Vera Announces Funding for Organizations Transforming State and Local Justice Systems in Rural America

The new grants will help shift resources to community-based movements in small cities and rural counties across the country


Jazmyn Strode,

NEW YORK, NY -- Today, the Vera Institute of Justice’s In Our Backyards initiative announced the second round of grant funding to community-based and statewide organizations committed to reducing incarceration rates, resisting jail expansion, and eliminating racial and gender disparities in incarceration in small and rural communities.

In a moment of societal reckoning with the crisis that is the American justice system – between deadly COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails and rampant police brutality, disproportionately against Black people – many continue to view incarceration as a uniquely urban problem. However, smaller cities and rural communities, typically overlooked in national conversations about justice reform and movement work, now have the highest rates of incarceration, continued growth in pretrial detention, and the most severe gender and racial disparities. As the world watches organizers in places like Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta build momentum for large-scale transformation of local justice systems, community organizers and local advocates in smaller places are also driving efforts for meaningful decarceration and racial justice.

“Vera and In Our Backyards know that we won’t end mass incarceration and its footprint without a movement that spans urban and rural communities,” said Jasmine Heiss, Campaign Director for Vera’s In Our Backyards. “I’m proud that Vera is supporting a community of organizers, advocates, and researchers that embody the diversity, resiliency, and tenacity of small cities and rural communities. We are committed to supporting and collaborating with those showing up on the frontlines of justice at a time when their work is urgently needed.”

The second round of grantees include:

  • Deep Center & Southern Center for Human Rights - Chatham County, GA
  • Workers Center for Racial Justice - St. Clair County, IL
  • Michigan United - Kalamazoo County, MI
  • One Voice & the NAACP of Mississippi - Adams County, Amite County, Franklin County, & Wilkinson County, MS
  • Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky - Bell, Clay, Floyd, Harlan, Jackson, Knott, Knox, Leslie, Letcher, Madison, Perry, Pike, & Whitley County, KY
  • Kentucky Center for Economic Policy - Barren, Boyle, Leslie, Rowan, Madison County, KY
  • Justice Matters - Douglas County, KS
  • Down Home - Alamance County, NC
  • Emancipate NC, Community Alliance for Public Education, & Wilson County NAACP - Nash & Wilson County, NC
  • Public Policy and Education Fund, Truth Pharm, Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier - Broome County, NY
  • Pennsylvania Prison Society - Adams, Blair, Allegheny, Center & Indiana County, PA
  • Free Hearts, No Exceptions, Mercy Junction Peace & Justice Center - Statewide, TN
  • Grassroots Leadership - Williamson & Bastrop County, TX
  • Jail Project of Texas - Collin, Grayson, & Denton County, TX
  • Mano Amiga - Hays County, TX
  • West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy - Statewide, WV

The In Our Backyards community grants are supporting local and statewide organizations launching broad public education campaigns and working with community members, legislators and other stakeholders to tackle a range of policy and practice problems, such as wealth-based detention, racial disparities in enforcement, and the true costs of incarceration for taxpayers and communities. To date, Vera’s In Our Backyards initiative has committed more than half a million dollars in funding through the Community Grants program.

You can find a list of the other recipients and previously supported projects here:

Additional statements of support:

"Mano Amiga will devote In Our Backyards funding toward expanding our recent victory –– the first Cite & Release Ordinance in Texas, restricting law enforcement by City law from arresting for numerous petty offenses –– into other parts of the Lone Star State, by coordinating with activists & policymakers in pursuit of this goal, as well as monitoring the progress of our policy in San Marcos. We are eager to soon persuade our Hays County Commissioners Court to embrace Vera's Jail Population Project, which fourteen regional clergy have endorsed, to furnish us the data required to deepen our advocacy in multiple realms, including the push to overhaul our cash bail system," said Jordan Buckley of Mano Amiga.

