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.

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Study: Cocaine Addiction Causes Iron Build-Up in the Brain

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Cocaine addiction may cause a build-up of iron in the brain, according to a new study coming out of the University of Cambridge.

At first glance, that may seem like an obscure and useless neuroscience factoid—but it could have wide-ranging implications for the possibility of advancing addiction treatment.

A team of researchers led by Dr. Karen Ersche published the latest findings in Monday’s edition of Translational Psychiatry. The study looked at the brains of 44 people addicted to cocaine and 44 healthy control volunteers, and found that the regular coke users had excess iron in a part of the brain called the globus pallidus.

And, the longer they’d used cocaine, the more iron build-up they had. In short, coke addiction in some way screws up the body’s ability to regulate iron—although the exact mechanism isn’t totally clear yet.

“Given the important role that iron plays in both health and disease, iron metabolism is normally tightly regulated,” Ersche said in a press release. “Long-term cocaine use, however, seems to disrupt this regulation, which may cause significant harm.”

Iron is an essential nutrient that comes from food and is only excreted through blood loss. It is necessary for properly carrying oxygen through the bloodstream, but it’s also key in the brain, where too much iron can cause neuronal death and too little iron can impede dopamine synthesis.

Off-kilter iron regulation could have effects elsewhere in the body. “Iron is used to produce red blood cells, which help store and carry oxygen in the blood. So, iron deficiency in the blood means that organs and tissues may not get as much oxygen as they need,” Ersche said. “On the other hand, we know that excessive iron in the brain is associated with cell death, which is what we frequently see in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.”

But that’s not to say that cocaine addiction causes any increased risk of Alzheimer’s—the study’s authors say there is no indication of that, in part because those degenerative diseases are associated with excess iron in different regions of the brain not affected by cocaine addiction.

With the latest research in hand, the next step for researchers will be to figure out exactly how cocaine impacts iron regulation—and how to reverse that iron build-up, a finding that could be a breakthrough for addiction treatment.

The story was originally published in The Fix.

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”

More Than 20,000 Attend Houston Women’s March

Houston is not a town known for its protests, but Saturday more than 20,000 revved up rally-ers showed up for a two-hour march and demonstration in the middle of downtown.

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Houston Women’s March, photo by Ryan Robinson

The speaker line-up included a number of local celebs, who covered everything from bathroom bills to women in politics to Houston’s diversity.

Following on the heels of a number of less-attended protests on Inauguration Day, the event outside City Hall drew at least twice the expected number, including some enthusiastic Trump foes wearing crazy costumes and waving hilarious signs.

For the full story, click on the image below:

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Researchers Predicted That The Opioid Epidemic Will Peak in 2017: Could They Be Right?

It was less than an hour into 2017 when one Maryland county saw its first overdose—one of the first opioid fatalities of the new year. Harford County recorded at least 54 heroin overdoses in 2016, nearly twice as many as in 2015. This year doesn’t seem like it’s off to a good start either. Forty-five minutes into 2017, the county saw its first heroin overdose death, and a second before last Tuesday.

“We’re extremely disappointed with our number in 2016, specifically the number of fatal overdoses nearly doubling,” Capt. Lee Dunbar of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office told the Baltimore Sun. “Our goal for 2017 is to get those numbers going in the opposite direction.”

But if the team of Columbia researchers who published their theories on drug overdose rates in a 2014 issue of Injury Epidemiology is right, there could be hope on the horizon.

The researchers based their predictions on an epidemics model developed in the mid-19th century by William Farr, whose groundbreaking epidemiology work looked at smallpox outbreaks to generate a so-called law of epidemics. Since then, Farr’s Law has been applied to cattle plagues, smallpox outbreaks and the AIDS epidemic.

When researchers applied the model to opioid overdoses, they used data stretching back to 1980 to predict that 2016 and 2017 would reach a high water mark at 16.1 deaths per 100,000 population. By 2034, the researchers posit, deaths should be down to early 1980s rates of fewer than 3 per 100,000.

Of course, the authors caution that it’s not clear whether Farr’s Law holds true for non-infectious epidemics like opioid overdoses. “Although the method we applied originated from studies of infectious diseases, it is unknown whether Farr’s Law applies to epidemics of a non-infectious origin,” the authors write. “It is plausible that a non-communicable disease, such as drug overdose, can follow infectious patterns.”

In the past, other researchers have posited theories of social contagion for obesity and some behavioral disorders. Basically, a set of social mechanisms may mimic infectious disease patterns in spreading certain behaviors through the population until they hit a natural threshold or are limited by intervention efforts. In this case, those efforts could include increasing access to the overdose reversal drug, naloxone, or the rising interest in prescription painkiller tracking.

