Can Prisons Change? Arnold Grants $17M to Spur ‘National Conversation’ on Reform

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Photo by Elentir via Flickr

Even as the momentum for reducing mass incarceration gains traction across the country, many in the justice community argue that the focus on getting numbers down shouldn’t distract from efforts to improve life behind bars.

Shocking reports of overcrowded and inhumane conditions and deadly violence in state facilities from California to Alabama have been dominating the headlines.

But surprisingly, there’s little hard data that can guide state legislators and corrections authorities to areas where they can productively invest resources aimed at reform.

A $17 million initiative launched Wednesday by Arnold Ventures aims to help them do that.

The largest chunk of the program—$10 million—will be awarded to the Urban Institute to expand its research into prison conditions. The remaining $7 million will go to the Vera Institute of Justice to support its three-year-old Reimagining Prisons Initiative, aimed at rethinking “the culture of incarceration.”

Kelly Rhee, president and CEO of Arnold Ventures, says the grants are aimed at producing a framework for “transformative” change.

“We didn’t think tweaking around the edges will work,” Rhee said in an interview with The Crime Report. “The system needs a fundamental, transformative approach to change.”

In a statement announcing the initiative, Rhee said that while reducing prison populations remained a central goal, the nation should be invested as well in the mission of turning prisons “into institutions that respect human dignity.”

“We witness, time and again, how inhumane prison conditions—coupled with a lack of reentry support—devastate individuals, families, and entire communities,” she added.

According to Nancy LaVigne, vice president of Justice Policy for the Urban Institute, the Arnold grant will be used to enlarge its research team in order to identify at least four state facilities where promising pilot projects can be developed.

The five-year program will involve collecting data on areas ranging from basic prison conditions to the experiences of corrections officers.

“We’re looking at prison climate, which involves anything from the lack of air conditioning to safety issues,” she told The Crime Report.

“If (as a prisoner) I’m hungry and malnourished or I fear for my safety, you can have the best programs in the world and I’m not going to benefit.”

LaVigne said she hoped at least one of the facilities selected for a pilot program would be a women’s prison.

Prison conditions represent “an area that has been overlooked by the focus on reducing incarceration,” LaVigne added. “Looking at who is behind bars and the conditions they experience is long overdue.”

In a parallel effort, the Vera Institute will receive a boost from Arnold to help expand its efforts to change the structure of prisons themselves. The three-year $7 million grant will be used to open three “radically reimagined” housing units in three additional state corrections agencies.

In the statement accompanying the launch, Vera President Nicholas Turner said structural change was crucial to the long-term effort to rethink the U.S. system of punishment—particularly its history of racial bias.

“Our country has a long and fraught history of racial oppression that has allowed our prisons to become warehouses of dehumanization,” Turner said. “As a result, we’ve lost generations of men and women—particularly young men of color—to the brutality of incarceration.”

A background paper prepared for the launch of the initiative argued that efforts to transform the prison sector were now at a “critical inflection point.”

Broad support from all sides of the political spectrum, as well as the recently enacted First Step Act, have contributed to a climate in which legislators and prison administrators are willing to adopt “evidence-based policies that promote safety…effective programs, and successful reentry,” the paper said.

“This is a unique moment in time, one that would benefit from a new national conversation on prisons, their purpose, and the opportunities for both institutional and state policy innovations,” said the paper, which was prepared under the supervision of Jeremy Travis, executive vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures; and Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) chief John Wetzel.

The two grants are intended to be complementary, said Amy Solomon, Arnold’s vice president of criminal justice.

“They both focus on data and the testing of new ideas,” Solomon told The Crime Report.

Arnold Ventures is also providing an additional $500,000 in grants aimed at various dimensions of prison reform.

Recipients include Drexel University, which in partnership with the Pennsylvania DOC, the Norwegian Correctional Service and the Swedish Prison and Probation Service, will design a housing unit in a Pennsylvania facility similar to those operating in Scandinavian prisons; the Justice Policy Institute; the Unchained Media Collective; One Voice; and the Ladies of Hope Ministries.

Additional Reading: “Justice Reformers, ‘Fueled by Sense of Urgency,’ Vow to End Status Quo,”The Crime Report, Sept 21, 2018

“More Social Justice=Better Criminal Justice?”The Crime Report, Feb. 12, 2019

Editor’s Note: Arnold Ventures is a financial supporter of The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, publisher of The Crime Report.

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