Category Archives: scary

About cops, government etc

This Man Sold Meth to Pay for His Son’s Lifesaving Transplant. Obama Gave Him Clemency—But His Ordeal Continues at a Halfway House


This Man Sold Meth to Pay for His Son’s Lifesaving Transplant. Obama Gave Him Clemency—But His Ordeal Continues at a Halfway House


Editor’s note: President Obama has extended clemency to an unparalleled number of people convicted of nonviolent drug-law violations—a program unlikely to be prioritized by either a President Clinton or a President Trump. AlterNet andThe Influence have partnered on a series profiling people impacted by the program, as time runs out for inmates hoping to get their sentences commuted. 


It didn’t take long after Dicky Joe Jackson’s son, Cole, got sick, for the health insurance company to find a way to avoid covering his treatments.

“As soon as the bills for the cancer tests started rolling in, the insurance company began looking for ways to get out of paying them,” Jackson has written. His family, which was certainly not made of money in the first place—Jackson had driven a truck for a living—soon faced the kind of health insurance nightmare that might break far bigger bank accounts.

In 1989, when Cole was two, doctors told the Jackson family that the only way to save his life was through a bone marrow transplant. The health insurance company was as understanding about this as you’d expect.

They “upped our monthly premium without notifying us,” Jackson explains. “The automatic draft didn’t clear the bank because we were budgeted tight, so they dropped us.”

Through some ingenious fundraising, the family got part of the money together and Cole got the transplant from his 11-year-old sister April—but it didn’t fully heal him, and they continued racking up medical expenses. By then, they family owed $200,000 in medical bills, Jackson says.

Then Jackson’s father, who’d also worked as a trucker, died. This left Jackson solely responsible for supporting his mother and the rest of his family—and for paying for his son’s life-saving treatments.

Given that he was not a particularly desirable candidate for a bank loan, the only way Jackson could figure out to do all that was to help transport meth on his truck route. A meth dealer he knew—Jackson had occasionally used meth to stay awake on long drives—asked him to carry the drug in his truck.

Then Jackson sold meth to an undercover cop. He was arrested in 1995. In part because the supplier testified against him, claiming that he was the ringleader, the supplier got 10 years. Dicky Joe Jackson got life without parole.


“I had given up,” his daughter, April, tells me over the phone.

When she first heard about President Obama’s clemency initiative, her hopes surged. Then they quickly fell, after she realized the sheer number of nonviolent drug prisoners also hoping to have their sentences commuted: “So many thousands of people that deserve this just as much as we do—it’s like winning the lottery. Any time more were announced, I lost just a little bit of hope. I thought, ‘Here we are, nearing the end of Obama’s term. I have no faith that it’ll continue.’”

“We were losing hope,” April says. “And when I got that call, words just can’t describe … I was in disbelief at first. It was very surreal. Like a dream. I felt a gratitude that can’t be expressed with words.”

“I WANT TO DO ALL I CAN FOR THOSE STILL IN SO IM GONNA GET WITH YOU WHEN I GET HOME. THEYVE APPROVED ME FOR HOME CONFINEMENT SO ILL BE HOME IN A WK OR SO,” Jackson typed in an email to an advocacy group on August 3, the day he received clemency.

Jackson walked out of prison on September 1. But, as with most stories involving America’s justice system, his and his family’s trials are far from over. Jackson is technically under the purview of the Bureau of Prisons until December 1, when his sentence officially ends, after which he’ll be on probation for five years.

Even though the family had been told that he was “approved for home confinement,” April says, he was instead diverted to a halfway house run by Volunteers of America. Founded in 1896, the organization defines its mission as, “a church without walls that answers God’s call to transform our communities through a ministry of service that demonstrates to all people that they are beloved.”

That has not been Jackson’s experience so far. “These people here… you know, we were under the understanding that they’re trying to help you reintegrate into society. But they act like the Gestapo, my gosh,” he says. “They’re constantly on your neck, won’t give you a minute’s freedom.”

Halfway houses—meant to serve as re-entry points for prisoners—are chosen by the Bureau of Prisons, according to the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “When deciding whether to send someone to a halfway house and for how long, the BOP will look at the prisoner’s disciplinary record and whether the prisoner has refused to participate in prison programs and reentry preparation programs,” they write. The BOP did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

“The original intent of the halfway house was to help prisoners transition from prison life into society,” says Amy Povah, founder of CAN-DO: Justice Through Clemency. “But over the years some staff have adopted a ‘gotcha’ bully mentality that creates unnecessary burdens and oppression.”

On their website, Volunteers of America write, “We excel at meeting immediate needs, but are able to transform lives through our belief in, and reliance on, grace.” They didn’t reply to a request for comment—but their cheery recorded message says they “Help the vulnerable reach their full potential.”

Riding the Delhi Metro During Crush Hour


Riding the Delhi Metro During Crush Hour


The Delhi Metro.


Holy Moly, you guys.


A bit of advice for expats braving the Delhi Metro.


Hands down, riding the Delhi metro is the most chaotic traveling situation I’ve ever been in.


Important Travel Tip:


If you ask directions, ask a minimum of three people for the same bit of advice.


Never forget that your culture travels with you only in your heart. You may very well find that while traveling in Asia you’ll never hear the words “I don’t know”. If you ask a question, you will be given an answer. Regardless of if the person knew the answer.


Aaaaand, that’s how we find ourselves a little lost on the Delhi Metro on a recent day trip. Thankfully it didn’t cause a problem for our schedule but we did waste a good hour.


