Book Review: Life After Death by Damien Echols

The West Memphis Three case, which attracted much public attention due to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s HBO series Paradise Lost, Revelations, and Purgatory, resulted in an Alford plea in 2011. The aftermath of the case, and many details previously unrevealed, were told in the recently released West of Memphis. And now, there is an opportunity to get the personal perspective of the major protagonist in this riveting epic miscarriage of justice: Damien Echols, author of Life After Death.

The book offers very little information on the trial itself, which has been extensively covered elsewhere. Instead, Echols offers a rich account of his family background and personal history. Born to an unstable home, frequently on the road, and labeled a troublemaker, Echols befriended to-be codefendant Jason Baldwin. Some context for his arrest is provided by his interactions with overzealous police officers obsessed with Satanism and eager to label and stigmatize misfits they associated with occult practices. And, we hear a bit more about the birth of his son during the course of the trial.

The book’s chronology leaps back and forth between memories of these events and current writings of prison experience, deliberately undated because of the harmful psychological effect the passage of time had on Echols on Death Row. But we do get descriptions of the other inmates, many of which are incredibly disconcerting. We have rules against executing the mentally defective, Echols says, but segregation and Death Row are not only a home, but a catalyst for mental disorders and defects.

These stories ring authentic, but they are not unnecessarily sensationalized; Echols’ focus is directed inward, into his personal growth and enrichment experience behind bars. In an effort to avoid going mad or stifled, he turns his cell, as some inmates advise him, into “a school and a monastery”, becoming a voracious reader and immersing himself in spiritual practices, primarily Catholicism and Zen Buddhism. This inner journey is the focus for much of the book, as it drives not only the memories of the past, but also a way to handle and manage the expectations and hopes for the future. It is particularly poignant to read of this inner journey on a week in which we are holding an event to reignite the struggle against solitary confinement in CA, in which we expect to host people who have spent time in the SHU, as well as a life-size model of a SHU cell.

The book does offer a suspenful, blow-by-blow account of the events leading to the Alford plea, and some of Echols’ experiences post-exoneration, which will be of interest to those who have followed the case. And much of the book is a love letter to Echols’ devoted wife Lorri, as well as a recognition of friendship and gratitude to the many people on the outside who worked tirelessly for his exoneration. Those of you who have seen the movies and read about the case will find Life After Death a reflective companion to the facts and procedures, and appreciate the unique window into Echols’ inner life.

Book Review: Jumped In by Jorja Leap

Jumped In, by UCLA gang anthropologist, educator, and activist Jorja Leap, follows her professional footsteps in researching gangs and establishing contacts with current and former gang members. Along the way, it weaves narratives from gang members’ lives with the story of Leap’s professional and personal development and struggle in conducting the research.

For many, Los Angeles gangs primarily mean bloods and crips (and the stories of those gangs are fascinating and important), but Leap walks us through neighborhoods and projects that are home to many hundreds of latino gangs, a geography that changes weekly on the streets. Making connections with gang interventionists who can provide her with introductions as well as safety, Leap interviews gang members, trying to assure them early on of her confidentiality (except in child abuse cases, which she is obliged to report.)

Her conversations with homies and homegirls reveal a wealth of details about gang life. For example, an entire chapter is devoted to gang tattoos and their significance, as well as the importance of tattoo removal for those interested in leaving gang life. Other chapters examine drug abuse, mental illness, personal histories of poverty and abuse, and the difficulties of changing one’s life around.

Among these chapters, Leap’s stories on women’s role in gang life, informed by intimate conversations with women on the ground, stand out. Her empathy for the women she interviews, and her genuine attempt to understand and help, are particularly touching, and she does a great job exposing domestic violence, which she considers the one unaddressed problem in gang intervention. Her narrative is nuanced enough to accommodate battering that victimizes men (a phenomenon often underreported and misunderstood). She handles the parallels to the abusive aspects of her own first marriage with subtlety and grace, understanding the class difference and respecting the common and unique features of the experience.

Another theme in the book is the strength of gang connections and the pull of street life. Here, the narrative is somewhat less successful. Leap rejects the oversimplification of the popular notion that “you can never leave the gang”, but her own interviews and examples confirm the immense difficulty of doing so, as people derive so much of their identity and community from the gang. Her upset at juries and district attorneys disbelieving change is therefore left empty, and the reasons behind it (beyond belief in this or that person’s innocence) unpacked.

