a bird and a bottle

A Haiku
May 31, 2007, 9:35 pm
Filed under: frivolity, me, NYC

A Haiku that will give you some insight into my current extracurricular activity:

Manhattan Island
Apartment Hunting Is A
Bummer in Summer.


NYC Lowers Bar to Hold People Behind Bars
May 28, 2007, 11:08 pm
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, law, news, NYC

The NYC prison reform community has been up in arms for the last month or so over proposed changes to the city’s minimum standards for its jails. In April, the New York Board of Correction, supposedly the watchdog over prison conditions in the city and the manager of all of the city’s jail facilities, suggested changes to the requirements it sets for city jails. In addition to allowing the city to eavesdrop on telephone conversations between incarcerated men and women and their friends and families and to censor their mail, the new standards would allow for:

# More crowding: Open dormitory housing units would hold up to 20% more prisoners.
# More round-the-clock cell lock-in: Virtual solitary confinement-cell lock-in all day except for an hour for exercise and a shower-would be applied to prisoners who are removed from general population for their own protection or for administrative reasons. Prolonged cell confinement of this sort has been linked to prisoner suicides.
# Less assistance for Spanish-speaking prisoners: The amendments would repeal the requirement that the jails have sufficient Spanish-speaking staff to assist Hispanic prisoners, and would provide only that the Department of Correction must implement Aprocedures@ to ensure that they can understand communications from staff. There is no requirement or even hint as to what those procedures might be.
# Denial of personal clothing: The amendments would allow jail officials to require pre-trial detainees, in addition to sentenced prisoners, to wear uniforms, despite their having been convicted of nothing, and would deprive their families of the ability to provide them with clothing to protect them from the extremes of temperature often found in the jails. They would have to wear uniforms at all court appearances except actual trials, stigmatizing them before the court.

There are so many problems with these standards that it’s hard to know where to begin. New York Civil Liberties Union Director Donna Lieberman is on the right track:

“For the Board of Corrections to proceed down this path would do a fundamental disservice to prisoners and their families and would make all New Yorkers both less safe and less free,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU Executive Director.

Why would these standards do a disservice? First, they would continue the degradation and humiliation of incarcerated women and men and perpetuate some of the problems that lead to recidivism. Second, it will violate the privacy rights of both incarcerated people and their families. Third, as Legal Aid noted in a recent press release, the new proposed standards allow the Board of Correction to deflect the proposed improvements to carcereal policy, including ending disability discrimination, providing G.E.D. education for incarcerees, and renewing a court order protecting incarcerated men and women from abusive searches.

The human rights of incarcerated men and women are not just an issue for those of us concerned with prison reform. It’s a women’s issue too. As Bridget Crawford at Feminist Law Professors notes (quoting a report of the Correctional Association’s Women in Prison Project):

*As of January 2007, 2,859 women were incarcerated in New York’s prisons – 4.5% of the state’s total prison population of 63,215. An additional 26,600 were parole (about 3,100) and probation (roughly 23,500).
* From 1973 to 2007, the number of women in New York’s prisons increased by 645%.
* Almost 69% of the state’s female inmates are women of color: about 47% are African American, roughly 22% are Latina, and 30% are Caucasian.
* New York’s general public is 30% women of color and almost 69% Caucasian.
* 84% of women sent to New York State prison in 2006 were convicted of non-violent offenses.
* As of January 2007, 33% of New York’s female inmates were incarcerated for a drug offense. Almost 80% of women drug offenders were women of color.

The fact that we are expending energy fighting against proposed bad changes instead of in support of proposed positive steps is both frustrating and alarming. I keep wondering when we will realize that the U.S. is not the beacon of righteousness in the area of human rights that we claim to be. Certainly there have been wake up calls in recent years (hello Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo) and yet the U.S. still holds itself out to the world as a model. A little melodramatic? Maybe. But these days I’m not so sure rationality gets us anywhere.

If you want to do something, head over to petition online and sign the petition against the proposed changes.

What Does a Giant Q-Tip have to do With Your Privacy?
May 15, 2007, 8:47 am
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, law, news & views, NYC, politics

Actually, quite a lot.

N.Y. Governor Spitzer announced recently his proposal to greatly expand the use of DNA testing in the New York criminal justice system. Under the current system, DNA is collected from people convicted of only the most serious crimes — rape, murder, burglary. Spitzer’s proposal, which has been kicking around the state legislature for some time now, would require that DNA be collected from ALL people convicted of ANY crime, including misdemeanors. Get convicted of pot possession? The state’ll have your DNA. Get arrested and convicted for protesting against a political convention? Yep, your DNA gets sampled too. The plan would also require the collection of samples from everyone currently incarcerated, on probation, and on parole.

