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How to Wipe Out Puerto Rico's Debt Without Hurting Bondholders

Truthout - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 21:00

People rally outside of Trump Tower in support of Puerto Rico on the day that President Donald Trump visited the island, parts of which were devastated by Hurricane Maria on October 3, 2017, in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

During his visit to hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump shocked the bond market when he told Geraldo Rivera of Fox News that he was going to wipe out the island's bond debt. He said on October 3rd:

You know they owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street. We're gonna have to wipe that out. That's gonna have to be -- you know, you can say goodbye to that. I don't know if it's Goldman Sachs but whoever it is, you can wave good-bye to that.

How did the president plan to pull this off? Pam Martens and Russ Martens, writing in Wall Street on Parade, note that the US municipal bond market holds $3.8 trillion in debt, and it is not just owned by Wall Street banks. Mom and pop retail investors are exposed to billions of dollars of potential losses through their holdings of Puerto Rican municipal bonds, either directly or in mutual funds. Wiping out Puerto Rico's debt, they warned, could undermine confidence in the municipal bond market, causing bond interest rates to rise, imposing an additional burden on already-struggling states and municipalities across the country.

True, but the president was just pointing out the obvious. As economist Michael Hudson says, "Debts that can't be paid won't be paid." Puerto Rico is bankrupt, its economy destroyed. In fact it is currently in bankruptcy proceedings with its creditors. Which suggests its time for some more out-of-the-box thinking . . . .

Turning Disaster Into a Win-Win

In July 2016, a solution to this conundrum was suggested by the notorious Goldman Sachs itself, when mom and pop investors holding the bonds of bankrupt Italian banks were in jeopardy. Imposing losses on retail bondholders had proven to be politically toxic, after one man committed suicide. Some other solution had to be found.

Italy's non-performing loans (NPLs) then stood at €210bn, at a time when the ECB was buying €120bn per year of outstanding Italian government bonds as part of its QE program. The July 2016 Financial Times quoted Goldman's Francesco Garzarelli, who said, "by the time QE is over -- not sooner than end 2017, on our baseline scenario -- around a fifth of Italy's public debt will be sitting on the Bank of Italy's balance sheet."

His solution: rather than buying Italian government bonds in its quantitative easing program, the European Central Bank could simply buy the insolvent banks' NPLs. Bringing the entire net stock of bad loans onto the government's balance sheet, he said, would be equivalent to just nine months' worth of Italian government bond purchases by the ECB.

Puerto Rico's debt is only $73 billion, one third the Italian debt. The Fed has stopped its quantitative easing program, but in its last round (called "QE3"), it was buying $85 billion per month in securities. At that rate, it would have to fire up the digital printing presses for only one additional month to rescue the suffering Puerto Ricans without hurting bondholders at all. It could then just leave the bonds on its books, declaring a moratorium at least until Puerto Rico got back on its feet, and better yet, indefinitely.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs data, 33,000 US jobs were lost in September, the first time the country has had a negative figure since 2010. It could be time for a bit more economic stimulus from the Fed.

Successful Precedent

Shifting the debt burden of bankrupt institutions onto the books of the central bank is not a new or radical idea. UK Prof. Richard Werner, who invented the term "quantitative easing" when he was advising the Japanese in the 1990s, says there is ample precedent for it. In 2012, he proposed a similar solution to the European banking crisis, citing three successful historical examples.

One was in Britain in 1914, when the British banking sector collapsed after the government declared war on Germany. This was not a good time for a banking crisis, so the Bank of England simply bought the banks' NPLs. "There was no credit crunch," wrote Werner, "and no recession. The problem was solved at zero cost to the tax payer."

For a second example, he cited the Japanese banking crisis of 1945. The banks had totally collapsed, with NPLs that amounted to virtually 100 percent of their assets:

But in 1945 the Bank of Japan had no interest in creating a banking crisis and a credit crunch recession. Instead it wanted to ensure that bank credit would flow again, delivering economic growth. So the Bank of Japan bought the non-performing assets from the banks -- not at market value (close to zero), but significantly above market value.

Werner's third example was the US Federal Reserve's quantitative easing program, in which it bought $1.7 trillion in mortgage-backed securities from the banks. These securities were widely understood to be "toxic" -- Wall Street's own burden of NPLs. Again the move worked: the banks did not collapse, the economy got back on its feet, and the much-feared inflation did not result.

In each of these cases, he wrote:

The operations were a complete success. No inflation resulted. The currency did not weaken. Despite massive non-performing assets wiping out the solvency and equity of the banking sector, the banks' health was quickly restored. In the UK and Japanese case, bank credit started to recover quickly, so that there was virtually no recession at all as a result.

The Moral Hazard Question

One objection to this approach is the risk of "moral hazard": lenders who know they will be rescued from their bad loans will recklessly make even more. That is the argument, but an analysis of data in China, where NPLs are now a significant problem, has relieved those concerns. China's NPLs are largely being left on the banks' books without writing them down. The concern is that shrinking the banks' balance sheets in an economy that is already slowing will reduce their ability to create credit, further slowing growth and triggering a downward economic spiral. As for the moral hazard problem, when researchers analyzed the data, they found that the level of Chinese NPLs did not affect loan creation, in small or large banks.

But if Puerto Rico got relief from the Fed, wouldn't cities and states struggling with their own debt burdens want it too? Perhaps, but that bar could be set in bankruptcy court. Few cities or states can match the devastation of Puerto Rico, which was already in bankruptcy court when struck by hurricanes that left virtually no tree unscathed and literally flattened the territory.

Arguably, the Fed should be making nearly-interest-free loans to cities and states, allowing them to rebuild their crumbling infrastructure at reasonable cost. That argument was made in an October 2012 editorial in The New York Times titled "Getting More Bang for the Fed's Buck". It was also suggested by Martin Hutchinson in Reuters in October 2010:

An alternative mechanism could be an extension of the Fed's [QE] asset purchases to include state and municipal bonds. Currently the central bank does not have the power to do this for maturities of more than six months. But an approving Congress could remove that hurdle at a stroke . . . .

