Katie Rose Quandt

Katie Rose Quandt

Online Editorial Fellow

Before joining Mother Jones, Katie Rose was a grant writer for a homeless services nonprofit in Chicago.  She has written for America, In These Times, and Solitary Watch.  You can follow her @katierosequandt and email her at kquandt@motherjones.com.

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San Fermin: From Classical Concept Album to "Orchestral Indie Rock"

| Mon Apr. 7, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

San Fermin didn't start out as a band. In the summer of 2011, Ellis Ludwig-Leone took his newly earned degree in classical composition to a secluded artists retreat in Canada and returned with a 17-song score for 22 instruments, which he titled San Fermin. Even after recording it, with 22 musicians, "It didn't feel like a band yet," he recalls. "It felt like an album I had made."

But Ludwig-Leone (a fitting surname) wanted to perform his composition, so he set about recruiting a smaller, core group to do it live. "The idea was to find players who could read music well, and who could also exist in a rock band setting," he says. As a result, San Fermin the concept album evolved into San Fermin the band, whose powerful sound matches the album's elaborate layers while upping the rock. The eight-member ensemble, which includes a trumpet, baritone sax, and violin, creates swelling climaxes and tight harmonies reminiscent of The Dirty Projectors, landing in a genre Ellis defines as "sort of orchestral indie rock." I caught up with Ludwig-Leone, who handles the band's keyboard duties, along with Stephen Chen (sax) and Mike Hanf (drums), in advance of a sold-out San Francisco show.

The dynamic between concept album and rock band is just one of San Fermin's underlying contrasts. Ludwig-Leone loves "when a song has something in it, and also has the exact opposite in it, and they somehow coexist." Consider "Sonsick," written just months after his college graduation. It's about young adulthood and the realization that "your decisions have long-range consequences at that time in your life." The song "feels like a party, but it also feels like a panic attack. And those two things together have this weird friction."

"It's not just candy," he adds. "It's got some salty aspects to it as well."

The album hinges on a back-and-forth dialog between characters with opposite ideologies. There are emotional, grandiose lyrics sung in Allen Tate's deep bass, countered by the down-to-earth responses of Rae Cassidy. (On the recorded version, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius share lead female vocals.) Ludwig-Leone establishes tension by "having the male and female voices sing very different things," a device he expects to continue in the future.

San Fermin is noteworthy for its precise musicality. "A lot of people studied theory and composition in this band," drummer Hanf explains. "We read into it a bit to make it sound good." Several members boast a mixture of classical training and rock band experience.

"They are bringing the creativity of people who actually write music to their parts," Ludwig-Leone says. "Probably 50 percent of Steve's notes at this point are embellishments of what I once wrote." Chen, the saxophonist, doesn't deny it, and adds that his bandleader "just discovered a new line that I've been playing."

"It's well-balanced," Hanf chimes in. "It all goes back to Ellis to make sure everything's cool, but the people who want freedom to try new ideas, have it. I improvise a lot, pretty much every show. And if it sounds good, it sounds good. If it doesn't, it gets nixed. It's kind of nice to have one person be like, yes or no." He says the band's willingness to experiment gives the live shows a "state of tension" that's exciting for the performers as well as the crowd.

Ellis agrees. "On the record, it's one thing, because that's a document. I want to control a lot more on that. But once you start playing live, if you're not using the talents you have, you're just being a stupid bandleader. And it gets boring."

The song "feels like a party, but it also feels like a panic attack. And those two things together have this weird friction."

As San Fermin develops further, fans seem to like what they're hearing. "I'm doing taxes—oh my god, such a terrifying thing anyway," Ellis says. "I'm going through the receipts, and even from September it's crazy to see the number of people who were in the room. We've seen a lot of very explosive growth. The first time we played in Portland, there were 90 people. When we were back, there were 400, and there was a line out the door—it was oversold."

"We always ask people at the merch table, 'How did you find out about our band?' It's useful for us," Chen says. They credit Sirius XMU and NPR, including a Tiny Desk Concert in October, with bringing in early fans.

Hanf notes that they also benefited from the endorsement of "Paul Krugman, of all people! That was the funniest one, I think. He was backstage [before their Bowery show] with Peter Sagal, just drinking beer on the couch."

"Such a surreal backstage!" Ludwig-Leone exclaims. "I had to get out of there, it was too much. It was like every person my dad listens to on the radio!"

