We’ll drive.

Since we have New Orleans on our minds these last couple of days, a story that has its roots there:

Alan and I were driving through Mississippi, en route to New Orleans, late one night some years ago. We were appreciating one of the many pleasures of the Delta — gutbucket blues on the radio — when there was a pause for station identification and a word from our sponsor.

“Do you have a loved one incarcerated in a correctional institution you find it difficult to travel to?” asked a resonant African-American male voice, not unlike the ones who had been singing a moment before. But there was a note of optimism in the question, the unmistakable sound of someone who’s about to solve your problem, and sure enough, he had the answer: A bus service making “daily trips to Parchman, Angola and other Mississippi and Louisiana correctional institutions.” For a reasonable price, you could finally pay a visit to your son, grandson, nephew or other family member living behind bars. Leave the driving to us.

Alan and I looked at one another, stunned, two affluent white people who had just been listening to musical laments about Parchman, Angola and other Mississippi and Louisiana correctional institutions, and now we were confronting actual evidence that not only did these places exist, they were not merely colorful stops on the career-development paths of Bukka White and Son House. People really lived there, and had relatives on the outside who loved them and wanted to see them.

I exaggerate to make a point. But it was a glimpse into a world neither of us had paid much attention to, outside of the movies and occasional op-ed piece. Imprisonment is a fact of life in many communities, and it should surprise no one that the links between inside and outside have their own culture and economies.

Last year, a billboard went up on I-94 in Detroit, advertising a similar service to Michigan prisons. I encourage you to watch the linked video for a sense of the pitch — a little mournful (separation hurts) but positive (there’s a solution) and soothing (we’ll do the hard part). The shot of the woman getting off the bus, and the pan that captures the chainlink and razor wire of some anonymous Michigan big house under an appropriately gray sky is just…perfect. She doesn’t smile; hell, she’s not going to the casino. She’s paying a visit to a painful place. It’s really well-done.

This sent me Googling for other prison bus services. Not a lot of hits. There’s one in California, aimed mostly at keeping (inmate) mothers in touch with their children. You see mentions of companies and state-supported services here and there, mainly on sites like Prisontalk.com, which I highly recommend just because it’s more interesting than most. (I got lost in the “ever seen someone infamous while visiting” thread: My man was in the same prison with Jack Kevorkian! …I saw one of the Manson family!)

So I guess what I’m wondering today is, what is the ancillary prison economy? Corrections is one of the few growth areas in many states with depressed economies (cough, Michigan, cough), which can’t build them fast enough. Now that it’s common to ship prisoners across state lines to relieve overcrowding and staff shortages, and since so many are being built in remote locations desperate for jobs of any kind (cough, Upper Peninsula, cough), incarceration is truly a “buy” stock. I know we have at least one regular here, MichaelG, whose job takes him to California pens; maybe he can start the discussion. Inexpensive nearby hotels for loved ones traveling long distances to visit — that’s a no-brainer. Bus services, ditto. But there has to be something else, too.

Amazing fun fact, from the Freep via a secondary source: With nearly 50,000 people in state prisons, Michigan has one of the nation’s highest rates of incarceration and prison spending. Prisons eat up nearly 20% of the state’s general fund, or $1.8 billion.

That’s a lot of cheddar being grated. Certainly some must fall on the floor.

OK, a little brief bloggage and follow-up.

Via J.C., my genius, all of Ashley’s comments on NN.C on a single page. It makes for some odd reading, a little montage-y, since so many of the comments refer to other comments, or posts you can’t see (although there are links to those, too). But he had a way with words. I suggest just jumping around. I had to smile when I discovered, anew, Ashley’s Binary Hotness Scale:

Gina Gershon is still a 1 in my book. Oh, I have a binary weighting scale, 1: yes, you would; 0: no, you wouldn’t. Beer acts as bias.

Also, a commenter in the previous thread, Ann, says Depaul (Ashley’s employer) is now saying the cause of death was a car accident. Haven’t confirmed that anywhere, but FYI. Thanks, Ann. Now I’m told it wasn’t a car accident, that he was found in his hotel room. Sorry for the mistake.