The Fed lent $29 trillion to Wall Street banks virtually interest-free. It could do the same for local governments.

Where There's a Will

When central banks want to save bankrupt institutions without cost to the government or the people, they obviously know how to do it. It is a matter of boldness and political will, something that may be lacking in our central bankers but has been amply demonstrated in our president.

If the Fed resists the QE alternative, here is another possibility: Congress can audit the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Defense, and retrieve some of the $21 trillion gone missing from their accountings. This massive black money hole, tracked by Dr. Mark Skidmore and Catherine Austin Fitts, former assistant secretary of HUD, is buried on the agencies' books as "undocumented adjustments" -- entries inserted without receipts or other documentary support just to balance the books. It represents money that rightfully belongs to the American people.

If our legislators and central bankers can find trillions of dollars to bail out Wall Street banks, while overlooking trillions more lost to the DoD and HUD in "undocumented adjustments," they can find the money to help an American territory suffering the worst humanitarian crisis in its history.

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Categories: Latest News

The National Iranian American Council Deplores Trump’s Push to Violate Iran Nuclear Deal

Commondreams - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 12:57
National Iranian-American Council

Dr. Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council and author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, issued the following statement in response to President Trump’s speech withholding certification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action:

Categories: Latest News

USA Today: “20,000 DACA Teachers at Risk — and Your Kids Could Feel the Fallout, Too”

Commondreams - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 12:52
America's Voice

A USA Today story, “20,000 DACA teachers at risk — and your kids could feel the fallout, too,” highlights the fact that DACA recipients work in many different jobs that help Americans – including teaching children in our nation’s classrooms. This is yet another reason why Congress must act with urgency to resolve Dreamers’ status.  Excerpts below: 

Categories: Latest News

Sanders Responds to Trump's Iran Deal Announcement

Commondreams - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 12:28
Senator Bernie Sanders

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) issued the following statement Friday after President Donald Trump disavowed the international nuclear deal with Iran and declared his intention not to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement:

Categories: Latest News

Peace Action: Trump Recklessly Decertifies Iran Deal Without Cause

Commondreams - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 09:55
Peace Action

President Trump gave a speech today outlining a new strategy on Iran that includes, among other things, decertifying the Iran Nuclear Agreement. Under legislation passed ahead of the signing of the agreement, the president is required to certify or decertify the agreement every 90 days. Trump’s speech took place ahead of the upcoming October 15th deadline for recertification.

Categories: Latest News

Scottish Government Urged To Act On Climate Emergency

Commondreams - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 09:23
Friends of the Earth

Activists inflated a huge warming earth globe outside Scottish Government headquarters at St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh today to highlight the emergency of climate change and urge greater action from the Scottish Government.  The globe was created using NASA satellite maps that show average temperature rises across the planet.

Free, print-quality photos will be available to use from 1pm on 13/10/17 at

Categories: Latest News

Hartnett-White Would Put Environment, Public Health on Dangerous Footing

Commondreams - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 09:10
Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)

President Trump has nominated Kathleen Hartnett-White to lead the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). A former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Hartnett-White is now affiliated with an oil industry-funded think tank in Austin.

Below is a statement by Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Categories: Latest News

LWV Statement on Executive Order to End Health Care Subsidies

Commondreams - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 09:01
League of Women Voters

League of Women Voters president Chris Carson issued the following statement in response to the White House executive order to end health care subsidies in the Affordable Care Act:

Categories: Latest News

Grassroots Groups Respond to Trump’s Decision to Decertify the Iran Nuclear Deal

Commondreams - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:50
Win Without War

Donald Trump’s decision to decertify the Iran nuclear agreement — also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — is another in a long series of reckless actions that move our country closer to more war and chaos.

Categories: Latest News

To Avoid the Antibiotic Apocalypse We Must Reign in Drug and Farming Companies

Commondreams - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:40
Global Justice Now

Campaign group Global Justice Now has warned that action to prevent the “antibiotic apocalypse” must take account of the role of big drug and farm companies in driving growing antibiotic resistance. It follows today’s warning by the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, Prof Dame Sally Davies, of the 'end of modern medicine', and comes as the UK government leads a meeting of global health chiefs in Berlin on ways to tackle the problem.

Nick Dearden, Director of Global Justice Now said:

Categories: Latest News

Robert Jay Lifton on the Apocalyptic Twins of Nuclear and Climate Threats and Reflections on Survival

Truthout - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:15

We spend the bulk of the hour with Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a leading American psychiatrist and author of more than 20 books about the effects of nuclear war, terrorism and genocide. As NBC News reports President Trump has called for a nearly tenfold increase in the United States' nuclear weapons arsenal, and as he threatens to attack North Korea and decertify the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Lifton examines what he calls the "apocalyptic twins: nuclear and climate threats." His new book is titled The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

Pass the "Right to Know" Act Now, Demand Families of People Killed by New York City Police

Truthout - Thu, 10/12/2017 - 21:00

Holding one police officer accountable will not end police violence and abuse, we need strong policy changes, say Victoria Davis and Victor Dempsey, siblings of Delrawn Small, who was fatally shot and left to die by an NYPD officer in July 2016. Delrawn's family wants the city council to pass a Right to Know Act, which would require police to identify themselves and explain their reason for intervention.

From left to right: Iris Baez, mother of Anthony Baez (killed by NYPD in 1994); Hawa Bah, mother of Mohamed Bah (killed by NYPD in 2012); and Victor Dempsey, brother of Delrawn Small (killed by NYPD officer in 2016), speak at a rally supporting the proposed Right To Know Act in New York City, on October 11, 2017. (Photo: Alberto Morales)

We're now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators, and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today's interview is the 82nd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Victoria Davis and Victor Dempsey, the siblings of Delrawn Small, who was fatally shot by a New York City Police officer in July 2016. They discuss how they are organizing around the Right to Know Act in NYC, and why the families of people killed by police held a "Take the Knee" action recently to highlight their demands.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking on Wednesday the 11th. There is an action going on for the Right to Know Act in New York City. Tell us about the action.

