Jobs, Books, and Podcasts: A Life Update Listicle

If you were to judge my life by this shitty website, it would appear that I have not been doing very much with myself in the past year.

That would be #fakenews

Despite the complete lack of updates in this forum I have, in fact, been doing things. One of those things includes getting a new job.

As of Jan.1, I am reporting for The Marshall Project, which is a nonprofit online news outlet focusing on criminal justice. If you’re not familiar, check them out HERE. They’ve been around about five years and won a Pulitzer a few years ago for the investigative reporting that ultimately spawned the Netflix series Unbelievable.

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They’re based in NYC, but I’ll be staying here in Houston. I’ll be covering some of the same things, but also able to zero in on criminal justice issues anywhere in the country – not that there isn’t enough fuckery in the great state of Texas to keep me busy, though.

Here – harkening back to my tabloid days – is a listicle that exactly no one asked for, a quick round-up of the past year and all the various things I probably should’ve posted here but didn’t bother to. Enjoy! Or don’t.

  • After launching in late 2018, I continued with my podcast and ended up pushing out 15 episodes. THIS was the most downloaded episode, for anyone interested in taking a listen.
  • I also published more than 200 articles for the Houston Chronicle. Some highlights include a story about the family who once supplied lethal injection drugs for the Texas death chamber, a few dozen co-reported stories about a botched drug raid that ended with police shooting two innocent homeowners, heartbreaking stories about two different men who were killed by prison guards, and a story about gun deaths over a particularly violent weekend in Houston.
  • Along with NBC News reporter Mike Hixenbaugh, I went very off-brand and did a four-part investigative series about child abuse misdiagnoses and wrongful removals. Stories HERE.
  • Early in the year, I published a few stories with another online criminal justice outlet called The Appeal. The best of those stories, imo, was probably the investigation into New York’s shock incarceration programs.
  • Over the course of many months, I wrote a long-form story for the Washington Post Magazine, looking at “gender-responsive corrections” and how women’s specific needs aren’t met in jails and prisons. It was part of a very cool issue about criminal justice, written and photographed entirely by people who were currently or formerly incarcerated.
  • In the fall, I did a national tour with Pop-Up Magazine. Basically, a bunch of photographers/artists/reporters each reports out a narrative feature story and then performs it on stage. I did a piece about life on Texas death row, and the Pop-Up folks added animations and music courtesy a live orchestra. We did sold-out shows across the country, including NY’s Lincoln Center which was – of course – v, v cool.

Also, I got a book deal. YAYYY. Stay tuned for more on that in terms of timing, and when an actual release date would be.

deal of the day

So, that’s the round-up of my past year, more or less. Moving forward, I’ll try to post here SOMEWHAT more often. But for the most part I’m planning to use this space for just life updates at this point I think – because I think a lot of the people who follow me here are people who either know me IRL or are following me for personal updates. BUT if you – despite my general lack of posts here – have some thoughts on what kinds of posts you’d like here, feel free to email me or comment about what you’d like to see.

And, if you’re looking for more regular updates – plus some snark, bitching and occasional insight – just follow me on Twitter.

Podcast: The first night in prison is not how you imagine

BTW LogoMy first night in prison I barely slept. It wasn’t so much that I was worried “dropping the soap” or getting attacked – it’s just that it was prison. But it was nothing like I expected.

That was just over seven years ago, but that first night stuck with me, and it seemed like a good starting place for a new podcast. Tune in every couple weeks to listen to me and my cohost – former corrections union president Lance Lowry – talk about Texas prisons and prison policy.

Here’s the link to subscribe

A Reporter’s First Rodeo

The rodeo is in town in Bayou City. Every year, a three-week marathons of animals, carnival food and concerts floods Houston for the famous Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Here’s some of the highlights of my week covering the big shindig.

A reporter’s quest to find the elusive rodeo jail

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Is this rodeo jail?

 

There’s a cracked painting of a bucking animal sprawled across one wall and a parched dirt floor underfoot. In one corner is a lone tattered boot with a star-shaped spur. In another there’s a mean two-headed rattlesnake with a gun in its mouth. The only food is raw hamburger meat wrapped in fried bacon, served three times a day. The only thing to drink is cowboy tears – and cowboys don’t cry.

