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Kamala Harris Passionately Expresses What Is On The Ballot In 2020

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ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 19: Democratic U.S. Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during an early voting mobilization event at the Central Florida Fairgrounds on October 19, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. President Donald Trump won Florida in the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Kamala Harris gave a passionate speech on October, 19 in Orlando, Florida during a campaign rally.

With the high stakes of this coming election VP elect Kamala Harris gave us a quick reminder as to what is really on the ballot this election season.

Kamala began with, “I cannot thank you, because as Val Demings said, there is so much on the ballot in 2020.” Then she began to tell us what exactly is at stake:

“Climate justice is on the ballot in 2020.

Health care justice is on the ballot in 2020.

Reproductive justice is on the ballot in 2020.

Criminal justice reform is on the ballot in 2020.

Climate reform is on the ballot in 2020.

Everything is on the ballot in 2020. Joe Biden is on the ballot in 2020.

Don’t forget to go and cast your vote. We are ten days out from the presidential election but early voting has already began.

Drawing Voting Lines: Can Algorithms Make U.S. Elections Fairer?

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Needing to redraw North Carolina’s legislative districts under a court order, lawmakers last year employed a state lottery machine to select a new map at random.

Courts had ruled the previous map unfair, due in part to testimony by mathematicians and computer scientists who showed how the plans had been drawn to weaken the state Democratic Party.

To fix the issue, the lottery machine was loaded with maps deemed to be more equitable, drawn by a computer program written by Jowei Chen, a University of Michigan professor of political science.

“Back in the day, this was something that would take you weeks to do with pen and paper,” Chen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

“Now, my laptop can draw one computer-simulated map in a minute.”

The techniques of Chen and other researchers are coming under the spotlight ahead of the U.S. election on Nov. 3, after which officials will be using 2020 Census data to redraw the lines for thousands of legislative districts.

Redistricting is done every 10 years to reflect changing demographics as reported in the census, also done every 10 years.

“It’ll be consequential for the political playing field over the whole next decade,” said Sam Wang, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University and founder of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a group studying election mapping. 

‘A PERFECT STORM’

Wang and other experts are on the lookout for gerrymandering, a technique used to manipulate district lines in such a way to advantage or disadvantage a particular group. 

An unfair map might split Black voters into several districts to dilute their voting power or spread Republican voters across districts to make it easier for Democrats to win majorities.

Some gerrymandering is illegal, but it is not always easy to prove or detect. 

“For years it was hard to say for when a map went too far,” said Michael Li, a lawyer who works on the issue at the Brennan Center in New York, a civil rights group. 

In dozens of court cases across the country researchers like Chen have presented evidence to help challenge districts drawn after the 2010 census and in some cases forced their redrawing.

Recent advances in supercomputers, algorithms and advanced mathematics have made it possible to study, detect, and push back more precisely against maps designed to skew elections. 

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Wang. “We see increases in the partisanship and political polarization that leads to gerrymandering, and at the same time, we have big advances in computing for detecting and studying it.”

‘A BUG IN OUR DEMOCRACY’

The term gerrymandering emerged out of a 19th century effort by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry to manipulate the state’s maps to benefit incumbents.

“It’s a bug in our democracy,” said Wang. “Legislatures have the power to draw their own lines, and they create the system they run under, opening the floodgates to self dealing.” 

The development of advanced mapping software over the past decade made it even easier for incumbents to draw maps that might subtly skew in their favor, said Gregory Herschlag, a mathematician at Duke University in North Carolina.

Duke, Tufts University in Boston, Princeton and other universities have created dedicated programs to study gerrymandering and train researchers to testify in court cases.

In 2017, Sandra Covington and a group of Black North Carolina residents were locked in a multi-year legal battle trying to show that the state’s legislative map unfairly concentrated Black voters in 28 districts, diluting their vote. 

They called upon Herschlag, who used his computer to draw thousands of potential maps and compared his results with the existing map, a technique called the ensemble method or outlier analysis.

He examined whether Black voters were clustered in a way that looked atypical when compared with thousands of possible map variations and noticed something was amiss.

“The racial makeup was highly atypical of a plan that was drawn neutrally without regards to race,” Herschlag said.

The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the legislature was forced to redraw a number of district maps. 

So far, such techniques have mostly been used in court to show that maps have been drawn unfairly to benefit a particular political party or racial group. 

The real test will come after the November election, when lawmakers could draw on the emerging suite of technical tools to devise fairer maps or double down on gerrymandering, Wang said. 

He is particularly hopeful that a number of states that have set up independent commissions to draw the new districts will use the newest technology.

Wendy K. Tam Cho, a senior research scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, said the new techniques are not a panacea and communities still must decide what a fair map looks like. 

“How do you measure fairness?” Cho said. “The computer isn’t going to answer that.”

Weather disasters opening U.S. eyes to climate threats – Al Gore

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As the frequency and ferocity of extreme weather events from wildfires to floods grows, the U.S. public is becoming more concerned and ready to act on climate threats, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said. 

“The world, and the United States, are crossing the political tipping point on climate right now,” the Nobel peace prize laureate told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of a three-day conference on climate and food systems. 

