Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Community trumps privacy in the wake of Hurricane Irene

This story in yesterday's New York Times plays on a persistent tension in rural communities--that between a desire and respect for privacy on the one hand and a sense of community and commitment to one's neighbors on the other.

In some ways, the story is a standard "pulling-together in the face of adversity" tale, one set in Williamsville, Vermont, in the wake of the dramatic flooding there over the week-end. Williamsville is not even a Census Designated Place, but journalist Abby Goodenough describes it as "a mountain village that has a post office, a volunteer fire department, a general store and not much else." She reports the population at about 800. What caught my eye in the story, though, was the privacy twist on the standard rural community trope.
People might not have known, or liked, their neighbors before the storm — privacy is important in places like this, where cellphone reception was nonexistent even before the storm and many landlines are now out — but that has all changed, at least for now.

* * *
Here, people with electricity and hot water are offering showers, Internet access and beds to those without. At the century-old grange hall, volunteers have made lists of what some residents need and what others can offer. A potluck supper was organized for Tuesday night, and a “lost and found” bench was set up along Dover Road ... so that possessions found in the floodwaters’ path might be reclaimed.
For move coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Irene's impact on New England, see here, here and here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The uninformative rural mystique

In Chapter One of Rural People and Communities in the 21st Century, the authors, David Brown and Kai Schafft, point out that if you do not like where you're living now then you're twice as likely to prefer a smaller town. Maybe even a small town. And it is the rural mystique, a social construct built up in our collective imagination, fueling the desire.

But as with any "mystique," the rural mystique is poorly misunderstood. The author declares fives values build the social construct into what it is: natural resource, nostalgia, existence, option, and bequest. Derived from characteristics of rural areas, each value is a social construct within the mind of contemporary persons.

All of this sounds great. The city slicker valuing whatever aspects they shall, seek to rurally retire. But the truth of the matter is they are unprepared and uninformed of the challenges that they would face in their "frontier" homes. Which serves to explain what the mystique really is: a sociological tool indicating how those migrating to rural areas are uninformed.

Consider this article detailing the changing dynamics of grizzly bears in Montana. The article explains that the grizzly population is growing, pushing out in all directions. The grizzlies were once plains predators, but settlers pushed them into the mountains. Now, with the benefit of federally-protected classification, the grizzly numbers have returned.

The increase in numbers means that people in Montana have two logical choices: kill off the grizzlies again or try to coexist. I'd like to think that modern America will choose option two. In fact, the values of the rural mystique seem to indicate the same.

Consider the existence value: the mere idea that rural-ness exists is a benefit to persons. "Yay! There are bears!" Or the bequest value, "I want my daughter to see a grizzly!" Or the natural resource value--the idea of living in the wild. Living with the bears. "Oh Marge, what could be more exciting!"

But Marge and her husband's values are fairly different from those that already live in the area. At one point the article considers lifting the protected status of grizzly bears, which would allow rural populations to take matters into their own hands.
Some here think removing federal protections is overdue, and would welcome it. “You’ll be able to protect your property again” by shooting bears, said Bert Guthrie, a retired sheep rancher. “That’s a good thing.”
This begs the ultimate of all questions, is the rural hopeful prepared for a grizzly confrontation? Or more so, can these persons adapt? The article points out that coexisting with grizzlies means making changes to daily routines.
Simple measures like taking in bird feeders and dog food at night and using bearproof garbage cans are a critical part of keeping bears alive.
Is the newly-rural retiree ready or even able to make these significant changes? Probably not. Instead, the responders to the studies highlighted by Brown and Schafft probably don't realize what rural life entails. While the above quote points to garbage duty, it is but one of many rural-life details that are different--even incongruent--with city life.

Even though the rural mystique partly explains why people are driven to rural towns, its criteria are, as the author points out, a social construct. A construct existing only in the minds of those that hold it. As an explanatory tool it helps sociologists determine why people move to rural areas; however, it also explains that these city-slickers are very uninformed.

Consider: the nearly retiree begins planning his retirement. He considers what he "knows" about other areas, decides a rural life is the life for him. How much of his decision is based on careful research? How much of it is based on the values highlighted by the rural mystique? The data highlighted by Brown and Shafft seems to indicate that what would drive his rural desire is this mystique. But the mystique can't be--and shouldn't be considered--an adequately informative tool for the retiree. It is a construct he already holds in his own mind; few thoughts could be more circular.

Likely, nothing will prepare new rural homeowners for their new rural lives, until they actually move in. Well, nothing except for the pepper spray.

