California Is Running Out Of Prisoners To Fight Its Deadly Wildfires

While many on the left have celebrated California’s push to legalize marijuana as a victory for a progressive, harm-reduction approach to combating addiction and crime, the pullback in the number of low-level prisoners entering the state’s penal system is leaving the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Court mandates to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons – combined with the legalization of marijuana, the most commonly used drug in America (aside from alcohol, of course) – have led to a sharp drop in the number of prisoners housed at state facilities in recent years. Interestingly, one byproduct of this trend is it’s creating headaches for the state officials who are responsible for coordinating the emergency wildfire response just as California Gov. Jerry Brown is warning that the severe fires witnessed this year – the most destructive in the state’s history – could become the new status quo.

To wit, since 2008, the number of prisoner-firemen has fallen 13%.

As the Atlantic reports, California has relied on inmates to help combat its annual wildfires since World War II, when a paucity of able-bodied men due to the war effort forced the state to turn to the penal system for help. More than 1,700 convicted felons fought on the front lines of the destructive wildfires that raged across Northern California in October.

While communities from Sonoma to Mendocino evacuated in the firestorm’s path, these inmates worked shifts of up to 72 straight hours to contain the blaze and protect the property residents left behind, clearing brush and other potential fuel and digging containment lines often just feet away from the flames. Hundreds more are on the fire line now, combatting the inferno spreading across Southern California.

But over the course of the last decade, their ranks have begun to thin. As drought and heat have fueled some of the worst fires in California’s history, the state has faced a court mandate to reduce overcrowding in its prisons. State officials, caught between an increasing risk of wildfires and a decreasing number of prisoners eligible to fight them, have striven to safeguard the valuable labor inmates provide by scrambling to recruit more of them to join the force. Still, these efforts have been limited by the courts, public opinion, and how far corrections officials and elected leaders have been willing to go…

With dry conditions expected to persist for the foreseeable future, California will need to adjust to this new reality. Meanwhile, the fate of the inmate-firefighting program lies in the balance between two trends: the increasing need for cheap labor, and the pending decline in incarceration.

The push to reduce overcrowding is a reaction to the rising incarceration rates of the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton declared gangsters and criminals “superpredators” and authorized stiff penalties for relatively minor drug offenses.

For inmates, the reduction in state prison populations that first nudged that balance was long overdue. In the 1990s and 2000s, increasingly severe overcrowding in California prisons compromised medical services for prisoners and led to roughly one preventable death each week. A federal court ruled in 2009 that the inadequate health care violated the Eighth Amendment’s embargo against cruel and unusual punishment, and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by just shy of 27 percent – a cut of nearly 40,000 prisoners at the time of the ruling. California appealed the decision, but the Supreme Court upheld it in May 2011.

As one might expect, the push to reduce overcrowding has had the greatest impact on the population of inmates in minimum security prisons. Typically, state officials prefer to recruit minimum security inmates who are already serving relatively light sentences and thus have the most incentive to cooperate and not cause problems (like disappearing into the wilderness).

Also, state guidelines prohibit the recruitment of certain violent criminals and, of course, sex offenders.

The pool of potential recruits was limited long before the courts’ mandate. It comprises only inmates who earn a minimum-custody status through good behavior behind bars and excludes arsonists, kidnappers, sex offenders, gang affiliates, and those serving life sentences. To join the squad, inmates must meet high physical standards and complete a demanding course of training. They also have to volunteer.

 

“But,” cautioned David Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, “you have to understand the uniquely coercive prison environment, where few things are clearly voluntary.” In the eyes of criminal-justice reformers, corrections officials recruit inmates under duress. “In light of the vast power inequality between prisoners and those who employ them,” Fathi continued, “there is a real potential for exploitation and abuse.”

Aside from the shrinking inmate population, a handful of inmate deaths this year while battling the NorCal wildfires is causing some low-level offenders to reconsider whether the incentives being offered by the state – credit toward parole, and a generous wage (at least by prison standards) – are really worth the risks.

Many inmates join the force to escape unpalatable prison conditions. In doing so they take on great personal risk, performing tasks that put them in greater danger than most of their civilian counterparts, who work farther from the flames driving water trucks and flying helicopters, among other activities. By contrast, inmates are often the first line of defense against fires’ spread, as they’re trained specifically to cut firebreaks—trenches or other spaces cleared of combustible material—to stop or redirect advancing flames. The work can be fatal: So far this year, two inmates have died in the line of duty, along with one civilian wildland-firefighter. The first, 26-year-old Matthew Beck, was crushed by a falling tree; the second, 22-year-old Frank Anaya, was fatally wounded by a chainsaw.