Leap also speaks to the complex relationship between gangs and drugs, rejecting the notion that drugs are sold in corporate-like hierarchies, and instead revealing a less structured drug trade stemming out of poverty and lack of opportunity.

The book is on shakier ground where policy prescriptions are concerned, and when thrown together at the end of the book, they read a bit disjointed. Leap’s overall preference for long-term holistic solutions over emergency interventionism, of which she is ambivalent. The book oozes contempt for David Kennedy’s slick marketing of his “ceasefire” plan (“give me 50 million dollars and I’ll solve the gang problem”), but not a lot of actual arguments against it. In fact, Leap has respect for some forms of interventionism as heroic and important in acute situations. Where the book takes an unequivocal stance is in its justified support for the incredible work of Homeboy Industries and the relentless work of Father Greg Boyle.

This is not an academic book, and as such it offers a dimension seldom explored in academic texts – the experience of the researcher herself. Leap weaves her gang research journey with her personal life, including her candid examination of her second marriage to a widowed LAPD officer and adoption of his daughter. The account of the marriage unflinchingly explores the frictions between Leap and her husband over professional approaches to gang violence and danger on the job. Far from another self-serving “women can’t have it all” essay, this is an expose of a professional woman’s struggle to be respected, not only on the streets but at home, for what she does. There is also hope offered, for after Leap’s husband’s retirement from the LAPD, his approach becomes more flexible and he finds himself joining the efforts to rehabilitate gang members. Another way in which this personal approach might speak to researcher is its gentle exploration of the thin line between researcher and activist. Leap’s description of her subjects is refreshingly empathetic; she is deeply involved in their lives and spends her time not only evaluating projects, but writing grants and actually teaching life skills. At times, the contrast between her values and those of her subjects is jarring, but she handles it with grace and tact, honestly exposing her internal conflict for the readers.

All in all, Jumped In is an engaging read that makes you care about Leap’s friends and acquaintances on the street and confront our ignorance about gangs, but for rigorous, in-depth understanding of gangs we should read her academic publications.

Book Review: Golden Gulag by Ruth Wilson Gilmore

So many great books have come out in the 21st century examining the genesis of mass incarceration; we’ve discussed many of them here. While many of these books look at trends nationwide, or even in the industrialized West, it is no coincidence that they tend to focus on California. Not only does California have the largest prison population (in absolute numbers; we are not leading the gloomy per-capita parade), but it has pioneered many of the punitive legislation and policies later adopted by other states.

Which is partly why Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag provides a necessary local context to much of the conversation. Gilmore, a geographer, focuses on somewhat less analyzed aspects of mass incarceration in the Golden State: The economic and geographic conditions that have yielded massive prison construction.

After providing a dense and detailed introduction to the California political economy, Gilmore moves on to provide the central thesis of the book: California’s prison boom is a “prison fix” to a problem of fourfold surplus: Capital, land, labor, and state capacity. Her discussion of the mechanism behind prison finance, done through bonds to avoid accountability to taxpayers, shows how supply and demand has worked to create a prison boom that empowered the California Department of Corrections and rendered its construction activities immune to public critique.

1982 is a key year for Gilmore’s narrative. That year, the legislature approved facilities in Riverside, LA, and San Diego, as well as $495,000,000 in general obligation bonds to build new prisons, with the express goal to enhance public safety. In the same year, the legislature also reorganized CDC in a way that exempted its bidding and budgeting practices from the competitive process and instead allowed to assign work to outside consultants, to guarantee that construction occur quickly.

While prisons were initially funded by general obligation bonds, which are backed by the full faith and credit of the state, underwriters and legislators had to deal with “politically contradictory limit to taxpayers’ willingness to use their own money to defend against their own fears”. Their solution was to use lease revenue bonds, usually issued by the Public Works Board for college and university facilities, as well as for veterans and farmers. LRBs carried more risk, as they were only backed by a moral obligation rather than a fiscally binding one, but the expense was offset by the fact that LRBs did not have to be placed before the voters in general elections, and could therefore be quickly organized and issued so prisons could be built close to the time they were bid on, to avoid cost hikes. As a result, in less than a decade, the state debt for prison construction expanded from $763 million to $4.9 billion, an increase from 3.8% to 16.6% of total state debt.

In the next section, Gilmore examines the economic, demographic and geographic push for partnerships between CDC and various central valley towns who wanted to revitalize their economy through the labor and land improvement that would result. As her case study, she looks at Corcoran, an agrarian town with a diverse population suffering a serious economic downturn, in part because of ten years of weather calamities. Most Corcoran residents were hopeful that a prison would put their real property to work and generate employment; their visit to Susanville impressed them with the potential of a prison to revitalized the city. Despite vocal objection, the prison was built, but the town’s hopes were crushed. Employment and opportunities for locals did not improve, confirming general research that shows that, over time, prison towns compare unfavorably with depressed rural places that do not acquire prisons.