China's cruel management of rural-to-urban migration

If you're looking for an example of the cruelty of fate as manifest in where one is born (even within a given country, never mind country-to-country variations), look no farther than contemporary China. This front-page story in today's New York Times explains the nation's latest efforts to manage rural-to-urban migration. The headline is an apt one: "China Takes Aim at Rural Influx." Journalist Andrew Jacobs reports that Chinese officials have demolished "30 technically illegal private schools" in Beijing this summer, displacing more than 30,000 students. The reasons the schools--often housed in warrens of ramshackle buildings--are being destroyed is contested, with officials claiming it is to protect safety and hygiene. Some believe it is because the schools are sometimes on valuable pieces of urban property.

But school administrators, parents and many Beijingers view the bulldozing as nothing more than a roughshod exercise in population control. According to the Beijing Bureau of Statistics, more than one-third of the capital’s 19.6 million residents are migrants from China’s rural hinterland, a figure that has grown by about 6 million just since 2000.

Numbers like these worry the governing Communist Party, which has a particular aversion to the specter of urban slums and their potential as cauldrons for social instability.

While the quality of the schools is questionable, they are the only education many migrant families can afford for their children.

See other posts about rural-to-urban migration and related themes in Asia here, here and here.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Drowning from/under Hurricane Irene in Vermont and usptate New York

I was struck by this quote from Vermont governor Peter Shumlin, commenting on the impact of Hurricane Irene for his tiny state.

“This is a really tough battle for us,” Mr. Shumlin said, after a helicopter ride from which he surveyed damage across the state. “What you see is farms destroyed, crops destroyed, businesses underwater, houses eroded or swept away and widespread devastation.”

He added, “This is a situation where we got dealt a very heavy blow and we’re a small rural state that doesn’t get tropical storms, so this is a real challenge for us.”

A challenge indeed. And a truly rural state Vermont is in the sense that 72% of its population live in rural places, a higher percentage rural than any other state.

Abby Goodenough's story in the New York Times indicates that, somewhat ironically, the heaviest damage from Hurricane Irene was not coastal, but rather occurred in upstate New York and Vermont, principally from river flooding. In New York, the town of Prattsville, population 883, was "washed away." A county administrator for Greene County (population 49, 071), which includes Prattsville, stated, “The village is essentially gone. The buildings have fallen off their foundations.” The administrator noted that several other Greene County towns were also very hard hit.

Read more analysis here of the meteorological and geographical forces that led to the devastating floods in New England.

Rural burdens to bear(s)

If you've ever lived or traveled in bear country, you'll be familiar with the many precautions taken to avoid an encounter with a bear: keep all food items out of your vehicle, use bear proof trash cans and food containers, make noise while out walking/hiking, and above all, stay clear of a mama bear with cubs.

Most take these precautions only when making weekend camping trips. It's a different story when the bears live in your own backyard. Grizzly bears have made numerous headlines this year, none of them very good and all of them involving the increasing interaction with people. The Grizzly bear has made a tremendous come back from the endangered species list, and with its growth has come increased contact with people.

Yellowstone National Park saw it's first fatal grizzly attack since 1986 on July 6, 2011. A second fatal attack occurred on August 27, 2011. The attack is likely due to the increased number of park visitors (up nearly 50% since 1975) and the increase in the Grizzly population (over four times the population in 1975).

Many rural communities are accustomed to bear interactions, although their methods for dealing with the bears may differ. Many ranchers in Northern Idaho and Western Montana live by the three S's when it comes to Grizzly bears, "Shoot, Shovel, and Shut up". Jeremy Hill is learning the hard way why many ranchers simply take matters in to their own hands.

In Coeur d'Alene, Idaho Hill is currently being charged with unlawfully killing a grizzly bear. Hill's father says the bear and two others had gone after the family's pigs, and Hill had shot the bear for his family's safety. After Hill called the local authorities to report the shootings, he was charged with the misdemeanor. Hill has gathered support from the community as well as state politicians in arguing that the charges should be dropped as Hill did the honest thing in reporting the incident. Hill's trial date is October 4, 2011.

Situations like these do little to answer the questions rural residents have concerning what to do when faced with a Grizzly bear. There are numerous laws on the books protecting livestock from predators such as coyotes and laws concerning self defense, but how does the law play out when the predator is on the endangered species list. Many argue that the Grizzly should be removed from the endangered species list altogether. In fact the Grizzly was removed from the endangered species list for a short time in 2007, until activists brought a suit against the federal government to re list the bears in 2009. Concerning the idea of dropping the bears from the endangered species list, many people, especially those who make a living raising livestock, echo the thoughts of Bert Guthrie, a retired sheep rancher when he said,

You'll be able to protect your property again. That's a good thing.
People in support of leaving the bears as a protected species say that time, more research, and education of the public is the key to keeping both bears and people safe from one another. State Fish and Game departments do what they can to keep bears from causing trouble and also educate the rural residents on how to better protect their property and themselves from the occasional bear. Further research also will help to determine the bears' range of territory and help assess where to locate additional reserves and wilderness areas for the bears.

