Red Onion hunger strike ends? Peace Studies Advocate Giarratano formerly imprisoned there

Another graphic from the Red Onion Hunger Strike, this one from SF Bay View.


This morning, The Washington Post's Anita Kumar reported in the Virginia Politics blog  that Department of Corrections officials at Red Onion stated that as of Saturday no prisoners were refusing meals.  I have my doubts and will be interested in hearing what the solidarity group reports.  If their statements contradict the DOC, I hope she will follow up.

I wrote about Red Onion on Friday and talked that day to Roanoke Times journalist Laurence Hammack who had written extensively about abuses at the Red Onion. This afternoon Hammack sent me a copy of the first story he wrote on on the supermax "back when it opened in 1998. More to come..." 

In looking to see what might be available already at the paper's online archive I stumbled on a brief 2006 article on Joseph M.Giarratano, whose death sentence had been commuted in 1991 by then-Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder.  The former scallop fisherman, pleaded guilty to capital murder in the strangling of 44-year-old Barbara Kline and the raping and stabbing of her 15-year-old daughter Michelle in the Klines' apartment, which he shared with them in Norfolk. His conviction was based on circumstantial evidence and his own confessions, which he later recanted, saying he had awakened from a drug-induced sleep on the  couch, discovered the bodies and assumed he was the killer.

Giarratano and his lawyers later sought biological evidence such as vaginal and cervical swabs that were lifted from the victims' bodies, arguing that DNA tests of that evidence could exonerate him as they have others convicted of decades-old crimes, but authorities maintained that the biological evidence in the case was destroyed years ago.

Joe Giarratano imprisoned at Red Onion prison after return to Virginia

Joe had ended up at Augusta Correctional Center after then-governor  Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder commuted his death sentence ---within  36 hours of execution--without explaining why.  Later Wilder would say that he was troubled by Giarratano's inconsistent confessions to police. Joe had set up the peace education program for the other inmates with the help of former Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy, the founder of the Center for Teaching Peace.

Then-Attorney General Mary Terry turned down Giarratano's request for a new trial, even though it would have made him vulnerable to a second death sentence. The Department of Corrections closed his peace studies program at Augusta Correctional Center in  1995, then sent Giarrantano on to the mental health unit at the Powhatan Correctional Center and from there to the Buckingham and then Utah and Illinois before he ended up back in Virginia at Red Onion.

I actually got to meet Joe Giarratano at Augusta Correctional Center

This above photo  shows Joe as I remember him.  The year was about 1992, when I was writing for the New River Free Press.  I've worked in corrections and met some scary folks, but Giarratano was not one of them. He had a bit more swagger than the typical peace activist--probably necessary to hold his own in the prison population--but he was articulate and had maintained a sense of humor.

Joe hardly fit  Lt. Perry Ratcliff description to visitors touring the Wise County prison at the time of its opening, as cited by Hammack:
The inmates we're getting here at Red Onion are going to be the worst in Virginia...We're getting the worst of the worst.
Of course, Joe Giarratano had been a thorn in the side of the Virginia Department of Corrections for his high profile.

Giarratano is now at Wallens Ridge, but  time in SHU has left its toll

Here's a more current photo from of Joe, which accompanies his handwritten letter, which you can find posted--along with a transcription--on the site of the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union.

My 8 years in SHU made me less sociable. I get extremely uncomfortable being around or in groups of people. I have experienced panic attacks in these situations. Since being released to g.p. [general population] and transferred here to WRSP [Wallens Ridge State Prison], I have probably gone to the mess hall 6 - 10 times in 5 years, I can’t tolerate the crowd, being locked in that small space with them and being that close. I survive by eating out of the prison commissary: p- butter, crackers and ramen noodles. Seriously. I generally do not initiate conversations. I do respond if someone speaks to me. I have become much more of an introvert. Depression remains a problem.

The psychiatrist at Red Onion was responsible for getting me out of SHU and transferred. Initially I was placed in a “progressive housing unit,” but not in a double cell as was the routine. I was placed on single cell status for almost a year before I transferred to WRSP general pop.
If solitary confinement can so damage a person such as Giarratano, imagine its effects on a psychologically weaker, more isolated prisoner.

Solitary confinement in supermaxes lead to severe and often permanent damage

Boston psychiatrist and authority on solitary confinement Stuart Grassian would not be surprised by the changes in Giarratano.  He writes that isolation “often results in severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition or in the appearance of a mental illness where none had been observed before.”  Grassian argues that supermaxes produce a syndrome characterized by “agitation, self-destructive behavior, and overt psychotic disorganization.” He  notes memory lapses, “primitive aggressive fantasies,” paranoia, and hallucinations.

Most scholars concerned with solitary confinement agree. Peter Scharff Smith of the Danish Institute for Human Rights writes, “Research on effects of solitary confinement has produced a massive body of data documenting serious adverse health effects.” Those effects may start within a few days, involve as many as three-quarters of supermax inmates, and often become permanent.

Psychiatrist Terry Kupers adds, “being held in isolated confinement for longer than three months causes lasting emotional damage if not full-blown psychosis and functional disability.