Finally, because we need a smile today, a well-worn YouTube link to the Bulgarian Idol (real name: “Music Idol”) auditions. The hilarity is in a non-English-speaking contestant making her way through an English-language pop song, but having recently seen a woman barely out of her teens tackle the Beatles’ “In My Life,” I can’t say there’s much of a difference stateside. It was like watching Justin Timberlake play King Lear.

Have a good weekend.

EDIT: Minor glitches fixed. (I hope.) Comments open on this post, and the Ashley comments page has been un-404’d. We upgraded to WP 2.5 this week, and I’m still finding all the buttons.

Posted at 9:43 am in Current events |

32 responses to “We’ll drive.”

  1. Andrea said on April 4, 2008 at 10:28 am

    The prison van/bus service is something that I never thought of, but it makes perfect sense. I’m surprised there isn’t a service like this in Baltimore, since I imagine a large percentage of the prison population in Maryland is from the Baltimore metro area, but the three main prisons are located hours away in Western MD (Hagerstown and Cumberland) and on the Eastern Shore. An opportunity just waiting for an entrepreneur to step in…

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  2. Adrianne said on April 4, 2008 at 10:49 am

    One of the main engine drivers in the depressed upstate New York economy is the prison system. So much so, that a modest proposal to close four prisons that have seen their populations shrink by half was rejected by the state legislators this year. There are indeed bus services from New York City – biggest supplier of inmates – to prisons from Attica to Eastern Correctional in Ulster County. A good number of my neighbors work at one of two state prisons in my town. Hey, it’s work.

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  3. Jolene said on April 4, 2008 at 10:53 am

    I happened to hear (on Kojo Nnamdi) about a DC non-profit devoted to helping imprisoned fathers maintain contact with their families. This is a special problem here because (1) DC has a high incarceration rate and (2) a correctional facility in Virginia that had served as DC’s prison was, apparently, closed in 2001 due to a Congressional mandate, and 8,000 prisoners were shipped all over the country. The organization discussed on Kojo’s show was Hope House.

    Not exactly part of the ancillary economy, but an ancillary organization. I’m sure there are many others like it.

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  4. Soulwhat said on April 4, 2008 at 11:19 am

    One thing that really bothers me is how correctional facilities have outsourced the inmate telephone system to companies that charge insidious rates. If I remember correctly I was asked to pay $4.95 for the first 3 mins and then approximately $1.00 a min thereafter for any calls I accepted. I had a friend get into some trouble and was incarcerated for 6 months.

    I also had to post a minimum $75.00 with a credit card or Western Union payment ahead of time in order to receive this first call as well as any future calls. Also when I asked about getting refunded for any unused balance there was what I would call an inadequate explanation.

    Now for me it was not a large amount of money. But I keep thinking about what this kind of fee would be to a majority of families with a loved one on the inside.

    I understand that these things are done to offset costs. However I keep feeling the cheaper we make it to incarcerate someone the more likely we are to put people in prison that don’t really belong.

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  5. Danny said on April 4, 2008 at 11:36 am

    From Ashley, November 10th, 2004:

    Danny, I hate to break it to you like this, but I have a massively large penis…

    One of my favorites from my man, Ashley.

    I always chuckled when some new person to the blog would (naturally) assume that Ashley was a girl and then watch in anticipation as to how Ash would, oh so gently, set them “straight.” Funny guy. He will be missed. And we won’t be able to lead unsuspecting newcomers into mistakenly thinking that he was a hot girl. Heheh

    BTW, I wonder if he tried that penis comment on the girl who was asking him “abrupt” questions regarding size.

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  6. del said on April 4, 2008 at 11:56 am

    Soulwhat, right on. The phone system for inmates has been causing grief in Michigan too.
    Nance’s post brought to mind a memory of a 9 hour bus trip from the UP to Pontiac in 1982. Poor guy sitting near me with industrial glasses, flood pants and a black knit cap in his 20’s looked really freaked out. He was heading home after 5 years at Kinross prison. When we arrived in Pontiac late at night nobody was there to greet him.

