A Top Justice Reform Funder Targets the Prison System, Aiming for “Radical Change”

Christopher Boswell/shutterstock

Christopher Boswell/shutterstock

A rising tide of funder interest in criminal justice reform has opened up more resources to confront mass incarceration. Yet despite plenty of grants to spur state and local reform around issues like pretrial justice, sentencing and parole, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the prison system itself. That may stem from the fact that prison reform isn’t exactly low-hanging fruit. Prisons are designed to be closed systems, leaving outsiders with few levers to influence how they operate.

Nevertheless, in the midst of a serious ramp-up of its criminal justice commitments, Arnold Ventures wants to take on the problem. “No other institution in the country is more in need of systemic change than the prison system,” said Arnold Ventures’ president Kelli Rhee. “But we don’t know a lot about what happens inside prisons, and what we do know is not great.” To shed more light on how to reform institutions that house over 1.5 million Americans, Arnold recently announced a new prison reform strategy along with over $17 million in grants. 

The bulk of this initial commitment funds two organizations—$10 million to the Urban Institute and $7 million to the Vera Institute of Justice. In the context of rising philanthropic engagement in justice reform, Vera’s president Nicholas Turner called Arnold’s investment “unique in terms of size and scale and what it’s targeting.” He added, “Arnold is saying that the effort to dismantle mass incarceration requires us to look at the condition of mass incarceration, the how and why and what of incarceration, and that’s a unique statement.”

Turner heads an organization on the forefront of many tough battles in justice reform, including efforts to reduce the number of people entering the system—the front end—and programs to help former inmates reenter society and avoid recidivism on the back end. But there isn’t much focus right now on what happens in the middle. Arnold and its grantee partners believe the time is right to change that. “This is large in scale,” Rhee said. “We don’t believe this should involve tinkering on the edges. It’s time to make radical change, and there’s an urgent need for research.”

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Research and Development

True to the Arnolds’ belief in the power of evidence to guide good policy, Vera and the Urban Institute want to take a rigorous look at how prisons should change. The Urban Institute’s Prison Research and Innovation Initiative is a new, five-year effort to gather information on the conditions of confinement, building on research the institute has been developing for several years. “Prisons consume a large share of public resources, but they’re one of the least transparent of public sector entities,” said Nancy La Vigne, vice president of justice policy at the Urban Institute. “Prisons are uniquely closed systems, designed to be out of sight and out of mind. It can be hard for researchers to gain access.” 

La Vigne spoke of a protective culture among corrections officials who often view sharing data as opening themselves up for scrutiny. Given the fact that many prisons do play host to abuse, that’s sadly understandable. She also noted that the majority of state-level corrections reform to date has stemmed from litigation. However, “there’s a growing collection of reform-minded secretaries of correction and wardens who think differently,” La Vigne said. That’s why the Urban Institute is preparing to set up shop at four prisons that will serve as incubators for new methods of data collection and reform behind bars. 

The Urban Institute is still identifying specific locations for the work, but the prisons will be located in four states. At each site, the grant money will fund a local research partner to interface with inmates and staff to monitor the prison’s environment and develop new policies. La Vigne is particularly concerned with the ways a facility’s environment can affect how and whether people participate in programs designed with reentry in mind. 

Both the Urban Institute and Vera want to delve into the question of why, if prison is supposed to be rehabilitative, doing hard time often has the opposite effect. Turner agreed that the system is in dire need of a “rigorous transparency” that’s lacking right now. But he also said we already know a lot about the problems inside prisons and how we might solve them. 

Through the Restoring Promise initiative, Turner and his colleagues at Vera are modeling alternative prison practices in real life. In partnership with MILPA, Vera is piloting a restorative approach at facilities in Connecticut, Massachusetts and South Carolina. Vera’s initiative centers on a mentor-mentee system and a set of efforts to transform prison and jail culture. Turner said that while the current program focuses on youth, the goal is to spread this approach to incarcerated people of all ages. 

The Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust provided initial funds for Restoring Promise, and several anonymous funders have also contributed. The U.S. government, through the National Institute of Justice, has also funded research studying the program’s implementation in South Carolina. The Arnold grant will let Vera expand Restoring Promise to three additional states, as well as support a national communications campaign Vera wants to roll out using an expanded evidence base. Meanwhile, Vera is still fundraising toward a goal of $14.5 million for the program.

Centering Human Dignity

Vera’s Restoring Promise approach didn’t arise in a vacuum. It’s informed in part by Reimagining Prisons, another Vera initiative. As one part of Reimagining Prisons, researchers studied practices in European nations like Germany, which Vera argues has dealt well with its own dark history of incarceration. “Peer-to-peer learning across national divides is imperative to helping Americans change what we do,” said Ryan Shanahan, research director at Vera.

Although the grant to Vera doesn’t support Reimagining Prisons, Arnold’s commitment does include a smaller grant to Drexel University to design a correctional housing unit in Pennsylvania inspired by facilities in Norway and Sweden. “A global exchange helps the U.S. get out of its own way when we learn from people who have a longer history [of prison reform],” Shanahan said. For over two years, Western European approaches to correction and juvenile justice have informed Vera’s Restoring Promise work at the Cheshire Correctional Facility in Connecticut. Arnold’s grant will help those techniques spread. 

Whether they’re sourcing ideas at home or abroad, both Vera and the Urban Institute want to find ways to center human dignity in a system where it’s often in short supply. “Deprivation of liberty is the punishment,” La Vigne said. Beyond that, prisons should abandon techniques centered on “retribution,” as Turner put it, and adopt techniques rooted in human dignity, like greater attention to college education behind bars and the reduction or elimination of solitary confinement. 

Arnold Ventures is taking a similar stance in its broader prison reform strategy. The funder cited the need to reduce prison populations, shorten sentences, and introduce much-needed transparency to an opaque institution. Arnold also wants to target inhumane environments in prisons and find ways to change culture and management on the inside so that incarcerated people leave the system better off, rather than worse.

Of course, doing so on any kind of scale is a lot easier said than done. The Vera Institute chose to focus on youth because young people—young men of color, in particular—are the most profoundly impacted by racial injustices in the prison system. And that’s no accident, according to Vera. It’s a direct consequence of this country’s history of systemic racial oppression, a history that lives on in a justice system that affects black and brown people disproportionately. Arnold is betting evidence and transparency can move administrators and policymakers to chip away at that ugly edifice. But it’ll be a tough hill to climb.

Related: With Momentum Building, a Foundation Zeroes in on Criminal Justice Reform