Friday, October 07, 2016
This weekend's must-watch: 13th, Ava DuVernay's new documentary linking slavery and mass incarceration
As noted in this prior post, my screen time last weekend was devoted to my favorite bi-annual sporting event. And I suspect much of this weekend will be focused on one of my favorite annual playoffs. But the must-watch for this weekend is on a much more serious set of subjects, the US history of slavery and its echoes within mass incarceration. These are the topics covered in a new Netflix documentary, which YouTube describes in this way along providing this preview:
The title of Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary and galvanizing documentary 13TH refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis. On Netflix October 7.
I would be excited to watch this new documentary even if it did not receive strong reviews. But, as these reviews/headlines highlight, I am not the only one thinking this new doc is a must-watch:
From Rolling Stone here, "'13th' Review: Damning Doc on Racist Prison System Deserves an Oscar: Ava DuVernay's history-lesson indictment on "new slavery" – the mass incarceration of African-Americans – is a major wake-up call"
From Slate here, "New Slaves: I’m a criminal justice reporter, and Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix documentary about mass incarceration shocked me."
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, a notable negative review makes me even more eager to watch and re-watch this new doc:
From National Review here, "The 13th via the Un-talented Tenth: A New documentary reveals the black bourgeoisie’s political correctness."
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
"Punishment in Popular Culture"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new book of essays edited by Charles Ogletree and Austin Sarat. The book's table of contents reveals that the essays are authored by an array of interesting and distinct scholars who focus on an array of interesting and distinct topics ranging from early prison films to Abu Ghraib to "White Masculinity and Harsh Punishment in 1990s Popular Culture." The book's introduction authored by the editors provides a great preview of the book's themes and coverage, and here is an excerpt:
From the Gospel of Matthew to George Bernard Shaw and former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, many have remarked that how a society punishes reveals its true character. Punishment tells us who we are. The way a society punishes demonstrates its commitment to standards of judgment and justice, its distinctive views of blame and responsibility, its understandings of mercy and forgiveness, and its particular ways of responding to evil....
Punishment in Popular Culture examines the cultural images that undergird and critique America’s distinctive approach to punishment. It analyzes punishment as a set of images, as a marvelous spectacle of condemnation. It recognizes that the semiotics of punishment is all around us, not just in the architecture of the prison or the speech made by a judge as she sends someone to a penal colony, but in both “high” and “popular” culture iconography — in novels, television, and film. Punishment has traditionally been one of the great subjects of cultural production, suggesting the powerful allure of the fall and of our prospects for redemption. But perhaps the word “our” is inaccurate here. Émile Durkheim and George Herbert Mead, among others, remind us that it is through practices of punishment that cultural boundaries are drawn, that solidarity is created through acts of marking difference between self and other, that these processes proceed through dis-identification as much as imagined connection....
America, as is widely known, has been on a several decades’ old incarceration boom. As noted above, we continue to lock up more people for longer periods of time than most other nations, as well as to use the death penalty and to racialize punishment in ways that are quite remarkable. How are these facts of American penal life reflected in, encouraged through, or critiqued by the portraits of punishment that Americans regularly encounter on television and in film? What are the conventions of genre that help to familiarize those portraits and connect them to broader political and cultural themes? In its cultural lives, can punishment claim a secure basis in morality? Or do television and film help to undermine its moral claims? How are developments in the broader political economy reflected in the ways punishment appears in mass culture? And finally, how are images of punishment received by their audiences?
While the work collected in our book does not purport to provide a comprehensive overview, these are the questions that Punishment in Popular Culture addresses. Our book thematizes issues of genre, morality, political economy, and reception in its analyses and brings together distinguished scholars of punishment and experts in media studies in an unusual juxtaposition of disciplines and perspectives.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Florida Supreme Court rules local public defenders may withdraw from cases based on excessive caseloadsAs reported in this local article, headlined "Supreme Court to allow public defenders to quit cases due to work load," the top court in Florida today issued a notable opinion concerning the challenges facing and authority given to local public defenders. Here are the basics from the press account:
Describing what it called a "damning indictment" of representation for poor criminal defendants, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the Miami-Dade County public defender's office could withdraw from a large chunk of felony cases because of excessive workloads.