The last part of Gilmore’s book looks at anti-prison activism originated by mothers. While it is an interesting account, it delves too much into the personal and would be better as a piece on its own, as it is rather disjointed from the grand narratives and analysis that precedes it.

I’m not sure I am entirely on board with Gilmore’s interpretation of Marxist surplus theory, and I think it does not fare well in providing a full explanation of mass incarceration. But as a piece of the puzzle, the book offers an informative and important explanation of prison construction, one which is sorely needed as the mechanics of prison finance are cleverly hidden from state voters and taxpayers. Her tale of Corcoran is told from the perspective of someone who is not only well informed, but who cares deeply about these towns and their crushed hopes. It is certainly helpful to me as I try to understand and explain what happened after 2007 (when the book was published) and how the financial crisis impacted these developments.

Book Review: The Burglar’s Fate and the Detectives by Allan Pinkerton

This holiday, I was very lucky, at the Great Dickens Fair, to score a beautiful original edition of Allan Pinkerton‘s The Burglar’s Fate and the Detectives. It is a true account of an investigation conducted by the Pinkerton Detective Agency (now a respected security firm) of a bank robbery in Geneva, Illinois.

Modern whodunnits usually try and keep the reader interested by hiding the identity of the criminal until the very end. But this is no ordinary whodunnit; it can be seen more as a stylized journal of an investigation, written by the man who invented the detection methods that would later lay the foundation for the modern FBI, such as shadowing and undercover work. And, as Pinkerton tells us in the preface, “[n]o touch of fiction obscures this truthful recital.”

What we get in lieu of a whodunnit is a sometimes dry, sometimes too picturesque account of how various “operatives”–agents working for Pinkerton–are chasing the robbers. They have some very telling clues as to the identity of the burglars right from the start, when they are given reason to suspect that one of the bank clerks collaborated with the intruders. Much of their time from then on is spent on the hot trail of the suspects, befriending their family members and business partners, and on one occasion, even wooing a servant girl in the home of one of the suspects’ families. We also get a moderate dosage of racism and antisemitism along the way.

Arrest scene: Wood engraving from the original edition.

The relationship between the detectives and the formal police, nascent as it may have been, is fascinating, too. The detectives operate in an odd space between the law and its shadow. When intercepting letters, they do not open them (doing so would be a federal offense), but when apprehending one of the suspects, they assume arrest powers, avail themselves of the hospitality of the local constable, and even remunerate him (“handsomely”) for his services. One assumes that the mythical reputation Pinkerton had at the time provided him with respect and authority that today would be granted to private actors only under unusual circumstances.

The interrogation scene is also fascinating and brings to mind Richard Leo’s analysis of police interrogation techniques in Police Interrogation and American Justice. The detectives present the suspects with information about accomplices in their custody–some of it untrue–guilt them with information about their relatives, and promise them judicial leniency if they collaborate. They also reserve the questions for times at which they have more details they can use to persuade the suspect to talk. The stubborn interrogation bears fruit, and the suspect breaks down and confesses.

What makes this book such fun to read, despite the sometimes uncomfortable racism and antisemitism in the description of witnesses and minor characters, is its effort to create an image of uncompromising professionalism to match the sophistication and audacity of the burglars. Two ideas come through, loud and clear: The criminals are serious, planning, cunning, and calculating, and they are deserving of this amount of attention, expense and time from so much trained manpower. This raises a lot of interesting questions about the origins of modern policing and what relationship they bear to the stop-and-frisk techniques, and car patrols, in search of nonviolent drug offenders.

Want to experience a bit of proto-policing yourself? Read the entire thing, from beginning to end, with reproductions of the original artwork, for free, using the Project Gutenberg edition. 

Book Review: Last Call by Daniel Okrent

I’m very much looking forward to my seminar today, in which we’ll be discussing Daniel Okrent‘s recent book Last Call, a detailed, vivid, darkly humorous and politically insightful analysis of the rise and fall of Prohibition. I can’t recommend it enough, and very much hope my students enjoyed it as much as I did.

