Norway’s decision to push drug felons through treatment is a huge step forward.
The question of whether to punish criminals or attempt to reform them is not new. While some are for maximum enforcement, including solitary confinement and the death penalty, others take the more humane route of trying to rehabilitate criminals to integrate back into society.
This question is especially heated when discussing drugs. America’s war has been a continual failure, from crack in the eighties through to opioids today. Defining what a drug is, how it can and can’t be used, and who can use it has proven to be more about politics and corporate interests than biology. Sugar is the most potent and deadly drug on the planet today, yet it is widely available, cheap, and celebrated.
So integrated into the fabric of society has sugar become that even the mention of it as a “drug” is certain to incite scoffs and sneers. We know alcohol is a drug, yet since it’s also wildly sanctioned (and wildly taxed) we consider it not to be that bad. Ditto cigarettes, even if those two kill hundreds of thousands more people a year than marijuana. Pull back far enough and everything we ingest is a drug, since everything results in a chemical reaction in our bodies.
Some countries are realizing this. Norway recently voted to completely decriminalize illegal drugs, as well as send offenders through treatment instead of prison. While parliamentary support for this bill has passed, it still must find its way through the government.
Sveinung Stensland, a deputy chairman of the Storting Health Committee, commented on the decision:
The change will take some time, but that means a changed vision: Those who have a substance abuse problem should be treated as ill, and not as criminals with classical sanctions such as fines and imprisonment.
This is no sudden decision; Norwegian politicians have been debating this for years. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drugs, which has resulted in a drastic reduction in HIV infections, overdoses, and drug-related crime. In 2001, for example, HIV infection affected 104.2 new cases per million; by 2015 that number had dropped to 4.2 cases.
Another big reaction was in social stigmatism. As The Guardian reports:
The language began to shift, too. Those who had been referred to sneeringly as drogados (junkies)—became known more broadly, more sympathetically, and more accurately, as “people who use drugs” or “people with addiction disorders.” This, too, was crucial.
João Goulão was one of two men behind Portugal’s first CAT (Centros de Atendimento a Toxicodependentes, a rehab facility) in 1988. He helped draft legislation for decriminalization in 1997. He notes that Portugal is a conservative country. The decision was more financial and social than about liberty and freedom. But drug use in the eighties and nineties had spread to affect every family in the nation:
There was a point when you could not find a single Portuguese family that wasn’t affected. Every family had their addict, or addicts. This was universal in a way that the society felt: ‘We have to do something.’
Twenty years later American families are struggling with an opioid epidemic that is still gaining force—fentanyl deaths increased 540 percent between 2014-2016. The 2017 data so far are not promising.
It is well known that Richard Nixon tied addiction to crime in order to suppress minorities and political radicals in the seventies. That mindset forced American legislators—and the American public—to relate certain substances as bad and others as good, or least benign. Since opioids are tied to the white working class, there has been much criticism of opioids being treated as an opportunity for compassion and understanding while crack, an inner city problem, was seen as a blight to be eradicated.
Full decriminalization might be the only way to sift through the scattered and conflicting reports on how substances act in our bodies. By understanding what drugs do and how they are either helpful or harmful, we can make appropriate decisions on how to treat their users.
Psychedelics such as psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD—all considered Schedule One substances, meaning they supposedly have no medical value—are proving to be clinically relevant for treating anxiety, depression, and end-of-life care. Marijuana is quickly becoming decriminalized on a state-by-state level as the positive effects of cannabinoids continue to roll in.
Norway’s decision to push felons through treatment is a step forward, though hopefully more detailed consideration of what drug each person is caught with will be taken into consideration. Heroin makes for a good candidate; marijuana, not so much, unless abuse level is truly crippling. That’s the problem with blanket regulations on disparate substances: you’re unfairly equating dissimilar drugs.
That said, progress is progress. Let’s hope America follows suit. First decriminalization, then a government-funded increase in technology and sugar addiction centers to combat our two main culprits.
One can dream.
Derek Beres 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.
The finance sector often lives up to its bad reputation, but here's how a 2000-year-old piece of wisdom can help rehabilitate the way people and corporations think about money.
People have a bad impression of finance, and that's mostly worrying because its often justified, says Harvard Business School professor Mihir Desai. The sector is in dire need of rehabilitation, and there are several ways it can be done. The first is to realize that turning money into more money is a shortsighted investment. To play the long game, the system needs to focus on and reward value creation, which drives innovation and the economy. The second is to demystify finance (which is what Desai's new book The Wisdom of Finance is all about). Desai explains that finance got into its current state because it's more complicated than it needs to be, which makes it harder to control, given the general lack of understanding among the public. To remedy that, Desai taps into the brain's own strengths: humans process stories much better than they process logic, so narratives from history, literature and philosophy can be used to teach and demystify finance. As an example, the The Parable of the Talents from the Bible teaches value creation as well as a finance textbook can. The philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce can teach risk management and insurance. Mel Brooks can teach fiduciary responsibility. Finance has become demonized, but it's not a system that we can live without. It's becoming more pressing than ever to make reforms that increase value in society, rather than wealth. Mihir Desai's most recent book is The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return.
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.