Virginia's assignment to Red Onion differs from accepted correction's practice

Jamie Fellner is a senior advisor for Human Rights Watch who has spoken out about prison conditions during the recent hunger strike.  She outlines how the basis for assignment to Red Onion differs from accepted correction's practice in her May 1, 1999 Human Rights Watch report, "U.S.: Red Onion State Prison: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Virginia."  You can find her footnotes at the link.
...corrections professionals know that many-perhaps most-inmates who have been sentenced to long prison terms even for violent crimes are not management problems. (Indeed,most inmates in prison systems are well-behaved; they want to do their time and get on with their lives.) The usual practice in many jurisdictions is to place inmates in the general population of maximum security facilities if they have been convicted, for example, of murder and have life sentences. They are then reclassified after a year or so, and depending on their behavior may be transferred to less restrictive facilities.
Many  have demonstrated by actual behavior that they are neither violent nor difficult

Fellner continues,
The decision to use length of sentence as a basis for assignment to Red Onion is particularly difficult to justify in the case of inmates who were already behind bars before Red Onion opened and who have demonstrated by their actual behavior that they are not violent or difficult inmates requiring the extensive controls of a supermax.

Yet we have received various complaints from inmates in just this situation. One inmate with a life sentence, for example, had spent six infraction-free years in prison only to be transferred to Red Onion. One inmate told HRW that he was sent to Red Onion even though he had a classification score of eighteen and had gone years without any infractions. Another said he had been behind bars for twenty years on a life sentence and had no record of violent conduct, yet he too was sent to Red Onion. Another inmate told HRW he was sent to Red Onion even though he had an “impeccable” institutional record. When he asked DOC personnel why he had been transferred “they merely told me because of the length of my sentence (life plus fifty years) and also because I was an ‘in-fill’ inmate. In other words, they did not have enough assaultive disruptive inmates in the prison system to fill Red Onion. They have lied to the public about the need for these prisons in Virginia.”
Real reason for supermax incarceration in Virginia:  lack of dangerous inmates

Red Onion seems to be a case of "build it and they shall come."  Fellner explains,
That Virginia does not have enough inmates who have displayed dangerous conduct to fill Red Onion and Wallens Ridge should come as no surprise. Virginia has never had a particularly violent inmate population. In fiscal year 1997, the DOC had only 72 assaults on staff and 86 on inmates out of a total prison population of 28,034.The total beds at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge constitute 6 to 8 percent of Virginia’s projected prison population.We are not aware of any DOC analysis that indicated such a high percentage of the state prison population could reasonably be expected to need super-maximum security confinement.

On January 1, 1997, for example, Virginia had 852 inmates in administrative segregation, or 3.5 percent of its total prison population. Before Red Onion opened, the DOC retained a national expert in classification systems, James Austin, to undertake a classification review of its prison population. The study analyzed such factors as history of institutional violence, severity of current and prior offenses, escape history,and institutional disciplinary records.The study showed that while a relatively large number of Virginia inmates have been convicted of crimes that earn long sentences (in large part because of the abolition of parole), few engage in institutional violence or escapes. According to Mr. Austin, “Virginia does not have a prison population with high levels of assaultive behavior. It is the length of sentences that gives Virginia its high proportion of maximum security inmates.” Austin’s analysis showed that only .9 percent of male inmates who had been in prison a year or longer had prison histories of assault and battery with a weapon; only .7 percent had escape histories. Only 1.6 percent would be reclassified to maximum security because of institutional misconduct (as opposed to other factors such as severity of commitment offense).


Jack Wright: Memorial Day: Thinking of the Ones I Knew From Home

I may not be online tomorrow and want to post something for our veterans. This piece is written by my friend filmaker Jack Wright and used by permission:

 This Memorial Day weekend I'm thinking of the ones I knew from HOME. Lost, all these years gone but not forgotten Danny Mullins and Scott Dotson from Pound, Virginia, and from Wise, Don Stallard, Don Buchanan, Carl Dingus, Michael Hopkins and Marvin Wyatt.

And the boys from my unit, the First Cavalry Division too numerous to name here. All their names are on the long black wall at the Vietnam Memorial with the other 50,000 US soldiers not to mention the ones who came home and later died of psychic injuries resulting in suicide, or agent orange. Lord forgive us. Bless our troops, our dead, AND damn the Masters of War.

"You that fasten all the triggers for the others to fire
While you sit back and watch while the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansions while the young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud...
And I hope that you die and your death'll come soon.
I'll follow your casket on that pale afternoon
And I'll watch while your lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand over your grave till I'm sure that your dead."

(Masters of War by Bob Dylan)


Here's another piece, Jack sent me: "Decoration Day memories for Hindman." Decoration Day is what I first heard it called when I was a boy growing up in Wise County. I knew it was a holiday, but I did not fully understand how or why it was celebrated. I remember gazing up on the hill that overlooked Wise's main street and seeing flowers and flags decorating certain graves in the town cemetery. My Aunt Nell Elliott explained respectfully that these graves were the war dead. She went on to say that our family was somehow lucky. Her brothers and uncles and grandfathers had all been in wars dating back to 1861 but God had spared their lives. As I grew older the name, Decoration Day, seemed to vanish, replaced by Memorial Day, but the stories associated with it remain vivid.

At a family reunion in 1976, my cousin Ruth Maxwell--the family genealogist and historian-- told a story about our great-grandfather, Charles Barker, who had served in the Civil War. His Confederate unit was guarding Cumberland Gap and their position was under attack. Federal troops charged up the hill from the Kentucky side. As the Confederates were about to be overrun, my grandfather jumped up and shouted, “Don’t shoot, I’m a Whig! I’m a Whig!” This so startled the oncoming platoon that “Grandpap” and his comrades escaped back into Lee County, Virginia, where most of them lived. From then on my cunning old great grandfather went by the nickname of “Whig”-- the name he carried to his grave in 1925, a site decorated by a Civil War marker. My family has continued to be lucky.

