This country’s current prison practices and environment are built atop a long history of racially motivated incarceration and discriminatory prison practices and policies. That history harms all of us. Efforts to reform or improve the experience of incarceration along the margins—for example, a new focus on reentry, evidence-based programs, or expanded educational offerings—will not suffice to shift the weight of this history, a history that is built into the edifice of the nation’s prison facilities. To effect real and radical change for everyone, we must acknowledge and respond to this country’s history of racial and ethnic oppression and the role our corrections systems have played in creating and perpetuating inequality. Incremental reforms based on the existing system ethos will not do. We must find a redefining principle to underpin the most severe sanction we have: deprivation of liberty.

Vera proposes that human dignity be the foundational, organizing principle of the nation’s corrections system. This principle recognizes every person’s intrinsic worth and capacity for self-control, autonomy, and rationality.[]Amanda Ploch, “Why Dignity Matters: Dignity and the Right (or Not) to Rehabilitation from International and National Perspectives,” NYU Journal of International Law & Politics 44, no. 3 (2012), 887-949, 894-98. Also see McCrudden, “Human Dignity,” 2008, 679, The Vatican recently shifted its view of the death penalty, citing human dignity as the basis. Pope Francis declared capital punishment wrong "because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person." Previously, the church had stated it was acceptable in rare instances. David Brennan, "Pope Says Death Penalty 'Inadmissible' in All Cases in Major Catechism Reform," Newsweek, August 2, 2018, By establishing dignity as an organizing principle, and not just as an aspirational vision or legal backstop, all aspects of imprisonment—from its very purpose to the experience of everyday life in confinement—will be affected. The principle will serve to ensure that the corrections system does not compromise, abridge, or undermine an individual’s human dignity. Human dignity is a rejoinder to the persistent dehumanization that characterizes current and historic incarceration, which was born precisely because of white supremacy—the belief that black people were subhuman. Where we have denied humanity, we must embrace human dignity.

Radical as this may seem, America would not be the first place to atone for inhumanity by embracing its opposite. In Germany, for example, Article I of its constitution, known as the Basic Law, reckons with the history and horrors of the Holocaust and states plainly: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”[]Basic Law of Germany (1949), article 1, Moreover, human dignity has deep and ancient philosophical underpinnings. As a modern legal principle, it is well-established both internationally and in the United States. The concept is the basis of international human rights law developed in the aftermath of World War II as a direct response to the dehumanizing bureaucratic horrors of the Holocaust. Human dignity is a founding principle of the United Nations (founded in 1945); a core concept in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948); and a persistent theme in international and regional human rights instruments—for example, it forms “one of the cornerstones” of the European Convention on Human Rights (drafted in 1950).[]Robert Spano, “Deprivation of Liberty and Human Dignity in the Case-Law of the European Court of Human Rights,” Bergen Journal of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice 4, no. 2 (2016), 150-166, 151, “By 1986, dignity had become so central to United Nations’ conceptions of human rights that the U.N. General Assembly provided, in its guidelines for new human rights instruments, that such instruments should be ‘of fundamental character and derive from the inherent dignity and worth of the human person.’” McCrudden, “Human Dignity,” 2008, 669. See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Part III, article 10 (“All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person”); International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (New York, December 16, 1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171 and 1057 U.N.T.S. 407, entered into force March 23, 1976 [the provisions of article 41 (Human Rights Committee) entered into force March 28, 1979]; European Convention on Human Rights, section I, article 3: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” Council of Europe, European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as amended by Protocols Nos. 11 and 14, November 4, 1950, ETS 5,; United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, Rule 1: “All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings. No prisoner shall be subjected to, and all prisoners shall be protected from, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, for which no circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification;” U.N. General Assembly, United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), resolution adopted by the General Assembly, January 8, 2016, A/RES/70/175, [accessed 25 June 2018]; and European Prison Rules, Part I: “1. All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with respect for their human rights,” Council of Europe: Committee of Ministers, Recommendation Rec(2006)2 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the European Prison Rules (January 11, 2006), [accessed 25 June 2018]. Human dignity has elevated status within the laws of many countries. It is the foundational value in the constitutional documents of Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, and several other countries.[]McCrudden, “Human Dignity,” 2008, 664-65 & 673. Human dignity appears in multiple places in the South African constitution. See Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996), §§ 1, 7, 10, 35, 36, 39, 165, 181, 196 & schedule 2. The South African constitution, for example, states boldly in its very first article that South Africa is a country founded on the value of human dignity and, in section 10, recognizes its universality and everyone’s right “to have his or her dignity respected and protected.”[]For South Africa specifically, see Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996), §§ 1 & 10.