The attention is paying off: San Fermin heads for Europe in April, returning to the United States in time for performances at Firefly, Summerfest, and Lollapalooza. Chen says the small stages they started out on "definitely constrained our ability to jump around and interact with each other physically. At festivals, we get a nice big stage. People are hearing the music in a cool new way, and also getting to experience our band visually."

Watching San Fermin live in San Francisco, it's obvious they're having fun—coming to the front for solos, dancing around, and playing off one another and the audience.

None of this was what Ludwig-Leone pictured when the band first came together. "I thought the prime place for us to play would be performing arts centers, because the album itself is really lush, and there are some songs that rock hard, but it's really this sort of introspective thing. And now I actually feel the opposite: When we play at seated venues, we're a little freaked out, because we're so used to revving up a crowd at a rock club...So there's this weird give and take, where you have to be able to do the chamber music sound, and also the rock band sound."

Somehow, San Fermin makes it all work. "It feels greater than the sum of its parts to me," the bandleader says. "There's all sorts of stuff in there that wasn't there when I wrote it, and is very specific to our live show. I think 'The Count' is our favorite thing to play live. That's the song where we take it the furthest out—like totally off of the page."

Hanf explains: "It goes straight from composed music to like eight bars of entropy, [then] right back into where we were before."

Behold. (The entropy begins at 2:25:)

Now, as Ludwig-Leone composes San Fermin's followup album, "I think of everyone as I write for their parts." Inspired by what the group has done with songs like "The Count," he says the upcoming album "feels like it's often very controlled. Small, small, small…big crazy…small, small, small. That's the energy you get from having a band doing their own thing. That's one of the many ways that touring has shaped the writing process."

While writing San Fermin, he "didn't have the luxury of hearing songs until we recorded them, so I would bring people in one by one. But now I write the song, give people the music, we try it live, and then we can make adjustments. It's much more personalized to the players."

The band members are busy with other projects, too. Ludwig-Leone recently composed a score for a ballet. Chen doubles as sax for Great Caesar Band. Hanf, who has put out solo records and serves as an "on-call, hired gun" drummer, says San Fermin marks "the first time I've actually drank the Kool-Aid" and spent months on the road with a single band.

The side projects are helpful for San Fermin. "I think that's one of the things that really makes this band work," Ludwig-Leone explains. "There's so much creative energy in the band, but at the same time, the writing—it comes from me. I think we avoid some of the pitfalls of having a bunch of different cooks in the kitchen, because these guys all have their own creative outlets."

Unsurprisingly, the members of San Fermin draw their musical influences from a variety of sources. "I would say that literally every kind of music has been played in the tour van," says Ludwig-Leone.

"We've gone everywhere from Whiskeytown B-sides to obscure classical music to Taylor Swift," Hanf adds. "And we love music. We're dorky about it; we really get excited when we listen to good records or when somebody throws on something new." Ellis draws inspiration from the "big, concept-y records" of Sufjan Stevens; the first time he heard Illinoise was "a very formative moment."

"But being in the van is amazing, because I swear to God it's everything. Even things you wouldn't think would get in the van. Like, the most intense screamo music, it's there. At least 50 percent of the music Rae listens to was recorded before 1930. It's really all over the place."

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Is This the Beginning of the End for Solitary Confinement?

| Wed Feb. 26, 2014 5:10 PM PST

Minors, pregnant women, and the developmentally disabled can no longer be placed in solitary confinement in New York State prisons (barring exceptional circumstances) thanks to an agreement between the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the New York State Department of Community Corrections (DOCCS) on February 19. The agreement will require the state to develop sentencing guidelines and maximum isolation sentences for the first time, and will make it the largest US prison system to ban the use of disciplinary solitary confinement for minors.

The agreement came just days before Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called for the end of the use of solitary for certain vulnerable individuals at a high-profile congressional hearing on Tuesday. The hearing featured testimony from activists, corrections officials, and former inmates, including Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman, who stated: "Solitary confinement impedes access to important pre-natal and women's health care services. In fact, pregnant women in solitary confinement often receive no medical care. And yet, pregnant prisoners in America are still sent to the SHU [Special Housing Unit]."

New York is not the only state taking steps toward solitary confinement reform. Last week, Colorado Department of Corrections executive director Rick Raemisch, who has committed to lowering Colorado's solitary confinement rate to less than 3 percent of the state's prison population, penned a New York Times Op-Ed about his own experience in willing isolation for a night. At an early February meeting of corrections professionals, Mike Dempsey, who runs the Indiana Department of Corrections' Division of Youth Services, discussed his state's reduction of juveniles in solitary confinement from 48 beds—with some minors serving 24-month sentences—to 5-10 with a maximum sentence of 24 hours. Earlier this month, California, home to last year's massive prisoner hunger strike, held a hearing on the use of solitary confinement—though ultimately prison advocates were unsatisfied with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's proposed regulations.