None of us were lost at war. I returned safely from Vietnam in 1967. I’ll miss coming home for Decoration Day this year to visit gravesites with family and friends. But I’d like to mention several Wise Countians from my generation who died in Vietnam, some of whom I was fortunate enough to know personally as we grew up.

On the U.S. National Park Service’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial seventeen are listed from Wise County, among 1,304 dead from Virginia and 58,178 nationwide. Of course, there are others who come to mind. There are those who died after returning from war. The effects of the war were often hidden deep inside, resulting in later suicides or other self-destruction. The forgotten. They died from war just the same but are not mentioned in any official lists and are not celebrated in the same way.

After seeing the recent Vietnam movie, “We Were Soldiers,” I visited the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall website and discovered a most fitting tribute written on September 11, 1999 by a veteran who served with the late Danny Mullins of Pound. Dale R. Sabine had posted a message in honor of his fallen leader. He said, “Daniel Lee Mullins was a brave officer, I was the last one to talk to him. He saved my life in the Soui Cat ambush. I was talking to him when the mine went off, I was the only one of five to walk away. One other lost his legs but survived. [Lt. Mullins] was a credit to his rank, and one of the finest men I ever served under. He had no fear when it came to his men, always there when needed. I carry him in my mind and heart to this day, and forever until we meet again. God bless you brother, I didn't have a chance to say goodbye before you were gone. One minute we were talking, then you were gone, for some reason God spared my life. My mind relives it every day and I find no rest. God bless you Daniel Lee Mullins, my brother, rest in peace.”

This Memorial Day we pay respect to the dead and honor them all equally. Indeed, we miss them all. Rest in peace, brothers and sisters. Amen.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall Page is dedicated to honoring those who died in the Vietnam War. Since it first went on line in 1996 it has evolved into something more. It is now also a place of healing for those affected by one of the most divisive wars in our nation's history.(http://thewall-usa.com)


Hunger Strike at Supermax Red Onion: Rally in Roanoke

Author's note:  I am waiting for promised photographs and video from today's  rally.  I originally posted at 11:55 am, before I left for Roanoke and then started and update.  Instead, I've posted a graphic from The Wingnut.  BTW, I have another post on Red Onion and how Joe Giarratano was imprisoned there here.


It would have been nice if the Western Regional Office of the Virginia Department of Corrections had not locked up and hidden behind closed blinds.  That was the staff's apparent response when at 1 p.m. on Friday May 25, about 20 folks from Solidarity with Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers showed up at 5427 Peters Creek Road in Roanoke, Virginia. 

It would have been nice if Regional Operations Chief, G. K. Washington was coming to the phone, or if "Heather," whom I got when I dialed "0" hadn't answered (over and over again) that I needed to call Richmond and speak Larry Traylor, Director of Communications, even after I told her that Mr. Traylor was also not answering his phone.  Of course "Heather" gave her name.  The first operator I had called when I asked for Mr. Washington and was told to call Mr. Tralor,  told me she didn't have to tell me her name.  

Finally the protesters decided to  read their list of ten demands on behalf of the hunger strikers in two units at Red Onion State Prison, Pound, Virginia in Wise County.

The Richmond Times Dispatch calls Red Onion "Virginia's toughest prison."  The "supermax" isolates inmates for 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.  It has has long been a topic of attention in Virginia and beyond.  In 2000, a Roanoke Times investigations of the Wallens Ridge and Red Onion state prisons revealed that guards at both supermax facilities used excessive force in dealing with inmates and that inmates at these facilities receive poor medical treatment.  By 2006,  Laurence Hammack (email) was saying nothing much had been done.

In the late 1990s, then-Gov. George Allen (R), now a U.S. senator running for re-election against another former governor, Tim Kaine (D), had a get-tough corrections policy that resulted in the abolition of parole and the lengthening of criminal sentences. He also went on a prison-building tear that included the construction, including two "supermax" (or level S facilities for their maximum-security features) to house the supposed expected flood of violent offenders. A surplus of cells resulted, which were then rented out to other states with overflowing prisons, resulting inappropriate incarceration of low-threat offenders from urban areas.

Both of the intended supermaxes--Wallens Ridge in Big Stone Gap and Red Onion--are in Wise County, where local residents in Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) and their allies have been fighting against mountaintop removal and the construction of the coal-fired Dominion electric plant. Wise Country officials (and probably those from surrounding areas--I need to look up the information) plagued by the mono-economy of coal, actively lobbied for them, seeing them a source of jobs. Wallens Ridge has now been classified as Level 5, rather than S according to the DOC.

Originally   Harold Clarke, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, took the attitude of "hunger strike, what hunger strike" when interviewed, but having just returned from the rally, I can tell you that Anita Kumar of the Washington Post is writing that he just admitted the strike exists for the first time. I hope to interview those rallying.  I also hope to interview DOC officials and families of the strikers (if I can locate them) as well as documentary filmakers at Appalshop who have reported on the prison in their film, "Up the Ridge." In addition I would interview Jamie Fellner, a senior adviser for the New York-based group, Human Rights Watch, which investigated conditions at Red Onion, and wants access to the prison and to meet with Clarke, the Red Onion warden and prison inmates. Fellner specializes in U.S. criminal justice and prison issues, including segregation and isolation, and wrote a highly critical report in 1999.

Feller told the Times-Dispatch that "complaints about cleaning supplies are one thing, but 'I am concerned and was troubled to hear (allegations that) they have indefinite segregation without clearly defined ways for inmates to work their way out.'"

