Monday, 30 May 2011

TV Review: Louis Theroux Miami Mega Jail Part 2 - BBC2 9pm

Louis' second foray into Miami's jail system whilst still captivating lacks the grisly allure of last weeks episode as we move from punishment to the prison system's desire to rehabilitate.

The violence and decrepitude of Miami's Main jail is exchanged for the comparative paradise of the TGK prison that houses death row inmates and a special youth boot camp that picks 30 prisoners a month and attempts to turn them into upstanding citizens.

The TGK prison is paradise in so much as guards don't just lump all the prisoners in a big cell and let them shank each other over Snickers bars. They do the decent thing and separate dangerous inmates into "special management" cells i.e. solitary.

One such solitary psychopath is Robert Shaw. A gold toothed Grand Theft Auto cliché with a "shank history" he has been languishing in remand for 4 years on a triple murder charge after it is alleged he was the "triggerman" for a drug-related courthouse retaliation in broad daylight. When asked why he did it he can hardly control his laughter before saying

"I didn't do it"

Whether it is genuine naivety or a calculated interviewing technique Louis comes across like a 5yr old questioning his parents about why he has to go to bed early when interrogating Shaw about the motivation behind his violence. It turns out the reasons are as obvious as you would imagine from an abused, poor, black member of the underclass.

Shaw has a lot of time on his hands being cooped up in his cell for all but two hours a week and it turns out he is making a late bid to better himself. He has written six novels (no doubt in the crime genre) and is hoping to get them published. What's more he aims to learn five new words a day.

"Yesterday I learnt loquacious, kookaburra and bratwurst... I only learnt three 'cos I couldn't pronounce one of em"

Its an unexpectedly bizarre side to a violent criminal and Louis is keen to establish how a reasonably intelligent person turns to a life of crime.

"I've always been a slime ball, because all I ever knew were slime balls. All my mentors were snakes so I felt I had to be a snake otherwise someone else would double-cross me first."

It is hardly surprising that criminals like Shaw get involved in drugs and violence as it is all they have ever known. The silver bullet that eludes criminal justice services around the world is how they rehabilitate lost causes like Shaw.

One answer is to get hold of them early. Miami offers the opportunity to a few young criminals (under the age of 24) that haven't been completely dehumanised by the system into partaking in a four month boot camp in lieu of a prison sentence. This military style training programme aims to

"break you down and build you up"

It is like something out of Full Metal Jacket with instructors in fatigues barking into the faces of recruits and ordering inmates to drop and give them twenty. The idea is to give troubled kids the structure and discipline they have always lacked. It seems extreme but have you to applaud them for trying something different.

Results from the boot camp are mixed. 14yr old Brenton Smith, opts to face a 10 yr stretch for armed robbery rather then continue the programme after failing to get to grips with its intense demands. Yet, another recruit Patrick who spent time on the 6th floor seems the to be transformed into a model citizen.

Louis interviews him and it quickly becomes clear that the is using the same survival instincts that got him through "The Code" to get through the boot camp. He is self aware enough to realise the boot camp histrionics are nothing more then "comedy" and he has to play his role if he wants to see the outside world. Has he really changed or is he just the most adaptable? He admits that he has no sympathy for others but realises "The Game" is only ever going to get him

"100yrs or 6 feet"

It has long been argued that prison is not the answer to crime. Prison leaves criminals institutionalised and is responsible for the continual churn of violent criminals. Building more prisons can never be the answer. Creating a society where everyone has the opportunity to better themselves is the only way to stem the rising tide of criminality that stretches from Miami through to Manchester.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

TV Review- Louis Theroux - Miami Mega Jail Part 1- BBC2 Sunday 9pm

I've been watching a lot of Oz lately, the hard hitting US prison drama that attempts to show what life is really like in a maximum security prison. After watching six series of inmates fucking, fighting and killing each other I began to wonder if it wasn't just a teensy bit far fetched. I mean how can prisoners get into so much trouble if they are behind bars most of the day and under constant supervision?

Well, after watching Louis Theroux's blood-curdling new documentary inside Miami County Jail I began to think the writers had toned it down a bit. This place makes the Oswald State Penitentiary look like Buckingham Palace.

With around 7,000 inmates, the Miami County Jail is one of the largest in America. What makes the place slightly odd is that none of the men within its walls have been convicted of their alleged crimes. They are there in medieval limbo awaiting bail or are being held until their trial date which could be a day or several years if an inmate wants to put enough "distance" between themselves and the facts. In America, prison is where you go once you have been convicted and jail is where you stay pre-trial. That is, if you make it to trial.