Delhi Metro Sign

Also, it comes in handy to know how to read Hindi. I realize most tourists won’t have that skill at their disposal. I read Hindi like a kindergartner but it was encouraging to be able to read “You are here” once or twice. Of course, after painstakingly reading this Hindi metro sign, I found a sign in English at the other end of the platform.


I was feeling pretty hard core for riding the metro in Delhi, in standing room only, until we switched lines. Nothing can prepare you for the Blue Line during rush hour. Or as it’s affectionately called,crush hour. It looks a lot like this.


delhi metro rush hour

People clawing their way out. People pushing their way in. Intense is an understatement.


Once you’re in the crowd to get on, you couldn’t not board if you tried. Everyone behind you pushes in a collective effort to cram as many sardines people as possible onto to train. I never could have imagined that so many bodies could fit in one compartment. “Standing room only” doesn’t properly describe it. You’re packed in so tightly, if someone passed out, they’d continue to stand upright.


Also, fair warning – there may be groping. My fifteen year experienced some wandering hands.


But that’s not the hard part. The truly scary bit is trying to get back off. After you’ve been squished into the train, at every stop after that you continue to somehow get forced further and further away from the door. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Seriously zip.


So you’d better be good and ready when your stop comes. Elbows out, people. You yell and push to get to the door because you only get one chance. We barely got all six of us off, with my husband pulling up the rear and kicking the doors back open.


riding the metro

In hindsight, not a great way to travel with kids. There’s a very real chance of getting separated, I would think. Jeremy and I both clung desperately to our youngest two so they wouldn’t get trampled or left behind.


The picture to the right is my daughter when we only thought we were crowded. Soon after that the Blue Line put us in our place.




Have you ever ridden the metro anywhere?

What Happens When You Enter the Witness Protection Program?


A staged photo of U.S. Marshals protecting a witness. Photo credit: U.S. Department of Justice, Wikipedia

Gerald Shur was struggling to convince his witness to testify. The year was 1961, and Shur, an attorney focused on organized crime at the Department of Justice, was talking to the owner of a New York trucking company who claimed that Johnny “Sonny” Franzese demanded half the profits of his business. Franzese’s men had vandalized his trucks and beaten him unconscious with baseball bats until he complied, and now the owner hoped that Shur could offer him a way out. But when Shur suggested testifying against Franzese, the witnessresponded, “Testify?”

He had good reason to be incredulous. For Franzese, a member of one of the “Five Families” of the New York mafia, extorting a small business owner represented low-level crime. An associate wearing a wire would later record Franzese discussing the best way to commit murder: he would cover his fingertips with nail polish, wear a hairnet, and dismember the body so that he could run it through the garbage disposal.

Shur suggested that the owner “did not really have a choice.” Only by testifying could he protect his business. But the owner did have a choice, and not crossing a high-ranking mafia member seemed the wiser course.

While frustrated, Shur could understand the decision. His own father, a worker in the garment industry and a trade group leader, had learned to accept the mob’s presence; several gangsters attended Shur’s bar mitzvah. Shur’s office also contained gruesome photos of some of the 25 government informants killed over the past five years.

As Shur and his colleagues drove away after failing to gain the business owner’s cooperation, Shur said, “There’s got to be a way to get witnesses to testify against the mob.” Another agent replied, “Would you?”


Witsec: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program is a rare insider’s account of the Witness Protection Program, and the book begins with this story of Gerald Shur’s unsuccessful attempt to charge Sonny Franzese with extortion. Shur would go on to found the Witness Protection Program, also known as WITSEC for “witness security,” and earn the title “father of WITSEC.” Shur, who is now retired, is a co-author of the book, but it is not a memoir. Co-author Pete Earley, the author of several books on crime and espionage, casts Shur as a central character.

One can’t help but wonder whether Earley’s positive take is shaped by his access to Shur and, in turn, to insider information. Yet Earley makes clear that he approached the subject with a critical eye, sharing criticism of Shur like the witness who called him a “small man with a small mind and a God complex” as well as controversy surrounding a relocated witness who went on a crime spree. So while the book may not be perfectly objective, it is not the typical, self-congratulatory memoir penned by most politicians and government officials.

Despite the occasional detour to give a full account of Shur’s career, the book admirably recounts the story of the Witness Protection Program. It is filled with details one might expect, like the time U.S. Marshals snuck a turncoat mobster into a courthouse three days before a trial to avoid hitmen. Equally interesting, however, is the human side of WITSEC. As Shur and his colleagues discovered, keeping the peace between a mobster and his wife proved almost as important to jailing criminals as security details.

No one in the program would label it as such, but the Witness Protection Program provides one of the more compelling social experiments imaginable. Would law enforcement consent to helping criminals? Can lifelong lawbreakers earn a living legally when given a fresh start? How does a mobster or gang member maintain self-respect when he becomes a rat? And what is it like to indefinitely live a double life?

Control Alt Delete

When a witness decides to enter WITSEC, U.S. Marshals immediately arrive at his or her home to whisk the witness away. Even when the witness is already in custody, agents come for the family. Early in WITSEC’s history, Shur expanded the program to protect family members as the mob reacted to testimony by killing witnesses’ families. Parents, spouses, children, siblings and even mistresses are all taken to an orientation center in a Washington suburb. Some are prepared and wait for the Marshals with small bags; other surprised families leave pasta sauce still simmering on the stove.

