Prisoners and the Art of Winemaking

There are many things wrong with the U.S. justice system, but perhaps the chiefest problem is high recidivism: as of 2011 (the most recent reliable data I could find) an average of 43.3 percent of prisoners fall back into crime. Clearly, the rehabilitation system isn’t living up to its name.

One of the key causes of this is the lack of skills and opportunities among the largely poor and marginalized groups that make up the prison population. Easing up on the restrictions imposed on the formerly incarcerated, while imparting them with marketable skills, would go a long way in improving their lives and those of their families and communities (which in turn would help the U.S. economy as a whole, given the size and proportion of this population).

Italy is another country struggling with this problem — in fact, the rate of re-offense is as high as 80 percent, and Italian prisons meet similar criticisms regarding the poor and counterproductive treatment of prisoners. So some enterprising reformers decided to address the matter in a uniquely Italian way: teaching prisoners the art of winemaking, which is being spearheaded in the penal colony of Gorgona in Tuscany. As the New York Times reported:

For the past two years, Frescobaldi enologists and agronomists have imparted their know-how to a group of the island’s inmates as part of a rehabilitation program that aims to provide skills for life after their release.

Recidivism is high, around 80 percent, for the inmates of Italian prisons, “but instead, if you give people education, training, or access to a job, recidivism drops to 20 percent,” said Lamberto Frescobaldi, president of Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi, and the driving force behind the project.

Giuseppe Fedele, an educator at Gorgona, where training programs have been going on for years, said that “the best thanks a prisoner can show when he is released from here is not to be sent back to prison.”

As you would imagine, the details of this program are both interesting and inspiring:

First opened in 1869, the prison operates like a working farm. Some inmates carry out agricultural chores — growing fruit and vegetables, raising livestock, and making cheeses and bread — while others work in maintenance or in the kitchen and commissary.

“It’s still a prison, but the day flies because you’re working. It’s one thing to be in a cell for 12 hours, another to be outside, busy doing something,” said Santo Scianguetta, who has six years to go on a 16-year sentence, adding that the experience of working in the vineyard was building his confidence. “I think a lot about getting out. And now I see hope in the future.”

Most of the inmates here are serving the final years of long sentences for serious crimes, including murder. Prison officials asked that for reasons of privacy, reporters refrain from specifying their individual crimes.

Projects like the Frescobaldi initiative make inmates feel like “the protagonists of their incarceration, and not passive recipients where the state is the enemy,” said Mr. Mazzerbo, the prison director, who has lobbied to extend similar programs to other Italian prisons.

“It costs nothing to change the mentality” of an inmate, Mr. Mazzerbo said. “You can do that anywhere. You don’t need an island.”

Several penitentiaries are already involved in economic activities, and at least two others produce wine. Some penitentiaries are involved in food or fashion initiatives, and products can be ordered from the Justice Ministry website.

Prisoners here receive a monthly wage, about two thirds of what they would get on the outside, based on the provincial agricultural labor contract. “It’s good not to depend on our families for money,” said Ciro Amato, who is serving a 30-year sentence. “At least here you get an opportunity. In many cases people leave prison angrier than before.”

It’s a small start, and not without its challenges, but it is definitely worth trying. While there are similar initiatives in the U.S. (albeit many of which are accused of being exploitative and underpaying), we should definitely take steps to make such programs the norm, along with minimizing such an unusually high rate of incarceration to begin with (although that is a different story for another post).

Hero of the Week — Maria Bashir

Maria Bashir II Maria Bashir

 

Maria Bashir is the Chief Prosecutor General of Herat Province Afghanistan (the second largest jurisdiction in the country), the only woman to hold such a position thus far. Her fifteen years of experience as a civil servant has brought her into conflict with criminals, the Taliban, and corrupt policemen. When the Taliban took power in 1996, she was barred from working and instead spent her time illegally educating girls at her home. 

She was called back into service in 2006, focusing on rooting out corruption and eradicating the oppression of women. She has handled hundreds of cases amid death threats and assassination attempts, one of which nearly killed her children; subsequently, she has a retinue of around 20 or so bodyguards while her children are in virtual hiding.

For her courage and tenacity, Bashir has received the 2011 International Women of Courage Award and been recognized among The 2011 Time 100. I recommend reading her interview with the United Nations here; unfortunately, most of the information about her is three or four years old, so I am unaware of her current efforts and predicaments. Thankfully, she seems to still be alive and working as a prosecutor, doing everything she can to better her country and its future .

Needless to say, Maria Bashir is an incredible hero and role model, to say the least. 

Theo van Gogh

Theo van GoghTheodorus “Theo” van Gogh was an art dealer and younger brother of Vincent van Gogh. Though overshadowed by his more famous sibling, it was Theo’s unfailing financial and emotional support that allowed Vincent to devote himself entirely to his world-famous art.