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  7. MichaelG said on April 4, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    I don’t work for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. I do work for another state agency. I’m in no position to provide a big essay and don’t have exact statistics at my fingertips. So. CDCR has something like 33 prisons in the state along with a number of youth facilities. What does CDCR bring to the local economies? They buy a lot of stuff on statewide contracts — you can’t imagine how many millions they spend on pharmaceuticals every year. But there is still a lot to be bought locally. Think of all the miscellaneous stuff you buy on Saturday at the home store, odds and ends at the supermarket etc. Multiply that by 33 and then by the 3-5000 inmates at each joint. Prisons buy lots and lots of stuff at the hardware store as you might guess. Maintenance is forever and inmates are hard users. Prisons have an enormous effect on local utilities. Garbage, waste water treatment, power, water and all. In some locations these are major issues and CDCR pays tons of bucks in mitigation fees and for mitigation projects all up and down the state. The biggest and most obvious monetary contribution is, of course, the payroll.

    Most California prisons, especially the ones built in the last 50 years are in relatively rural areas. The salaries paid by CDCR are pretty good, especially when compared with those paid for the few other jobs available in a rural economy. The decent salaries paid to the 50,000 or so people who work in the prison system dump a lot of money into local economies for housing, restaurants, groceries etc. and provide an otherwise unattainable standard of living for many, many people living in these rural areas. Some institutions are located in very desirable Sierra foothill areas. The Dept. provides a means for people to move to these areas and in other locations provides living wages to otherwise impoverished folks. For those of you familiar with California, think Jamestown and Blythe. Mule Creek and Centenela. It’s not a PhD thesis, but I hope this gives some small idea of what effect prisons have on local economies.

    When reading Nancy’s post, as soon as I got to the Mississippi bus service part, I thought of the CA bus service she subsequently cited. This service provides transportation from the Bay Area to two women’s prisons located in the Central Valley near Chowchilla, north of Fresno. One is Central California Women’s Facility and the other is Valley State Prison. As it happens, I have a small job going on at CCWF and plan to be there next week.

    Here’s the web site: http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/

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  8. MichaelG said on April 4, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Del’s bus trip reminded me. I have occasion to fly into and out of Ontario fairly regularly. There are three prisons located not far from there: Chino, Norco and Corona or Frontera as it was once called. Every now and then, I have flown out of ONT on release day. The waiting area and flight will be loaded with families and just released inmates. I’ve seen them (ex-inmates) guzzle three and four beers on the short flight from ONT to SMF. It’s an interesting flight.

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  9. del said on April 4, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    MichaelG, you’ve described Michigan’s prisons too; almost all located in rural, economically challenged areas. (Soulwhat, you might be in MI, for some reason I assumed you weren’t.)
    I’ve heard there’s a trend towards trying to charge inmates for the cost of their incarceration but don’t know if it’s true.

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  10. Edward Carney said on April 4, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    John Sayles’s 1987 short story, “The Halfway Diner,” deals with the lives of women who visit their men in a prison in California for an hour a month. The title refers to the “waystation” on their trip up and back. It’s an imaginative and rewarding glimpse into these women’s lives.

    It is easier to find now that there has been a “new and selected” collection of his short stories published (2004). It’s called “Dillinger in Hollywood” and is available from B&N and Amazon.

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  11. Jolene said on April 4, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    I was struck by the percentage of the state budget devoted to prisons — 20%. Almost the inverse of the high-school dropout rate in Detroit — 75% — as Danny mentioned a day or two ago. Not that the two numbers have anything to do with each other.

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  12. nancy said on April 4, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    OT: Whenever I hear “Chowchilla,” Michael, I’m always reminded of the infamous Chowchilla school-bus hijacking. California has some of the most memorable place names in the country.

