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Reducing the US prison population is but a small step
Last month, the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons released more than 6,000 prisoners early. The Sentencing Commission reduced their sentences retroactively. And the Senate is considering a bipartisan bill to lower mandatory minimums. These developments show that, after extraordinary growth in the rate of incarceration over the past few decades, an emerging consensus of the libertarian right and the liberal-left has pushed for a major shift in US criminal justice policy.
Indeed, after peaking in 2009, the US prison population has started to decline. Yet many reforms focus only on reducing sentences for federal non-violent drug offences; though substantial, this does not affect the 1.3 million in state prisons or people held for violent crimes. Thus, despite the signs of positive change, there is reason to be skeptical that a significant decrease in prison rolls is imminent. And the US still far outstrips other nations in its rates of incarceration.
It is also an outlier in the array of punishments employed to humiliate and demoralise, including imprisoning and executing the mentally disabled, trying children as adults, sentencing non‑violent offenders and minors to life without the possibility of parole, and shackling women giving birth. Up to 80,000 people in the US are in some form of solitary confinement, including minors, the mentally ill, and pregnant women.
Much has been written about the statistical consequences of the incipient wave of reform. Yet, having spent the past 10 years interviewing prisoners in New York as part of my civil rights work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, I see scant evidence that the infrastructure of cruelty, humiliation and dehumanisation is being dismantled.
Take the example of Salladin Barton, 35, found dead in his cell in Broome County Jail, central New York State, on 15 January 2015. He was developmentally disabled and suffered significant mental illness, including schizophrenia. According to letters from a half‑dozen men incarcerated with him, correction officers (COs) repeatedly punched, kicked and beat Barton during the 19 months he was jailed on charges of robbery (he died waiting for his day in court). Many of the letters observed that guards regularly denied him food, so his weight dropped alarmingly. Barton spent months being abused in solitary confinement, itself a practice that Anthony Kennedy, a US Supreme Court Justice, wrote ‘exacts a terrible price’.
Barton’s death, largely unreported in the media, underscores the dismal chaos wrought on people’s lives by prisons throughout the country. The US has yet to reckon with its hidden underbelly of institutionalised violence, degradation and families divided.
Correctional officer(s)… beat Mr Barton continuously and even bust his head open so he had to get staples in his head… And the day before he died they ran in his cell and beat him up again. I could hear the CO yelling ‘I’m a kill you Nigger, I’m a kill you nigga.’ When they left his cell I ask him is he ok and he told me he was dizzy and bleeding in his head…The very next day… he said he feels dizzy I told him to lay down and that’s when… I heard the thump. I begin to call his name loudly and he would not respond.
Barton’s death did not chasten jail officials. Afterwards, another prisoner, celled near Barton, wrote:
I heard the Sergeant come by the cell where Mr Barton died and say: ‘Hey Sal! Oh! He’s not here; he’s dead!’ and laugh out loud to himself… That’s when I couldn’t take no more and felt I had to do something… It’s like these guys feel like they accomplished something by killing a poor defenceless half-retarded kid [sic]. They joke about it all the time and laugh like he’s some type of animal. No one should be treated that way.
Police kill about 1,000 people each year in the US. Several thousand more die in prison. Yet the Black Lives Matter movement teaches that it’s the contours of an individual life that most vividly display injustice: individuals such as Michael Brown, shot by police; Sandra Bland, found hanged in her cell; and Eric Garner, who choked to death in police custody.
In the months before his death, Barton filed frequent slips for medical attention. In one, filed shortly before he died, he wrote:
I need to find out why I am still having seizures, still dizzy, still see all colour dots, my grain [migraines], headaches, still bleeding all over, can’t sleep that good… I am starven because some workers won’t give me my meals on purpose.
Since he was charged with robbery, Barton would not have been freed by the criteria proposed by President Barack Obama or most other mainstream reformers. Because the bail system keeps people in jail simply because they do not have money, and because the social consequences of untreated mental illness are in effect criminalised, Barton spent his final two years awaiting trial, in an increasingly narrow and confined cell, mocked, sometimes naked, utterly alone.