Supporters say is a protest over alleged abusive conditions there and announced 10 inmate demands that range from an end to indefinite terms of segregation to better materials for cell cleaning. They say that the strike began Tuesday and as of Thursday, as many as 40 to 45 prisoners scattered in segregation pods are participating in the hunger strike.

 Harold Clarke, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, told the Times Dispatch on Thursday that the inmates began turning down meals Tuesday but have not explained why: "We are not strangers to hunger strikes." He also said that he would be glad to speak with Fellner but that he had concerns about her meeting with inmates. "We don't want to interject any controversy or do anything that gives the offenders the impression that it's OK for them to act out in the way they are....We want them to feel the responsibility to comport themselves appropriately." He also contradicts Fellner, saying,"There has always been a way for them to get out...Quite frankly, I'm not sure what they're concerned with because the things they have listed are all things that we are satisfying."

Some background: The Appalshop documentary "Up the Ridge" from  The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA).  On  October 7, 2006, Bill Sizemore wrote the film

focuses in part on the deaths of two Connecticut inmates, a 20-year-old drug offender who apparently hanged himself and a 50-year-old rapist who died after being zapped repeatedly by guards with a stun gun. Beyond that, the film examines the effects of the distant mountaintop prisons on inmates' families. At one point the camera crew rides along with the Watson family of Newport News, who rented a van to visit their relative in Wallens Ridge. The 10-hour, all-night trek drives home the isolation those prisoners endure. "There's no bus service. There's no airport. There's no train service. There's no cab service," said Szuberla. "So unless you have a vehicle and the will to get out here, it's pretty tough." The filmmakers got only limited cooperation from the state Department of Corrections. They interviewed the director, Allen appointee Ron Angelone, in his last week on the job in 2002 but were not allowed to tour the prison or talk to wardens or guards, even off duty. 

According to Sizemore, Clarke said,

The inmates at Red Onion earn their way to Red Onion. They are individuals who either are notorious criminals or they were so disruptive in other institutions that they earned their way there." He claims that most will someday leave prison, and inmates are given chances to earn their way back to less closely controlled prisons. "We don't want anyone — if we can avoid it — leaving Red Onion straight back into the community."


"What We Do to the Land, We Do to the People"-- May 24 West Virginia Direct Actions Against MTR

Photo  shows protest at coal barge in the Kanawha River. 

Photo of  Kayford Mountain protest blocking the haul road for the Republic Energy mine.

Both are c. RAMPs and  Mountain Justice and used by permission. You can find  lots more photos at Flickr.  The following  entry was originally posted at 11:45 am and updated throughout the day.


Mountain Justice, RAMPS disrupt coal transport at two locations in upper Kanawha Valley

On Thursday, May 24, As part of the   Mountain Justice Summer Action Camp taking place at the Appalachian South Folklife Center near Pipestem, WV, five members of Mountain Justice and

RAMPS boarded a coal barge to protest the destruction of mountains in West Virginia through Mountaintop removal, while other members and their fellow concerned activists blocked coal transport at approximately 10 a.m. .

Location one:  Chelyan protesters block coal barge shipment

Catherine-Ann MacDougal, 24, of Rock Creek, WV, joined by Ricki Draper, 21, of Greensboro, NC Nathan Joseph, 23, of New Orleans, LA, Rebecca Loeb, 24, of Maynard, MA and Jacob Mack-Boll, 20, Lancaster, PA, boarded a coal barge on the Kanawha River near Cheleyan, West Virginia.

Joseph, Loeb and MacDougal locked  themselves on the barge beside Kanawa River Terminal's Quincy Dock , while  Draper and Mack-Boll boarded and served as worker liaisons.  The group tried to raise a large banner that read “Coal leaves, cancer stays” before being stopped by company workers. They immobilized the barge for  three hours before police removed them at about  1:00 pm.

Police charged Joseph, Loeb and MacDougal with trespass after being asked to leave and obstruction, both misdemeanors.  They charged Draper and Mack-Boll with trespass after being  asked to leave. All five were arrested on a $10,000 bail with an option of $1,000 surety bond. Loeb and MacDougal intend to continue their protest  stay in jail until their court dates.  The other three were released at around 5:00 p.m. Draper stated,
I am incredibly proud to stand today with the century-long Appalachian resistance against the devastating effects of the coal industry. I have broken the law because the legal system is broken. I have broken the law because mountaintop removal is destroying our health, our mountains, and our futures. I have broken the law because the destruction of our landbase, which is our endowment, is legal.
Barge protesters come from near and far

Catherine Ann MacDougal of Rock Creek, had already engaged in the Bee Tree Hollow Tree Sit in Coal River Valley for thirty days during July and August 2011.

Rebecca  Loeb explained her reason for traveling from NC to take part in the protest: “...the viability and health of mountain communities are being destroyed by mountaintop removal—the coal and the profits are shipped away, leaving disease and destruction in their wake.”

Joseph, who traveled from New Orleans, LA, added, “The coal industry's continued disregard for the well-being of Appalachian communities is connected to the struggles of other North American extraction communities. Strip mining tar sands for low-quality oil, fracking for dirty gas and deep sea oil drilling are signs we are scraping the bottom of the barrel. The extraction, transport, processing and combustion of these fuels all. 

