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Free Shivs! 

Ohio helps inmates get armed and dangerous.

Last week, state prison Director Reginald Wilkinson proudly announced plans for a new 37,000-square-foot slaughterhouse in Pickaway. By 2007, it will provide almost four million pounds of tasty meat products every year to Ohio's 32 prisons, and is expected to save $2 million annually.

Yet there's an even bigger upside for prisoners: The plant will also provide 120 inmates with really big, sharp knives.

Apparently, a factory full of knife-wielding felons is of little concern to the bright lights in Columbus. "I can't see a downside," Wilkinson said in a press release.

Spokesman Brian Niceswanger -- yeah, that's his real name -- says inmates will get more than free shivs out of the deal. "These inmates will be learning a skill that they can use in the job market," Niceswanger says. "This is a very marketable skill. Not a whole lot of people are lining up for these jobs."

Perhaps that's because meatpacking is the nation's most dangerous industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly one in three workers are seriously injured each year. But at least the pay is low and you'll get to move to rural Kansas, where $7-an-hour buys a really nice abandoned farmhouse.

Retreat, infidel!
Speaking of great minds, Punch was a bit miffed last week when the corrections department denied our request to interview a prisoner. The reason: "Scene is not an accredited news organization," says the lovely Andrea Dean, head of PR.

And who decides who's accredited and who isn't? The journalism scholars in the prison PR department, of course.

Apparently, the state found stylistically lacking Scene's exposés on guards playing hide-the-manly-appendage with female inmates ["Authority Problem," March 12, 2003] and the use of government funds to turn pens into Christian youth camps ["Captive Audience," November 19, 2003]. And since this time we wanted to interview an inmate who's having trouble getting his AIDS medication, Dean probably wasn't happy to hear from us.

Spokesman Brian Niceswanger -- no, really, that's his name -- tried to explain why the paper is unworthy of inmates' time: "Well, we have denied other news organizations that we feel are sensational. Like, Hard Copy wanted to come in and do a story, and we said no." Ouch.

Serving the Serbs
When Plain Dealer Publisher Alex Machaskee overruled the paper's editorial board and ordered his minions to endorse George Bush, said minions rebelled by ratting him out to media across the land. The ensuing embarrassment forced the paper to backpedal by endorsing no one.

Early logic said Machaskee was merely playing water boy for the executive crowd, since he pulled the same stunt when the paper endorsed Governor Bob Taft. But another theory suggests that Machaskee, who's big in Cleveland's Serbian community, was also carrying the torch for the motherland.

Apparently, the Kerry campaign made the mistake of sending Richard Holbrooke as its emissary to the editorial board, though many Serbs hold Holbrooke responsible for bombing Belgrade during the Kosovo war. Then, last week, The PD ran a column headlined "Serbs were solid backers of Bush." Penned by a Washington lawyer, the piece asserted that evangelicals took a back seat in their support for Bush; Serbs were actually the President's most faithful admirers. They feared mad bombers from the Clinton administration would get new jobs with Kerry. Bush, by contrast, prefers to blow up Muslims.

Machaskee denies that the Kosovo war had any sway on The PD's endorsement. "Our editorial speaks for itself . . ." he says by e-mail. "My ethnicity has nothing to do with our endorsements."

Still, if the Democrats hope to win Ohio in 2008, they may want to court a small but powerful special-interest group: Serbian newspaper publishers.

Speaking of confusion . . .
If The PD struggled to save face with its presidential endorsement, it's having a tougher time covering young voters. It can't decide whether to applaud or denigrate them.

On the Sunday after the election, Diane Solov wrote in a front-page report that "it's clear that young voters stormed the polls Tuesday." On the same day, however, the paper's PDQ complained, "What the heck is it going to take to get young Americans interested in voting?"

For those of you who've missed it, PDQ is the paper's attempt to boost its youthful readership, which is now composed of six people, all from a nice Mormon family in Streetsboro. Papers nationwide are doing the same thing, but like PDQ, they tend to be a print equivalent of a 50-year-old divorcée trying to fit into her teenage daughter's clothes.

Among PDQ's cringe-worthy suggestions for increasing voter turnout: ". . . Turn the Board of Elections into a skateboard of elections!" and have "punch card styluses double as nipple/navel piercers!"

Unfortunately, the section does not come with its own laugh track.

Oops, part III
When former Cleveland Police Chief Richard Hongisto passed away, The Plain Dealer quoted Congressman Dennis Kucinich as saying he'd reconciled with Hongisto after firing him on TV in 1978. Alas, it appears Kucinich must now reconcile with his growing propensity for lying.

When the Elfin One started peddling the tale during his alleged presidential campaign, The San Francisco Examiner contacted Hongisto. "There was no reconciliation," said the ex-chief in January. ". . . I told him what a whacko and a dingbat he was -- and he is . . . I knew Dennis could not leave this alone -- he's not smart enough. I bet my friend $5 that he'd deny my side of the story. He did. Now, The Washington Post is doing a long piece on Dennis's ability to govern. I gave them an interview today. It's been 25 years. Yes, revenge is best served cold. And I start out the new year $5 ahead . . ."

Hmmm, maybe reconciliation was too strong a word.

Stella got her groove Black
Michael Ian Black, best known for his sardonic observations on VH1's I Love the '80s, was in Cleveland last week with friends Michael Showalter and Shaker Heights native David Wain. Stella, their touring comedy act, packed the Grog Shop. Everything went quite well -- until Punch went to buy Michael Ian Black a shot after the show.

"I'm a teetotaler," said Black. Yes, the man actually refused a free shot.

The moral of the story: Never buy shots for guys with three names. They're actually Vassar-educated power moms in disguise. Or maybe commies.

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