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Assault behind bars

And other news briefs

Issue: "Rocks in their heads?," Sept. 11, 2010

Behind prison walls, 60,500 people are reported victims of sexual assault every year, or one in every 20 inmates. Among juveniles, the numbers are worse: One in eight are victims of sexual assault while incarcerated. Groups who couldn't be more different have signed a letter urging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to implement new standards to cut down prison rapes: Prison Fellowship, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Family Research Council, Human Rights Watch, Focus on the Family, Sojourners, and others.

The proposed standards, which are the result of a 2003 law, include simple changes like forbidding male guards from doing strip searches of female prisoners or supervising them in showers. But a Justice Department consultant reviewed the measures and found some could be expensive to implement-like a requirement that prisons provide mental and medical health treatment for inmates who are victims of sexual assault. So while Holder was supposed to have enacted the standards in June after a year of review, he is holding off-perhaps for another year.

Plan C

A newly legal drug can block a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb for up to five days after sex. Pro-life groups say the drug, called "ella," can cause abortions while the Food and Drug Administration describes it as a contraceptive that discourages ovaries from producing eggs. Ella, or ulipristal acetate, would be a more potent "Plan B," the so-called emergency contraceptive that makes the womb inhospitable to a fertilized egg for up to 72 hours after sex.

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The FDA approved ella in mid-August, following the lead of European countries, and it's likely to be available in coming months. The way ella is described is consequential. If classified as an "abortifacient"-like RU-486 is-it could be banned from coverage by federal funds. But if it is treated as a "contraceptive," federal funds could pay for it in health coverage.

The FDA cited clinical studies that showed the drug had minor side effects, but the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians & Gynecologists said the clinical trials hadn't explored all the possible side effects-adding that three of the more than 4,500 women in the trials developed ovarian cysts.

Indebted Index

In 2008 President Barack Obama won 28 states and the District of Columbia to Sen. John McCain's 22. Today, according to Moody's Investor Services, average per capita state debt in Obama territory is $1,728 while the average per capita debt in McCain states is $749-well below half.

The strongest-leaning Obama states range in per capita debt from an average high of $4,606 in Massachusetts to a low of $709 in Vermont (overall Connecticut has the highest per capita state debt and Nebraska the lowest). In states that heavily favored McCain, average per capita debt topped out at $1,345 in Alaska and hit a low of $77 in Wyoming.

Border war

Most of the 1,200 National Guard troops assigned to help protect the U.S. border with Mexico are set to be in place by the end of September. The bulk of the troops-524 personnel-will serve in Arizona. Troops in Arizona and three other border states will help U.S. border patrol agents combat illegal crossings and drug smuggling activities.

The deployments come as long-standing border violence escalates: A major gun battle erupted between drug traffickers and Mexican police in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Aug. 21, 30 yards from the U.S. border at El Paso, Texas. Mexican officials estimate that drug-related violence has killed at least 28,000 people in Mexico since 2006. In the latest string of killings, gunmen murdered Mayor Edelmiro Cavazos of Santiago in August. And Mexican troops on Aug. 25 discovered the bodies of 72 people, believed to be migrants from Central and South America and victims of the Zetas drug gang.

Good news or bad news?

Along the Gulf Coast the 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the waters since April may be mostly gone or mostly trapped far beneath the surface. The radically different reports by government officials and independent scientists came weeks after a sealing cap appeared to have contained the spill. White House environmental czar Carol Browner cited a study reporting nearly 75 percent of the oil was gone, while scientists from the University of Georgia said up to 79 percent of the oil may still be in the water. University of Florida researchers reported that oil was settling on the sea floor in a spawning ground for fish, and scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reported detecting an underwater plume of oil the size of Manhattan. And the journal Science reported Aug. 24 the discovery of a petroleum-eating bacteria scientists say has proliferated amid the oil plume, potentially a creation-based cleanup crew that's slowly digesting the spill.

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