Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Fruits and Nuts of Prison Reform

by Chris Innes
author of Healing Corrections: The Future of Imprisonment

President Obama’s recent visit to a federal prison has highlighted an emerging bipartisan consensus in support of prison reform. The movement toward reform has been encouraged by the recognition that crime rates have fallen to levels not seen in 50 years while the number of people in American prisons continues to grow, albeit at a much slower pace than in recent decades. Of the interest in reform, the Wall Street Journal said, “Part of the reason is simple numbers: The U.S. is jailing people faster than the public can pay for them.” But even the most ambitious proposals for reform will still leave hundreds of thousands of people incarcerated.

The reason is that the current crop of reform proposals focus on a relatively small group that represent the so-called “low-hanging fruit” among the American prison population. Addressing the far larger share of people in prison will be a much harder nut to crack. The President, understandably, is focused on the Federal prison population, about half of whom are drug offenders. He and other advocates for reform have tended to talk most about people serving time for a drug offense and most especially about those people who are non-violent. But there are only about 200,000 Federal prisoners, out of the 1.5 million people serving sentences on American prisons. The fact is that the great majority of the people in prison are serving time for a violent offense, have a history of violence, and/or are repeat offenders with lengthy criminal records.

This raises the question of, after we are successful in accomplishing all the currently proposed reforms, “What’s next?” Mass incarceration is by no means our only problem when it comes to prisons. And the end of mass incarceration, when it comes, will create a future for imprisonment that will be vastly different from the one we now know. It may be that a downsized system will be worse than the one we have because we will be dealing with only the toughest cases. In other words, when we’ve stopped putting in prison all the people we think shouldn’t be there, what are we going to do with all those we think should be locked up? The subtitle of my book, Healing Corrections, is “The Future of Imprisonment.” The book provides a framework for creating healing environments within prisons and jails. It gives the answer to what secure institutions could be in the post-mass incarceration future.

When people first hear about the idea of creating a healing environment in prisons and jails, they often misunderstand its meaning. What is being healed, and thereby becomes healing, are the cultures within them. These cultures have become fragmented under the pressures of conflicting demands, limited resources, and the inevitable stresses and strains that go along with living or working in correctional settings. The focus of the transformation of these cultures is on the people who work there because they are the only ones who can do the work. Healing Corrections shows how people working in prisons and jails can be helped to communicate with each other and with inmates in constructive and compassionate ways to build a better place to work for themselves and healthier place to live for inmates.

Those who see the possibility of fundamental reform on our justice system are right. We are experiencing what could be a historic moment in our collective understanding of how the contradictions of and between our social, legal, and economic systems can be used to catalyze fundamental changes in order to re-create our justice system and redefine its role in society. One source of this change must be a transformation of the culture of corrections, which will, I believe, help initiate a shift in our society’s relationship to both the people who work for and those who literally live within our justice system. But along the way, we have some tough nuts to crack.

To learn more about Chris Innes' book, Healing Corrections, and to read his regular blog on this topic, visit

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Rainbow Was Real!: Dispatches from the Grateful Dead's Final Tour

By Michael Benson

As I was putting the finishing touches on my new book, Why the Grateful Dead Matter, to be published this winter by ForeEdge, reflecting upon cosmic events a half-century old, the last thing I was expecting was breaking news about the Grateful Dead. But on January 16, 2015, at 10:00 A.M., I received an email from the Dead announcing that Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bruce Hornsby, with guests Trey Anastasio (uh oh, of Phish) and Jeff Chimenti (of RatDog, Further, and The Other Ones), would be playing three shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 3, 4 and 5, 2015. The event was to be called “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead.” The announcement came with a couple of quotes.

Drummer Mickey Hart said, “ I have a feeling this will come out just right. Can’t wait to find out…Here we go!” Drummer Bill Kreutzmann added, “The Grateful Dead lived an incredible musical story and now we get to write a whole new chapter. By celebrating our 50th, we get to cheer our past, but this isn’t just about history. The Grateful Dead always played improvisational music that was born in the moment and we plan on doing the same this round.”

Well, the announcement was only minutes old when social media began to explode with outrage. How dare they? Trey? The Treyful Dead? It was capitalism at its worst. Just wait. Ticket prices were going to explode. Only millionaires would be able to go.

Every Dead show is different, but the vibe is always exactly the same. (Photo by Dennis Duffy)

By the time summer rolled around, the big stadium Dead tour had expanded, adding two shows in the San Francisco 49ers football stadium in Santa Clara, where there would be accommodations for the tie-dyed Deadheads who couldn’t get close to a ticket in Chicago.

The most ecstatic and controversial moment in Santa Clara came during the first show, in the middle of “Viola Lee Blues” when a rainbow formed over the stadium. The event was largely believed to be a manifestation of the vibes in the stadium and/or Jerry smiling down on the event from heaven, a freaky good feeling that threatened to be dampened, but only somewhat, the next day by a Billboard magazine report that the rainbow was not real, and that the promoters had spent $50,000 for some fantastic projector capable of creating artificial rainbows. As it turned out, the report was based on a tweet hoax. The rainbow was natural—and therefore, in the mind of Grateful Nation, possibly Jerry’s work.

Here are three contrasting first-person accounts of the Santa Clara shows, held in the San Francisco 49ers football stadium in Santa Clara: