Dignity Should Be Guiding Principle of a Revamped US Prison System, says Vera

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America needs “a new and fundamentally different approach to incarceration” that prioritizes respect for human dignity, says the Vera Institute of Justice.

In a major report entitled “Reimagining Prison” released Oct. 10, Vera outlined a blueprint for correctional authorities that would dramatically transform prison practices and design, ranging from allowing inmates to choose their own clothes to providing better health care.

“Ongoing concern about reducing the number of people in prison has not been matched by an equally forceful focus on transforming incarceration itself—an experience that has become harsher and more onerous in direct response to decades of ‘tough on crime’ political sentiment,” the report said.

Vera said its 136-page study was intended to counteract the fact that most prison reformers don’t ‘do’ conditions of confinement—“as if the lives of people equal in number to the population of Philadelphia don’t merit it.”

“Over this country’s long history of using prisons, American values of fairness and justice have been sacrificed to these institutions in the name of securing the common good of public safety,” Nicholas Turner, Vera’s president, said in his introduction to the report.

“But the harsh conditions within prisons have been demonstrated neither to ensure safety behind the walls nor to prevent crime and victimization in the community.”

According to Vera, reimagining the nation’s prison system has taken on an even higher priority because the system has remained one of the major bastions of institutionalized racism.

“It is time to acknowledge that this country has long used state punishment generally—and incarceration specifically—to subordinate racial and ethnic minorities,” the report said.

“To take a truly decisive step away from the past, America needs a new set of normative values on which to ground prison policy and practice—values that simultaneously recognize, interrogate, and unravel the heretofore persistent connections between racism and this country’s systems of punishment.”

Recommendations include:

  • providing high-quality health care on-site at the prison, equivalent to what would be provided at a walk-in clinic or other comparable community-based location, and providing for swift transportation to local hospitals in the event of more serious health issues;
  • permitting incarcerated people to make individual choices about attire, either by allowing them to wear their own clothes or by offering variety in institutionally assigned clothing, while prohibiting any type of uniform that is intended to humiliate or degrade, such as pink boxer shorts or tight, white, transparent uniforms;
  • instituting meaningful protection from physical and emotional abuse within the prison, whether perpetrated by staff or other incarcerated people, including private reporting mechanisms, access to emergency medical care following a physical or sexual assault, and access to victim support groups and long-term medical and behavioral health care; and
  • encouraging corrections staff and incarcerated people to view each other as humans worth getting to know beyond the stereotypical guard-inmate paradigm

The report said ultimate reform requires a redesign of prison architecture.

“The architecture and design of a facility impacts how incarcerated people interact with each other and the relationship between staff and those held in prison,” the study said.

“We recognize that a wholesale and immediate redesign of America’s many prisons is economically unrealistic, but a prison system that prioritizes human dignity and seeks to encourage personal relationships could renovate existing spaces or, where old buildings are crumbling or unsafe.”

The report pointed to some examples of correctional reform that have already begun in the U.S., sparked by a visit last year by leading correctional administrators to Europe.

The Missouri River Correctional Center in North Dakota, mostly used for minimum security inmates, has housing units that include up to 36 private rooms, each with toilets, showers, desks, real mattresses, and bulletin boards. Incarcerated people are free to close and lock their doors and wear civilian clothes

Pennsylvania has launched new transitional housing units where residents are given access to enhanced reentry services, more individualized need-based support, and specialized vocational programming in high-demand fields.

Since 2017, inspired by a German model, the Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut has introduced the T.R.U.E. program for young adults, where cel ldoors are left open for 13 hours each day, and residents are allowed free reign to use the common space, a dedicated outdoor area, or one of many converted cells within the housing unit that serve as a library, study room, meeting room, and quiet space. At the same time, they are provided a “heavily structured” program that includes therapeutics essions, school, and life-skills programs. The program has received support from Vera.

“Prison in America continues to be a place of severe hardship for those held there—a degree of hardship that is largely inconceivable to people who have not seen or experienced it themselves or through a loved one,” said the report, arguing that it is time for a “dramatic reconsideration” of corrections.

“(The report) articulates a view that is sure to be alien to many,” the study said. “Yet we need not accept as a given the way we do things now, and we encourage you to envision a different path.”

The full report is available here, and a summary can be  downloaded here.

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