For now it looks like the Grizzly will continue to be a protected species, and it will be left up to the courts to use their discretion regarding the prosecution of people like Hill.

A whole different 911 experience, in rural Idaho

I've only called 911 a few times in my life--to report drag racers on I-80 near Davis, California; about a drunk driver who rear-ended me in suburban Sacramento County; and about a woman screaming in distress from the home of a neighbor in Fair Oaks, California. The response in those first two instances was, respectively, "not much we can do about it" and "well, keep him there until an officer arrives," which turned out to take more than half an hour. In short, both dispatchers seemed at best uninterested in my call, at worst annoyed by it. The third situation was even more upsetting because no law enforcement officers showed up until several hours after my call, and then they came to my home instead of to the neighbors'. By then, the screaming had stopped, and the question they seemed most preoccupied with was whether or not she had yelled the word "help."

So, imagine my surprise when I called 911 in nonmetropolitan Camas County, Idaho a few weeks ago and actually had the dispatcher call me back once our call was dropped. I had called to report a cow in the road. No signs on Hwy 20, the major east-west thoroughfare across the county, had indicated to expect livestock in the road, so I assumed this was not open grazing territory. The dispatcher let me know that she could not hear me, and eventually our call was dropped. I was surprised when the Camas County Sheriff's office--the source of the dispatcher--called back a few minutes later to inquire as to the nature of my call. That time, the dispatcher was able to hear me, and she thanked me for the report and the details of the cross street where I had seen the cow. There was no hint of annoyance at the out-of-state accent, the city slicker concerned about a cow in the road. But then, Camas County has a population of only 1,040, and the dispatcher probably does not see much action. She may have welcomed the distraction.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Judging rural and rural judges

I've written a lot about some judges' lack of familiarity with rural contexts, even as they are so often charged with passing judgment on rural people. I've speculated that this may be particular problem with appellate judges, who are more likely than trial judges to live in cities (like the capital cities or other major cities were appellate judges tend to sit), and given the statistics on who gets law degrees, are not as likely to hail from rural places. Now, however, I see this note from the Arkansas Times reporting that Jake Looney of Mena, Arkansas, population 5,581, has declared his intention to run for a seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals. The story indicates that Looney raises spotted donkeys in his spare time. I'm not sure if he raises anything else (farm-wise), but he was the author of an early text book on agricultural law, as well as several law review articles on the topic. He also taught the course for a while when he was on the faculty of the University of Arkansas School of Law, where he also was Dean for a time. Certainly, his rural bona fides seem well in tact.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

EPA finds the California Department of Pesticide Regulation discriminated against Latino school children

It looks like rural and low-income communities in California are bearing the brunt of air pollution caused by pesticide use on agricultural land. The United States Environmental Protection Agency recently entered into an agreement with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) to resolve a civil rights complaint filed in 1999 under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The 12-year-old civil rights suit was filed by the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE) on behalf of advocacy groups and parents from Pajaro Valley, Salinas, and Ventura County, all large strawberry farming communities in California.

The complaint alleged that the CDPR discriminated against Latino school children by annually approving the use of unhealthy levels of a pesticide, methyl bromide, on fields near schools with a high percentage of Latino students. Methyl bromide is a soil fumigant (a pesticide in the form of a gas) used mostly by strawberry farmers. The fumigant is injected into the soil prior to strawberry planting to control pests. Although farmers cover the ground after applying the methyl bromide, some of the gas escapes into the air, endangering the health of farm workers and nearby communities.
A study conducted by the CDPR in 2001 discovered very high concentrations of methyl bromide in the air of at least three public schools in Watsonville and Salinas (both in Santa Cruz County). The methyl bromide levels at Pajaro Middle School in Watsonville were found to be seven times higher than the level considered safe for children. At Pajaro Middle School, 97% of students are of Hispanic or Latino descent and 95% qualify for free or reduced price meals. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis or race, color, and national origin in program receiving federal funding, including operations of a department or agency of the state or local government.

As a condition of the settlement, the CDPR has agreed to expand monitoring of air concentrations of methyl bromide near one of the Watsonville schools named in the original complaint. Brent Newell, a representative from the CRPE, criticized the settlement stating,
The settlement for this violation of their civil rights doesn't provide any substantive relief for parents and for the children named in the complaint or for the generation of Latino school children still bearing the burden of the violation.
As a requirement of the Clean Air Act, in 1993 the EPA implemented a regulation phasing out some substances that deplete the ozone, including methyl bromide. Some farmers, however, are allowed to continue using methyl bromide through an EPA exemption process which allows use of the pesticide when there are no technically or economically feasible alternatives.