The center near Washington is a safe spot for witnesses while they testify; it is also compared to Ellis Island as it is where informants prepare for their new life. Families don’t choose where to live as they may have told friends that they’d like to live there, but witnesses may get to choose one of several prepared options. Only around four government officials will know where they choose.

Families also practice their back story, from learning about the part of America that they are now “from” to signing their new name. Witnesses often keep their first name or at least first initial to make the transition easier. One couple told the New York Times that coming up with a new family name “was like naming a baby.” It’s when you start being called by your new name, the couple said, that it starts to feel surreal. By the time they left, according to the mother, she “felt like a new person.”

At the same time, administrators work to make that new person exist. Whereas in WITSEC’s ad-hoc early days, marshals would sometimes forge documents themselves, witnesses and their families now get (legally sealed) name changes and receive new social security cards, birth certificates, and drivers licenses. (The relevant government agencies often produce the documents grudgingly.) The program also works with doctors and school administrators to transfer medical records and report cards; Shur recounts that he refused several requests to improve a child’s grades.

U.S. Marshals provide security to make sure that witnesses survive the witness stand, but once testimony is over, witness protection is essentially a glorified plane ride or bus ticket. When designing the program, Shur decided against a constant presence of guards. Cost was a factor, but with the assassination of President Kennedy a recent memory, anonymity seemed the safer bet. “We weren’t dealing with sophisticated KGB spies,” Shur tells Earley, “we were dealing mainly with New York metropolitan area mobsters, and many of them had never stepped outside the city.” Some of America’s most notorious criminals currently commute to work from small houses in Anytown, USA, that the U.S. government helped them afford.

As some 95% of WITSEC witnesses are criminals, according to Shur, the Witness Protection Program also has a parallel system for prisoners. Many criminals serve no time in return for their cooperation, but others serve reduced sentences. Since putting witnesses in the general prison population could easily allow criminal organizations to reach them, select prisons contain isolated prison cells for protected witnesses.

Earley met many felons who swore that protected witnesses gave false testimony against them for lobster dinners and “sweetheart deals.” It’s not a charge without merit; before WITSEC was formalized by the Organized Crime Act in 1970 and another act in 1984, witnesses’ handlers often kept them happy by sneaking them to Italian restaurants or bringing them, say, a pair of boxing gloves. Shur and his colleagues established a standard deal for witnesses under the auspices of the U.S. Marshals to avoid charges of buying testimony, although some witnesses, like former LA crime boss “Jimmy the Weasel” Fratianno, manipulated program administrators into paying for luxuries — including a facelift and breast implants for his wife — to the point that one agent quipped that Fratianno “made more money milking WITSEC than he ever did committing crimes.”

Nevertheless, witnesses receive a fairly spartan deal. Shur notes that imprisoned witnesses have slightly larger cells, but otherwise live in more austere conditions than normal prisoners due to the social isolation that guarantees their safety. Relocated families receive a stipend (perhaps a few thousand dollars a month for a family) that is phased out after witnesses have time to look for a job. They also get funding to pay for housing and other basic expenses, but except in the case of witnesses like Fratianno, it is enough for a basic apartment and used car. Since the government refuses to provide a fake credit history, witnesses also struggle to secure products and services when companies demand financial information.

What was once a risky experiment — placing hardened criminals in small, American communities with complete anonymity — has now completed full life cycles. Paul Rigo, one of the earliest witnesses, died peacefully in 1980. And as one WITSEC employee reflected, “I know witnesses who had children, and now they’re grandparents. I doubt their grandchildren have a clue about their grandparents’ past.”

Cops and Robbers

In 1966, an imprisoned mobster told the FBI he wanted to testify against his crime boss, who was proving cheap in fulfilling the traditional obligation of taking care of an incarcerated member’s family. He asked that he and his family be protected and relocated, and the FBI turned him down. Soon after, another high profile mobster offered to talk, and the FBI passed on the job to the U.S. Marshals, who, as Earley writes, have “a history of being stuck with jobs that no one else in the government wants.” The marshal assigned to the witness protection case reflected that the FBI agents probably “didn’t want to be bothered baby-sitting a mobster’s family.”

In the 1960s, even as Shur was helping to relocate witnesses, the Witness Protection Program did not yet formally exist and no law authorized the government to relocate witnesses. Shur used Department of Justice funds usually spent on expert witnesses and travel. More importantly, it was unclear whether law enforcement’s apathy about helping criminals would doom the initiative.

Although he agreed to take it on, U.S. Marshals director James Colburn told a deputy, “‘I think this whole protection program is a mistake and I don’t want to do it.” At the time, the Marshals were an unprofessional force composed of political appointees who received no additional money, manpower, or training for protecting witnesses. One marshal who led relocation efforts recalled that marshals often ignored his requests to establish means for getting witnesses drivers licenses and jobs because “They didn’t want any mobsters put into their districts.” Or as Shur adds in WITSEC:

“Most deputies had joined the Marshals Service because they wanted to catch criminals, and now we were sending them out to buy groceries for the crooks.”

But like a crime drama where proximity leads cops and lawbreakers to find common ground, marshals who embraced their assignment came to play an intimate role in witnesses’ lives. One time, law enforcement passed around a hat to raise money to help a witness relocate. When Shur got one witness a newspaper subscription so that he could follow horse races, the mobster reciprocated by sharing a spaghetti recipe.