In Last Call, Okrent provides an informed history of the emergence of Prohibition. Contrary to some popular notions, according to which the temperance movement was largely a religious movement, prohibition was the result of a narrow coalition between a variety of social and political groups with conflicting political interests, all of which were served in this way or another by a ban on alcohol consumption. The most important and surprising of these allies was the movement for women’s suffrage; in fact, many of the important heroines of the suffragette movement joined the cause so that a vote could be cast against alcohol. Alcohol consumption was directly related to gender issues, as the United States had been, for years, awash with drink, and saloon culture was tied to domestic violence, squandering of the family budget, and prostitution. But there were other interesting allies as well. Racism found a home in the temperance movement, as well; just as with the criminalization of drugs, some concerns about alcohol were dressed as the fear of the hypersexualized black, violent man, while other concerns arose in the context of Irish Catholics. And, as with various criminalizing “wars” of later times, the deeply-felt effects of World War I, before, during and after the war, played into the debate, fueling an antipathy toward Germanism, which manifested itself as antipathy toward German distillers and brewers.

The delicate dance between taxing and criminalizing vices, which we spend so much time reflecting on in the context of narcotics, was very present in the Prohibition debate. In fact, the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment was facilitated by a prior revival of the alcohol excise tax. As with the Harrison narcotics act, any form of ceding ground of individual freedoms and making them subject to federal regulation later allowed greater curtailment of these rights, resulting in one of the two only constitutional amendments forbidding people from doing something (the other one is slave ownership.)

We all know, of course, that prohibition failed, and that it had something to do with lax enforcement and with an underworld economy of booze; but Okrent’s book provides enormous insight into how lax enforcement was. Not only was manpower limited and the ability to follow up the powerful underworld economy therefore limited, but the government actually created rather wide exceptions to prohibition. The book’s delving into the world of “medical alcohol” will remind many Californian readers of the medical marijuana regime.

Was prohibition a success or a failure? We tend to regard it as a failure. But I think that, given the immense obstacles in the way of criminalizing a so-called victimless crime, nation-wide, the coalition for prohibition was an astonishingly successful enterprise. That, for a moment in time, racists and progressive working unions, suffragettes and anti-immigrant activists, managed to put their differences aside and lobby for a change in law, is nothing short of astonishing, and very hard to imagine in today’s partisan, polarized political world. In some ways, it makes it more interesting to watch the upcoming elections in November, to see whether Prop 34’s proponents will be successful in their efforts to get together former correctional staff, law enforcement officials, victim organizations and inmate rights groups to support the replacement of the death penalty with life without parole.

As a coda, enjoy this witty interview of Okrent on The Daily Show.

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Book Review: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

For years I have been assigning portions of the classic Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley, to my Theoretical Criminology students. Whenever we discussed race and crime, and the prison industrial complex, we came back to the prison as a locus of political rebirth and resistance, and the Autobiography provided a convenient literary vehicle to start the discussion. I feel deeply enriched by this new, inclusive and fascinating volume, which sheds light from multiple perspectives on Malcolm X’s life, and particuarly for illuminating corners that the Autobiography has missed.

Manning Marable, who sadly passed away from grave illness days before the biography was finished, spent years reading countless archival materials and interviewing important figures in Malcolm’s life to provide us with a complicated picture of the man and his ideology. As the title suggests, Marable’s narrative organizes Malcolm’s life around the numerous transformations of his worldview and image.

Some of the focus on the book has related to Marable’s revelations about Malcolm’s personal life, which provide much more detail and accuracy than in the Autobiography. The book lays out a rich introduction about Malcolm’s family, his father’s murder, and the ways in which his childhood experience had shaped his political thinking. Even in the years preceding his conversion to Black Islam, he was not an apolitical man living in an intellectual vacuum; rather, even his early thinking was heavily influenced by the Garveyism with which he grew up. Of special interest to readers of thsi blog will be Marable’s account of Malcolm’s career in crime, which apparently was significantly aggrandized for rhetorical purposes. Marable does not shy from details about Malcolm’s intimate life and relationships, with particular emphasis on his trouble marriage to Betty Shabazz. It is this part of the book, presumably, that led his daughter, Ilyasah, to resent the publication to the point of giving this agitated interview to NPR. But I find those details less of interest, except to the extent that they illustrate what should be obvious: that the pop culture icon is but one facet of a complicated man, with virtues and flaws, like the rest of us. To me, that does not make Malcolm’s life’s work any less revolutionary and astounding. What is more interesting, politically and ideologically, is the astounding series of transformations Malcolm went through, cut short by his tragic assassination.

