May 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

May 2012

Violence at Rikers Out of Control

This month, Graham Rayman of the Village Voice continued his hard-hitting investigation of unchecked violence at Rikers. Be advised, the photos of inmate injuries that he obtained are horrific. The Voice published these images in the hopes of shocking New Yorkers and their elected officials out of complacency regarding conditions at the prison.

In 2008, the Voice exposed a “fight club” for teen prisoners which operated with the support of guards, who used inmate-on-inmate violence to keep order. Two correctional officers went to prison for their role in the fights, know as The Program.

Rikers officials say that the Program is no more, but insiders tell Rayman a different story:

However, several sources, including current and retired investigators, say that the practice is very much still in place, which is backed up by hundreds of internal Correction Department documents obtained by the Voice.

The documents also lay bare the extreme influence that gangs, mostly Bloods, still exert on day-to-day life in the jails—particularly at the Robert N. Davoren Center, where teens are housed and where Robinson was murdered three years ago.

Documents show that inmate leaders known as “the team” control access to the phones; extort phone privileges, commissary allowances, and food from weaker inmates; and even enforce rules on where inmates can sit when watching television in the dayroom. The weakest inmates have to sit on the floor. All of this happens right under the noses of Correction officers.

Inmates at the juvenile detention center have sustained 10 broken jaws, 6 broken noses, and 3 shattered eye sockets in 2012, according to serious injury reports obtained by The Voice. The real numbers may be much higher, because not all injured inmates seek treatment in jail. Rayman estimates that over 4000 teens are injured every year at Rikers, and that the majority of those injuries are from violence.


Nadia Sussman Accepts Hillman Prize for Social Justice Reporting


Nadia Sussman accepts the Sidney Hillman Prize for Social Justice Reporting at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s Awards for Excellence in Journalism banquet.

Sussman is a 2011 graduate of the CUNY J-School who was recognized as the student in her class with the highest commitment to excellence in social justice journalism. At CUNY she produced slideshows and web videos on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, day laborers in New York, and immigrant girls coping with the aftermath of female genital cutting. Sussman is currently a web video producer for the New York Times.

We at the Sidney Hillman Foundation congratulate Nadia on her achievements and wish her all the best in her future endeavors.

Rewarding Great Advocacy Journalism

Hillman Prize blogger Philip Turner of the Great Gray Bridge on rewarding great advocacy journalism.

Drugs, Debt, and Modern-Day Slavery in Florida

HASTINGS — LeRoy Smith thought he had hit rock bottom when he found himself trolling Atlanta’s gay district, looking to exchange sex acts for a hot hit off a crack pipe. Then he wound up on a Florida farm near the small town of Hastings, being bilked blind, he says, by a man with a fifth-grade education, sweating all day for a few dirty dollars, with no way to escape from the middle-of-nowhere camp.

He did not think slavery existed in modern America. He knows better now. [Tampa Bay Times]

So begins a harrowing story of drugs, debt, and modern-day slavery on a Flordia farm by Ben Montgomery of the Tampa Bay Times.

In his excellent book, Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook describes how Florida contractors enlsave undocumented migrants. Montgomery describes how similar tactics are used on Americans, often on homeless black men:

What Smith found when he got there: “Slavery. Abuse. Overwork. Deplorable, unsanitary conditions. Drugs,” he said. “The only reason there’s no shackles is because now they make the people submit to the cocaine. That’s what they use to basically control the people.”

Specifically, he found an overcrowded bunkhouse full of elderly, drug-addicted black men and one decrepit bathroom. Before he even arrived, the man in the driver’s seat had loaned each of the 15 recruits in the van $10 for a bite to eat, on the condition they pay him back with 100 percent interest.

At the bunkhouse, he said, the men formed three lines. One was for loans, also at 100 percent interest. One was to buy shots of Wild Irish Rose or grape “Mad Dog 20/20” out of an ice chest. And one was to buy crack. By the end of the first night, penniless Smith already owed $50.

Over the course of the two months Smith was at the camp, he never received a paycheck. Though he mowed and scrubbed toilets and cleaned shower stalls, he ran up $210 in debt. The thought that he was being bilked, that there was no way out until he paid his debt, angered him.

Smith is suing the contractor who allegedly placed him in bondage.

[Photo credit: Willy Volk, Creative Commons.]

