Arizona Prisons Urged To Reverse Ban On ‘Chokehold’ Book

A state prison in Florence, Ariz. Civil liberties advocates are protesting a policy that denies state inmates the right to read a book about the impact of the criminal justice system on black men.

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State corrections officials in Arizona are facing calls to reverse a ban on a book that that explores the impact of the criminal justice system on black men. Prison officials say the book contains “unauthorized content,” while civil rights advocates claim that placing the book on a blacklist amounts to censorship.

The book in question, Chokehold: Policing Black Men, by Georgetown University Professor Paul Butler, argues for a radical rethinking of prison policy, even pondering abolishing prisons altogether. But Butler, a former federal prosecutor, never advocates for violent responses to what he sees as systemic injustices.

Still, Arizona officials view the book as being potentially “detrimental to the safe, secure and orderly operation” of prison facilities, according to a letter reviewed by NPR that the Arizona Department of Corrections sent to The New Press, the New York-based publisher of Butler’s book.

In an interview Wednesday, Butler said the determination has left him puzzled.

“There’s nothing in Chokehold that makes jailers have to worry about their safety,” Butler said. “My book wants to transform society in the same non-violent way that people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King have created change.”

Emerson Sykes, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, recently wrote a letter to Arizona officials stating that the ban violates the free speech rights of prisoners, saying it is “unconstitutional to censor a book that educates prisoners on how legal, penal and other institutions have shaped their own lives.”

Sykes said if the pressure campaign is unsuccessful, the group is ready to file a federal lawsuit.

“It is unconstitutional to ban a book just because the government doesn’t like its policy proposals,” Sykes told NPR. “This is a classic First Amendment violation.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of prisons to ban books when doing so is seen as a way to protect prison security.

In Arizona, prisons forbid inmates from reading materials that could incite a riot. Any publications containing “unacceptable sexual or hostile behavior” are also banned.

But Butler said his 2017 book does not meet any the criteria to make it prohibited, noting that that the decision strikes him as ironic.

“I used the word chokehold as a metaphor for how law and public policy work to keep black men down,” Butler said. “The ban on Chokehold in Arizona is actually an example of the chokehold.”

Last year, the ACLU called for an end to a ban of another book on the interaction of racism and the criminal justice system, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, which prison officials in states including New Jersey had boycotted. Corrections officials there later dropped the ban.

Supporters of inmates having greater access to books say limiting educational opportunities for prisoners could hurt their chances of having a smooth transition back into society.

A 2013 study from the Rand Corporation found that inmates who spent some of their time behind bars reading and participating in educational programs had a 43% lower chance of reoffending. Rand researchers also found that more education for prisoners improved their chance of landing a job upon release.

Arizona has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates of black men. One in 19 black men in Arizona are incarcerated, and only 5% of state residents are African American, census figures show.

Butler said inmates do not need to read his book to understand racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

“Anyone in jail in Arizona already knows the criminal legal process targets African American men,” he said. “All they have to do is look around.”

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‘Won’t Give Up’: Siblings Of Jailed Saudi Women’s Rights Activist Speak Out In U.S.

Lina and Walid Alhathloul, sister and brother of jailed Saudi activist Loujain Alhathloul, have had a busy schedule in the United States raising awareness about their sister’s plight.

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Saudi siblings Lina and Walid Alhathloul check their phones constantly for any mention of their sister on social media. They have already done four interviews on the day of the PEN awards and sit down for a fifth, because, they say, this is the only way to help their sister, 29-year-old jailed Saudi activist Loujain Alhathloul.

“We want to raise awareness,” says Lina Alhathloul, a lawyer living in exile in Belgium.

On Tuesday, Loujain Alhathloul was honored with the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Two of her siblings were in New York to accept the award on her behalf. Two other jailed Saudi writers, Nouf Abdulaziz and Eman al-Nafjan, were also honored by the freedom of expression advocacy group. (PEN America linked to some of their key writing here.)

This Nov. 30, 2014, image made from video released by Loujain Alhathloul, shows her driving in the United Arab Emirates toward the border with Saudi Arabia. Her siblings have visited the United States this week to receive an award in her honor and to raise further awareness of her case.

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It’s been a year since Alhathloul was detained and arrested for leading a movement to end Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving and its strict rules against women’s everyday activities without approval from a male “guardian.”