Marable’s account of Malcolm’s career in the Nation of Islam highlights the complexities of working within a deeply hierarchical organization. A nuanced analysis of Malcolm’s speeches during this time, including the infamous “chickens come home to roost” comment (finally put in context) reveals his struggle between being his own person and his loyalty to Elijah Muhammad. It also reveals the inner workings of the organization, complete with power plays at the different Mosques and at the Chicago headquarters, and the ways in which Malcolm’s charisma and quick ascension to power frightened the people who initially nurtured and revered him. Similarly, the book shows the unraveling of Malcolm’s relationship with Muhammad and the process of his ousting from the Nation of Islam as a mix of ideological and ethical issues. Previous accounts of the unraveling of Malcolm’s relationship with Nation of Islam have focused on his disgust with Elijah Muhammad’s sexual escapades and his treatment of his numerous mistresses and illegitimate children, but have glossed over Malcolm’s gradual understanding of the serious flaws in a program of Black separatism and apolitical stance. Marable provides blow-by-blow accounts of Malcolm’s debates on the media with civil rights advocates, particularly Bayard Rustin, exposing the strengths and weaknesses in Malcolm’s program. Beyond the personal and ethical issues he might have had with Muhammad’s personality or with the Nation of Islam’s theology (to which he was gradually exposed as he became better acquainted with mainstream Sunni Islam), these accounts show that his parting from the Nation was a natural consequence from his growing understanding that political action was essential.

Particularly precious are Marable’s detailed accounts of Malcolm’s trips to Africa and the Middle East. Relying on numerous interviews, letters and Malcolm’s own journal, we see him go through a series of intellectual transformations, embracing racial inclusiveness, and coming to see the challenges of race in America through the prism of international human rights. This progression of ideas was too quick-paced for Haley to be able to fully capture in a book written and published in 1965, but from the vantage point of later times we are able to appreciate that Malcolm was still undergoing important ideological and spiritual changes as he was struggling to construct a platform for activism. These changes – particularly his embrace of Pan-Africanism and universal Islam as detached from skin color, and his interest in presenting the case for American Blacks on the international stage – were naturally confusing to his followers, who remained behind when he was on his trips, and who were for the most part people who remembered him well from his Nation of Islam days and still embraced, at least partly, the old ideology. This phase of confusion, which was never fully over, was enhanced by the tensions between Malcolm’s two post-Nation-of-Islam organizations: Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the secular, human-rights oriented Organization of Afro-American Unity. Marable aims at sketching some possible directions that these organizations might have taken if not for Malcolm’s death.

Finally, the book provides a prism of perspectives on the assassination, strongly suggesting that the wrong people were apprehended and pointing at some directions to reveal the full assassination plot  that have not been adequately investigated; it was Marable’s hope that the book would lead to a reopening of the murder investigation.

How does Marable’s book change the experience of reading the Autobiography? As Marable himself points out, the best way to read and appreciate the Autobiography is as a memoir rather than a work of documented truth. Readers of the Autobiography are advised to keep in mind that Haley was not without his own perspective on Malcolm, and that both he and Malcolm had important agendas when creating the Autobiography. It is also important to keep in mind the timing of the Autobiography’s publication, which explains why the fascinating transformations that followed Malcolm’s departure from Nation of Islam are left, for the most part, without serious treatment in the Autobiography. I think that reading the two books as companions provides a thoroughly rich experience, one that does justice to an important and enigmatic leader whose legacy informs many of the struggles we still face today, including the struggle near and dear to our readers’ hearts–the struggle for social and racial justice in the context of mass incarceration.

Book Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman‘s new and fantastic book Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fascinating journey into an intellectual career spanning more than forty years. Kahneman, who won the Nobel prize for his work on rationality with Amos Tversky, presents a lifetime of research and findings into human rationality and its fallacies in a coherent, intriguing and convincing way. It is a book I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone regardless of the context of criminal justice. Kahneman and Tversky’s ideas on rationality, however, have special bearing on issues of criminal justice policy, and the book might therefore be particularly interesting to this blog’s readership.

To fully understand the novelty Kahneman’s (and Tversky’s) Nobel-winning ideas, it is important to keep in mind that they were generated against the backdrop of very traditional ideas of human rationality in economics. Classic economic theory assumes a human subject who is fully rational, fully knowledgeable, and operates within a framework of cost-benefit analysis. Kahneman and Tversky, students of human behavior rather than of economics, devoted their careers to questioning and refining this model of human cognition to accommodate flaws and fallacies in rationality, revolutionizing the field of economics and enriching it with empirical insights about the actual and irrational workings of human behavior patterns. Which is how a psychologist ended up receiving a Nobel prize for economics.

