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The Alabama “Corrections” System: An American Horror Story

Inmates sit in a treatment dorm at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. The Department of Justice has threatened to sue Alabama over excessive violence and other problems in state prisons for male inmates. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

The Montgomery Advertiser interviewed more than two dozen men in the Alabama correction system, all of whom report extreme routine violence and “unhinged” drug-induced behavior among those incarcerated — often against elderly and vulnerable members of the prison population. As Melissa Brown reports, rehabilitation is impossible with little access to programs, while guards remain indifferent at best, refusing to enforce prison rules, or at worst, helping to perpetrate heinous acts.

The consistency of experiences — from prison to prison, from lifers to the newly incarcerated, from young and old, from black and white — paint a chilling portrait of corruption, violence and the disintegration of state institutions purported to correct and rehabilitate.

Alabama prison administrators openly flout the department’s stated rules and regulations in an attempt to exert control and discipline prisoners, the Montgomery Advertiser has found after months of reporting and interviews with dozens of men incarcerated across the state.

In the seven months since the Department of Justice released a scathing report on the Alabama Department of Corrections, prison officials have withheld food from men, micromanaging minor disciplinary infractions while violence and unexpected deaths continue unabated, including nine which occurred during the reporting of this story in September and October.

Ma’am, I’ve seen old, elderly people in wheelchairs get jumped on and robbed and get beat real bad. There’s nothing you can do about it. Officers don’t do nothing. I’ve seen a man get beat so bad in here, and the officers dragged him back in and put him in the same dorm.

This place is like a killing ground. It’s like a killing field, and nobody is doing anything about it. When people do get murdered, they say ‘died from natural causes.’

[There’s an older man who] is homeless in prison. He has no mattress, no clothes. He sleeps on the floor. Every time he gets something, they take it from him.

I’ve watched the very ones who are trusted to keep us in custody, safe and prepared for returning home beat, extort and even rape. My experience is one I’d never wish upon my worst enemy.

The humanity of us in here is stripped.

One asks why should the average citizen care about the living conditions in prison? It’s imperative to answer that question in the simplest way. First the taxpayer (average citizen) is the investor of prison life. Next, the investor now becomes a party in the creation of what exits these walls. My question has always been and remains, “What kind of individual would you want me to be once I’m released? A man or a monster? Rehabilitated or an animal?” If one was to really think about the creation of what I am to become along the same lines as the investment of their own personal safety, wouldn’t you want the best assurance money could buy?

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The Soundtrack to Hell

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It was one man against the noise of multiplying faceless machines near his Arizona home — until his neighbors eventually noticed the pervasive hum emanating from CyrusOne, a data center that used massive, thrumming chillers to cool its servers. As Bianca Bosker reports at the Atlantic, when residents banded together to demand peace in the neighborhood, at first CyrusOne went silent, but only metaphorically speaking.

Desperate ears call for desperate measures, and the noise-afflicted go to elaborate lengths to lower the volume. Kanuri taught himself to code so he could analyze New York City’s 311 data and correlate noise complaints with elective districts; he hoped he could hold politicians accountable. Having tried moving bedrooms and also apartments, Ashley is now moving across the country, to a suburb in the Southwest. I spoke with a New Yorker who, unable to afford a move, has been sleeping in her closet—armed with earplugs, headphones, an AC unit, a fan, and two white-noise machines. A Wisconsin man who’d re-insulated, re-drywalled, and re-windowed his home was ultimately offered sleeping medication and antidepressants. An apartment dweller in Beijing, fed up with the calisthenics of the kids upstairs, got revenge by attaching a vibrating motor to his ceiling that rattled the family’s floor. The gadget is available for purchase online, where you can also find Coat of Silence paint, AlphaSorb Bass Traps, the Noise Eater Isolation Foot, the Sound Soother Headband, and the Sonic Nausea Electronic Disruption Device, which promises, irresistibly, “inventive payback.”

