“[F]or me, the great evil of American slavery wasn't involuntary servitude. It wasn't forced labor. It was this ideology of white supremacy, this narrative of racial difference where black people were perceived as not human, not fully evolved, not the same as other people. And I think when we passed the 13th Amendment, in 1865, we expressly ended involuntary servitude and forced labor, but we didn't say anything about this narrative of racial difference and because of that, slavery didn't end. It evolved.”

~ Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Legacy Museum, interviewed by Michel Martin, “Peace and Justice Memorial Seeks to Make Horror of Lynching Understood,” National Public Radio, 2018“Peace and Justice Memorial Seeks to Make Horror of Lynching Understood,” National Public Radio, April 28, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/04/28/606792776/peace-and-justice-memorial-seeks-to-make-horror-of-lynching-understood. 

Our country has a long history of using prisons to warehouse particular segments of the population—particularly racial and ethnic minorities—in ways that create and reinforce the fundamental divide between “us” and “them.”Wacquant, “Rethinking Race and Imprisonment,” 2002. Although ostensibly this separation is between those who comply with the law and those who do not, the unambiguously racial and ethnic character of imprisonment in the United States both yesterday and today reflects the outsized influence that our legacy of slavery and racial oppression has played in determining who is impacted by the criminal justice system.Ibid. Prisons in America operate as both a central mechanism to maintain inequality and a locus where people are meant to experience their inequality in ways that further underscore their outsider status—best exemplified in the sort of conditions of confinement that perpetuate what judicial officers have described as “soul-chilling inhumanity.”Melvin Gutterman, “Prison Objectives and Human Dignity: Reaching a Mutual Accommodation,” Brigham Young University Law Review 1, no. 4 (1992), 857-915, 858 (citing Douglas, J., dissenting in Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 598 (1974), stating that prisons are beginning to shed their “punitive heritage”); and Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Eisenstadt, 360 F. Supp. 676, 684 (D. Mass. 1973), where Garrity, J., declared that “the soul-chilling inhumanity of conditions in American prisons has been thrust upon the judicial conscience.” Also see Gutterman, “Prison Objectives and Human Dignity,” 1992, 889, where the author discusses a case regarding prison conditions in Alabama. Prisons were “horrendously overcrowded, infested with roaches, flies and other vermin. The food was unappetizing . . . poorly prepared and infested with insects . . . and there was rampant violence.”

With this report, we break our silence about the connections between our troubled history and our use of prisons. Leveraging the convergence of a movement for criminal justice reform and increased consciousness about racial and social injustice, we bring to the fore a focus on how people are treated behind prison walls. We see, through an examination of current prison conditions, that the fundamental experience remains one of hardship, isolation, and dehumanization. A radical change is needed—not only to disrupt the habit of current practices, but also to break with historical legacy. We call on ourselves and others to reshape the practice of imprisonment by grounding it in the foundational principle of human dignity. 

We call on ourselves and others to reshape the practice of imprisonment by grounding it in the foundational principle of human dignity.

Grappling with these issues and charting a course for change takes courage, determination, and compassion. While certain broad conditions may be necessary to completely transform corrections practice, we are today joining partners and working towards building a system consistent with a vision of human dignity. The T.R.U.E. unit in Connecticut is just one example of how change need not wait until the ideal conditions of reform are met. Through this report, we provide an aspirational vision and a blueprint for concrete reforms—which systems can consider, debate, and experiment with today, with the hope that by laying the necessary foundation of human dignity something new and wholly different will come tomorrow.

But this work must go beyond the corrections field. This is an American issue, and one that all Americans should care about. To truly effect radical change will require all of us to take action, not just those who administer and work in our nation’s prisons. Policymakers, advocates, the media, criminal justice system stakeholders and even members of the public must join together to shine a light on these practices and to say, once and for all, that they cannot stand.