Almost 150 years ago, just five years after the end of the Civil War, the Supreme Court of Virginia articulated a vision for prison that was a direct descendant of slavery. The court said that the incarcerated person “not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him,” and that, for the period of time in custody, he was “the slave of the state.”[]The prevailing view in the United States was that a person in prison “has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the tfmontime being the slave of the state.” Ruffin v. Commonwealth, 62 Va. 790, 796 (1871).  This vision of prison was not accidental and would hold sway for generations. It manifested itself in such practices as convict leasing, a brutal and financially lucrative system in the Reconstruction South that created incentives for governments to arrest and convict newly freed black people in order to sell their labor to private industry; and chain gangs, in which incarcerated people, primarily black men, were shackled together, publicly humiliated, and forced to perform public works such as building roads or clearing land.[]On the history of convict leasing, see generally Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor Books, 2009).

Although such practices largely came to an end by the middle of the 20th century, the “slave of the state” vision of prison persists. Over the last 50 years, inhumane working and living conditions and the daily degradations of prison life have been the stated reasons behind continuing prison unrest and protest. In 1971, people incarcerated at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York took over the prison for two weeks, protesting what one participant, Elliot Barkley, described as “the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners.”[]Aya Abdelaziz, “When David Rothenberg Went to Attica,” Fortune Society, September 8, 2017, For continued abuses after the riot, see Alan Yuhus, “New Attica Documents Reveal Inmate Accounts of Torture After 1971 Prison Riot,” Guardian, May 22, 2015,  He declared: “We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.” In 2013, some 30,000 people in various California correctional facilities refused food—some for close to two months—in protest of the state's use of long-term solitary confinement.[]Rory Carroll, “California Prisoners Launch Biggest Hunger Strike in State's History,” Guardian, July 9, 2013,; and Josh Harkinson and Maggie Caldwell, “50 Days Without Food: The California Prison Hunger Strike Explained,” Mother Jones, August 27, 2013 (updated September 6, 2013),  In September 2016, the largest nationwide prison strike took place—covering 24 states and including up to 24,000 participants—during which incarcerated people staged work stoppages or hunger strikes to object to unfair use of prison labor, poor wages, abusive guards, overcrowding, and poor health care, among other grievances.[]Jaweed Kaleem, “'This is Slavery': U.S. Inmates Strike in What Activists Call One of the Biggest Prison Protests in Modern History,” Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2016  Commenting on his $2-a-day pay—an amount only sufficient to buy a bar of soap at the commissary or make a short phone call—one participant, David Bonner, declared emphatically, “This is slavery. We're forced to work these jobs and we get barely anything.”[]Ibid.  And, in April 2018, the dismal reality of life in prison—two meals of “barely nutritional,” sometimes moldy, food; “putrid water;” metal plates placed over windows; sweltering and filthy rooms; and no-hope idleness—simmered into explosive acts of violence at a prison in South Carolina that left seven dead and 17 injured. All incarcerated people; guards had evacuated the unit—and, in August 2018, incarcerated people began a 21-day labor strike in response to the tragic incident in South Carolina to protest U.S. prison conditions, including mandated labor for meager wages.[]Heather Anne Thompson, “How a South Carolina Prison Riot Really Went Down,” New York Times, April 28, 2018, On the August 2018 prison strikes, see Ed Pilkington, "US Inmates Stage Nationwide Prison Labor Strike Over 'Modern Slavery,'" Guardian, August 21, 2018,

Prison in America continues to be a place of severe hardship for those held there—a degree of hardship that is largely inconceivable to people who have not seen or experienced it themselves or through a loved one. It is an institution that causes individual, community, and generational pain and deprivation. For those behind the walls, prison is characterized by social and physical isolation, including severe restriction of personal movement. Prison enforces idleness and denies access to productive activities. It provides insufficient basic care, such as adequate food and medical services, and prevents incarcerated people from securing those services for themselves. Incarceration results in a loss of meaningful personal contact and the deterioration of family relationships. Prison strips people of constitutional rights and avenues to justice. Those who work in prison are not exempt. Corrections officers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and commit suicide at significantly elevated rates.[]Simone Weichselbaum, “For Corrections Officers and Cops, a New Emphasis on Mental Health,” The Marshall Project, June 14, 2017,

The harsh conditions within prison have been demonstrated neither to ensure safety behind the walls nor to prevent crime and victimization in the community.