Kahneman introduces his ideas to the public through a fresh perspective that serves as the leitmotif of the book. Our thinking, he argues, is characterized by two modes, or systems, if you will. System 1 is responsible for the quick-and-dirty judgments and conjectures that allow us to instantaneously make sense of the world. When more effort is needed, System 2 snaps into action, and engages in the complex thinking required to solve problems or think outside our cognitive box. The problem is that System 2 is lazy. It does not come into play unless it absolutely must, and it takes an effort to engage. So, our default mode is to slack and allow System 1 to do our work for us. The result is that we generate our opinions about the world in ways that rely on shortcuts, assumptions, stereotypes, overly causal interpretation, and anchors, that are flawed and lead us to making a myriad of mistakes.

Kahneman proceeds by mapping for us, chapter by chapter, a series of these fallacies. Among the heuristics and biases he mentions are the halo effect (forming an opinion of something based on one or two qualities and extrapolating), What-You-See-Is-All-There-Is (WYSIATI – relying on whatever information is available, no matter how flimsy and unreliable), anchoring (linking our assessments to whatever number is thrown out, no matter how improbable), substituting difficult questions for easy ones, ignoring base lines, ignoring regression to the mean, and creating overly causal narratives for things that could be accounted for through pure chance. He then walks us through the impact these fallacies have on professional decision making, and finally through his more recent work on happiness.

The book is fascinating for anyone who is interested in understanding human behavior, but I found its implications for criminal justice policy particularly startling. The insights on flawed rationality can explain not only public punitivism and voter initiatives, but also the flawed behavior of professionals: judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. Here are some of the many examples of possible applications.

A recent Supreme Court decision grappled with the question how to prevent injustices stemming from the prosecution’s failure to comply with the Brady requirement to disclose to the defense “any exculpatory evidence”. The assumption made by the Court is that monetary compensations to exonerees who were wrongfully accused without an opportunity to receive evidence in their favor are only effective when prosecutors acted out of malice. In a paper I presented at a Constitutional Law conference in Chicago, following Kahneman, Tversky, and a solid body of behavioral research, I suggest that many Brady violations may not be attributable to anyone’s fault, but rather to confirmation bias: Prosecutors and defense attorneys simply read evidence differently, and prosecutors, given their professional environment and their pro-government bias and socialization, are less likely to view evidence with an eye toward its exonerative potential. I’m in the process of devising a study to examine the existence and extent of confirmation bias in prosecutorial and defense perception of evidence, as well as its causes.

Another big area where heuristics and biases are important is sentencing. Kahneman’s book is full of examples of flawed decision making due to chance issues. Notably, he cites a series of studies comparing judicial decision making to those of computer algorithms, finding that the computer makes less mistakes. But he also shows how judges making parole decisions tended to be more generous in terms of release immediately after eating, when their ability to access System 2, and their cognitive ease, were at their prime. This is, of course, greatly disturbing, and a factor to keep in mind when thinking of the strong judicial opposition to sentencing guidelines and any form of diminished discretion. Contrary to the bon ton in today’s analysis of the correctional crisis, it may well be that sentencing guidelines and the diminishing discretion of judges were not a fatal decision reached by overzealous punitive right-wingers and misguided left-wingers, but rather a good decision, whose adverse effects are not due to the decrease in judicial discretion, but due to the increase in prosecutorial discretion.

Another important implication of al this risk prediction and algorithms. Kahneman’s experiments strongly support favoring the quantitative tools used by various correctional systems, including CDCR, over the sort of clinical risk assessments popular in the early 20th century. The concern we have with giving machines the power to assess individuals’ risk based on stereotypes may be exaggerated, Kahneman’s work suggests. Humans may make more serious mistakes, and reliance on past predictors of recidivism or parole violations are more reliable than intuitive impressions of trust and sympathy.

An area I find particularly compelling is the study of public punitivism, and prospect theory could have a field day with what we know of this. A decent argument can be made that much of what passes for public decision making in the field of voter initiatives is System 1 work. First, the public’s reliance on “redball crimes” – shocking instances of horrifying, sensationalized crimes, that receive a lot of media attention – is a prime example of WYSIATI. Rather than engaging with statistics that expose the entire picture of crime reality, we rely on what is salient and reported, rather than with what we know to be truer. Moreover, much of the punitive legislation against sex offenders might be an example of substituting difficult questions with easy ones. Rather than thinking what sort of punishment sex offenders deserve, or how many resources to invest in punishing them, or which measures would reduce recidivism, voters may be thinking on how much they dislike sex offenders. A System 1 mechanism of “translating scales” converts the extent of dislike and revulsion to a measure of punishment, and punitive voter initiatives are born and passed as law.

