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).

The Way We Treat Children

If my perceptions are correct, there seems to be a growing sentiment (perhaps typical of each older generation) that today’s youth are needlessly and excessively coddled and “wussified” (to use the kinder terminology). But the apparently prevailing notion that kids nowadays are excessively spoiled is actually dangerously overstated, according to a recent article in AlterNet by Paul L. Thomas, a doctor of education and long-time teacher.

After recalling a few anecdotes regarding personal or observed mistreatment of kids (mostly in the context of school), he makes the following point:

A day or so ago, I received an email from Alfie Kohn about his new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child. I noticed it was similar to a book I am co-editing, Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children. I also noted that our perspectives on children—on how parents, teachers, and society treat children—appears to be a minority view.

I have been mulling, or more likely stewing, about this for some time: What makes adults—even the ones who choose to spend their lives with children—so damned negative and hateful about those children? That is the source of my palpable anger at the “grit,”“no excuses,” and “zero tolerance” narratives and policies. I grew up and live in the South, where the default attitude toward children remains that they are to be seen and not heard, that a child’s role is to do as she/he is told. If a child crosses those lines, then we must teach her/him a lesson, show her/him who is boss—rightfully, we are told, by hitting that child: spare the rod spoil the child. I find that same deficit view of children is not some backwoods remnant of the ignorant South; it is the dominant perspective on children throughout the U.S.

As Barbara Kingsolver explains in “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby”:

>>For several months I’ve been living in Spain, and while I have struggled with the customs office, jet lag, dinner at midnight and the subjunctive tense, my only genuine culture shock has reverberated from this earthquake of a fact: People here like kids. They don’t just say so, they do. Widows in black, buttoned-down c.e.o.’s, purple-sneakered teen-agers, the butcher, the baker, all have stopped on various sidewalks to have little chats with my daughter. Yesterday, a taxi driver leaned out his window to shout “ Hola, guapa !” My daughter, who must have felt my conditioned flinch, looked up at me wide-eyed and explained patiently, “I like it that people think I’m pretty.”

With a mother’s keen myopia, I would tell you, absolutely, my daughter is beautiful enough to stop traffic. But in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I have to confess, so is every other person under the height of one meter. Not just those who agree to be seen and not heard. When my daughter gets cranky in a restaurant (and really, what do you expect at midnight?), the waiters flirt and bring her little presents and nearby diners look on with that sweet, wistful gleam of eye that before now I have only seen aimed at the dessert tray. Children are the meringues and eclairs of this culture. Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not their own they don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it.<<

I’ve often noticed — and frankly even related with — the contradictory ways in which we regard children: they’re cute and enlivening on the one hand, but also irritating and burdensome on the other.  Their easily exploitable and powerless status also makes them a tempting target for venting one’s frustration or sense of inadequacy, which perhaps explains why children — along with women and the elderly — are frequently the victims of abuse in households and care centers.

Thomas also notes how the overall negative treatment of children intersects with racist and classist sentiments as well:

A child is not a small adult, not a blank slate to be filled with our “adult weariness,” or a broken human that must be repaired. It is also true that children are not angels; they are not pure creatures suited to be set free to find the world on their own. Seeing children through deficit or ideal lenses does not serve them—or anyone—well.

>>Within the U.S. culture there is a schizophrenia around kids—we worship young adulthood in popular media, but seem to hate children—that is multiplied exponentially by a lingering racism and classism that compounds the deficit view of childhood. Nowhere is this more evident than in the research showing how people view children of color:

Asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too… The correlation between dehumanization and use of force becomes more significant when you consider that black boys are routinely estimated to be older than they are… The less the black kids were seen as human, the less they were granted “the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” And those officers who were more likely to dehumanize black suspects overlapped with those who used more force against them.<<

In the enduring finger-pointing dominant in the U.S.—blaming the poor for their poverty, blaming racial minorities for the burdens of racism, blaming women for the weight of sexism—we maintain a gaze that blinds us to ourselves, and allows us to ignore that in that gaze are reflections of the worst among us.

