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The State of Prisons

Federal Prison Reform Becomes Law

Prison reform received national attention and became a rare focus of bipartisan action as a group of congressional Republicans and Democrats coalesced in a year-end push to pass the FIRST STEP Act, which President Trump signed into law in December.FIRST STEP Act, S.756, 115th Congress (2018); and The White House, “President Donald J. Trump Secures Landmark Legislation to Make Our Federal Justice System Fairer and Our Communities Safer,” press release (Washington, DC: The White House, December 21, 2018).

While the measure has been hailed as a positive step toward reform, some have called it too modest and criticized its controversial use of risk assessment instruments, which may perpetuate racial disparities in the criminal justice system.See for example Vera Institute of Justice, “Statement from the Vera Institute of Justice on the FIRST STEP Act,” press release (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, December 17, 2018); American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “ACLU Praises Senate Passage of FIRST STEP Act,” ACLU, December 18, 2018; Tim Lau, “Historic Criminal Justice Reform Legislation Signed into Law,” Brennan Center for Justice, December 21, 2018; and Kara Gotsch, “Commentary: Progress on Justice Reform Closer,” The Sentencing Project, December 19, 2018. Also see German Lopez, “The First Step Act, Congress’s Criminal Justice Reform Bill, Explained,” Vox, December 11, 2018. Life behind bars remains grim, and people in prison called attention to their conditions of confinement this year with a nationwide strike that spotlighted, among other things, the exploitation of incarcerated people for cheap labor and uneven access to rehabilitative and educational programming.Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, “National Prison Strike August 21st-September 9th, 2018,” press release, August 2018; and Vauhini Vara, “The Viral Success of a Strike No One Can See,” Atlantic, August 30, 2018. And the landscape of mass incarceration remains complex: while the prison population nationally declined slightly between 2016 and 2017, it remains at near-historic highs—and varies by place: 30 states decarcerated, while the other 20 increased their prison populations.Oliver Hinds, Jacob Kang-Brown, and Olive Lu, People in Prison 2017 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017).

There was positive news. Hundreds graduated from college in prison programs under the Second Chance Pell pilot initiative.Vera Institute of Justice, Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative Update (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018). States across the country passed legislation improving prison conditions for women, and Massachusetts enacted a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that includes provisions for compassionate release and restrictions on the use of solitary confinement.“Virginia Law Requiring Jails to Supply Tampons, Pads Passes,” Associated Press, April 26, 2018; Massachusetts SB 2371 (2018); and Massachusetts HB 4012 (2018). But substandard health care made headlines in Arizona, and corrections systems elsewhere restricted access to books.ACLU, “Parsons v. Ryan,” 2018; and Danielle Corcione, “How the State, Prisons, and Guards Keep Books from Incarcerated People,” Teen Vogue, December 14, 2018. There is a movement for change.Patrik Jonsson, “Amid Debate on Prison Reform, Rising Voices from the Inside,” Christian Science Monitor, September 10, 2018.[footnote] The Vera Institute of Justice (Vera), published Reimagining Prison in October, which makes the case for a fundamental overhaul of the nation’s prison system—one that would move away from the current emphasis on retribution and punishment and toward practices rooted in human dignity.[footnote]Ruth Delaney, Ram Subramanian, Alison Shames, and Nicholas Turner, Reimagining Prison (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018). This vision is becoming a reality in a few places, as more correctional institutions joined Vera’s Restoring Promise initiative this year to transform the conditions of confinement for young people.See Nyssa Cruse, “New DOC Program Seeks to Support Young Women Leaving Prison,” Hartford Courant, July 18, 2018; and Vera Institute of Justice, “Groundbreaking Young Adult Prison Reform Initiative to Expand to South Carolina,” press release (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, January 17, 2018). Also see Maurice Chammah, “Opinion: To Help Young Women in Prison, Try Dignity,” New York Times, October 9, 2018.

Top Things to Know

  1. Congress passes—and President Trump signs—bipartisan prison reform legislation.
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  2. National prison strike spotlights degrading conditions.
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  3. States focus on improving conditions for women in prison.
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  4. Prisons restrict access to books.
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  5. Connecticut, South Carolina, and Middlesex County, Massachusetts reimagine incarceration for young people in adult prisons.
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  1. Judge fines Arizona Department of Corrections in ongoing lawsuit about substandard prison health care.
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  2. Some state prison system populations decrease; others continue to grow.
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  3. Texas implements new heat protocols—and agrees to air condition one prison.
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  4. For a new vision of prison, leaders are looking outside the United States.
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  5. Study finds incarcerated people often spend more than they earn at prison commissaries.
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Facts and Figures

  • 46%

    Percentage of people in federal prison in 2018 for drug-related crimes.Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Offenses,” retrieved December 24, 2018.

  • 15%

    Percentage of people in state prison for drug-related crimes.E. Ann Carson, Prisoners in 2016 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018), 13.

  • 46%

    Percentage of people in state prison for nonviolent crimes.Carson, Prisoners in 2016, 2018, 1.

  • 7%

    Women as percentage of total state prison population.Carson, Prisoners in 2016, 2018, 4.

  • 39%

    Representation of white people among total U.S. incarcerated population, despite constituting 76% of U.S. population.Carson, Prisoners in 2016, 2018, 5. For population statistics see U.S. Census, “QuickFacts,” retrieved December 24, 2018.

  • 33%

    Representation of black people among total U.S. incarcerated population, despite constituting 13% of U.S. population.Carson, Prisoners in 2016, 2018, 5. For population statistics see U.S. Census, “QuickFacts,” 2018

On Our Radar

  • Hundreds graduate from Second Chance Pell college in prison program.
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  • Massachusetts passes landmark prison reform bill.
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  • Female officers and incarcerated women at Michigan prison sue the state.
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  • Lack of translators consigns Deaf people in prison to isolation, exclusion.
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  • Illinois legislature eliminates health care co-pays for incarcerated people—but governor vetoes measure.
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  • New York legislature considers restrictions on the use of solitary confinement.
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Discussion

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