Scientists have yet to agree on a definition for noise sensitivity, much less determine why some individuals seem more prone to it, though there have been cases linking sensitivity to hearing loss. What is clear, however, is that sound, once noticed, becomes impossible to ignore. “Once you are bothered by a sound, you unconsciously train your brain to hear that sound,” Pigeon said. “That phenomenon just feeds itself into a diabolic loop.” Research suggests habituation, the idea that we’ll just “get used to it,” is a myth. And there is no known cure. Even for sufferers of tinnitus—an auditory affliction researchers understand far better than noise sensitivity—the most effective treatment that specialists can offer is a regimen of “standard audiological niceness”: listening to them complain and reassuring them the noise won’t kill them. Or, as one expert put it, “lending a nice ear.”

We were silent again and listened to the data center moaning. Which was also, in a sense, the sound of us living: the sound of furniture being purchased, of insurance policies compared, of shipments dispatched and deliveries confirmed, of security systems activated, of cable bills paid. In Forest City, North Carolina, where some Facebook servers have moved in, the whine is the sound of people liking, commenting, streaming a video of five creative ways to make eggs, uploading bachelorette-party photos. It’s perhaps the sound of Thallikar’s neighbor posting “Has anyone else noticed how loud it’s been this week?” to the Dobson Noise Coalition’s Facebook group. It’s the sound of us searching for pink-eye cures, or streaming porn, or checking the lyrics to “Old Town Road.” The sound is the exhaust of our activity. Modern life—EHHNNNNNNNN—humming along.

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The Boeing 737 MAX: “Fatally Flawed”

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 29: Nadia Milleron, whose daughter Samya Stumo, was killed in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, holds a sign of crash victims behind Dennis Muilenburg, foreground, CEO of Boeing, during the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing in Hart Building on aviation safety and the future of the Boeing 737 MAX on Tuesday, October 29, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

In designing the 737 MAX, Boeing altered the plane’s automatic response in the event of a faulty angle-of-attack sensor, failed to include the change in the airplane’s operating manual, and then promptly blamed foreign pilots when two separate crashes involving the model took 347 lives. At ProPublica, Alec MacGillis follows the Stumo family — the first family in America to sue Boeing in the wake of the 737 MAX disasters — as they try to seek justice for their daughter Samya, who was killed when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed into the earth at a speed of 575 miles per hour.

I talked with Gregory Travis, a software engineer and pilot who has written extensively about the crashes. “Every past crash that I can think of was an accident, in that there was something that wasn’t really reasonably foreseeable,” Travis told me. “This was entirely different, and I don’t think anyone understands that. This was a collision of deregulation and Wall Street, and the tragic thing is that it was tragic. It was inevitable.”

Taken together, the reports ­suggested that Boeing had put all the risk on the pilot, who would be expected to know what to do within seconds if a system he didn’t know existed set off a welter of cockpit alerts and forced the plane downward. “An airplane shouldn’t put itself in a position where the pilots have to act heroically to save the plane,” the veteran U.S. commercial airline pilot told me. “Pilots shouldn’t have to be superhuman. Planes are built to be flown by normal people.” ­Gregory Travis, the pilot and software engineer, said: “MCAS sealed their fate. Everything that comes after that is noise.”

Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who, in 2009, saved a plane by crash-landing it in the Hudson River, testified at a House hearing in June. “Boeing has said that they did not categorize a failure of MCAS as more critical because they assumed that pilot action would be the safeguard,” he said. This was a mistake. “I can tell you first hand that the startle factor is real and it’s huge — it absolutely interferes with one’s ability to quickly analyze the crisis and take effective action.” He said that he, too, had struggled in a 737 MAX simulator after the crashes. “Even knowing what was going to happen, I could see how crews could have run out of time before they could have solved the problems,” he said. MCAS, he concluded, “was fatally flawed and should never have been approved.”

The Indonesian government’s final report on the Lion Air crash cited, among other factors, Boeing’s failure to mention MCAS in the 737 MAX manual — the cockpit recorder captured the sound of the pilots riffling through pages in vain.