Although methyl bromide use has declined, dropping from 17.1 million pounds in 1995 to 5.57 million pounds in 2009, significant amounts of the pesticide are still being used. It is encouraging to see the decline in methyl bromide use, but it does beg the question as to how a "phase out" can be effective when almost 6 million pounds of the toxic pesticide are still being used annually in California. More than 10% of the annual use is applied in a concentrated area of 3,000 acres in Santa Cruz County.

To make matters worse, in December 2010, California approved the use of methyl iodide as a substitute for methyl bromide, despite its inclusion on California's official list of cancer-causing chemicals. The threat to farming communities from the continued use of methyl bromide and the approval of methyl iodide is still very real.

The settlement is historic because it is the first time the EPA has issued a finding of disproportionate negative impact on a community in a civil rights case. Without a legal remedy for those affected, however, what incentives do regulators really have for limiting the use of cancer-causing agents near schools? When no legal recourse is available to the low-income and rural Latino families that are the primary demographic affected, they must turn to their own resources to deal with the consequences. The question is: "Do they have any resources?". Should these families bear the burden of the resulting health problems without any support from those at fault?

Small towns, military deaths and sentimentality

There's a growing awareness that a disproportionate number of those serving in our armed services hail from nonmetropolitan places. (This fact even made it into the report of the White House Rural Council, released last week--though the extent of rural over-representation is debated. Read more here). So I cannot say I was really surprised by this NPR report last week about a native son of Blanding, Utah, who was among the Navy Seals killed when the Taliban shot down a U.S. Chinook helicopter earlier this month in Afghanistan.

Dan Bammes, who reported the story, told a poignant tale of 32-year-old Petty Officer Jason Workman, who grew up in Blanding, population 3,178, and who had recently visited his home town, and indicated his desire and intention to return there to raise his family. Workman's high school football coach was quoted, sharing anecdotes to illustrate what a fine young man and teammate Workman had been, even referring to him as virtually a son. The San Juan County Sheriff indicated that Workman had expressed a desire to work in law enforcement once he left the military and moved back to Blanding. Bammes's story was a powerful one that certainly brought tears to my eyes. Link
Yet the story also left me wondering: why a story about Jason Workman of Blanding, Utah and not one about any of the other soldiers lost, no doubt also fine young men who were greatly appreciated by their communities, even if those communities lay within metropolitan areas and did not constitute the entirety of smallish home towns. Bammes did note--by way of context that arguably justifies the focus on Blanding, that Workman is the third of Blanding's native sons to die at war since 2004 and that its Army National Guard unit has seen both Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, I tend to see this piece as one of those rolled out to perpetuate a rural idea, even myth, to summon up nostalgia for the rural. Maybe it also intended to evoke a complicated cocktail of pity and envy for denizens of rural America. Indeed, Bammes closed his story with these lines:
As painful as the sacrifices have been, [Blanding] Mayor Toni Turk says love of country and service are ideals kids grow up with in his town.

Mayor TONI TURK: They are taught patriotism. They are well-grounded in terms of traditional American patriotic experiences. And this community loves America. They're not afraid to serve.

I admit that I'm skeptical of the "rural places are more patriotic" line, especially when recent literature suggests that lack of other opportunity more than anything else that draws rural youth into military service. Read an earlier blog touching on this debate here.

Read more about Blanding and San Juan County, Utah here and here.

A "rural woman who made it on grit"

That's how the story, by Barry Bearak in today's New York Times, characterizes Ntsiki Biyela, a KwaZulu Natal woman who won a scholarship to study wine in 1998 and who, 11 years later, was named South Africa's Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009. The "made it on grit" phrase presumably refers in part to the fact that the South African wine scene is dominated by whites, and also to the fact that Biyela undertook the study of wine even before she knew what it was. (Read Bearak's report for more details on this improbable occurrence).

Here's how Ntsiki Biyela describes her two worlds, which straddle not only rural and urban, but also black and white, European and African:

“I live in two worlds,” she said recently. “I’m still able to fit in the village, speaking Zulu and eating pap. I also fit in the European-style world.”