The upshot to Spitzer’s proposal, and what makes it different from the old proposals, is that criminal defendants would have access to the state DNA database too, and could use it to prove their innocence. It would also require that prosecutors notify the court if they find out that there might be DNA that would exonerate the accused.

The upshots sound pretty good. DNA evidence has been used to exonerate over 200 people who were wrongly convicted and who have spent up to 30 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. DNA can be as powerful a tool for defendants as it is for prosecutors. But NY’s plan – for all the talk of equanimity – goes too far.

First of all, prosecutors are already under a duty to report evidence that exonerates the accused. The NY plan just codifies that. Second, DNA is not like fingerprints, which can only be used for a specific purpose. DNA evidence, once collected, provides a wealth of information to the government. Information that may have nothing to do with whether or not the person from whom the DNA is collected committed a specific crime. I don’t know about you, but I am not too keen on turning people’s most sensitive information over to the government at a time when it’s clear that the government does not respect its citizens’ privacy. Third, DNA evidence is not foolproof — but juries often think it is. The New York Civil Liberties Union, which opposed a similar program proposed by NYC Mayor Bloomberg last year, reports on the perils of relying too heavily on DNA:

In the past five years the use of DNA by law enforcement has come under increasing scrutiny by critics who have documented cases in which the use of DNA has been subject to gross negligence and intentional abuse. The Houston Police Department closed its DNA lab in 2003 after it released from prison two men who had been falsely incriminated by faulty lab work. In 2004, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer report documented 23 errors that the Washington State Patrol laboratory had made in the investigations of serious crimes.

So what are we to do? We want to protect people from wrongful convictions while also ensuring that convicted rapists can be easily caught should they rape again. I’m not saying DNA should never be collected. But there’s a balance that can be struck. The governor’s proposal ignores the possibility of a more evenhanded approach and puts a heavy hand on the justice scale.

Is Frank Bruni Sexist?
May 9, 2007, 11:11 pm
Filed under: food, frivolity, news & views, NYC

So, A Bird and a Bottle is a feminist, progressive, foodie blog. At least nominally, though lately the food writing has been lacking. Part of that is due to the mass amounts of studying i have had to do, leaving little time for cooking or eating out (thank you, frozen lasagna). And part of that is due to the fact that there’s been so much action on the feminist and criminal justice fronts recently that the food blogging has fallen by the wayside.

But today, I get to take on food and feminism in a single post.

And here’s why: A few weeks ago, Frank Bruni, the NY Times’ chief restaurant critic, panned restauranteur Keith McNally’s new place in Manhattan, Morandi. The pan (1 star but the review sounded like no stars). McNally, who also owns Balthazar – a Spring Street haunt of the Soho elites – was understandably disappointed. His chef, rising star Jody Williams,must have shared his dismay. Though at that point, with the bad reviews piling up, they couldn’t have been surprised.

But yesterday, McNally bit back, accusing Frank Bruni not of poor taste, but of sexism. According to McNally’s research, Bruni has never given anything more than one star to a restaurant whose kitchen is headed by a woman chef, as Morandi is. In a letter planted with food blog eater, McNally wrote:

One can only wonder whether Bruni would still have his job at The Times if he himself was a woman. Based on the unremittingly sexist slant of his reviews one has to say no. The surprise is that The New York Times continues to condone it. But until it refuses to, its message, through Frank Bruni, is loud and clear: If you’re a woman and talented, the one place you’d better get out of – and fast – is the kitchen.

Ouch. And way to turn that old stereotype on its head, Keith.

NY Mag’s food blog, Grub Street, fought back, defending King Bruni:

The complaint goes on for a long time and seems unlike McNally, who has almost always stayed above the fray. What’s especially unseemly is the way the letter dwells on Bruni’s attitude toward gender (“…when the chef is a man Bruni often makes quite a song and dance about it.”). Given the amount of food-world speculation about Bruni’s sexual orientation, this seems like a low blow, especially since the Times’ review echoed a near-universal critical consensus about Morandi

I have to say, I’m not surprised at McNally’s complaint. This is not the first time Bruni has exhibited a sort of wink-wink-nudge-nudge boys club kind of attitude. What I am surprised about is NY Mag’s retort: He may be gay so he can’t be sexist?

I have no idea if Morandi deserves more than one star (though in fairness, McNally does not assert that it does). But I do have to say that it’d be interesting if McNally’s research is proven true. I’m willing to wager that it’s not that there aren’t any two or three or even four star female chefs in our fair city. Lord knows, it wouldn’t be the first time the NY Times’s sexist underbelly were exposed.