Not only did Theo unconditionally provide Vincent with painting supplies and money for the rest of his life, but gave him unwavering emotional support and love. Despite being far more successful than Vincent by societal standards – he was a respected art dealer, married, financially successful – Theo admired his elder brother his entire life.

It was Theo who urged his brother to continue his work and who constantly praised him, expressing deep and abiding respect for a man often wracked with self-loathing and frustration. Theo was one of the few people that Vincent could talk to and confide in, and he served as a constant source of support during Vincent’s darkest times.

Subsequently, the brothers maintained an intensive correspondence – of the 800 letters Vincent wrote during his lifetime, around 75 percent were to Theo, including his first and last. Though communication was difficult given Vincent’s poor health and financial circumstances, Theo continued to write letters with much enthusiasm.

The majority of Theo’s letters and communications with Vincent are filled with praise and encouragement, as well as concerns about his mental health. In turn, Vincent would send Theo sketches and ideas for paintings – in addition to various rants and trivialities – that Theo would take in with the utmost delight and eagerness.

Theo Portrait

A portrait of Theo done by Vincent that was originally thought to have been a self-portrait. Its true subject was revealed only in 2011.

It should be noted that these letters are one of the main and only sources of information about Vincent’s life, providing many detailed accounts of Vincent’s circumstances, thoughts, feelings, and the like. It is largely thanks to Theo and his wife that these letters are available today, having been collected and published in a compilation, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh (unfortunately, few of Theo’s letters survive as Vincent failed to keep them).

In 1886, Theo invited Vincent to come and live with him in Paris, introducing him to such notable contemporaries as Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Henri Rousseau, and others. Allegedly, he tried to use his connections as an art dealer to bring attention to Vincent’s work, but evidently none of his paintings were ever sold.

It goes without saying that Vincent’s death hit his brother hard. Already suffering from dementia paralytica, a syphilitic infection of the brain, Theo died just six months after his older brother, at age 33. The cause of death included “sadness” from grief as a factor. He was survived by his wife Joanna and his only son, Vincent Wilhelm.

It should also be noted that Theo’s work as an art dealer played a vital role in bringing attention to contemporary Dutch and French artists and movements. For example, Theo was instrumental in promoting the popularity of Impressionist artists such as Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, persuading his employers, Goupil & Cie, to exhibit and buy their works.

In 1914, Theo’s body was exhumed and reburied with his brother at Auvers-sur-Oise in Paris, where it can still be seen today.

Van Gogh Brothers

The Magic of Music Therapy

There can be little doubt that music has a remarkable impact on the human mind, not only in terms of emotion and feeling, but even with regards to mental health. The Guardian offers a glimpse into the benefits of music therapy, which is catching on as a treatment for people suffering dementia and other mental afflictions. It begins with the case of Vera and Jack Burrows.

Five and a half years into their very happy marriage, Jack had a stroke while roasting a chicken, and has never returned home. Ever since he’s been living in Station House care home in Crewe. Now 86, he’s lost his speech and has increasing memory problems, but his bawdy sense of humour is very much intact.

Vera, a very glamorous 84 with turquoise eye shadow and a cloud of blond hair, had accompanied Jack to a special music session at the care home run by the music therapist Greg Hanford, director of MusAbility, and musicians from the Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra.

Overseen by Manchester University, it is part of a 10-week pilot project called Music in Mind, funded by Care UK, which runs 123 residential homes for elderly people. The aim is to find out if classical music can improve communication and interaction and reduce agitation for people in the UK living with dementia – estimated to number just over 800,000 and set to rise rapidly as the population ages.

The Crewe project is the fourth Music in Mind pilot. An assessment of the first three, by the Manchester-based thin-ktank New Economy, found that some participants no longer had to be medicated after taking part. Carers reported reduced agitation, better moods and improved posture; residents who had been slumped in their chairs raised their heads to take an active role.

“The power of music therapy enables, excites, enthuses, entertains,” one musician told New Economy. “It’s like opening the window of a stuffy room and allowing scented fresh air to waft in, lifting the spirits, changing the nature of the room.”

Pretty touching stuff, to say the least. Whether or not music therapy has any clear physiological impact, the fact that it can improve moods, less anxieties, and encourage more activity makes this approach very promising.

What do you think?

A Breathtaking HD Tour of India

Courtesy of Gizmodo, I came across this spectacular four-minute video of various sites across northern India (namely Agra, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Khichan, Jaipur, and Dehli). It was put together Jacob and Katie Schwartz, who apparently create these videos for commercial licensing (all while having spectacular adventures along the way). See the magic for yourself:

I’ve had a fascination with India for most of my adult life, but videos like this make even more restless to visit someday. Given the sheer size and diversity of the subcontinent, I’m sure I’d have to go numerous times to get even a decent chunk of it.
 