Location two:  Kayford Mountain protestors block coal haul road

At Kayford Mountain, a major mountaintop removal coal mining site, dozens obstructed access to the haul road at Republic Energy mine.  Kayford is home to Larry Gibson, founder of Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, who traces his family's life at Stanley Heirs Camp there back to the 1700s. 
According to his website, Larry and his family:
used to live on the lowest lying part of the mountain, and looked "up" to the mountain peaks that surrounded them. Since 1986, the slow motion destruction of Kayford Mountain has been continuous -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Eighteen years after the "mountain top removal" project began, Larry Gibson now occupies the highest point of land around; he is enveloped more than 7,500 acres of destruction of what was previously a forested mountain range.
 During a half hour, protesters stopped nine trucks: seven leaving the mine and two entering.  No arrests were made. Protesters report seeing officials with the EPA, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Geologic Survey drive past.

Alaskan  joins the Kayford protest

Kirby Spangler of Palmer, AK, resists surface mining in south central Alaska.  He travelled to WV to express solidarity, saying
We're going to spend the afternoon helping out at Stanley Heirs Park, trying to make life a little easier for Larry and other folks who live near mountaintop removal and face intimidation [and observed] Some of the truck drivers gave friendly honks of their horns.
Federal and state officials make surprise visit to Kayford 

According to Spangler and  Gibson,  officials with the WV Department of Environmental Protection, federal Environmental Protection Agency, and United States Geological Survey made an unscheduled visit. They drove past the blocked haul road to the top of the mountain and observed  the mountaintop removal operation. Following the action's conclusion, Gibson, in an impromptu meeting with the visitors, told the EPA officials, "If the DEP did its job, you wouldn't need to be here,” describing his experience of living next to mountaintop removal, including the acts of violence and vandalism targeting him and his property.

Gibson says he mourns the mono-economy of coal mining forces many young people to leave the state in search of better opportunities elsewhere:  "Our biggest export in this state besides coal is our young people.”

Virginia  native Junior Walk supports the protests

While the coal industry would depict opposition to mountaintop removal as being the work of outsiders, many native West Virginians besides Gibson are outraged by the practice. Junior Walk, a native of southern West Virginia who now lives in Whitesville explains,
For the past 150 years the coal industry has been pillaging this place and taking everything, leaving nothing but death and destruction in their wake.[about today's actions, he adds,] I am personally very thankful to these young folks who ain't from around here necessarily who decided to put their freedom and bodies on the line to stop this vicious cycle, even if it is just for one day..."
Walk, one of Earth Island Institute's 2011 Brower Youth Award Winners was arrested that year while serving as direct support for the Bee Tree Hollow Tree Sit. He helped "get the tree sit up in the trees, haul the water and things, and the platform up."  About today's protest, he said, "I would love to see some of my native West Virginia brothers and sisters stand up and tell this industry they can't do this anymore.”

So does retired army nurse  Marylin Mullins

Marylin Mullins, a retired army nurse and native West Virginian who lives in Coolridge, WV is an organizer of Women United to End Mountaintop Removal.  She plans to shave her head with others in front of the State Capitol May 28 in mourning for the mountains.

Mullins is alarmed by health studies on the impacts of coal mining including the one in 2011 co-authored by Dr. Michael Hendryx, a researcher at West Virginia University, linked mountaintop removal mining  to increased community cancer risk, based on data from 773 adults in door-to-door interviews, which found self-reported cancer rates twice as in  mining versus the non-mining areas after controlling for age, sex, smoking, occupational history, and family cancer history.  She says,
Clean water and air is a human right. My electricity is not worth my human rights being violated–I’ll live with the lights off. I want my children and grandchildren to enjoy the beauty of West Virginia. We’re tired of the corporations lording over us, and no one is hearing our voices, so it’s time to take it further than talking.
Today's actions build on non-violent resistance to mountaintop removal in the region

Central Appalachia had a long history actions.  Earlier this month protesters chastised Swiss firm UBS at its branches for coal investments on May Day as part of Occupy Mountains! Then on May 3, activists from Greenpeace, RAMPS, Katuah Earth First!, Mountain Justice and Keepers of the Mountains Foundation blocked a coal train en route to the Marshall Steam Station, a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant.

Gabe Wisniewsk, Coal Campaign Director for Greenpeace supported today's action, issuing the following statement:
For mountain communities that are at risk of losing their homes, radical action may be the only way to stop the destructive practice of mountaintop removal threatening their health and survival. We stand behind these communities and are renewed and inspired by their commitment and today’s heroic actions.

The environmental and health risks of mountaintop removal are too serious to be ignored any longer. Companies like Republic Energy must stop this dangerous practice, and utilities like Duke Energy should stop buying mountaintop removal coal.”
Appalachia Rising will return to DC June 6

Appalachia Rising, the confederation which sparked 115 arrests in front of the White House in September 2010 will rally at the Upper Senate Park from 11 am to 11:45 am on June 6 to demand that Congress take action to
  • end mountaintop removal coal mining and destructive coal technologies
  • foster a sincere, public discussion about the urgent need for a sustainable economic transition for coal workers and mountain communities;  and
  • protect our drinking water by passing the Clean Water Protection Act.
It's organizers also invite you to take action at home at a local rallies and events across Appalachia and across the United States or "take just a single minute to call-in to support our action in Washington DC."


Scott Walker Ahead in the Polls: Where's the DNC?

Cartoon, "Scott Walker Recall"  by Joe Heller (gallery, email, bio) for the 1/20/2012 Green Bay Press-Gazette, where he has been the editorial cartoonist since 1985.  Copyrighted and used by permission.


Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, infamous for his embrace of the Koch brother's agenda, faces a  recall election, to take place June 5.  Despite the huge number of recall signatures, he's ahead in the polls , as reported by Politico and CNN, among others. One reason,  posits Alex Altman, TIME's Washington correspondent,  is lack of enthusisam for the Democratic party's candidate as being too much like Walker:

Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor who will square off against Walker on June 5, was defeated by the governor in 2010 and advocated for some of the same changes to union benefits (including increasing the amount most public employees contribute to their pension and health care costs) as the governor.
Altman, who  graduated from  Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, also notes Barrett's vague platform.  I was reading his piece with admiration until I got to this example of opinion masquerading as journalism,

Barrett’s record of tangling with unions led labor to SQUANDER [emphasis added] several million dollars on Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, a liberal primary challenger whom Barrett clobbered by nearly 20 points.
Most of  Altman's  column-inches are spent on describing colorful, but ineffectual citizens. My question, unanswered, is why did the experienced (and paid)  organizers behind labor's campaign for Falk fail to  succeed in mobilizing engaged citizens for its candidate.Was there a better candidate? Or was it just that United Wisconsin--which spearheaded the recall--didn’t endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary, due its non-partisan status?

Is United Wisconsin's really only interested in "citizen engagement rather than electoral results?"   I'm not so sure about Altman's analysis since the website for United Wisconsin has a statement for its Political Action Committeethat its state purpose is to oust Walker and his Lt. Governor.

Altman describes labor as "tepid" and "depleted" and  Democrats as "fractured," "Balkanized" and "careening,"
unable to drive a consistent message, careening from collective bargaining to Walker’s purported dishonesty, the “war on women” and jobs and education.
Meanwhile, he fails to react to the largest newspaper in the state endorsement Walker, claiming that
a disagreement over a single policy is simply not enough to justify a vote against the governor
Either it's a single issue or not.  The paper has disregarded United Wisconsin's statement by its Executive Director,  Director Lynn Freeman that 
Our supporters have identified issues critical to Wisconsin’s future, including family-sustaining job creation, quality education, access to affordable healthcare, and the effect of big money in Wisconsin politics. United Wisconsin will focus on these issues.
 If Walker should win, won't that just embolden him and his supporters--many out of state? And is everything over after the election, as Altman would have us believe?
After nearly 15 months, the daily solidarity gathering in the shadow of the capitol will stop meeting the week of June 5.
Altman has disregarded United Wisconsin's statement that it  will continue its fight:
[T]he people of Wisconsin have shown that democracy is not a spectator sport, and the days of passive participation in Wisconsin politics are over....[We are] committed to being a vehicle for citizens to shape Wisconsin’s future...
Also of concern is Altman's report of
DNC’s tentativeness about plunging into the contest, which Republicans attribute to fears that a loss would tarnish President Obama’s chances...
Did Altman check with the DNC or at least the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

And if the DNC can't take down Scott Walker, what good is it?  I'm wondering:  is it too late to win the recall or will the many folks who signed petitions manage to rally enough fellow voters to "throw the bums out of office."

UPDATE:At 5:21, the AP's Scott Bauer, who filed at 5:21 p.m. according to newsvine, answered some of the questions I raised. Bauer quotes Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate as saying,
We are, internally, seeing things start to move in our direction in a very substantial way...Democrats have prepared a 'huge, well-funded' turnout operation that will deliver more votes to Barrett than he received in the 2010 governor's race...
Bauer also reports that
The Democratic National Committee said Monday it has sent $1.4 million to Wisconsin in the 2012 election cycle and is tapping its organization to turn out votes for Barrett.

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz plans to host a fundraiser for Barrett on May 30. Another Democratic heavy hitter, former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, whose spokesman said has already raised $50,000 for the campaign and worked to get Democrats to vote early, is also hosting a Barrett fundraiser that day.
See my comment at the version the WaPo ran, for some reason w.o. Bauer's byline.  I also raised my questions at TIME.


Marissa Alexander: Inequal Use of Gun Laws in FL

Poster by Ola Betiku used by permission with a H/T to Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson.  This appears to be an adaptation (or vice versa) of an illustration on the blog, Stand Your Ground for Marissa.  As a fellow editor at NewsTrust notes, the poster is inaccurate in stating that Zimmerman (l.) is out on probation.  But that inaccuracy does not negate the question the poster raises.


You've heard plenty about Florida gun laws when it comes to George Zimmerman, in parts thanks to organizing by Martin family lawyer according to AP reporter Mike Schneider, but have you been reading about Marissa Alexander, the woman pictured on the right in the above poster? Saturday, when I saw it on a friend's page on facebook, I had to turn to Google to find out whether Alexander's was a recent case.  In fact, it turns out that she was sentenced on May 11.  The comparison of how Florida is treating Zimmerman and Alexander is startling.

I'll be adding facts on the case later., but for this first entry I want to talk about how news gets covered. It's not that there hasn't been anything about Alexander as I search at 5:30 p.m. on May 19. Contrast 435 primary entries on "Trayvon Martin" v.s. 551 for "Marissa Alexander" + gun (because there are other folks w. the same name including this young woman, whose name comes up before some of those for the case in point in a google search.)

Subhash Kateel has had sustained coverage on Let's Talk Radio since April 18.  Novelist Anna North, whose day gig was at Jezebel and is now at Buzz Feed posted April 23 on the facts behind the "Reverse Trayvon" case.  Aaron Morrison was on the story by at least April 26 for Loop21.  Anderson Cooper--to his credit--televised an interview April 27.Trymaine Lee, senior reporter at Huff Post covering national stories which impact the black community started writing about Alexander in early May. (He was part of a team that won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Hurricane Katrina coverage for the Times Picayune and went on to work for the NYT.)   