A Transgender Shelter in NYC? Great! The Times’ Article about it….Eh.
May 2, 2007, 9:04 am
Filed under: media, news, NYC, sexuality

Kudos to the NY Times for running an article today about Carmen’s Place, a shelter for transgender youth in the city. The shelter, a second-floor apartment in an Astoria, Queens building, houses young men and women, many of whom are teenagers and most of whom work as prostitutes on a nearby “tranny stroll.” It’s run by a man named Father Braxton, who leads the residents in prayer each morning and locks the door at 2AM each night. Disappointingly – but not surprisingly – this small apartment may be the only shelter for transgender youth in the entire city.

At first, I was impressed by the article and by the reporter’s sensitivity — using the proper pronouns (so often male to female transgender people are wrongly called “he”). But that positive impression was short-lived. Because this article, perhaps typically, couldn’t resist painting its subjects as sad, abused, superficial, desperate young women. The article’s entire second page is a litany of short biographical sketches of the women: growing up in broken homes, subject to sexual abuse, desiring love and affection. Maybe I’m wrong, but the article seemed to me to say: these women don’t have to be this way; it’s their upbringings that have created their gender confusion.

Maybe I read it wrong. Maybe I’m being uncharitable. But I still found it objectionable.

Elections Have Consequences
April 22, 2007, 11:34 pm
Filed under: activism, civil rights, law, NYC, politics, sexuality

After Gonzales came down last week, the mantra was elections have consequences.

Boy do they ever.

Happily, today those consequences are good ones. Governor Spitzer (of NY) has announced that he will introduce legislation to legalize same sex marriage in New York.

Such legislation faces an uphill climb in the New York state legislature, and it’s unclear how much political muscle the Governor will put behind it. Still, it’s gratifying to see the governor we progressives elected pursuing the agenda we want.

The High Cost of Drug Treatment
April 17, 2007, 7:41 am
Filed under: blogsturbation, civil rights, drug war, news, NYC, politics

I was a little worried when I saw the headline in today’s NY Times article: Revolving Door for Addicts Adds to Medicaid Cost. Often when I write about my opposition to the drug war, I encourage more widespread use of state-funded treatment programs (though NY is somewhat generous, most states are not). Was this article going to make that argument even less popular than it currently is?

Well, yes and no, and for the most part, the no’s win.

The Times article details the great expense of treating the 500 people in the state who most use and abuse the revolving door of Medicaid-funded treatment in the state. According to the article, those 500 alone cost the system $50 million annually. And that’s certainly a problem, particularly when that money could be spread out to help more people receive badly needed treatment. Those 500 are a drain on resources because they use drug treatment not as a way toward actually kicking their addictions, but rather as a break — a time to lower their resistance so they can get high on a lesser amount of expensive opiates and narcotics, a getaway even. As one former user puts it to the Times:

“I would tell myself I was just a brother who needed a rest, not somebody who had a problem,” he said. “I could mimic what they said with such grace and conviction, they would swear I was cured.”

But while this attitude is part of the reason for the system’s high cost, it’s neither the most central nor the most under state control to change. The real problem, it turns out, is the lack of homeless services which could treat the many needs that drive these 500 – and thousands of others – to seek expensive, inpatient addiction treatment:

The system suits the most frequent patients — most of them homeless, mentally ill, or both — who see the programs as a source of shelter and food. And the most expensive treatment, which usually involves some sedation, can reduce the discomfort of withdrawal better than other methods. […]

But at its core, experts say, the overuse of costly inpatient programs is connected to the lack of housing for homeless people. People are less likely to admit themselves to hospitals, and more likely to adhere to treatment programs, when they are not living on the streets. For more than a decade, the city and state have invested in such housing, including some that accept residents who are not yet drug-free, but demand for housing still far exceeds supply.

Sure, the programs are expensive, but their cost can be controlled not through cutting badly needed treatment services, but through increasing funding for services that meet lower level needs, including temporary housing and food.

Another part of the problem is the structure of federal Medicaid, which in its infinite wisdom, will pay for in-hospital detox (the most expensive) but not inpatient treatment programs, which cost about the same as outpatient medically managed detox (which is explained in the article), and which are more effective long term. It’s a backwards policy that is having a disastrous impact not only on the state’s budget but also on the lives of the many people who could benefit from inpatient, community-based treatment. It seems like a common thread in American social policy, no? Plug a hole with your thumb but don’t figure out what caused the hole or how it might permanently be closed.

Also at LG&M.