Human Dignity Principal

Although the phrase “human dignity” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court has ruled in a number of cases that the concept animates and even underlies many of the amendments contained in the Bill of Rights, as well as subsequent constitutional amendments. The Court has explicitly relied on the concept of human dignity to limit punishment and protect the rights of those imprisoned (Eighth Amendment); limit unreasonable searches (Fourth Amendment); explain the right to represent oneself (Sixth Amendment); expand the right to privacy regarding marriage, reproduction, and one’s sexual activities and choices (14th Amendment); render illegal racial or other discrimination (14th Amendment); and protect one’s reputation (the common law of libel).[]See for example Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100 (1958) (Eighth Amendment) (The court stated that “[t]he basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man”),; Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493 (2011) (Eighth Amendment) (stating that while “[a]s a consequence of their own actions, prisoners may be deprived of rights that are fundamental to liberty. Yet the law and the Constitution demand recognition of certain other rights,” including the fact that “[p]risoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons.”),; Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 174 (1952) (Fourth Amendment),; McKaskle v. Wiggins, 465 U.S. 168, 178 (1984) (Sixth Amendment),; Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 567 (2003) (Fourteenth Amendment right to privacy),; Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (Fourteenth Amendment equal protection),; and Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383, U.S. 75, 92 (1966) (Stewart, J., concurring) (libel law), At the state level, too, dignity is a founding basis for law and citizenship. Dignity is explicitly referenced in the state constitutions of Illinois, Louisiana, and Montana; for example, the Montana constitution (ratified in 1972) recognizes that all human beings have an innate dignity, and that dignity “is inviolable.”[]Montana Constitution, article II, § 4. Also see Illinois Constitution, article I, § 20; and Louisiana Constitution, article I, § 3.

Human dignity in brief: An ancient lineage

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However, despite a larger commitment to human dignity, in most countries—the United States foremost among them—a standard of human dignity does not guide the law or policymaking processes. The Supreme Court typically addresses only the most extreme, “shock the conscience,” circumstances that arise in prison and elsewhere.[]The term “shocks the conscience” entered into American jurisprudence in 1952 in the case of Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 172 (1952) (which ruled that a search that consisted of opening the petitioner’s mouth and extracting contents from his stomach was unconstitutionally invasive, stating that “the proceedings by which this conviction was obtained do more than offend some fastidious squeamishness or private sentimentalism . . . [it] shocks the conscience”). The “shocks the conscience” standard has since been used as an elevated standard of review to determine whether due process rights have been violated by the government and has been most commonly used in review of Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claims. The Supreme Court explicitly related it to the protections of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments in Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 327 (1986) (“It would indeed be surprising if, in the context of forceful prison security measures, ‘conduct that shocks the conscience’ . . . and so violates the Fourteenth Amendment, [citation omitted], were not also punishment ‘inconsistent with contemporary standards of decency’ and ‘repugnant to the conscience of mankind’[citation omitted]”). The latter two standards are the Eighth Amendment thresholds promulgated by the Court in Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976). Critics of the test, from Justices Black and Douglas’ concurrences in Rochin on, have focused on how nebulous it is: because the test contains no concrete factors beyond what a judge or jury believes some vision of society finds not merely personally displeasing but “shocking,” it is difficult to apply consistently. Some scholars argue that it should inform the “proportionality” tests applied to Eighth Amendment claims. See Jency Megan Butler, "Shocking the Eighth Amendment's Conscience: Applying a Substantive Due Process Test to the Evolving Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause," Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly 43, no. 4 (2016), 861-949, Others have argued that the test as applied is so elevated a standard as to “emasculate [substantive due process]’s efficacy as a limitation on executive power” and should be discontinued. See Rosalie Berger Levinson, “Time to Bury the Shocks the Conscience Test,” Chapman Law Review 13, no. 2 (2010), 307-56, The test was also adopted by the Canadian Supreme Court to review “fundamental justice” cases in Canada v. Schmidt, 1 S.C.R. 500 (1987). The Court has, on occasion, offered sweeping platitudes about the application of human dignity to people in prison, but it has never used this concept to do more than ensure that incarcerated people are supplied with their basic needs or to condemn truly degrading treatment.[]For example, in Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493 (2011), the Court stated: “Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.” And, in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 318-21 (2002), the Court reiterated the rule from Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100-01 (1958), that "The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man . . . . The Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." Ultimately, though, the Court’s decisions do not go as far in practical effect as they do in rhetoric. Maxine Goodman examines “whether, in view of our ‘evolved’ standard of decency and the Lawrence Court's express recognition of human dignity as a value underlying the petitioner's constitutional rights, human dignity plays a substantial role in the Supreme Court's decision-making.” Maxine Goodman, “Human Dignity in Supreme Court Constitutional Jurisprudence,” Nebraska Law Review 84, no. 3 (2005-2006), 740-94. “Dignity” conceptually appears in American jurisprudence as early as Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944). Justice Frankfurter actually used the term "dignity" regarding constitutional jurisprudence earlier, in his dissent in Glasser v. United States, 315 U.S. 60 (1942), where the defendant alleged ineffective assistance of counsel because the court appointed defendant's counsel to also represent a co-defendant. Justice Frankfurter stated: "Whether [the Bill of Rights] safeguards of liberty and dignity have been infringed in a particular case depends upon the particular circumstances." (Frankfurter, J., dissenting). However, Justice Murphy was the first to use phrases such as "dignity of man," "human dignity," and "dignity of the individual." See Goodman, “Human Dignity,” 2005, 753. And Miranda v. Arizona, of course, is underscored by “dignity” concerns—Justice Warren described the "interrogation environment" as serving no purpose other than to "subjugate the individual to the will of his examiner." 384 U.S. 436 (1966), Though not physical intimidation, the Court stated that this environment is "equally destructive of human dignity." Ibid., 457. Ultimately, however, while the Court occasionally uses phrases involving “dignity,’ its decisions are heavily weighted in favor of any competing state interest, especially where incarcerated people are involved. See Goodman, “Human Dignity,” 2005, 775-78. Thus, while the Court in Hope v. Pelzer relied on human dignity in assessing the prison officers’ actions, it did not explicitly establish the principle as a new positive standard of treatment. It merely stated the “obvious:” that tying an incarcerated person to a hitching post in the sun for more than seven hours, supplying him with little water, and preventing him from going to the toilet violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.[]Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 738 (2002). The Court has thus not created a clear standard of human dignity and no legislation in the United States explicitly affirms obligations regarding human dignity.

