A 30-foot-high stone wall slinks through the residential streets of west Philadelphia. It connects to four bruised watchtowers, one at each corner, to create a sort of citadel. Across the street, on Fairmount Avenue, patrons of coffee shops and bars either don't notice or pay much attention to the former prison hulking in their city.
After the City of Brotherly Love deemed it no longer fit to hold inmates, Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1971, with problems of mental illness, overcrowding, and abuse having grown rampant. A century before, the neo-Gothic structure was believed to be on the cutting edge of incarceration, birthing the modern-day practice known as solitary confinement, where inmates are held in isolation for (roughly) 23 hours a day. Over time, hundreds of prisons worldwide mimicked the same radial layout, where cells fan out from a central hub, like a wagon wheel.
Now Eastern State Penitentiary—with its asylum aesthetic and grim interior reality—serves as a stark reminder of what went wrong with crime and punishment across America.
That made the prison the perfect backdrop for the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice think tank based in New York, to launch its "Reimagining Prison" initiative, an 18-month-long program that will bring together stakeholders in the system, like formerly incarcerated individuals, correction officials, researchers, and elected officials, to brainstorm a future for mass incarceration—and reflect on the mistakes of the past.
At the launch event, which included a brief tour of the decaying cells and an exhibit on how America became the most imprisoned nation on Earth, VICE grabbed a few of those players for a chat about what that future should look like and what it'll take to make it happen.
Before coming to work for JustLeadershipUSA, an NYC-based criminal justice program with the goal to cut incarceration numbers in half by 2030, Ronald Simpson-Bey was incarcerated himself for 27 years in a Michigan prison. Eventually, his conviction on assault-with-intent-to-commit-murder charges was overturned, thanks in part to his own legal studies. Now, he's dedicated his life to the system that took most of his youth.
At the conference, Simpson-Bey called for a restorative, rather than rehabilitative, system, and a rethinking of the decades-long mindset that got us here in the first place. "I think our elected officials need to be as tough on solutions as they've been on crime," he said during the panel.
When we spoke, Simpson-Bey added that one of the first steps in that process is to recognize who actually needs to be in prison and who doesn't. "When I was in there, on the inside, I saw that there was actually a need for prison in our society," he said. "We just use it the wrong way.
"We use it in a punitive way, and we use it too much," he continued. "So what I see is smaller numbers, and smaller sentences, in the future."
John Wetzel, Pennsylvania's secretary of corrections, agreed. Under his tenure, the former corrections officer and semi-pro football player has taken an entirely different approach to incarceration. He's been reluctant to build more prisons in the state and, more recently, changed the way Pennsylvania labels ex-prisoners by not referring to them "offenders" and "felons." And, since taking the job in 2011, his office has seen a historic drop both in incarceration and recidivism rate. Last year witnessed the state's largest prison population decrease in 40 years.
So, those at the conference wondered: What's his secret?
"I just think we need to use incarceration with precision. I don't think it's ever 'either or.' I think it's always both ends," he said. "So some people need to be locked up—some, maybe forever—but not this many people, and not for this long.
Do we want a system where it's more likely that a mentally ill individual ends up in prison than in a hospital?
"I think there are some things going on, like the heroin epidemic, which people are starting to see. We look at everything through a criminal justice lens," he explained. "So when we talk about drug courts and diversion, why are we putting addicts in the criminal justice system in the first place?"
That's essentially the same question being posed about the mentally ill in America's jails and prisons. And then there's the more existential question: Do we want a system where it's more likely that a mentally ill individual ends up in prison than in a hospital?
Now, since those two locales seem to often serve the same purpose (an issue we discussed earlier in this series), it was inevitable that overlap would crop up when a bunch of experts are in a room. Mentally-ill inmates not only take up a good chunk of who's behind bars in this country, but also provide serious challenges when it comes to staff unequipped for the challenge.
The outgoing sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr., who oversees the county jail in Hampden County, in Massachusetts, is considered to be a pioneer in this field—someone who witnessed massive incarceration growth throughout his time there, since he started in 1974. He reacted with measures that are just now becoming the mainstream, like stress rehabilitation, college-level classes, and required hours of rehabilitation, or vocational training.