Victor Dempsey: The Right to Know Act is a bill that we are trying to get through. We had a lot of support from a lot of people on it. Over 200 organizations. The majority support of the city council. They endorsed it, also, but it still has not been passed. Today was the rally to let them know that we need it to get done. The police organizations should be held accountable for that. It is common-sense legislation that will help NYPD interact with people and hold them more accountable. That way, there is more transparency and everyone feels a little safer.

What would the law actually do if it was passed?

Dempsey: The first bill would require officers to identify themselves and explain the reason for official interaction. The second bill would help end deceptive and unconstitutional searches by requiring officers to explicitly convey a person's rights to refuse a search warrant when their consent is the only legal justification and obtain objective proof that a person gave informed and voluntary consent. 

Tell us your story. Why is this important to you and your family?

Victoria Davis: On July 4, 2016 NYPD Officer Wayne Isaacs shot and killed my brother, Delrawn Small from his car and left him to die in the street without assistance. Wayne Isaacs was still sitting in the car when he shot Delrawn.

This is important for our family ... and not just our family, for us personally. My family is demanding that Isaacs be held accountable [for killing our brother]. But, we also know that holding one officer accountable will not end police violence. We need strong policy changes to help to end abusive policing in New York City. Our family is demanding the Right to Know Act be passed and Wayne Isaacs to be held accountable as civilians are always held accountable. Isaacs, the way that he lied, makes him seem like he is above the law. We just need accountability.

Dempsey: Just to add onto that, also, from the first day my brother was murdered by Wayne Isaacs, it was portrayed by certain media outlets that my brother assaulted Wayne Isaacs or he was in the wrong. It took roughly eight days for the video to surface and to find out the truth. So, that kind of transparency for us and my family shows that an officer can actually lie about an occurring incident to protect himself.

If that can happen to us, any scenario could happen. Someone could be walking down the street and a cop pulls them over for any unjust reason ... just because they feel like [it] ... without identifying themselves properly. People don't know their rights to a search or if they can not give consent to a search. For us, it almost directly correlates to how the murder happened with my brother, with the officer blatantly lying about why he committed that crime. You know what I mean?       

Since your brother's death, you have been working with other families of other people killed by police to do something about this, right?

Davis: Yes, we have. We have been doing some activist work. Inadvertently, I guess, we have become activists. We have always had a strong moral compass, the three of us: me, Victor and Delrawn. We had certain values and morals that we already lived by. This is not something foreign, advocating or fighting for people or standing up in the face of injustice. We just hadn't done it in a public way until now.

Dempsey: What Victoria is saying is, our whole lives we have always looked at right and wrong from a point-blank perspective ... trying to help people encounter things ... or certain feats in their life and try to motivate and push people to do better for themselves. So, since the murder of our brother, it just kind of kick-started us to get more involved, to contact and connect with organizations and people and try to raise awareness because I remember before anything happened to my brother, seeing other cases -- whether it was the Akai Gurley case or Nicholas Heyward or Kimani Gray -- hearing about these incidents of police brutality in the news and just being heartbroken when my family wasn't directly hurt by that.

Davis: We weren't directly impacted; however, we have always understood how those occurrences reflect how people of color are treated and how they are handled by people who are hired to serve and protect.

Recently, you all did a protest where you all took a knee outside of the city council. Can you tell us a little bit about that and the significance of that action?

Dempsey: Myself, being a football player and an avid football fan, the actions of last year when Colin Kaepernick took the original knee with Eric Reid and the gang, and recognizing why he took that knee, after my brother's death it was really heavy on our hearts. The action that we took that day was, we had watched the city council, a few days previously at noon, take a knee. We decided that we need to hold them accountable, as well. For one, they're getting on board with NFL players because they have that platform, the celebrity, so to speak, to get their voices heard. Our voices get heard selectively by people who want to listen. Being that they took the knee in these games in the NFL nationwide, and they protested and raised awareness to people who didn't really know what was going on, didn't know that cops are unjustly murdering us.

Davis: The thing is that people were forgetting. It started to become a hashtag with some racist rhetoric. For the past few weeks, people have been forgetting the reason that Colin Kaepernick had originally taken the knee. He wasn't against the national anthem, the flag, or any of those things. He was taking a knee in solidarity with the victims and the families of police and state murders. For the murdered. For families like us who have loved ones who were killed by a police officer who was hired to serve and protect.

Dempsey: We wanted to align ourselves with that and stand up with him and take the knee with him to show that we see what he is doing, we appreciate what he is doing and we are fighting, as well. We are not just sitting here. We are fighting. And we are going to do whatever we can in our power to help make a change, because it has to stop.

Davis: And we don't want anyone to forget why it was done in the first place. I think that sometimes people take hashtags and they do it for different reasons, it becomes almost like a fad, a hashtag. Taking the knee and putting faces to these victims and putting faces to the hurt, like I always say, we -- meaning the families -- cannot take a knee and then everything is right in our lives and we are just able to move on and move forward. We take the knee and that is taking a stand.

We still have to go back to our lives without Delrawn and Delrawn was a huge part of our lives. Things have been terrible since he has been gone. We just want people to remember exactly why ... the knee action was taken in the first place and not to stray away from that. I think too often people forget because things move so fast in life. If they feel strongly about taking the knee, then please feel strongly about supporting the families in any way that you can. It can be kind words. It can be coming to a vigil, a rally.... I have seen people hashtag #taketheknee and they will write something and someone else will write something and I will counter something negative, it's like changing the narrative. Because once we change the narrative and the way we see these police killings, then we will see it as not just a hashtag, but we will see that these are humans, these are people. Delrawn was a human. He was a kind person. He was a reliable person. He meant everything to us.