"For 234 years, the Prison Society has borne witness to injustice and inhumane treatment behind bars. Our nation's founders established the Prison Society out of a belief that everyone, including people behind bars, should be treated humanely and with dignity. They believed that this can only be achieved when public citizens can see for themselves what is happening. As public awareness about police mistreatment increases, attention must also be given to the men and women in our local jails and prisons. The Knowing Our Local Prison initiative will inform and instruct Prison Society volunteers how to best shine the light on local prison conditions and to how to best inform the general public about overcrowded prison populations," said Pennsylvania Prison Society's Joshua Alvarez.

“Over the past four decades, Mississippi’s jail and prison system has grown at a rapid pace due to the hyper-incarceration of African Americans. Transformative work to dismantle the state’s archaic and oppressive criminal justice system begins by advocating for and centering community. Through the IOB grant, One Voice and the MS NAACP will lead efforts to hold prosecutors in rural communities accountable by ensuring community members have a seat at the table to help set policy and advance best practices,” said Matthew Campbell, of the Mississippi NAACP.

"Deep Center and Southern Center for Human Rights are committed to educating our community on wealth-based detention practices and the excessive use of the juvenile justice system as direct drivers of adult and youth incarceration, as well as working with elected officials on legislative policies that help our communities, not harm them. Georgia has the highest rate of correctional control in the country and these numbers are even more stark in Chatham County, home to the city of Savannah, which has some of the highest rates of adult and youth court-involvement in Georgia. As we continue to reckon with very real consequences of white supremacy, of anti-black racism that shows up in policy and legislation, of mass incarceration, we are honored to be in and committed to this partnership with Southern Center for Human Rights and the Vera Institute of Justice to ensure a more just and equitable for all of Savannah," said Coco Papy, of the Deep Center.

“Emancipate NC, the NAACP of Wilson County, and CAPE will launch the Justice League, a group of formerly-incarcerated adults and youth impacted by incarceration to advocate in their own name. The Justice League will call for an end to the school-to-prison pipeline and a reduction in incarceration in Wilson and Nash Counties, North Carolina. Incarceration has a traumatic effect on communities, families, and children. This work has been urgent for a long time, but we are now in a moment of public reckoning with racist police violence. We are grateful to IOB for shining a light on how mass incarceration affects rural communities,” said Emancipate NC’s Elizabeth Simpson.

“In this time of heightened awareness about the negative impact of mass criminalization, we will work in these suburban and rural communities to expand the base of impacted people actively engaged in criminal legal reform, change the narrative around what safety looks to communities most impacted by criminalization, and advocate for policy and practice changes that reduce the scope of incarceration and criminalization,” said Maria Reza of Grassroots Leadership.

“In a world where we are challenging established systems of oppression, and urging those who have not been in the struggle to imagine a world without prisons and without police, we hear many people resisting this necessary and beautiful vision out of fear. When people urge reform over abolition we must show them why abolition is essential, and challenge the dangerousness and futility of simply reforming a system of white supremacy and carceral slavery, into a "kinder gentler" racism and enslavement. Our IOB grant has given us the tools to travel across Tennessee to create a documentary that presents a counter narrative to the great American lie we've been told all of our lives; the lie that some people must be caged, and prisons and police keep us safe. Thanks to Vera we can help show that there is another way, a way of liberation and justice that is necessary and inevitable," said No Exceptions Prison Collective’s Jeannie Alexander.

“West Virginia's Regional Jails are the state's front line when it comes to the economic and racial disparities institutionalized within the criminal justice system. WVCBP will analyze the fiscal impact West Virginia's regional jail system has on each of the state's 55 counties over a period of time. The results will be utilized to support coalition partners leading criminal justice reform efforts and to educate policy makers to support policies that sharply reduce punitive criminal justice measures while shifting resources spent on jails to healing our communities,” said Seth DiStefano, of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

“We work to improve the quality of life of all Kentuckians. Justice reforms, in the context of COVID-19 and beyond, are central to our vision for a thriving commonwealth where all are safe and healthy. For the In Our Backyards project, we advocate for bail reform and other decarceration efforts that would help address the justice system’s especially harmful impact on Black Kentuckians, and against proposals that would further mass incarceration in Kentucky,” said Ashley Spalding, of the Kentucky Center on Economic Policy.

