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News brief: Russian oil ban, Uvalde funerals, deadliest federal prison

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

After weeks of intense negotiations, European Union leaders have agreed to ban most oil imports from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The move is part of the bloc's newest sanctions package on Moscow that was held up by some countries, like Hungary, that are heavily reliant on Russian oil.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Berlin to explain. Rob, now, we say the EU will ban most oil imports, among other actions. What exactly does that mean?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Yeah. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen estimates this embargo will apply to around 90% of oil imports from Russia to the EU by the end of this year. But other EU leaders and, generally, facts on the ground show that it's actually closer to two-thirds, at least in the short term. When this round of sanctions was announced a month ago, von der Leyen said the EU would ban all Russian oil. But these past few weeks have really been filled with squabbling among EU member states about all these details.

MARTINEZ: All right. So on that squabbling, who is holding up these sanctions and why?

SCHMITZ: For the most part, it was Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary and friend of Vladimir Putin, who threatened to tank the entire sanctions package. And that would have been a big embarrassment for the EU. He was concerned because Hungary receives more than 60% of its oil from Russia via pipeline. But Carnegie Europe's Judy Dempsey told me that Orban has many reasons to block the EU's actions on Russia, including weakening the EU itself from within.

JUDY DEMPSEY: You just wonder how so many of the member states tolerate this kind of maverick politician who's very devious and who has intentions to weaken the EU, which suits Russia.

SCHMITZ: So in the end, Orban dug in his heels and forced the EU to weaken what should have been a total ban on Russian oil to a ban only on sea shipments of that oil. Pipeline oil from Russia, which benefits countries like Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, will continue to flow.

MARTINEZ: OK. Now let's get into what the EU did actually agree on. Oil is just really one part of these sanctions.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, that's right. This sixth round of sanctions includes an asset freeze and travel ban on individuals close to the Kremlin. It also removed Russia's biggest bank, Sberbank, from SWIFT, the global financial transfer system. Three big Russian state-owned broadcasters will also be prevented from distributing their content within the EU. The bloc also agreed on providing Ukraine with nearly $10 billion worth of assistance to help rebuild the country's economy.

MARTINEZ: Now, on the oil, Rob, as we mentioned, I mean, not a total embargo on oil, but by the end of the year, most oil from Russia will be banned. It sounds significant. How significant is it?

SCHMITZ: Well, the EU gets more than a quarter of all of its oil from Russia - 2.4 million barrels a day. So this embargo will mean that most of that will be impacted. And Europe will now have to import its oil from other countries, and that does not appear to be a problem in the short run. A tougher task, though, will be for Europe to wean itself off of Russian natural gas. The EU depends on Russia for around 40% of its natural gas and will need to continue importing that gas because its economy really depends on it. Individual countries are working hard to wean themselves off this gas supply, but that could take years.

MARTINEZ: All right. That's NPR international correspondent Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin. Rob, as always, thanks.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

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FADEL: Families in Uvalde, Texas, are beginning to bury the 21 people killed at Robb Elementary School last week, 19 of them in small child-sized caskets.

MARTINEZ: The city is hosting the first funerals today for 10-year-olds Amerie Jo Garza and Maite Yuleana Rodriguez. And kids are visiting a memorial to pay their respects to children close to their own age who were killed at the school.

FADEL: The Texas Newsroom's Sergio Martinez-Beltran joins us now from Uvalde. Good morning, Sergio.

SERGIO MARTINEZ-BELTRAN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So tell us about who's visiting, the hundreds of people who are coming to Uvalde over the last few days to pay respects to the victims.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Yes. Many of those who have stood for hours under the heat are actually children. And it's been very emotional to see really young kid, Uvalde's town square or at Robb Elementary School, putting flowers or even writing a kind note to those who died. You know, one of those kids who visited with her parents is Jasmine Rosario (ph), who is 9 years old. She's in third grade.

FADEL: I wanted to support about those 21 victims that died because they didn't really deserve this, like, none of the kids or any of the teachers.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Jasmine came to Uvalde from San Antonio because she told her mom she really wanted to visit. And that's something we've heard from multiple parents - their kids were the ones who wanted to come. And many of these children are the same age as those who were killed, so it's very moving.

FADEL: That's difficult. So little kids like Jasmine, do they really understand what happened, about what happened to the kids in that school?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Yes. You know, most of these kids visiting Uvalde are hyperaware of what's happening. I mean, it's in all the news, right?

FADEL: Right.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: And if they live in Uvalde, they've seen so many reporters out and about. But the news feels also very real for many of these kids. We asked Jasmine about this, about how she felt.

FADEL: I'm scared because now I'm scared if that will happen at my elementary school.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: I think Jasmine's words truly showed the magnitude of this tragedy.