“Mortality data over the next two decades will ultimately test the accuracy of our projections,” the researchers conclude. “If the drug overdose epidemic is indeed waning, it may imply that the intensified efforts in recent years, such as enhanced prescription drug monitoring, are working and should be continued.”

This story was originally published in The Fix.

Gov. Cuomo Pardons Drug Reformer Anthony Papa, Issues Dozens of Clemencies

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday granted 101 conditional pardons and 12 other clemencies—including a pardon to drug-reform activist Anthony Papa.

Convicted of a first-time drug offense in 1985, Papa served 12 years under draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws before he was released and went on to work at the Drug Policy Alliance. Now with the newly announced pardon, the 62-year-old former prisoner will be able to enjoy the restoration of some of the many rights forfeited after a felony conviction.

“Being granted the pardon was a vindication for me in that it showed that my punishment did not fit the crime,” Papa told The Fix the day after news of the pardons broke.

End-of-year clemencies are a gubernatorial tradition in New York, but Papa’s pardon is unusual because the artist and writer was also previously granted a sentence commutation by former Gov. George Pataki in 1997.

Papa was initially convicted of Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in the First Degree after police used a confidential informant to set up a sting. Under some of the nation’s harshest drug laws, the New York City native was sentenced to 15-to-life. He got out after 12 years, when Pataki commuted his sentence.

Since then, he’s published two books and spent more than 10 years working at the Drug Policy Alliance.

“Tony Papa broke the law but the real crime was committed by the State of New York when it locked him up for 15–to-life for a first time, non-violent drug transaction,” DPA Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann said Friday in a statement.

Papa thanked the governor, hailing him as a “champion of the people” in the release.

“The road to freedom was not an easy one, and maintaining that freedom is not easy because of the many roadblocks for formerly incarcerated individuals,” Papa said. “I have tried to set an example to show that people can become productive citizens upon release if given the opportunity.”

Another high-profile beneficiary of Cuomo’s annual goodwill is Judith Clark. Unlike Papa, who received a post-prison pardon, Clark was given a sentence commutation that will make her eligible for release decades sooner than expected.

Clark, 67, has served more than 35 years behind bars for her role as the getaway driver in an infamous 1981 Brinks armored car robbery that resulted in the deaths of three people, including two police officers.

She’s been locked up for longer than her six co-defendants, most of whom are either dead or out of prison. One, Kathy Boudin, had a similar role in the crime and is now a professor at Columbia University.

During her time in prison, Clark earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree, taught pre-natal parenting courses, founded an HIV/AIDS education program, trained service dogs, and served as a college tutor. Under her original sentence of 75-to-life, she wouldn’t have become eligible for parole till she was 106 years old. Now, she’ll be able to appear before the parole board in early 2017.

While Clark’s and Papa’s clemencies were part of a longstanding tradition, the Cuomo administration has frequently been stingy with the annual gubernatorial act of mercy, especially when it comes to commutations. But Friday’s actions could hint at a new approach to legal forgiveness.

The 101 conditional pardons also mark a new chapter in New York state’s approach to criminal justice and re-entry.

The first of their kind in the nation, the conditional pardons were granted to non-violent offenders who were convicted as minors and have been crime-free for at least a decade. Cuomo initially announced plans for large-scale conditional pardons back in 2015, but didn’t make good on them till the final days of 2016.

“New York is a state of opportunity and today, we are granting these individuals and others a second chance to live up to their full potential, provide for their families and give back to their communities,” Cuomo said in a statement Friday.

“With these actions, we have taken one more step toward a more just, more fair and more compassionate New York for all.”

This story was originally published on The Fix.

Upstate N.Y. Lawmaker Proposes Death Penalty for Dealers of Heroin-Laced Fentanyl

A congressman from upstate New York introduced federal legislation to allow using the death penalty for drug dealers.

U.S. Rep. Tom Reed—a Republican with Tea Party roots—issued a release Monday touting his Help Ensure Lives are Protected (HELP) Act. Despite decades of evidence that draconian drug policies don’t work, the former Corning mayor wants to make capital punishment an option for dealers who sell addicts a fatal dose.

“We care about the families of every overdose victim in our community and the addicts that are struggling,” Reed said in the release. “It’s only right that we hold those responsible for harming our loved ones accountable.”

The HELP Act would give federal prosecutors the ability to impose harsher penalties—including life in prison or the death penalty—for dealers accused of selling fatal doses of heroin laced with fentanyl.

“This was a result of our roundtable discussions with law enforcement, parents, victims as well as treatment providers and others,” Reed said Monday, according to the Corning Leader. The measure would target the “worst of the worst.”

“These are not the users,” he claimed. “These are the dealers that utilize heroin cut with fentanyl, which is highly addictive and an extremely dangerous material that leads to the deaths of individuals even on a first time use.”