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Tom Junod Remembers Fred Rogers: “You Were a Child Once, Too”

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At the Atlantic, Tom Junod recalls his friendship with Fred Rogers 16 years after Fred’s death. Junod and Rogers traded 70 emails around the time Junod’s Esquire profile of Rogers, ‘Can You Say…”Hero”?’ was published in 1998. The author considers the movies made about Rogers’ life, as well as how Fred would have responded to today’s routine mass violence and the growing lack of civility in political discourse.

As for Fred: It’s true that he lost, and that the digitization of all human endeavor has devoured his legacy as eagerly as it has devoured everything else. But that he stands at the height of his reputation 16 years after his death shows the persistence of a certain kind of human hunger—the hunger for goodness. He had faith in us, and even if his faith turns out to have been misplaced, even if we have abandoned him, he somehow endures, standing between us and our electrified antipathies and recriminations like the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square in a red sweater. He is a warrior, all right, because he is not just unarmed, outgunned, outnumbered; he is long gone, and yet he keeps up the fight.

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The Beauty of “Bl-Bl-Bl-Blue Moon”

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Barry Yeoman, a man with a lifelong stutter, suggests that while society mostly views a stutter as a disability, stammering really isn’t the problem at all. At the Baffler, he argues that the real problem to cure is the assumption that those who stutter are somehow deficient.

Like virtually all disabilities, stuttering has long been viewed through a medical lens—as a pathology in search of neutralization, an obstacle to a successful life. That lens is embedded in the language of speech impediments and speech pathologists. At best, stuttering has been framed as a “despite” condition: we can be happy and productive despite how we talk.

Some of us, though, have been trying to flip the paradigm, to reframe stuttering as a trait that confers transformative powers. We wear our vulnerability on the outside, and that invites emotional intimacy with others. We slow down conversations, fostering patience. We give texture to language. We gauge character by our listeners’ reactions. We are good listeners ourselves.

“There’s something interesting about stuttering in a world that moves at increasingly breakneck speed,” says St. Pierre, the Alberta professor. For most of human history, we measured time in lunar cycles, menstrual cycles, agricultural cycles. Today we rely on “clock time,” standardized and designed for industrial production. Clock time values efficiency; it has no patience for silences and repeated syllables. “Stuttering highlights that fact: that clock time runs roughshod over all these other ways of creating time, but that they still persist and are still important,” he says. “Stuttering interrupts this hegemonic order of time.”

Alpern wrote an essay for Stammering Pride and Prejudice, an anthology published this year in the United Kingdom. (The British use “stammering” as a synonym for “stuttering.”) St. Pierre has a chapter; so does Constantino, who is one of the book’s editors. In hers, Alpern tells the story of ordering a “Bl-Bl-Bl-Blue Moon” at a bar and finding unexpected pleasure in the extra syllables. Part of the delight is in using a voice that is uniquely hers; part is the hard-earned absence of shame.

Part is physical: “that little loss of control that resolves itself so beautifully sometimes,” she writes. “I am falling through the air for an instant, then catching the ground again, like Fred Astaire pretending to trip when he dances.”

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What Hockey Gives and What Hockey Takes Away

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At The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten recounts what beer-league hockey has given him over the years: occasional bragging rights, countless happy sud-soaked memories, a feeling of camaraderie, and three concussions whose lingering after effects caused him to leave the game.

The third concussion came months later, in another Intangibles game, the clock running out on a late-night midseason loss. A freak accident, a collision with a teammate: we hadn’t seen each other. I got the worst of it. The light dimmed, the ringing kicked up, and the fog rolled in again.

In the following weeks, my skull felt as though someone had draped a towel over it and was pulling down on all four corners, or maybe cinching tight a bank robber’s stocking. I had trouble concentrating. If I tried to exercise, the headache came galloping in. I couldn’t handle crowds or concerts or the ordinary din of New York. The thought of playing hockey, the sight of men playing football on TV: it seemed as reasonable to stroll on foot across the New Jersey Turnpike. After an hour or two in front of a computer screen, a kind of dizzy fatigue washed over me. I began napping a couple of times a day. The Advil stopped working. My moods darkened. My work stalled.