The court divided 5-2 on the issue, with Justice Peggy Quince writing a majority opinion that said attorneys who represent defendants in third-degree felonies often have as many as 50 cases set for trial in a week.
"Clients who are not in custody are essentially unrepresented for long periods between arraignment and trial,'' wrote Quince, who was joined in the majority by justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry. "Attorneys are routinely unable to interview clients, conduct investigations, take depositions, prepare mitigation, or counsel clients about pleas offered at arraignment. Instead, the office engages in 'triage' with the clients who are in custody or who face the most serious charges getting priority to the detriment of the other clients."
But Chief Justice Ricky Polston, joined by Justice Charles Canady, wrote a dissenting opinion that said the Miami-Dade public defender's office had not proved harm to defendants. Polston and Canady would have upheld rulings by the 3rd District Court of Appeal, which rejected the public defender's attempt to withdraw. "Rather than proving actual (or the likelihood of imminent) violations of individual defendants' constitutional right to effective representation, the public defender's office presented general evidence regarding the average caseload of its attorneys, its lack of funding, and its difficulties in hiring new attorneys," Polston wrote....
Attorney General Pam Bondi and a statewide group of prosecutors fought the public defender's attempt to pull out of the cases. During Supreme Court oral arguments last year, Louis Hubener, an attorney for the state, pointed to a law that bars public defenders from withdrawing from cases solely because of "inadequacy of funding or excess workload."
The Supreme Court found the law constitutional, though it disagreed about how the law should be applied. "(The) statute should not be applied to preclude a public defender from filing a motion to withdraw based on excessive caseload or underfunding that would result in ineffective representation of indigent defendants nor to preclude a trial court from granting a motion to withdraw under those circumstances," the majority opinion said.
The full 45-page majority opinion and the six-page dissent referenced above can both be accessed at this link.
Tuesday, May 07, 2013
Wait, Wait ... Don't forget to set your DVR for Constitution USA with Peter Segal
As explained on this PBS webpage, a great new four-part series about the US Constitution is premeiring tonight on many local PBS stations. Here are the basics via a couple links on the official PBS website:
Does the Constitution have what it takes to keep up with modern America? Join Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! as he hits the road to find out. Traveling across the country by motorcycle, Sagal is in search of where the U.S. Constitution lives, how it works and how it doesn’t… how it unites us as a nation and how it has nearly torn us apart.
CONSTITUTION USA,... is hosted by Peter Sagal.... Over the course of the four-hour series, Sagal hits the road, travelling cross country on a customized red, white and blue Harley-Davidson, to find out where the Constitution lives, how it works, and how it unites us as a nation. From New York to San Francisco, from Missoula, Montana to Tyler, Texas, Sagal visits dozens of cities and small towns across America introducing viewers to some of today’s major constitutional debates — free speech in the digital age, same-sex marriage, voting rights, separation of church and state, presidential power in the post-9/11 world, to name just a few — and the fascinating stories of the people they affect every day.
And for each contemporary story, Sagal dives into the history behind it and talks to prominent legal scholars, historians and public figures, finding out what the Constitution says, the dramatic historical events and crises that defined the Constitution, and why all this matters. Each one-hour episode of CONSTITUTION USA vividly illuminates a central theme essential to the Constitution.
A More Perfect Union: Peter explores the Constitution’s most striking and innovative feature: its resilient brand of federalism. The framers created a strong national government while at the same time preserving much of the power and independence of the states. This delicate balance of power, seemingly hard-wired for disagreement and conflict, has served America well for more than two centuries. But it has also led to tensions throughout American history and still sparks controversy today over medical marijuana, gun control, and Obamacare.
It’s a Free Country: Ask Americans what the Constitution’s most important feature is, and most will say it’s the guarantees of liberty enshrined in the Bill of Rights. In this episode, Peter explores the history of the Bill of Rights, and also takes on several stories ripped from the headlines, involving freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and right to privacy.
Created Equal: The high ideals of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” endowed with “unalienable rights,” didn’t make it into the Constitution in 1787. It took three-quarters of a century, and a bloody civil war, before the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 made equality a constitutional right, and gave the federal government the power to enforce it. The far-reaching changes created by that amendment established new notions of citizenship, equal protection, due process, and personal liberty and today those notions are being used to fight for same sex marriage, voting rights, affirmative action, and immigration reform.
