We talked to leaders and activists spearheading prison reform to find out what we can do to fix our broken penal system.
This article appears in VICE Magazine's October Prison Issue
LET THE PRESS IN
by Bill Keller, editor-in-chief of the Marshall Project and former executive editor of the New York Times
As commissioner of corrections for the State of Maine, Joseph Ponte allowed a team from PBS Frontline to embed itself in the notorious solitary confinement ward of a maximum-security prison.
The resulting 2014 documentary, six weeks of access distilled into an excruciating hour of television, is hard to watch. Inmates cut themselves with razor blades and smear blood on the walls and tiny windows of their cells. They send eddies of human waste under the steel doors. The racket of wailing misery and catatonic fury is hellish. It is an in-your-face exposé of conditions unworthy of a civilized society.
And that is pretty much what Ponte, who has spent his career trying to reform our primeval prison system, intended. Transparency, Ponte told me recently, is a prerequisite for reform. "I think opening up the process—if we're really committed to change—is a healthy way to say: 'We all agree this is where we're at; now how do we make it better?'"
Reform is the new black in American corrections, if you go by the extraordinarily bipartisan chorus of policymakers, the profusion of "justice summit" conferences, and the surge of attention from news media and organized philanthropy. America seems to be awakening to issues like the torment of solitary confinement, draconian sentencing, guard brutality, and the paucity of programs that would equip inmates to reenter society.
But Ponte's kind of glasnost—the realization that society is less likely to fix what it is not allowed to see—is still very much a novelty in the institutions where America confines 2.2 million people at a cost of about $70 billion a year.
"The walls and razor wire surrounding prisons at times seem to serve dual purposes: to keep the inmates inside, and to keep everyone else out," Jennifer Gonnerman wrote recently in the New Yorker, where her expert and powerful reporting on criminal justice is published. "Wardens rarely permit journalists to tour their facilities, and some states refuse to allow any inmate interviews."
"The walls and razor wire surrounding prisons at times seem to serve dual purposes: to keep the inmates inside, and to keep everyone else out." —Jennifer Gonnerman
In most prisons and jails, reporters who get themselves on an inmate's list of approved visitors have to surrender pens, notebooks, tape recorders, and cameras at the gate. On occasions when reporters are invited to look around inside—as they have been recently in the company of celebrity visitors like President Obama and Pope Francis—they see the facilities on their best behavior.
Paul Wright, who started Prison Legal News while serving 17 years for first-degree murder and now distributes the monthly paper to thousands of inmate subscribers, says if anything the access to prisons has gotten steadily worse over the past 30 years. He suspects that as prisons filled to overflowing and conditions deteriorated, jailers had more to hide.
Julie Brown, who has uncovered scandal after scandal in Florida's prison system, says the state has taken to rejecting public-record requests by pleading either "security" or "privacy."
"Florida's prison system redacts every conceivable detail of an inmate's beating or neglect by prison staff under the guise that releasing those details violates federal health-privacy laws," she said. "This means that if an inmate is beaten senseless, and is in a coma, they do not even contact the family because the inmate's medical condition is private." (Her newspaper, the Miami Herald, is challenging this in court.)
Even Ponte, who now is trying to improve conditions at the infamous Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, has been much less welcoming of reporters than he was in Maine, according to several journalists who cover the jail.
The best writing on conditions behind bars—the work of investigative reporters like Brown, Gonnerman, Michael Winerip, and Michael Schwirtz for the New York Times, and (pardon my pride) Tom Robbins for the Marshall Project—is generally done over the resistance of corrections officials. It entails prying loose documents from a reluctant bureaucracy and coaxing information out of prison staff and inmates, who risk reprisals.
Prison authorities assert that letting reporters in is dangerous and disruptive, but their greater concern seems to be public relations. When our reporter Beth Schwartzapfel sought access to a Maryland prison last year for an interview with Willie Horton—the killer featured in a notorious scare campaign that helped elect the first President Bush—officials told us that interviewing Horton would glamorize him and revive painful feelings among his victims. (We took our request to the governor's office and got permission, but Horton in the end opted to talk by phone for fear that being seen with a reporter would draw unwelcome attention from guards and fellow inmates.)