For people who are listening or reading in New York, what can they do to support the work you are doing here around the Right to Know Act, and what can people do around the country to support the broader struggle that you and other families are facing?

Davis: We do live in the age of social media. Social media is the biggest platform. Definitely, I encourage people to follow the Justice for Delrawn Facebook page and the @Justice4Delrawn Twitter page. Sometime in the near future we should have an official webpage. Sharing the word, getting to know the facts of the case and why it is so important that when we encounter someone who questions whether or not it was okay for a person to be killed by a police officer unjustly, use all of the information that you have gained online or meeting with families, speaking with the families, whether it is in person, online, or from wherever, and just help change the narrative.

We as humans can't continue to see these things happen. Everyone has the right to live. We can't go about life asking and begging for basic human rights, especially not the right to live. Delrawn had a right to live and Wayne Isaacs took that from him.

Dempsey: Another way that we have tried to support everything -- we have these pages for Delrawn. It is about the message behind it. The way people view what is going on. Now, they understand that this is in their backyard also.

We deal with a lot of organizations. We are part of Families United 4 Justice, which is an organization ... of families who have been affected by police brutality ... which is national. We encourage people to follow that page.

Support, as far as going to city council meetings, pressuring the council to let them know change has to be made. It is not just only in New York. We are here now, we have to do what we have to do in our state to make some changes, to give people the encouragement to continue to fight. Some of the things we can do is stay on top of this. Like Victoria said, we live in a social media age. Retweeting tweets, following pages, supporting ... continuously push[ing] the word out and let[ting] people know we are not going to stand around while people are getting killed.

Davis: For me, I think we want people to know that these killings don't just affect, obviously, the person who was killed and murdered. The murder of our brother had a huge effect on us. Delrawn was a huge part of our life. He was our caretaker. Our mother died when we were children, so Delrawn has always been not just a sibling, but a father, as well. A person who would lead us and guide us. Our confidant. He was a person that loved and cared for us and his children. He has three children.

It is extremely hard for us. We have huge shoes to fill and trying to figure out how to do that is hard. Reliving the situation, the murder, over and over again is hard. Grief and mourning is terrible in itself. Missing someone is terrible. If someone walks out of your life, that is terrible. But, to miss someone when they were taken unjustly ... it is the worst, because all of these questions of "Why? How?" ... when you are expecting a person, your loved one, who is coming from a family celebration, to see them the next day, to probably continue the celebration, but this person is no longer here. July 4 from now on will never be a day of celebration. This past July, we didn't celebrate. We couldn't celebrate. I was delirious a little bit because I was sleep deprived.

These police killings and murders affect families in all types of ways. It is a trickledown effect. It makes you feel not safe and we are supposed to. These people who took an oath to serve and protect, but if they couldn't do that for me, then what else...? We need accountability. That way we can at least feel some type of, I don't know, closure? I wouldn't even know the right word. But, we definitely demand accountability, because if it was anyone else, they would be held accountable and they would be in handcuffs after they murdered someone.

Dempsey: Like my sister said, we want accountability, and not just for Wayne Isaacs, but for the whole NYPD. When officers commit a crime ... it literally is committing a crime, it is not looked at as a crime when it happens. It is looked at as, "Oh, in some instances, it was justified because he was in fear for his life." That is a key phrase that officers use these days, "I was afraid for my life" so they discharge their weapons.

Now, one thing that can never change for us is we don't get our brother back because he made a decision. We don't know what he was thinking. All we know is he murdered someone. So, now, regardless of what happens in this case, we still have to live our lives and raise our children, raise his children. His son was only six months when it happened. Now, moving forward, there is going to be a time when we are going to have to explain to him what happened. We have to explain to him why his father cannot go to a football game with him, why his father cannot teach him what basketball is. We can't explain any of that. Who is going to teach him how to ride a bike? His uncle, his aunt, his mother.

And not just that, his daughters. We have nieces who will be going to college soon. We have nieces that just started driving. This is part of what was taken from us. Now we have to step up and do this. Now, when my niece or my nephew is going to college, as happy as it would be to send them off to college, it is also bittersweet because Delrawn is not here to see that.

This is a continuous battle of emotions. It is a continuous fight within yourself to keep pushing forward. Me and my sister come out to these rallies, to these functions to support, to gain support, and it is very hard. It is emotionally draining, but we do it because we know our brother did not die in vain.

The awareness aspect of this is much bigger than just saying, "Okay, we need a change." Like Victoria said, we have to hold everyone accountable. These councilmembers who are taking knees and making these statements, they need to be held accountable. They need to be at our court dates with us fighting against the unjust things that are happening. They cannot just do it for whatever benefit it may be. They cannot just do it for whoever is looking or whoever is running for office. They cannot do it for that. They cannot use the lives of people that are suffering and not acknowledge it.

That is one of our biggest things right now ... everyone needs to be aware. If you are going to hashtag something, if you are going to say you stand for something, at least stand with the people that are actually suffering.

Dempsey: Just to add one more thing, our trial actually starts October 18 at Brooklyn Supreme Court for Wayne Isaacs, the officer who murdered our brother. We ask anyone and everyone to support that. Attend the courts. We try to pack the court as much as possible just to let the system know that we are holding them accountable. Not just the families: as a community, as a unit, as a whole, collectively, everyone. We will do the same for any other families or any other situation that needs to be rectified. We are standing together and we want everyone to please support everything that we are doing.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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Categories: Latest News

Despite Suicides, Jails Replace In-Person Visitation With Video Screens

Truthout - Thu, 10/12/2017 - 21:00

The Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in Gretna, Louisiana replaced in-person visitation through a glass partition with video calls this week. Three suicides have occurred at the jail since August, raising concerns about the mental health of its prisoners. (Photo: Mike Ludwig; Edited: LW / TO)

Suicide and drug misuse are leading causes of death in jails, but jailers across the country are increasingly replacing in-person visitation with friends and family with remote video visits, a change that advocates say exacerbates the impacts of isolation. One jail in Louisiana made the switch despite a rash of suicides -- after signing a lucrative contract with the videophone service provider.

The Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in Gretna, Louisiana replaced in-person visitation through a glass partition with video calls this week. Three suicides have occurred at the jail since August, raising concerns about the mental health of its prisoners. (Photo: Mike Ludwig; Edited: LW / TO)

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Gretna, Louisiana -- Adorned with barbed wire, the beige walls of the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center rise up beside an earthen levy across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Three men have killed themselves behind these walls in as many months, using nooses fashioned from bed sheets and whatever else they could find.

A Deaf man named Nelson Arce, whose plans for enrolling in drug treatment were interrupted by a stay in the jail in 2016, died of a drug overdose earlier this year. Arce leaves behind two children and family members who claim that he would not have been jailed for violating probation requirements had his probation officer provided him with sign language interpreters as required by law, according to a federal lawsuit filed against the state corrections office.

The lawsuit also claims he was denied access to proper communication services while incarcerated, effectively isolating Arce from anyone who could speak his native sign language, for weeks on end.

The rash of suicides alarmed mental health experts and local watchdogs, and Arce's death has advocates calling out the lack of equal access to services for disabled people in prison. Despite concerns about the mental health of its prisoners and alleged discrimination against disabled people, the local sheriff's office no longer allows in-person visitation at the jail, which serves major suburbs of New Orleans. 

Critics say changing the visitation policy could take a heavy toll on people who are already in an emotionally challenging position.

"We know that maintaining family connections is extremely important for people's mental health," said Lucius Couloute, a policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, in an interview.

As of this week, friends and family can no longer visit prisoners at the jail in person, and have been instructed to use a remote videophone system commonly called "prison Skype" instead, although the service quality is not on par with Skype. Videophone calls can be made from home, but calls up to 20 minutes cost $13, and costs could climb as high as $1 per minute under the jail's contract with prison phone company Securus.

The contract, which Truthout obtained under Louisiana's open records law, includes incentives for jailers to end in-person visitation and sign up as many prisoners and their families for the expensive videophone service as possible. These incentives may also explain why Arce and other Deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners have not had access to video interpreting services that disability advocates say are required by federal law.

Profiting From Isolation

In recent years, videophone systems have been introduced at hundreds of jails and prisons across the country, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Advocates for incarcerated people don't necessarily see a problem with providing video visitation as an additional, albeit expensive, option for keeping families connected. However, most county jails don't simply offer video visitation as one option; they offer it as the only option, banning in-person visits after installing videophones.

Research shows that in-person visits from friends and family members have positive effects on incarcerated people, including better mental health and lower recidivism rates. That relationships in the free world would benefit the mental health of prisoners also makes common sense, particularly in jails, where many prisoners have yet to be convicted of a crime and rates of mental health and drug use disorders are extremely high.

Video visits lack the intimacy of in-person visits, even in cases where physical contact is severely restricted -- by handcuffs or a glass partition, for example -- during in-person visits. Couloute said that the sense of separation that comes with being able to visit only over video makes it harder for prisoners to maintain support networks.

"When you aren't able to do that during what is probably the most difficult time in your life, certainly that has some detrimental effects and can negatively impact people's thought processes and mental health when they're in jail," Couloute said.

There are benefits to video visitation. At the jail in Jefferson Parish, prisoners can make video calls up to three times a day every day of the week, as long as calls are scheduled at least 24 hours in advance and, of course, paid for. If friends and family members have internet access at home, connecting over "prison Skype" cuts out travel expenses and makes it easier for children to connect with incarcerated parents without making a potentially traumatizing trip to a jail.

Rates for using videophones and other communications services in jails and prisons are extremely high compared to the free world.

Jail administrations also like video visits because they require fewer staffers to monitor conversations and reduce the chance that "contraband" will enter the facility, according to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office. Spokesman Jason Rivarde told Truthout that "access to inmates" is now "far better" than it was before, when visits were restricted to a daily two-hour window and conducted through a glass partition.

However, that access comes at a hefty fee. In Jefferson Parish, families are entitled to one free video visit a week, but they must travel to a special video visitation facility located a few miles from the jail to make the free call. If family members can't afford their own computer and internet access -- or the $13 price tag for a 20-minute call -- traveling to the call center once a week remains their only option.

Rates for telephone calls, video visits and other communications services in jails and prisons are extremely high compared to the free world. Couloute said such price gouging amounts to a "regressive tax" on the poor because incarcerated people tend to come from dire economic circumstances.

"This is about greed," Couloute said. "So, these sheriffs are getting into these sort[s] of lucrative contracts with these video-calling companies, and they are able to extract profits from people who are coming from some of the ... poorest families around."

Under its contract with Securus, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office receives a 67 percent commission on all collect calls between prisoners and those outside, along with generous commissions from texting and voicemail programs. Securus also agreed to pay the upfront costs of installing the videophone system, as long as the jail committed to signing up enough captive customers to recoup the costs.

The contract requires that the jail "endeavor to reach at least one remote paid Video Visitation session per inmate per month" within six months of installing the service and meet that goal by the end of the first year. There's an average of 900 prisoners in the jail on any given day, so if paid video visits average less than 900 per month, then Securus can take a cut out of the jail's commission or renegotiate the contract altogether.

"Mind Boggling and Downright Unjust"

Scott Huffman, an activist with HEARD [Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf], a group that advocates for Deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners, was not happy when he learned about the videophone customer quota. When Truthout first interviewed Huffman in early 2016, he had been working for months to convince the Jefferson Parish Jail to install Video Relay Screens, a technology that sign language speakers use instead of telephones. His efforts came up fruitless as jail officials focused on the Securus videophones instead.