 

An Amazing and Heartwarming Way to Learn a Language

ADWEEK recently featured a simple but innovative way to address two seemingly unrelated issues at once: teaching young people English while giving lonely elderly people someone to talk to.

FCB Brazil did just that with its “Speaking Exchange” project for CNA language schools. As seen in the touching case study below, the young Brazilians and older Americans connect via Web chats, and they not only begin to share a language—they develop relationships that enrich both sides culturally and emotionally.

The differences in age and background combine to make the interactions remarkable to watch. And the participants clearly grow close to one another, to the point where they end up speaking from the heart in a more universal language than English.

The pilot project was implemented at a CNA school in Liberdade, Brazil, and the Windsor Park Retirement Community in Chicago. The conversations are recorded and uploaded as private YouTube videos for the teachers to evaluate the students’ development.

“The idea is simple and it’s a win-win proposition for both the students and the American senior citizens. It’s exciting to see their reactions and contentment. It truly benefits both sides,” says Joanna Monteiro, executive creative director at FCB Brazil.

Says Max Geraldo, FCB Brazil’s executive director: “The beauty of this project is in CNA’s belief that we develop better students when we develop better people.”

Needless to say, this is pretty touching and inspiring stuff. I’d love to see more programs like this take off between other countries. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind participating in one myself.

Check out the heartwarming introductory video below. What do you think?

Books and Meaningful Activities Lead to Happy Lives

As a lifelong bibliophile and culture aficionado, I didn’t need any scientific verification that reading, listening to music, visiting art galleries, and engaging in other forms of cultural immersion were good for my heart and soul. Of course, it never hurts to have some sort of research back these things up, so I was pleased, if not unsurprising, with the following report from NPR:

Going to the library gives people the same kick as getting a raise does — a £1,359 ($ 2,282) raise, to be exact — according to a study commissioned by the U.K.’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport. The study, which looks at the ways “cultural engagement” affects overall well-being, concluded that a significant association was found between frequent library use and reported well-being. The same was true of dancing, swimming and going to plays. The study notes that “causal direction needs to be considered further” — that is, it’s hard to tell whether happy people go to the library, or going to the library makes people happy. But either way, the immortal words of Arthur the Aardvark ring true: “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!”

Well, this certainly explains why I legitimately get happy when I go to a library or bookstore, or even when I’m in my room surrounded by my books. I could never explain how or why I’d be happy exactly; I would just feel an ineffable and natural sense of calm and contentment, as if I were engaging in something therapeutic — which indeed, seems to be what these activities are. I feel a similar sensation when I’m gardening, tidying up my living space, or going to a local culture festival. 

This finding sort of coincides with another study I came across recently that came to a similar conclusion: people who regularly engage in meaningful activities — ranging from exercise and sports to gardening and art — tend to feel better in the long run, especially if they’re helping people along the way.

For the study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers followed a group of 39 teenagers over the course of one year to see whether the way their brains reacted to either eudaimonic or hedonic rewards correlated with how depressed they felt over time.

First, the subjects underwent an fMRI while making a decision about whether to keep money for themselves (a hedonic reward) or to donate it to their families (eudaimonic). They also played a game to determine if they were willing to take risks for the possibility of a greater financial reward (hedonic).

The subjects then filled out a self-report questionnaire of depressive symptoms during the initial scan, and again a year later.

It turned out the teens who had the greatest brain response to the generous, family-donation financial decision had the greatest declines in depressive symptoms over time. And those who got a boost from the risk-taking game were more likely to have an increase in depression. The types of rewards the teens responded to, it seems, changed their behavior in ways that altered their overall well-being.

“For example,” the authors write, “adolescents who show heightened activation in the ventral striatum during eudaimonic decisions likely experience a sense of reward from supporting their family and may therefore show increases in the time they spend helping their family.”

It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean parents can inoculate their teens against depression by forcing them to seek happiness through volunteering. But it could be that teens who already do that kind of thing because it really does lift their spirits are likely to have that lift stick with them.

“Taken together, our findings suggest that well-being may depend on attending to higher values related to family, culture, and morality, rather than to immediate, selfish pleasure,” the authors write.

Taken together, these findings — which coincide with plenty of anecdotal and philosophical observations as well — make clear that doing something meaningful and stimulating is beneficial to mental health. That may seem somewhat obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate how seemingly mundane activities and tasks could help enrich our lives to some degree or another. While results may vary, and such things are far from substitutes for psychiatric care, it never hurts to explore the world around us and find interests and activities that could make us feel better. 