At least this is how I envision rodeo jail.

Click here to read the full story. 

Speak, you said? A dog’s eye view of what the rodeo need

This is not my first rodeo. As a World Champion Disc Dog, I have been to a good number of these things — and I have six suggestions to make them less human-centric and more agreeable for canine visitors such as myself.

IMG_5449What does this adorable dog suggest? Click here to read the full story.

In tractor maintenance, a fierce competitor

In a sea of baseball caps, Sage Boettcher’s blond ponytail stands out.

It bobs beside the bright orange tractor in front of her as the 18-year-old bangs the back wheels in frustration.

It wobbles as she peers closely under the seat, searching for the problem.

It pauses as she remembers: The clock is ticking.

Does Sage win? Is she the fastest tractor-fixer in Texas? Click here to read the full story.

Border Patrol presence turns heads, creates worries at the rodeo

It started with what looked like an unnerving photo: windowless Border Patrol vans parked outside the Houston Rodeo.

And as the image spread online in the run-up to Sunday’s Go Tejano Day, it seeded fear and rumors of roundups in the local Hispanic community in light of President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown.

“They don’t need to be spreading fear or instigating further tension between people with different skin tones,” said Yvonne Hernandez, a Houstonian who comes from a family of immigrants.

Click here to read the full story and find out Border Patrol’s response to the online rumors.

In Real Life, War Can Sneak Up on You

The world was on the brink of another war, and Chuck Bowman headed out for a bike ride.

In any other decade, my great-uncle Chuck’s voyage might have been a leisurely sightseeing trip, but when the newly minted West Point grad trekked through Europe on a bicycle in 1939, he was seeing the beginnings of a global conflict.

As detailed in his war diary, Chuck’s trip seems ominous only with the benefit of hindsight.

Click on the image below to read the full story. 

hitler Continue reading “In Real Life, War Can Sneak Up on You”

The War on Confidential Informants

Anthony Papa knows the burn of betrayal.

Today he’s an accomplished man—a published author and staff member at the Drug Policy Alliance—but in the mid-’80s, his life wasn’t in such a bright place.

In 1985, Papa was living in the Bronx with his wife and daughter. He was self-employed, installing car alarms. He was an avid bowler, but also an avid gambler. He went to bowling alleys and bet on other bowlers, and sometimes he was up, but at the start of 1985, he was down. Money was tight and his wife gave him an ultimatum; make rent or get out. One of his bowling buddies in Westchester stepped in, seemingly to save the day.

“He asked me if I wanted to make a fast buck. All I had to do was deliver an envelope to Mount Vernon.”

After some nerves and reconsiderations, Papa eventually went through and delivered the goods to a mysterious man in a tow truck.

“I walked into a bust,” he said. The bowling buddy who’d “helped” him was already in legal hot water himself, “so the more people he got involved, the less time he got,” Papa recalled.

“He was setting up all his friends, people who weren’t even doing drugs.” Papa had dabbled in drugs, but he was by no means a drug dealer—just a desperate man who was out of options.

After his arrest, Papa was offered the chance to do what his bowling buddy did and become a confidential informant in exchange for a reduced sentence.

“I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I knew at that point that I would just get deeper in the hole.” Instead, he took his case to trial and ended up with two sentences of 15 to life under New York’s notorious Rockefeller drug laws. He served 12 years before he was granted clemency by Gov. George Pataki.

Although today he’s doing well, the events that led to Papa’s arrest are not uncommon. Every day, confidential police informants are used to make drug busts. Sometimes they’re snagging bigger dealers, but sometimes—as in Papa’s case—they’re setting up bit players for big arrests.

The latter scenario is something that 60 Minutes focused on in a December 2015 segment with Lesley Stahl. The in-depth investigation looked at some of the tragic outcomes when the use of confidential informants doesn’t go as planned.

The show highlighted the cases of Andrew Sadek and Rachel Hoffman, both college students who were arrested with small amounts of drugs and pressured to work as confidential informants. Both ended up dead. Sadek was missing for months before he was found near a river, shot in the head. His backpack was weighted down with rocks. Hoffman was shot five times and dumped in a ditch. Both were college students with bright futures.