"Jefferson Parish has to meet a minimum usage quota every month just to keep from breaching their contract with the vendor," said Huffman in an email. "Yet a free service for Deaf persons who currently have ZERO access has been placed on the back burner and responded to with excuses that have no merit."

Nelson Arce was being held at the jail at the time. Arce was Deaf and suffered from an opioid use disorder, and he was put on probation after being arrested on drug-related charges. A court ordered him to get treatment, and he signed up for a program in California that caters to Deaf patients. Corrections officers soon ordered him back to Louisiana and put him in jail.

Arce primarily communicated with American Sign Language, not English. His probation officer did not provide a sign language interpreter at their meetings, which advocates say is required by federal law. As a result, he did not understand leaving the state for treatment violated the terms of his probation, according to the federal lawsuit filed on his behalf.

Due to this violation, Arce spent three months at Jefferson Parish, where he could not communicate with jail staff, who revoked his visitation privileges and placed him in isolation when he could not understand their orders. When Arce could contact people outside the jail, he could only use an ancient, text-only teletypewriter, a technology largely considered obsolete by the Deaf community. As Truthout has reported, incarcerated people who can't hear are locked in a prison inside a prison. Unless someone else can speak sign language, many of them suffer in silence, alone.

That's why activists like Huffman are pushing for jails and prisons to install Video Relay Screens, which route a video call to a remote sign language interpreter who relays the conversation to a conventional telephone. This allows Deaf people to make phone calls to anyone, even if the person they are calling does not speak sign language.

The federal government pays for video relay calls and providers will install video relay screens at jails and prisons for free, so jailers don't have to pay a cent. However, that also means Deaf prisoners are not paying into the commission jailers receive under their prison phone contracts -- or contributing to videophone usage quotas. Huffman can't help but wonder if that's why officials at the Jefferson Parish jail refused to install free Video Relay Screens and told him that Deaf prisoners could simply use the new videophones instead.

However, Securus videophones can't access remote sign language interpreters like relay screens can, and it's a lack of access to interpretation services that keep defendants like Arce wrapped in the clutches of the criminal legal system in the first place.

"It's mind-boggling and downright unjust for Jefferson Parish to deliberately ignore the needs of Deaf/Deaf-Blind/Hard of Hearing Prisoners and their right to access communication to the outside world, as well as ignore the many years of education and requests from HEARD volunteers to install FREE video phones for Deaf prisoners," Huffman said.

After he was released from jail, Arce's probation officer continued to meet with him without a qualified interpreter and allegedly coerced Arce's father into doing the job at one point, even though he is not fluent in sign language, according to the legal complaint against the state. Arce continued to struggle with opioid addiction and the criminal legal system, and he died this spring.

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections asked a court to dismiss Arce's lawsuit after his death, arguing his remaining family does not have standing to carry the case forward. Litigation is ongoing. 

Jails have become warehouses for poor, mentally ill and disabled people, particularly at a time when public safety nets are collapsing.

Arce's death fits into a disturbing national trend. When the lives of people suffering from opioid disorders are thrown in jail, their chance of experiencing a fatal overdose upon release goes through the roof. As Truthout has reported, the jailing of drug users is exacerbating a nationwide crisis of fatal opioid overdoses.

Advocates say the rates of suicide in jails have also reached crisis levels. Suicide is the most common cause of death in jails nationwide, and rates of suicide in jails are more than two times higher than in federal and state prisons. Most suicides occur shortly after admission, with 26 percent occurring within the first three days of incarceration.

On August 4, deputies found 50-year-old Jerome Bell dead and hanging from a makeshift noose in his one-person cell at the jail in Jefferson Parish, according to local reports. Bell had recently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and officials said he showed no signs of mental health problems. Family members said he knew he would only be locked up for a few months at most.

About two weeks later, deputies found another prisoner, Joshua Belcher, hanging from a bed sheet in his one-person cell. At the time of his death, Belcher was awaiting extradition to Florida to face assault charges but had not been convicted of a crime. Family members said the charges may have been thrown out if he'd had his day in court.

The third suicide at the jail got most of the media attention: Jatory Evans hanged himself in September after facing high-profile charges for allegedly killing his pregnant girlfriend and her parents.

Rivarde did not say what the Jefferson Parish Sherriff's Office was doing specifically to prevent more suicides, but stated that officials are "always looking" at ways to update their standards and protocols to ensure the safety and well-being of prisoners. He also said that, while in-person visits with friends and family have been replaced with video calls, prisoner are still allowed to meet with attorneys, clergy and medical professionals in person.

In theory, jails are supposed to house defendants deemed to be a flight risk or a threat to public safety as they are awaiting trial. However, in the South and across the country, jails have become warehouses for poor, mentally ill and disabled people, particularly at a time when public safety nets are collapsing. Isolation can make these people even more vulnerable to depression and addiction, especially if they face barriers to communicating and asserting their rights. Prisoners can survive this experience, but as we are learning in Louisiana, sometimes they don't.

Categories: Latest News

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez: Trump Wants to Own Puerto Rico but Not Help Those Dying After the Hurricane

Truthout - Thu, 10/12/2017 - 21:00

As President Trump threatens to withdraw federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, home to 3.5 million US citizens, residents of the island and their supporters respond with outrage and disbelief. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz called Trump the "hater-in-chief." We get response from Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez.

Please check back later for full transcript.

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Mourning in Vegas

Truthout - Thu, 10/12/2017 - 21:00
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White House Attempting to Railroad Obamacare Repeal Through Executive Order, After Congressional Embarrassment

Truthout - Thu, 10/12/2017 - 21:00

Donald Trump signs an executive order on health care in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, DC on Thursday, October 12, 2017. (Photo: Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Editor's note: President Trump has now announced he will end a key set of Obamacare subsidies that helped lower-income enrollees pay for health care.

President Trump is attempting to relax healthcare rules by fiat after failing repeatedly to pass an Obamacare-rollback law through Congress.