 

 

 

The James Bond of Philanthropy

In my view, with great wealth comes great responsibility. It gives you the capacity to do tremendous good or harm in the world, far more than the overwhelming majority of fellow humans. A little-known Irish-American businessman named Chuck Feeney exemplifies the incredible moral potential that the world’s richest can exercise if they so choose. Forbes did a piece on this amazing philanthropist in 2012, likening him to James Bond for his uniquely low-key and strategic approach to charitable giving:

Over the last 30 years he’s crisscrossed the globe conducting a clandestine operation to give away a $7.5 billion fortune derived from hawking cognac, perfume and cigarettes in his empire of duty-free shops. His foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, has funneled $6.2 billion into education, science, health care, aging and civil rights in the U.S., Australia, Vietnam, Bermuda, South Africa and Ireland. Few living people have given away more, and no one at his wealth level has ever given their fortune away so completely during their lifetime. The remaining $1.3 billion will be spent by 2016, and the foundation will be shuttered in 2020. While the business world’s titans obsess over piling up as many riches as possible, Feeney is working double time to die broke.

Feeney embarked on this mission in 1984, in the middle of a decade marked by wealth creation–and conspicuous consumption–when he slyly transferred his entire 38.75% ownership stake in Duty Free Shoppers to what became the Atlantic Philanthropies. “I concluded that if you hung on to a piece of the action for yourself you’d always be worrying about that piece,” says Feeney, who estimates his current net worth at $2 million (with an “m”). “People used to ask me how I got my jollies, and I guess I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t helping people.”

What Feeney does is give big money to big problems–whether bringing peace to Northern Ireland, modernizing Vietnam’s health care system or seeding $350 million to turn New York’s long-neglected Roosevelt Island into a technology hub. He’s not waiting to grant gifts after he’s gone nor to set up a legacy fund that annually tosses pennies at a $10 problem. He hunts for causes where he can have dramatic impact and goes all-in. “Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model,” Bill Gates tells FORBES, “and the ultimate example of giving while living.”

I highly recommend you read the rest of the article, as it eventually discusses the nuances of Feeny’s character and his rather sophisticated philanthropic methods. The amount of wealth he is donating in both proportional and absolute terms is staggering enough without the added humility and strategic approach.

It is unfortunate that amid ever-higher rates of inequality — best epitomized by the fact that a mere 85 individuals own more wealth than around half of the world’s poorest people (3.5 billion) – most of the world’s elites aren’t following in Feeny’s footsteps, or at the very least donating more than a mere percentage of their assets. There’s a lot of untapped potential out there, and even a number of us who are comfortably well-off could be doing more.

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras

This is going to be the first of many posts that highlight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, cultural and natural landmarks that are identified for their incredible value for humanity. 

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras — which span five sites — was the first property to be included in the cultural landscape category of the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.

Built 2,000 years ago and passed on from generation to generation, the Ifugao Rice Terraces are a marvel of engineering, built on steeper slopes and reaching a higher altitude than most other terraces. The terrace pond fields were created using stone or mud walls, and were carved carefully to follow the natural contours of the hills and mountains. They’re irrigated through an intricate system that harvests water from the forests of the mountain tops. The rice terraces are incorporated almost seamlessly into nature.The maintenance of these living rice terraces require a cooperative approach among the entire community. They rely on detailed knowledge of the rich diversity of biological resources existing in the Ifugao ecosystem, a finely tuned annual system respecting lunar cycles, meticulous zoning and planning, extensive soil conservation, and mastery of a complex pest control based on the careful processing of a variety of herbs, all accompanied by religious rituals.

Archaeological evidence reveals that these techniques have been used in the region virtually unchanged for 2,000 years. Because they illustrate the persistence of cultural traditions and remarkable continuity and endurance, they were included in a list reserved for sites of profound global importance to humanity — rightfully so, in my opinion.

The Man Who Cultivated Malala

By now most readers no doubt know of Malala Yousafzai, the brave teen activist who advocated for education and women’s rights in a Taliban-dominated part of Pakistan before nearly dying  at the hands of a Taliban gunman. The assassination attempt — which has done little to silence her — rightly elevated her to international attention while highlighting the plight of women and girls in Pakistan and the brave efforts of reformers like Malala to change the status quo.

Now the man who has been most fundamental to Malala’s courage, her father Ziauddin, is entering the spotlight for his uniquely progressive role in helping his daughter realize her remarkable potential on her own terms. “Why is my daughter so strong?” Yousafzai asks. “Because I didn’t clip her wings.” A simple but profound point about the role that parents should play in their children’s lives, especially within societies that seek to oppress and stifle them.

Check out his incredible and inspiring TED Talk below. It’s well worth your time.

It’s beautiful to see how much this son and daughter team have managed to defy stereotypes and societal pressure to become mutually reinforcing and supportive of each other, leading as much by example as through activism. I can’t wait to see what amazing things they’ll accomplish in the future, especially as Malala begins to realize her dream of continuing her education and no doubt learning more about how she can help the world.