John Partington, a deputy who protected many early witnesses and receives much praise from Shur, gave witnesses his home phone number. While protecting one early witness, a Boston mob hitman named Joseph Barboza, Partington took Barboza’s lonely wife out dancing, came to be called “Uncle John” by his daughter, and both fought with and respected Barboza — all while he and other marshals protected the family on a tiny island off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and deterred two attempts by the mob to attack by boat. Partington called in special favors for the crook, had a long conversation with Barboza about life paths, and recognized another side of Barboza as he “wrote poetry and adored his daughter.”

Coddling criminals was not popular with everyone. But Shur would respond that every witness entered the program with innocent family members. For his part, Partington defended his actions by saying that as they testified, witnesses had to be kept happy as well as safe. He also added, “Most people don’t have a clue about the emotional shit a guy like Barboza goes through once he decides to testify.”

Shur noted this as well. After a life of crime and loyalty to criminals, becoming a despised rat stole witnesses’ self worth. One mobster-turned-informant asked Shur over and over, “What I did was right for America, wasn’t it? Didn’t I do a lot for America?” In the search for a new role, some witnesses even began to identify with law enforcement. One surprised wife of a former criminal recounts in WITSEC how she was surprised to hear her husband describe himself and the agents interrogating him as we, as if he were a cop.

Fighting the Mob

The focus of WITSEC, and law enforcement from the 1960s to 1980s, was fighting the mob. Shur hoped that the promise of safety in the WITSEC would be enough to get members of the mob to turn against their own. At the time, it was far from obvious that it would succeed.

Today, everyone who has watched The Sopranos knows how the mob works. When Shur began his career, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover claimed that the mafia did not exist. The mob’s code of loyalty and refusal to speak to law enforcement, known as “Omertà,” kept its ranks in line and its dealings in the shadows. Threats of violence enforced Omertà. Reflecting back on speaking to Shur about his ideas for a witness protection program, one law professor said, “Everyone else seemed to assume that witnesses who testified against organized crime were going to be whacked.”

The number of men and women who entered WITSEC speaks to the success of the idea. Shur originally estimated that 10 individuals would enter witness protection each year. By 1970, a gangster asked for protection every week. The U.S. Marshals have relocated 8,500 witnessessince the program formally began in 1971. The main reason for this is that the marshals succeeded in keeping witnesses safe. Although a number of people were killed after they voluntarily left WITSEC, either by going home or otherwise breaking its rules, the service says that no one who has stayed in the program has ever been killed.

Mob boss Frank Costello voluntarity testifying before Congress in 1951. Before the introduction of the Witness Protection Program, even the existence of the mafia as a national organization was in dispute. Photo credit: Library of Congress

When the first mobster informant testified before Congress on the methods of the mafia in 1963, it provoked a sensation. Law enforcement’s efforts culminated in the 1985 Mafia Commission Trial that incarcerated the heads of New York’s five major mafia families and several other mob figures. Today the mob is generally considered a shadow of what it once was.

In WITSEC, Earley notes that experts credit three factors for allowing law enforcement to bring down the mob: the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which allowed mob bosses to be charged with leading criminal enterprises despite not committing crimes themselves, the use of wiretaps to gather evidence, and the utility of the Witness Protection Program in getting informants to testify against mob leaders. In Five Families, an exhaustive history of the mob, author Selwyn Raab notes that the mafia could withstand determined federal prosecutors, but not the defection of its own members who cut deals and entered the Witness Protection Program.

The Witness Protection Program Today

WITSEC was not retired after the mafia’s demise. It continues to be used in cases involving drug cartels, various gangs, and even international terrorism. Several former drug kingpins have joined WITSEC after putting rivals and allies in prison. An Egyptian-American who told his story to the Kansas City Star testified against several perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing after one asked to rent one of his vans for the attack; his story came to light when the witness became a fan fixture known as Helmet Man at Kansas City Chiefs football games.

Less information is available on the utility of the Witness Protection Program against modern crime. Certainly we no longer see high profile testimony from witnesses going into the program like America did in the 1960s-1980s. For his part, Earley writes in WITSEC, “It is difficult to find a major criminal case, whether it be the Watergate scandal or the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, where WITSEC witnesses have not played a pivotal role.” Perhaps the best evidence for the continued role of the Witness Protection Program is that since the 1980s, dozens of countries have come to the United States to learn from its WITSEC program.

The Witness Protection Program does face new challenges since its mob heyday and the period described in WITSEC (Shur retired in the 1990s). The first that most consider is the impact of the Internet. Even if it still seems ordinary for an adult in a small town not to use social networks, risk is amplified by the increasing number of digital traces our lives create. In addition, companies and organizations now have much higher expectations for finding a paper trail (or digital record) for any individual, making it harder to create a credible new identity. But if the U.S. Marshals Service is struggling to keep identities hidden in the Internet age, it’s not a problem the agency is discussing publicly.

Witness protection’s success in bringing down organized crime also appears to have made it more difficult to protect future witnesses. Whereas the mafia consisted of large, hierarchical organizations that followed clearly defined rules, the gangs that law enforcement target today are less predictable and consist of a larger number of dispersed organizations. The challenge is not to protect a few witnesses who can finger a few powerful mob bosses, but to protect a large number of witnesses who can testify against the many, many gangsters that wield much less power than the head of an old mafia family.

So, law enforcement has established a number of witness protection programs on the county and city level. Lacking the resources and expertise of the federal program, however, they usually do little more than get a witness out of town until the defendant goes to prison. They do not provide new identities and rarely offer enough assistance for witnesses to restart their lives in another location. As a result, the new programs have been criticized for leading to witnesses’ deaths.