Beyond the walls of prison, incarceration’s impact is broad: mass imprisonment disrupts social networks, distorts social norms, and hollows out citizenship.[]Dorothy E. Roberts, “The Social and Moral Cost of Mass Incarceration in African American Communities,” Stanford Law Review 56, no. 5 (2004), 1271-1305, 1281-97,  The high rate of incarceration—most notably among black Americans—as well as the individual impact of incarceration, has decimated the communities from which people in prison come.[]Todd R. Clear, Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).  Its impact is also intergenerational—the children of incarcerated parents are more likely to experience psychological trauma, difficulties in school, and financial challenges.[]More than five million children in the United States have had a parent in state or federal prison at some point in their lives. One in nine black children had a parent behind bars in 2008. See Teresa Wiltz, “Having a Parent Behind Bars Costs Children, States,” Pew Charitable Trusts, May 24, 2016, This hardship has become so common and is so stigmatized that the long-running children’s television program Sesame Street produced materials for caregivers about how to speak with children about their incarcerated parent. Sesame Workshop, “Sesame Street Launches New Resources for Young Children with an Incarcerated Parent,” press release (New York: Sesame Workshop, June 12, 2013),  The cumulative result is a pervasive and pernicious denigration of the humanity of those who live and work inside American prisons that ripples out to communities and across generations.

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Over this country’s long history of using prisons, American values of fairness and justice have been sacrificed to these institutions in the name of securing the common good of public safety. But the harsh conditions within prisons have been demonstrated neither to ensure safety behind the walls nor to prevent crime and victimization in the community.[]Don Stemen, The Prison Paradox: More Incarceration Will Not Make Us Safer (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017), Also see M. Keith Chen and Jesse M. Shapiro, “Do Harsher Prison Conditions Reduce Recidivism? A Discontinuity-based Approach,” American Law and Economics Review 9, no. 1 (2007), 1-29 (finding that people housed in higher security levels are no less likely to recidivate than those housed in minimum security; if anything, the study suggests that harsher prison conditions lead to more post-release crime). These realities beg the question: isn’t there another way? We have failed to ask this question with sufficient seriousness and thoroughness. The time for us to do so is now.

Policymakers and the general public are now more vocal in calling for a new direction in American criminal justice policy.[]Public opinion supports reductions in the prison population and a refocusing of resources on community-based programs and supports. For example, in one survey, 84 percent of Americans from diverse geographic and political backgrounds agreed that people and resources should be diverted from prison and into community-based programs and, on average, they believed that one-fifth of people currently incarcerated could be released safely. Pew Center on the States, Public Opinion on Sentencing and Corrections Policy in America (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2012), This support extends even to those who have been victims of violent and property crimes, 69 and 72 percent of whom, respectively, prefer holding people who commit crimes accountable through different options beyond prison. A 2016 survey found that most victims believed that the current prison system was not the best or most effective way to respond to nonviolent crime. The responses revealed support for practices that not only favor rehabilitation over retribution, but also reduce the overall prison population significantly. In the same study, 83 percent of respondents preferred increased investment in mental health treatment, and 73 percent in increased drug treatment, over more investment in prisons and jails. See Alliance for Safety and Justice, Crime Survivors Speak: The First-Ever National Survey of Victims’ Views on Safety and Justice (Oakland, CA: Alliance for Safety and Justice, 2016), 19-20,  Buoyed by public opinion polls that demonstrate overwhelming public support for alternatives to incarceration, change is afoot in both red and blue states, and criminal justice reform has become one of the few issues that bridges the political divide, with nearly all such reform packages receiving bipartisan sponsorship.[]See for example Rebecca Silber, Ram Subramanian, and Maia Spotts, Justice in Review: New Trends in State Sentencing and Corrections 2014-2015 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2016),