A trial began in March in the Saudi capital Riyadh, but was later suspended with no official date to resume. Lina Alhathloul believes the suspension is a government strategy to keep the activists out of the news.

“What they are trying to do is that the case will just die because there is nothing new, but we won’t give up,” Lina Alhathloul says.

Torture allegations

After Loujain Alhathloul’s arrest in May 2018, her parents said she was taken to a secret prison and tortured; water-boarded, flogged and threatened with sexual assault and death, according to her siblings.

Walid Alhathloul says he was emotionally “shocked” when he learned about the abuse. “This is the moment we started to speak out, the worst happened when we were silent,” the brother says.

Saudi officials deny the accusations of torture, but the family raised the alarm when Loujain Alhathloul’s parents were finally allowed to visit her in jail four months after her arrest and said they saw the signs of brutal mistreatment first hand.

“She says that it has stopped,” the sister says about the prison conditions relayed by her parents. But she stresses that the visits are limited: “We can’t confirm anything about her daily treatment,” she says. “I hope when she says she is not tortured anymore, it’s true.”

Lina says Loujain Alhathloul — who has written on her blog about criticism she received for her activism — has always been courageous, but her own courage is tempered with caution. She declines to answer questions about Saudi Arabia’s leadership or comment on reports by U.S. intelligence officials that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sanctioned a campaign against opponents that included the October 2018 torture and murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist who wrote for The Washington Post.

Actor Alec Baldwin (right) and wife Hilaria Baldwin pose holding signs in support of jailed Saudi women’s rights activists Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Alhathloul and Eman al-Nafjan at the 2019 PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on Tuesday.

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She says she is aware of a growing movement of Saudi dissidents in exile, but says she has no contact with them. “They would probably like to [reach out], but they would know it is dangerous for us,” she says. When Loujain Alhathloul made her first appearance in court earlier this year, her charges included alleged contact with Western human rights organizations. “We don’t want to put her in any danger,” Lina Alhathloul says.

Back in the news

The biggest danger is that international interest in the case drops off, the siblings insist.

While in the U.S., the siblings have had a busy schedule. NPR was one of several outlets that interviewed them on Tuesday, a day that also included a Facebook Live video event with Nick Kristof of The New York Times and a sit-down with Amy Goodman’s public radio show, Democracy Now.

The awards event in New York puts Loujain Alhathloul and the other jailed Saudi activists back in the news, says Karin Deutsch Karlekar, the director of the Free Expression at Risk Program at PEN America.

“We’ve been giving this award since 1987,” she says. “There have been 44 awardees who have been in jail at the time. Of those 39 have been released, in part, because of the attention.”

Last year, the award went to two Reuters journalists from Myanmar, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, sentenced to seven years in jail for breaking the Official Secrets Act. The journalists had reported on the killing of Rohingya Muslims by security forces in 2017, reporting which also won a Pulitzer Prize. The pair were freed earlier this month after more than 500 days in jail.

It’s a good year to shine a spotlight on Saudi Arabia because of the crackdown on dissent, says Karlekar.

Authorities rounded up more than a dozen activists a year ago. A statement delivered in March by Iceland at the United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned the kingdom’s “continuing arrests and arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders.”

“There are more than these three Saudi awardees in jail,” Karlekar says. “We picked them as writers because PEN has that connection to writers.”

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One LA Community Where Folk And Rock Converged

Jakob Dylan (left) and Tom Petty in a still from Echo in the Canyon.

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Some music is so ingrained in our collective minds that it’s easy to forget how game-changing it was. In the late 1960s, a marriage of rock and folk took place and much of the popular music from that union was being made in a single place — Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles.

From The Beach Boys to The Mamas & The Papas, artists were writing new classics from their homes in the Canyon. A new documentary called Echo in the Canyon tells the story of the place and the people and brings in contemporary musicians influenced by the music of Laurel Canyon.

“We were putting good poetry on the radio. There wasn’t any of that before it was June-moon-spoon,” David Crosby says in the film.

Artists like Crosby, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, Beck and Cat Power all appear in the film. Directed by Andrew Slater, Jakob Dylan, son of Bob Dylan, interviews the musicians and also performs in the film.

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Slater says the pivotal moment for the fusion of folk and rock was in 1964 when the group The Byrds came on the scene. “That moment when those songs from the first Byrds record go on the radio, it’s the first time songs of poetic depth and grace become pop songs,” he explains. “That paves the way for people to write differently.”

