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Life Arts    H3'ed 8/30/09

Talking with Eric Lotke, Author of "2044:The Problem isn't Big Brother. It's Big Brother, Inc." Part Two

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Welcome back for the second half of my interview with Eric Lotke, the author of 2044:The Problem isn't Big Brother. It's Big Brother, Inc. You wrote this book while juggling a full-time job and family, Eric. That must have been challenging.

Challenging, fun, interesting. All the good stuff. It was hard but it was optional. I could quit at any time. That put me in a far better position than millions of hard working Americans who put in the days, evenings and weekends - without other options.

Your characters are well-drawn and the conversations ring true. I came to like Malcolm and Jessica and six year old David was a major cutie. Were these characters based on people you know, Eric? Conversations you've had or overheard?

Thanks! That's nice to hear. Action came easy to me, but character was harder. No, there were no people models. Obviously, they are drawn from experience, which means characteristics I've seen - but not a single person.

They're different from each other, too. Malcolm is more phlegmatic, especially in the beginning. He doesn't ask questions and needs to be prodded to action. Jessica's more of a go-getter, and tells him what to do. By the end, Malcolm has more ideas of his own.

Some of the names come from people, though. The attorney character, who helps when Malcolm's father is in jail, is named Alan Feige. Both parts of the name are tips of the hat to attorneys I know (without their knowledge or consent, and I don't know that they've read the book). I also make passing reference to a law firm called Parker, Ellis and Rideau. That's deliberately ironic. If you google Tyrone Parker, Eddie Ellis or Wilbert Rideau, maybe throw in the word "prison," you'll see why I chose to name the law firm in their honor. It doesn't matter. But I needed a name, and I wanted to.

Speaking of prison, where did your interest in the penal system come from? Why were you working your way from bathroom to bathroom at the DC jail? (I'm not spilling the beans here, since it's mentioned in your author's bio on the back of your book.)

Good question. There was no obvious cue, like a juvenile arrest or trouble with drugs. But I've always been concerned with social justice, and in law school I saw just how bad things were. Problems of poverty, education and health care all just got dumped into the criminal justice system. I jumped in to try to make things better.

For over ten years I worked in and around the system. I managed direct-service programs, litigated individual and class-action cases, published research on "best practices" and did political work to turn some of those ideas into practice.

At one point I legally represented people locked in the DC jail without access to a functioning toilet. We produced a court order for relief (literally) and various means for enforcement Ś but my favorite was simply to walk the tiers at random intervals, flushing toilets. There's nothing like first-hand knowledge. I also got to hang out with the guys. I miss them.

Is that directly in the book? No. But the book is shaped by experience. In chapter 3, Malcolm goes to visit his father in the jail. That line of visitors out front? That's the DC jail on Sunday morning. So is the pseudo-high security, with lots of hardware but guards watching television. It all goes into the mix.

Back to your day job. Is what you do at Campaign for America's Future an antidote to the bleak future you depict in your book? And what exactly do you do there?

CAF is progressive think tank and activist institute. I'm the research director. I do a combination of policy development and coalition work to mobilize people and enact change. We want to point America towards a new economy - not driven by asset bubbles, excessive consumption and foreign debt. Fix our schools, build new transportation infrastructure and develop clean new sources of energy. Toss in health care and a living wage while we're at it.

Yes, if we do all that - or even some of it - we avoid the bleak future I depict.

Any more novels up your sleeve?

Hmmm. If 2044 does okay, I can write a sequel. David comes back as a labor organizer.

I've also conceived another one. Relentlessly positive, everyone is nice. Good guys win in the end. I scribbled out a few chapters and I'd love to finish it. But what about a paycheck and playing with my kids? Stay tuned.

Where can people go to learn more about 2044 and get a copy?

My web page ( has links to Amazon and the (cheaper) electronic version available from the publisher.

It's available on Amazon and in all the obvious places. I might get in trouble, but if people ask me nicely I can send them a PDF.

The back cover bio also mentions that you won a million dollar lawsuit against a private prison facility. That's a provocative factoid! Can you tell us a little about that?

In the late 1990s, the District of Columbia outsourced some of its prisons. It sent people to a new, private, for-profit prison in Youngstown, Ohio run by the Corrections Corporation of America. In the first year of operation, there were something like six deaths and eight escapes. That's bad, even by prison standards.

I was Executive Director of the DC Prisoners Legal Services Project at the time, and we brought a lawsuit. It uncovered all kinds of interesting complexities related to private prisons, that nobody had thought of. What happens if there's a fire on the compound? Does the public fire department have access? What if there's a riot? Do the police? Can they bring their guns? All of this needs working out .. and we did work it out in the context of the settlement agreement.

We also won $1.6 million for the guys inside, not counting the people who died.

Problems started with small things, like food service. When the guys started to fuss and holler - even though they were locked in their cells - the corrections staff fired tear gas at them. But the tear gas was only safe for outdoor use. These people were confined in small interior quarters. They stayed gassed in their cells until their skin started to melt.

That's not supposed to happen. That's not consistent with the private corrections marketing myth of a better product at a better cost.

Our lawsuit helped take the shine off the industry. It was starting to sink when George Bush resuscitated it. After September 11, he started piling thousands of immigration detainees and others into private prisons, with non-competitive bidding and prices way over market. We've heard about abuses like Halliburton in Iraq. Similar money changed hands to CCA after 9/11 and throughout the Bush years. Now the industry is back.

I guess that's the kind of back story I had in my head when the idea of 2044 first occurred to me. A private sector sequel to 1984, with the marketplace in control.

You don't have to have read 1984 recently to get a lot out of your book. I can attest to this since I hadn't picked it up since high school. Yet your novel struck a chord with me. i found it incredibly well-written and thought-provoking, both riveting and disturbing. Thanks so much, Eric. We certainly know a whole lot more about you and 2044 now.


Part One of my interview with Eric Lotke


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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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