She pondered the difference. “In the European style it’s about striving, the ‘me life,’ everything about me. In the village, it’s all about the community.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rural schools and 4-day schedules

That is one of the facts used to argue that funding of public schools is inadequate in this New York Times op-ed by Luis Ubinas and Chris Gabrieli says. Here's the excerpt:
The minimum required school day in West Virginia is already about the length of a “Harry Potter” double feature. In Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, summer school programs are being slashed or eliminated. In Oregon and California this year, students will spend fewer days in the classroom; in rural communities from New Mexico to Idaho, some students will be in school only four days a week.
I'm pleased to see these authors' attention to so many issues facing poor and largely rural states. But then again, education is a context in which it seems especially hard to overlook gross spatial inequalities and the short shrift that rural schools get.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Us and them" and/or "black and white"

I've been following the news of James Anderson's murder in Jackson, Mississippi, a crime that recent disclosures suggest was a hate crime. Read a recent report here. This story on the front page of today's New York Times debates whether the accused, Deryl Dedmon, and his accomplices were motivated by racism or whether the attack on Anderson, an African American, was simply a "anomaly born of anger, alcoholism and teenage stupidity."

Kim Severson's story is chock full of vivid depictions of Southern culture--a culture in which racism is arguably a central feature, if more recently a submerged and denied one. Severson writes:
Although they lived just 15 miles apart and spent Sundays in church, Mr. Anderson, 48, and Mr. Dedmon, 19, could not have led more different lives.

Mr. Dedmon liked his high school agriculture classes, but not as much as he loved hanging out with friends at a drive-in restaurant in the largely white suburban county where he lived, his friends say. He was the joker among a group for whom country music, Bible verses, Bud Light and pickup trucks serve as the cultural markers.

Mr. Anderson was a good country cook, a gifted gardener and always genial, his family said. He liked his job on the assembly line at the Nissan plant north of Jackson, where he had worked for about seven years.
The killing occurred in the parking lot of a motel in Jackson, just off the Interstate, where Dedmon and his friends had driven from neighboring Rankin County. Some testimony indicates that the teenagers were looking for a black person to harm, and one witness testified that one of the seven teens involved in the attack on Anderson yelled "white power."

Rankin County, which Severson describes as a "largely white suburban county," is hardly rural with a population of 141,617; indeed, it is part of the Jackson, Mississippi metropolitan area. Nevertheless, Severson's depiction is of a place that is culturally rural. For example, Severson describes it as a place "where redneck can be a term of pride among the young whites." A quote from Dedmon's younger sister reflects the same theme, up to a point: “We’re just country, and whoever comes here, we welcome everybody.”

One white teenager who went to high school with Dedmon and was bullied by Dedmon and his friends hits on that theme, too, but also its sinister downside: “There is a subgroup that takes the Southern country-boy thing to another level.”

Whether the "Southern country-boy thing" is always racist, I cannot say, but the opinion of an African-American psychiatrist in Jackson, Dr. Timothy Summers, resonated with me:
There still is that component of our culture that very much likes to hold on to how things have been in the past. ... That group, however, doesn’t represent the broader cross section of people who are good and honest but perhaps too na├»ve, perhaps too quiet, too complacent in looking at racism.

Friday, August 19, 2011

On the West Memphis Three and being an "outsider in a small town"

I was living in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the spring of 1993 when three 8-year-old boys were found murdered and "hogtied" in West Memphis, Arkansas. The pursuit of their killers dominated the state newspaper that summer, and so the names Damien Echols, Jessie Miskelley, and Jason Baldwin were familiar to me--as were the reported details of the assault on the boys--when I learned this afternoon from an NPR report that the so-called West Memphis Three had been released.

I had become vaguely aware that, over years since the murders and the teenagers' convictions, the three defendants--now men in their mid-thirties--had become a cause celebre supported by the likes of the Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. I wrote an earlier blog post here about developments in the case.
As I illustrated in that earlier post, media coverage of these events tends to play on certain assumptions about small towns, even though I don't think of West Memphis, with a population of more than 27,000, across the river from Memphis, Tennessee, as very small. In the New York Times coverage of the men's release from prison, for example, Campbell Robertson writes:
While many were convinced of the guilt of Mr. Echols, the alleged ringleader, others were immediately skeptical, believing he was singled out for being an outsider in a small town.
On the one hand, it echoes a phenomenon I have argued is often legally relevant in rural places: lack of anonymity, specifically its relation to those who are different, outside the mainstream. Mr. Echols was such an outsider, apparently, by being "Goth." As indicated in my earlier post, though, I am skeptical about the extent to which all of the phenomena that journalists have associated with "small towns" in this case are distinct to that milieu (or, indeed, applicable to a city the size of West Memphis) or that they can fairly be blamed for the miscarriage of justice against the West Memphis Three.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Gold rush in the Australian outback draws city slickers

Read the New York Times story, "Gold Fever Gripping the Australian Outback," here. An excerpt about the phenomenon follows, featuring the towns of Mudgee and Hargraves:

An influx of out-of-towners to prospect in Australia has been a boon for small-business owners in former gold rush towns, many of which have fallen on hard times in recent years.

