themselves could carry up to twenty years in prison), Manning is being tried on a number of additional charges—including “aiding the enemy”—that could result in life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
For a case of such significance, Manning’s trial has received scant coverage. Among those who are shining much-needed light on the proceedings is civil rights attorney Chase Madar, author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind the WikiLeaks Whistleblower, who will be blogging the trial for The Nation.com. For starters, see his post “Seven Myths About Bradley Manning,” which Madar describes as “a quick debunking trip through the thickets of folklore that have sprung up around this case.” And be sure to follow his continuing coverage at TheNation.com. THE EDITORS