    Also, Michael, you forgot all those khaki pants Wal-Mart sells for its oops-I-wore-blue-jeans visitors. That has to count for something.

    In Columbus, the Ohio State Penitentiary stood on the fringes of downtown for more than a century. Highly, highly unusual to have a maximum-security pen that close to a major population center. When Lucasville was completed, they moved out the bad boys and the death chamber, and later the trusties and honor inmates, but the prison itself stood until the ’90s. The location was insane, and it was so old it could scarcely be redeveloped as anything other than, maybe, a Let’s Go to Prison! theme park, but tearing it down was a real loss to the local color. It was the most prison-y prison I’ve ever seen. It was built of gray stone, and driving past, you could see the bars on the windows. They always said the reason it took so long to redevelop the site — which became the Blue Jackets’ hockey arena — was because it would cost so much to demolish the place. The walls were said to reach to 10 feet underground, to discourage tunneling.

    I was told they had a limited sale of fixtures, and some people bought cell doors, the actual graybars themselves. They supposedly weighed 600 pounds a piece.

    Famous inmates included O. Henry, who wrote “The Gift of the Magi” while incarcerated there. Again, supposedly.

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  13. Kirk said on April 4, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    When and why did the vaguer “incarcerated” start replacing the plainer “imprisoned” in the language? I surmise that, like many other words, it was sneaked into the vernacular by obfuscatory bureaucrats with help from lazy media types who refuse to do their job: translating such nonsense into English. I change “inmates” to “prisoners” in stories all the time.

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  14. del said on April 4, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    Several years ago I checked out a library book of the Best Short stories of 2005. The stories were great. I’ve twice checked out similar books and been dissapointed. The prize jury makes all the difference. So I just returned to the one I liked, “The O. Henry Prize Stories” for 2005, and I just noticed that Richard Russo, whose book’s on the NN.c nightstand (and who chose my favorite story — Mudlavia — by Elizabeth Stuckey-French) was on the jury. In the book’s Introduction it says of William Sydney Porter that “he served out a prison sentence for bank fraud in Columbus, Ohio. Accounts of the origins of his pen name vary; it may have dated from his Austin days, when he was known to all the wandering family cat, “Oh! Henry!” or been inspired by the captin of the guard in the Ohio State Penitentiary, Orrin Henry.

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  15. MichaelG said on April 4, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    Both Folsom and San Quentin are in major metro areas. Folsom is a suburb of Sacramento and San Quentin is located in Marin County, in suburban San Francisco. There has been talk for years of selling Quentin off and relocating death row elsewhere — usually to Corcoran. San Quentin occupies many acres of what must be some of the most valuable water front real estate in the country. Both places date back to the nineteenth century.

    Here’s a link to a great picture of Folsom Prison:


    Below (maybe) is a picture I took at San Quentin last summer. Death row is in the building to the left with the green vertical stripes. That stack visible at the far corner of the building, next to the siren, is the vent pipe for the gas chamber.

    I remember the Chowchilla kidnapping, but was never motivated to figure out exactly where it took place. I can’t imagine there’s anything to see.

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  16. MichaelG said on April 4, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    No picture. I’ll email it to Nance.

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  17. Crabby said on April 4, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    Video of Ashley


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  18. nancy said on April 4, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    You know the coolest thing about that picture, Michael? The gothic hanging light fixture to the left of the gate. God, for a time when public buildings, even public buildings meant to house dirtbags, could be executed with a sense of style. Today that light would be a scandal, a “waste of taxpayer money.”

    Oh, and speaking of scandals and wastes of taxpayer money, my ex-congressman is at it again. This remarkably vile column describes his valiant efforts to get that border fence built, but all the “regulatory nightmares” that stand in his way. He says the invocation of eminent domain would be a good idea, to get around all the pussies who don’t want the fence built. You know, like THE PEOPLE WHO WOULD ACTUALLY HAVE TO LIVE NEAR AND LOOK AT IT EVERY DAY. What a hideous creature he is.