Take, for example, the tiny outback hamlet of Mudgee, about 170 miles northwest of Sydney. In 1851 it had a population of just 200, before ballooning to 20,000 after the discovery of gold in nearby Hargraves, which was ground zero for the first gold rush in the history of New South Wales.

But the fortunes of Mudgee flagged along with gold prices in the last century. Young people moved to the cities in search of steady work, while punishing droughts drove away farmers. Today, there are just 8,000 people spread sparsely along lonely streets built for more than twice that many inhabitants.

Australia is the second largest producer of gold in the world, after China.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXXIV): Accumulated news

Issues of the Newton County Times have been piling up while I have been cavorting around the Rocky Mountains, so I have a lot of catching up to do. Here are some headlines:
  • Fire levels apartments. "The Overlook Apartments at Marble Falls was destroyed by an overnight fire. Nothing remained Thursday morning, August 4, of the landmark building perched above state Highway 7 that was part of the former Dogpatch and Marble Falls Resort built in the late 1960s." The cause of the fire is unknown; no one was injured.
  • Lack of jail progress irks Newton JPs. "No change in the status of a new county jail is beginning to try the patience of some members of the Newton County Quorum Court. At its Tuesday, July 5, meeting--delayed a night due to the Independence Day holiday--discussion centered on the jail after quick adoption of two ordinances and a resolution." The report indicates that anger and frustration is targeted at Ron Kincade, who is serving as county solicitor. Kincade earlier introduced a new plan to build a scaled-back, smaller facility than was initially envisaged, but Kincade was not present at the July meeting to follow up on his June proposal which was reflected on "a sheet of tracing paper on which a building contract outlined a drawing" of the downsized facility.
  • Woman dies; man in ICU. "[A] woman died Thursday night and a man was hospitalized Friday after an apparent overdose at a residence off Mt. Hersey Road." The story reports that the two, both in their forties, may have overdosed as part of a suicide pact. The Sheriff reported that "Keys apparently told family members that she wasn't feeling well, and Decker said he'd take care of her. They then went into a bedroom. Sometime later, the [woman's "pre-adult children" who were in the home] went in to check on her and found her unresponsive, along with Decker still barely breathing.
  • No water for county fair? "Ivan Reynolds [sic] the superintendent of the Mockingbird Hill Water System said that there is a conservation order in place through October and doubts that there will be enough of a supply to provide the fair grounds with water during the upcoming Newton County fair. If the fair was today there would be no water, he said Monday afternoon" July 18, 2011.
  • Middleton pleads guilty to theft by receiving, conspiracy. "Ricky Middleton, 52, recently pleaded no contest to charges against him in connection with theft cases and alleged plot to kidnap the son of Newton County Sheriff Keith Slape in late 2009. Middleton will be sentenced to 120 days in prison, but he will also be on probation for 12 years, and the court suspended imposition of another 12 years of prison time based on his good behavior, according to court filings." Read earlier reports about the Middleton matter here and here.
  • Film on herbicide abuse draws public eye. This story is about the screening of "The Natural State of America" in neighboring Harrison. The film is "an expose on government's and industry's abusive use of herbicides and the detrimental impact these chemicals are having in fragile ecosystems such as here in the heart of the Ozarks." Else, the story describes the film as about "a four decade struggle to prevent unnecessary herbicide use in the beautiful and diverse Arkansas Ozarks. The U.S. Forest Service has sprayed herbicides in the Ozarks for years for their vegetative management. Recently, a rural electric cooperative that covers much of the Ozarks has started spraying to maintain their powerline rights of ways." Apparently, "[m]any of the anti-herbicide advocates [depicted in the film] are from Newton County, which for its pristine nature. There are no stoplights or railroads to be found in the entire county. The residents are closer to nature, to say the least." These last two sentences of material I have quoted also show quotation marks in the story, but the report does indicate who is being quoted.
  • Jasper school tax passes. "By 30 votes, voters in the Jasper School District approved a nine-tenths of a mill property tax increase and refunding of existing bonds in a special school election Tuesday, July 12. This will allow the board of education to begin a $3.3 million facility improvement program involving all three of the school district's campuses: Jasper, Kingston and Oark." The referendum was defeated in every voting precinct except Ponca, Kingston and Oark, but it received overwhelming support at Kingston, where it passed 92 to 14. It passed at Oark by a vote of 25 to 8. The Ponca precinct passed the measure by a vote of 22 to 5.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Rural prisons: spatial isolation at its finest

During the past month, I have made what I consider to be an inordinate number of visits to several California State Prisons throughout the state. My most visited institutions include the Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California (2000 population 38,824) , and the Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, California (2000 population 28,075). To say that the prisons are spatially isolated is an understatement. Even within the cities in which they lie, all of the prisons, and their sister prisons, the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad and the North Kern State Prison in Delano, are all located a good "cushion" distance away from the towns themselves--although still within the city limits.

