Fighting dirty in Ohio

The state's Republicans have made complex changes to voting rules, with a simple aim: disenfranchising working class communities who are not likely to support them.

Ohio is one of the most important states in this election, and both parties are fighting tooth and nail: not just on the doorsteps, but in the courtrooms as well, mobilising armies of lawyers and wrestling for every angle and advantage they can. Sometimes these tactics can get dirty. The Republican state government of Ohio, and its Secretary of State Jon Husted, knows this well. Democrats accuse it of disenfranchising poorer and minority voting with two separate actions: a controversial voter ID law and a series of complex changes in the hours and availability of early voting.

Early voting begins on October 2, allowing people to cast their vote in person at any time in the five weeks from then until the election. How many people use this option is dependent on several factors, especially the opening hours of the polling stations, which have gone through a number of changes this year. It is a significant factor in elections: in the 2008 Presidential race in-person early voting accounted for 265,048 votes; Obama's margin of victory over McCain in Ohio was just 262,224.

Earlier this year, with almost unbelievable gall, Husted was allowing rural (Republican-run) counties to extend their planned early voting hours into the evenings and weekends, while denying the same opportunity to more industrial, poorer and urban Democrat counties. The New York Times called him out on this in August. Democrats and the Obama campaign cried foul, and Husted was forced to impose uniform hours over the whole state. Democrat campaigners now argue that the hours Husted has imposed are meagre – 8AM until 5PM for the first three weeks, then until 7PM; and only on weekdays; and closed on the the last three days before election day – and so they still discriminate against working-class and poor (and likely Democrat) voters.

An uneasy peace appeared to reign while various aspects of these rules were worked through the courts – the cases are still ongoing; this will be a very litigious campaign – but the flames of controversy were relit by Doug Preisse, chairman of the Franklin county Republican party, who was accused of racism after telling a newspaper in the state capital Columbus: “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban – read African-American – voter-turnout machine.”

Pete Gerken is the President of the board of election commissioners of Lucas county, in the north of the state. He is a Democrat. “Just in this county alone [in the 2008 Presidential election], 28,000 people voted early, 5000 of those on weekends,” he tells me. “Any redrawing of early voting hours is an attempt to suppress people's ability to vote. The majority of people who use early voting, especially those who need it to be after work or on weekends, tend to be Democrat. They're working-class, they're working people; they can only get there after work.”

Running parallel with the early voting argument is another row, about the new voter ID laws that Ohio and a number of other states have just adopted. These new laws demand that voters, who could previously present themselves at the polling station with just a utility or rent bill as identification, must now produce state-issued photo identification at the polling station. This, opponents say, discriminates heavily against minorities and the poor, who are statistically far, far less likely to have photo ID – or indeed to have heard of the new law.

“The Republican officials in the State who passed the laws are doing it under the flag of preventing voter fraud,” says Gerken. “But there hasn't been any fraud – it's a problem that doesn't exist in the state of Ohio. In the last four years there have been less than ten charges of voter fraud in the whole state. They're trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist, and trying to fix it with a jackhammer. What is happening is people are being taken out of the queue – people who don't drive, the poor, the elderly. It disenfranchises people from their right.

“It's a strategy. It's a strong strategy, and [the Republicans are] trying it in lots of states. … It flies in the face of our democratic values, and I don't think they care.”

Pennsylvania is one of the states in which the voter ID row has been loudest. Here, according to a study by Matt Baretto at the University of Washington, around an eighth of the electorate, more than a million voters, are currently without state photo identification for one reason or another; and only 34 per cent are aware of the new law. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is currently debating the issue, and will announce its decision in the next couple of weeks. It will be big news when it does.

In Ohio, Husted - despite being ordered by a district court judge to reinstate early voting on the last three days before the election - has not yet done so; claiming that to act while the ruling is still being appealed would “futher confuse voters”. In this, he is probably right. The tooth-and-nail legal battles being fought over these issues can only further alienate voters from the process – but in a state that might come right down to the wire, to the candidates each battle is absolutely crucial. Which means, unfortunately for fans of a nice clean contest, it's going to be no-holds-barred right up until election day.

Previously in this series: How the fighting talk fizzled from Mitt Romney's party

Mitt Romney on the campaign trail in Painesville, Ohio. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.