Louis heads straight to the 5th floor where the nastiest scumbags are housed. He gets talking to a reasonably verbose criminal through the peeling bars of his cell about a recent fight that occurred.

"They got a saying in the jailhouse. Snitches get stitches"

is his measured response. The victim was rumoured to be an informant and was set upon as punishment. We catch up with Warren, the "snitch", in hospital the following day. His face looks like a bag of bruised plums. Louis delicately asks if he cooperated with the state.

"You know what my charge is? Driving with a suspended licence"

With a case like that he is hardly going to targeted by the FBI to rat on the Crips. It seems in this jail if your face doesn't fit it will get battered until it does.

In the "safety cells" housing some of the most violent prisoners, inmate Rodney lays down prison law or "The Code". Stacked twenty four to a cell "The Code" can only be described as the law of the jungle. Fighting is the only way to survive inside jail. Inmates fight to earn respect, rise up the pecking order and prevent getting raped, extorted and generally taken advantage of. There is an area of the cell called "The Paint" where prisoners go at it. Winners are awarded a bottom bunk whose kudos makes future beef with new inmates less likely.

It is made crystal clear that the weaker inmates or "ducks" are openly abused and preyed upon by the stronger prisoners. If they are lucky the families of targets can effectively be extorted for protection money. If they are unlucky they would be

"Fed to the wolves"

When Louis asks why inmates don't report threatening behaviour to guards he is met with hoots of derision. The guards themselves let the behaviour continue as they say they the inmates run the jail cells themselves and more importantly they are rarely told as there are severe repercussions for any prisoner caught "checking in" with guards. To defend this dubious practice of picking on the weak Louis is offered this wonderful bon mot:

"The name of the game is GABOS. The Game Ain't Based On Sympathy"

The way the jail is set up it is quite clear that if you are a bespectacled, white weakling you are absolutely fucked. Interestingly, the next chap that Louis interviews is one such person. Nianthony looks like he would have trouble punching his way out of a wet paper bag. He is college educated and intelligent enough to know he is in for a world of pain. He has the look of a man who knows he has about to get shafted in more ways than one.

"It's fucking awful...It's a fucking shithole. They are going to put me with 20 other crazy people and there is nothing I can do about it"

We see the colour drain from Niathony's face as he attempts to blend into the wall when another unpredictable inmate explains what they do to "hot boys".

"When you come to this jail and you known to be snitches you get beat bap bap bap! They gonna line him up. That means one dude gonna get him bap bap bap! Then he get tired and the next one gonna get him bap bap bap!"

Louis is then introduced the practice of "gunning" where inmates masturbate at female guards as they walk by. One gold toothed guy calmly explains

"People done be down 3 or 4 or 5 years without seeing a woman so I guess that's their way of getting off"

As if to emphasise the point one of the inmates starts wanking in front of the camera. Later, another inmate notorious as a habitual masturbator is asked why he doesn't feel any embarrassment for his degrading behaviour.

"You know what I be tellin 'em? Eat it up of write it up"

Louis then gets the rare opportunity to go inside one of the cells. In his unassuming style and with a "how do you do?" Louis instantly becomes the wettest guy ever to set foot inside the cell. He talks to the leader Rodney and asks him what would happen to him if ended up in a cell for real. Rodney's posse fall about laughing

"They would just slap the shit out of you. Nigga might just hang out on you. They will party on you...oh man"

It is made increasingly clear that as Louis is more Cambridge then Compton he is likely to get stomped big time.

At times the documentary plays out like some gruesome David Attenborough piece about predatory hyenas or some low budget sci-fi version of No Escape with inmates left to run wild with self-made rules that would qualify as "meaningless savagery" in the outside world.

A culture of fighting is the norm and the prison guards don't seem to do much about it. When Louis questions the head guard his response is somewhat defensive.

“Do you by chance have $600m in your back pocket? That’s what its going to cost to build a state-of-the-art facility. We have to make do with what we have.”

In The House of the Dead Dostoyevsky said:

"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering the prisons"

On this evidence America has more in common with Zimbabwe then it does with the rest of the "free world".

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

TV Review - Secrets of the Superbrands - Tues 17th BBC3 9pm

Ever wondered how the likes of Apple, Sony and Microsoft persuade you to part with hard earned cash despite the fact that you don't really need any of their products?

