Vera formally launched the Reimagining Prison project in June 2016 at the Eastern State Penitentiary Historical Site in Philadelphia—the nation’s first prison—at an event that featured the voices of corrections leaders, formerly incarcerated people, scholars, thought leaders from across the political spectrum, and members of the public. The ideas discussed at this event contributed to the topics explored during the full lifetime of the project, most notably the importance of cultivating positive manifestations of autonomy even during incarceration, a move away from the language of rehabilitation in favor of a focus on providing incarcerated people the tools for success, and the need for a significantly smaller system as a prerequisite to real change. 

Recognizing the wide reach of the criminal justice system and the diverse groups of people who are touched by it in different ways, a key component of the project was speaking with groups of stakeholders about their ideas of what prison could be—what it should achieve, how it should achieve that, and what it would take to make a system dedicated to those goals real. In these discussions, Vera introduced stakeholders to a set of proposed foundational values for a new system, an ethos of confinement, and real-world examples of these principles enacted. These groups included researchers, criminal justice and corrections practitioners, conservative thought leaders, advocates for progressive criminal justice reform, government staff, political leaders, those directly impacted by crime and prison, and those who advocate on their behalf—both experts on victimization and currently and formerly incarcerated people. These rich debates contributed a new set of perspectives to the reimagining enterprise. They revealed a need for an in-depth examination of historical and current practice and a strong link in many participants’ minds between economic opportunity, social context, and incarceration. Vera also engaged the architectural firm MASS Design Group to reimagine the physical layout of a prison facility based on the principles set out in this report.

Finally, Vera organized a national prison visiting week, during which more than 400 people participated in public tours of 30 facilities in 17 states. In developing these events, corrections agencies reached out to community members, inviting them in to see their prison facilities. This included outreach to new partners in some instances, such as Chambers of Commerce. This week of events highlighted the possibilities of greater connectedness between prison and community. Through it, corrections agencies showed a great willingness to open their doors to members of the public, and those same laypeople welcomed the opportunity to engage with the prisons in their communities. This experience helped to build Vera’s vision of community-connected prisons and the opportunities these connections might offer.

In addition to these activities, Vera conducted policy, academic, and practical research to ground its vision in American history, current prison practice, and legal principles. These strategies make up the Reimagining Prison project, the goal and product of which is this report, which summarizes and presents the major areas of thought and practice that led to the development of Vera’s foundational principles for a reimagined prison.