Vera’s proposal elevates the concept of human dignity from one that merely prevents grossly unjust conduct to a cardinal principle that dictates how a prison system must organize itself from top to bottom—a standard to which the system must perform and a guide to set the contours of all prison policies and practices. Importantly, a commitment to human dignity does not undermine the fundamental correctional priorities of safety and security. In fact, human dignity demands that everyone behind the walls—staff as well as those incarcerated—is kept safe and secure.

These proposed practice principles are derived from an expansive view of human dignity, shaped to address the deficiencies in this country’s current prison experience, and respond to America’s history of using prisons as a form of racial oppression.

A prison system grounded in human dignity also directly responds to the faults created by centuries of racial oppression. As two leaders of #BlackLivesMatter and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration explained, “We understand that the black liberation movement in the U.S.—from its inception as an anti-slavery movement, through the Civil Rights Era, and up to now—has never been only for civil rights. The movement is a struggle for the human rights and dignity of black people in the U.S., which is tied to black peoples’ struggle for human rights across the globe.”[]Opal Tometi and Gerald Lenoir, “Black Lives Matter is Not a Civil Rights Movement,” Time, December 10, 2015, Extending the principle of human dignity to people incarcerated in our country’s prisons would mark a significant milestone in this movement.

In a practical sense, by adopting human dignity as the guiding ideal to govern imprisonment, many aspects of prison life and administration will need to change—including staff training and philosophy, programming and treatment offered to people in custody, the material conditions of confinement that incarcerated people live under, and even an institution’s physical design and layout. Prisons will have to create, improve, or expand policies and practices that facilitate respect for human dignity, while minimizing or avoiding others that will likely corrode it.[]McCrudden, “Human Dignity,” 2008, 679 (stating that “this intrinsic worth should be recognized and respected by others, and some forms of treatment by others are inconsistent with, or required by, respect for this intrinsic worth”).

Only a select few countries, such as Germany, commit to human dignity in a manner that affirmatively shapes their prison policies and practices.[]See for example The Prison Act (Strafvollzugsgesetz) of 1977, §§ 2-4 (German Prison Act). There, the German Prison Act—which sets the standards by which not only detention facilities must operate but also prison managers and staff must behave—explicitly dictates that “(1) life in penal institutions should be approximated as far as possible to general living conditions, (2) any detrimental effects of imprisonment shall be counteracted, and (3) imprisonment shall be so designed as to help the prisoner reintegrate himself into life at liberty.”[]The Prison Act (Strafvollzugsgesetz) of 1977, § 3. It is now America’s turn. Our circumstance makes us well situated to learn from Germany and other leaders and contribute new theories and strategies for upholding human dignity behind bars to the world.