 

“Obviously this is not something that everyone is willing to volunteer for,” said Bill Sessa, a CDCR spokesman. “We’ve always been limited by the number of inmates who were willing to volunteer for the project.” Even when state prisons were at their most crowded, the camps where inmate firefighters live weren’t filled to capacity. And as the pool of qualified prisoners has contracted, he said, corrections officials have had to “work harder now than we did before to bring the camp to the inmates’ attention.”

In an effort to entice more recruits to join up, state officials are trying to emphasize the benefits of volunteering to fight the blazes: Volunteer firefighters can receive visits from family out in the open, instead of behind a thick pane of glass. It also allows them to escape the confines of the prison – for a brief time at least.

But with legal marijuana rapidly draining the ranks of low level offenders, a sizable shortfall will likely to persist in the years to come.

And after the death and devastation wrought by this year’s fires, many inmates have good reason to reconsider.

After all, you can’t enjoy visits with family and friends when you’re dead.
 

Eric Peters: Today’s Opportunities Include Negative Convexity, Complexity, Illiquidity, Leverage, Or All The Above

From the latest Weekend Notes by Eric Peters, CIO of One River Asset Management

Anecdote

“What are the odds we come across an opportunity in the coming 4yrs to earn 20%?” the investor asked his team.

“High,” they answered. “The odds are 100%,” he said, having seen this movie a few times. “So our cost of capital is 5% per year (20% divided by 4yrs), plus the 1% we earn on cash,” he said. His team nodded.

“Under no circumstances should we deploy capital unless it earns well more than 6% per year from here on out.” It made sense.

“What do we see that earns more than this hurdle?” he asked. His team’s list was as short today as it was long in 2016, 2011, 2009, 2003, 1998, 1997, 1994, 1992, 1990, 1987, etc. Today’s few opportunities have much in common with previous peaks: negative convexity, complexity, illiquidity, leverage, and/or all the above.

Investors confuse a 7.5% average annualized return target with a 7.5% annual return target,” he explained. “They’re entirely different things.”

Targeting average annualized returns allows you to accept what the market gives you, while targeting annual returns forces you to leverage investments near peak valuations to hit your bogey. “Typical pension and endowment boards want incoming investment returns to consistently exceed outgoing flows.”

So most investors attempt to produce the highest return every year, no matter what it takes. “But that’s the wrong objective. Never underestimate the value of cash and patience in achieving the real goal; superior returns over the complete cycle,” he explained.

“Markets tell you what to do if you listen,” he said. “Near the highs, few opportunities exist to earn substantial returns, so you should take little risk. Near the lows, opportunities to earn attractive returns are abundant.” You should take a lot of risk. “This sounds simple because it is. It’s obvious. But obvious is not easy.”

“You Grow Up Wanting To Be Luke Skywalker, Then Realize You’ve Become A Stormtrooper For The Empire”

Authored by US Army combat veteran Daniel Crimmins via Upriser.com,

You grew up wanting so bad to be Luke Skywalker, but you realize that you were basically a Stormtrooper, a faceless, nameless rifleman, carrying a spear for empire, and you start to accept the startlingly obvious truth that these are people like you.

Question: How do you Americans as a people walk around head held high, knowing that every few months your country is committing a 9/11 size atrocity to other people. Imagine if the 9/11 terror attacks were happening in America every few months. Again and again, innocent people dying all around you. Your brothers and sisters. For no reason.

Daniel Crimmins from U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division answered:

Many of us are unable. Many of us watched 9/11, and accepted the government and media’s definition of the attack as a act of war rather than a criminal action. A smaller portion, drifting along passively thought a major war was coming, that people we knew were going to fight and die. Some of us maybe worried about our younger brother being drafted, despite being in college. Now, it seems stupid, but in the 72 hours after 9/11, some Americans, maybe suffering from depression, certainly with a mind shaped by comic books and action movies, ate up the “us vs. them” good vs. evil rhetoric spouted by the cowboy in chief. After all, he was the president, and no matter how bright you might think yourself, you can still be swayed by passion and emotion, led to terrible decisions.

Some of us, therefore, left our dorm rooms, and walked down Main Street to the recruiter’s office. Some of us were genuinely surprised the office wasn’t full to bursting of young men eager to avenge their fallen countrymen. Some of us were genuinely surprised when we had to push the recruiter to stop trying to sell desk jobs and just let us join the damn Infantry.