The reform efforts underway to date have focused primarily on reducing the number of people in American prisons.[]Ibid. The United States incarcerates 693 people per 100,000 residents. The country with the next highest rate of incarceration is Turkmenistan, with 583 incarcerated people per 100,000. This analysis includes only countries with at least 500,000 residents for meaningful comparison. Peter Wagner and Alison Walsh, “States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016,” Prison Policy Initiative, accessed November 17, 2017,  This is with good reason. According to the latest available data, the country holds just under 1.5 million people in its state and federal prisons.[]Oliver Hinds, Jacob Kang-Brown, and Olive Lu, People in Prison in 2017 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018), 1,  At the 2007 high water mark, one in 100 American adults was in prison or jail—a direct result of policy decisions that made incarceration the response to all manner of social problems from urban blight to drug use in the community; a phenomenon termed “mass incarceration.”[]Pew Charitable Trusts, One in 100: Behind Bars in America (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2008), David Garland coined the phrase “mass imprisonment” in 2000 to describe the distinctive expansion of imprisonment in the United States between 1975 and the late 1990s. See David Garland, Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences (London: Sage, 2001). To Garland, “mass imprisonment” constituted a new regime of penalty that raised incarceration rates on a quantum scale and applied policies and practices to entire categories of people (rather than individuals). This conceptualization of mass imprisonment has been adopted by many other contemporary criminologists, including Bruce Western and Todd Clear. See for example Clear, Imprisoning Communities, 2008; and Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006).  Now, paradoxically, mass incarceration is widely viewed as a serious social problem in and of itself.[]Jonathan Simon, “Mass Incarceration: From Social Policy to Social Problem,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sentencing and Corrections, edited by Joan Petersilia and Kevin Reitz (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 23, 40 & 45,  Current improvement efforts have sought to reform charging and sentencing practices, divert people from incarceration altogether, and ease reentry barriers to reduce recidivism (the rate at which people return to prison after release).[]See Silber, Subramanian, and Spotts, Justice in Review, 2016.  These strategies are all crucial to reversing America’s incarceration boom and mitigating the negative impacts that incarceration has on disadvantaged communities, people of color, state and federal budgets and, most importantly, individual potential.

However, we have not yet confronted two fundamental aspects of America’s system of incarceration. First, we pay inadequate attention to reforming the very manner in which we incarcerate—the conditions inside prison and the overarching goals of the system.[]But this issue of values has been percolating in recent years. In its 2014 report, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, the National Academy of Sciences proposed a new set of values as a basis for a new relationship between the prison and society: proportionality, parsimony, citizenship, and social justice. See Jeremy Travis, Bruce Western, and Steve Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2014), 323, The RAND Corporation also released a report in which criminal justice experts put forward two goals for prisons of the future: incapacitation and preparing incarcerated people for success after prison through evidence-based programming. See Joe Russo, George B. Drake, John S. Shaffer, and Brian A. Jackson, Envisioning an Alternative Future for the Corrections Sector Within the U.S. Criminal Justice System (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017), 4,  Excepting a few limited examples, corrections practice remains underpinned by the objectives of past eras: retribution, incapacitation, and deterrence.[]See Travis, Western, and Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration, 2014, 320-33. For definitions of retribution, incapacitation, and deterrence, see Kevin M. Carlsmith, John M. Darley, and Paul H. Robinson, “Why Do We Punish? Deterrence and Just Deserts as Motives for Punishment,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83, no. 2 (2002), 284-99, 285-86, Ongoing concern about reducing the number of people in prison has not been matched by an equally forceful focus on transforming incarceration itself—an experience that has become harsher and more onerous in direct response to decades of “tough on crime” political sentiment. It is a problem that so many reformers in the field don’t “do” conditions of confinement—as if the lives of people equal in number to the population of Philadelphia don’t merit it.

Second, we as a nation have not yet fully grappled with the ways in which prisons—how they have been used, the purposes they serve, who gets sent to them, and people’s experiences inside them—are intimately entwined with the legacy of slavery and generations of racial and social injustice.[]See generally Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010). Also see Loïc Wacquant, “Deadly Symbiosis: Rethinking Race and Imprisonment in Twenty-First-Century America,” Boston Review 27, no. 2 (2002),  The current cultural moment gives us an opportunity to address this long-recognized but uncomfortable reality. More than at any time in the recent past, America is engaged in a pronounced dialogue about racism and racial injustice, both historical and current. Culturally, examples of this firmament abound. Just this year, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation’s first memorial dedicated to documenting and acknowledging racial terror and lynchings, opened in Montgomery, Alabama.[]Campbell Robertson, “A Lynching Memorial Is Opening. The Country Has Never Seen Anything Like It,” New York Times, April 25, 2018,  Ava DuVernay’s documentary tracing the lineage of mass incarceration to slavery, 13th, was watched by millions, met with critical acclaim, and garnered dozens of awards and accolades.[]Sydney Gore, “Ava DuVernay’s 13th Documentary Wins Four Emmy Awards,” The Fader, September 10, 2017,  In 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture—the only national museum devoted to documenting the lives, history, and culture of black Americans—opened as the newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution.[]“National Museum of African American History and Culture: I, Too, Sing America,” New York Times, September 15, 2016,  Figures like Jay-Z, Malcolm Jenkins, and Colin Kaepernick have proactively used their platforms to raise consciousness in the tradition of Muhammad Ali, Harry Belafonte, and Ruby Dee.