One of the things that has struck me most about my visits--besides the obvious encounters with extreme security and psychological tension of being in an enclosed space--are the journeys to and from the prisons.
I have now made the five-hour (one way) drive to Delano from Davis along highway 99 three times. Unlike the I-5, which parallels it, the 99 goes through virtually every small town between Sacramento, to the north, and Bakersfield, to the south. When I am not surrounded by blooming agricultural fields of trees or the straight rows of other crops, I am bombarded by small towns and larger cities and the billboards that go along with them. My favorite billboard is one which says "GO TO HELL! PLEASE DON'T!" Central California is a very different place from the rest of the state (see Jon's insightful post about Modesto, here). Despite the billboards, I am often struck by the beauty of the Sierra Nevada range to my left as I make my way to Delano.

The drive to Soledad is similar. I have made the drive only from my mother's home in Salinas, but the fields along the 101, surrounded on either side by majestic hills and mountains, do not prepare you for the stark contrast upon entering the prison complex or the grounds of the prison itself.
Upon entering each prison, tall buildings and walls block out the surrounding beauty. I asked one of my clients if he ever saw Delano's open fields of table grapes, and he said that the walls surrounding the yards prevented him from doing so. Similarly, the complex in Soledad is surrounded by a tall grove of eucalyptus trees which can block out any sights that might otherwise be visible from the prison yards. Prisons are made in order to isolate wrongdoers, break down their bad habits, and replace them with something better. Instead, every minute that I spend in a prison I am only reminded that I am not in control, and that the majority of inmates are forced to spend most of their time staring at concrete and barbed wire.

I have said it many times, but the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is a misnomer. Being prevented from even seeing the natural beauty surrounding oneself can hardly be rehabilitative. My half-conclusive thesis for this post is that while rural communities themselves are isolated, prisons create a double layer of isolation that is even more alienating.

Visiting prisons has caused me to give much thought to Prison Town, USA, which documented the small town of Susanville, California (2000 population 13,541) as it struggled with the impact of the High Desert State Prison and another federal facility on the local economy and community. Tracy Hullig wrote about the benefits and costs to rural communities in 2002, in a short piece entitled Building a Prison Economy in Rural America. Hullig writes that prior to 1980, only 36% of inmates were in non-metropolitan prisons. Now, a majority of inmates in the United States are housed in rural settings.

Many of the COs (guards) I encounter drive a fairly long distance in order to work at their respective prisons. Most of the guards at KVSP in Delano live in Fresno (2010 population 505,479, located about an hour away) or Bakersfield (2010 population 347,483, located roughly half an hour away). The majority of the COs I met in SVSP drive from Salinas (2005 est. population 148,350, located twenty-five minutes away).

Instead of invigorating the local communities in which the prisons are built, many COs choose to live in larger cities and commute to work. The towns themselves struggle day-to-day with their limited economies, enjoying the beauty that surrounds them even while the prisoners cannot. Instead of benefiting the communities, they are generally exposed to billboards such as the one outside of KVSP: "State Prison. Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Warren Jeffs sentenced to life in prison

The AP report, as published in the New York Times, is here. An excerpt follows:
[Jeffs] stood quietly as the decision by the jury, which deliberated less than a half hour, was read, giving him the maximum sentence on both counts. The sentences are to be served consecutively. Mr. Jeffs maintained he was being persecuted for his religious beliefs.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Is it suddenly OK to be folksy? at least if you're also cheerful?

I was struck by this NYT description of Renee Ellmers, recently elected Republican congresswoman from North Carolina's second district:
Her loyalty, relentless cheer and folksy locution — a news conference complement to the laconic, cigarette-tinged pronouncements of Mr. Boehner — have combined to make her one of the Republican leadership’s greatest freshman allies, and a rising star in the conference she once derided from her perch at Tea Party rallies back home.
This characterization--especially the positive spin on "folksy locution" is in sharp contrast to many NYT comments about Sarah Palin, which I have written about here. I wonder why Ellmers is getting gentler treatment from the NYT staff. Perhaps it is because Ellmers seems more reasonable than Palin, Bachman and the likes--if only because Ellmers has been siding with Boehner rather than with the Tea Party in recent debt ceiling discussions. Here are some quotes from Ellmers about her shift in loyalties.

“There is just a lot of mistrust Americans have for ‘those people in Washington,’ ” [Ellmers] said, adding with a laugh, “and now I am one of those people in Washington.”