Image via Upriser.com

Some of us got enlisted, then, and went down to Georgia, head high to mask the anxiety and fear they might have helped. Perhaps some number of Americans in this situation discovered that maybe it hadn’t been the best idea, but would be goddamned if they were going to admit it, and let everyone back home smuggly remark on how right they were.

So they persevere. They learn to work as a unit, to look past personality issues, to see each other as Soldiers rather than as a race, or economic status, or any of the other things people hate about each other. They learn to kill.

Then some of these people, perhaps while sitting hungover in the platoon area in the Republic of Korea hear that we have invaded Iraq. They have “Big Scary Bombs”, and Saddam Hussein, the secular Arab dictator had somehow colluded with the devoutly religious Osama Bin Laden to attack the US. They hated our freedom, you see.

Then some of these young American men might transfer back to Georgia and be assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, and end up in Iraq in January of 2005. And maybe these kids, still drunk on Fox News and fantasies of glory and renown being enough to win their ex-girlfriends back, are excited to go to Iraq. Sure, we hadn’t found any WMDs yet, and we had Hussein in custody, but they were still somehow a threat and had to be dragged kicking and screaming into Jeffersonian democracy. Inside every dirka is a good American, yearning to be free.

So you fight. You kill. Watch friends die. Its usually quick, almost never quiet, but for the rest of your life, when you remember sitting at the bar with them, they’re blown open. You picture the nights you spent downtown at Scruffy Murphy’s, but instead of the stupid hookah shell necklace, your boy’s jaw is blown off, and his left eye is ruined, and he’s screaming.

You fight, you kill, you watch friends die, and you notice a distinct lack of change. You kick in doors and tell terrified women to sit on the floor while you and your friends ransack their home, tearing the place apart, because they might be hiding weapons. There is no reason to believe this house in particular is enemy, same for the next one, and the one after that, or the seven before; they just happened to be there, and maybe they had weapons. Probably not, they almost never did. There were a few times when we had deliberate raids based on solid intel and we’d turn up some stuff, but generally we were just tossing houses because we could.

Then maybe your FISTer [field artillery forward observer] forgets to carry the remainder, and drops a mess of mortars on the village your supposed to protect. Maybe the big Iraqi running at you screaming was just mentally ill. Of course, you won’t know this until after you’ve put seven rounds through his rib cage, and his wailing, ancient mother is cradling his body, spitting at you.

Maybe when you get back to the FOB [Forward Operating Base], the Platoon Sergeant tells you you did the right thing; next time, it might be a suicide bomber. They tell you it was an honest mistake, it wasn’t your fault. They tell you to go get some chow, take a shower if the water works, and sleep it off. You did good work that day, apparently.

Chris Hondros’ well-known “One Night in Tal Afar” photograph (Getty Images) showing the aftermath of a checkpoint shooting – Samar Hassan, 5, screams after her parents were killed after their car unwittingly approached a US Army checkpoint at dusk in Tal Afar, Iraq.

During chow, the TV is on AFN, and they are rebroadcasting some Fox News show, and you’re hearing about drone strikes, and all the great things we’re doing, and you can’t help but see that poor dumb assholes face, looking past his mother as he bleeds to death. He’s in pain, obviously, but he has the most perfectly confused look on his face. He doesn’t comprehend what’s happening. Little more hot sauce on your eggs doesn’t really help.

Then you realize you haven’t seen anything to support the idea that these poor fuckers are a threat to your home. You look around and you see all he contractors making six figure salaries to fix your shit, train Iraqis, maintain the ridiculous SUVs the KBR dicks ride around in. You consider the fact that every 25mm shell costs about forty bucks, and your company has been handing those fuckers out like shrapnel flavored parade candies. You think about all the fuel you’re going through, all the ammo and missiles and grenades. You think about every time you lose a vehicle, the Army buys a new one. Maybe you start to see a lot of people making a lot of money on huge amounts of human suffering.

Then you go on leave, and realize that Ayn Rand has no idea what the fuck she’s talking about. You realize that Fox News and Limbaugh and John McCain don’t respect you or your buddies. They don’t give a fuck if you get a parade or a box when you get home, you’re nothing to them but a prop.

Then you get out, and you hate the news. You hate the apathy, and you hate the murder being carried out in your name. You grew up wanting so bad to be Luke Skywalker, but you realize that you were basically a Stormtrooper, a faceless, nameless rifleman, carrying a spear for empire, and you start to accept the startlingly obvious truth that these are people like you.