"As state hospitals continue to close—and even though we still have some of the best mental health hospitals in the world—the last place these individuals need to be is in a correctional facility," Ashe told the room. "So I really feel these things will need to be addressed in the years ahead."
For guidance on what is, perhaps, the best way to punish, Baz Dreisinger traveled around the world to see, and maybe even learn from, how other countries treat their prison populations. Her journey resulted in a book, Incarcerated Nations, which sheds light on the philosophy behind American incarceration and how it stands apart globally.
In Singapore, Dreisinger, who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said there's an ad campaign aimed at hiring formerly incarcerated individuals, sort of like a "ban-the-box" promotional. In Norway, she added, one of the prisons actually seems more like a cattle farm, with open space and no bars. And in South Africa, she attended a restorative justice seminar in a prison that is considered to be one of its nastiest.
"The future of incarceration is to not be called incarceration," she told me after the panel. "I think what I wanted to emphasize is that it's about reenvisioning and reimagining justice."
"So for me, the future has little to do with prisons—the word 'incarceration' itself, and the space we're standing in," she continued. "So I envision a system that is grounded in community courts, reparative systems, truth and reconciliation commissions, and 'facilities,' insofar as absolutely necessary, which is always involving a really small number of people."
"It was quite bizarre, walking into a prison and you're bathed in sunlight. You walk into American prisons, like this one, and it's a dungeon! It's completely different."—Vikrant Reddy
Nearly everyone at the conference agreed that the current layout of America's correctional system will have to be drastically redesigned in the years ahead, as downsizing and reform efforts continue. To that end, Vikrant Reddy, a senior research fellow for the Charles Koch Institute, said that tweaking even the aesthetic of a facility can have a long-lasting impact on the inmates inside. As a result, every last detail of what a prison looks like, he said, will have to be scrutinized to ensure effectiveness and health.
Reddy, too, encouraged the United States to look abroad for role models.
"I visited Germany, on a trip with the Vera Institute last year, to see their prisons, and people ask me, 'What struck you the most?' And it's very easy to answer that question, because I always say the sunlight. It was quite bizarre, walking into a prison and you're bathed in sunlight. You walk into American prisons, like this one, and it's a dungeon! It's completely different.
"They've done research on how sunlight affects a person—in places like Seattle, you're a little bit more depressed because of the amount of sun," he added. "Some of this stuff really matters. So I want us to think very broadly about physical space inside of prisons."
The conference itself was more abstract than technical. Panelists discussed larger themes of what it means to punish, what the public wants out of a correctional system, and how they intend to fix it in the coming years. But these underlying questions, as demonstrated in this series, are just one part of the criminal justice system. Sure, prisons and jails are where people end up (even if, as many would argue, they shouldn't be), but what's going on right now is a full-on reevaluation of modern mass incarceration, from the moment a person first enters the system to when, at least in most cases, they leave.
"Our prison system is doing something that time has proven, over and over again, does not change someone's behavior."—Vivian Nixon
While serving time for falsifying documents, Reverend Vivian Nixon was a peer instructor to her fellow inmates, and she quickly realized that incarceration had set up barriers to what they could accomplish once free. The system had achieved a never-ending cycle, and rethinking this wagon wheel—just as lawmakers had done with Eastern State Penitentiary over a century before—was the only way of breaking it.
"Our prison system is doing something that time has proven, over and over again, does not change someone's behavior," Nixon, who leads the College and Community Fellowship, which offers scholarships to formerly incarcerated women, told conference attendees. "So prisons need to be a place where people can reimagine themselves, to be in different places, have different opportunities, and to perform different behaviors.
"If I were queen, prisons would be places where people could envision the best possible life for themselves," she continued, conscious she was standing in the middle of a decaying old prison. They would be places that give "people the instruction, the education, and the support they need to achieve" their dreams.
This article is part of the VICE series The Future of Incarceration. Read the rest of the package here.
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