The President signed an executive order on Thursday in an effort to allow the propagation of health insurance plans without key requirements mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

"Every congressional Democrat has blocked the efforts to save Americans from Obamacare along with a very small, frankly, handful of Republicans," Trump said.

The White House rolled out its decree at a ceremony featuring an introduction from one of those Republicans -- Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

During the Obamacare repeal debate in Congress, the lawmaker made headlines for repeatedly rejecting fellow conservatives' proposals, claiming they left too many regulations in place.

"When you get Rand Paul on your side, it has to be positive," Trump joked.

Thursday's executive order -- if upheld by a judge -- would allow the sale of plans that don't include some essential healthcare benefits required by the ACA.

It would also relax rules on the formation of business associations, enabling the purchase of insurance across state lines. The order would also permit more reliance on short-term plans with limited benefits.

Democrats reacted to the decree by calling it "sabotage""sabotage" of the Affordable Care Act. If the order is deemed legal, it could lead to higher premiums for ACA-compliant plans -- if fewer people sign up for them.

Public opinion polls have shown a majority of Americans throughout the year preferring Obamacare to Republican alternatives.

Meanwhile, about half the country currently wants to implement a single-payer healthcare system -- like the sort proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). About one-third of Americans oppose single-payer.

A recent Republican proposal to change federal healthcare expenditures -- by changing them into block grants to states -- was only approved by 20 percent of the country, according to a CBS poll. Trump said Thursday that he hoped the reform would eventually be approved by Congress.

"I believe we have the votes to do block grants at a little bit later time," he remarked.

Sen. Paul praised Trump's efforts to allow more interstate commerce in insurance markets, calling Thursday's order the "biggest free market reform of healthcare in a generation."

Cross-state deregulation also occurred in another financial industry, in recent decades -- in banking, starting in the early 1980s.

Since the move to allow inter-state banking and since the implementation of other free market reforms, the US has played host to three major financial catastrophes -- the Savings and Loan Crisis, the Dotcom Bubble, and the Subprime Mortgage Meltdown.

With everything going on in the White House, the media must maintain relentless pressure on the Trump administration. Can you support Truthout in this endeavor? Click here to donate.
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Economic Update: Transition Beyond Capitalism

Truthout - Thu, 10/12/2017 - 21:00

This week's episode discusses the economic costs and benefits of refugees, the rise of BRICS nations in the world economy, the closing and privatization of US public libraries, the size of slavery and forced child labor in the current world economy, and how the "gig" economy is just another effort to profit by lengthening the working day. This episode also includes a discussion on the transition from capitalism to an economic system based on worker-cooperatives.

To see more stories like this, visit Economic Update: Your Weekly Dose of Revolutionary Economics

To listen in live on Saturdays at noon, visit WBAI's Live Stream

Economic Update is in partnership with Truthout.org

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Permission to reprint Professor Wolff's writing and videos is granted on an individual basis. Please contact profwolff@rdwolff.com to request permission. We reserve the right to refuse or rescind permission at any time.

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Help the CFPB Stop Predatory Loans From Ruining Lives

Truthout - Thu, 10/12/2017 - 21:00
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Can one emergency expense ruin your life? It can if you get caught up in the traps set millions of times each year for ordinary working people by payday loan sharks.

Stephany Morales was a single mom in college, studying to be a nurse, when her toddler got a chest infection. Her insurance wouldn't cover the $400 cost of nebulizer treatments her pediatrician prescribed, so she turned to a payday loan, thinking this would be a one-time expense.

But between food, rent and tuition, Stephany didn't have enough to pay the loan back when it came due two weeks later. She had to re-borrow, and before long she was drowning in debt. Stephany had to drop out of school just two quarters short of getting her degree and license to practice as a nurse, lost her car and almost lost her apartment.

Now, nearly four years later, Stephany's already paid over $13,000. She had to move in with family to make ends meet, is still taking the bus and struggles even to get a cell phone because her credit is shot.

Far From Alone

Stephany is far from alone in having her dreams crushed by payday loans. Every year, this predatory industry traps 12 million hardworking Americans in a life-destroying cycle of debt.

A typical payday loan takes up to one-third of a borrower's paycheck, with interest rates that average 391 percent APR, leaving folks little choice but to borrow again. In fact, more than ninety four percent of payday loan borrowers borrow again within a month. Half borrow again the same day.

Stephany's story isn't an unfortunate accident: it's a business model. Payday lenders make loans without any information about whether a borrower can pay them back after these triple-digit interest rates kick in.

Predatory lenders don't have to, because the law gives them direct access to borrowers' bank accounts. Every payday, before borrowers can feed their kids or pay rent, the payday loan sharks snatch their cut straight from their bank accounts.

The CFPB's Common Sense

After decades of grassroots organizing, payday borrowers are finally getting the protections they deserve from our federal government. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has just released the first national protections to curb some of the worst abuses of payday loan sharks.

These protections will stop some of the most egregious practices payday lenders use to keep families in debt such as endlessly flipping loans as interest piles up. At its core, the CFPB's new rules for payday lending follow a simple, common-sense idea: every lender should check that a borrower can afford to repay their loan before lending them money.

Sounds pretty sensible, right? Yet, even before the CFPB's payday lending rule was released, the lending industry and its friends in Congress were plotting how to block even its most basic protections.

Loan Sharks Bite Back

Texas Representative Jeb Hensarling, who has received more than $5.5 million in campaign contributions from the payday predators, announced this summer that one of his top priorities would be to block any effort to rein in payday loan sharks.

Payday loan sharks have dumped more than $13 million into the pockets of politicians and lobbyists to sabotage common-sense safeguards for consumers. Now, payday lenders are preparing an all out assault on the new payday protections and on the CFPB, the only federal agency designed just to protect ordinary Americans from financial tricksters.

