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).

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.