Public discourse around the lived experience of being black in America is at an all-time high. Ongoing police violence against black Americans is regularly documented and covered on social and mainstream media.[]A high-profile example of this was the live-streamed death of Philando Castile. Castile was fatally shot in a car by Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, documented the moments following the shooting by streaming footage through Facebook via her phone camera. See James Poniewozik, “A Killing. A Pointed Gun. And Two Black Lives, Witnessing,” New York Times, July 7, 2016,  The #BlackLivesMatter movement has spawned a new generation of activists and leaders, helping spur political responses to counteract racism.[]Wesley Lowery, “Black Lives Matter: Birth of a Movement,” Guardian, January 17, 2017,  The country is in the midst of a genuine sociocultural movement of heightened consciousness about racial and social injustice, triggered by appalling manifestations and validation of racism (even from the current President himself), but strengthened by the growing number of people who are willing to acknowledge the country’s history of racial oppression and support actions to rectify it.      

It is time to acknowledge that this country has long used state punishment generally—and incarceration specifically—to subordinate racial and ethnic minorities.

It is time to acknowledge that this country has long used state punishment generally—and incarceration specifically—to subordinate racial and ethnic minorities. And so, to take a truly decisive step away from the past, America needs a new set of normative values on which to ground prison policy and practice—values that simultaneously recognize, interrogate, and unravel the heretofore persistent connections between racism and this country’s systems of punishment.[]Prison abolition is another response that advocates and scholars have called for to address the deficits of the current prison system. See German Lopez, “The Case for Abolishing Prisons,” Vox, January 19, 2018, However, this has not been implemented in any peer nation to the United States. Because this report is based in research and current practice in the United States and abroad, it does not contemplate abolition.  Committing to new principles in this way is vital. The end of mass incarceration will not result in zero people in prison. If reform efforts are successful, America would be fortunate to return to incarceration rates seen circa 1970—a rate of less than one person per 1,000 behind bars.[]The incarceration rate in 1970 was 96 per 100,000. See Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), Bulletin: Prisoners 1925-81 (Washington, DC: BJS, 1982), 2, For incarceration rates per 100,000 before 1970, see Travis, Western, and Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration, 2014, 27.  Should this goal be realized without addressing the values that underlie American prison systems, however, more than 300,000 people would still be subject to the current dismal conditions of confinement and all their known associated negative outcomes.[]As of January 2018, there were approximately 327,000,000 people residing in the United States. United States Census Bureau, “Monthly Population Estimates for the United States: April 1, 2010, to December 1, 2018,”  And, given the current make-up of the prison population, those who remain would likely come disproportionately from racial and ethnic minorities—unless current policies and practices change.

Through this report, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) offers a new and fundamentally different approach to incarceration in the United States—one that is grounded in the single core principle of respect for human dignity. This principle dictates that “[e]very human being possesses an intrinsic worth, merely by being human.”[]Christopher McCrudden, “Human Dignity and Judicial Interpretation of Human Rights, European Journal of International Law 19, no. 4 (2008), 655-724, 679,  It includes the recognition of a person’s capacity for self-respect, self-control, empowerment, autonomy, and rationality.[]McCrudden, “Human Dignity,” 2008, 701. McCrudden, “Human Dignity,” 2008, 701. It is inviolable—and remains intact even when one breaks rules or engages in criminal behavior while in prison. It applies to people living in prison as well as the corrections staff who work there. Out of this emerges a system dedicated to fairness, equity, and respect. Human dignity relies on an entirely different set of assumptions about incarcerated people than those that not only instigated and sustained the past four decades of tough-on-crime policies, but also America’s historic use of prison as an institution of racist social control.

The principle of human dignity is neither foreign nor unfamiliar—as an organizing legal principle it is well founded in law and practice both domestically and internationally. Human dignity emerged as a central value underpinning international human rights law in the aftermath of World War II—as a response to the Holocaust and other wartime displays of inhumane, degrading, violent, and unequal treatment. In the United States, it is a common legal concept that is said to underlie the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment, and it influences the interpretation of other constitutional amendments. Through study trips taken to Europe, Vera had the opportunity to witness firsthand the many different ways in which human dignity as a normative value finds real expression in German and Dutch prison policy and practice;  and Vera is planting seeds of this in places like Connecticut, where an incarcerated young adult described an innovative new unit based on human dignity principles as “an open, caring, and hopeful environment” where people want to “change their lifestyles”—a far cry from the typical prison experience in America.[]For a discussion of the European models studied by Vera, see Ram Subramanian and Alison Shames, Sentencing and Prison Practices in Germany and the Netherlands: Implications for the United States (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2013),