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Reporter Uncovers Airbnb Scam. Airbnb Shrugs, Pockets Money

(Photo Illustration by Miguel Candela / SOPA Images/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

When reporter Allie Conti got a call from her Airbnb host 10 minutes before she was supposed to check in to her rental in Chicago, “Andrew” claimed the toilet had backed up, making the unit unavailable. The good news, he said was that he had a larger place he managed nearby. Little did Allie know that she stumbled on an Airbnb scam involving nearly 100 property listings in eight cities run by fraudsters manipulating Airbnb’s weak policy standards and enforcement. What’s worse? Airbnb’s pathetic non-response deserves a zero-star review. Read her story at Vice.

The bad news, which went unstated, was that I had unknowingly stumbled into a nationwide web of deception that appeared to span eight cities and nearly 100 property listings—an undetected scam created by some person or organization that had figured out just how easy it is to exploit Airbnb’s poorly written rules in order to collect thousands of dollars through phony listings, fake reviews, and, when necessary, intimidation. Considering Airbnb’s lax enforcement of its own policies, who could blame the scammers for taking advantage of the new world of short-term rental platforms? They had every reason to believe they could do so with impunity.

That was it. No one at the company ever agreed to speak on the record about the specifics of what I uncovered. Nor would anyone answer any of my questions about Airbnb’s verification process. As far as what obligation it has to people who have fallen victim to a scam on Airbnb’s platform, the company only said in an email that it is “here 24/7 to support with rebooking assistance, full refunds and reimbursements” in cases of fraud or misrepresentation by hosts. Maybe Airbnb couldn’t get more detailed about its verification process because it doesn’t have much of one at all. I had asked the company about three accounts—Annie and Chase, Becky and Andrew, and Kris and Becky. Annie and Chase’s account has been deleted, and the two others no longer have any listings posted, which, due to Airbnb’s messaging constraints, means I could not message them for comment. Of the six other accounts I’d connected to the scheme, five are still active weeks later. Only Kelsey and Jean’s has disappeared from the site.

Even if my scammers had been slightly foiled, there was no guarantee that they couldn’t just start fresh with new profiles. The system was still in place. Airbnb has created a web of more than 7 million listings built largely on trust, easily exploitable by those willing to do so. Maybe it’s not so surprising that the company would rather play a half-assed game of whack-a-mole than answer basic questions about their verification process. For every person who doesn’t receive a complete refund, Airbnb makes money.

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The Misidentification of Raheme Malik Perry

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On July 29th, 2018, the family of Frederick Williams said a tearful goodbye as a man was taken off life support following a suspected drug overdose at St. Barnabas, a facility run by Hospice of New York. It wasn’t until the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, as part of routine procedures, ran fingerprint tests and discovered that the body did not belong to Frederick Williams. The man taken off of life support was Raheme Malik Perry.

In this investigation at ProPublica, Joe Sexton and Nate Schweber try to figure out what went wrong and who is accountable.

Williams’ family thought he’d want to be buried with his mother at a cemetery on Long Island. Arrangements were made for that to happen. A printed program was created.

But then Naka’s team discovered the mistake. When the man’s fingerprints were fed into one of the office’s databases that stores records of people with criminal histories, another name popped up: Raheme Malik Perry.

Whatever the reasons were for the error, the way forward for Naka’s team was clear. It had to contact two families and deliver very different news. The call to the family of Williams would carry the surprise that the loved one whose death they were grieving was, in fact, alive. The call to this new family, the Perrys, would be no less strange, but its implications would be far more somber — a loved one of theirs was dead, and his death had come after he was taken off life support by strangers.

Williams acknowledges the remarkable series of events and coincidences that had to happen to produce the error at St. Barnabas. He had to lose an ID he’d had for years. It had to wind up in the pocket of a man close to him in age and appearance. That man had to have fallen in the street close to a hospital that had once treated Williams and had his information on file. The discovery of the misidentification happened only because both men had criminal records and fingerprints in a database.

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As Impossible and Imperfect as Translation

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In this beautiful and poignant essay at Guernica, the writer Crystal Hana Kim considers how translating her grandmother’s poems from Korean to English helped her appreciate the imprecision of language not as barrier to be transversed, but as an opportunity for new connection between herself, her mother, and her grandmother.