Sol Stetin Award-Winner Nelson Lichtenstein's Acceptance Speech

Nelson Lichtenstein


Sidney Hillman Foundation

Sol Stetin Award for Labor History

May 1, 2012

I am delighted to receive this award from the Hillman Foundation and quite humbled to stand at the same podium where that great generation of labor history pioneers and teachers – the late David Montgomery, David Brody, and Melvin Dubofsky – once stood.

They made labor history, which had once been the marginal stepchild of business administration and an unwelcome bother to most economists, a central component of what we study in the academy, not just in history, but in English, Sociology, Politics, Law, and Gender Studies. Indeed, it has been somewhat of an embarrassment in my own profession that so many of those who win prizes or get elected to top offices began their careers as students of labor history. And among the new generation of historians that it has been my privilege to mentor, few study the labor movement per se, but in their studies of business, politics, globalization, and capitalism, all are thoroughly grounded in labor history and its distinctive ideological and ethical imperatives. (Of that I make sure, in part through the activities of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.)

In truth, there is something different about labor history. Although they are entirely welcome, you don’t find many conservatives, and certainly very few opponents of the labor movement, identifying with the research agenda pursued by most labor historians. And that is because men and women like David Montgomery and James Green and Dorothy Sue Cobble, the latter two also previous Stetin Award winners, have been passionately committed to the labor movement in all its manifest forms. They have been “labor intellectuals” in the best and truest sense of the word.

Indeed, I accept this award in the spirit manifest by one of the great labor intellectuals of his day, a man who was for decades associated with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the union founded and long led by Sidney Hillman himself. This was Jacob Benjamin Salutsky or J.B. S. Hardman, the editor of the Amalgamated’s newspaper, The Advance, for many years during the first half of the 20th century. Hardman was part of the great generation of exiles from Czarist Russia who helped found the garment trades unions and who never stopped pushing and prodding the entire labor movement to fulfill its humane and socialist destiny. He tutored America’s most influential and radical sociologist, C. Wright Mills, in labor politics, so that when in 1948 Mills published The New Men of Power, America’s Labor Leaders, he dedicated the book to “J.B.S. Hardman, labor intellectual.”

I wish that the leaders of the union movement today could once again be described as “the new men of power.” But regardless of the status of the unions, then or later, Mills knew that the insights, arguments, and empirical research of labor intellectuals like Hardman was essential if unionists were to understand the trajectory of capitalism and fulfill labor’s potential. As Mills then wrote “To have an American labor movement capable of carrying out the program of the left, making allies among the middle class, and moving upstream against the main drift, there must be a rank and file of vigorous workers, a brace of labor intellectuals, and a set of politically alert labor leaders. There must be the power and the intellect.” I accept the Sol Stetin Award in the interests of that alliance.

[Photo credit: Clark Jones.]

Reuters Team Wins May Sidney for Childhood Obesity Exposé

Congratulations to Duff Wilson and Janet Roberts of Reuters, the winners of the May Sidney Award for their special report, “How Washington Went Soft on Childhood Obesity.”

Wilson and Roberts used public records and dozens of interviews to explain how the food and beverage lobby launched an influence-peddling blitz of historic proportions when Barack Obama took office, more than doubling its expenditures in the first three years of Obama’s presidency over the last three years of George W. Bush. 

The industry has never lost a major political battle. It defeated soda taxes in 24 states and several major cities; it got pizza declared a vegetable for school lunches; and it convinced Congress to kill a joint FTC/FDA/CDC report proposing voluntary guidelines on food marketing to children while the White House stood idly by. Michelle Obama abruptly switched the focus of her healthy eating initiative from challenging industry to sell better food to championing exericse.

Childhood obesity, which has tripled since 1980, is just one visible symptom of America’s calorie-dense diet and sedentary habits. Unchecked marketing of junk food to children affects all youngsters, not just those above a certain BMI.

Read my interview with Duff Wilson.

[Photo credit: Meet the new vegetables. By Robobby, Creative Commons.]

Big Tobacco: It's Not the Smoldering Cigarette, It's the Flammable Furniture!

Flame-retardant foam is found in couch cushions, breastfeeding pillows, TVs, and countless other household items. After a sweeping investigation, reporters from the Chicago Tribune conclude that these chemicals are not only ineffective but potentially dangerous to people and the environment. The flame-retardant industry and its allies have used deceptive tactics to convince the public that these chemicals are necessary, the Tribune found.