Mrs. Ellmers said that before she arrived here, she believed Mr. Boehner and his cohorts were not standing up to Democrats. “When I got here I realized that wasn’t the case at all,” she said. “I was told he wasn’t conservative. He is conservative. And that’s what I tell other people in our discussion.”

Legal lines from the rural Rockies

I have found reading local and regional newspapers in Idaho and Montana quite interesting in the last few weeks while traveling in the northern Rocky Mountains. Among differences from reading these papers and reading the NYT and the Sacramento Bee, I see a lot more coverage in these local and regional papers of environmental issues (including stories about state-federal agreements on hunting wolves related to Wyoming, Idaho and Montana). In addition, sports sections tend to be dominated by rodeo coverage. Here's a sampling of headlines:
  • "More Than Just Mail"; With the announcement that 3,700 post offices could close, rural Montana braces for change. The dateline for the Flathead Beacon story is Olney, Montana, which is not even a Census Designated Place or the subject of a wikipedia entry. According to the story, it is in Flathead County and has a population of 191. Of course, stories about likely post office closures have been in national as well as regional news in the past few weeks, and the closures are expected to have a disparate impact on rural areas. Read more here and here.

  • "The big break: Arrival of site forever altered county's cultural, economic landscape." This report in the Sunday Post Register (Idaho Falls) on August 7, 2011, is about the selection of Bonneville Coumty 60 years ago to be the site of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's activity in Idaho.

  • "Officials agree to clinic funding." This story in the August 5, 2011 issue of The Missoulian, reports that the Ravalli County Commissioners voted 3-2 to accept federal funding of about $40,000 that will keep open the doors of the county's family planning Clinic. But, the story reports, "the vote came with a caveat: The clinic must find alternative funding sources within the next year." The clinic provides "birth control, emergency contraceptives, pregnancy and pap tests, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, nutrition education and counseling on a sliding scale." It serves more than 460 patients, 80% of whom are adults. Among those clients, 78% are at or below the poverty level. More than 100 residents attended the meeting where the funding was debated, though the story does not indicate whether those in attendance mostly supported accepting the funding or not.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A sheriff on both sides of the law (Part II)

That's a headline I used once before, here. Now, a story in a Montana newspaper last week gives me a reason to roll it out again. A front-page story in the Great Falls Tribune reported on August 3, 2011, that the sheriff of Roosevelt County, "Freedom Crawford of Wolf Point, was charged with misdemeanor assault and obstructing a peace officer, along with two other offenses, following a fight at a downtown bar here early Tuesday morning. The altercation resulted in one man being transported to the emergency room with cuts to his face."

The report notes that one man was transported to the emergency room with cuts to his face following the fight. It also notes that Crawford and several of his deputies are in Lewistown, population 5,938 the county seat of Fergus County (population 11,218), for an evidentiary hearing related to Barry Beach's 1984 conviction for the beating death of Kim Nees of Poplar in 1979.

The Great Falls paper has been full of news about Beach's hearing this week. He has already served more than a quarter of a 100-year sentence in the Montana State Prison, but he has maintained his innocence for 27 years, arguing that the "confession that put him behind bars was coerced by aggressive investigators." Beach's lawyers are "trying to convince District Judge Wayne Phillips that he deserves a new trial based on the testimony of a string of witnesses who he says implicate a group of jealous girls in Nees' murder more than 30 years ago." A headline later in the week indicates that judge has called for written briefs in the matter before he will permit all of the new testimony being offered, having heard the testimony proferred by a 2008 district court petition by Beach.

Roosevelt County, population 10,231, is in far eastern Montana, on the state line with North Dakota. It's county seat is Wolf Point, population 2,533. Fergus County, on the other hand, is in central Montana, which suggests a change of venue for this evidentiary hearing, as Fergus and Roosevelt counties are not likely in the same judicial district.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

So much rural news, so little time to blog

At least while I am on vacation. So, to keep from falling even more behind, I am going to offer a few "headlines" and links to stories that friends and colleagues have called to my attention while I have been away:

Rural job losses associated with cuts in federal spending. Read more here and here. A map showing counties in which governments are the largest employers may be viewed here.

Rural Route film festival in--of all places--Queens. Read more here.

Defining rural. reports that Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, will discuss with the White House Rural Council reducing the number of definitions of "rural" used by the federal government. One reason for doing so is to diminish confusion among rural officials when they are trying to determine the programs for which they qualify.

The realities of rural telecommunications deficits

On vacation in rural Montana and Idaho the past week, I've come face to face with the lack of cell phone service (never mind broadband) in all four places where we have stayed thus far. Ok, Ok ... I know I'm supposed to be relaxing, but how's a person to keep up a blog from and about such wonderful but remote locales without some form of Internet access?