Why do the police sweep poor African American neighborhoods and not college campuses in search of illegal drugs? Why do we place police in the hallways of urban high schools serving mostly poor African American and Latino students, demanding “zero tolerance”? Why are “grit” narratives and “no excuses” policies almost exclusively targeting high-poverty, majority-minority schools (often charter schools with less public oversight)?

Here’s the basic crux of Thomas’ point.

Children are not empty vessels to be filled, blank hard drives upon which we save the data we decide they should have. Nor are children flawed or wild; they do not need us to repair or break them. Neither are they to be coddled or worshipped. They are children, and they are all our children. Yes, there are lessons to be taught, lessons to be learned. But those driven by deficit or idealized views are corrupted and corrupting lessons. Each and every child—as all adults—deserves to have her/his basic dignity respected, first, and as adults charged with the care of any child, our initial question before we do anything with or to a child must be about ourselves. In 31 years of teaching, I can still see and name the handful of students I mis-served in my career, like Billy above. Those faces and names today serve as my starting point: with any child, first do no harm.

What do you think?

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.

Reason, Empathy, and Human Progress: A Dialogue

TED Talk has a great 15-minute animation of a conversation between psychologist Steven Pinker and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein regarding the role of reason and empathy in bettering our species overall (the ending of slavery, alleviation of poverty, etc). Done in the spirit of an illuminating and investigative Socratic method, it’s a very stimulating conversation.

Do you agree with their conclusion? What are your thoughts on the matter?

A Brief Amateur Guide to Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a universalistic consequentialist ethical theory that judges the moral worth of an action based on its results. An ethical theory is any system of thought that provides a process for developing moral rules and guidelines and that establishes criteria for evaluating the moral value of particular human actions.

Like every ethical theory, utilitarianism emerged in a particular context which influenced its foundation and development; specifically, 19th century Industrial England. In this era, economic, commercial, and technological innovations were allowing a growing number of people unprecedented access to goods, services, and wealth. At the same time, however, there was widespread inequality, labor exploitation, and social stratification. The potential for achieving individual and societal prosperity was higher than ever, but people remained disenfranchised and abused in order to perpetuate the early industrial and capitalist system. Society was being radically restructured.

Continue reading

Excellence as Habit

This apt observation was made over two thousand years ago, and it remains as relevant today as it did then. This reflects the universal fact that to be moral and virtuous is a conscious and continuous effort. We have to be as reflective and analytical as possible with respect to the decisions we make and the interactions we have; in this way, we determine the best course of action in terms of ethics, integrity, and self-improvement.

Furthermore, we should never be complacent about our presumed moral character, or assume we’re inherently moral as it is, because that could lead to a blind-spot in our own behavior. To be a moral person is a constant work in progress, because we’re constantly learning new things and expanding upon our understanding (and definition) of what is good, what is ethical, what is excellence, etc.

Of course, none of this is easy, but the rewards are worthwhile, especially if enough people do it at once.

What are your thoughts on this? What do you do to be a better person?Who or what has inspired you or helped you to this end?

The Double Standard of Drug Addiction

Yesterday, Phillip Seymour Hoffman — like sadly many other talented actors — died of an accidental drug overdose after years of struggles and relapses. His death has universally been mourned, including by yours truly. But like most high-profile deaths related to drugs, it exposes an even bigger tragedy: the unusual and ultimately counter-productive way in which society treats the subject of drug use. As Simon Jenkins of The Guardian succinctly observes:

Does the law also mourn? It lumps Hoffman together with thousands found dead and friendless in urban backstreets, also with needles in their arms. It treats them all as outlaws. Such is the double standard that now governs the regulation of addictive substances that we have had to develop separate universes of condemnation.

We cannot jail or otherwise hurl beyond the pale all who use drugs. We therefore treat some as “responsible users” and when something goes wrong mourn the tragedy. Offices, schools, hospitals, prisons, even parliament, are awash in illegal drug use. Their illegality is no deterrent. The courts could not handle proper enforcement, the prisons could not house the “criminals”. In Hoffman’s case his friends clearly knew that he was a drug addict. The police would have done nothing had they known.