Corrections officials know that even the most positive stories can result in unpleasant fallout. Write about educational and cultural programs that are meant to prepare inmates for reentry to society, and you can expect a backlash from voters who regard this as pampering and a waste of taxpayer money.
Rhode Island commissioner A. T. Wall, whose state's corrections system is regarded by journalists as the most accessible in the country, portrays transparency as a matter of accountability. "If we don't make ourselves available to the media," Wall told the Columbia Journalism Review, "[if we] don't let people see a lot of what we do, we're going to perpetuate a stereotype that we're running dungeons." Negative stories, he said, are "a cost of doing business."
Accountability is part of it. But there's something more. The price of keeping reporters out is that prisons and the people confined there remain a mystery, or a caricature, not fully human. Yes, there are predators in there, and innocents locked up by mistake are rare, though not rare enough. But 95 percent of those incarcerated will return to society, and the present cycle—harden them and recycle them—is both a waste and a menace to public safety. Unless the men and women and children we incarcerate are visible, the clamor for reform is likely to be unsustainable—a moment, but not a movement.
BREAK THE BAIL SYSTEM
by Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, as told to Rory Tolan
This spring, Kalief Browder, a young resident of New York City, hanged himself in his mother's apartment after being released from jail. He landed there as a teenager in 2010 for allegedly stealing a backpack, but he was never convicted. In fact his case, later dismissed, never made it to trial. Like many of his peers on Rikers Island, Browder languished in jail for three years—spending 400 days in solitary confinement—because his family couldn't afford his $3,000 bail.
Unfortunately, Browder's case is symptomatic of our backward justice system, which so often presumes that one is guilty until proven innocent. There's a national outcry against the overpopulation of federal and state prisons—and the need to revise sentencing laws—yet there's been little outrage about the overcrowding of local jails, where defendants can be held for years while awaiting trial. It took a tragedy to put a human face to the issue, and now the public is beginning to ask why we are detaining so many men, women, and children who pose no threat to society—people who have not yet been convicted of crimes—just because they lack disposable income.
The question of bail should be at the heart of any debate about justice reform, since it currently discriminates against people without means. In New York, the situation is particularly ridiculous, as it is not only unfair but unsafe. The state's statutory scheme requires judges to set bail based on the defendant's risk of not showing up in court, but it prohibits judges from considering the threat he poses to the public. If bail is set, and the accused walks free, he does so only because of his finances. Whatever it was originally designed to do, the bail system doesn't make sense and doesn't serve the public.
The question of bail should be at the heart of any debate about justice reform, since it currently discriminates against people without means.
On the contrary, it ruins lives. At arraignment, 90 percent of the accused—most of whom face low-level, nonviolent charges—are unable to make bail. About 50 percent of them will never make it at all. In New York City, of the tens of thousands who can't pay up and are left to wait behind bars each year, 70 percent are held on $1,000 or less. The vast impact is on the working poor, who lose their jobs because they are arrested abruptly and forced to sit in jail for weeks, months, or years. Families suffer enormously, winding up in social services, on welfare, or in even worse situations due to sheer desperation. Only a tiny percentage of these people go to trial. As their lives disintegrate, they may accept unfair plea bargains, even if they are innocent, just to get out. Then they leave with a criminal record that prevents them from getting employment, plunges them deeper into poverty, and in many cases results in their return to jail.
For the past couple years, through a variety of legislative proposals, I have been strongly urging the State of New York and the rest of the country to curtail the bail system. We have to rid ourselves of the impulse to over-incarcerate defendants while their cases are pending. If they aren't a flight risk or a threat to the public, they should remain free, pending resolution of their case. At arraignment, judges should have the latitude in appropriate cases to offer alternatives to pretrial detention—supervised release, electronic monitoring, and drug treatment programs, among others. The present norm, which has a backward sense of justice, comes at a tremendous moral price as well as a great economic one: At Rikers, it costs $70,000 a year to jail a person who can't post bail, whereas the alternatives would be far less of a burden on taxpayers.
Yet any such reforms should only be in the service of a more radical goal: the eventual abolition of cash bail. Washington, DC, has been a model of what you can do to eliminate this antiquated, discriminatory institution, with 90 percent of the accused returning to court to stand trial. We should follow their example. Anything less is a travesty of justice.