“The next few years will be characterized by the largest investment boom in sustainability-oriented technologies – including regenerative agriculture – that the world has ever seen,” he predicted.

The U.S. presidential election next month will be “enormously consequential for not only the United States but also for global climate policy” as countries battle to hold the line on planetary heating, he said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Republican President Donald Trump’s Democratic challenger, has said he would ensure the United States moves to 100% clean energy and reaches net-zero climate-changing emissions no later than 2050.

Trump, in turn, has promised to remove the United States from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change the day after the election and has been a strong supporter of fossil fuel energy companies.

But Gore said that as the price of clean energy drops, shifting market forces are likely to drive a continued push toward renewables.

“The rate of coal burning has declined even more rapidly under Trump, in spite of his pledges to the contrary, than the changes that occurred under President Obama,” Gore said in a telephone interview. 

The “sustainability revolution” that is now underway is “the largest transition the global economy has ever gone through,” he said.

“We’re in the early stages of it now but this will have the magnitude of the industrial revolution combined with the speed of the digital revolution.” 

SMARTER FARMING 

Gore’s optimism is buoyed in part by promising results from his own efforts to capture and store climate-changing emissions on his nearly 700-acre Tennessee family farm, which grows vegetables and chestnuts and raises animals.

The “regenerative agriculture” techniques used on the farm focus on improving the health of the farm’s soils, which allows them to hold and store more carbon.

Scientists say soil stores more carbon than the planet’s atmosphere and vegetation combined – but that the highly fertile and carbon-rich top layer of soil is fast eroding worldwide due to human activities including intensive agriculture. 

At Gore’s Caney Fork Farms, however, shifts in farming systems have allowed the land to sequester about 880 tons of carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas heating up the planet – each year for the past five years, he said.

This is equivalent of offsetting the consumption of 100,000 gallons of gasoline each year, the former vice president said. 

“That’s a tiny amount in one way – but it’s five times as much carbon as we had been sequestering up until the transition to regenerative farming techniques,” said Gore, a longtime environmental activist.

Changes on the farm include rotating crops, planting trees among field crops and reducing plowing and tilling, while maintaining harvests.

If such techniques became more widespread, U.S. farms could store “an enormous amount of carbon”, Gore said.

RISING DISASTERS

He said he is encouraged by polls and other data showing more Americans are concerned about climate change and want action on it.

A New York Times poll published Tuesday showed 66% of Americans favor Biden’s proposed $2 trillion climate action proposal and only 26% opposed it. 

“You just don’t get numbers like that on a $2 trillion proposal unless there is a major change in public opinion from a few years ago – and there is,” he said. 

That shift is coming, in part, because of the work of grassroots activists around the world and because of the evident increase in damaging extreme weather events in the United states, Gore said.

In the two decades between 2000 and 2019, the United States experienced the world’s second-highest number of disasters after China, according to the United Nations.

Other countries that are big drivers of climate change also are stepping up on their own climate action, Gore said.

He pointed to China’s pledge last month to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 and plans by European Union lawmakers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60% from 1990 levels by 2030.

Gore said he is focusing on reducing emissions from food production, which experts say account for a quarter of global emissions.

He called regenerative agriculture “the single largest opportunity to pull some of the CO2 out of the atmosphere”. 

Scientists warn that quantifying and verifying storage of soil carbon can be complicated, and rules are still being worked out.

But Gore said his farm is working with researchers to try to effectively measure the impacts of the changes, which he said have brought other benefits on the farm as well, including less use of fertilisers and fossil fuels.

Regenerative agriculture “makes the soil more fertile, it increases yields, it saves on input costs, and this becomes part of the solution to the climate crisis,” he said.

Terrorist Arrested After Plotting To Assassinate Presidential Candidate Joe Biden

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On Thursday, Alexander Hillel Treisman, a 19-year-old White terrorist was charged by the F.B.I for plotting to Assassinate Democratic Presidential Candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.

According to the F.B.I they did not take Treisman as an idle threat. Treisman posted a meme to social media asking, “should I kill Joe Biden?”

He also traveled across the U.S. obtaining several high powered rifles and he used the Internet to search for information such as Joe Biden’s home address, night vision googles, and state gun laws.

A search of a white Ford van in Kannapolis, North Carolina abandoned by Treisman also uncovered over half a million dollars in cash (which is believed to a part of his inheritance), books on making bombs, and drawings of swastikas and planes crashing into buildings.

According to The Daily Beast court records show he created a checklist that ended with, “execute,” while he was at a Wendy’s about four miles from V.P Joe Biden’s Residence.

Treisman has also been indicted for possession of child pornography when 1,248 videos and 6,721 images of child pornography content, was found on several of his electronic device when he first arrested back on May 28, 2020.

NAACP Blasts Alabama School Board for Failure to Adhere to Statewide Mask Mandate

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All across the country the cases for those testing positive and being overcome by the deadly life altering coronavirus is drastically increasing.

The New York Times published that Friday so far has set a new recorded in the U.S. for the worst day of COVID-19 cases since this pandemic began over eight months ago. A total of 79,000 new cases had been reported across the country, breaking a single-day record set on July 16 by more than 3,000 cases.