A Last Resort

Life for relocated witnesses has proven remarkably safe. Despite making headlines while testifying, several former gangsters have died of natural causes, unrecognized, with multimillion dollar bounties on their head. Nicky Barnes, a black drug lord who infuriated law enforcement and even President Carter by appearing on the cover of New York Times Magazine as if he were invulnerable to prosecution — and later joined the Witness Protection Program — recently revealed that he lives in a small, mostly white neighborhood. His biggest problem is making rent.

Many witnesses still live in fear of being discovered and worry about a child letting slip their identity. Yet the hardest part of witness relocation, and the reason Shur refers to WITSEC as a “program of last resort,” is the way it seems to permanently alienate witnesses from both the rest of the world and themselves.

In a personal account published in WITSEC, one witness reveals that she “used to feel there was a deputy following me with a broom sweeping up any evidence I was here.” (Marshals will re-relocate witnesses whose cover is blown.) When witnesses enter the program, stern administrators keep them from taking anything that reveals their identity: family albums, diaries, even pictures and notes drawn by kindergarteners for witnesses’ kids. Worse, witnesses’ memories seem equally off limits in their new life.

One relocated family, speaking to the New York Times in 1996, describe getting coaching from a WITSEC employee on how best to change the topic when people ask about their past. Unable to share anything honestly, witnesses struggle to make friends. The witness’s spouse profiled by the Times made one friend in a year and a half in the program who she didn’t call because she feared being asked about her life. “I can’t really get close to anyone,” she relates, “be really personal with them.” A number of witnesses describe talking with family, who know their full identity, and the rest of the world, which does not, as switching between two different worlds. Some talk about themselves under their prior name in the third person.

When Shur and his wife had to go into hiding briefly due to a threat on his life, he too experienced the burden of constant lying and missing family events. The Marshals Service facilitates communication between relocated families and some of the friends and family they left behind, but only in exceptional circumstances do people in the Witness Protection Program ever see them. Nor can they ever return home. Several witnesses have left the program and its protection — and even been murdered as a result — simply out of a desire to return to the place they used to live.

A Fresh Start

In 1981, Charles Pearson, a resident of Rio Rancho, New Mexico, killed his wife and then went on a crime spree. He robbed banks and convenience stores, and he took hostages and killed them. When law enforcement discovered Pearson’s past, they were furious. Pearson was an alias for Marion Pruett, and he had entered the Witness Protection Program after testifying against a high ranking criminal about the murder of his cellmate. (Pearson had served time for a bank robbery.) Following standard policy, officials at WITSEC did not alert law enforcement to the presence of a former criminal and protected witness, nor did they reveal Pruett’s identity to local sheriffs after the discovery of Pruett’s wife’s body.

In defending the program, leaders of WITSEC pointed out, among other exonerating factors, that Pruett would have been paroled even without entering the program and that knowing his identity likely could not have prevented the murders. But the Pruett situation always represented a potential outcome of what can easily be seen as an insane idea: placing former criminals, many of them feared mob bosses, drug lords, or hitmen whose testimony allowed them to avoid prison, anonymously in small towns across the country.

Yet the program survives because situations like the Pruett tragedy appear to be rare. Earley cites a recent study from the Department of Justice that found that 82% of relocated witnesses do not commit another crime. In contrast, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that as many as 75% of American prisoners are arrested within 5 years of being released. As Earley notes, “That makes WITSEC one of the most successful rehabilitation programs in the country.”

It’s not hard to understand why. When members of America’s nearly 2.5 million strong prison population finish their sentence, a number of obstacles stand between them and a normal life. With deteriorated skills and the scarlet letter of a prison sentence, finding employment can be impossible. Many prisoners also leave prison hundreds or thousands of dollars in debt to the state for court fees and the expense of being supervised by the state. A criminal record can also keep individuals from receiving public housing or assistance like food stamps. And returning to an old environment can make it easy to fall back into crime.

Shur and his colleagues, however, recognized that helping witnesses achieve a stable living would help keep them safe. It is also a responsibility WITSEC promises witnesses in exchange for their testimony. So, government employees devote themselves to rehabilitating people who (95% of the time) are former criminals, often with very ugly pasts. The program provides living stipends for the transition and helps pay for housing. A WITSEC inspector checks in regularly with families, often talking every week, teaching former mobsters or gang members basic financial literacy and other skills. Some even become an uncle type figure to the witness’s family, especially as the inspectors alone know their past. Sometimes inspectors can even invest in the family, like one inspector who secured funding for a used car for a family that needed one to get to a new job.

A new identity, which so many relocated families struggle with, also has the benefit of giving witnesses a truly fresh start. The aforementioned New York Times profile relates one success story. The witness’s wife, Devera, describes how powerful it was choose furniture for their new home. Away from the environment in which he sold drugs, the witness, Brewster, excels at saving part of his paycheck from the job the relocation officer helped him find until the two can afford a 3 bedroom home. As of the article’s publication, the couple were both members of the parent-teacher association, and Brewster coached young kids on the dangers of drug abuse.

The Witness Protection Program is an imperfect data point as a rehabilitation program. The Marshals Service reserves the right to throw witnesses out of the program if they commit a crime, so witnesses have a strong incentive to play by the rules. It would also be difficult to defend the government treating every released prisoner this way given that so many Americans without a criminal record struggle against poverty every day. But given the success of WITSEC at helping some of America’s most notorious criminals achieve financial independence without committing crimes, which often can mean crime kingpins accepting manual labor jobs, one can’t help but wonder what a difference it would make if the federal government, say, ended the war on drugs and spent that money on prisoner rehabilitation.