REFORM SENTENCING LAWS
by Nicole D. Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project
If the United States is to succeed in scaling back the prison population, our country must revise its sentencing schemes. Congress and legislative bodies in almost every state have enacted laws—mandatory minimums, three-strikes policies that lead to life sentences, and truth-in-sentencing provisions that deny parole—that send more people to prison and incarcerate them for longer periods of time. In addition, the share of prison admissions for persons who violate parole—many for technical violations, not new crimes—has doubled in recent decades, from one in six in the 1980s to one in three today. Those interested in reform must demand new public safety priorities that diminish excessive prison sentences, prioritize evidence-based interventions that reduce the involvement of legal authorities, and establish community-based initiatives in high-incarceration neighborhoods that many defendants of color call home.
There is reason to be cautiously optimistic, as some states have seen modest reductions due to changes in sentencing laws and practices. In recent years, California rolled back its three-strike statutes, allowing certain prisoners to be resentenced; New Jersey reduced sentencing enhancements for drug offenses; and New York diverted certain people convicted of drug crimes away from prison. These states have seen prison populations drop by about 25 percent, while experiencing greater declines in both property and violent crimes than other states. In New York the reduction in those sentenced for drug offenses also contributed to less racial disparity among incarcerated women, 90 percent of whom were African American or Latino. Cutting down on prison admissions for persons sentenced for drug offenses will inevitably lead to a decline in racial disparity overall.
In order to address the cumulative disadvantage experienced by defendants of color, in particular, there must be a broader approach to public safety that centers on sentencing reform and targeted interventions to reduce contact with the criminal justice system. First, learning from California, New Jersey, and New York, we must continue scaling back lengthy prison terms, even for more serious crimes. The 21-year-old former gang member convicted of robbery may be a very different person at age 30. Second, we must prioritize initiatives like the Nurse Family Partnership, a visitation program that has shown that home visits can significantly reduce arrest rates for children and their mothers. Finally, we must focus resources to strengthen effective remedies in high-incarceration communities. Evidence shows that counseling offered to at-risk youth can greatly reduce future entanglements with the law.
BOLSTER PUBLIC DEFENDERS
by Jonathan Rapping, founder and president of Gideon's Promise and former MacArthur Fellow
When Hillary Clinton recently told Black Lives Matter activists, "I don't believe you change hearts, I believe you change laws," she revealed a philosophy shaped by a career in politics. Conditioned to see the answer to every problem through a policy lens, Clinton cannot imagine altering people's assumptions. But the activists to whom she spoke understand that injustice is driven by the values we embrace, and that to achieve long-lasting change, our country must alter how it feels about minorities and the poor. In the criminal justice system, no one is better positioned to drive this effort than public defenders, who are the voice of 80 percent of those accused of crimes.
For every person who dies at the hands of the police, tens of thousands are detained in prison cells without a lawyer with the time and resources to ensure they are treated fairly, as our Constitution demands. Many will return to prison and never fully reintegrate into society. This routine injustice wreaks far more havoc on our most vulnerable communities than more flagrant examples of police misconduct. But the root cause of this abuse, whether in the streets or the courtroom, is the same. Across the board, criminal justice professionals are driven by assumptions about minorities and the poor and the treatment they deserve that foster a culture of indifference toward these communities.
As the president of Gideon's Promise, I work with hundreds of public defenders committed to rewriting this narrative and driving reform in many of the places where the promise of equal justice remains most unfulfilled. While we primarily partner with public-defender offices in the Deep South, increasingly we are working with offices across the nation committed to changing the way our country thinks about justice for the poor. These defenders remind judges, prosecutors, and juries of who our clients are and how justice demands they be treated.
Building a community of defenders to drive systemic reform requires that we teach them much more than just lawyering skills and legal doctrine. To this end, we help them recognize forces that can compel acceptance of a substandard status quo and beat the passion out of committed defenders. While prosecutors and judges frequently assess the worth of the accused based on only the facts of the alleged crime they committed, we teach our lawyers to learn about their clients beyond the case and to emphasize the dignity and humanity with which they deserve to be treated as a routine part of their advocacy, whether during plea negotiations, bond determinations, trials, or sentencing hearings.
