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Good reads curated by Max
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photo by William Widmer.
If this is your first time receiving the Weekend Reader: This is my weekly collection of ideas that matter and trends that are shaping culture today.  This isn't a hot-off-the-press scramble to share the latest headlines. It is a reflection of what I'm reading and have found valuable; a broader, wide-ranging look at the forces, ideas, and people changing the way we live today. 
- Maxwell Anderson 
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Introduction
Pick Your Poison: Death or Prison?

My friend Lisa sent me this link with a simple thought experiment: 

Would you rather die a (probably) painless death or live 50 years in solitary confinement?  

If you actually pause to think about it, it's not an easy question.

Those are the sentencing options jurors have for defendants convicted of federal capital crimes: death in Terra Haute, Indiana, or life without parole in solitary confinement in the Federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.


Life in prison and life taken by the state are two ideas that have been in the news a lot this week. On Wednesday, Nebraska became the first conservative state in 40 years to ban the death penalty. 24 hours later, on Thursday, a federal jury in the liberal state of Massachusetts unanimously voted for the death penalty, to be applied to 21 year-old Boston Marathon bomb plotter Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

"No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
- Nelson Mandela

The state of our nation's prisons is this weekend's big idea. Why are there now so many of them? Who is in them? What do we expect them to accomplish?

Read widely, read wisely.
Max


Solitary Confinement

Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison
by Mark Binelli in The New York Times
 
The U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Florence, Colorado is the highest security prison in the nation. It is the home of notorious criminals like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, mob man Sammy "the Bull" Gravano and 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. Inmates at ADX, as it is known, spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. "Since opening in 1994, the ADX has remained not just the only federal supermax but also the apogee of a particular strain of the American penal system, wherein abstract dreams of rehabilitation have been entirely superseded by the architecture of control." The former warden of the Colorado supermax, Robert Hood, has described the facility as "a clean version of hell." This article takes you inside the prison and details the lawsuits against the institution's practice of near-unceasing solitary confinement. The results have been at times grisly. Attorneys argue the state has driven their clients to violent insanity.


Prison #2: Better Out Than In

by Jessica Benko for The New York Times Magazine
 
If the U.S. supermax security prison is "a clean version of hell," Norway's highest security prison seems like a slightly more constrained version of normal life.  "There is no death penalty in Norway. There are no life sentences. The maximum term for any crime is 21 years." There may be no more humane maximum security prison on the planet. With it's supermax facility, the U.S. takes the stance that some people are beyond rehabilitation, Norway's highest security prison makes reintegration a central goal and "works with other government agencies to secure a home, a job and access to a supportive social network for each inmate before release; Norway’s social safety net also provides health care, education and a pension to all citizens."

And it doesn't come cheap: "spending on the Halden prison runs to more than $93,000 per inmate per year, compared with just $31,000 for prisoners in the United States." So this would be totally unaffordable in America. On the other hand, "if the United States incarcerated its citizens at the same low rate as the Norwegians do (75 per 100,000 residents, versus roughly 700 per 100K in the U.S.), it could spend that much per inmate and still save more than $45 billion a year."

The prison "yard" at Halden is big. There are hills. There are trees. It feels like a park. “A lot of the staff when we started out came from other prisons in Norway,” said the prison director. “They were a little bit astonished by the trees and the number of them. Shouldn’t they be taken away? And what if they climb up, the inmates? As we said, Well, if they climb up, then they can sit there until they get tired, and then they will come down.”

Never to Be Seen Again

A trend seen in hundreds of jails over the past few years is the introduction of on- and off-site video visitation. "Jail authorities say it’s more secure, less costly to supervise, and better for inmates too, as it allows jails to extend visiting hours." But there are drawbacks. First, seeing your family through a screen simply isn't as intimate and emotional an experience as really being face to face.

Second, reading this, I can't help but think that these prisoners and their families are being financially exploited by those who sand to profit by adopting the technology. "The financial cost to prisoners and their families of video calls can be considerable. A Securus video call can cost as much as $1.50 per minute–all of which falls on the outside caller. That means a 20-minute video call can cost as much as $30—for a service not very different from Skype or Google Hangouts, that most of us in the outside world use for free." How does that make any sense? It doesn't, except that it benefits the provider who in turn shares the revenue with the prison.

From what I can tell this isn't really designed in the interests of prisoners. "Securus sometimes requires that jails ban in-person visitation in its contracts with them."
Really?? Is that a good idea? One jail reform advocate puts the question well: "'
Do we want to let people out that have had very little family contact or do we want to let people out who can go right back into their families having maintained those relationships?' For society, he says, 'The answer to that is very clear, we want well connected, well-supported people released from jail.'"