But many links are since the verdict in her trial, and, of course, Zimmerman's trial is just starting.  And, if the NYT is the paper of record for this country, consider that there was a topic page here for Zimmerman and not a thing for Alexander.  And on NPR only one piece, and that because the AP ran a story that day.
I have an adopted  bi-racial cousin, who is the grandson of my mother's first cousin.  I hadn't thought about him when Trayvon Martin died, but his mother sure has been.  And it looks like racism cuts both ways against blacks.  Not only can you be shot with some impudence unless there's an unholy uproar, you're  not allowed to even brandish a firearm in your defense when you're abused. Did the prosecutors in FL--who have quite a bit of discretion in charging--really think Marissa Alexander was a danger to public safety?


Poet/Scholar Chris Green to Head Appalachian Center at Berea

Photo of Chris Green from his fb page, taken by his wonderful wife (and  preschool teacher and GIS consultant) Jenny Hobson (blog) at Pipestem, WV.  (used by permission)


July 1, my friend and fellow poet Chris Green (website, email) becomes the Director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College!!

Chris currently is associate prof of English at Marshall University and co-director for the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Gender in Appalachia (CSEGA). He is the Vice-President (and president-to-be) of the Appalachian Studies Association. By way of disclaimer, Chris edited Coal: A Poetry Anthology,  in which one of my poems appeared, as well as an issue of Wind on work from the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (ditto).

Chris had his  dissertation  published in 2009 by Macmillan as The Social Life of Poetry: Appalachia, Race, and Radical Modernism,  in which he looks at the idea of "Anglo equality" and focuses on the work of Jesse Stuart (Man w. a Bull Tongue Plow, James Still (Hounds on the Mountain ), Muriel Rukeyser (U.S. 1 ) and Don West (Clods of Southern Earth ).  I should add that this book won Berea College and the Appalachian Studies Associations's Weatherford Award in 2009 for a work of non-fiction that "best illuminates the challenges, personalities, and unique qualities of the Appalachian South."   He shared the award that year with KY writer C.E. Morgan for her first novel, All the Living (Farrar, Straus & Giroux--which btw netted Morgan a 2010 Lannan Literary Fellowship and recognition by both the National Book Foundation for the 5 under 35 award and The New Yorker magazine as one of America’s 20 Best Writers Under 40.)

 His book of poems Rushlight  was published by Bottom Dog Press.

Chris is the one who got me involved in OVEC when he invited me to join in the WV Mountaintop Removal Writers tour, along with folks such as Jeff Mann, Katie Sallitt Fallon, Eddy Pendarvis,  Diane Gilliam, Denise Giardina, Irene McKinney, Bob Henry Baber, Laura Treacy Bentley, Sam L. Martin,  Rob Merritt, and Cat Pleska.

BTW, the wonderful Silas House has been serving as interim director and will return to his position athe NEH Chair in Appalachian Studies. Chad Berry, who sent me the announcement of Chris's selection, writes, "Silas has greatly increased student engagement in the Center and brought a number of high-quality programs to Berea."

I'll add some more links later (to pages for the other writers I've mentioned in this post.

Oh, and in case you haven't heard of the Weatherford Award, Chris is in VERY good company.  Fellow winners include If you're still not impressed, other recipients of the Weatherford Award include:
  • Denise Giardina (for Storming Heaven 1987 and The Unquiet Earth 1993)
  • Rodger Cunningham (for Apples on the Flood: The Southern Mountain Experience)
  • Lee Smith (for Fair and Tender Ladies)
  • Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (for Colored People: A Memoir)
  • Charles Frazier (for Cold Mountain)
  • Homer Hickam, Jr. (for Rocket Boys: A Memoir)
  • Ron Rash (for Saints at the River in 2004 and Serena in  2008)
  • Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell (as editors for The Encyclopedia of Appalachia)
  • Ann Pancake (for Strange as this Weather Has Been)
Special Weatherford awards for a body of work have gone to the likes of  Robert Coles, M.D, Wilma Dykeman,  Jesse Stuart, Harry Caudill, James Still, Harriette Arnow, Cratis Williams, Albert Stewart,  Loyal Jones, Sidney Saylor Farr and Jerry W. Williamson.


May 10: Central Appalachian Women’s Climate Justice Tribunal

Charleston, WV hosted the Central Appalachian Women’s Climate Justice Tribunal--the first to take place in the US--Thursday, May 10 from 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. at the Charleston Woman’s Club (1600 Virginia St. East, Charleston, WVA).

Women  throughout Central Appalachia — from southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee — impacted by mountaintop removal and other mining abuses will raise their voices, exposing the impacts of mountaintop removal on their lives, their families and their communities. I posted live from my twitter feed. If you weren't able to attend there is a recording of the tribunal online thanks to the Loretto Community.

The tribunal will present its findings at the Rio+20 at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil this June. Similar tribunals have taken place around the world, spearheaded by the Feminist Task Force. These tribunals have been used to create a public space for women to draw attention to critical issues at local, national and global levels.

The Jurists were:
  • Elizabeth Peredo, climate justice expert from Bolivia
  • Lois Gibbs, of Love Canal fame and Executive Director of chej.org, and
  • Grant Smith, Energy Policy Advisor at the Civil Society Institute.
Funders, co-sponsors and participants include: Appalachian Community Fund, Appalachian Voices, Coal River Mountain Watch, Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, Keepers of the Mountain, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Sierra Club, SouthWings, The Alliance for Appalachia, The CLEAN, West Virginia Free, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.  The principal  organizers are OVEC (Huntington, WV).,  The Loretto Community at the United Nations and The Feminist Task Force of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty.