Last month, my mother recited Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” to me on the phone. I stopped in the middle of Washington Avenue in Brooklyn as she stumbled over the word prairie. I imagined her tongue working to shape those foreign sounds. My mother immigrated to the United States more than thirty years ago, but she has always felt self-conscious about her second language, with its hard r’s and supple l’s. “My friend suggested reading poetry in English to improve my vocabulary, since I write poetry too,” she explained in Korean.

She asked me how to pronounce words she didn’t know—despair, prairie, unrelenting. I repeated them after her, slow and then fast, with definitions and without. We talked about rhythm, image, the deceptive simplicity of Mary Oliver’s lines.

I wanted to weep. My mother and I primarily communicate in Korean, and we rarely talk about literature. We have a complicated relationship, but in that moment, I felt a new closeness—rooted not in the inextricable tie of family, but in choice. I have an immediate affinity for others who have committed to the impossible act of writing.

The more I tried to translate the poems, the more intimidated I became. I wanted to be exact and precise, but inherent in translation is interpretation, the translator’s own agency. I worried. Should I adhere to the words or the rhythms, to the sound or the meaning? Should the poem feel smooth in the translated language, or retain some of the syntactical markers of its original?

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Meet Michael Gillespie, the Ransomeware Superhero of Normal, Illinois

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By day cancer survivor Michael Gillespie — an unassuming man who lives in Normal, Illinois, along with eight cats and his wife — works at a little computer repair shop called Nerds on Call. By night he’s a ransomeware-busting superhero to scores of people whose computers have been taken over by bad guys trying to exploit their precious documents, data, and photos for money.

As Renee Dudley reports at ProPublica, Gillespie — who has faced mounting financial difficulties — doesn’t charge for his work. His payment is the satisfaction of scoring one for the good guys.

To make ends meet, Gillespie supplemented his Nerds on Call salary with a 2 a.m. paper route, delivering the local newspaper on his bike. While he had enjoyed having a paper route in junior high, the job now depressed him. But the family bills were mounting, especially for health care. Morgan Gillespie struggled with diabetes and other medical issues. Over the years, Michael Gillespie noticed blood in his urine, and in the fall of 2017, his wife finally made him see a doctor. The physician removed a tumor and diagnosed bladder cancer, which rarely affects young adults. Gillespie took one day off for surgery and one to recover before returning to work. He underwent immunotherapy treatment weekly for two months, and the cancer has been in remission since. Although he was insured through Nerds on Call, the costs for his care still added up.

The couple reached a financial breaking point. They racked up credit card debt and fell behind on payments on Morgan Gillespie’s Nissan. They rotated which utility bills they would pay; one month their electricity would be turned off, and the next month it would be gas. They surrendered the car to the bank, which sold it at a loss at auction and forced them to make up the difference. Last year, around the time his wife lost her job as a nanny, they missed four mortgage payments on their house and began to receive foreclosure notices, Michael Gillespie said.

Gillespie said he’s considering charging other security researchers for the statistics he gathers on the site, but he will always keep the tools free for victims. Friends and family members nagged Gillespie to collect fees from ID Ransomware users. Even his wife’s grandmother, whom Gillespie calls “grammy,” brought it up. “I try to not interfere in that area,” Rita Blanch said. “Unless, being silly at times, when I would say to him, ‘Babe, you need to charge, you could, like, be rich.’”

Other relatives “have been like: ‘Why isn’t he charging? Why isn’t he making money off of this?’” said his wife, who recently found a part-time job as a babysitter. “They think it’s almost dumb, the fact that he does what he does. But that was just never what the deal was for us. He just doesn’t want to take advantage of people who are already being taken advantage of.”

Instead, his fellow ransomware hunters stepped in. Abrams covered the $400 cost of obtaining a certificate that lets users know they’re downloading from a trustworthy site. Wosar began donating to ID Ransomware, and his employer, Emsisoft, hired Gillespie part-time this year to create Emsisoft-branded decryptors. The money enabled the Gillespies to catch up on mortgage payments.

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