With the havoc this virus is wreaking all across the nation, Senior citizens and other citizens of the Houston County Alabama community have become overly concerned with the decisions being made by the Houston County School Board, where David Sewell is the current superintendent, regarding the meetings being held to conduct business pertaining to their children and decisions being made surrounding their education.

The concerns stem from the board members lack of properly utilizing their mask during the meetings and for their refusal to make the meetings available again virtually so citizens can safely attend.

Dr. Franklin Jones, who is the current NAACP president and organizer of the New Justice Coalition, released a statement regarding the school boards behavior:

“It has been brought to the attention of the New Justice Coalition of Houston County that the Houston County Board of Education is conducting public meetings outside the mandates or purview of Governor Kay Ivey concerning the use of masks in public places. It was noted in a recent meeting that the Superintendent, six members of the Board, four members of the central office and county school staff, one member of the public, and one other elected official, were not wearing masks during the meeting. There appears to be no empathy for the safety of others who wish to attend the public meeting without endangering health or life. I implore the Superintendent to do the right thing and to make the school board meetings safe for all citizens to attend and without the fear of loss of health or life.”

Teretha James, a organizer for the local NAACP and New Justice Coalition who also has been a very active participant in the board meetings before the virus and before virtual access was canceled without warning stated,

“During this time of Covid-19, the health officials have recommended and Governor Kay Ivey has mandated wearing masks in public and group gatherings. This mandate is to help protect all of us. Whereas Dothan City School Board continues to hold virtual School Board Meetings, Houston County has resumed brick and mortar meetings. During attendance at the last three meetings, it has been reported that this mandate is not being adhered to by some Board members and staff. I personally observed that Monday, August 31. On August 17, I personally delivered a letter and inquired about attending the meeting that afternoon virtually, and I was told I could not. On August 31, I called the office to inquire about being able to attend virtually and was told no. I should not have to choose between my health/safety and attending a public meeting. It is imperative that all public officials follow the mandate and require all attendees who participate in public meetings and/ or work in a public setting to wear a mask at work and during the meeting.”

This past Monday the Houston County School Board held another meeting. Emails were sent to David Sewell beforehand with direct concerns of mask not being properly utilized, inquiring about virtual access, and a host of other things such as the status of any diversity training teachers have received after last years uproar when seven white teachers called the “Bad A B’s” of Ashford High School, were caught being racist, discriminatory, and violent against other teachers, parents, and students of color and LGBTQ status.

Despite the mandate issued by Gov. Kay Ivey, the scientific analysis and the CDC’s repeated encouragement as to why wearing mask in public helps suppress the spread of the virus, David Sewell’s response to the communities concern for the board not properly following mask protocol was:

“The board members/Superintendent are six (6) feet apart and more then six (6) from the attendees.”

Several Houston County schools, under this school boards administration, within the last few weeks have had to close completely down due to the virus being spread uncontrollably amongst students, teachers, and other staff.

The community is now questioning why the board members aren’t setting a healthy example of adhering to proper mask utilization while holding public meetings and why is the school board refusing to open virtual access to the meetings to allow vulnerable citizens the opportunity to participate safely when the fact is the Houston County School system itself is being impacted by this virus and the doors to the schools are being forced shut one by one.

Report it, don’t share it’: Viral trafficking posts flood U.S. hotlines

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Internet conspiracy theories from furniture companies selling children to face masks aiding kidnappings have led to a surge in calls to human trafficking tiplines, experts said on Wednesday, urging people to not to spread misinformation.

A cyber hotline run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received 1.6 million reports in May, more than double the roughly 700,000 it said it received in May 2019. 

Fuelling the surge is upheaval due to the coronavirus pandemic and online sex trafficking posts that went viral, said experts in the field.

“As we’re in this pandemic and we’re dealing with the shutdowns, we know that traffickers are capitalizing on the chaos that’s been created,” said U.S. anti-trafficking Ambassador John Richmond, speaking on a panel organized by the U.S. State Department.

Anti-trafficking groups must address the surge from internet posts while trying not to discourage reports, he added in comments to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Obviously there’s been a huge influx,” he said.

Online posts spreading misinformation have gone viral on the internet, said Melissa Snow, NCMEC’s executive director of child sex trafficking programs. 

“Report it, get it to law enforcement … but don’t continue to share it in a viral way because then that just overwhelms hotlines,” she said, speaking on the State Department panel.

In recent months, false rumors have traveled the internet such as one that U.S. home goods site Wayfair was trafficking children, prompting the company to deny the claim.

Other viral posts about face masks aiding in the abduction of children fueled calls to the tipline, Snow said.

“Both of these examples fall way outside the margin of what we typically see,” Snow said. “It’s incorrectly educating people on what trafficking looks like.”

In July, Polaris, which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, said the volume of calls linked to posts about Wayfair was making it harder to provide support to those who needed help.

Beyond the viral posts, the NCMEC tipline saw a concerning increase in reports of child sexual abuse during pandemic lockdowns, Snow said.

Activists around the world have warned that online child sex abuse has risen during the global coronavirus pandemic. [NL8N2DM5NZ]

The ambassador said the U.S. government was launching a fund to help anti-trafficking organizations deal with adverse effects from the pandemic lockdowns on their work.