The bill boasts a slew of conservative co-sponsors, including Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), Bill Flores (R-Texas), and Steve Chabot, (R-Ohio).

It’s also garnered support from other Southern Tier Republicans, including New York State Senator Tom O’Mara.

“I support Congressman Reed’s effort to take it even further for dealers who knowingly sell the deadliest, fentanyl-laced heroin,” O’Mara said in a statement, according to the Corning paper. “I agree that we can’t arrest and prosecute our way out of it, but we shouldn’t hesitate to throw the book at the suppliers and traffickers who are taking so many young lives.”

Reed’s approach to drug policy stands in stark contrast to the forward-thinking plans touted by leaders in one small town at the far eastern end of the largely conservative district. In Ithaca—a college town known for its liberal politics and beautiful gorges—Mayor Svante Myrick headed up a heroin task force that ultimately recommended the creation of safe injection sites, which are still technically illegal in the U.S.

This story originally appeared on The Fix.

Celebrating Vincent Price with 5 Movies he Should Have Been Cast In

Vincent Price, the “Master of Menace” was the king of horror in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

He started out in film noir with a role in 1944’s “Laura,” but he’s better known for his career in creepy thrillers. One of his most celebrated campy classics is the 1960 version of “The House of Usher” but Price teamed up with horror director Roger Corman for a host of other Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.

Price — who was born 105 years ago yesterday — was insanely prolific, so if you’ve ever turned on the TV around Halloween, he’s pretty much unavoidable.

In his later career, he was typecast in horror and didn’t do a lot else — but here’s a look at five fantastic films that would have been even better with a bizarre little casting twist.

Home Alone

Vincent Price didn’t play in a lot of Christmas movies. Really, Halloween was more his thing. But this holiday classic could use a touch of Price.

Part of the charm of this 1990 comedy is that little Macaulay Culkin makes such a darn cute thief-thwarter. In truth, though, he’s kind of violent for a little kid since he thinks up some methods of trapping the thieves — played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern — that result in more grievous bodily injury than an 8-year-old should be able to inflict.

Of course, the kid would be able to inflict a lot more harm if he were played by a little Vincent Price.

Instead of simply scaring off the would-be holiday burglars with a few scratches, scrapes and burns, Kevin played by Vincent would poison them with some Tic Tacs from that nice old man down the street — and then he’d blackmail the old man to help him entomb the dastardly duo in his parents’ basement, where he can trample all over their ambitions for the rest of his life.

Forrest Gump

This 1990s feel-good film famously starred Tom Hanks in the main role, but looking back on it two decades later, the whole thing feels just a little too sweet and sensitive. Maybe it could use a slightly darker leading man.

Plus — can you just imagine Forrest telling his life story in Vincent’s velvety voice?

Admittedly, Forrest is a little bit too optimistic for a typical Vincent Price, but some of the key lines could be retooled — maybe death is like a box of chocolates, too.

Grease

Grease is a very singy, happy film. But Vincent Price can sing, too. He didn’t do it a lot in his movies, but if you search “Vincent Price singing” on YouTube, you’ll find some tracks that are just as satisfyingly velvety as you’d hope.

That said, Price would clearly be a great addition to Grease. He’d give the wanna-be bad boy T-Birds a much darker appeal — and he’d probably rather sing about Halloween night than summer nights — but he’d probably be really, really good at it.

The Sound of Music

How do you solve a problem like Maria? Poison her and leave her corpse at the dining room table till the skin rots off.

The most logical casting choice for Price would be at the Von Trapp father — but he’s already pretty stern and foreboding and doesn’t necessarily need to become something sinister. However, Price would make a great eighth child. There’s no reason those kinds have to be so singy and happy.

Frozen

Ugh, THAT SONG. “Let It Go” is clearly far too cheery for a Frozen featuring Vincent Price — but really, why “let it go” anyway? Don’t let anything go. Hold onto that shit and let it fester until things get out of control and suddenly your lover’s skeleton is encased in concrete in the basement — because that’s always a possible outcome when Vincent Price is involved.

Author Interview: Anthony Papa

Once facing a life sentence, today Anthony Papa is an author, artist, and activist who works at the Drug Policy Alliance. Recently, he released his second memoir in paperback. Here’s a quick look at the man behind This Side of Freedom.

So, for starters, tell me a bit about yourself – and, more specifically, what your latest book is about?

This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency is a riveting, compelling tale about my life. I tell of my experience of returning home after serving 12 years of a 15-to-life sentence for a non-violent drug crime, sentenced under the mandatory provisions of the Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York State.

