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Monthly Archives: October 2016

A sleepover to die for: siblings spend night in Dracula’s Transylvania castle

Canadian brother and sister spend Halloween night in the castle that inspired legend, with coffins for beds, after winning an Airbnb competition.

A Canadian brother and sister are passing Halloween night curled up in red velvet coffins in the Transylvanian castle that inspired the Dracula legend, marking the first time in 70 years anyone has spent the night in the gothic fortress.

The siblings from Ottawa bested 88,000 people who entered a competition hosted by Airbnb to get the chance to dine and sleep at the castle in Romania.

Events manager Tami Varma and her brother Robin, a PhD student, are the grandchildren of Devendra Varma, a scholar of English gothic tales and an expert in vampire lore who visited the castle in 1971.

They were asked in the competition: What would you say to Dracula if you met him? Tami Varma answered that their late grandfather was the worlds leading expert in Gothic Literature, and was considered to be an expert in Dracula We would do just about anything to stay as a guest with the original vampire who inspired him.

Adding to the eerie atmosphere on Monday, light snow fell on the 14th-century castle where Vlad the Impaler, the prince who inspired Bram Stokers Dracula novel, is believed to have stayed.

The pair arrived in a stagecoach drawn by two black horses as a buzzing drone filmed the event. The nerves are kicking in. Its becoming real, really fast, Tami, 31, exclaimed, climbing down from the stagecoach in a slinky red dress and boots.

She told castle manager Alex Priscu she was overwhelmed. This may be the best day of our lives. Her brother spoke little and at times seemed embarrassed.

They were greeted inside the castle by Dacre Stoker, the great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker and guardian of the Dracula legend who repeated the words used by Count Dracula: Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring!

They were to dine later on chicken paprikash, the meal described in the 1897 horror novel. A candlelit table was set, laden with Transylvanian smoked cheeses, fruit and bottles of plum and blackcurrant brandy.

The pair recalled their grandfathers trip to the castle 45 years ago. He left before the sun had set, in the daytime, and he heard footsteps, somebody following him, Tami said. So in a bizarre and interesting way we are honoring him tonight, and we know hes with us in the castle.

Whether Count Dracula would make an appearance during the night remained a mystery that nobody in Bran Castle would reveal on Halloween.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/oct/31/dracula-castle-spend-night-airbnb

James Comey: Hillary Clinton email inquiry is FBI chief’s latest controversy

The former prosecutor and deputy attorney general has grappled with a series of contentious issues, including surveillance and the Ferguson effect.

Three days ago, James Comey was one of Donald Trump’s symbols of Washington corruption and a law enforcer of the highest integrity to Hillary Clintons campaign. On Sunday, the FBI director was the most controversial figure in the capital, heroic to Trump, irresponsible to Clinton and puzzling to nearly everyone.

Comey has a long history of trying to walk political tightropes, to varying success, dating to the earliest days of his career.

Comey, a career prosecutor who grew up in New Jersey and studied religion and chemistry, had his first brush with a high-profile investigation came in 1996, after a stint with the US attorney for New York. That year, he joined a Senate investigation into Bill and Hillary Clintons real estate investments, named Whitewater after a failed venture they joined.

He remained in the background of an investigation that ultimately petered out, but Comey soon joined two prestigious prosecutors offices, in eastern Virginia and Manhattan, where he pursued high-profile cases against identity thieves, a top Credit Suisse banker and Martha Stewart.

In 2003, he was named deputy attorney general in the administration of George W Bush, becoming a dissenting voice against surveillance programs of the National Security Agency revealed in 2005 by the New York Times.

Comey later testified to Congress that one night in March 2004, with attorney general John Ashcroft hospitalized for an emergency procedure, he raced to the sickbed to prevent the renewal of warrantless wiretapping programs which the justice department had determined were illegal.

Comey arrived just before Bushs top lawyer and chief of staff, and Ashcroft did not sign the renewal. “I was angry,” Comey told the Senate in 2007. “I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man, who did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me. That night was probably the most difficult night of my professional life.”