Unfortunately, the current discussion tends to ignore these advocates and the important role they play in countering the courts' widespread indifference. Politicians often look for an immediate legislative solution to our social problems and dismiss any effort to change hearts as Pollyannish, even though biases are a very real factor in court proceedings.
Those who care about justice must demand that politicians at every level make a commitment to lawyers for poor people accused of crimes. Federal criminal justice funding to states and localities should be conditioned on the requirement that public defenders have manageable caseloads and adequate resources. Because of overwhelming caseloads, many public defenders only have a very brief time to spend with each client and are forced to work without investigators and experts, so essential to evaluating the merit of an accusation. Foundations and other grant-making organizations that hope to promote social justice should commit funds to developing public defenders into a movement to catalyze reform.
by Marie Gottschalk, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics
The late William Stuntz of Harvard Law School once characterized prosecutors as the real lawmakers of the criminal justice system because the penal code grants them enormous leeway. Changes in prosecutorial behavior over the past two decades have been leading drivers of the escalating incarceration rate. Much of the growth in prison admissions since the 1970s was not the result of judicial decisions to increase the use of prison sentences. It was due to a rise in the number of felonies that district attorneys brought forward and successfully prosecuted and an increase in the time served by people convicted of violent offenses.
To slash the incarceration rate, prosecutors will have to be cajoled or pressured into locking up fewer people and reducing the sentence lengths they seek. In some cases, binding legislation may be necessary to force prosecutors to relinquish some of their discretionary powers and to make their activities and decisions more accountable and transparent to the public. But all paths to real penal reform do not have to run through the US Congress and state legislatures.
Attorneys general and district attorneys have substantial authority to determine how prosecutors working under them exercise their enormous discretion. The differences can be vast between how one prosecutor's office and the next operate. These differences help explain remarkable variations in incarceration rates between and within states and between and within cities and counties.
US prosecutors are arguably the most powerful officials in the country's criminal justice system, the least understood, and the least transparent. Most of their decisions are unreviewable. As states and the federal government revamped their sentencing structures in the 1980s and 1990s to curtail judicial discretion, even more discretionary and other powers flowed to prosecutors. With the proliferation of mandatory-minimum sentences and other get-tough policies, and the contraction of legal resources for public defenders, the already enormous charging and plea-bargaining powers of prosecutors expanded even more. Several landmark court cases further enhanced their powers.
Prosecutors not only got tougher but created powerful organizations to represent their interests and coordinate their political activities. They also forged close alliances with other law enforcement groups and helped create a conservative victims' rights movement premised on a zero-sum vision of justice that pitted victims against offenders. Recently, prosecutors have been some of the fiercest opponents of sentencing and other penal reforms.
By changing their behavior, prosecutors could have a profound impact on lowering incarceration rates and reducing racial disparities in sentences even without any statutory changes. For example, district attorneys could shift the standard for charging from "probable cause" to "likelihood of conviction." Or they could make a policy decision not to prosecute certain low-level offenders. Milwaukee County district attorney John Chisholm has chosen not to prosecute first-time offenders caught with drug paraphernalia. Possession of small amounts of marijuana has essentially been decriminalized in Brooklyn, thanks to district attorney Kenneth P. Thompson.
What incentives do prosecutors have to behave less punitively now? As prisons and jails eat up a larger slice of government budgets, prosecutors face the prospect of shrinking revenues to run their offices. But more important, politics is all about forcing incentives to change. So far, prosecutors have faced little political pressure to do so.
Yet the focus cannot be solely on electoral politics. Reform groups need to exert ongoing pressure on DAs to make their actions more transparent and publicly accountable. A reform coalition launched Seth Williams, Philadelphia's first African American district attorney, into office to succeed longtime district attorney Lynne Abraham, a self-proclaimed "tough cookie." But since taking office in 2010, Williams has faced remarkably little political pushback as he has tacked in a law-and-order direction.
Comprehensive sentencing reform will not be enough on its own to reverse the prison boom, because the criminal justice system is highly adaptive. Attempts to reduce the prison and jail population will remain a complex and often futile game of whack-a-mole unless the penal sensibilities and penal culture of law enforcement officials change radically.