The geography of Laurel Canyon itself is what helped it feel like an artist colony. As Slater explains, the houses being in close proximity to one other made it easy for artists to collaborate.

“The main thing about LA is that you’re always on the edge of the wilderness, you know?” Slater says. “You’re there’s a coyote in your backyard and then being so close to the Sunset Strip where clubs were where people could perform created this kind of synchronicity in Los Angeles for making that music.”

While Slater provided the historical context, Dylan assembled musicians for the film who he felt were musical descendants of this time.

“The main connection is songwriting,” Dylan says. “The music that we’re talking about in the film, that’s what we’re doing, it’s splintered off in many different directions, but at the core of it that’s what we’re all doing.”

Dylan also covers songs from the time in doc like The Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and The Mamas and The Papas’ “Go Where You Wanna Go.”

“We chose songs that, you know, I could explore with believability,” Dylan says of singing covers in the film alongside their creators.

Slater says the legacy of that magic time in Laurel Canyon will be “the spirit of partnership.”

“I hope that that kindness and the idea of Laurel Canyon will last. I think it exists in many pockets in America and many creative communities,”

Echo in the Canyon will open in select theaters in LA on May 24 and New York City on May 31.

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More Than 1,000 Holocaust Victims Are Buried In Belarus After Mass Grave Discovered

Volunteers bury the remains of more than 1,000 Holocaust victims at a cemetery just outside Brest, Belarus, on Wednesday.

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More than 1,000 victims of the Holocaust were buried Wednesday in Belarus, some 70 years after they were killed in the genocide.

Their bones were unearthed this winter by construction workers as they began to build luxury apartments in the southwestern city of Brest, near Poland.

Soldiers brought in to excavate found undisputed evidence of a mass grave: skulls with bullet holes, shoes and tattered clothing worn on the last day of people’s lives.

Because the newly uncovered mass grave was on the site of a wartime ghetto, the victims were believed to be Jews slaughtered by Nazis. Many Jewish people had been forced to live behind barbed wires in the Brest ghetto before they were executed.

On Wednesday, their remains were placed into 120 coffins decorated with the Star of David, according to The Associated Press. A burial and ceremony was held at a cemetery outside of the city.

“I think it’s very late, but better late than never,” Marcel Drimer, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor from Poland, told NPR.

“I am upset that the officials want to build on the sacred site,” he added.

Authorities permitted the apartment construction to continue, prompting locals and leaders in the Jewish community to denounce how the mass grave discovery was handled.

A petition to stop construction emerged online, with signatures supporting a proposal for the grounds to become a memorial park.

The Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities expressed dismay that the construction site had not been adequately examined before construction started, “even though, according to eyewitnesses and historians evidence, it was the place where mass executions of the Jewish population of the city took place,” the group said in a statement in March.

World Jewish Congress CEO and Executive Vice President Robert Singer said that the municipality should have carefully examined the land before issuing a building permit. He called the construction “an affront to the memories of the Jewish residents of the city who were shot and murdered in cold blood at that very site.”

Belarus had a robust Jewish community before World War II but almost 90% of that population was killed by the time the Holocaust ended, according to the World Jewish Congress.

In the wake of the genocide, the city of Brest has faced accusations of callousness toward its Jewish population. A prominent synagogue saw a movie theater built over it. Other synagogues were converted into shops, schools, hospitals, offices and gyms. Jewish gravestones were “recycled” for roads, gardens and other purposes, according to Vice, and Brest’s Holocaust museum comprised “a room in a basement,” according to the BBC.

Regina Simonenko, who leads a local Jewish community, told the AP that authorities chose to rush the burial instead of doing DNA tests to discern who the victims were. “We were told that DNA tests are expensive and take a long time,” she said.

A spokesperson from the construction company told Deutsche Welle that a square meter for the high-end complex was selling for almost double the city’s average, at about $1,250 by the end of 2018.

The area where the remains were found was slated to become a manicured courtyard, the German outlet reported. The mayor’s office said the building will likely possess a plaque to remember the victims.

These inscriptions aren’t so uncommon, said Drimer wearily. He returned to his hometown of Drohobycz about 70 years after the war. He said he saw a bus station with a small plaque to denote where Holocaust victims had once been buried. “It wasn’t unusual,” he said. And though survivors like Drimer found it disturbing, “there weren’t enough Jews to say anything.”

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