 


The Man Who Was Accidentally Released from Prison 88 Years Early
by Robert Kolker for The Marshall Project
 
When Rene Lima-Martin was released from prison, he moved int with his girlfriend and became a father to her one-year-old son. While he had been in prison, Lima-Martin became a Christian and attended a small prayer group with other convicts. When he got out of prison, he was a transformed man. "He found a job, and then a better one, and then a union job, working construction on skyscrapers in the center of Denver. The family went to church. They took older relatives in at their new, bigger house in a nice section of Aurora. There was another child, also a boy, and a wedding timed for when he’d be done with his five years of parole."

But his release had been a mistake. 

Five years and eight months after his release, Lima-Martin got a call from the Denver public defender saying that his release had been a clerical error that a judge didn't catch. He had to go back. Now Rene Lima-Martin is back in prison. 

You have to read this story and ask yourself what is the point of prison? Rene Lima-Martin never physically hurt anyone (though he robbed and scared them). That was 17 years ago. What is the point of life imprisonment for a guy who didn't commit a violent crime? If you have a man who has changed his life and demonstrated that he is a productive, hard-working father who is no longer in trouble with the law -do you want to keep a guy like that in prison for the rest of his life? To what end?

A lot of prison reform talk is theoretical "Hey, maybe you don't need these long mandatory sentences." But with Lima-Martin, you have living breathing proof of at least one guy for whom a 98 year sentence no longer makes sense. What does it say about our system that it doesn't adapt to recognize that?


Hey, Where'd Everybody Go?
 
1.5 Million Missing Black Men
by Justin Wolfers, David Leonhardt and Kevin Quely in The New York Times

Take a look at the latest census and you may notice something funny. "Black women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million...For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men. Among whites, the equivalent number is 99, nearly parity." 

Black men are being locked up and dying at jarring rate. This isn't new but this analysis of the gap puts in perspective the fact that many communities are without enough men to be fathers and husbands. The biggest factor in this is prison. 1 in 9 black men aged 20 to 34 is now in prison. If current rates hold, 1 in 3 black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lives. 

Reflections
How Many Prisoners Do We Want To Have?

I'm beginning to believe three big things about the prison system in the United States are broken: 
  1. We have too many people in prison
  2. We probably have an unjust mix of people in prison
  3. Many prisoners are not being treated as they should. 
This piece focuses only on the first problem. The other two deserve their own treatment (though you get a small taste from the articles above), which I'd like to get to at another time.
 
Too Many People in Prison
We have too many people in prison in the U.S. Wait, you protest. How can you say that? Suggesting we have "too many" in prison implies that that there is a "right" number of prisoners for our society to have. As far as I'm aware the U.S. has no official "target" number for the portion of the population to hold in prison. On it's face, that notion sounds almost absurd and scarily totalitarian. Besides, why would the government set a target for a bad outcome like that, putting people to have behind bars? 

On the other hand, governments set targets for other bad things, like unemployment and inflation. These things aren't "good" but it's impractical to think they can be eliminated altogether so the best you can do is try to see that they remain at low levels in a way that doesn't cause too much collateral damage. Now, you might say that government interference in trying to tweak these stats causes more problems that it fixes, and you may be right. But that is beside the point. I'm not arguing that the government should set a target percentage of the population to hold as prisoners, I'm saying it could.  

If we did set a target for how many people we should aspire to have in prison, how would we set it? A simple way might be to look at best practices from around the world. When I was a consultant, we did a project for a large domestic non-profit with dozens of chapters across the country. The chapters were responsible for their own fundraising and the success of their efforts varied wildly. Our goal was to make the overall organization more effective by recommending growth strategies for the chapters. As consultants know, the easiest way to earn your money is not to come up with new ideas yourself, but to just look around at what everyone else is doing and, if it is working, recommend that. Our team did a comparative analysis of all of this organization's chapters. In so doing we could easily segment the high-performing chapters from the low-performing chapters, then study the top ones for best practices the others could borrow. Of course there were geographical, social, cultural, and leadership differences across the chapters, but doing the analysis gave us at least some idea of what was possible and which ideas were working (and which weren't). 

If we took that approach to study U.S. criminal justice vs. the world, this is what we'd see: 
  • The United States accounts for 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's prison population.
  • The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, at around 700 per 100,000 citizens (Russia is at 475 per 100K and China is at 120 per 100K). 
  • In fact, the U.S. has the most prisoners in the world at an absolute level, despite having a total population a quarter of the size of India or China. 
As an interesting tidbit, some U.S. states imprison far above the national average (Louisiana is highest at 1,340 prisoners per 100,000 citizens) but even the state with the lowest average rate (Vermont, 254 per 100K) is still far above most of the rest of the developed world

Knowing this, you might ask, well are we a safer country than these other countries since we put away more of the bad guys?  Good question. There are many ways you could measure this and I'd be interested to know if there is a better way, but a simple measure might just be homicides. The U.S. is near the median of global homicide rates. The good news is if you live in the U.S. you have a smaller chance of being murdered than if you lived in 109 more dangerous countries. The bad news is, living in America means you've got a higher chance of being murdered than if you were to live in 107 safer countries. 