The next day, Bush modified the wiretapping program.

In those hearings, about possible misconduct by the White House chief counsel and, ironically, missing emails from the Republican National Committee, Comey told Congress he felt it imperative that the justice department stand outside partisan politics.

The Department of Justice, in my view, is run by political appointees of the president, he testified. But once they take those jobs and run this institution, its very important in my view for that institution to be an other in American life.

My people had to stand up before juries of all stripes, talk to sheriffs of all stripes, judges of all stripes. They had to be seen as the good guys, and not as either this administration or that administration.

Comey left the justice department in 2005 for Lockheed Martin, the largest military contractor in the US, and eventually an investment firm and Columbia Law School. In 2013, Barack Obama nominated the registered Republican to lead the FBI, joking that the 6ft 8in prosecutor was a man who stands very tall for justice and the rule of law.

He was confirmed as the agencys seventh director in a 93-1 vote only Kentucky senator Rand Paul voted against him, over domestic drone surveillance and quickly took on a series of controversial cases.

Though he opposed the NSAs warrantless wiretapping, Comey has emerged as a steady advocate of US security agencies since the Guardian revealed a host of programs in 2013, a system that gave the FBI access to a trove of data. Comey has repeatedly argued that security agencies should be given tools to bypass private encryption, and took the FBI to court against Apple over unlocking the phone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists.

Were asking Apple to take the vicious guard dog away and let us pick the lock, he told Congress in March. Its not their job to watch out for public safety. Thats our job. The logic of encryption will bring us to a place in the not too distant future where all of our conversations and all our papers and effects are entirely private.

The legal battle ended in anticlimax, as the FBI found another way into the iPhone. It has since said that the hack it used does not work on newer phone models.

Comey has walked a careful line on race and police killings. Last year he said it was unacceptable that the Guardian and Washington Post had better data on police shootings than the federal government, but also dipped into controversy by suggesting a Ferguson effect named after sometimes violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of an unarmed black teen may cause police officers to step back from their responsibilities.

Comey conceded he lacked evidence for that claim, which led him into an unusually public disagreement with the president, who warned last year: What we cant do is cherry-pick data or use anecdotal evidence to drive policy or to feed political agendas.

Since then, tentative research by the justice department and a St Louis criminologist has suggested the Ferguson effect is plausible as an explanation for a single-year spike in violent crime.

The director rose to national prominence in July, when he announced the FBI’s findings in its investigation into whether Clinton and her staff had acted criminally in their use of a private email server. He concluded there was no evidence of intentional wrongdoing.

Comey used a press conference itself a break from tradition and his original sin, in one former officials words to lay out the facts at the time, correct several false claims by Clinton, and castigate her and her staff for their extremely careless email practices. He was then called to Congress to defend his decision, which ended months of expensive and inconclusive Republican investigations.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/30/james-comey-fbi-director-hillary-clinton-email

Angola prison rodeo offers risks and rewards for Louisiana’s hard-knock lifers

Cash prizes and the chance to be treated like a regular person are the lure for inmates braving angry bulls and bucking horses at Louisianas biggest prison.

Four men wearing black-and-white stripes take their seats at a table. They have only a split second to brace themselves before a bull charges through the gate, flinging them into the air amid cheers from the 11,000-strong crowd.

When the dust settles, both the bull and the men return to their cages.

This is the Angola Prison Rodeo, a 53-year-old tradition at the biggest and most notorious prison in Louisiana, the incarceration capital of the world.

The prison rodeo is a distinctly American spin on the Roman Colosseum, and Angolas is the last remaining show in the country. For $20 a ticket, thousands flood into the 18,000-acre prison each Sunday in October and one weekend in April to watch inmates battle bucking horses and angry bulls.

Most are tossed to the ground immediately. Some break bones or worse. Those who manage to hang on are awarded varying amounts of cash depending on the riskiness of the event.