How can a seemingly nebulous principle like human dignity be put into operation? What would the day-to-day workings of a prison system grounded in human dignity look like? The following sections outline three principles that are intended to help elucidate what a dignity-centered approach to prisons may mean in practice:

  • Principle 1: Respect the intrinsic worth of each human being;
  • Principle 2: Elevate and support personal relationships; and
  • Principle 3: Respect a person’s capacity to grow and change.

These proposed practice principles are derived from an expansive view of human dignity, shaped to address the deficiencies in this country’s current prison experience, and respond to America’s history of using prisons as a form of racial oppression.

Practice principle 1: Respect the intrinsic worth of each human being

The first practice principle honors one of the core tenets of human dignity: by virtue of their personhood, people possess an intrinsic worth and must be treated with basic respect. It is a principle that has been largely absent from this country’s system of imprisonment from the beginning, yet is at the core of our shared humanity. The principle prohibits practices that degrade or demean a person. In other words, policies and practices should not dehumanize, cause humiliation, or evince a lack of respect. It would forbid forcing people to wear uniforms designed to make them feel ashamed or supplying them with insufficient food or inadequate health care. Instead, policies should serve to humanize people in prison, including in ways that mitigate to the extent possible the inherent power imbalance between the prison administration and incarcerated people.

Intrinsic Worth

Legal basis for practice principle 1

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Putting the principle into practice
“The women [in Utah’s prisons] were given brand-new uniforms the color of plum wine. The prison lifted its ban on cosmetics, and the inmates picked out lip colors, eye shadows and blushes. . . .[I]t seemed to work: Disciplinary problems plummeted. That’s because, thanks to their new uniforms, the women inmates no longer see themselves as prisoners but as people. The clothes they wear have altered how they perceive themselves, and the world.”

~ Susie Neilson, “Prison Uniforms Make It Harder to ‘Go Straight,’” Newsweek, 2016[]Neilson, “Prison Uniforms,” 2016.

"I believe a 'good morning' just gets your day started. . . . I encourage the guys. When they have birthdays, we sing 'Happy Birthday.' They're human beings, and it makes a difference. Some of these guys, they've never had someone tell them 'Happy birthday.’ . . . We let them know there's a different way of thinking and living. . . . It gets them motivated. 'I can make a difference. I can get a good job. I can go to college. I don't just have to settle.'"

~ Elwanda Ray, quoted in Cole Waterman, “Michigan Corrections Officer of the Year Motivates Inmates to Do Better,”, 2018[]Elwanda Ray, quoted in Cole Waterman, “Michigan Corrections Officer of the Year Motivates Inmates to Do Better,”, February 15, 2018,

As simple as “treating each person with basic respect” sounds, this requirement implicates nearly every aspect of prison operations. It will no longer be enough to just provide people in prison with the bare necessities, as the application of Eighth Amendment currently requires.[]The U.S. Supreme Court has, for example, found that the government must provide people living in prison with medical care, adequate nutrition, a safe environment, and an acceptable standard of sanitation. See Glensy, “The Right to Dignity,” 2011, 112 (citing Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103-04 (1976)) (medical care); Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 315-16 (1982) (safety); and Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 686-87 (1978) (lengthy deprivation of nutrition and sanitation issues including overcrowding). This practice principle elevates the standards by which people are provided with those necessities and mandates that prison systems deliver them in a way that promotes rather than diminishes people’s dignity.

How can a prison work to respect the intrinsic worth of the people incarcerated inside it? To do so will require the system to infuse humanity into its operations. A prison operating consistently with this first practice principle may consider some of the following measures:

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  • recognizing dignity by requiring corrections staff to call incarcerated people by their names rather than referring to them by institutionalizing terms that strip individuality away, such as their prison number, “prisoner,” “inmate,” or “tans” (a reference to the color of uniforms incarcerated people are made to wear in some jurisdictions);
  • providing high-quality health care on-site at the prison, equivalent to what would be provided at a walk-in clinic or other comparable community-based location, and providing for swift transportation to local hospitals in the event of more serious health issues;
  • permitting incarcerated people to make individual choices about attire, either by allowing them to wear their own clothes or by offering variety in institutionally assigned clothing, while prohibiting any type of uniform that is intended to humiliate or degrade, such as pink boxer shorts or tight, white, transparent uniforms;[]Neilson, “Prison Uniforms,” 2016. A newspaper article reporting on one sheriff’s practice of requiring people incarcerated in his prison to wear all-pink uniforms described it as “the ultimate humiliation as the final shred of dignity is stripped away.” Glaister, “Pink Prison,” 2006.
  • providing an adequate supply and variety of hygienic products that meet moderate standards of quality and offering a selection of additional products at reasonable cost in the commissary—and the products supplied and available should also take into account the cultural and personal preferences of the prison population;[]The Dignity Act, a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate to improve the treatment of people incarcerated in federal prison who are primary caretaker parents (and for other purposes), specifies that certain health care products are to be made available for free, including “moisturizing soap, which may not be lye-based; shampoo; body lotion; Vaseline; toothpaste; and toothbrushes.” S. 1524, 115th Congress (2017-2018),
Policies and practices should not dehumanize, cause humiliation, or evince a lack of respect.
  • supplying incarcerated people who menstruate with an adequate supply and choice of sanitary products and strictly prohibiting corrections staff from using such supplies as a way to control the residents;[]For a discussion of using such products as a control tactic, see Tamar Kraft-Stolar, Reproductive Injustice: The State of Reproductive Health Care for Women in New York State Prisons: A Report of the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York (New York: Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York, 2015), The Federal Bureau of Prisons modified its practices in August 2017 and now requires that all facilities provide adequate hygiene products to menstruating residents; the new policy specifies that federal prisons must make available two sizes of tampons and sanitary napkins. The proposed Dignity Act would, if enacted, also mandate making tampons and sanitary napkins available to incarcerated people free of charge. See note 86, above.
  • serving a more than adequate quantity of edible and healthy food, including fruits and vegetables, and providing supplemental healthy snacks and items for purchase in the commissary;
  • instituting meaningful protection from physical and emotional abuse within the prison, whether perpetrated by staff or other incarcerated people, including private reporting mechanisms, access to emergency medical care following a physical or sexual assault, and access to victim support groups and long-term medical and behavioral health care;[]This is supposed to already occur with regard to sexual assault in confinement. In 2003, Congress passed the landmark Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), recognizing that sexual abuse is a serious and persistent problem in correctional environments. 42 U.S.C. § 15601 et seq. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission was formed to study the problem and draft standards to address sexual abuse in correctional settings. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued its final ruling on PREA, which built on the work of the commission. DOJ, “Justice Department Releases Final Rule to Prevent, Detect and Respond to Prison Rape,” press release (Washington, DC: DOJ, May 17, 2012), DOJ’s PREA standards aim to facilitate comprehensive facility-based efforts to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse and include regulations for adult prisons and jails, community confinement facilities, juvenile facilities, and lockups. Under the standards, correctional facilities must (1) develop a written facility plan to coordinate responses to an incident of sexual abuse; (2) follow uniform protocols for evidence and sexual assault medical forensic examinations for victims of sexual abuse, based on the DOJ’s A National Protocol for Sexual Assault Medical Forensic Examinations: Adults/Adolescents,; and (3) provide victims who report sexual abuse with access to outside victim advocates for emotional support. and
  • encouraging corrections staff and incarcerated people to view each other as humans worth getting to know beyond the stereotypical guard-inmate paradigm.

Practice principle 2: Elevate and support personal relationships

Human dignity also encompasses human connection. A person’s inherent worth and sense of dignity is often bound up in his or her relationships with others—in the context of a prison, this means relationships among those living in prison, between corrections staff and residents, and between incarcerated people and their families and friends on the outside. Accordingly, Vera’s second practice principle focuses on allowing people who are living in prison to develop relationships with others and, indeed, facilitating those relationships. It prohibits actions that serve to extinguish or hamper such interactions. At a minimum, the prison should ensure that its residents have a chance to develop and sustain real human relationships.

Personal Relationships

Legal basis for practice principle 2

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Putting the principle into practice
“Perhaps the finest example of compassionate American prison design is the recently completed Las Colinas Women’s Detention and Reentry Facility, commissioned by the County of San Diego, designed by KMD/HMC Architects. The complex sits on a 45-acre campus and features residentially scaled buildings clustered around exterior courtyards. Research shows that isolation breeds violence and anger; the more normalized environment is meant to encourage socialization and to “minimize physical and psychological barriers” between inmates and staff. . . . Inside, the floors are a warm brown and sometimes playfully patterned; translucent green accent walls break down the scale of the cafeteria; and materials include not only concrete but also ashlar stone, cork, and wood. Due to the facility’s podular layout, all public spaces feature large windows and an abundance of natural light.”