If the goal is to keep ourselves safe by keeping the dangerous folks behind bars, our prisons are pretty darn inefficient. They cost a boatload to run.Now it could be that our rates of violence are affected by the U.S.'s high gun ownership rate, which is well, well above any other country. Maybe the prisons are keeping us safe and we'd have even more murders and violent crime if there weren't so many people locked up. After all, the violent crime rate in the U.S. has declined by more than 50% since 1993. Some suggest that you could tie the decline in crime to the increase in prisoners (the U.S. prison population has increased by 500% in the past forty years).  It seems, however that the evidence of this is seems totally mixed, at best, and more likely that prisons aren't contributing much at all to that trend.   

To summarize:
  1. The U.S. has a higher incarceration rate than any country in the world
  2. The U.S. also has a higher absolute number of prisoners than any country in the world 
  3. The U.S. homicide rate is middling - you'd still rather live in almost any nation in Europe if safety is your priority (and you're glad not to be in most of Central America).
It seems that locking up more people is at best, a highly inefficient and highly expensive strategy for preventing crime. So what's going on? 

To respond to that question adequately would require more space than I can give, so forgive me but I'll only quickly gesture at the reply: A large number of people in prison today are there serving mandatory sentences for drug-related and other non-violent crimes. Federal and state-mandated sentencing guidelines created in the last forty years were designed by tough-on-crime legislators to punish offenders and scare others from repeating the same crimes. They took away judgment from judges and created a penal system flooded with tens of thousands of offenders that must serve time in prison according to the law.

Many experts believe that the results of sending so many people to prison are devastating and foolish.  Recidivism rates are high because ex-cons have a difficult time getting jobs, completing school, and re-integrating with society. Plus a huge number of prisoners have mental health issues that prisons are designed to deal with. 56% of all state prison inmates have a history of mental health issues or symptoms. Many men (and it's almost all men) whom we lock up might be better served by completing drug rehab and other more tailored sentences determined by judges who understand both the specifics of each individual case and who see the effects on communities and on the judicial system of locking up millions of men each year. 

IS ANYTHING BEING DONE?
A lot of people look at this prison situation and realize that something ought to be done. In fact the issue of prison reform is creating some strange bedfellows, liberals and libertarians, Democrats and Republicans working together. The Koch Brothers are working with the ACLU. The Heritage Foundation, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and the Soros Foundation are working together too. They want to see, among other things, sentencing reform (a topic deserving of it's own edition).

But legislative change is uncertain and takes time. Leaders working outside the Capital Hill system have the advantage of being a little more nimble and on the front lines. There's dozens of inspiring people at work. I'll just mention a couple. Francis Chan, is a former megachurch pastor who left his congregation of thousands in Southern California to move into the most violent part of San Francisco to start a ministry that provides apartments for ex-cons and gives them job training. (I got to eat at his organizations Hawaiian barbecue restaurant, Huli Huli Hawaiian Grill last week and it was delicious!). 

Catherine Hoke realized that when you have a criminal record it's extremely difficult to get a new job, so she started Defy Ventures to train convicts on how to launch their own legitimate businesses as entrepreneurs. This two minute profile video gives a cool, quick overview.

Finally, there may be no more compelling advocate for criminal justice and prison reform than Bryan Stevenson,
a professor at NYU and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a private, non-profit organization headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama. He points out that 1 in 9 people given capital punishment in the U.S. have later been found innocent - a statistic you pray just isn't true. In his TED Talk he argues  we need to reform our criminal justice system, not for the prisoners, but for ourselves. I will sign off with a quote from him: 

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it's necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.” 

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption


Worth Watching

The Shawshank Redemption may be the best prison movie ever made. At least it's my favorite. In this scene, a crew of inmates are forced to tar a prison rooftop under the hot Southern sun and the outsider, Andy Dufresne, manages to negotiate with the officers to share a bucket of suds with the gang. It's a poignant reminder that, even as prisoners there are times when men can have dignity, can practice charity, and can feel like "the lords of all creation."
The Shawshank Redemption - Rooftop Scene
  • Last week's edition on drones is here
  • The week before, 6 Fashion Trends You Didn't See Coming is here
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