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October 16, 2018

Vera Institute of Justice urges "Reimagining Prison"

Download (2)The Vera Institute of Justice has recently produced this big new report as part a big new project under the label "Reimagining Prison." Here is how the report's executive summary gets started:

The United States holds approximately 1.5 million people in its state and federal prisons.  Although this number has declined since its peak in 2009, mass incarceration is hardly a thing of the past.  Even if the nation returned to the incarceration rates it experienced before 1970, more than 300,000 people — approximately one per 1,000 residents— would still be held in U.S. prisons.  And the conditions of that confinement are dismal. Prison in America is a place of severe hardship — a degree of hardship that is largely inconceivable to people who have not seen or experienced it themselves or through a loved one.  It is an institution that causes individual, community, and generational pain and deprivation. For those behind the walls, prison is characterized by social and physical isolation, including severe restriction of personal movement, enforced idleness, insufficient basic care, a loss of meaningful personal contact and the deterioration of family relationships, and the denial of constitutional rights and avenues to justice. Those who work in prisons suffer too, with alarming rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide compared to the general population.

Beyond the walls of prison, incarceration’s impact is broad: mass imprisonment disrupts social networks, distorts social norms, and hollows out citizenship.  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.  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.

The story of American prisons is also a story of racism.  We as a nation have not yet fully grappled with the ways in which prisons — how they have been used, the purposes they serve, who gets sent to them, and people’s experiences inside them — are intimately entwined with the legacy of slavery and generations of racial and social injustice. Built on a system of racist policies and practices that has disproportionately impacted people of color, mass incarceration has decimated the communities and families from which they come. It is time to acknowledge that this country has long used state punishment generally — and incarceration specifically — to subordinate racial and ethnic minorities.

The recent prison incident in South Carolina that left seven dead, as well as prison strikes across the country in 2016 and 2018 protesting inhumane treatment, serve as tragic wake-up calls that something is fundamentally wrong inside America’s prisons.  With a few limited exceptions, correctional practice today remains underpinned by retribution, deterrence, and incapacitation.  These realities beg the question: isn’t there another way? We have failed to ask this question with sufficient seriousness and thoroughness.  The time for us to do so is now.  And so, 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 persistent connections between racism and this country’s system of punishment.

In this report, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) reimagines the how, what, and why of incarceration. And in so doing, we assert a new governing principle: human dignity. This principle dictates that “[e]very human being possesses an intrinsic worth, merely by being human.” It applies to people living in prison as well as the corrections staff who work there.

October 16, 2018 at 04:59 PM | Permalink

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