Although 60 Minutes used examples like those to outline the problematic nature of using confidential informants, the show didn’t include stories like Papa’s. To be more specific, the youth profiled in the show were all white.

Getting data about the demographics of confidential informants is difficult, to say the least. In fact, it’s hard to even get a good handle on how many confidential informants are used every year.

“By their nature, you’re not supposed to know who they are, so it’s very hard to say how much they’re actually used,” said Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Nsombi Lambright, previous executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi and current executive director of One Voice, said that anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of confidential informants are minorities.

“Overwhelmingly we’ve seen that the use of confidential informants is in poor and African American communities. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen in other communities, but that is where we’ve seen the overwhelming use just because of the simplicity of entering into certain communities,” she said.

Typically, more privileged communities are more likely to have access to legal resources that prevent them from seriously considering offers to work as a confidential informant.

“I think that reason would have us extrapolate that people who are used as confidential informants are the most vulnerable—if you have a good lawyer, you’re probably not going to be a confidential informant,” said Bandele. “It’s very hard to quantify that or try to, but it’s not an unfair leap to think that somebody with wherewithal doesn’t need to be put in a position where they need to put their life at risk—and that’s about race and class.”

By way of example, Bandele pointed to the story of Shelley “Treasure” Hilliard. Hilliard, a black trans teen, was collared by Detroit police for half an ounce of marijuana. As a trans woman, the prospect of doing time and being housed in a men’s facility was understandably terrifying. So Hilliard agreed to become a confidential informant, hoping—like Hoffman and Sadek—to avoid time behind bars. But things went wrong when police leaked her name, and soon the teen went missing.

In November 2011, her burned torso was identified by investigators. “She was burned and hacked up and spread across the city,” Bandele lamented.

“She was trans, she was poor, she was black—it was a perfect storm of stigma and prejudice. It was a conflation of all these things that put her in a vulnerable position.”

The thing is, even if everything had worked out well, even if police hadn’t leaked her name, there’s still cause for concern on at least a few levels. For one, not everyone who works as a confidential informant actually manages to avoid prison time.

Papa said that the man who set him up ended up serving three years. Predictably, if someone is known as a confidential informant, prison becomes a lot more difficult.

“Once you get that label as a snitch, you’re dead,” he said. “You go to prison and they find out, you’re finished. You have to check into protective custody or always look over your shoulder. There’s nowhere to run in prison.” Protective custody typically means 22 to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, so it may be safer than general population, but it’s mental torture.

Sometimes, confidential informants end up doing time because they don’t come up with enough information or don’t participate in enough busts. Other times, Lambright said, they get arrested on completely separate charges or the prosecuting attorney doesn’t honor the agreement. Even in a best-case scenario, where no names are leaked and no one is injured, confidential informants don’t necessarily get off scot-free.

A second problem with confidential informants is reliability.

“If somebody is facing time themselves, then of course they’ll do anything to get a reduction in time,” said Lambright. That was a problem the New Jersey ACLU outlined in a 2011 report examining the use of confidential informants in the Garden State.

“Police survey responses and community interviews indicate that police sometimes take CIs at their word without first carefully and independently corroborating the veracity of their statements before attempting to make an arrest,” the report notes. “Incentives offered to CIs, including leniency in their own criminal cases, increase the risk that CIs will provide unreliable information. The prevalent and repeated use of drug-addicted civilians as CIs increases the risk that the information they provide may be unreliable.”

According to the ACLU, unreliable testimony from informants is “one of the largest sources of wrongful convictions in the country.”

Part of the reason this happens is simply a lack of oversight. As the 60 Minutes segment pointed out, there’s typically no real training for the informants who are essentially being sent out to do police work.

As the New Jersey ACLU outlined, informants in the Garden State are often not properly registered and agreements are not set out in writing as they should be, as per a mandate from the state’s Attorney General. In fact, the report found that 44.6% of law enforcement personnel surveyed did not even know the Attorney General had a policy regarding the use of confidential informants.

When the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report on confidential informants in September 2015, they found a similar lack of oversight and a lack of sufficient policies for the federal agencies examined.

Although the use of confidential informants presents clear problems, Lambright said that there aren’t a lot of groups specifically focusing on activism around the issue of confidential informants, even though some advocacy organizations make it part of a drug reform platform.