There could be many more examples of possible applications, and I’m happy to entertain some of these in the comments. i just want to add a  final note on the delights of Kahneman’s book: What distinguishes this book from other popular behavioral science books, such as Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, or Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, is not only its quality–Kahneman respects his readers, does not oversimplify, and happily shares the depth of his intellectual process, which places this book in a class of its own–but the moving, nostalgic tribute it makes to the working partnership and decades-long friendship between him and Tversky. As many friends who have collaborated on research projects know, the relationship between collaborators is unique and special; the curiosity and give-and-take of the work creates a strong bond. The book is a love letter to Tversky and to the two researchers’ community of students and colleagues. One can almost walk side by side with Tversky and Kahneman, listening in on their conversations and debates, witnessing the generation of ideas sparked by their easy, friendly conversations, and feeling the parental warmth of their respect and enthusiasm for the success of their intellectual children and grandchildren: professors, postdocs, and graduate students. It is a pleasure to enjoy this additional dimension on the book, made more poignant by the heartbreak over Tversky’s untimely death at 59 in 1996, six years before the Nobel prize win. And it is a reminder of how important it is to appreciate one’s scientific community, or scientific family, and its contributions to one’s intellectual and emotional life.

Many thanks to Haim Aviram for our discussions about this post and to Robert Rubin for the recommendation.

Book Review: Inside This Place, Not Of It

A new title from Voice of Witness, Inside This Place, Not Of It, provides a series of narratives based on interviews with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. The book personalizes the background stories of women in prison, their experiences within walls, and their difficulties upon release.

The editing is graceful, light-handed, and almost invisible, making the stories ring true and fresh, as if the reader is sitting in the room with the speaker. Most of the time, the editors’ hand is only seen in a helpful introductory paragraph, and the quality and sensitivity of the interviews themselves shines through the stories. There is something very genuine about some women’s willingness to discuss the offense that brought them to prison, and others’ reluctance to elaborate on the more difficult parts.

A few common themes emerge. So many of these stories begin with familial neglect and abuse, set in a general environment of deprivation and discrimination. The balance between being a product of one’s environment and having personal responsibility for one’s actions is delicate, but many of the interviewed women are very thoughtful and reflective, and provide a nuanced understanding of their actions in the context in which they were committed.

The two most alarming aspects of the narratives, for me, involved seldom-highlighted aspects of women’s imprisonment. The first is the truly shoddy health care system. Shocking stories of giving birth while shackled and being separated from one’s baby, receiving a mistaken HIV diagnosis that remained uncorrected for years (and treatment for it), having one’s diabetes untreated and undiagnosed, callous carelessness about the possibility that an inmate might lose all her teeth, repeat themselves throughout the book.

The other aspect is the frequency with which sexual abuse by guards occurs in the prison environment. Many women report sex with guards under physical coercion or lack of choices, and for many of them, speaking up and complaining entails harsh retaliation and isolation from the prison staff as well as the inmates. Popular culture tends to focus on rape and sexual assault among inmates. It would appear that assault and exploitation on the part of staff requires much more serious and urgent attention.

The book also includes a series of great appendices, providing solid, readable information about topics such as the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), health care issues, and the incidence of prison rape. I can’t recommend this enough as a great, honest window into lives seldom discussed publicly.

Book Review: Becoming Vegan

My fabulous feeling after the juice fast has propelled me to read more about reducing the amount of eggs, fish and dairy that I eat. I came across Becoming Vegan, hoping it wouldn’t just be a diatribe about how moral it is not to eat animals; and it didn’t disappoint me.

In Becoming Vegan, Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina attempt – and succeed – to give an intelligent, nutrition-savvy reader a concise collection of all the information he or she needs to plan a vegan diet. While their style may seem a bit dense for readers who know nothing about nutrition, it is refreshing to read a food book that does not dumb down, or simplify, matters for the readers. The book is loaded with recent scientific findings about nutrition, and does not gloss over the possible deficiencies of vegan diets as some others do.