Built to Last?: In this last episode, Peter travels to Iceland where a few years after the country’s economic collapse, leaders decided to create a new constitution, turning to the U.S. Constitution for inspiration. This prompts Peter to consider why our own founding document has been able to last for more than 225 years. He looks at the systems that have kept the Constitution healthy — amendments, judicial interpretation, checks and balances — and also at the political forces that threaten to undermine the framers’ vision: excessive partisanship leading to gridlock, money in politics, and gerrymandering.
Friday, March 01, 2013
"Chinese TV Special on Executions Stirs Debate"The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New York Times article, which gets started this way:
During a two-hour television broadcast that was part morality play, part propaganda tour de force, the Chinese government on Friday sent four foreign drug traffickers to their deaths after convicting them of killing 13 Chinese sailors two years ago as they sailed down the Mekong River through Myanmar.
Although the live program ended shortly before the men were executed by lethal injection, it became an instantly polarizing sensation, with viewers divided on whether the broadcast was a crass exercise in blood lust or a long-awaited catharsis for a nation outraged by the killings in October 2011. Some critics said the program recalled an era not long ago when condemned prisoners were paraded through the streets before being shot in the head.
“Rather than showcasing rule of law, the program displayed state control over human life in a manner designed to attract gawkers,” Han Youyi, a criminal law professor, wrote via microblog. “State-administered violence is no loftier than criminal violence.” One prominent rights lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan, insisted that the show, by the national broadcaster CCTV, violated Chinese criminal code by making a spectacle of the condemned. “I found it shocking,” he said in an interview.
The program largely focused on Naw Kham, the Burmese ringleader of a drug gang who was accused of orchestrating the brutal execution of the sailors and then making the crime appear drug related. In a nation where millions work overseas, sometimes in dangerous corners of the world, the killings were especially unsettling. Last April, six men, including Mr. Naw Kham, were apprehended in Laos by a team of investigators that included officers from China, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.
Mr. Naw Kham and his accomplices were convicted last November during a two-day trial in China’s southwest Yunnan Province. The condemned men, including a Laotian, a Thai and a third of “unknown nationality,” reportedly confessed to the crime.
The two other men who escaped execution received long prison terms. Last month a Chinese public security official told a newspaper that Beijing had considered using a drone strike to kill Mr. Naw Kham but later decided to capture him alive. Given the considerable viewership on Friday, that decision proved to be a public relations coup.
The program included interviews with triumphant police officers, images of the condemned men in shackles and the sort of blustery talking heads that would be familiar to American cable television audiences. The graphic elements that flashed behind the CCTV news anchor featured the tagline “Killing the Kingpin.”...
In a commentary posted on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, CCTV defended the program, saying it demonstrated China’s commitment to justice. “There were no glimpses of the execution. We only saw the drug ringleaders’ weaknesses and fear of death,” it said. “In contrast to brutal murder by his gang, the methodical court trial and humane injections have shown the dignity and civilizing effects of rule of law.”
Shortly before the men were led from their cells to the van that would take them to the death chamber, a reporter asked Mr. Naw Kham to talk about his family and then taunted him by showing him photos of the victims’ relatives. “I want to raise my children and have them educated,” Mr. Naw Kham said with a faint smile on his face. “I don’t want to die.”
I think one could have lots distinct reactions to this notable effort to make more public and prominent the administration of capital justice in China. But, especially in light of on-going US controversies concerning drone warfare, I find especially interesting the report that this programming was only made possible because China decided not using a drone strike to kill Mr. Naw Kham while he was in another country. I wonder if folks who are most troubled by the US use of drone strikes will be quick to praise China for employing a notable different (and much more public and transparent) means to achieve a form of international justice.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
Some holiday-themed sentencing headlines for Festivus celebrants
Especially if one is celebrating Festivus today and is eager to have a special criminal-justice-portion of the traditional "Airing of Grievances", I suspect the stories below might make for helpful holiday dinner table conversations. Indeed, though there are a number of serious (and not-quite-so-serious) stories lurking behind the various headlines below, I think we could have an amusing Festivus contest involving Feats of (intellectual) Strength by seeing who can come up with the most clever "Onion-type" story to accompany one or more of these headlines:
Happy Festivus one and all.