WTJU Folk Marathon: Lasko & Pun, Joe Overton, Joe Ayers and More!

Illustration is from WTJU Folk Marathon publicity of the Tshirt design by graphic artist Frank Riccio (portfolio, email).  Riccio helps host a program at the station and is affiliated with Virginia Book Arts and the McGuffey Arts Center in Charlottesville.  This entry was first published at 11:59 am on 5/6/12 and last updated 12:55 pm  on 6/12.


I'm a big fan of Morwenna Lasko and Jay Pun of Charlottesville ever since hearing them at a November 2011 house concert at Monkeyhouse in Blacksburg (thanks, Robyn and Jim!)  Here's a link to a video of the Berklee grads playing the Millenium Stage at the Kennedy Center in August 11, 2011.

So, of course, I was glad to tune in (podcasts online for two weeks) to hear them when they told me (the link is to their promo...I actually got an email) they would be special guest hosts playing a selection of the artists who help influence their own sound. for the 2012 Folk Marathon.

Peter Jones, folk director for the station explains this year's theme, “Too Hard To Label”
...we will be focusing on five of our favorite music labels: Smithsonian Folkways, Signature Sounds, Compass, Rounder and Rebel. And in honor of Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday, we will do a few shows in his honor...Not only have our regular announcers come up with the usual line up of special programs, but several musicians from the community are doing programs....
If possible, I was even happier to learn that my friend Joe Overton was one of those musicians, hosting the next segment after Morwenna and Pun's--local folk, old-time and bluegrass acts he had chosen, mostly younger acts, although he started with "Leaving Tennessee" by Mike Seeger and Tim O'Brien off of the Third Annual Farewell Reunion. The biggest treat was hearing him play live with Erin Johnson of Belle Star.

I met Joe when Willie Dodson and I stopped by to see him at his home in Tennessee on our way down to the Southern Climate Convergence near Asheville long before he moved to Charlottesville.  (All three of us oppose so-called mountaintop removal and Willie and Joe play together in the Here's to the Long Haul.). So, I decided to donate in memory of Irene McKinney, the late poet laureate of WV, who was also an opponent of MTR.

And then I learned as I continued to listen that there was a fretless banjo special with Joe Ayers. And on and on. I listened all the way until midnight.I'd encourage anyone who loves old time and folk music to join me in supporting the station.   How great that you can listen on demand for those two weeks. I KNOW what I'm going to listen to tomorrow.

Here's a picture of Morwenna and Jay when they played Blacksburg's Stepping Out in 2010.  (Copyrighted image used by permission with all rights reserved.)  They'll be back for 2012 at 5:00 on August 3, playing as the "MoJa Quartet" featuring Pete Spaar on upright bass and Devonne Harris on drums.

Here's a picture of Joe Ayers. 

And here's a picture of my friend Joe (far right) with another of his bands, The Clear Blue Sky.


ITT's Mike Elk Covering Labor Notes Conference Thanks to Crowdsource Funding

Picture of Mike Elk is adapted from a screen shot of his video at YouTube. 


For anyone who wants yet another example of the skewed economics of journalism, take a look at this video by Mike Elk, labor journalist for In These Times Magazine. He wanted $500 to fly from DC to cover the Labor Notes Conference (program) near Chicago in Rosemont, Illinois, where rank and file members, local union leaders and labor activists connect to strengthen the movement—from the bottom up.
Often in covering labor struggles, I find that union members often find themselves as equally frustrated with the bureaucracies of their unions as with the corporations they are fighting. Rarely though are the voices of these worker struggling to change their unions heard. Next weekend May 4 -6, Labor Notes is holding its bi-annual conference in Chicago. Over 2,000 activists and union members from dozens of different unions have already purchased registration to attend this meeting where they will discuss their struggles and the direction of the labor movement. However, I lack the funds to attend this important event and need your help to raise them. 
When it comes to labor writers, Mike is one of my favorite labor reporters.  Today, he filed a story,  "A Tale of Two Rules: Washington Bureaucracy and the Politics of Workplace Safety."  I DO wish he would write about how the UMWA leadership sells out mountains by supporting Big Coal.   They wouldn't even march to save Blair Mountain (ITT acknowledged this, but it was freelancer Melinda Tuhus.  Of course, UMWA Communications Department: Phil Smith Department Director, as is his wont, weighed in in the comment section, telling us all about how the union supports all its members and has nothing to do with making the laws or regulations  that allow one mining practice or another. We just mine the coal."

Yada, yada, yada.  Yeah sure.  And labor unions have nothing to do with making laws and regulations?  For instance, as I pointed out yesterday, the UMWA sided with Big Coal and the Chamber of Commerce et. al.  and against public health when it came to the EPA regulating coal ash.

Here's the rest of the Mike's approximate transcript from WePay.com. But listen to the video: his narrative has a lot more information about the state of labor and the disparity between the bosses and the rank and file.  Especially alarming are AFME's cutbacks in Wisconsin organizer positions in the light of governor Walker's attack on organized labor (and women's rights, as pointed out by John Nichols.)  Not good, especially with the recall coming up. 

 If you're not attending attending Labor Notes, you can follow Mike's live tweeting.  And I plan to post here some of his content, which he is sharing with other non-profit media.