Basing American corrections practice on the principle of human dignity would be an intentional acknowledgment of and response to this country’s history of racial and ethnic oppression and the role formal state punishment systems have played in creating and perpetuating inequality. The United States’ legacy of legal slavery and its denial of the personhood of black Americans have direct ties to the disproportionate representation of people of color among prison populations today. In fact, foundational conceptions of outsiderhood—particularly as manifested through the markers of race and ethnicity—are so thoroughly stitched into America’s understanding of punishment that tools of social control—from legislation to case law to institutions such as prison—have gone hand in glove in imposing and reinforcing preferred social hierarchies based on race or ethnicity—and even class. 

Coming to terms with the long and pervasive reach of such a difficult history does not come easily, especially since the nation-building enterprise often requires the forging of a country’s own positive self-image.[]Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims, and Jews 1430-1950 (London: HarperCollins, 2004), 11-12 & 463-75.  This may mean flattening complicated histories that frustrate the ultimate aim of national self-realization—by drawing hard temporal boundaries between past and present, or minimizing or even forgetting challenging and inconvenient historical truths—to better align purported national symbols, narratives, rituals, and memories in a way that supports or reinvigorates a triumphant, progress-oriented national self-image.[]Etienne Balibar, “The Nation Form: History and Ideology,” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 13, no. 3 (1990), 329-61, 338 (arguing that “the myth of origins and national continuity is an effective ideological form in which the imaginary singularity of national formations is constructed daily by moving back from present to past”). According to Balibar, “The history of nations, beginning with our own, is always presented to us in the form of a narrative which attributes to entities the continuity of a subject. The formation of the nation appears as the fulfillment of a ‘project’ stretching over centuries, which there are different stages and moments of coming awareness, which the prejudices of the various historians will as more or less decisive (where are we to situate the origins of France? with our ancestors the Gauls? the Capetian monarchy? the revolution of 1789?) but which, in any case, all fit into an identical pattern: of the self-manifestation of the national personality. Such representation clearly constitutes a retrospective illusion, but it also expresses constraining institutional realities. The illusion is twofold. It in believing that the generations which succeed one another over centuries on an approximately stable territory, under an approximately univocal designation, have handed down to each other an invariant substance. And it consists in believing that the process of development from which we select aspects retrospectively, so as to see ourselves the culmination of that process, was the only one possible, that it represented a destiny. Project and destiny are the two symmetrical of the illusion of national identity.” Also see Ana María Alonso, “The Politics of Space, Time and Substance: State Formation, Nationalism and Ethnicity,” Annual Review of Anthropology 23 (1994), 379-405, 398. Alonso notes how Ecuadorian, Mexican, and Trinidadian nationalisms provide good illustrations of how minority ethnic identities and their contributions and places in the “nation” are constructed to preserve the cultural domination of the ruling group while including enough cultural features from subordinated groups, often consigning such contribution to the past. “In Ecuador, state strategies of temporalization fossilize indigenous peoples, identifying them with an epic past rather than a national future, as well as reducing their contributions to the nation to folklore while erasing contemporary realities of exploitation and domination [citation omitted]. One of the effects of the Ecuadorian national pastoral is to turn land—a key means of production—into heritage, into a national patrimony whose privileged custodian, the state, secures proprietorship of the past by erasing the genealogy of property.” Other examples of this type of “history” or “nation” making and re-making abound. In Turkey and Greece in the aftermath of World War I, and much of Eastern Europe after World War II, there were multipronged attempts to construct and sustain narratives of “nation-ness,” including a hegemonic national identity that required the suppression of a multi-ethnic, multiconfessional cosmopolitan past. In places like newly created postwar Russian Kaliningrad, the city’s multicentury past as Prussian/German Königsberg was literally erased and references to it were extirpated from national consciousness. Or in Poland, hundreds of thousands of German-speakers who remained in "recovered territories" of that country (East Prussia, West Prussia, Eastern Pomerania, and Silesia) after the war were simply reclassified as Germanized Slavs who were to be re-slavicized. Even in occupied Western Germany, Allied zonal administrations also sought to deemphasize Prussia in the teaching of German history. For a discussion about Greece, see Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts, 2004. For a discussion about Prussia, see Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009).  We have done this in America. One only has to look at the national holiday of Thanksgiving for an example of this. While Thanksgiving celebrates a widely accepted United States origin story centered around a celebratory meal and gift-giving between Pilgrim colonists and indigenous people, it silences the fact that colonization of North America was durably destructive to Native Americans—and is instead largely a story of the displacement and subjugation of indigenous people, an enterprise that was entirely constructed on a platform of racial privilege and oppression.[]Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, “Learning the Truth about Thanksgiving and America’s Origin Story,” Beacon Broadside, November 22, 2017, Also see Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2014).  Recognizing the role of race in American history chastens these types of illusions or sanitized versions of history. The point in this instance is to recognize the role of race in the making of America writ large, which makes it less plausible to fashion and sustain an understanding of how incarceration has specifically evolved in this country—its purposes and uses—without understanding how race, too, made incarceration what it is today.

