Rethinking Prison, From the Inside Out

Rethinking Prison, From the Inside Out

Rethinking Prison, From the Inside Out

Changing the institutional culture of incarceration could entail a social consensus that locking people up is never the ideal way to resolve social problems.


In recent weeks mass uprisings and hunger strikes have occurred in prisons across the country. The protests are energizing a movement to not just to disrupt incarceration but to reconstruct it from the top down.

The Vera Institute has published a study on “reimagining prison” in America, weaving together design concepts and social practices that could help society both keep the public safe and meet the needs of the most vulnerable, inside and outside prison. It’s hard to contemplate overhauling a community of 2 million—especially if it’s a place where no one really wants to be. But the overarching principle is restoring dignity to the criminal-justice system.

There are extremely basic ways to start. Typically, imprisonment deliberately strips away every personal possession and blots out individual autonomy. Dignified treatment could start with something as simple as calling people by their real names, allowing regular private family visits, or letting prisoners choose their clothing.

The study also calls for instituting “meaningful protection from physical and emotional abuse in the prison, whether perpetrated by staff or other incarcerated people.” The idea of transforming a prison yard into a friendly atmosphere, or of a correction officer doubling as a social counselor, might seem absurd. Yet, while it may be impossible to orchestrate social behavior directly, progressive redesign of carceral environments can foster humane—maybe even genuinely human—relationships: recreation spaces that provide the physical and psycho-social benefits of simply being out in the open air; or quiet indoor spaces, where people can read, have private conversations, and simply meet each other face to face, instead of spending their days caged like livestock.

American prisons may never feel like summer camp, but other countries take a vastly different approach to incarceration. In Norway’s Bastoy prison, housed on an offshore island, men live in dorm-type cottages, shop with a monthly allowance at a local mini-market, cook in shared kitchens, and operate a communal farm.

Of course, Norway is a rich country and its entire incarcerated population is dwarfed by the largest American jails. But even in Germany, a fairly large, diverse country, standard prison operating procedure is geared toward people’s future release from day one. Programming centers on counseling, rehabilitation, and the mission of fostering public safety by ensuring that every prison sentence is that person’s last.

Drawing on human-rights principles of respecting one’s intrinsic self-worth, Vera’s report highlights the support of an individual’s “capacity to grow and change.” Evolving beyond the mentality of discipline and constraint requires trusting people to know what’s best for their own welfare and giving them the tools to pursue it. It’s possible to carve out space for personal development through, for example, education and peer-led counseling. Creative approaches to reentry include the Fortune Society, which has become a major political voice for reform in New York, the Bard Prison Initiative, which provides college degrees to incarcerated students, and a New York State program that trains the formerly incarcerated to be first responders for opioid-overdose victims. Similarly, peer-driven rehabilitation communities in California have empowered inmates as staff, to provide mutual support through rehabilitation. When well-resourced, therapeutic programs have been shown to reduce recidivism and enhance social well-being.

The TRUE Program, which Vera has helped advise, is one possible model of a meaningful step change. Though limited to a select group of young men housed within a larger facility in Connecticut, it operates as a real community. Peer mentors “live in the unit among their mentees and work together with the staff to develop and lead therapeutic programs.” Participants collaborate with staff to create and enforce “systems of accountability” on a mutual level. And they talk: debating current events, making group plans at town-hall meetings, sharing stories and personal insights. As one participant, Tarance, wrote in a recent testimonial: “I love it for the simple fact that this unit is teaching us responsibility, and that’s the main thing we’re going to have when we get home.”

Vera’s report isn’t the most radical. For example, it does not dictate specific guidelines on disciplinary methods but calls for general adherence to human-rights standards, while accepting that sanctions will continue to exist. But it does present real-life examples of how change might start not just in theory but in everyday practice, right now.

How does such a vision for the reimagination of prisons square with the more radical strand of the reform movement: prison abolition? Nick Turner, head of the Vera Project, argues that striving for full decarceration doesn’t, and from an ethical standpoint, shouldn’t, preempt more immediate changes: “While we all should be focused on reducing incarceration massively (and some can take the position of doing so entirely), that is not mutually exclusive with caring about and focusing on the lives of people in prison now…. I cannot imagine telling someone who has a loved one in prison that we shouldn’t care about the conditions under which they live because we should be focused on future decarceration or abolition.”

To the extent that policymakers can try to make prisons at least livable for the people inside now, both radical and incremental reforms are needed. And advocates can pursue short-term reform while pressing for structural changes—including restraining private contracts for prison services, remedying racial disparities that plague the entire criminal-justice process, or revamping prison-based economies to liberate communities from dependency on mass incarceration for jobs.

Prisons are hard places to live in, even harder places to “fix.” But if the institutional culture of incarceration is restructured, it could entail a social consensus that locking people up is never the ideal way to resolve social problems. Whether the goal is to get your cousin out of solitary, or shutter every prison nationwide, the public conversation on prison must shift from locking away those who do wrong, and toward healing what’s wrong with the society that put them there.

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