The book assumes that its readers have chosen to explore veganism due to ethical considerations, and its opening chapter provides a short history of vegan movements and organizations. I’m sure this is helpful for many people who might otherwise feel completely alone in their food choices. It then proceeds to tackle the big nutritional questions of enough plant protein, healthy carb choices, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. In doing so, the book maintains a healthy balance between numerical tables of nutritional values and practical, down-to-earth advice. Calculating our protein needs is simplified by a formula, and various options are suggested for doing so.

The book goes beyond offering the information, and actually makes menu suggestions for people with different caloric needs, ranging between smaller, inactive folks (1,600 calories) to athletes (4,000 calories). It has a special chapter designed for athletes, which provides good advice on nutrition during training. It also has fabulous information for pregnant and lactating women, which does not gloss over the concern about nutritional deficiencies and emphasizes the importance of feeding babies properly. Other specialized chapters are those aimed at seniors (with lots of practical ideas for simple vegan meals) and at people who are overweight, underweight, or suffer from eating disorders. These are very thorough, and they maintain rigorous scientific objectivity; at no point do readers feel that they are being lectured to, but rather respectfully offered useful information.

One quibble I have has to do with the book’s overreliance on prepared commercial “fake meats”. I understand the book focuses on the transition to veganism, a stage at which it might be easier for folks to look for store-bought substitutes for stuff they are used to buying. I also understand why such folks might be turned off by the usual vegan/raw literature that might push them to sprout, soak and dehydrate stuff, all of which is fine and good, but isn’t very practical on a daily basis. And, I also understand that, in some cases, commercial processing might make some nutrients more easily available, as in the case of calcium. Nevertheless, in recommending lunch “meats”, for example, the book neglects to acknowledge that some of them contain lots of wheat gluten and might be problematic for folks suffering from celiac or other intolerances. Perhaps some attention can be given to “the next step” of veganism in the next editions. Another issue has to do with the advice on “vegan diplomacy” offered at the end of the book, which might work in some social situations but not in others.

These are, however, very minor quibbles for an otherwise excellent and helpful book. I think anyone transitioning to veganism, or just in the process of minimizing animal products, would enjoy this book and get lots of benefits from following its information and advice closely. In a publishing market full of hype, superficiality, and dumbing-down, it’s great to be regarded by authors as a responsible adult who can read tables, make choices, and personalize information.

A Tribute to Phyllis Glazer

Hi, everyone; sorry for having disappeared for so long. I was out of the country, and just came back, still jetlagged and without much motivation for cooking beyond salads and omelettes. In such circumstances, the best I can do for us all is to use this opportunity to pay tribute to a wonderful lady – the “first lady” of vegetarian cooking in Israel: Phyllis Glazer.

Originally from Boston, Phyllis Glazer arrived in Israel and worked as an actress, gradually shifting to the world of vegetarianism. She started writing about healthy cuisine, whole grains and beans, and ecological issues, when none of these was anywhere near the Israeli mainstream. Recently, a festive 25th year anniversary edition of her book Vegetarian Feast was issued; she still writes extensively about vegetarian cooking and eating. Since writing this classic, she’s written a second vegetarian book called Phyllis’ Kitchen, which is also very good, and also a book about Jewish festival cooking.

I got acquainted with Glazer’s work in my early twenties, as a student in Jerusalem. I learned to cook from two sources: my neighbor Frida and Glazer’s book. I bought the book somewhere – can’t remember well – and made each and every recipe in it, though I didn’t follow it to the letter (I always like to invent and improve on written recipes). Glazer taught me the importance of combining whole grains and beans, the possibilities in vegetables I wasn’t familiar with, and the secrets of quick breads, an American novelty I hadn’t been exposed to. With her book, I made fruit custards, pureed soups, homemade granola, and bean casseroles. My first Irish soda bread came out of that book, as did my first muffins – real, genuine powerhouses of bran and fruit, not flavorless sweet treats. Much of my enthusiasm about healthy nutrition echoes the excitement conveyed by Glazer’s writings, and her efforts to make vegetarianism more palatable to the Israeli mainstream.

If you read Hebrew, you’d do good to buy yourself a copy of the book. It’s still relevant and useful. And if you don’t, you can always wrap a banana in foil and freeze it (Glazer’s simple and delicious ice-cream substitute) or make the following leftover dish – my take on one of her classics.

Brown Rice Patties

2 cups cooked brown rice
2 eggs
1/2-1 cup grated vegetables, like zuccini or carrots
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon cumin
1/3 cup whole wheat or brown rice flour

Mix all ingredients and make into flattened discs. Fry in olive oil, or, if desired – bake on a baking sheet until brown.