~ Rachel Slade, “Is There Such a Thing as ‘Good’ Prison Design?” Architectural Digest, 2018[]Rachel Slade, "Is There Such a Thing as 'Good Prison Design?'" Architectural Digest, April 30, 2018,

How can a prison system provide people with opportunities to nurture and grow their personal relationships? Although a prison system cannot force a person sentenced to incarceration to have interpersonal relationships, it can facilitate rather than impede their development. This section discusses several ways that a prison can help incarcerated people build relationships with people inside as well as outside the prison and, in so doing, help keep them in the fold of the larger community.

Interacting with people inside the prison. Ensuring that interpersonal relationships can flourish starts with the layout of the prison itself. The architecture and design of a facility impacts how incarcerated people interact with each other and the relationship between staff and those held in prison. Indeed, research shows that people in prison more negatively assess their relationships with staff when they live in some of the most common housing unit designs in the United States (panopticon, double-celled, and older housing units) rather than in other layouts.[]Karin A. Beijersbergen, Anja J. E. Dirkzwager, Peter H. van der Laan, and Paul Nieuwabeerta, “A Social Building? Prison Architecture and Staff-Prisoner Relationships,” Crime & Delinquency 62, no. 7 (2016), 843-74. People living in panopticon layouts (a circular design in which a custodial officer can view all incarcerated people’s cells or living spaces) were less positive about interactions with officers than people living in other layouts. Additionally, people housed in older prison units and in units with more double cells perceived more problems with officer interactions than those housed individually or in newer units. One journalist reported the study’s finding as follows: “After controlling for age, ethnicity, intimate relationships at the time of arrest, education level, personality traits, criminal histories, and officer-to-inmate ratios,” the researchers found that “[i]f the prisoners were housed in leaky dungeon-like panopticons, they tended to feel more estranged from guards. But if they were enjoying campus-style living arrangements or apartment-style high-rises, they perceived the relationships as more supportive.” Ryan Jacobs, “How Prison Architecture Can Transform Inmates’ Lives,” Pacific Standard, June 17, 2014,

Human dignity and prison design

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We recognize that a wholesale and immediate redesign of America’s many prisons is economically unrealistic. But a prison system that prioritizes human dignity and seeks to encourage personal relationships could renovate existing spaces or, where old buildings are crumbling or unsafe, design new facilities to include some of the following features:

  • an acoustic environment that minimizes echoes and excess noise;
  • spaces for recreation, such as outdoor areas with green lawns and interior or exterior spaces for exercise and team sports;
  • buildings and outside spaces that are fully accessible to people with physical disabilities;
  • day rooms that facilitate group activities and personal interactions between staff and residents; and
  • kitchen areas where incarcerated people can work together to prepare food for themselves and others.

For those incarcerated people subjected to solitary confinement, the value of personal relationships takes on even more significance. Though such housing would be used rarely, if ever, in a prison system based on human dignity—and then only for brief periods of time—a dignity-centric prison system must ensure that those sent to such housing retain meaningful social contact with others by, for example, requiring a minimum amount of staff contact, allowing for social activities with others who are incarcerated, and ensuring interactions with other individuals, such as psychologists, religious representatives, and community volunteers.[]For instance, the Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency trains its staff to understand the collateral consequences of solitary confinement; asks its staff to put themselves in the shoes of isolated persons before deciding on how to interact with them; and specifically instructs its staff to always provide those in isolation with regular human contact, measures of personal autonomy, and access to programs that will provide opportunities to earn their way out back into the general population. Mariette Horstink, “The Custodial Institutions Agency” (presented at the European-American Prison Project conference at the Ministry of the Interior, The Hague, The Netherlands, February 21, 2013).

Interacting with people outside the prison. A commitment to fostering human connection must go beyond the prison walls. Given the danger that closed institutions have of falling into social patterns and communication habits so insular as to be unrecognizable to those outside the institution, ensuring outside contact is crucial to this principle.[]Goffman, “Total Institutions,” 1961, 15-64.