Maybe your heart breaks a little every time some asshole brags about a “successful” drone strike.

Your statement is correct enough; if all of America was one dude, that dude would not give a shit about the little brown people we’re burning and crushing and choking to death. We aren’t all like that, but it makes me incredibly, profoundly sad to see what my country actually is.

Some of us care, and I think there are more every day.

49 Countries Have Violated Sanctions On North Korea

A new report from the Institute for Science and International Security has found that 49 countries violated sanctions on North Korea to varying degrees between March 2014 and September 2017.

Infographic: 49 Countries Have Violated Sanctions On North Korea  | Statista

You will find more statistics at Statista

13 governments including Cuba, Egypt, Iran and Syria were involved in military violations, which as Statista’s Martin Armstrong notes, includes either receiving military training from North Korea or being involved in the import and export of military equipment.

The range of nations involved in breaching non-military sanctions is much broader.

Those violations include importing and exporting sanctioned goods and minerals or aiding shipments by re-flagging vessels. Other instances include the involvement of front companies as well as other business activities like financial transactions. The list of nations violating sanctions non-militarily includes China, France, Germany and Japan.

13 other countries violated sanctions in a manner that seems completely inadvertent.

North Korea targeted countries including the Canada, Switzerland and the U.S. in an attempt to buy equipment which could potentially have military applications. This strategy has proven successful in the past, with the most famous example occurring in the 1980s when Pyongyang duped U.S. aerospace manufacturer McDonnell Douglas in order to illegally obtain 87 civilian MD-500 helicopters. The North Korean military later modified them to carry Susong-Po anti-tank missiles and these aircraft are still in active service today.

All You Need To Know About Today’s Bitcoin Futures Contract

CBOE Global Markets Inc and CME Group Inc will launch futures contracts on bitcoin on Dec. 10 and Dec. 17 respectively. Here are some of the differences between the products to be offered by the exchange operators.

CONTRACT UNIT

  • The Cboe Bitcoin Futures Contract will use the ticker XBT and will equal one bitcoin.
  • The CME Bitcoin Futures Contract will use the ticker BTC and will equal five bitcoins.

PRICING AND SETTLEMENT

  • Both Cboe’s and CME’s bitcoin futures contracts will be settled in U.S. dollars, allowing exposure to the bitcoin without actually having to hold any of the cryptocurrency.
  • Cboe’s contract will be priced off of a single auction at 4 p.m. Eastern time (2100 GMT) on the final settlement date on the Gemini cryptocurrency exchange.
  • CME’s contract will be priced off of the CME Bitcoin Reference Rate, an index that references pricing data from cryptocurrency exchanges, currently made up of Bitstamp, GDAX, itBit and Kraken.

TRADING HOURS

  • Cboe’s XBT contract will trade on CFE, with regular trading hours of 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Eastern time on Mondays and 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m Tuesday through Friday. Extended hours will be 6 p.m. Sunday to 9:30 a.m. Monday, and 4:30 p.m. Monday through to 9:30 a.m. Friday.
  • CME’s BTC will trade on CME Globex and CME ClearPort Sunday to Friday from 6 p.m. – 5 p.m. Eastern time with a one-hour break each day beginning at 5 p.m.

MARGIN RATE AND CLEARING

  • Cboe’s contract will clear through the Options Clearing Corporation and a 44 percent margin rate will apply.
  • CME’s contract will clear through CME ClearPort and will have a 35 percent initial margin rate.

CONTRACT EXPIRATIONS

  • Cboe said it may list up to four weekly contracts, three near-term serial months, and three months on the March quarterly cycle.
  • CME said it will list monthly contracts for the nearest two months in the March quarterly cycle (March, June, Sept., Dec.) plus the nearest two serial months not in the March quarterly cycle.

PRICE LIMITS AND TRADING HALTS

  • Cboe will halt trading in its contract for 2 minutes if the best bid in the XBT futures contract closest to expiration is 10 percent or more above or below the daily settlement price of that contract on the prior business day.
  • Once trading resumes, if the best bid in the XBT futures contract closest to expiration is 20 percent or more above or below the daily settlement price of that contract on the prior business day, the futures will be halted for 5 minutes.
  • CME will apply price limits, also known as circuit breakers, to its bitcoin futures of 7 percent, 13 percent, and 20 percent to the futures fixing price. Trading will not be allowed outside of the 20 percent price limit.

Sources: Reuters, Cboe, and CME

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