Grants of $100,000 to $1 million would be available, he said.

He added that increased attention to the issue of trafficking provided an opportunity “to push out good, positive data-driven facts.”

About 25 million people worldwide are estimated to be victims of forced labor with almost 5 million people in forced commercial sex, according to the International Labour Organization and nonprofit Walk Free Foundation.

U.S. Cities Seeking Legal Help for Tenants as Evictions are Looming

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When Shalonda Glascoe fell behind on her rent as she struggled to find a job amid the coronavirus outbreak this spring, her landlord tried to kick her out of her Baltimore home – twice. 

Eventually, Glascoe, 47, sought free legal help, a decision she says was key in allowing her to stay in her home in the northeastern U.S. city.

Without legal assistance, “I don’t think I would be here right now. I think I would have lost the fight,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

Over the past few months, bans on evictions during the pandemic have been enacted at the city, state and federal levels, yet landlords are still filing notices – and the rate may even be picking up, housing experts warn. 

As U.S. families continue being forced from their homes, renters’ advocates and lawmakers are calling for “right to counsel” policies to give all tenants legal representation in eviction court or help navigating the protections open to them. 

“What we’re seeing amid COVID-19 is various laws being passed to provide some protection for renters, but they’re full of gray areas and loopholes,” said C. Matthew Hill, an attorney with the nonprofit Public Justice Center who assisted Glascoe. 

Having a lawyer on her side set Glascoe apart from many others in her position, according to John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, a network that advocates for the issue.

Only a tenth of tenants are represented by an attorney in eviction court, compared to 90% of landlords, he said.

The idea of a renters’ right to counsel is gaining ground across the country, including in Baltimore, where earlier this month City Council President Brandon M. Scott proposed a law that guarantees an attorney for every tenant in eviction court. 

“With eviction protections for renters scarce, we need to take action to get relief and support to our residents that will exist beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” Scott said in emailed comments.

The management company at Glascoe’s townhouse, Atlantic Realty Group, did not respond to a request for comment. 

WATERED-DOWN BAN

After a federal moratorium on evictions went into effect in September, covering most tenants, the U.S. government issued new guidance this month that advocates say waters down the original order and opens tenants to new dangers.

Under the non-binding guidance, landlords are allowed to initiate eviction proceedings at any point, even though tenants cannot be removed from their homes until the moratorium ends in December. 

The guidance also says landlords can challenge in court the declarations tenants are required to sign to be protected under the moratorium. 

The National Apartment Association, an industry group, applauded the new guidance, noting in a statement from President Robert Pinnegar that it “creates a path forward for the apartment industry”. 

But housing advocates worry it will lead to greater confusion among tenants and prompt many to “self-evict” out of fear that they risk going to jail, said Pollock. 

“You have unrepresented tenants being put on a stand by a landlord’s attorney for a one-sided cross-examination. It’s already started to happen, but now the floodgates are going to open,” he said.

EVELING THE FIELD 

The push for a right to counsel for tenants in eviction court is a relatively new movement, starting with 2014 legislation in New York City. 

Since then, five cities have established similar programs, said Pollock, and there has been a massive groundswell of work and interest elsewhere, including among state governments. 

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has endorsed right to counsel as part of his broad package on housing. 

Various industry voices have come out against right-to-counsel proposals. 

“Right to counsel policies, though often well-intentioned, have unintended consequences that could impact the health and safety of other residents, like delays in eviction proceedings,” said Greg Brown, a senior vice president with the National Apartment Association.  

Such policies also fail to address the underlying cause of evictions, he said in emailed comments: “the financial instability of renters and the rental housing supply/demand imbalance.” 

But backers of the programs say a right to counsel can level the playing field between tenants and landlords – not only keeping many in their homes, but also saving cities money. 

Since New York proposed its law six years ago, evictions in the city have fallen by more than 40%, according to an official announcement earlier this year, while nearly 85% of those who do go to eviction court end up staying in their homes, Pollock said.

In San Francisco, California, where the right went into effect last year, two-thirds of tenants who get full representation manage to stop their evictions, he added.

Such a program would cost Baltimore about $5.7 million a year, but would save the city and the state of Maryland six times as much, according to a study by global consulting firm Stout, Risius and Ross.

Those savings would be the result of fewer people needing services aimed at homeless populations, such as emergency health care, temporary housing and transporting homeless students to school, the report explained.

‘LET’S GET THIS IN PLACE’ 

The financial effects of the pandemic have made evictions an urgent issue in Boulder, Colorado, which next month will vote on a referendum to provide a right to counsel to tenants, said activist Ruy Arango. 

“Many (people), including tenants, are under the impression that there are already protections in place. When they find out there aren’t, they say, ‘Let’s get this in place,'” said Arango, chair of the No Eviction Without Representation campaign. 

The Boulder Area Rental Housing Association, which represents landlords, opposes the measure. 

“Providing a lawyer for tenants does not resolve the problem of non-payment,” the group warned in a statement released in August. “The funds end up in the attorney’s pocket instead of assisting the population who truly needs the help.” 

In some cities, a full right to counsel is a longer-term aim, but advocates have adopted smaller-scale measures in the interim. 

A year ago, Jeff Yungman, legal services director at the nonprofit One80 Place, started a “housing court” on set days at four magistrate courts in and around North Charleston, South Carolina, giving free legal help to anyone undergoing eviction. 

North Charleston has the highest eviction rate in the country, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which uses 2016 data, the most recent available. 

From October 2019 through the end of July, Yungman said, nearly three-quarters of people represented through the project did not get evicted. 

Judges have been uniformly supportive, he noted, but obstacles to expanding the project include getting enough attorneys to volunteer their time – something that would be dealt with through an official right to counsel. 

Right now, Yungman said the project is as large as he can manage on his own. He is already worried about what will happen when the federal eviction moratorium runs out at the end of the year.

“We’re thinking in January, it’s going to be nuts,” he said.

Locked up during COVID-19: Costly phone calls strain families

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Like many Americans with aging parents, Dominque Jones-Johnson started checking in more regularly with her father when the coronavirus pandemic broke out – but unlike most families, the cost of the calls strained her budget to the breaking point.

Her father, Charles Brown Jr., is incarcerated for aggravated rape, burglary and “crimes against nature” – she said he was falsely accused of all charges – in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where a 15-minute phone call costs $3.15.

By May, these local calls – which would have been free for most people living in the state – had cost the family nearly $400.

“They’re making me pay to incarcerate myself,” Charles Brown Jr. told the Thomson Reuters Foundation earlier this month. A week later, he contracted COVID-19 and was put in isolation, no longer able to speak with his daughter.

Jones-Johnson, who founded the charity Daughters Beyond Incarceration, said in a phone interview that “the money stressed me out, but not talking to him stresses me out more”.

With COVID-19 curtailing visits in many prisons and jails, families rely on phone calls, video chats and other forms of messaging, but advocates say the high costs of those services take a heavy financial toll on the people who can least afford them.

Even before the pandemic, a third of families went into debt to finance visits to incarcerated relatives and use telephone and messaging systems, said Bianca Tylek, executive director of advocacy group Worth Rises.

Now, those communications services are essential to the roughly 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States.

“People need to be in touch more than ever,” said Tylek. “And they have less money than ever to pay for it.”

A spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections said it offers 30 minutes of free calls a week during the pandemic and that it “understands the importance of inmates maintaining contact with loved ones”.

INFRASTRUCTURE

In U.S. prisons and jails, private firms build out the communications infrastructure in exchange for the opportunity to charge for their services, often splitting revenue from the calls, video chats and messaging services with the facility.

Critics of the practice refer to it as a form of kickback, paid by the industry to win access to captive customers.

A report published last year by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) found that the average cost of a 15-minute call from local jails is $5.74.

Rates in state-run prisons are significantly lower, and calls across state lines from jails and prisons have been capped at 21 cents per minute by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which currently only regulates interstate calling.

While phone calls make up the bulk of communications between prisoners and their families, video calling and email services, offered via kiosks and tablets, are often set up under similar agreements.

A 2017 case-study by the Vera Institute of Justice found the video calls in Washington State – which at the time cost $12.95 – proved too expensive for many inmates and nearly 90% never even tried to use the service.

Jones-Johnson must pay $7.50 for a 30-minute video call with her father.

For local and state governments, those costs can be a significant source of revenue, explained Democratic Representative Josh Elliott, who is sponsoring legislation that would make phone calls from Connecticut’s state prisons free.

In 2019, Securus Technologies, a private firm that operates the phone network, spent $40,000 to hire lobbyists to oppose Elliott’s legislation, according to government documents.

After the lobbying became public Securus, which is owned by L.A.-based private equity firm Platinum Equity, promised it would no longer oppose the bill, Elliott said.

“This is the most straightforward thing,” he said in a phone interview. “Make calls free so people can be in touch with their families.”

HEAVY COSTS

The pandemic has made a tough situation even tougher, said Mashonda Jones, whose son has been incarcerated for three years at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center following a conviction for breaking and entering, according to local media.

Jones runs a soul food restaurant that was forced to shut down in March because of coronavirus restrictions – her son’s facility is on lockdown and not allowing visitors.

With money tight, she now spends $100 a week on calls and video conferencing so that her grandchildren can stay connected with their father.

“Even though their dad is incarcerated I want them to know they still have a dad,” she said.

Global Tel Link (GTL), the company that operates the phones at the jail, offers two free five-minute calls a week, Jones said. Video conferencing at the facility costs $7.50 for 30 minutes.

“It wasn’t enough,” Jones said. “It’s just hello, how you doing, here are the kids and then he’s gone.”

A spokesman for GTL said it was “evaluating ways we may be able to improve our permanent free weekly communications program in the future”.

Kathy Hieatt, spokeswoman for the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office said in emailed comments that inmates pay 11 cents per minute for both local and long-distance calls, down from 15 cents per minute in 2018.

A spokeswoman for Securus said it had lowered the average cost of calls by more than 30% per minute over the last three years. The company said this month it had offered “191 million free minutes of phone connections” since the start of the pandemic.

Tylek, with Worth Rises, pointed out that adds up to less than 10 minutes of free calling a week for the more than 1.2 million in facilities with Securus phones.