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A commitment to human dignity mandates that facilities implement policies and practices that encourage families and friends to visit, facilitate the presence of outside organizations within the prison, and provide opportunities for incarcerated people to spend constructive time outside the prison.[]Notably, the proposed Dignity Act (see note 86, above) specifies four visitation regulations that must be applied to incarcerated people who are primary caretaker parents and their family members: “(1) a prisoner may receive visits not fewer than 6 days per week, which shall include Saturday and Sunday; (2) a Federal penal or correctional institution shall be open for visitation for not fewer than 8 hours per day; (3) a prisoner may have up to 5 adult visitors and an unlimited number of child visitors per visit; and (4) a prisoner may have physical contact with visitors unless the prisoner presents an immediate physical danger to the visitors.” S. 1524, 115th Congress (2017-2018). In this way, those in prison are not considered “other,” but rather are seen as integral members of the human family. A prison system aiming to achieve these goals might implement some of the following practices:

  • housing incarcerated people in facilities that are as close to their homes and loved ones as possible;
  • developing in-person visitation policies that
    • allow for a generous number of visits for reasonable durations of time;
    • permit physical contact between partners or parents and their children;
    • provide reasonable accommodations for visiting, such as a room with natural light, a space that allows for some privacy, a place with food available for purchase, and a space for children and parents to play together; and
    • encourage structured activities among visitors, incarcerated people, and staff;
  • creating policies that ensure that all visitors are treated respectfully and fairly;
  • making phone calls, emails, and video calls available to incarcerated people at reasonable rates—and using video visitation to supplement, rather than replace, in-person visitation opportunities.
A commitment to human dignity mandates that facilities implement policies and practices that encourage families and friends to visit, facilitate the presence of outside organizations within the prison, and provide opportunities for incarcerated people to spend constructive time outside the prison.
  • forging relationships with local organizations and giving community members, community organizations, volunteers, educators, and others reasonable access to the prison and its residents;
  • providing people living in prison with a meaningful opportunity to receive prison furloughs or other types of prison leave, including for important family events such as funerals, participation in work or educational programs, or in preparation for reentry; and
  • implementing compassionate release programs—sometimes called geriatric release or medical parole—that grant early discharge to people on the basis of serious illness or age-related impairment, so that they may spend their final months or years with their loved ones.[]For an overview of compassionate release, see Rebecca Silber, Alison Shames, and Kelsey Reid, Aging Out: Using Compassionate Release to Address the Growth of Aging and Infirm Prison Populations (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017), 2-10,

Infusing discipline with dignity

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Practice principle 3: Respect a person’s capacity to grow and change

Vera’s final proposed practice principle recognizes that no matter what behavior may have landed a person behind bars, they still have the potential to change. [The role of a prison system operating according to this principle is not to require that a person grow and change, but rather to respect a person’s capacity to do so. The inherent dignity of a human being includes a person’s capacity for self-respect, self-control, empowerment, autonomy, and rationality. This implies a respect for a person’s capacity to exhibit as well as enhance these characteristics. Under this practice principle, the prison should provide a proper setting and suitable opportunities for all incarcerated people to pursue productive activities and to grow and develop as people. At its essence, this is a principle that offers hope—for new opportunities and changed paths.

Growth Change

Legal basis for practice principle 3

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Putting the principle into practice
“Roz, a college graduate serving 50 to life, was interviewed for a study at New York’s Bedford Hills. She told the interviewers that school ‘was a whole new world. I started surrounding myself with people of like minds. Because when I first came here I . . . had a chip on my shoulder that I wanted somebody to knock off . . . when I started going to college that was like the key point for me of rehabilitation, of changing myself. And nobody did it for me, I did it for myself.’”

~ “Inmates Find Self-Worth Through Prison Education,”, 2014[], “Inmates Find Self-Worth Through Prison Education,” in Christopher Zoukis, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2014), 35,

“[I]n the mornings, I attend a group called current events where we read an up-to-date article and give our opinion on that article. . . . Then we have a group discussion in which we can bring up any issues or topics a person thinks will get the group to start thinking. Some topics that have been brought up are money, family support, unity, and much more. . . . On Wednesdays, we have a town hall meeting where all the counselors, the unit manager, the lieutenant, mentors, and mentees gather together to talk about issues going on in the block and how we can resolve these issues. Other programs we started to attend throughout the week include reflections, conflict resolution, good intentions, bad choices, and money management. Doing all these programs really helps me look within myself and see what I need to work on before I get released.”