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  19. nancy said on April 4, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    Oh, and Kirk, given that I wrote a sentence with two of your pet peeves in it, let me pick it apart.

    Famous inmates included O. Henry, who wrote “The Gift of the Magi” while incarcerated there. Again, supposedly.

    I’ll agree that “while imprisoned there” would have been a better choice of words than “incarcerated.” But I’m talking about one specific prison, and to my ear, “inmates” implies (at this particular prison) better than “prisoners.” I can’t quite argue it logically; it just sounds better. And if you’re going to squeeze my shoes over “incarcerated,” then I’d definitely hang tough on “inmates.” Two words with the same root in that sentence would grate on the ear.

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  20. Dexter said on April 4, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    Chowchilla. My friend is a barber in a small DeKalb County, IN town.
    Imagine my surprise when I heard Byron MacGregor , CKLW (Windsor) bellow out “TWENTY TWENTY N E W S !!” , and report on how “an Indiana barber had seen the Chowchilla kidnapper at a local stoplight.”
    The FBI descended on the barber’s home shop…I can’t remember who else…a wide assortment of law people interviewed my friend…but it was a dead-end. It wasn’t” Mr. Chowchilla villain” at all that had seen.
    I made audio tapes of the great Byron MacGregor’s and the equally magnanimous Grant Hudson’s readings (also of CKLW)
    as they reported every twenty minutes on the “sighting”.
    The barber had rented a room in his old roomy house to me for a while after my divorce, but the “hoax” happened just after I had moved out.
    Oh yeah…I still have the old cassette of the reports being read. I played it about ten years ago.
    The barber still cuts hair for his friends, I think, Byron MacGregor died years ago. Grant Hudson disappeared from my radar screen.
    A man just released from the regional jail, which everybody calls “the prison”, out by Stryker, Ohio, was running his mouth, loudly, in a local bar about 16 years ago, just before I quit booze. He was regaling his friends about the the prison. He told a story , similar to stories here today, about “only collect calls”. What I never forgot was when he mentioned the phones themselves…he said the phones were on very short cords and were THREE FEET OFF THE FLOOR!
    Poor bastards had to hunch WAY over to pay exorbitant phone charges. Suicide prevention? Helifino.

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  21. Kirk said on April 4, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    I wasn’t addressing that sentence specifically. I agree wholeheartedly that I wouldn’t want to talk about imprisoned prisoners in the same sentence.

    I’ve wondered how many times out-of-town hockey writers used the prison analogy. I saw one in the Toronto Sun who did one night when the Maple Leafs spent a lot of time in the penalty box.

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  22. nancy said on April 4, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    I bet no one tries that at the Dispatch, do they? Reminds me of my time on the desk, when we had a limit of one “‘Tis the season” hed for every December. You could write one, but only if it was absolutely necessary and it hadn’t been done since the previous December. It was necessary quality control, as every copy editor knows.

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  23. Dexter said on April 4, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    Crabby, TY 4 the YouTube of A.M., Ph.D.

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  24. Dexter said on April 4, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    What the hell, Kirk? I respect your profession immensely but “incarcerated inmates” has been de rigueur for decades, to these eyes’ journeys, anyway.

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  25. del said on April 4, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    I tend to agree with Kirk. Incarcerated is a weaker euphemism for imprisoned; like inmate for prisoner. Good word choice advice.

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  26. Kirk said on April 4, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    Lots of things are de rigueur, some because of laziness with the language. But I’m kind of picky.

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  27. Deborah said on April 4, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    Did I miss something? What did O. Henry do that got him incarcerated?

    Prisons are weird. Have you seen the photgraphs of Chris Jordan showing folded orange prison uniforms that stand for 2.3 prisoners in the US in 2005. Mind boggling. Scroll down to the photographs (all of the other ones are good too). http://www.chrisjordan.com/current_set2.php?id=7

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  28. Harl Delos said on April 4, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    Incarcerated is a weaker euphemism for imprisoned; like inmate for prisoner.

    I’d argue that point.

    If you’re incarcerated, you’re deliberately confined, for cause.