It seems presenter Alex Riley has been pondering this very conundrum in the first of this three part series and it turns out we both share a special ability. We both are immune from the marketing charms and mass hysteria created by the titans of technology that have the average punter salivating at the thought of the latest must-have gadget, console or app.

Whilst I have PS3 this was bought when my old console died. I own an Ipod but I've had it for about 6 years. I have a computer and a mobile phone but they aren't the newest and whilst the continue to do their job I won't be seeking to replace them no matter how inferior adverts attempt to make me feel.

Don't get me wrong I'm no Luddite but I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I bought something I didn't need. Let's just say my Dad is a tight as the elastic on Anne Widdecombe G-string and I inherited the trait. Riley is as mystified by this slavish devotion to technology as much as I am.

Perhaps the leader in this ability to brainwash the masses is Apple. Riley talks to journalists and they whisper in hushed tones about Apple marketing nous.

"They never talk to us"

This counter-intuitive strategy enables them to shroud new products in secrecy. Like a wife who says he "only hits me because he loves me" Apple treats their punters mean to keep them keen and most are desperate to get hold of any new information. Even store openings are kept hush-hush and are greeted with a evangelical enthusiasm with Apple lovers coming from as far as the US and China and camping overnight in the middle of Covent Garden for the privilege of being first in a new store that looks the same as all the others. It is borderline madness.

We the help of an MRI machine and a team of neuroscientists, Riley discovers that for Apple nerds, holding up a picture of the iPhone4 stimulates the same parts of the brain as religious imagery does in devout Muslims. It's not just the fact that Apple takes 30% of every app sold in its App store that they are killing the opposition. You have to hand it to Steve Jobs. He seems to have conjured the perfect symmetry between innovative products, expert marketing and hard-nosed business acumen.

It is stranglehold his competitors are struggling to overcome. In comparison to Apple, Microsoft are the technological equivalent of the middle aged man at a club desperately trying to impress the 18yr olds with his flares and hairy chest. Their PR is so bad that one media wag quipped

"If Microsoft had been put in charge of marketing sex, the human race would have ended long ago"

Bill Gates made a fortune licensing Windows to virtually every computer sold but the landscape has changed. Despite spending $5 billion on research their image problem is so bad you need a microscope to see the Microsoft logo and packaging for the Xbox.

Microsoft isn’t the only ones feeling the force of Apple. Riley tells us that despite selling a milion handsets a day Nokia are losing market share and losing money to Chinese bootleggers who copy their products and sell them in emerging nations for a fraction of the price. They haven't captured their share of the Smartphone market and are paying for it.

All in all a fascinating if light hearted take on the steady infiltration of big business into our homes. Riley's concludes that despite the market share battles these companies will continue to go from strength to strength as they offer Joe Public a means of expressing our basic human need to communicate be it through social media or a good old natter to friends or relatives.

Personally, I think people are overrated.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Is FIFA the New Mafia?

Money is swilling around football like never before and it seems its governing body FIFA is acting more like the Mafia then a benevolent organisation who believes in the principle of "fair play".

In the UK there has been a long held suspicion that FIFA not only is envious of the power and success of the Premier League but also that the Teflon-coated Sepp Blatter is Il Capo of a seedy, corrupt footballing empire where his members are either too scared or too self interested to vote him out.

In the last few years there has been repeated evidence highlighting a level of corruption that permeates every layer of the organisation.

Yesterday's revelations by Lord Treisman at a Parlimentary enquiry into our failure to secure the 2018 World Cup smack of more then just sour grapes. After all what possible benefit is it to him to name the perpetrators?

Triesman alledges that four senior officials asked for bribes in return for their votes. Jack Warner asked for £2.5 million for a school (or as he put it "his legacy") to be built in Trinidad that would also house his offices. Nicolas Leoz from Paraguay asked for a knighthood in return for his vote. Worawi Makudi the member for Thailand asked for the TV rights to a future international between England and Thailand to be given to him. Ricardo Teixeira the Brazilan representative wasn't that fussy

“come and tell me what you have got for me”.

Warner, Leoz and Texeira all have previous in this area. The Panormama programme aired in 2010 showed Leoz and Texiera were part of a list of officials who had been paid almost S100 million over a 10 year period by marketing firm ISL to ensure they were awarded marketing contracts for succesive World Cups. FIFA didn't bother investigating as they say the information

"failed to come from official channels".

Jack Warner is a particularly loathesome individual who was shown to have made $3million profit from selling world cup in 2006 via one of his travel companies. His own country's players have had to take him to court to get what was owed to them following Trinidad & Tobago's appearance in the 2006 World Cup.

