The Brazilian government has been trying to answer this very question in its ever-growing prison population, which has doubled since the year 2000.
In 1953, long before shots of ayahuasca were paired with cacao elixirs at Burning Man Decompression parties, William Burroughs traveled around South America in search of the mystical beverage called yagé. Though Burroughs is remembered predominantly as a heroin junkie, he documented not only the hallucinogenic qualities of ayahuasca, but also the scientific possibilities of this intriguing blend of vines and leaves.
Ayahuasca was first “discovered” by Western science in 1851, when the Victorian naturalist Richard Spruce made his way around the Amazon (Burroughs later read his work). It would take the “father of ethnobotany,” Richard Evans Schultes, to bring ayahuasca to mainstream awareness. Ironically, perhaps, Burroughs and Schultes, both Harvard graduates, ran into one another in Colombia in 1953 while documenting yagé.
Burroughs never achieved the scientific results Schultes did. While the Beat writer focused on a book (eventually downgraded to an article) on the science, he was known for dramatic statements like, “NO ONE IN HIS SENSES WOULD EVER TRUST ‘THE UNIVERSE.’” A powerful observation in his letters to pal Allen Ginsberg, but not getting him published in Nature anytime soon.
Interestingly, when traveling through the Putumayo region of Colombia, Burroughs predicted a global ayahuasca boom. Today eco-luxe tourism is rampant in the Amazon, with rock star shamans grappling with sexual abuse accusations. In Los Angeles, yoga teachers who’ve drank the brew feel justified in labelling themselves “plant medicine shamans” after circumventing the rigorous dieta and apprenticeship process. With so much spiritual capitalism occurring around this drink, what benefits can actually be gleaned?
The Brazilian government has been trying to answer this very question in its ever-growing prison population, which has doubled since the turn of the century. In 2013, volunteer therapists working with Acuda, a prisoner’s rights group based in Port Velho, began integrating yoga, reiki, and ayahuasca ceremonies as part of a wide-scale rehabilitation effort to help the half-million-plus inmates scattered across the nation.
While the brew is less studied than other entheogens, early reports are positive. One small study in Brazil saw a meaningful reduction in depression in volunteers. A larger follow-up saw a 64 percent success rate in treating depression. Another study focused on its potential application in treating addiction and other “diseases of civilization.” Some speculate that ayahuasca might have even wider-ranging applications:
The plant has shown potential to help people recover from trauma, PTSD, addiction and depression, as well as cancers and other afflictions.
The larger question of ayahuasca’s scientific and spiritual applications was entertained in the 2010 documentary, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, which has been viewed millions of times on Netflix, Youtube, and other streaming services (and which I served as music supervisor for). Parsing credible science from anecdote is always challenging, yet the transformative effects of ayahuasca are well documented.
Context matters. Last week I wrote about how mindfulness meditation might be dangerous for prisoners, but thus far ayahuasca seems beneficial for helping prisoners reflect on their crimes and, by extension, reducing recidivism rates.
This treatment is not universally welcome. One Brazilian resident, whose daughter was killed by one such prisoner, wonders how the murderer is allowed to enter the jungle to drink sacred medicine. The bigger question here involves the role prisons play in society: punishment or rehabilitation?
This question is particularly pertinent in the United States, which holds more prisoners than any other nation. While no one is advocating that prison should be pleasurable, some view it as an opportunity to prepare inmates for reintegration into society. Many facilities accomplish the opposite:
Prisoners in supermax units experience extremely high levels of anxiety and other negative emotions. When released—often without any “decompression” period in lower-security facilities—they have few of the social or occupational skills necessary to succeed in the outside world.
Others believe prison serves one purpose: justice. One libertarian argument even states that punishing prisoners is more merciful than trying to rehabilitate them:
Justice requires punishment, punishment must be deserved, and just desert requires a punishment in proportion to the crime committed—neither too much, nor too little. This is far preferable to the senselessly draconian sentences and the perpetual monitoring and post-imprisonment sanctions subject to the whims of a grimly humanitarian state.
The latter argument is more nuanced than that singular quote, though that sentiment does conclude the writer’s overall idea, which boils down to this: Are we trying to help criminals or keep them as far away as possible? Do we turn the other cheek or demand an eye, a head, an entire body for an eye? The prison system is broken. Do we want to try to fix it, or let it continue on the corporatized retributive path it’s been leading for decades?
At least in terms of ayahasuca, I can respond thus: on the three occasions I’ve sat for ceremony I’ve left recharged, reflective, and grateful. Though the most intense psychoactive experiences I’ve had—more so than psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, mescaline, and peyote—I never felt anxious. The ceremony provides an opportunity to reflect over your life; if you don’t like what’s simmering below the surface, chances are the ritual might result in existential duress.
But coming to terms with what’s inside of you is more transformative than ignoring it, which is, from my studies, conversations, and experiences, the true power of ayahuasca. That this brew might help alter the course of a life gone astray is enough incentive to integrate it into the prison population. The medicine is social, spiritual, and therapeutic, but most importantly, it provides a human approach to aiding others. If the science continues leading in this direction, we should follow it.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Here's what Israel Guillen learned about life by studying 8 hours a day during his 22-year prison sentence.