    Imprisonment can be accidental. For instance, if you’re in a cabin with only one door that opens outward, you can be imprisoned by a snow storm while you sleep, or perhaps the wind blows down a tree, blocking the door.

    There have been different theories as to why we lock people up for extended periods. They don’t just change the name of the institutions; they change the architecture, based on the theory.

    Eastern State Penitentiary (“America’s Most Historic Prison”) was modeled after a monastery, built to give men plenty of time to reflect on their misdeeds and become better men. They spent their time in individual cells, each with a skylight and an outdoor exercise area. They were hooded when they left the cell, to minimize interaction with guards, among other reasons. When you went into stir, you ended up stir-crazy. Designed to be humanitarian, it turned out to be extremely cruel punishment.

    The competing theory of the day was the Auburn System, which congregated prisoners, and had them work. The prison movies are mostly based on Auburn System prisons, such as Sing Sing. The Ohio State Pen was an Auburn System prison.

    Although the Ohio State Pen added a lot of color (most of it gray) to Columbus, it ended up subtracting a lot of color when one of the exterior walls fell over onto a line of parked cars. Oops. They couldn’t keep people out of the prison grounds at that point. (Actually, a Columbus native told me that it wasn’t that difficult to get in before. He claimed to have done some exploration and vandalism as a teen.) If people could just waltz in, it was inevitable that someone was going to get killed there. They figured it made more sense to tear the place down than to fix the wall.

    The lore around Columbus was that they originally wanted to use the Columbus prison for Shawshank Redemption, but it was in such bad condition, that they ended up filming in Mansfield, instead.

    What did O. Henry do that got him incarcerated?

    In 1894, money was missing from the Austin bank where he was working as a teller. He had started a humor magazine called “The Rolling Stone” but it failed in 1894, and he decided to leave town. He ended up traveling for a while in Central and South America, with Al Jennings, who was a thief. In 1897, he heard his wife was dying, so he returned, and while he was there, they convicted him of embezzling. It’s not clear he stole the money. Timing and bad company probably would have been enough to convict him, but leaving his family to fend for themselves surely didn’t get him much sympathy.

    He got 5 years, and why he served time in Columbus, Ohio, when the bank was in Austin, Texas isn’t clear to me. He got out in 3 years. He worked as a pharmacist at the pen, and supposedly either got his pen name from a warder named Orrin Henry, or else from Eteinne-Ossian Henry, a pharmacist whose name is in the U.S.Pharmacopaeia.

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  29. basset said on April 4, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    twenty-twenty news? this would be it right here:


    (for those who weren’t around when screaming top-forty AM radio was king… CKLW was in Windsor, Ontario, right across the river from Detroit, and pretty much owned the youth market there in the Sixties and early Seventies. I mean, when Bob Seger writes, records, and releases a song about your program director just to try & get something on the air, you know you’re a big deal.

    Anyway, “The Big 800” did news twenty after the hour and twenty before while everyone else was doing top of the hour… and they had, let’s just say, a rather distinctive style.)

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  30. MichaelG said on April 5, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    “Inmate” is also a legal term. That is what inhabitants of California State prisons are officially called. They are so termed in all publications and in legal procedings. Those who inhabit youth facilities are called “wards”.

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  31. MichaelG said on April 5, 2008 at 1:19 pm


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  32. pseudonymous in nc said on April 8, 2008 at 3:02 am

    There are a fair few fresh-build (1990s) state prisons in western NC, often outside small, depressed towns. They were factory towns before, and they’re factory towns again, and the factory is the prison. It barely needs saying that the racial spectrum inside and out is almost inverted, nor that it’s a six-hour drive for the families of many of the inmates.

    (There’s a privately-run federal prison in Winton, NC; most of its inmates are from DC, 200 miles away.)

    Lots of staff coming in now after military service, too. On the one hand, it’s good that they’re getting work. On the other, I think about how Charles Graner went from Desert Storm to the county jail to state prison back to Iraq and Abu Ghraib.

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