Ending Mass Incarceration

Bringing Dignity to Life Behind Bars

With few exceptions, American jails and prisons are dehumanizing environments. For incarcerated men and women—95% of whom will return home—the possibility of rehabilitation is undermined by the brutality and monotony of life behind bars. High recidivism rates suggest the model isn’t working. The environments are punishing for staff as well.

Downsizing prisons and jails is not enough. They must be healthy places to live and work, places that affirm fundamental human rights, and where the possibility for personal transformation is a reality. Getting there requires commitment, imagination, and close partnerships with corrections administrators and others eager for change. Our work includes ending the widespread use of solitary confinement, protecting people from sexual assault, exploring ways to better connect people who are incarcerated with their families, and expanding access to higher education in prison. It also draws on lessons from countries that take a much less punitive approach to confinement with far better results.

Related Work

Series: Target 2020

The Party Platforms Must Address the Urgent Need to Transform American Criminal Justice

America’s justice system is rooted in the nation’s history of slavery and racial oppression and applying a human dignity lens is necessary to achieve transformational change. This perspective values the intrinsic worth of human life and a person’s ability to grow and change. In that spirit, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) urges important party ...

Blog Post
  • Hayne Yoon
    Hayne Yoon
  • Logan Schmidt
    Logan Schmidt
June 17, 2020
Blog Post

Lessons from Second Chance Pell

A Toolkit for Helping Incarcerated Students Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education announced the Second Chance Pell (SCP) experiment under the Experimental Sites Initiative, which allows incarcerated students who would be eligible for Pell Grants—a form of federal financial aid—if they were not incarcerated to access them while attending an eligible academic program offered by one of the ...

Publication
  • ​Allan Wachendorfer, Michael Budke
April 03, 2020
Publication

Series: Addressing the Overuse of Segregation in U.S. Prisons and Jails

Looking to Norway for Inspiration on Reducing the Use of Solitary Confinement

Recognized as a leader in progressive incarceration, Norway’s system is based on the idea that courts are for punishment and correctional facilities are for creating better neighbors. Correctional policies and practices center around respect for the human dignity of incarcerated people and staff. They focus primarily on rehabilitation, resocializat ...

Blog Post
  • Janelle Guthrie
March 11, 2020
Blog Post

Series: Addressing the Overuse of Segregation in U.S. Prisons and Jails

Corrections at a Crossroads

Ironically, prisons began as 19th century reforms—a movement away from the barbarism of public humiliation, corporal punishment, and executions. Practices like solitary confinement—pioneered at Eastern State Penitentiary and in Auburn Prison’s regime of silent, forced labor—were meant to rehabilitate incarcerated people. They reflected moralistic a ...

Blog Post
  • Sebastian Johnson
    Sebastian Johnson
February 24, 2020
Blog Post