In one of the last medical slips filed before his death, Barton wrote:
I wanted to please ask if I can get to a hospital please I had a real hard serious life, and will tell the truth, the hole truth, and nothing but the truth so help me, God, and Jesus. The truth sets you free. Amen. Please from my heart and soul. God bless the hole USA.
From one perspective, Barton’s request must seem preposterous, the ramblings of a mentally ill man. But what if, instead, we took his note as hopeful, an optimistic protest against the dehumanising treatment he received daily? His plaintive call went unheeded except by the other men who were chained and caged around him. Genuine reform, beyond merely reducing prison rolls, must address the systematic petty tyrannies that allowed the torture of Salladin Barton.
Joshua M Price
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian<p>When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told <em><a href="https://www.wired.com/story/meet-the-ultra-black-vantafish/" target="_blank">Wired</a></em>. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"</p><p>After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.</p>
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told <em>Wired</em>. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."</p><p>The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.</p>
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL<p>But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as <em>Wired</em> <a href="https://www.wired.com/story/meet-the-ultra-black-vantafish/" target="_blank">notes</a>.</p><p>Other fish—like the <a href="http://onebugaday.blogspot.com/2016/06/a-new-anglerfish-oneirodes-amaokai.html" target="_blank">oneirodes species</a>, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like <em>C. acclinidens</em> only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.</p><p>Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean. </p>
Using machine-learning technology, the genealogy company My Heritage enables users to animate static images of their relatives.
- Deep Nostalgia uses machine learning to animate static images.
- The AI can animate images by "looking" at a single facial image, and the animations include movements such as blinking, smiling and head tilting.
- As deepfake technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, some are concerned about how bad actors might abuse the technology to manipulate the pubic.
My Heritage/Deep Nostalgia<p>But that's not to say the animations are perfect. As with most deep-fake technology, there's still an uncanny air to the images, with some of the facial movements appearing slightly unnatural. What's more, Deep Nostalgia is only able to create deepfakes of one person's face from the neck up, so you couldn't use it to animate group photos, or photos of people doing any sort of physical activity.</p>
My Heritage/Deep Nostalgia<p>But for a free deep-fake service, Deep Nostalgia is pretty impressive, especially considering you can use it to create deepfakes of <em>any </em>face, human or not. </p>
How long should one wait until an idea like string theory, seductive as it may be, is deemed unrealistic?
- How far should we defend an idea in the face of contrarian evidence?
- Who decides when it's time to abandon an idea and deem it wrong?
- Science carries within it its seeds from ancient Greece, including certain prejudices of how reality should or shouldn't be.
Plato used the allegory of the cave to explain that what humans see and experience is not the true reality.
Credit: Gothika via Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0<p>When scientists and mathematicians use the term <em>Platonic worldview</em>, that's what they mean in general: The unbound capacity of reason to unlock the secrets of creation, one by one. Einstein, for one, was a believer, preaching the fundamental reasonableness of nature; no weird unexplainable stuff, like a god that plays dice—his tongue-in-cheek critique of the belief that the unpredictability of the quantum world was truly fundamental to nature and not just a shortcoming of our current understanding. Despite his strong belief in such underlying order, Einstein recognized the imperfection of human knowledge: "What I see of Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility." (Quoted by Dukas and Hoffmann in <em>Albert Einstein, The Human Side: Glimpses from His Archives</em> (1979), 39.)</p> <p>Einstein embodies the tension between these two clashing worldviews, a tension that is still very much with us today: On the one hand, the Platonic ideology that the fundamental stuff of reality is logical and understandable to the human mind, and, on the other, the acknowledgment that our reasoning has limitations, that our tools have limitations and thus that to reach some sort of final or complete understanding of the material world is nothing but an impossible, <a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01K2JTGIA?tag=bigthink00-20&linkCode=ogi&th=1&psc=1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">semi-religious dream</a>.</p>