A Crisis in American Incarceration

The design and nature of mass incarceration in America, and the culture that sustains it, are among the most profound, most unyielding, and least addressed problems for justice today. We warehouse 2.2 million people in cramped, unhealthy spaces that are devoid of natural light, fresh air, healthy food, and connection to community and family. Young adults—and in particular, young men of color—bear the brunt of this broken system. One in five men in a prison or jail is between the ages of 18 and 24; 73 percent of the young adult men in prison are young men of color.

This is not just a modern phenomenon but rather a consequence of a 400-year through-line of systemic racial oppression in America. While slavery was abolished in the 13th Amendment, one exception remained: as punishment for a crime. State constitutions adopted similar language, and policies and practices such as convict leasing were put in place to ensure it was implemented, laying the foundation for today’s justice system and cementing an association between black skin and criminality. Today, the media floods American households with shows like Lock Up and OZ that reinforce harmful narratives about the people who live and work in prisons. Incarcerated men and women are reduced to a violent scary “other,” easy to neglect and cast away. Human dignity should be an inviolable right; it is not surprising that conditions in prison do not reflect this.

Young Adults Are the Crucible of Challenge and Opportunity

Young adulthood is a time defined by one’s search for identity and place in the world, and is marked by reaching key milestones of autonomy, self-direction, and social competence. Reaching these milestones is heavily influenced by relationships with one’s environment, family, and peers. Take, for example, young adults in college: they are exposed to diverse ideas, have space to learn from mistakes, make lasting friendships, and forge their own path within a supportive community. In contrast, young adults in prisons are separated from their families, stripped of their identities by the assignment of corrections numbers and uniforms, and locked in cinder-block cells void of fresh air and light. Young adults are the people most likely to experience violence in prison, the most likely to be killed in prison, and the most likely to be sent to solitary confinement. For the over 200,000 young adults (seven of 10 being young men of color) currently in prison, the message is loud and clear: we do not believe in your potential and we are not invested in your success.

Staff Are Impacted Too

Staff are not immune to the problems inside prisons. Working in corrections is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Corrections staff have poor health outcomes, with studies showing that they have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than returning veterans of war and more than double the suicide rate of police officers. The environment that corrections staff work in heightens stress and can lead to hypervigilance—a condition that can contribute to anxiety and exhaustion. Not to mention the way the media and advocates often paint corrections officers—as brutal, corrupt, and abusive—with few accounts of the supportive relationships officers build with incarcerated people. For these reasons, it is common to hear staff count down the years to retirement using the same language as incarcerated people. In prison, everyone is serving a sentence.

A Movement for Change

In this age of mass incarceration and the surging momentum to end it, we must commit to a national movement to disrupt the American prison system. The question is whether it is possible to construct something wholly different, and to do so in a way that has a chance to transform prison practice in America. We believe—resolutely—that the answer is yes. With our Restoring Promise initiative, the Vera Institute of Justice and the MILPA Collective have developed a solution that radically transforms the living and working conditions and culture of prisons into safe environments that center healing and human dignity.