In popular culture, the Witness Protection Program has an aura of mystery. In laying out its full history in Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program, Earley and Shur share plenty of stories — about creative assassination attempts, mob parties, and the smuggling of drug cartel leaders across the Mexican border — of the type that have long captured Hollywood’s imagination. But the real surprises are aspects like the program’s low recidivism rate: the Witness Protection Program as an example of what vigorous government-led rehabilitation could look like, the Witness Protection Program as an example of how our past weighs on our present, the Witness Protection Program as an example of both the salience and liminality of identity.

When protected witnesses commit crimes after their relocation, WITSEC officials and employees often ask if they could have foreseen and prevented it. But despite all the interviews and screening every witness and his or her family undergoes before relocation, it seems impossible to know.

In WITSEC, one inspector for the Witness Protection Program recalls working with a former motorcycle gang member who murdered a woman and then “cut her open and put charcoal inside her to use as a grill.” Nevertheless, he worked hard at finding a job when the federal government relocated him. When Gerald Shur asked staff psychologists if they could predict whether a relocated witness would resume violent behavior, they responded as follows: “There remains no consistent, reliable means by which to accurately predict an individual’s future behavior.”

If you liked this blog post, you’ll enjoy our book → Everything Is Bullshit.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google PlusTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes and details come from the book WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program by Pete Earley and Gerald Shur.








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The federal prison on Alcatraz Island in the chilly waters of California’s San Francisco Bay housed some of America’s most difficult and dangerous felons during its years of operation from 1934 to 1963. Among those who served time at the maximum-security facility were the notorious gangster Al “Scarface” Capone (1899-1947) and murderer Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud (1890-1963). No inmate ever successfully escaped The Rock, as the prison was nicknamed, although more than a dozen known attempts were made over the years. After the prison was shut down due to high operating costs, the island was occupied for almost two years, starting in 1969, by a group of Native-American activists. Today, historic Alcatraz Island, which was also the site of a U.S. military prison from the late 1850s to 1933, is a popular tourist destination.

Alcatraz (5)

In 1775, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala (1745-97) mapped and named rugged Alcatraz Island, christening it La Isla de los Alcatraces, or Island of the Pelicans, due to its large population of sea birds. Seventy-five years later, in 1850, President Millard Fillmore (1800-74) signed an order reserving the island for military use. During the 1850s, a fortress was constructed on Alcatraz and some 100 cannons were installed around the island to protect San Francisco Bay. Also during this time, Alcatraz became home to the West Coast’s first operational lighthouse.

By the late 1850s, the U.S. Army had begun holding military prisoners at Alcatraz. Isolated from the mainland by the cold, strong waters of San Francisco Bay, the island was deemed an ideal location for a prison. It was assumed no Alcatraz inmate could attempt to escape by swimming and survive.

During its years as a military prison, the inmates at Alcatraz included Confederate sympathizers and citizens accused of treason during the American Civil War (1861-65). Alcatraz also housed a number of “rebellious” American Indians, including 19 Hopis from the Arizona Territory who were sent to the prison in 1895 following land disagreements with the federal government. The inmate population at Alcatraz continued to rise during the Spanish-American War (1898).

During the early 20th century, inmate labor fueled the construction of a new cellhouse (the 600-cell structure still stands today) on Alcatraz, along with a hospital, mess hall and other prison buildings. According to the National Park Service, when this new complex was finished in 1912 it was the world’s largest reinforced concrete building.

In 1933, the Army relinquished Alcatraz to the U.S. Justice Department, which wanted a federal prison that could house a criminal population too difficult or dangerous to be handled by other U.S. penitentiaries. Following construction to make the existing complex at Alcatraz more secure, the maximum-security facility officially opened on July 1, 1934. The first warden, James A. Johnston (1874-1954), hired approximately one guard for every three prisoners. Each prisoner had his own cell.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) viewed Alcatraz as “the prison system’s prison,” a place where the most disruptive inmates could be sent to live under sparse conditions with few privileges in order to learn how to follow rules (at which point, they could be transferred to other federal prisons to complete their sentences). According to the BOP, Alcatraz typically held some 260 to 275 prisoners, which represented less than 1 percent of the entire federal inmate population.

Among those who did time at The Rock was the notorious Prohibition-era gangster Al “Scarface” Capone, who spent four-and-a-half years there during the 1930s. His arrival on the island generated headlines across America. Capone was sent to Alcatraz because his incarceration in Atlanta, Georgia, had allowed him to remain in contact with the outside world and continue to run his criminal operation in Chicago. He was also known to corrupt prison officers. All of that ended when he was sent to Alcatraz. According to the biography “Capone” by John Kobler, Capone once told the warden, “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked.”

Other famous (or infamous) Alcatraz inmates included George “Machine Gun” Kelly (1895-1954), who spent 17 years there on a kidnapping conviction. Gangster Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz (1907-79), listed as “Public Enemy No. 1″ by the FBI in the 1930s, spent over 25 years behind bars at Alcatraz, reportedly more time than any other prisoner. Murderer Robert Stroud, also known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” was transferred there after three decades at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Stroud arrived on the island in 1942 and served 17 years there; however, despite his nickname, he was not permitted to keep birds at Alcatraz as he had while locked up at Leavenworth.

Over the years, there were 14 known attempts to escape from Alcatraz, involving 36 inmates. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that of these would-be escapees, 23 were captured, six were shot and killed during their attempted getaways, two drowned and five went missing and were presumed drowned.