FADEL: Yeah, hard to hear a 9-year-old say she's scared to go to school. And, Sergio, what can you tell us about the two girls who are being buried today?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: So the two children being buried today are 10-year-olds Amerie Jo Garza and Maite Yuleana Rodriguez. Visitation took place on Monday at the same time in Uvalde's two funeral homes. You know, the press wasn't allowed inside, understandably, but we saw hundreds of people going in. And there was a lot of diversity in terms of age. Some folks were wearing shirts honoring Robb Elementary. It was also super hot outside, like in the high 90s, so there were folks, including the Red Cross, handing out water. Amerie has been described as smart. She had just made the honor roll. She was also kind and sassy. She loved Chick-Fil-A and a good vanilla bean frappe from Starbucks. Amerie's visitation took place directly across the school where she, her classmates and two of their teachers were shot to death. Maite has been described as ambitious. She was also part of the honor roll. And she really enjoyed learning about animals, especially dolphins and whales.

FADEL: And there are more funerals that are going to be happening over the next few weeks. And in a small town like Uvalde, this must be impacting everyone, right?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Yes. I think that everyone is feeling this. This week has also reinforced the fact that this community is interconnected. You know, a lot of people with whom I spoke told me that either they knew the victims, or they were related to the victims, or they knew the family of the victims. The community is also thinking about how to heal, Leila. Many have mentioned that it will take time, but they're holding onto their faith to move forward. And, you know, we've also seen therapy dogs in Uvalde's town square to help people cope with this tragedy.

FADEL: Sergio Martinez-Beltran covers government and politics for the Texas Newsroom, and he's in Uvalde, Texas, reporting on the funerals. Thank you so much.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Thank you.

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FADEL: A new maximum security prison in Thomson, Ill., is one of the deadliest in the U.S. It's had a string of violent inmate deaths.

MARTINEZ: NPR and The Marshall Project have been investigating conditions in the penitentiary's Special Management program, which houses some of the most dangerous people in federal custody.

FADEL: NPR's Joe Shapiro shares the details of the investigation with us now.

What did you find in your investigation of violence at the federal prison at Thomson, Ill.?

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Prisons are violent. They're dangerous places. And we found this is one of the most dangerous and violent of all federal prisons. It's the federal prison system's Special Management Unit, a high-security program for men who are supposed to be dangerous. There have been seven violent deaths there since March of 2020, and Matt Phillips was the first to die. He was Jewish. He had a large Star of David tattooed on his chest. And at Thomson, he was put in a recreation cage with two known white supremacists, and they attacked him brutally. They kicked him. They stomped him. And he died a few days later. Those men have been charged with murder and with a hate crime. But it should not have been a surprise that he was going to be in grave danger with these men. And his mother, Sue Philips, tells us she doesn't want any other parent to have to go through this.

SUE PHILLIPS: We are so outraged what happened to our son. And now to learn how many times it's happened over and over again at, really, this house of horrors. There needs to be answers. There needs to be accountability. And it needs to stop.

FADEL: There needs to be accountability. What made you start looking into this prison in Illinois?

SHAPIRO: So it's where the Federal Bureau of Prisons has put its new Special Management Unit. And I'd reported on the previous one, which was at Lewisburg, Pa., in 2016 with my reporting partner, Christie Thompson of The Marshall Project, and we found high rates of violence and men killing their cellmates there. Two men would be put together for 23 hours a day or more in this one tiny solitary confinement cell that was about the size of a parking space. You had two bunks bolted to the wall. The toilet was at the foot of the bed. And after our report, civil rights and church groups called for the Special Management Unit at Lewisburg to be shut down, and the BOP closed it, and then they opened this new Special Management Unit at Thomson, Ill. So we felt an obligation to see if the new one was a better place, and it turns out from our reporting that it's as violent and probably even worse.

FADEL: So what makes things so bad at this new prison?

SHAPIRO: Well, first, it's that practice of placing men into tiny cells. They're locked down for 23 hours a day or more, and often they're put in with men they don't get along with. Bobby Everson was found dead in December in his cell, and a witness told us that the cellmate was known to be violent and that he told corrections officers over and over he was going to kill Everson, even the night that Everson died. And according to our witness, another prisoner, the guards ignored these warnings.

Among the other problems that we found at Thomson, men are placed in restraints, sometimes painful four-point restraints, for hours or for days. And that's something that was common at that earlier prison at Lewisburg but we're told is pretty rare at other federal prisons. And we also found that men with mental health problems, they don't get their medications or care. We found the letters of a man who we're told killed Bobby Everson. He'd written to a judge that he was paranoid, and he couldn't get his medications in prison. These were all problems at the old prison, but there's an added issue at the new prison that makes everything worse. There's been a severe and stubborn shortage of corrections officers.

FADEL: NPR investigative correspondent Joe Shapiro. Thank you for this really important reporting.

SHAPIRO: Leila, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.