Sepp Blatter, of course relies on Warner’s guaranteed 35 regional votes at each FIFA congress to get relected and is willing to a turn a blind eye to his indiscretions.

As soon as the draw for the next two World Cups was made last Decemeber I knew something fishy had gone on. Russia is known as a corruption hotspot and I have no doubt some of the oil millions have found their way into the greedy pockets of voting members. Now that the cat is well and truly out the bag I expect our industrious press will uncover some evidence. Unless they get a Polonium milkshake first.

What about the footballing giants of Qatar? They got the nod despite the fact that the World Cup inspection committee found they were the least suited to hosting a World Cup due to a lack of infrastructure, facilities and soaring summer temperatures. In the last few days The Times has published evidence that Issa Hayatou, of Cameroon, and Jacques Anouma, of Ivory Coast, received $1.5 million each in bribes from the Qatar 2022 bid in exchange for their votes. Thanks to these two, players will have to play in 120 degree heat. I suggest fans bring a hat.

So, to put this into context 8 out of 24 memebers of FIFA executive committee have either been accused of corruption or banned by FIFA for breaching their code of ethics. And those are only the ones we know about. If that isn't evidence of an organisation riddled with corruption I don't know what is.

Of course when confronted by the damning evidence Blatter, despite his vice-president lining his pockets for years, made out that butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. Ever the expert politician he claimed he was going to investigate thoroughly blah blah blah and crack down on the abuses

"Zero tolerance is going through FIFA, it is one of the items on the Congress. It is my battle horse."

Yeah Sepp, sure it is.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Live Music - Aloe Blacc- Concorde Brighton 02/05/11

Whilst the world waits for D'angelo to put down the crack pipe and pick up the Fender the rest of the soul crowd has moved on. This year the likes of John Legend, Raphael Saadiq and Cee-Lo have well and truly taken over the neo-soul empire with distinctively retro sounding albums.

Aloe Blacc is another young pretender to the throne making old school music that seems to airbrush the 80's from musical history. It's not that the only thing that is airbrushed. Blacc's real name is Egbert Dawkins (what cruel parents)and before a redundancy enduced leap into the fickle music industry he earned his corn as a consultant at Ernst and Young. Rock 'n indeed Roll.

His second album Good Things owes a musical debt to Soul's golden age with its nods to Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder in the use of funky, brass laden grooves to deliver it's social messages and feel-good vibes. Whilst not quite in the same league as a What's Going On or a Talking Book, Good Things at least shows Blacc is honouring the tradition of soul music by highlighting social injustice rather than Louis Vuitton.

Tonight at the Concorde the emphasis is more on entertainment rather then introspection. Dressed in a waitcoast and Trilby Blacc sends the band out first to set up a musical intro that contains snippets of James Brown, Al Green and Stevie Wonder which the versatile Blacc apes with either a JB slide or a Stevie waggle of the head.

Hey Brother's blaxsploitation groove get us off to a good start and highlight a band who at the end of the tour are as tight as a snare drum.
You Make Me Smile then sets the tone for the evening with plenty of audience participation encouraged when the band breaks it down.

Femme Fatale I have discovered is Velvet Underground cover and a rather unusual choice for a soul artist. It slows down an upbeat start.
Green Light is about as chart friendly as you can get and you can tell Blacc was channelling Bill Wither's Lovely Day when he wrote it.

Whether it is 1973 or 2011 politicians have always been duplicitous snake oil salesmen so the gritty Gil Scott Heron influenced track Poltician is as relevant now as it would have been back in the day.

Making promises you can't keep
They're hungry wolves dressed like sheep
Shake our hands
Stab our backs
Don't know why you do us like that

Amen Brother!

It is about now that Blacc splits the audience in the middle for a Soul Train dance off. Great idea but all he succeeds in doing is giving those at the back and excuse to steam through the gap to get to the front. Opportunistic bastards.

I Need a Dollar of course is the "big hit". It has been labelled as an anthem for the credit crunch generation but it could have been written in the Great Depression as its message about the problems of capitalism are timeless. It's the standout track and it gets a rapturous welcome and a reggaefied break down. Fortunately it doesn't descend into a Police pastiche.

For a finale support act Maya Jupiter returns to share vocal duties on Rico the latin influenced jam that ventures into Ricky Martin territory. With no encore it turns out to be a bit of an anti climax.

Minor gripes aside Blacc puts on a slick, enjoyable show and its great to see soul music moving back into this more organic direction.

If anything it is reminder that good things can come from bad times.