Saturday, March 30, 2019

Saving Mother Earth

Saving Mother Earth
(originally published in Tumbleweird April 2019)

by Ted Miller

Last week, as the snow was finally melting from my favorite running path, I noticed a single plastic shopping bag dangling from a tree limb overhanging the Columbia River. As it moved in the gentle breeze, I thought about the person who had used that bag. Had they carelessly tossed it on the ground? Had it blown there from a nearby business? Do people even think about the consequences of littering? A single plastic bag, marring the natural beauty of the riverfront, is just a tiny example of the billions of tons of plastic released into the environment every year around the world. 

The explosion of plastic production didn’t begin until the 1950s. Today, plastic pollution is so ubiquitous that one of those plastic shopping bags was found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean.[i]We’ve all heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and have seen the pictures of wildlife killed or maimed by plastic. Biologists have even found microplastic in the tissue of fish. Plastic is cheap and convenient, but at what cost to our environment? Did the person who littered that plastic bag think about the environment when they carelessly threw that piece of single-use plastic away? Did they really need that bit of plastic to make their life more convenient?

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, twenty million Americans rallied to call attention to the deteriorating condition of our environment, particularly the growing pollution of our air and water. Spearheaded by Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson with support from Republican Senator Pete McCloskey, the movement brought together diverse groups that had been individually fighting oil spills, factory air pollution, toxic waste dumps, wildlife extinction, and deforestation. With rare bipartisan support, Earth Day led directly to the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Today, the Earth Day movement is the largest civic engagement event in the world with over a billion people participating in a day of action to improve the environment.[ii]There has been a lot of progress in the last forty-nine years to curb pollution through education, regulation, and activism. But the earth is still threatened with toxic waste, plastic pollution, deforestation, species extinction, and climate change.

Each of us should work to be more aware of our impact on the environment, but individually we can only help so much. Collectively, we are part of the biosphere. We are both part of the problem and the key to the solution. The planet needs global change to save itself. 

As I wrote in my January column, “The Greatest Threat to Our Existence,” the average temperature of the planet is rising. This is a fact that no amount of denial can make untrue. Thousands of scientists have concluded that humans are the cause of the dramatic rise in global temperature since the start of the industrial revolution. Without urgent action to mitigate the effects of climate change, we will be facing large scale famine, poverty, disease, and mass species extinction.[iii]

Whether the tipping point is in twelve years or fifty, if we do nothing now, life on this planet will be forever changed and humankind may not survive. We know the causes of climate change and we have the capacity to limit the global temperature rise. The solution will require comprehensive, multi-national effort, but it can be done.

Congress has proposed a set of broad-ranging policy ideas to combat climate change known as the Green New Deal. Building on the success of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal to recover from the Great Depression, the Green New Deal would work in a similar way to incentivize green energy, rebuild infrastructure, reduce or reverse carbon emissions, improve the environment, stimulate the economy, and, ultimately, save the planet. 

The United States can be the leader in combating climate change, or we can continue policies that ignore the problem until it is too little, too late. Naysayers claim the Green New Deal will cost too much, be ineffective, or put us at a disadvantage while China and the rest of the world continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere. But pointing the finger or waiting for a perfect solution won’t help. Starting now is the only way to ensure a cleaner and more sustainable environment. We can attack this problem while avoiding unintended consequences. We can help those impacted by programs under the Green New Deal while taking bold and decisive action. The United States has overcome seemingly insurmountable problems before and we can do so again. 

This Earth Day, think about your impact on the environment. Avoid using plastic bags, walk instead of driving, and recycle what you can. Think about the future of the planet.

If we really only have a decade to reverse the effects of climate change, we must prevent disaster by starting now. The time for arguing about whether climate change is real is over. It’s time for action.

[i]National Geographic, May 11, 2018, “Plastic Bag Found at the Bottom of World’s Deepest Ocean Trench.”
[ii], “The History of Earth Day.”
[iii]U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2018: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II. The complete report may be accessed at

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Who Profits from People in Prison?