The most famous escape attempt resulted in a battle, from May 2 to May 4, 1946, in which six prisoners overpowered cellhouse officers and were able to gain access to weapons, but not the keys needed to leave the prison. In the ensuing battle, the prisoners killed two correctional officers and injured 18 others. The U.S. Marines were called in, and the battle ended with the deaths of three of the rogue inmates and the trial of the three others, two of whom received the death penalty for their actions.

The federal penitentiary at Alcatraz was shut down in 1963 because its operating expenses were much higher than those of other federal facilities at the time. (The prison’s island location meant all food and supplies had to be shipped in, at great expense.) Furthermore, the isolated island buildings were beginning to crumble due to exposure to the salty sea air. During nearly three decades of operation, Alcatraz housed a total of 1,576 men.

In 1969, a group of Native Americans led by Mohawk activist Richard Oakes (1942-72) arrived on Alcatraz Island and claimed the land on behalf of “Indians of All Tribes.” The activists hoped to establish a university and a museum on the island. Oakes left Alcatraz following the death there of his stepdaughter in 1970, and the remaining occupiers, whose ranks had become increasingly contentious and divided, were removed by order of President Richard M. Nixon (1913-94) in 1971. The island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 and was opened to the public a year later. Today, some 1 million tourists visit Alcatraz each year.

The final days of Alcatraz revealed in new photographs released for 50th anniversary of prison closing its doors for good

Its fascination for the public remains though, as millions travel to San Francisco Bay to take in a glimpse of the cells which held the country’s most dangerous criminals such as – Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpis.

And on Thursday, The National Park Service celebrated the 50th anniversary of Alcatraz Island’s closure as a federal penitentiary with an exhibit of newly discovered photos of the prison’s final hours.


In this March 21, 1963 photo taken by Leigh Wiener and provided by the National Park Service, prison guard Jim Albright, (second from left), leads out the last prisoners from Alcatraz federal penitentiary

In this March 21, 1963 photo taken by Leigh Wiener and provided by the National Park Service, prison guard Jim Albright, (second from left), leads out the last prisoners from Alcatraz federal penitentiary

On that day in 1963, prison guard Jim Albright led the Navy-coat clad prisoners — considered the nation’s most dangerous — to waiting boats as cameras clicked and hundreds of reporters chronicled The Rock’s last hours as a prison.

Albright wasn’t deterred by the ruckus, keeping his eye on his wards and his focus steely.

The ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the closing was attended by former guard Jim Albright, who can be seen in the photographs in a light gray suit and dark tie, walking the shackled prisoners past reporters.

New discovered photos show the last prisoners depart from Alcatraz Island federal prison in San Francisco. The National Park Service on Thursday celebrated the 50th anniversary of Alcatraz Island's closure with an exhibit of the photos

New discovered photos show the last prisoners depart from Alcatraz Island federal prison in San Francisco. The National Park Service on Thursday celebrated the 50th anniversary of Alcatraz Island’s closure with an exhibit of the photos

He had been a guard during two escapes, including the one made famous in the movie ‘Escape from Alcatraz,’ and was keeping an eye open for any funny business involving the prisoners and reporters.

‘What I was worried about was that one of these god-darned fools was going to give the inmates something that they could get out of their cuffs with,’ Albright, now 77, said. ‘These were all the worst bad guys. If you messed up somewhere else you came to Alcatraz.’

Alcatraz started as a fortress and became an Army disciplinary barracks before the Bureau of Prisons took it over in 1934 to house America’s most notorious criminals.

U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed an order in 1962 to close the prison due to its expensive upkeep and its prime location in the bay.

A flag flies on a ferry as it approaches Alcatraz Island on the day The National Park Service marked the 50th anniversary of the closure of the notorious Alcatraz federal penitentiary with an exhibit of newly discovered photos

A flag flies on a ferry as it approaches Alcatraz Island on the day The National Park Service marked the 50th anniversary of the closure of the notorious Alcatraz federal penitentiary with an exhibit of newly discovered photos

Tourists view an exhibit of photographs documenting the last day of Alcatraz federal penitentiary on today on the island prison

Tourists view an exhibit of photographs documenting the last day of Alcatraz federal penitentiary on today on the island prison

Former Alcatraz Island prison guard Jim Albright looks on while viewing an exhibit of photographs documenting the last day of Alcatraz federal penitentiary today

Former Alcatraz Island prison guard Jim Albright looks on while viewing an exhibit of photographs documenting the last day of Alcatraz federal penitentiary today.

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Hidden in Plain View


During WW II Lockheed (unbelievable 1940s pictures). This is a version of special effects during the 1940’s. I have never seen these pictures or knew that we had gone this far to protect ourselves. During World War II the Army Corps of Engineers needed to hide the Lockheed Burbank Aircraft Plant to protect it from a possible Japanese air attack. They covered it with camouflage netting to make it look like a rural subdivision from the air.





The person I received this from said she got back an interesting story about someone’s mother who worked at Lockheed, and she as a younger child, remembers all this.  And to this day, it is the first pictures of it she’s seen.


Another person who lived in the area talked about as being a boy, watching it all be set up like a movie studio production.  They had fake houses, trees, etc. and moved parked cars around so it looked like a residential area from the skies overhead.


Note…. I lived in  North Long Beach  during World War II, I was 13 years old. (1940) The Long Beach airport was near Lakewood, CA. There was a large Boeing Plant there.  If you would drive down Carson St. going south you could drive under the camouflage netting.  Ed Pollard 


I am 85 and had much of my pilot training in Calif.  I have been under this net and have seen it from the air.  During preflight training I rode a bus under the net and was very surprised as I didn’t know it was there.  It was strong enough to walk on and they hired people to ride bicycles and move around as if they lived there to make it look authentic.  Warren Holmgreen Jr 




Hiding the Lockheed Plant during World War II – wow this is amazing!