EMERGING SOLUTIONS

In recent years, lawmakers and regulators have taken steps to rein in the price of connection for incarcerated families.

The Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress passed a law in May that would empower the FCC to limit the cost of calls within states as well as between states, and would bar local and state governments from taking a cut of the revenue.

The law has not yet passed the Republican-controlled Senate.

Brian Hill, the CEO of Edovo, a start-up that builds cheaper connectivity tools for incarcerated people – including tablets and free education software – said the root problem is the profit-sharing model.

“The system taxes the families of those who are incarcerated,” he said. “Ideally, you’d get rid of revenue sharing across the board.”

Tylek, who tries to convince investors to boycott companies that profit off incarceration, said the only solution is to put the firms out of business, and have the government pick up the bill for all essential services, like phone calls.

Meanwhile, Jones-Johnson is so worried that her father won’t receive adequate treatment for COVID-19 that she’s willing to pay what it ta”It’s a constant struggle,” said Jones-Johnson. “But what else can I do?”

Silent trains to masks: U.S. cities fight to revive public transport

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FILE PHOTO: A worker wipes down surfaces as the MTA Subway closed overnight for cleaning and disinfecting during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, U.S., May 7, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo - RC2KGI9VRFEK

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Temperature sensors, silent train cars, bleach-like odors – U.S. city officials and transport experts are pulling out the stops to lure residents back on rails and buses after the coronavirus pandemic sent ridership plummeting.

As cities locked down to contain the spread of the deadly virus, urban transit systems have been devastated by millions of workers staying at home rather than commuting and by a sharp decline in tourism.

The dip in public transport use threatens urban liveability, said Hayley Richardson, a spokeswoman for TransitCenter, a New York-based non-profit that advocates for public transportation.

“The liveability of cities is really at stake here … Transit is the thing that makes cities possible,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

Ridership of buses and trains shrank by 75% in New York City and 90% in the San Francisco Bay Area in April, according to Transit, a mobile app that collects global transport data – although numbers have somewhat recovered as cities emerge from lockdowns.

Major U.S. public transit systems asked congressional leaders last month for up to $36 billion to keep municipal buses and trains running.

Essential workers like nurses and grocery clerks have used public transit throughout the pandemic, but the key task is luring back riders, some of whom have opted for driving to the office and most of whom are working remotely, urban experts say.

About 180,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, according to a Reuters tally – a toll that experts warn will likely surge following recent record spikes in case numbers and an alarming rise in hospitalizations in many states.

MASKS AND CLEANLINESS

Requiring all passengers to wear masks is an obvious first step, with successful experiences in Tokyo, Taipei, Seoul and Paris, said Richardson.

But achieving that shift is more difficult in the United States, where mask wearing has become a political issue and some people are adamantly opposed to the practice, she added. “I’m not going to lie. It’s going to be a challenge.”

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) provides free masks, while in Portland, Oregon, the transit agency has installed mask dispensers on its 700 buses.

The New Jersey transit system that carries commuters in and out of New York City has asked customers to “avoid loud talking and restrict phone conversations” in an effort to limit the potential range of droplets that might contain the coronavirus.

Boston’s transit system has made its schedule more flexible, Richardson said, adding services to accomodate health care workers in early morning hours and in locations where essential workers are riding.

The pandemic has forced cities and public agencies to cut through red tape and streamline bureaucratic processes, said Rachel Zack, director of policy at Remix, a San Francisco-based transit and urban planning company.

“Cities that used to have a four-month planning process now are doing it in a week,” she said.

Making a virtue of cleanliness is also critical, said Brianne Eby, senior policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington-based think tank – although some experts question how much viral transmission occurs on surfaces.

“Agencies need to visibly clean vehicles and stations in front of people to reassure them,” she explained.

“Whether or not it’s effective, if it creates an incentive or reason for people to get back on transit, maybe it is worth it. But the challenge there is that it’s so costly to procure.”

Some agencies have looked for bleach with a strong smell because riders will register the scent as cleanliness, said Zack.

“People want to know that it’s clean, and they need some sort of signal,” she said. “It’s almost more of an art than a science at this point.”

CROWD MANAGEMENT

New York and Boston, meanwhile, have rolled out apps that relay real-time information as to how many passengers are on incoming buses and trains, giving riders a choice of whether to hop on or wait for the next one.

“So if I’m nervous to try transit, but I see on this app that I can get a seat, I don’t have to touch any poles, I don’t have to get in anyone’s face, maybe that gives me the comfort that I need to choose transit instead of driving,” Richardson said.

“It only really helps workers who are flexible,” she added. “If you have to be at your job at 9am and you’ll get fired if you’re not, this doesn’t do much for you.”

Cities in other countries have tested similar solutions, with the Transport for London app showing riders which stations are crowded, when social distancing is most feasible and what cycling and walking alternatives exist.

Another idea is getting businesses to stagger their employees’ start times to prevent crowded rush hours, said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, a group that advises New York City’s transit agency.

FINANCIAL LIFELINE

Transit systems will need major government funding, planners, researchers and officials say, given how much revenue has been lost in fares, tolls, and fuel and sales taxes.