~ Jordan, prison resident at T.R.U.E., written for Vera Institute of Justice, “Connecticut’s T.R.U.E. Prison Program Offers New Beginnings,” 2017[]Vera Institute of Justice, “Connecticut’s T.R.U.E. Prison Program Offers New Beginnings,” May 2, 2017,

In order to foster people’s ability to grow and change, prison systems must give them the chance to enhance their capacity to do so or to exercise their ability to become more autonomous, especially given that most will be released into the community one day. Providing such programs and activities is not optional, and they must not be subject to elimination due to budget cuts or scarce resources. Making these opportunities available might include

  • staffing prisons with case managers who can work with incarcerated people to develop joint case plans that include intermediate and long-term goals related to employment and education, behavioral and mental health needs, medical health care needs, and family responsibilities during and after incarceration;
  • affording access to high quality education at all levels provided by qualified instructors, from literacy to postsecondary education, and including career and technical training oriented toward future occupational goals rather than institutional needs, as well as language instruction for English Language Learners;[]For a discussion on the benefits of postsecondary education programs for incarcerated students, see generally Delaney, Subramanian, and Patrick, Making the Grade, 2016.
  • supplying up-to-date reading material, including newspapers, textbooks, legal information, and recreational nonfiction and fiction books;
  • offering behavioral health and mental health counseling, addiction and medical withdrawal treatment, and physical and cognitive disability assessment and therapeutic treatment;
  • allowing incarcerated people to form clubs or affinity groups to share hobbies and discuss issues of interest;
  • providing work opportunities and fair compensation for work performed—along with a fair wage, incarcerated people should have the means to save earnings and a mechanism to pay any financial obligations, such as victim restitution or child support, or send money to family;
  • offering in-prison restorative justice programs that bring together people most affected by a crime to address the harm, hold the responsible person accountable, and support the well-being of those harmed;[]Restorative programs in prison may have as their objectives to help people in prison develop awareness of and empathy for victims or to make it possible for incarcerated people to make amends to their victims or survivors. See generally Gerry Johnstone, Restorative Justice in Prisons: Methods, Approaches and Effectiveness (Strasbourg, France: European Committee on Crime Problems, Council for Penological Co-operation, 2014),
  • allowing incarcerated people to exercise their right to vote;
  • engaging incarcerated people in the creation and enforcement of in-unit rules; and
  • ensuring access to all of the above in the primary language of the incarcerated person, including for people with auditory or visual disabilities.

Finally, people living in prison must be provided with reasonable access to justice. Prison systems must let people who are incarcerated exercise their autonomy by seeking redress for wrongs. This can be achieved by constructing a functional prison oversight system.[]A robust prison oversight system would not only ensure people living in prison with access to justice, but it would also achieve transparency and accountability. See Michele Deitch, “Distinguishing the Various Functions of Effective Prison Oversight,” Pace Law Review 30, no. 5 (2010), 1439-42 (summarizing the components of an effective system of prison oversight). Some of the components of the oversight system may include

  • repealing or significantly modifying the Prison Litigation Reform Act in order to ensure that incarcerated people have access to the courts;
  • developing fair and transparent internal grievance and complaint processes that are based in principles of procedural justice and, wherever possible, use a restorative justice model;
  • instituting external inspections to proactively examine the treatment of people in prison;
  • allowing for investigations into allegations of wrongdoing to be conducted by an inspector general or independent commission;
  • requiring prisons to conduct “quality of confinement” surveys of people living in prison and act on the results;[]For an example of an audit and possible survey questions for incarcerated people, see Andrew Coyle, Humanity in Prison: Questions of Definition and Audit (London: International Centre for Prison Studies, 2003),
  • expanding the use of the citizen oversight model—which already exists in different forms across the country—to engage and educate the public about both the successes of prison operations and the challenges of incarceration;[]A few notable citizen visitation programs include the Citizen Visitation Program of Illinois’s John Howard Association; the Prison Visiting Project of the Correctional Association of New York; and the Official Visitors Program of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. In a citizen visitation program, a group of citizens is granted access to correctional facilities and then report on conditions in an effort to engage public interest in prisons and jails and to provide decision makers with information they can use to improve their systems. See Michele Deitch, “Independent Correctional Oversight Mechanisms across the United States: A 50-State Inventory,” Pace Law Review 30, no. 5 (2010), 1754-1930. and
  • developing performance measures, including both policy reviews and outcome measures, that reflect the goals of a dignity-centered prison system and regularly reporting these measures to the public and the legislature.[]For example, a policy review would look at a prison visiting policy, while an outcome measure would determine how many actual visits occurred within a given time frame. An accompanying survey would look at the satisfaction of incarcerated people and visitors with the visits themselves. For additional examples and an audit tool designed to measure “treatment with humanity,” see Coyle, Humanity in Prison, 2003.

Human dignity and corrections staff

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