One organization that has been very clear about its stance on confidential informants is the ACLU. On its website, the organization outlines some changes that could make the use of informants less problematic. Those changes include everything from requiring corroboration to improve informant reliability, broadening data collection to better evaluate the efficacy of using informants, and limiting the use of informants to serious crimes instead of non-violent drug offenses.

For Papa, that’s still not enough.

“It should be banned,” he said. “People should not be threatened or deals made based on putting other people in dangerous situations.”

“To police, it’s acceptable when really it’s not.”

This story originally appeared on The Fix.

Johann Hari on Billie Holiday, Harry Anslinger, and the War on Drugs

On Wednesday – the same day that New York approved emergency access to medical marijuana – New York City activists gathered in a Chelsea loft to hear Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, explain why the drug war hasn’t worked.

He began, though, not by talking about the modern drug war, but by telling a story that started more than three decades earlier.  

“In 1939 seven blocks away from where we are now,” Hari said, “Billie Holiday walked on stage in a hotel where she wasn’t even allowed to walk through the front door. And she sang a song. It was called ‘Strange Fruit.’”

That was “the musical starting gun for the civil right movement,” but at the time it attracted unwanted attention from one Harry Anslinger.

For more than three decades, Anslinger was the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He was the man responsible for waging the war on drugs before it was called the war on drugs.

According to Hari, he had a “really intense hatred” of drug addicts and of African Americans — and Holiday was both.

The same night the rising jazz great sang “Strange Fruit,” Hari said, Holiday got a warning from Anslinger: Stop singing that song.

But Holliday didn’t stop, and Anslinger stayed true to his threat.

He hired someone to follow her and, in 1947, the singer was arrested on drug charges and sentenced to 18 months in prison. After her release, she couldn’t get the license she needed to perform in places that sold alcohol.

“This is what we are doing to addicts all over the world,” Hari said. “We are putting barriers between them and their ability to reconnect.”

Holiday started using again and by the late 1950s, years of drug and alcohol abuse took their toll: She was diagnosed with liver cancer.

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Johann Hari in 2011, via Wikimedia Commons

Hospitalized in 1959, she was arrested and handcuffed to her deathbed when cops raided her hospital room. She died, but Hari doesn’t think Anslinger — who later became an opiate addict himself — came out on top.

“Right now people all over the world are listening to Billie Holiday and they’re feeling stronger and nobody fucking remembers Harry Anslinger,” he said.

That’s not entirely true, though. As Hari recounted, at least one person remembers Anslinger: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In the course of his research, Hari visited Maricopa County — and found a picture of Anslinger hanging on the notorious sheriff’s wall.

In that same visit, Hari passed a chain gang of female Maricopa County inmates digging graves, wearing shirts the read “I Am a Drug Addict” and trying to ignore the jeers from passersby.

According to Hari, that’s the exact opposite of how addiction should be addressed, because it’s based on a misunderstanding about how addiction works in the first place.

There’s an assumption that heroin causes heroin addiction which means that forced sobriety is the solution, Hari said.

He doesn’t think that’s accurate, though.

Early addiction experiments showed that a rat put in a cage with a bottle of drug-laced water and a bottle of regular water would quickly become a drug addict, Hari said. That seemed to reinforce the idea that the drugs were the problem.

In the 1970’s, Bruce Alexander tried a different experiment. He gave the rats the tools for happy, fulfilling rat lives instead of putting them in rat solitary confinement. They had the drug water and the regular water, but they also had toys and — most importantly — rat friends.

“It’s basically heaven for rats. It’s called Rat Park,” Hari said.

“This is the fascinating thing: In Rat Park, they don’t like the drug water. They almost never use it. None of them ever use it compulsively, none of them ever overdose.”

Addiction, Hari said, is not about drugs; it’s about the cage.

“We’ve got to change the cage, we’re living in a shitty cage,” he said.

Hari believes that, like the rats, humans need to bond with the others in their cage.

“But when you can’t do that because you’re traumatized, or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond or connect with something that gives you some sense of meaning [and] that might be heroin,” Hari said.

“For 100 years we have been singing war songs about addicts … we should have been singing love songs to them all along,” he said.