Who Profits from People in Prison?
(originally published in Tumbleweird March 2019)
by Ted Miller

Today there are more than 2.2 million people in prison in the United States – more than in China, Russia, or in any other country in the world. That means that the incarceration rate is much higher in the U.S. than anywhere else. At 698 per 100,000 people, the rate is more than 5 times higher than our closest NATO allies. 

Do we really need to lock so many people up? Who benefits from so many in prison?

In the last four decades, criminal laws that emphasize prison over probation or parole, starting with the so-called war on drugs, have resulted in a massive increase in the prison population. This trend disproportionately impacts persons of color and the poor while doing little to improve public safety. 

But the cost to the public has been profound. The cost of federal and state prisons is estimated at $80 billion per year. As part of the rapid increase in prison populations, private prison companies have gone from almost nonexistent to reaping huge profits at the taxpayer’s expense. Private prisons are now a $5 billion industry with top executives receiving millions in compensation. 

Private prison companies use strong-arm tactics and heavy lobbying to maintain their hold on the prison industry. With contracts that have minimum occupancy requirements, these companies incentivize sending people to prison to satisfy a contract instead of in response to crime. 

In 2017, CoreCivic, the largest private prison company in the U.S., threatened to close its prison in Estancia, New Mexico and lay off more than 200 workers if more prisoner beds weren’t filled. Last year, in spite of an effort to reduce the use of private prisons in Montana, CoreCivic convinced the state to extend their contract for a prison in Shelby, Montana, citing potential job losses and a promise to return $34 million to the state budget. 

Conditions of violence, understaffing, and other human rights violations are much worse in private prisons. The ACLU continues to record staff misconduct and prisoner abuses by CoreCivic, yet the company continues to grow its business across the country. Other private prison companies like The GEO Group have similar track records. In fact, problems with private prisons were bad enough that a government Inspector General report in August 2016 prompted then Attorney General Sally Yates to begin phasing out private prisons for federal inmates. This order, however, was overturned by Jeff Sessions soon after Trump took office.

More recently, private prison companies have been profiting on the dramatic increase in detaining immigrants under the Trump administration’s policies. The rapid increase in housing immigrant detainees has been a boon for private prison companies. And as we have seen in recent news, conditions in immigrant detainee facilities are often inhumane for people who have not been charged with any crime.

Prisoners and their families also suffer from the profit motive behind incarceration. Even for detainees who have yet to be convicted of a crime, private companies have arranged to gouge those caught up in the criminal justice system. Phone calls often cost a dollar a minute for families to talk to prisoners. Digital services like emails cost fifty cents to a dollar each. Substandard video teleconferencing is being sold in place of in-person visits. Prisoners often have to buy essentials like toilet paper and soap at the prison commissary at prices that are higher than market rate. The profit motive for these services skews priorities and makes our prison system worse for both inmates and society.

Young people are also a part of our growing prison population. Nearly 60,000 people under age 18 are behind bars on any given day in the U.S. Poor behaviors that used to be handled by school administrators are now often turned over to police with long-lasting effects. Youth who are imprisoned are cut off from their families, limited in their education, and often subjected to trauma and violence that far exceeds the nature of their misbehavior. This trend only adds to the cost of our prison system and shifts too much of the responsibility for our children to a criminal justice system that will not prepare them to be productive members of our society. 

Reducing the cost and overuse of the prison system will require reforms in sentencing guidelines, improvements in prison management and oversight, and updates to criminal law. Certainly, prison is an important part of a criminal justice system. Some criminals, especially those who are violent, must be separated from society. But, in many cases, there are other ways to punish and rehabilitate that are more efficient and effective. Pre-trial detention isn’t always necessary. Minor crimes, including many drug offenses, don’t always warrant the cost of sending someone to prison.

A comprehensive approach to prison reform is needed. Reducing the profit motive in something that should be a government function is a good place to start. The money spent for private prison companies and incarcerating so many people who shouldn’t be behind bars would be much better spent on education, health care, infrastructure, or any number of things that will benefit society more than locking people up.

Data sources: Although multiple news and sources were used as background for this column, all data cited can be found at and