The transit system serving the New York City metropolitan area alone is seeking more than $10 billion from Congress through next year.

“New York City without a transit system is like a skyscraper without an elevator,” said Philip Plotch, a transportation expert and associate professor of political science at Saint Peter’s University.

“New York City’s economy cannot function without its transit system.”

Getting people back on transit systems is reminiscent of the 1980s in New York when riders shunned the subways as dangerous, said Plotch.

“In the 1980s, there weren’t enough people on the system so you felt uncomfortable getting on a train that was empty or waiting on the platform. Here it’s the opposite. If there’s too many people, you feel uncomfortable.”

Transit systems must be candid with riders to survive, he added.

“Transit systems have one shot to be credible, and if they’re not telling the truth, then they’re going to lose people.

Waiting for Work: Pandemic leaves U.S. gig workers clamoring for jobs

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WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Tyrita Franklin-Corbett knew she was risking her health delivering groceries during the coronavirus pandemic, but she didn’t expect to be laid up by a dog attack.

Furloughed from her job as an auditor at a public accounting firm in May, the single mother of a 12-year-old son from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, started to take on more shifts with online grocery pick-up and delivery service Instacart.

Franklin-Corbett, 45, had been an Instacart “shopper” for several years to supplement her salary, but she never imagined the app-based work, with its wild swings in earnings and no health insurance or sick pay, being her sole source of income.

“It’s a gig, not a career,” Franklin-Corbett told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “When I was in the office, I knew what my paycheck was going to be every day. With this, you do not know. There’s a lot of unknowns, a lot of uncertainty.

“You don’t know if you’re going to have to carry four cases of water up three flights of steps. You don’t know how much traffic you have to sit in if you want to make 40 bucks.”

Aside from carting heavy groceries and risking exposure to the coronavirus, Franklin-Corbett was bitten on the foot by a customer’s dog in March.

“It was horrific,” said Franklin-Corbett, who had to stop work for two weeks, getting $60 compensation from San Francisco-based Instacart and $1,600 from the customer’s insurance plan.

But with the pandemic sending unemployment to highs not seen since the 1930s Great Depression, more people are joining the growing U.S. army of gig workers, competing for jobs they say pay less and less while trying to avoid contracting COVID-19.

Gig workers are independent contractors who perform on-demand services, including as drivers, delivering groceries or providing childcare – and are one-third more likely to be Black or Latino, according to a 2018 Edison Research poll.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2017 that 55 million people in the United States were gig workers – or 34% of the workforce – and this was projected to rise to 43% in 2020.

Of these about 1.6 million are part of a growing group of workers to emerge in the past decade, paid by tech platforms like ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft or food delivery apps like DoorDash and Postmates.

In the past 12 months alone, two million Americans have started freelancing, according to a September study from Upwork, a freelance job platform.

This ongoing shift in the workforce and calls for greater protection for gig workers has put the issue on the political agenda ahead of the Nov. 3 election, with California voters to decide on a landmark state law ruling such workers as employees.

For while some companies and workers praise the flexibility of gig work for juggling families and multiple jobs, some labor activists fear an economic slump will leave gig workers in dire straits with no safeguards like minimum wage or health cover.

‘FELT LIKE A FREE FALL’

Gig workers were included when the U.S. government introduced a $2.3 trillion coronavirus relief bill in March.

The bill included payments of up to $1,200 each to millions of Americans, increased and extended unemployment benefits for workers including contractors, and small business loans.

But after the initial round of pandemic-related aid dried up in August, job growth has slowed more than expected with COVID-19 cases rising and the number of deaths nearing 220,000.

Lawmakers remain in a deadlock on further aid ahead of next month’s election, adding further uncertainty to an already weak U.S. economic recovery in which many companies and workers initially facing job furloughs are now permanently laid off.

In September the number of unemployed people in the United States was 12.6 million compared to 5.7 million a year earlier, with an overall jobless rate of 7.9% but higher numbers among teenagers, Blacks and Hispanics, according to government data.

One of those laid off was Serenety Hanley, whose career in digital communications included a stint in the White House under President George W. Bush.

The 45-year-old single mother was let go from a retail job in March and now makes a living by shopping for Instacart, whose orders jumped fivefold during the pandemic as consumers grew wary of venturing out to stores.

Living off money she makes lugging groceries and dipping into a college savings account set aside for her 11-year-old son, Hanley said she still can barely make ends meet.

“It felt like a free fall,” said Hanley, who lives in Arlington, Virginia.

“(But) even though I’m not getting the same benefits as a white-collar job, I do appreciate that I have an opportunity to make money at all.”

FELL THROUGH THE CRACKS

Getting government help has proved difficult.

After the relief bill was passed, many state authorities were overwhelmed by applications for unemployment pay, with a record 10 million Americans filing for assistance in late March and April, and many gig workers fell through the cracks.

Franklin-Corbett said she received her federal stimulus check but, despite calling Maryland state offices regularly, she has not gotten the additional unemployment benefits she is due.

She was also concerned that the delivery business during the pandemic had attracted a flood of new workers who lost other jobs so the pay was no longer as good.

