Vera Institute of Justice Selected to Lead Multi-State Effort to Transform Cultures, Climates, and Spaces in Prisons

Bureau of Justice Assistance funding will support Vera’s work with corrections departments to create and sustain safe, humane, and effective environments for people who work, visit, and are incarcerated in prisons

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Hannah Eddy | heddy@vera.org

New York, NY - Today, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) announced the procurement of 1.5 million in new funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) to help corrections agencies transform cultures, climates, and spaces in prisons across their states. Over a period of three years, Vera will provide focused training and technical assistance to two corrections agencies and deliver ad hoc support to the field at large.

The grant program is the first of its kind from BJA and was initiated in response to feedback from corrections agency leadership and staff along with people incarcerated in prison in the years following the COVID-19 pandemic. Roughly 1.8 million people are currently incarcerated in cramped, unhealthy prison environments where they frequently endure isolation and inhumane treatment. These experiences result in trauma and negatively impact people’s ability to rebuild their lives when they leave prison. Corrections staff suffer as well. Conditions in prisons result in stress and exhaustion as well as high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, turnover, and suicide among prison staff. COVID-19 compounded these issues, resulting in prolonged staffing shortages, social isolation, and reductions in education and supportive services. Three years later, many correctional systems are still recovering.

As the training and technical assistance provider for this grant program, Vera will work with corrections agencies to pilot a range of strategies designed to make prisons safer, more humane, and more effective for those who work, visit, and are incarcerated in them. Selected agencies will convene working groups to assess challenges and opportunities and create strategic plans that address issues related to culture, climate, and space. Corrections agencies will then work to implement the plan and develop strategies for sustaining the changes in the long term. Vera and an advisory board of subject matter experts from around the country will support the agencies through the process. Vera will also consult with corrections agencies that are not selected on an ad hoc basis and support the broader field by developing resources, hosting webinars, and organizing a national convening.

Vera’s new Dignity Principles: A Guide to Ensure the Humane Treatment of People in U.S. Carceral Settings will serve as a guide and inspiration to a field that is ever-changing. Building off The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (2015), also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, the principles outline ways corrections professionals, incarcerated people, and advocates—including nonprofit leaders and government officials—can align corrections policies and practices with seven principles: safety, human dignity, morale and well-being, fairness, purpose, family and community partnership, and transparency.

“Decades of policies fueling punishment and incarceration have made the problems of mass incarceration and the cycles of harm it perpetuates seem intractable,” said Clinique Chapman, an associate director for the Restoring Promise initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice. “With the release of the Dignity Principles today and the generous infusion of funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, we have established a vision and a roadmap for transforming our prison systems. We can ensure the health and well-being of those who are incarcerated and work in prisons by changing correctional culture and making prison conditions humane.”

The release of the Dignity Principles and the announcement of the BJA grant mark a new phase in Vera’s six-year effort to improve conditions in prisons. Vera’s Restoring Promise initiative seeks to transform prison cultures, climates, and spaces by partnering with correctional leaders to reimagine housing units for young adults and realign corrections policies and practices with a commitment to human dignity. Transforming the United States prison system has been the goal of Vera’s groundbreaking work with corrections agencies since 2016 when Vera and the MILPA Collective opened the first of now seven young adult housing units in five states. Testimony from corrections staff and incarcerated people and results from a randomized control trial of Restoring Promise units in South Carolina demonstrate what Vera knows to be true: when we treat people with dignity, we can create a sense of purpose beyond custody and control, forge community, and make prisons safer.

“If people in prison are supported and allowed to flourish, I believe that the world will look like a different place,” said Clyde Meikle, a founding mentor from a Restoring Promise housing unit in Connecticut. “The relationships are why Restoring Promise works. With this grant, I hope corrections departments and Vera can work together to make prisons places where people can build community, access support, and ultimately thrive when they return home.”

“The benefits of shifting correctional culture to center human dignity and community are profound. I saw it firsthand in Connecticut’s Restoring Promise housing units and am thrilled to see Vera’s efforts expand,” said Scott Semple, former commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Correction. “The Bureau of Justice Assistance grant offers an incredible opportunity for corrections departments across the country to establish a new paradigm for incarceration, correctional culture, and what it means to keep our communities safe.”

Vera will apply lessons learned from the work in Restoring Promise units to this new phase of work with corrections agencies. In the coming months, Vera will issue a request for proposals from corrections agencies interested in transforming their prison systems. More information concerning this opportunity will be shared at that time.

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About the Vera Institute of Justice: The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and policy experts working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. For more information, visit vera.org.

This project was supported by Grant No. 15PBJA-23-GK-05375-SCAX awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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