So what do we do? We turn a blind eye to an unworkable law and assume it does not apply to people like us. We then relieve the implied guilt by taking draconian vengeance on those who supply drugs to those who need them, but who lack the friends and resources either to combat them or to avoid the law. Hospitals and police stations are littered each night with the wretched results.

There are no winners in the illegality of drugs, except the lucky ones who make money from it without getting caught. The only hope is that high-profile casualties such as Hoffman’s might lead a few legislators to see the damage done by these laws and correct their ways. At least in some American states the door of legalisation is now ajar. Not so in Britain, where the most raging addiction is inertia.

What do you think? Are drug-related deaths like Hoffman’s (among so many less visible ones) at least partly the result of a legal culture that criminalizes drugs, and by extension its victims? Would legalizing or decriminalizing once-illicit substances help turn drug abuse into a public health problem to be addressed, rather than a crime to be unequally and ineffectively enforced? Evidence from some U.S. states, as well countries around the world, suggests these steps would help to some extent. But what do you think?

No Glory For Killed Soldiers

The following was a very interesting read, although I wonder if the issues described in the excerpt and wider article are really anything new in American history (or for that matter, military history in general).

Throughout history, our nation’s greatest leaders have understood on a deeply personal level that however honorably a soldier acquits himself, he can die in vain, and that it is the responsibility of the leaders and citizenry to see to it that they don’t. Our country has lost its sense of that responsibility to a horrifying extent. Our generals have lost the capability to succeed and the integrity to admit failure. Our society has lost the courage and energy to hold them accountable. Over the last decade, our top leaders have wasted the lives of our sons, daughters, and comrades with their incompetence and hubris. After each failure, our citizens have failed to hold them accountable, instead underwriting new failed strategies as quickly as their predecessors with our apathy and sense of detachment. And then we use the tired paeans of “never forget” and “honor the fallen” to distract ourselves from our guilt in the affair. When we blithely declare that they did not die in vain, we deface their honor by using it to wipe the blood from our hands.

Thomas E. Ricks, Yes, Marcus. They Did Die in Vain.

What are your thoughts?

Does Thinking About Money Make You a Bad Person?

Most people would agree that time and money are very important things in life, second to or on part with love, healthy, and family. But can dwelling too much on one or the other influence your overall ethical character? According to a study reported in The Atlanticthe mere thought of trying to acquire more money — even by honest means — can make you a bad person.

“The increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing,” Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley wrote in a widely-cited paper showing that the “upper-class” was more likely to lie, cheat, violate driving laws, and even take candy from children.

It’s not just having money that makes us dishonest. Even thinking about it—lustrous gold coins, money trees, year-end bonuses—makes us us more likely to behave unethically. A new study this week both indicts the immoral intoxication of money and offers a simple solution: When you make people think about time rather than money, they become self-reflective and less likely to do the wrong thing.

In four experiments, Francesca Gino (Harvard Business School) and Cassie Mogilner (Wharton) primed subjects with words associated with money or time. Then they asked them to complete certain tasks like a number matrix and a sentence-unscrambling test. The participants, who could lie about their performance, rewarded themselves with money for each task they allegedly completed.

Nearly 90 percent of those primed to think about money cheated, compared to just 42 percent in the time condition.

The pernicious influence of greed, consumerism, and materialism is nothing new or controversial. But the idea that merely thinking about these things primes negative behaviors and ideas is an interesting one — and probably something most people would find contentious. After all, we’ve all thought about wanting to make more money at some point in our lives, so does that mean we’re periodically tempted to be dishonest or exploitative?

Well, why not? It’s not too difficult a conclusion for me to swallow, personally. Few human beings are ever consistent in their moral or ethical character, and most of us find ourselves frequently faced with temptations to do bad things (and justify them) for our own gain. So the idea that we can get carried away with our own desires, even if we don’t mean to be, isn’t terribly surprising.

And what about the influence of time?

Thinking about time makes us reflect on who we are, the professors concluded. Self-reflection makes us honest because we evaluate ourselves in the long-term, rather than focus on the clear short-term advantages from cheating. “Even good people can and often do bad things,” Gino said in an email conversation. “People who value morality may also behave unethically if they are able to convince themselves that their behavior is not immoral.”