Why There's an Even Larger Racial Disparity in Private Prisons Than in Public Ones

| Mon Feb. 17, 2014 4:00 AM PST

It's well known that people of color are vastly overrepresented in US prisons. African Americans and Latinos constitute 30 percent of the US population and 60 percent of its prisoners. But a new study by University of California-Berkeley researcher Christopher Petrella addresses a fact of equal concern. Once sentenced, people of color are more likely than their white counterparts to serve time in private prisons, which have higher levels of violence and recidivism (PDF) and provide less sufficient health care and educational programming than equivalent public facilities.

The study compares the percentage of inmates identifying as black or Hispanic in public prisons and private prisons in nine states. It finds that there are higher rates of people of color in private facilities than public facilities in all nine states studied, ranging from 3 percent in Arizona and Georgia to 13 percent in California and Oklahoma. According to Petrella, this disparity casts doubt on cost-efficiency claims made by the private prison industry and demonstrates how ostensibly "colorblind" policies can have a very real effect on people of color.

Chart- people of color

The study points out an important link between inmate age and race. Not only do private prisons house high rates of people of color, they also house low rates of individuals over the age of 50—a subset that is more likely to be white than the general prison population. According to the study, "the states in which the private versus public racial disparities are the most pronounced also happen to be the states in which the private versus public age disparities are most salient." (California, Mississippi, and Tennessee did not report data on inmate age.)

Chart- inmates over 50

Private prisons have consistently lower rates of older inmates because they often contractually exempt themselves from housing medically expensive—which often means older—individuals (see excerpts from such exemptions in California, Oklahoma, and Vermont), which helps them keep costs low and profits high. This is just another example of the growing private prison industry's prioritization of profit over rehabilitation, which activists say leads to inferior prison conditions and quotas requiring high levels of incarceration even as crime levels drop. The number of state and federal prisoners housed in private prisons grew by 37 percent from 2002 to 2009, reaching 8 percent of all inmates in 2010.

The high rate of incarceration among young people of color is partly due to the war on drugs, which introduced strict sentencing policies and mandatory minimums that have disproportionately affected non-white communities for the past 40 years. As a result, Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows that in 2009, only 33.2 percent of prisoners under 50 reported as white, as opposed to 44.2 percent of prisoners aged 50 and older.

So when private prisons avoid housing older inmates, they indirectly avoid housing white inmates as well. This may explain how private facilities end up with "a prisoner profile that is far younger and far 'darker'... than in select counterpart public facilities."

Private prisons claim to have more efficient practices, and thus lower operating costs, than public facilities. But the data suggest that private prisons don't save money through efficiency, but by cherry-picking healthy inmates. According to a 2012 ACLU report, it costs $34,135 to house an "average" inmate and $68,270 to house an individual 50 or older. In Oklahoma, for example, the percentage of individuals over 50 in minimum and medium security public prisons is 3.3 times that of equivalent private facilities.

"Given the data, it's difficult for private prisons to make the claim that they can incarcerate individuals more efficiently than their public counterparts," Petrella tells Mother Jones. "We need to be comparing apples to apples. If we're looking at different prisoner profiles, there is no basis to make the claim that private prisons are more efficient than publics."

He compared private prisons to charter schools that accept only well-performing students and boast of their success relative to public schools.

David Shapiro, former staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project, agrees. "The study is an example of the many ways in which for-profit prisons create an illusion of fiscal responsibility even though the actual evidence of cost savings, when apples are compared to apples, is doubtful at best," he says. "Privatization gimmicks are a distraction from the serious business of addressing our addiction to mass incarceration."

But in addition to casting doubt on the efficacy of private prison companies, Petrella says his results "shed light on the ways in which ostensibly colorblind policies and attitudes can actually have very racially explicit outcomes. Racial discrimination cannot exist legally, yet still manifests itself."

Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, calls the study a "compelling case" for a link between age disparities and race disparities in public and private prison facilities. "The modern private prison industry has its origins in the convict lease system that developed during the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, as a means of incarcerating freed slaves and leasing them to private companies," he says. "Sadly, Mr. Petrella's research indicates that the exploitation of minority prisoners continues, with convict chain gangs being replaced by privately-operated prisons and jails."

*The study draws on data from nine states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas—selected because they house at least 3,000 individuals in private minimum and medium security facilities.