Projects: Reimagining Prisons

Our national experiment with mass incarceration has failed to make us safer and protect communities. More than 95 percent of people in our prisons will return home, yet 55 percent will end up back behind bars within five years. There is widespread consensus that we should end mass incarceration and transform the way we treat people who are incarcerated. The Reimagining Prison Project aims to produce such a plan – it envisions a smaller correctional system that places human dignity at its philosophical and operational core and also promotes public safety, successful reentry, and transparency. The Project is designed to shift the goal and culture of incarceration from retribution to rehabilitation thus producing stronger communities, and, overall, a safer U.S.

More than a decade ago, the Vera Institute of Justice convened the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons in an unprecedented look into the safety and conditions of our nation’s prisons. The Commission, which was composed of a diverse group of justice, law enforcement, and corrections experts, interviewed hundreds of witnesses, visited dozens of prisons, and participated in a hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Corrections and Rehabilitation. On June 8, 2006, the Commission released Confronting Confinement, a detailed report of what it found—including high levels of violence against people who are incarcerated and staff, lack of programming, substandard health care, the inappropriate use of segregation, inadequate data collection, and lack of oversight, transparency, and accountability—and related recommendations.

This year, Vera is commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Commission by introducing a bold new 18-month initiative called Reimagining Prison. The campaign will enlist three critical audiences—justice system stakeholders—those who run our prisons and jails, as well as those who have been in them; policymakers; and the general public—to help formulate this new vision and ultimately influence federal and state policy.

At the end of the initiative, Vera will announce an actionable new vision with a set of principles reflecting human dignity and promoting transparency, rehabilitation, and safety. The Project will include benchmarks for progress in various areas, such as: solitary confinement and restrictive housing generally; high-quality educational and skill-development opportunities; gender-specific treatment and programs; violence reduction in facilities; provision of medical and mental health care services; transparency and effective prison oversight mechanisms; and the hiring, training, and support of a professional workforce that can achieve this reimagined approach to operating prisons and jails in America, all with the intentional goal of preparing people to succeed upon returning to their communities.  Additionally, Vera will highlight best and promising practices, institutions and systems, and, importantly, create an engaged community of public and system stakeholders working towards safer, more humane prisons and jails in America. 

Why Reimagine Now?

The current state of prisons and jails reminds us that while many of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons recommendations helped spur important reforms, many remain relevant for those incarcerated and those charged with their care.

Reimagining Prison represents the next step in reducing mass incarceration.  The project brings respect for human dignity into all aspects of prison and jail operations and is designed to shift the goal and culture of incarceration from retribution to rehabilitation. It builds on recent and growing national efforts, many led by Vera, focused on reducing the use of segregation and solitary confinement, preventing sexual assault in correctional facilities, expanding access to postsecondary education for incarcerated people, and examining international models for lessons on operating safe prisons grounded in human dignity.  

Confronting Confinement
On June 8, 2006, the Commission released Confronting Confinement, a report on violence and abuse in U.S. jails and prisons, the broad impact of those problems on public safety and public health, and how correctional facilities nationwide can become safer and more effective. The report reflects the...


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