In other words, if you make a habit of thinking about the bigger picture — what little time we have left to accomplish our goals or spend time with our loved ones, for example — you’re more likely to realize the error of your poor, short-term judgements.

It gets more interesting:

In previous research, Gino and the behavioral economist Dan Ariely predicted that creativity enabled dishonesty. People who could produce more novel, useful ideas in general could also come up with creative ways to rationalize unethical behavior. (“Sure, I got her fired, but she can better reach her potential in another industry”; “I’m not stealing from this national bank, I’m adjusting for the implicit subsidies it enjoys as a Too-Big-To-Fail institution”; etc) Stimulating creative thought in their study increased dishonest behavior by blurring the line between morality and immorality.

Many people associate criminality and immorality with poverty and ignorance; but more often than not, the intelligent and otherwise well-off person has every reason to be a bad person — literally, they’re smart enough to figure out reasons to justify their malevolent actions. To me, this drives home the often neglected point that there is a difference between intelligence in terms of cognitive ability — retaining, learning, analyzing, and so on — and knowing about ethics, morality, empathy, and other things that underpin benevolent behavior.

But in this research, Gino showed that self-reflection highlights that line between right and wrong. “In a sense, it reduces their ability to engage in this creative explanation for why what they are doing is okay,” she said.

Introspection is key. Take more time to think about things and weigh the consequences and long-term implications. It’s not easy, but the potential rewards — for you, your loved ones, and the wider society — are vast. But in a world dominated by money, materialism, and cutthroat competition, this is even more challenging. It’s easy to justify dishonest behavior when you’re struggling in an increasingly inequitable and cynical world.

Throwing Away The Key

A recent article in The Economist has highlighted the moral bankruptcy of mandatory minimum sentencing in the United States.

[Over 3,200 people are] serving sentences of life without parole for non-violent crimes, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Around 79% of them were convicted of drug crimes. These include: having an unweighable amount of cocaine in a shirt pocket, selling $10-worth of crack to a police informant and mailing small amounts of LSD to fellow Grateful Dead fans. Property crimes that earned offenders a permanent home in prison include shoplifting three belts, breaking into an empty liquor store and possessing stolen wrenches.

A hefty 83% of such sentences were mandatory. That is, a state or federal law barred the judge from exercising any discretion (or indeed, common sense).

Furthermore, this reflects another endemic problem with the justice system: institutional racism.

Racial disparities among non-violent whole-lifers exceed even those of the prison system itself. Among federal prisoners, blacks are 20 times more likely to receive such sentences: they are 65% of the national total, compared with 18% for whites and 15% for Latinos. In some states, the numbers are yet more skewed: blacks are 91% of non-violent life-without-parole prisoners in Louisiana, 79% in Mississippi and 68% in South Carolina.

In addition to the ethical problems, there are serious practical ones as well (which are all the more palpable given the strain that public finances are facing).

The ACLU estimates that life-without-parole sentences for [nonviolent] offenders add $1.8 billion to the cost of incarcerating those to whom they apply. Jennifer Turner, who wrote the ACLU’s study, says that the number of life-without-parole sentences (including those for violent crimes) is growing faster than life-with-a-chance-of-parole. In the past 20 years, it has quadrupled, even as violent crime has declined.

Long sentences have not made drugs harder to buy or Americans less likely to take them. Evidence that they reduce crime is skimpy; the vast sums spent on them would surely reduce crime more if spent instead on detective work, drug treatment and rehabilitation.

Then of course there is the horrific human consequences.

The cost to prisoners and their families, meanwhile, is impossible to calculate. “I’ve lost my son. I’ll never have grandchildren with him. He’ll never see the outside world,” says Ms Borg. She adds: “I can’t sleep. I can’t function. I’m 87 pounds. I look like a walking skeleton.”

While this is just a small fraction of America’s 2.3 million prisoners — many of whom are facing harsh sentences for minor drug offences — it should go without saying that every human life counts. Every single one of those people are losing their entire lives over small infractions and senseless technicalities. It is completely unjustifiable, whether from an ethical, economic, or practical point of view.