Movements that seek to reveal, make amends for, and respond to historical social injustice are not novel: they have been pursued by nations that faced similarly complex and painful histories. They mark the global landscape, from de-Nazification in Germany after 1945, to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families in Australia in the 1990s, to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission between 1996 and 1998, among others.[]For information about de-Nazification, see Frederick Taylor, Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany (London: Bloomsbury, 2011). For information about the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, see Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission of Australia, Bringing Them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (Sydney, Australia: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission of Australia, 1997), For information about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission generally, see the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s website at  The United States must engage in a similar endeavor to come to terms with the nation’s history of racial and ethnic subordination, of which this effort to re-center corrections practice is but one part.[]Also see Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror (Montgomery, AL: Equal Justice Initiative, 2017),  An organizing system principle based on human dignity must govern the new aims of punishment; indeed, a state that recognizes human rights, the rule of law, and democracy demands it.

This report sits at the convergence of the criminal justice reform movement and the wider cultural push to recognize and ameliorate the country’s legacy of racial oppression and its broader connections to law and punishment. But nothing is assured. Historically, every wave of political gain for black Americans—the end of the Civil War, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights movement—has been followed by a prison boom. A fear of crime is fomented, fueled by nativist rhetoric, and vulnerable populations—people of color, immigrants, people with a mental illness—are swept into the control of the criminal justice system. A backlash against the two movements—the one seeking to reform the criminal justice system and the other seeking racial and social justice—is alive and well. The same “law and order” rhetoric uttered by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—who together ushered in the era of mass incarceration—is now being elevated and exacerbated in the anti-crime policies of the current administration.[]See for example Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, “Jeff Sessions is Trying to Take Criminal Justice Back to the 1990s,” FiveThirtyEight, February 7, 2018,; and Josh Zeitz, “How Trump is Recycling Nixon’s ‘Law and Order’ Playbook,” Politico, July 18, 2016,  People—not just black people—are reduced to “animals.”[]Dara Lind, “Trump’s ‘Animals’ Remark and the Ensuing Controversy, Explained,” Vox, May 21, 2018,  By recognizing and responding to the vestiges of white supremacy in America’s prison system, Vera hopes to breathe life into its call for humanity—and create a blueprint to practice human dignity in prison systems, which may serve to counteract the backlash that is here.

Listening to victims

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To begin, this report illustrates the current prison experience: it examines who is in America’s prisons today and the conditions they endure. (See “Examining prisons today.”) Recognizing our complex legacy of slavery and racial injustice—and that the prison experience of today is the product of prison experiences of yesterday—the report then delves into the history of prison in the United States, tracing in particular how its origins are deeply intertwined with centuries of unequal treatment of people of color. (See “American history, race, and prison.”) The report then introduces a new vision of incarceration based on respect for human dignity. Vera proposes that human dignity should serve as the cardinal principle that dictates how prison systems in this country organize themselves from top to bottom. (See “Human dignity as the guiding principle.”) Human dignity should act as a standard to which the system must perform, as well as a guide to set the contours of all prison policies and practices. While the vision presented here will no doubt be seen as aspirational by many, or even naive by some, this report proposes a series of practice principles to operationalize the concept and offers concrete guidance on what a system governed by human dignity might look like: namely, that it would (1) respect the intrinsic worth of each human being; (2) elevate and support personal relationships; and (3) respect a person’s capacity to grow and change. (See discussion of Vera’s proposed practice principles.) The report concludes by pointing to how human dignity can be achieved in the short term by outlining how some jurisdictions are already putting it into practice. (See “Achieving human dignity today.”) Even in the midst of the mass incarceration era, there are promising models to draw from that show reimagining prison is possible now.