Being "tough on crime" doesn't work. Former inmate Israel Guillen is proof that what does work is nurturing people's sense of humanity through philosophy, theatre, and teamwork. Ten years ago, actor Sabra Williams had an experimental idea: she wanted to bring The Actors' Gang Theatre Company into prisons to work with non-actors, and offer them training to understand and manager their emotions. With an incredibly low recidivism rate of just 10% among her students, Williams' experimental idea has proven its worth and now operates in ten prisons across California, which is where Sabra Williams met former inmate and Actors' Gang student Israel Guillen. Israel recently shared his personal story of what he learned throughout his 22-year prison sentence at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. The Actors’ Gang conducts weekly and seven-day intensive programs inside the California prison system, a weekly re-entry program in the community, as well as a program in juvenile facilities, and soon to be a program designed for correctional officers. Head here for more information on The Actors' Gang Prison Project.
California prisons are about as off-off-off-off Broadway as it gets—but that's where the emotional tools of theatre can make the biggest difference to people's lives.\r\n
In the last 35 years, California has built approximately 22 new prisons, and the state has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. The US's prison industrial complex has been called America's human rights crisis. So is it possible for prisoners have hope for their future? How do you retain your humanity in an inhumane system? Ten years ago, actor Sabra Williams had an experimental idea: she wanted to bring The Actor's Gang Theatre Company into prisons to work with non-actors, and offer them the emotional tools needed to heal from the trauma of being incarcerated, and all the events of their lives before that. That was the start of the Prison Project, and a decade later it is operating in 10 prisons across California. How well has it worked? It has transformed prison yards. It has built bridges between gangs. Participants have just a 10% recidivism rate and in-prison infractions have dropped by 89%. Engaging in the safe and playful space of theatre is a way for incarcerated people to engage with their emotions, often for the very first time. The entire prison community is deeply interwoven and affected by each other, so the Prison Project is developing a program for correctional officers too, who are often highly traumatized by their experiences, and have highest suicide rate of any job. Sabra Williams runs us through the Prison Project, and introduces former-inmate and student Chris Bingley to share his personal story of reconnecting with his humanity while in prison. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. The Actors’ Gang conducts weekly and seven-day intensive programs inside the California prison system, a weekly re-entry program in the community, as well as a program in juvenile facilities, and soon to be a program designed for correctional officers. Head here for more information on The Actors' Gang Prison Project.
Rates of crime and recidivism in America are very high. One Cleveland-based French restaurant, however, leads the way in helping ex-cons to thrive and not reoffend after their sentences.
Of the 200+ former inmates who have trained as cooks at Edwins over the last few years, none has reoffended. The Cleveland-based French restaurant is reportedly the only American high-end restaurant to employ ex-offenders for a majority of their staff. And the food they serve is top-notch. For example, writer Douglas Trattner wrote in Cleveland Scene:
I'll admit that I had my doubts. It's one thing to train ex-cons to work the dining room of a meat-and-three cafeteria, or secret them away in the prep kitchen of a high-end establishment, but Chrostowski is steadfast about fully and unapologetically integrating his charges into all aspects of his fine French bistro. And sure enough, he's done it, birthing one of Cleveland's best new restaurants on the backs of "un-hirable" ex-cons.
Employers willing to hire people with criminal records are hard to come by in the United States. In October 2015, CNN cited a survey finding that over three quarters of former prisoners found employment to be nearly impossible. Seth Ferranti, once an inmate himself, corroborated this result in an article for VICE. He describes how he lacked work experience after 20 years in prison and he explains on his applications that he has been convicted of a crime. He applied at a restaurant after being connected through a friend of his who knew the kitchen manager. After a solid phone interview, he recounts:
The kitchen manager wasn't there, so I left the application and went home. He followed up via phone and hired me, telling me I could start the next day and detailing the clothes I'd be expected to wear for the job.
I was excited—it was my first gig in a long time.
But an hour later, the manager called back and told me he couldn't go through with it. Of course, he didn't say it was because of my felony conviction, but I knew what the story was. I had been honest and explained that I'd just been released from prison, and he seemed cool with it, but apparently one of his bosses felt differently. I felt totally discriminated against, but this type of stuff happens to ex-cons every day.
Even when all else goes without a hitch, having a criminal record works strongly against individuals pursuing employment.
This is troublesome given the alarming rates of imprisonment and recidivism in the United States. As Michelle Ye Hee Lee confirmed in The Washington Post, America has less than 5% of the world’s population and nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Furthermore, the recidivism rate in the US is 60%. In contrast, Australia, Singapore, and Norway all have recidivism rates under 30%. In this context, barriers to employment exacerbate existing problems with the American punitive system.
Of course, employment is not the only problem facing American ex-offenders. Michelle Alexander refers to the treatment of criminals as “legalized discrimination" in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She notes in her introduction that this discrimination affects not only ex-cons’ employment but also their housing, education, rights to vote, and public welfare benefits.
So what are prisons in countries with fewer criminals (and fewer repeat offenders) doing differently? In Norway, which has the world’s lowest recidivism rate, they are treating prisoners more humanely. Business Insider reports on two Norwegian prisons, which have access to the outdoors, minimal use of bars, and kitchens stocked with normal equipment – knives and all. The operating theory is that if you treat people like animals, that's what they will become. "Americans want their prisoners punished first and rehabilitated second," criminologist Bob Cameron says to Business insider. Unlike the punitive aims of American prisons, the Norwegian penal system aims to place offenders in a secure and healthy environment in which they can “normalize” with the aim of helping them to reintegrate into society after their sentence. In other words, the prison-system is designed to help criminals thrive, succeed, and not reoffend.
Overturning the American penal system from a punitive to a normalizing one is no small task. However, the story of Edwins restaurant, where none of the hundreds of once-convicted employees have reoffended, shows that individuals can help to transform the institutional forces by acting without prejudice toward those with criminal records.