Saturday, March 03, 2012
China's popular reality show: "Interviews Before Execution"
This lengthy Daily Mail piece tells the remarkable story of a remarkable hit on Chinese television. The piece carries this lengthy headline: "The Execution Factor: It was designed as propaganda to deter would-be criminals. Instead interviews on death row have become China's new TV hit." Here are excerpts:
With her silk scarves and immaculate make-up, Ding Yu looks every inch the modern television presenter. Indeed, for the past five years she has hosted a hugely successful prime-time show in China which has a devoted following of 40 million viewers every Saturday night.
But while in Britain the weekend evening entertainment will be The X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing, Ms Ding’s show features harrowing -- some would say voyeuristic -- footage of prisoners confessing their crimes and begging forgiveness before being led away to their executions. The scenes are recorded sometimes minutes before the prisoners are put to death, or in other cases when only days of their life remain.
The glamorous Ms Ding conducts face-to-face interviews with the prisoners, who have often committed especially gruesome crimes. Her subjects sit in handcuffs and leg chains, guarded by warders. She warms up with anodyne questions about favourite films or music, but then hectors the prisoners about the violent details of their crimes and eventually wrings apologies out of them.
She promises to relay final messages to family members, who are usually not allowed to visit them on death row. The cameras keep rolling as the condemned say a farewell message and are led away to be killed by firing squad or lethal injection....
Officials in the ruling Communist Party regard the series as a propaganda tool to warn citizens of the consequences of crime. Inmates are selected for Ms Ding by judiciary officials who pick out what they consider suitable cases to ‘educate the public’. So far, the show’s makers claim, only five condemned prisoners who were asked have refused to be interviewed.
Convicted criminals in China can be put to death for 55 capital crimes, ranging from theft to crimes against the state. However, the show focuses exclusively on murder cases, conspicuously avoiding any crimes that might have political elements. The case that has drawn the largest number of viewers so far is that of Bao Rongting, an openly gay man who was condemned to death for murdering his mother and then violating her dead body....
The series has made a household name of Ms Ding, who is married and has a young son. She is often recognised in the street while doing her shopping with her family. Denying her show is exploitative, she said: ‘Some viewers might consider it cruel to ask a criminal to do an interview when they are about to be executed. On the contrary, they want to be heard. When I am face-to-face with them I feel sorry and regretful for them. But I don’t sympathise with them, for they should pay a heavy price for their wrongdoing. They deserve it.’...
Lu Peijin, the boss of TV Legal Channel in Henan province, said Ms Ding came up with the concept for the show and he agreed immediately, but that getting approval from officials was a long process. ‘I thought it was a great idea right away,’ said Mr Lu, who said that the stated aim of the show was not to entertain but to ‘inform and educate according to government policy. We want the audience to be warned,’ he said. ‘If they are warned, tragedies might be averted. That is good for society.’
I am intrigued and fascainated by the plausible suggestion that many condemned prisoners might want this kind of last chance to be heard. Also notable is the suggestion that educative and deterrence goals of the death penalty might be served by this kind of reality show. And, I cannot help but wonder if somewhere Nancy Grace is thinking about how she might develop a US version of this show.
Sunday, February 05, 2012
"Prison beats jail for viewing the Super Bowl"
The title of this post is the headline of this Super Sunday commentary coming out of North Carolina. This piece, which seems like a fitting post before I head into game mode for the afternoon, is authored by Myron Pitts and here are excerpts:
So what's today's big game like for people in the big house? Well, it appears an inmate would be better off in the state pen than in the Cumberland County Jail, if he wants to watch the 46th Super Bowl, which airs at 6:30 p.m.
County jail inmates get about 30 minutes of TV time, says Debbie Tanna, spokeswoman for the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office, which runs the facility. She does not believe that the schedule is adjusted for the Super Bowl, a game that, along with the million-dollar commercials, can stretch more than four hours.
