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.

Screen Shot 2020-01-21 at 9.47.09 AM

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

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.

Hari
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.