In today’s installment of this important multi-media series, we learn that the tobacco industry pushed for flame-retardant furniture to divert attention from its inability to design a viable “fire-safe” cigarette. Cigarettes are the leading cause of furniture fires. Firefighters and burn victims were pushing for cigarettes that would extinguish themselves when not being smoked. Under pressure, big tobacco spent millions of dollars courting fire marshalls, aka, “our fire safety friends” in tobacco industry parlance. Big tobacco even had a mole in the National Association of State Fire Marshals–a former Tobacco Institute VP who volunteered as legislative director for the NASFM while working as a lobbyist for the Institute. The industry tried to divert attention from cigarettes to flame-retardants.

Some background on flame-retardants, from the Tribune’s investigation: Chances are, the foam seat of your chair is laced with flame-retardants. As the cushions age, the chemicals leech out and mix with house dust. Most American babies are born with traces of these compounds in their blood. Flame retardants are polluting the environment and may even be making people sick.

This might be a small price to pay if flame retardant foam saved lives or prevented horrific burns, but according to the latest tests, flame retardants don’t even work. In one experiment, a chair made with flame-retardant foam burned just as fast as an otherwise identical chair without the chemical–both were engulfed in flames in 4 minutes flat:

“We did not find flame retardants in foam to provide any significant protection,” said Dale Ray, a top official with the Consumer Product Safety Commission who oversaw the 2009 tests at a laboratory outside Washington.

Moreover, the amount of smoke from both chair fires was similar, Ray said, noting that most fire victims die of smoke inhalation, not the flames.

The previously undisclosed test results call into question the widespread use of flame retardants in household furniture. Some of those chemicals have been linked to cancer, neurological disorders and developmental problems. [ChiTrib]

The flame retardants may not even be necessary. Experts say that smoldering cigarettes are responsible for the majority of furniture fires. Most furniture coverings are already smolder-resistant. If the furniture industry wanted to save lives during fires, it would put a flame-resistant barrier layer between the covering and the core. These barriers are far more effective than flame-retardants and they can be made without chemicals, or with less toxic chemicals. The industry is balking, claiming that these barriers would make furniture uncomfortable. This excuse is hard to believe given that barriers are already standard on mattresses.

The Tribune investigation is an important piece of public service journalism that sounds the alarm about a major threat to safety, health, and the environment while holding powerful interests to account.

[Photo credit: eighteen1, Creative Commons.]

Sidney Winner John Branch Wins Dart Award for "Punched Out"

John Branch of the New York Times has won the 2012 Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for his series “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer,” which chronicles rise and fall of Derek Boogaard, an enforcer who fought his way to the heights of the National Hockey League, but died of an overdose before his 30th birthday, after a prolonged struggle with cognitive decline, substance abuse, and depression.

Branch won the January 2012 Sidney Award for this series, which cast a critical eye on NHL-sanctioned fighting and post-concussion syndrome in hockey.

Once again, the monthly Sidney proves to be a bellwether for major journalism awards. Two recent Sidney winners, Sara Ganim and David Kocieniewski went on to win Pulitzer Prizes this year.

[Photo credit: John Branch accepting the Sidney Award from Hillman Executive Director Alexandra Lescaze. By Lindsay Beyerstein, all rights reserved.]

Bloggers Blog The Hillman Prizes

The Hillman Prize bloggers outdid themselves. Here’s a roundup of their longer pieces:

The 2012 Hillman Prizes: A Night To Remember

Check out the photos from last night’s Hillman Prizes.

A full house gathered to honor excellence in journalism in service of the common good. Click here for full details on this year’s outstanding group of winners.

Some highlights from the program:

  • Opinion and Analysis winner Ta-Nehisi Coates wowed everyone with his acceptance speech, dedicating his award to his father, a veteran of Vietnam and the Black Panthers, who taught his son that “writing is fighting” in the struggle for social justice. 
  • Tom “The Nightwatchman” Morello accepted a special Hillman Officers’ Award for his advocacy for workers’ rights, presented by past Officers’ Award-winner Harry Belafonte.

For a complete liveblog of last night’s event, see Jenn Pozner at Women in Media and News.

Thanks to our all-star team of bloggers for lending their social media accumen. Stay tuned for more of their images and video in the days ahead.