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Anthony Papa, author and activist (photo via A. Papa)

In 1997, I was granted executive clemency by New York Governor George Pataki. Upon release I soon realized that the freedom I fought so hard to get smacked me swiftly in the face, overpowering me. I struggled with my freedom while fighting to free those I left behind. I go through heart-wrenching trials and tribulations as I sought to end the war on drugs and save those I left behind. Along the way I meet an array of individuals from famous movie stars to politicians and the very rich, enlisting their help in doing away with mass incarceration and draconian sentencing laws that have destroyed America’s criminal justice system.

This is not your first book and not your first memoir – so what was your first book about?

15 to Life is a rare adventure story about how an average married Joe was railroaded by the subterfuge surrounding the War on Drugs. Offered a chance to make a quick $500, I agreed to deliver an envelope in a fated police sting operation. My first and only criminal offense cost me a 15-year sentence in Sing-Sing, a maximum-security prison in New York State. I had tried to commit suicide when I realized the best years of my life would be spent in a 6×9 cell.

One day I discovered my talent as an artist. This gave me the ability to transcend the negative environment I lived in.It also gave me the will to live. When the Whitney Museum chose my self-portrait 15-to-Life to exhibit in a retrospective of installation artist Mike Kelley I had to lie because of the jarring stipulation that the painting chosen would have to be that of a murderer because of the intellectual context of Kelley’s art. I did, and soon afterward I received intense media attention. Governor Pataki got wind of my case, and after 12 hard years of time, I was granted clemency.

What motivated you to write the second memoir, especially after already having a first one out? 

I wanted to address the need to write a book that would provide valuable information about returning to society after serving a long time in prison.

Carrying the stigma of being an ex-offender is often debilitating, from being denied employment and housing, to not knowing how to establish healthy relationships, life becomes exceedingly difficult. In addition, maintaining that freedom is no easy task while wrestling with the haunting memories of past imprisonment

I realized that after serving a tremendous amount of time in prison upon release my prison life was deeply rooted into my present existence.  I had a decade of life in an environment where survival mechanisms and behaviors were hardwired into daily existence. Being hardwired for survival was a good thing in prison; it had saved my life many times. In the free world, though, it was another matter, especially when these mechanisms would surface suddenly and without warning. The tools that were once lifesaving had become a tremendous burden to me as I tried to get my life back together.

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This Side of Freedom is Anthony Papa’s second memoir.

Through my second memoir I talk about my 18 years of freedom and the extraordinary experiences that I have lived through. I have advocated for celebs like Cameron Douglas and enlisting him to become the poster boy of drug relapse and how he was punished for falling off the wagon and given an unbelievable prison sentence for it, to fighting tooth and nail for the hundreds of thousands of non-violent drug offenders who are rotting away in the gulags of the United States of America because of outdated drug laws.

I would imagine that publishing a memoir about such deeply personal topics could be nerve-wracking. Did you have concerns about how your books would be received?

Yes, I reveal a lot of personal issues in this book and talk about them in an open fashion. The hardest issue was talking about my daughter Stephanie who was totally traumatized by the prison experience. During my imprisonment I had tried to commit suicide, been stuck with a knife, and was beat down with a pipe, but nothing hurt me more than my separation from my daughter.

As time went by, my 7-year-old daughter learned about the reality of our situation. No child should have experienced the horrible conditions she had to go through, such as body searches, long waiting lines and abusive correction officers. Little by little, her beautiful child-like demeanor disappeared, and was replaced with a sadness and depression generally seen in a much older person. By the time she was 12, she had become psychologically damaged, and so traumatized by the prison experience that she could no longer visit me. Today she sees me as a total stranger as we have no type of relationship. In fact she just had a baby girl and I don’t even know her name!

What do you want a reader to come away with after finishing this book?

I want them to realize that prison does not stop at the prison wall, it extends far and wide reaching love ones and that for many, including myself, carrying the stigma of being an ex-offender is often debilitating. And that the road to freedom is very hard to walk especially when reentering the real world you find that there are many roadblocks that exist that will prevent you from facing a smooth transition.  From being denied employment and housing, to not knowing how to establish healthy relationships, life becomes exceedingly hard.  Responses have generally been supportive for both books.  But breaking through the stigma of being an ex-offender has been tough.  Hopefully people will buy this new book and see what I went through in maintaining my freedom, despite the odds being against me to stay free. Statistics show that almost 70 percent return to imprisonment within three years of release. I have been fortunate enough to stay free and become an activist to fight for meaningful drug law reform.

Do you have plans for a third memoir? Or a third book or any kind?

Yes. I also want to write a book about my art and to talk about my life as a painter and show the work I have created in a coffee table-style book.

Finally, where can interested readers buy your book?

It’s now available on Amazon and Barns & Noble in ebook form and softcover