“Workers Center for Racial Justice is building out a list of Justice Voters in East St. Louis, IL, home to the largest Black population in Illinois outside of Chicago. Our goal is to engage these individuals actively in issues education and the electoral process, including deep analysis of the role that prosecutors have played in driving racialized policing and mass incarceration in St. Clair County. In 2020, our issues education work in East St. Louis will be centered on driving electoral participation; in 2021, we will continue to build these relationships, seeking to replicate our successful model of Black-led organizing in Chicago, including grassroots policy advocacy,” said WCRJ’s Sarah Wilson.

“The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky is producing a year-long radio response to the rural incarceration crisis in eastern Kentucky, using data from the Vera Institute and the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy to shape stories featuring local voices and place-based experiences with mass incarceration. In this moment of national reckoning, the project will demonstrate how rural voices deepen the national understanding of the damaging impact of the carceral system. Funding from the In Our Backyards initiative is helping us shift prevailing beliefs about the value of incarceration and alter the terrain on which the carceral system is built,” said Amelia Kirby of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky.

“Speak Your Mind: Voices of Small Town and Rural Texas” will use storytelling to challenge the systemic inequities and racial disparities within the criminal justice system, especially county jails, now exacerbated by the spread of COVID-19. VERA’s IOB grant will expand our ongoing campaign in semi-rural North Texas to listen, support and connect isolated folks, to create avenues for their outreach to media, and to enable lived experience leadership in their communities and local governments,” said the Jail Project of Texas’s Diana Claitor.

“We are grateful to the Vera Institute of Justice for the opportunity to expand our work in Kalamazoo County and train new community leaders in Oshtemo Township, Comstock Township, and Portage to lift up how racial disparities and conviction rates hurt local families and the community at large. We believe that our community will be more united when we build relationships across township and city lines to create long-standing work on criminal justice reform,” said Megan O’Brien of Michigan United.

“ACLU-TN's In Our Backyards project unfolds the story of money bail's devastating impact on our neighbors living in rural communities in Tennessee, as told by the community members themselves. Traveling to small towns across the state, our series of short films shines a light on the Tennesseans inside the local criminal justice system - from the judges, public defenders and advocates who work in county jails and courtrooms, to the people who find themselves stuck behind bars and the family members who desperately empty bank accounts to bail them out. This chorus of voices recounts firsthand how a pervasive and predatory bail industry traps rural Tennesseans with limited incomes in an endless cycle of incarceration, the only escape from which comes with a price tag that few can afford,” said Claire Gardner of ACLU of Tennessee.

“Broome County has the highest incarceration rates in the state, and Black and Brown people are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than white. The county also ranks #1 in death rates within its jails. Our collaboration will continue to play a significant role in elevating community driven conversations about incarceration, how the District Attorney and other policies and practices drive mass incarceration, and the need for non-carceral, public health and restorative justice interventions in order to truly address our community's mental health, substance use, and basic social needs,” said Truth Pharm, PPEF, and JUST.

“In Kentucky, women are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population and we have one of the highest rates of parental incarceration in the country. Kentucky Youth Advocates in partnership with Volunteers of America Mid-States will highlight the increased rates of female incarceration in two rural counties and work to change the narrative around parental incarceration through data analysis, engagement with decision makers, and a media campaign. This project will increase awareness and support for systemic change that addresses over incarceration of marginalized populations, including women and people of color. At KYA, we are committed to making Kentucky the best place in America to be young, which includes steadfast advocacy and awareness efforts on the impact that incarceration has on children; and at VOA, we understand that this commitment involves addressing and treating a woman's trauma and substance use disorder in a way that interrupts the cycle of generational trauma and addiction,” said Cortney Downs of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

About the Vera Institute of Justice:

The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice. Vera collaborates with the communities most impacted by these systems and works in close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement change. Across projects, Vera is committed to explicitly and effectively reducing the burdens of the justice system on people of color and frames all work with an understanding of our country’s history of racial oppression. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, providing legal services for immigrants, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. Vera has offices in Brooklyn, NY; Washington, DC; New Orleans, and Los Angeles.