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The irony is hard to overlook. There are few, if any, cities on earth where the show of wealth and consumption is so shamelessly on display, and yet hidden beneath the surface of Las Vegas, another world exists. See video below.



Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Flavors Inspired By Horror Movies


Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Flavors Inspired By Horror Movies

Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Flavors Inspired By Horror Movies

John Squires and artist Frank Browning put together this series of Ben & Jerry’s flavors inspired by horror movies. They’re pretty great! But om nom nom? More like AHHHm nom nom, amirite? Sorry. That was bad and I should feel bad. And believe me! I absolutely do. I’ll hang my head in shame AND let myself out.













Check it out

Family Sues After Police Fatally Taze 95-Year-Old Man


Family Sues After Police Fatally Taze 95-Year-Old Man



The family of a World War II veteran has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit after the 95-year-old man died following a confrontation with Park Forest police last summer.

Park Forest Police Officer Craig Taylor, 43, is charged with reckless conduct for striking John Wrana with five shotgun beanbag rounds as he and other officers tried taking him into custody on July 26, 2013.

Wrana was a patient at the Victory Center Nursing home when he refused to go to the hospital for a urinary Police Officer Craig Taylor, Police were called and eventually used a Taser and a beanbag shotgun to remove the belligerent man by force. He died the next day.

Sharon Mangerson says it’s still painful to talk about her stepfather and how he died.

“Why they chose to confront him in this way I have no idea. I can’t comprehend it. It has been a very painful process to relive this over and over again,” Mangerson said.

Wrana’s family filed a $5 million lawsuit against the Park Forest Police Department saying the department overreacted to the situation, and with his advanced age and failing health, he posed no real threat to the officers.

“Officer Taylor fired the five rounds from his shotgun from a distance of only 6 to 8 feet from where Mr. Wrana was standing,” the family’s attorney, Nicholas Grapsas said.

“Unfortunately what the Japanese military failed to do to Mr. Wrana during the war, the Park Forest Police Department succeeded in doing 70 years later in the twilight of was, until then, an extremely wonderful life.”

Park Forest officials say the do not comment on any pending or ongoing litigation.

homelessness around the world

homelessness around the world

25 Cities With Extremely High Homeless Populations


According to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, there is an estimated 100 million homeless people worldwide. This is a startling statistic when you consider how affluent some parts of the world are. Here is but a short glimpse at this social travesty within these 25 cities with extremely high homeless populations.


Lisbon, Portugal

Most of the homeless people in Portugal are concentrated in the cities of Lisbon and Porto. Reports say that around 300 homeless people sleep on the streets of Lisbon every night. Today, members of the Comunidade Vida e Paz are persuading the homeless population of Lisbon to take part in rehabilitation programs in order to improve the quality of their lives.


Denver, Colorado

According to the 2012 Point in Time report from Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, Denver saw an increase in it’s homeless population from 411 to 964 between the years of 2011 and 2012.


Indianapolis, Indiana

There are as many as 2,200 homeless people every night in the city of Indianapolis, which is equivalent to around 15,000 over the course of a year. Thought this city is known for its faith-based shelters, there’s just not enough shelters to provide a place for the entire homeless population.


Dublin, Ireland

In a recent study shows that about seven people per day become homeless in Dublin. In 2013, there were about 2,366 people that were reported to be sleeping on the streets of Dublin every night. The government’s failure to increase the stock of social housing is said to be the root cause of this social problem.


Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Rio De Janeiro is known for having a high homelessness rate with over 2,500 homeless people as of last year.


Baltimore, Maryland

According to a 2011 study, there are about 4,088 homeless individuals in Baltimore, Maryland, many of which are families with children. Today, the city government is making strides towards putting an end to this social problem by creating projects aimed at providing affordable housing and health care.


Tokyo, Japan

A 2013 study shows an estimated homeless population of 5,000 living in Tokyo. This number was a significant increase from the 3,800 homeless individuals recorded in 2008.


Chicago, Illinois

As of July 2013, analysis by Chicago Coalition for the Homeless found that 116,042 Chicagoans were homeless in the course of the 2012-13 school year. This is a 10% increase from last year’s homeless population.


Washington, D.C.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of homeless people living in Washington in 2013 was around 6,865. Last year, the city government began to provide shelter to its homeless population whenever temperature levels droped below freezing point. Those who do not want to stay in temporary shelters are provided with a budget to stay in hotels.


Rome, Italy

Out of the 17,000 homeless people in Italy, 7,000 are from Rome.


Tampa, Florida

Lack of affordable housing and homeless shelters has contributed to the alarming number of 7,419 homeless people who call the streets of Tampa their home each night.


San Diego, California

The second largest city in the State of California with a population of 1,345,895, San Diego is home to 8,879 homeless people.


Athens, Greece

Homelessness statistics show that out of the 20,000 homeless people in Greece, 9,000 are from Athens. The number of homeless people in Athens has continued to grow since the economic crisis of 2009.


Seattle, Washington

According to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, Seattle is home to a total homeless population of 9,106.


San Francisco, U.S.A.

Around 7,000 to 10,000 people in San Francisco, U.S.A. are homeless, 3,000 to 5,000 of which refuse to live in temporary shelters provided by the government.