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Prisons and Profit

Wallens Ridge State Prison /Photo: dombrassey, flickr

Wallens Ridge State Prison /Photo: dombrassey, flickr

Once upon a time, prisoners used spoons stolen at lunch to dig their way to freedom. Today’s prisoners seem to have found more comfortable methods. They prefer private helicopters to fly elegantly to freedom, as did one of Belgium’s most dangerous criminals, Ashraf Sekkaki, together with two other inmates. Apparently the aircraft was in the prison courtyard for five minutes without even encountering a guard.

Since the procedure was not as cheap as old-school methods, the trio was probably in dire need of money: Only a week after their escape, the three were suspected of having robbed a bank, a gas station and two storage facilities – all within two hours.

Their helicopter escape was not an original idea though. It seems to be a general trend in Europe, with 14 cases in the last eight years, mostly in Belgium, France and Greece. The three Belgian fugitives add to 36 others in their country alone – since the beginning of this year.

European prison services blame not only lax controls at tourist chopper rentals, but also their lack of funding at correctional facilities. There’s not even enough money to erect simple iron cables to stop choppers from landing.

Policymakers could be tempted to look across the Atlantic for money-saving, and even profit-making, solutions. With more than 2 million prisoners (more than 1 percent of the adult population) the US has found a way to create a recession-proof multimillion dollar industry out of incarcerations.

Reuters last week reported that the share price of Corrections Corporation of America has more than doubled since March. The company, which provides about half of America’s private ‘corrections solutions’ (or prisons, as they were once called) and has 77,000 beds on offer, cuts a profit of about $22 per inmate per day. Incoming CEO Damon Hininger says he would “love the opportunity” to take some of the 40,000 prisoners that must be transferred from overcrowded California prisons.

In other cases, the industry has taken a more direct approach to increasing its client base:

The Guardian reported that “[T]wo judges in Pennsylvania were convicted of jailing some 2,000 children in exchange for bribes from private prison companies.” Some of the offenses were “so trivial that some of them weren’t even crimes.”

With such worrying prospects, I hope that Belgian prison services will find other ways to deal with their lack of funding.

San Francisco Opens the Data Floodgates

Crime incident map / Photo: Brett L., flickr

Crime incident map / Photo: Brett L., flickr

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that his city will provide crime, health and other municipal data on an online portal and make it free to use for anyone.

Sporting a fashionable “beta” in its logo, all datasets are available at datasf.org.

From restaurant guides accessing health code ratings to navigation systems updating the status of roadblocks, the datasets open the way for applications giving more detailed information to citizens or tourists in the bay area.

Even though the available number of datasets is low at the beginning  (about 100 datasets are available), it is expected to increase, creating even more possibilities for creative and informative uses.

The data includes a whole range of topics and forms, such as data on crime incidents, list of street trees or geographical data on road center lines. Uses could include, but are not limited to investigating whether your new apartment is in a crime area or not or helping policymakers make informed decisions on road construction by being able to find dangerous intersections.

Advantages of opening the data to anyone are manyfold:

  • Users might develop new applications or mashups no one has thought about.
  • It leads to more transparency of the city government and its decisions.
  • Private users might get the data out to the general public more quickly than the traditional city council.

This move is in line with many other projects aimed at opening government data.

A quick overview:

While all this is exciting news for proponents of open government, even more exciting is the fact that other cities are mulling over opening up their data as well. These include Vancouver, Canada, Birmingham, UK and New York.

A very good overview can be found on David Eaves’ blog entry “The Rise of the Open City“.

US President Obama’s Travels Abroad

A couple of days ago, I came across a website, StepMap, that lets you create your own custom and interactive maps for free. StepMap is pretty easy to use, yet a powerful tool to illustrate your thoughts, so I played around with it a bit to trace US President Obama’s travels abroad (17 trips to 14 different countries so far) since taking office, based on Wikipedia’s list of presidential trips. If you click on the tiny flags (the Vatican flag is missing in their toolbox), exact dates and locations visited will appear. The numbers before the flags obviously indicate the sequence of Obama’s visits. You can also enhance your map with a lot of fancy stuff, such as PDFs, images etc. pp. which, for the first try, I didn’t make use of.

Be that as it may, from a geopolitical standpoint I found this admittedly far from perfect map quite interesting, not only for the places the POTUS visited, but even more so for the places he didn’t visit (e.g. South America).  Taking into consideration his Secretary of State’s trips to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea (her husband even travelled to North Korea), China, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Belgium, Switzerland, Turkey and Mexico, the map would be more balanced, of course.

US President Obama's Travels Abroad (as of August 21st)
Landkarten erstellen mit StepMap

StepMap US President Obama's Travels Abroad (as of August 21st)

Afghanistan Votes

Election fever in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo taken by our correspondent on the ground, Anuj Chopra

Election fever in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo taken by our correspondent on the ground, Anuj Chopra

Media gags, reports of sporadic attacks, Taliban threats to cut off ink-stained fingers – excitement and anxiety abound as voting in Afghanistan draws to a close.

Several commentators have warned that a contested outcome – most likely one where incumbent Hamid Karzai does not win the first round with 51 percent of the vote – might result in a constitutional deadlock and a period of heightened instability. Others, however, have lauded the gains that his main opponent, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, has made as a sign of progress in an open and fair election process. The election will either heal or deepen rifts in the Afghan polity that have been exposed by the failure of reconstruction efforts and the looming Taliban threat.

But what is the situation on the ground? Are voters heeding Karzai’s call to come out and vote? Is democracy, and the hope of a better tomorrow, inspiring Afghans to take the risk and get that ink stain on their finger?

  • The ISN provides insights into the election process through Anuj Chopra, our reporter on the ground in Afghanistan. In a piece on the election, Anuj highlights the fears and anxieties of many voters who have succumb to the Taliban’s intimidation-campaign.
  • Kai Eide, special representative for the UN secretary general writes for RFE/RL that this election, although difficult, could mark a turning point in the reconstruction effort and the fight against the Taliban. Increased confidence in the democratic process will inspire change and solidify a new strategic vision for the country, he argues.
  • Pictures, courtesy of Monsters and Critics show the election process unfolding– ink-stained fingers and all.
  • This Crisis Group report examines the technical, political and security challenges associated with the current elections.

Guns for…Guns?

A serene sunset in a war-ravaged Niger Delta / Photo: Sigma Delta, flickr

A serene sunset in a war-ravaged Niger Delta / Photo: Sigma Delta, flickr

To say the new Nigerian guns-for-amnesty plan faces “difficulties” is, well, understated at best. Some observers see it as a full-on theater of the absurd.

The ill-conceived peace plan was designed to bring militants out of the Niger Delta swamps to hand over their weapons in exchange for a daily stipend lasting a couple months. Unfortunately, harsh reality is already steering far from lofty conception: Not only are the anti-government militias not lining-up to make peace, but some experts say that common criminals are actually expected to capitalize on the deal.

“The money realized will be used to rearm,” Anyakwee Nsirimovu, chairman of the Niger Delta Civil Society Coalition told the NY Times. “Criminals who claim to be militants will come forward and take the amnesty, and that will be delaying doomsday […].”

It’s not just that $13 a day for 60 days doesn’t sound like much of a deal to the battle weary militants; it’s that they’re fighting for something more fundamental. For years, these guerrilla warriors have battled injustice, squalor and poverty for their share of the Niger Delta’s vast oil wealth. Experts agree that without a real redress of the local population’s grievances, fighting will continue.

“As long as the equity situation is not solved, you will continue to have people who will blow up pipelines,” Nsirimovu concluded.

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