Predatory lenders are attacking protections for borrowers from every angle: trying to block these new rules, to promoting bills like the CHOICE Act that further undermine the CFPB, to pressuring the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) to undermine its payday protections, and inserting payday poison pills into budget legislation.

Make Our Voices Heard

Stephany and the millions like her who get trapped in loans loans may not have deep pockets to buy votes in Congress. But we can still make our voices heard. After all, the American people aren't fooled by the payday loan sharks' lies.

More than 450,000 people spoke out for strong protections while the CFPB was taking comments on the rule.  In November 2016, a bill to cap interest rates on payday, car title and installment loans at 36 percent was on the ballot in Oklahoma. Payday lenders dumped millions in confusing ads into the state, but the ballot measure still passed -- with seventy five percent of the vote!

The payday loan sharks' deep pockets didn't save them from common sense in Oklahoma, and we have no intention of letting them win this time either. Payday borrowers, faith leaders and grassroots organizations like People's Action are standing up all over the country and demanding that our elected officials support basic protections against financial exploitation.

The Choice Is Clear

For Congress, the choice is clear: lawmakers can side with an industry built on trickery and exploitation, or they side with the American people. There is no middle ground on this issue, and we certainly won't forget where lawmakers stand when they run for re-election.

The CFPB's new rules represent one small step forward in a decades-long fight against the big bankers and payday loan sharks who want to keep our communities shackled by debt. However, they are far from the end of the road.

We are still waiting for protections on longer-term high cost loans like some car title and installment loans and we need to keep strengthening state protections. The financial industry lobbyists managed to ban the CFPB from setting a rate cap directly, but Senator Durbin has introduced legislation that caps interest rates at 36 percent.

People's Action and allies in the Stop the Debt Trap Coalition have been working to end abusive lending for decades, and we have no intention of stopping now.

Abusive lenders have a history of slithering through loopholes, but we won't stop until common sense protections win out over the industry's lies. One loan shouldn't plunge you into years of debt or knock your life off track. Let's make sure Congress stands with us, not the financial predators who feed off our communities every day of the year.

Categories: Latest News

The Women of Color "Solutionaries" Who Are Taking On Detroit's Deep Divisions

Truthout - Thu, 10/12/2017 - 21:00

"Nobody asked us if we wanted a new hockey stadium in the middle of the city," community activist Sajeda Ahmed said in an interview for a new report on the role of women of color in the future of Detroit. "Nobody asked our opinion, and we're the ones who have to live around it and deal with everything that comes along with it."

It's hardly surprising that Ahmed, a Bangladeshi American woman, isn't much of a Red Wings fan. White men completely dominate hockey. And as a community activist in a city ravaged by poverty and joblessness, she can think of many needs more pressing than an ice rink.

So who exactly was behind the new Detroit hockey arena that opened last month? That would be Mike Ilitch, the billionaire owner of the Red Wings and Little Caesars Pizza. Although he died in February of this year, Ilitch is credited with selling the arena plan to local officials and obtaining about $324 million in public subsidies for the project.

And this is only one example of billionaire-driven development in Detroit. Dan Gilbert, who made a fortune as the founder of Quicken Loans, now runs a venture capital company that has bought more than 90 buildings in Detroit's urban core – enough to earn the area the nickname "Gilbertville."

Asked how she would handle Detroit's re-development efforts, Ahmed said, "Definitely the first thing I'd do is make sure that women's voices are heard. That's something that we have not seen so far in this revitalization. It's been big businessmen and policymakers making all these decisions."

The importance of giving women of color a seat at the table is a major theme of "I Dream Detroit: The Voice and Vision of Women of Color on Detroit's Future," a new Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) report based on in-depth interviews, focus groups, and surveys with Black, Latina, Arab, and Asian women across the city.

Women of color make up 47 percent of Detroit's population and yet more than 70 percent of those that participated in an IPS survey said they do not feel included in city's economic development plans.

Linda Campbell, one of the 20 women of color profiled in the report, has played a leadership role in several coalition efforts to steer economic resources towards low-income residents. She's contributed to efforts to increase the local minimum wage, ensure access to affordable housing, and leverage public investments in economic development for jobs and education.

In 2016, she worked with Detroit People's Platform in a path-breaking effort to pass a ballot proposal that would've mandated legally binding community benefit agreements between local authorities and developers. The terms of such agreements encourage projects that create good jobs and meet the needs of the city's low-income residents.

The momentum behind the ballot initiative provoked a competing proposal for a non-binding community benefits agreement. And in the end, the weaker measure received greater support. But Campbell is proud that her coalition got almost 100,000 votes and lost by only a narrow margin. "And we now have the opportunity, after a year, to go back and advocate having it amended. So we're going to build on that," Campbell said.

By telling the stories of women like Ahmed and Campbell, complete with high-quality photographs, "I Dream Detroit" aims to raise the profile of the city's women of color leaders and counter prevalent negative perceptions of them. The report is organized around four types of "solutionaries":  service providers, those who are fueling economic development, policy advocates, and entrepreneurs. It concludes with a set of recommendations for sustaining their important work, including increased investment in their enterprises to overcome the limited access to capital faced by many women of color. It also calls on local officials to involve them in all economic development decision-making spaces.

"Inaccurate perceptions of women of color, especially poor women, influence public policy decisions and choices about when and where development investments are made," the report's co-authors, Marc Bayard and Kimberly Freeman Brown, write. "We're working to bring the experience and ideas of women of color from all walks of life more fully to bear in shaping Detroit's development plans."

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Legal Advocacy Group Files Urgent Freedom Of Information Act Request Of Government Information On Whether President Trump Is A “Moron."

Commondreams - Thu, 10/12/2017 - 13:41
Free Speech for People

Free Speech For People filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests today with the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to obtain any records related to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments about Trump’s mental capacity, including any references to the President as a moron or imbecile, to determine whether Cabinet members are attempting to cover up the diminished mental capacity of a President who is unfit to serve.

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