A co-worker of mine, who often plays the sad sack, said, "Knowing my luck, I'd probably get my 30 minutes during half time." (It's Madonna this year, by the way.)
For state prisoners, depending on where they are locked up and their individual circumstances, they might be able to watch the whole game, says Keith Acree, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Correction.
"TV schedules are decided prison-by-prison from the inmates," he said. A committee of inmates haggle over and recommend what shows are broadcast on TVs in the common areas. For male prisoners, Acree said, this usually means "guy" programming, like sports.
There are 36,604 male inmates in North Carolina prisons and 2,613 female inmates, so it's safe to say most prison TVs in the state are serving up a steady diet of sports action.
"TV is a privilege; not every inmate has it," Acree noted. "Those who have the freedom to be in the common areas probably have access to it for the game."
I know it bothers some people that prisoners are allowed to watch TV, but I couldn't care less. I figure they're pretty bored, and TV probably helps maintain order. TV has a pacifying effect, as you can learn from any parent of a young child who has been enraptured by a cartoon....
I also wondered about kinds of TVs available in lockup, and from my limited research, it sounds like they're not necessarily top-of-the-line. I hope this makes people who don't think inmates should have TVs feel a little better.
Acree said the TVs in state prison are paid for out of an inmate welfare fund, which comprises profits from the prison canteen, where inmates buy snacks and sundries, and proceeds from the phone system they use to call out. The TVs are pretty basic and "not extravagant," Acree said.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
Setting my DVR for "Weed Wars"
As detailed on this official website, the Discovery Channel will begin broadcasting this coming week a new four-part series titled "Weed Wars." Here is how the website describes the series:
Oakland's Harborside Health Center is the nation's largest medicinal cannabis dispensary. Founder and executive director Steve DeAngelo has made twin missions of providing the best possible product to the patients who make up his client base, and educating the rest of the country about the regulation and taxation of those goods. WEED WARS takes an up close and personal look at the reality of running a controversial medicinal cannabis business.
And here is a notable Viewer Advisory for the series:
Weed Wars contains scenes depicting the cultivation, sale and consumption of medical marijuana in California. While selling and using marijuana for medicinal purposes with a valid permit is legal under California law, it is a crime under Federal law and could result in jail time and other penalties. Viewers should not attempt the activities depicted in this program. Viewer discretion is advised.
I wonder if the US Attorney in California who talked about going after media that ran medical marijuana ads (story blogged here) has thought about going after the Discovery Channel for producing and airing this show. US Attorney Laura Duffy said last month that she was troubled by media advertising of the medical marijuana industry, complaining: "It’s gone mainstream. Not only is it inappropriate — one has to wonder what kind of message we’re sending to our children — it’s against the law.” On that theory, she should be especially concerned about the message being sent by the Discovery Channel through this show, and perhaps these is a set of indictments in the works awaiting the airing of this show. I hope not, but one never knows how the feds war against pot will find expression in California these days.
Some recent related posts:
- Feds now talking about prosecuting media running medical marijuana ads!?!
- "Obama: From First to Worst on Medical Marijuana"
- "Feds target Calif. pot dispensaries for closure"
- As criticisms of pot prohibition continues, new PBS documentary "Prohibition" is must-watch TV
- "Bummer: Barack Obama turns out to be just another drug warrior"
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
"NBC's outlandish 'Outlaw' richly deserves death penalty"In part because the headline mentions the death penalty, and in part because it readily allows me (and perhaps others) to save space on my DVR, I had to link and quote this amusing review in USA Today about one of the notable new law shows premiering on network television this fall. Here is the start of the review:
Surely NBC's joking.
There's awful, and then there's atrociously, hilariously awful — a line NBC and Jimmy Smits soar across with Outlaw. A gambling, womanizing, conservative Supreme Court justice who chucks the court to become a crusader for the outcast and oppressed? That's not a prime-time show, it's a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Preposterous to a painful degree, Outlaw is a vanity-show concept only an actor could love. Who wouldn't want to play a larger-than-life devil on the outside/saint on the inside who's worshiped and adored by the right-thinking and loathed and feared by evildoers? If only Smits had noticed that his playboy card-shark jurist was a dramatic contradiction in terms: a sanctimonious sinner, an intolerably smug one to boot.