Theres convict poker, in which a bull is released on four inmates at a poker table. Whoever manages to stay in their chair the longest wins $250. The most dangerous event is guts and glory, where inmates try to pluck a poker chip from between the horns of a charging bull for a chance at the grand prize: $500.

angola
Most inmate riders are thrown to the ground immediately. Photograph: Gerrit de Heus/Alamy Stock Photo

When asked why he was participating in the rodeo, Aldrie Lathan had a blunt answer: Money.

Lathan, who is serving a 65-year sentence for armed robbery, has competed in the rodeo for nine years. Hes broken ribs, weathered concussions, and dislocated a shoulder. Still, he said, its most definitely worth it for the money.

After you get hit by a bull one time, you know what it feels like and you dont have that fear any more, he said.

Inmates receive no training before they go out to perform. Reports of serious injuries have resulted in helmets, mouthguards and vests for participants. These precautions are about the only way the tradition has evolved since it began in the 1960s. Since then, the audience has grown along with keen media attention the prison requires vigilant escorts for any press that comes through the gates, including the Guardian. These officials stress that professional cowboys and rodeo clowns are present at all times.

Despite the danger, theres always a waiting list of inmates who want to risk their bodies for a shot at a couple of hundred dollars.

I dont really have that much outside help, so instead of calling and asking family members for money, I come out and participate in the rodeo and try to do everything on my own, Lathan explained. Hes made more than $400 in just three Sundays.

Thats a windfall compared with what he can earn the rest of the year, when inmates are required to work for wages of between 2 cents and 75 cents an hour.

angola
After you get hit by a bull one time, you know what it feels like and you dont have that fear any more. Photograph: Gerrit de Heus/Alamy Stock Photo

This pay scale coupled with the fact that more than 75% of its 6,300 inmates are black is why Angola is frequently called a modern-day slave plantation. In fact, the prison inherited the name Angola from the working slave plantation it was before the civil war.

Prison officials are adamant that no one is forced to participate in the rodeo. But the economics of the prison system challenge the definition of choice.

The rodeo is the only chance most Angola inmates get to make a livable income and not just inside the arena. The inmates who have been in prison the longest without incident, called trustees, are allowed to sell their work, from snakeskin wallets to rocking chairs, at the craft fair outside the rodeo and mingle with attendees. Others who have not yet earned trustee status sell from behind a chain-link fence. These men can make thousands of dollars in one day.
Its a behavioral tool for us, said Gary Young, assistant warden for programming and communications director. We extract an awful lot of good behavior in exchange for a booth.

Rodeo revenue props up virtually all of the programs that shape inmates lives, including trade schools, activity clubs, an award-winning magazine, and the prison hospice. Many clubs set up rodeo concession stands, where they raise an estimated $80,000 a day.

Rodeo money even subsidizes the crown jewel of the department: the states six-year-old re-entry program, which puts eligible inmates in a GED program, and trains them for certification in a trade such as auto repair or air conditioner installation.

Severe budget cuts have created even more intense need. A prison closure in 2012 sent 1,000 additional inmates to Angola with no increased budget or staff, according to Francis Abbott, a corrections supervisor with the re-entry program.

Then, the states technical and community college system was hit with budget cuts, forcing it to pull educational staff out of the prison, Abbott said.

Justin
Justin Singleton at the Angola rodeo. Photograph: Aviva Shen for the Guardian

What we had to do was look inward at our resources here, he said.

To reduce costs, prison officials replaced some of these community college instructors with inmates serving life sentences who had completed educational programs. Their pay 75 cents an hour is also subsidized by the rodeo.

These mentors are also the most likely to be allowed out on the rodeo grounds to mingle with outsiders. Justin Singleton, a 37-year-old lifer who teaches small engine repair skills, has a booth at the fair. He hopes to sell enough to send his 15-year-old daughter $400.

Not for school supplies, he said. Just because I love her and because Im her father.

Singleton said the rodeo also offered inmates something worth far more than money: a moment of humanity.

Here in Angola, you have very limited contact with the outside world and sometimes it can be a little depressing, Singleton said. So its encouraging when you come to the rodeo and see so many faces of people who are just happy to be here, treating you as if youre just a regular person. Which you are.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/29/angola-prison-rodeo-louisiana

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