Instacart said this month that it had brought on 300,000 new “shoppers,” more than doubling its workforce to 500,000.

Prior to the pandemic, Franklin-Corbett said she could make up to $300 in a few hours. On a recent trip that took more than an hour and a half, she made $9.

“I have to work twice as much to make half of what I was making to survive,” she said.

DRIVING DEMAND DOWN

Other areas of the gig economy, particularly ride-hailing services, have taken steep hits with fewer people traveling.

Lyft’s number of active riders fell 60% to 8.69 million during the second quarter, according to the company’s latest earnings report. Uber’s gross bookings declined 75% overall in the second quarter, the company said in August.

Ayana Headspeth, 33, a mother-of-four from Montgomery County, Maryland, became one of Washington’s first 100 Uber drivers in 2014 and has made her living with the largest gig platforms including Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash.

But to protect herself and her children from coronavirus, she stopped driving in late March and hasn’t driven since.

Not only were there health risks, driving for Uber became financially “pointless,” said Headspeth.

“The last time I drove, I drove around for three-and-a-half hours and I made $11, which has never happened in the history of me doing Uber,” she said.

“My very first night doing Uber, I did Uber for an hour-and-a-half and made $40 – and this was when no one knew what Uber even was.”

Amid the pandemic, Kristie Taylor, a single mother of three from Leesburg, Virginia, also quit driving for Uber after five years of using the work to supplement her salary as a full-time elementary school teacher.

“People are going out because they want a change of pace …. but are they going out and partying and getting drunk and calling Ubers? No,” she said.

“And is it worth it to make $12 to $15 an hour to risk exposure?”

Pre-coronavirus, trips to and from Reagan International Airport were a sure way for Uber and Lyft drivers in the Washington D.C. area to pick up longer, more profitable, rides.

But during one recent morning rush hour, the designated area for drivers waiting for passengers was only half-full.

“What can we do? We have to stay cool and pray and wish this pandemic to end,” said Uber and Lyft driver Ali Mohammadzai, 32, an Afghan immigrant, who had been waiting an hour for a fare.

He said less people were also willing to give tips now.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR FRAUD

Headspeth, who has worked predominantly for Instacart since the pandemic began, said a flood of new customers prompted a surge in those falsely reporting missing or incomplete orders in order to scam Instacart and not pay for groceries.

She said those complaints chip away at her rating – and pay.

Instacart uses a star system in which its shoppers are rated for their job performance; those with higher ratings have access to larger and more costly orders so they can make more money.

“When I’m a five-star rating, there are days when I’m seeing orders well over $100,” said Headspeth.

“Since I’ve been at this rating – I’ve been stuck in the 4.5 to 4.7 range – the largest orders I’m seeing are about $30.”

“When you’re taking away from my ratings, you’re taking away from my ability to make bills, my ability to buy groceries, my ability to clothe my children because this isn’t just a gig for me, this is how I make it.”

Instacart said in written comments that its aim was to offer a safe and flexible earnings opportunity to shoppers and to “deliver the best possible shopper experience” for customers.

“We’re focused on serving as an essential service for millions of families, while providing immediate earnings opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people across North America,” the company told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

CONTRACTORS VS. EMPLOYEES

Some gig economy companies have faced lawsuits accusing them of misclassifying workers as independent contractors who are cheaper than employees with no entitlement to the minimum wage, overtime pay and reimbursements for work-related expenses.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, independent contractors cannot join unions and so do not have legal protection when they complain about working conditions.

Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have launched a campaign to overturn a law in California, California Assembly Bill 5 or AB5, the first in the country, that took effect this year making it harder to classify workers as contractors in the state.

The companies have spent more than $100 million on a “Yes on 22” campaign supporting a California voter initiative on the November ballot that, if passed, would overturn the AB5 law.

“A forced employment model will have devastating consequences for drivers and consumers who use these services,” said Geoff Vetter, a spokesman for the “Yes on 22” campaign.

“Rideshare and delivery drivers want to remain independent contractors, they do not want to be employees. They prefer independence because it provides the flexibility to choose when, where and how long they want to work.”

But the surge in newcomers to the sector and the challenges posed by the pandemic underscore the need to classify gig workers as employees, according to labor rights campaigners.

“It’s really just rearranged the chess pieces on the chess board,” said Katie Wells, a postdoctoral research fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, whose research centers on the D.C. gig economy.

“It may have shone some more light on some corners that were previously dark, but at the end of the day, this is still a pernicious and exploitative workplace that involves a lot of hard work and a lot of risk.”

Uber and Lyft each would face more than $392 million in annual payroll taxes and compensation costs if they paid workers as employers and not contractors, a Reuters calculation showed.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, have voiced strong support for AB5 and have directly called on voters to reject the companies’ ballot proposal to weaken it.

Republican President Donald Trump has not commented on the issue, but in September, the U.S. Department of Labor published proposed rules that would allow the ride-sharing companies to maintain independent contractors across the country.

As she dashed from the supermarket to her car with bags loaded with groceries, Franklin-Corbett said gig work had filled a gap for many people but she was concerned that too many people were now totally reliant on a job-to-job existence.

“I don’t think it’s a feasible way to make a living, especially if you have children,” she said.