Prosecutors remain the preeminent players in this game. But so far they have faced little political pressure to redefine their roles.
by Nancy G. La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, and Janine M. Zweig, senior fellow at the Justice Policy Center
President Obama recently criticized American culture for being one in which prison-rape jokes are socially acceptable. During these remarks, he made the case that those who find themselves incarcerated should have the opportunity to reflect on their lives, recognize their errors, and make plans for a better and more productive future.
But fear of harm and actual experiences with violence during incarceration fly in the face of this goal and undermine one of the primary purposes of serving time: rehabilitation. Individuals in prisons and jails have a fundamental right to personal safety, and anything contrary to that violates their constitutionally and statutorily granted rights. Moreover, it stands to reason that safety from assault is a necessary precondition for rehabilitation.
Yet according to the National Inmate Survey, from 2011 to 2012 about 4 percent of state and federal prisoners and 3 percent of local jail inmates reported being sexually victimized by another inmate or by facility staff. And rates of sexual victimization of youth in juvenile facilities are more than double those of adults in custody. According to the National Survey of Youth in Custody, about 10 percent of adjudicated youth in facilities reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization in 2012.
While we know far less about rates of other types of violence behind bars, one survey of about 7,200 incarcerated adult men and women found that 21 percent said they experienced inmate-on-inmate physical harm—including being threatened or harmed with a knife or shank and being slapped, hit, kicked, or bitten.
What can we do to make facilities safe so that inmates are free to pursue activities conducive to self-betterment? One place to start is physical design. Opportunities to commit violence behind bars can be reduced through architectural features that afford greater visibility to inmates both in cells and common areas, as well as securing objects and areas that can become tools of and venues for violence. We visited one jail where we learned that simple steps, such as securing the cleaning closet and removing the broom handles, did the trick.
Such design and security features should also incorporate safety-enhancing technology like surveillance cameras. Our own research on preventing violence in jail facilities found that cells can be particularly vulnerable locations for violence, self-harm, and contraband. While cameras can't point directly into cells for privacy reasons, strategically placing cameras in blind spots and other vulnerable areas yielded greater inmate perceptions of personal safety.
But fear of harm and actual experiences with violence during incarceration fly in the face of this goal and undermine one of the primary purposes of serving time: rehabilitation.
But it's not just the physical environment that makes correctional facilities safe—it's the people who work there. In a study of jail inmates with mental health issues, the leading suggestion about enhancing safety was to improve the quality of staff. We've found that training staff in how to identify inmates in crisis and direct them to treatment and services can have a positive impact on how they approach their jobs and interact with inmates. Corrections administrators should seek ways to train, motivate, and incentivize officers to approach their jobs with the highest degree of professionalism and develop accountability and performance measures.
Inmates also have a role to play in preventing violence. Based on efforts to reduce sexual assault on college campuses, we know that bystander-intervention trainings have shown some success. Similar approaches might be adapted for prison, jail, and juvenile facilities. These trainings could teach inmates how to prevent or interrupt situations before or as they happen and may help create a culture that rejects sexual violence. Critical to this approach would be to provide inmates a safe and confidential way to report concerns to facility staff—without fear of reprisal or retaliation—if they are not comfortable themselves intervening.
Regardless of what got them there, all those who find themselves behind bars have a basic human right to serve their sentences in a safe environment. In order to place rehabilitation at the core of the incarceration experience, facilities must adopt appropriate design, personnel, procedures, and training to ensure that everyone who enters and exits is safe from harm and has a chance at moving toward a better future.
REINTEGRATE THE RELEASED
by Scott Budnick, film producer and founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition
About ten years ago, a friend in the movie industry invited me to attend a writing workshop at Sylmar Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles County with the InsideOUT Writers program. I immediately signed on to teach classes and began visiting juvenile halls weekly to mentor incarcerated youth. As I was creating hit comedies in Hollywood, I was witnessing firsthand how the cycle of trauma, crime, incarceration, and recidivism destroys individuals, families, and communities across Los Angeles.
But I also saw incredible resiliency. I saw that with support and encouragement, young people whom the system was ready to give up on could change their mind-set, leave crime behind, and contribute positively to their communities. I learned that many incarcerated individuals want to change their stories and begin to make up for the pain and destruction their crimes have caused. They just need the chance. So I left Hollywood in 2013 and founded the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.
ARC works to reduce recidivism in three ways: by providing formerly incarcerated individuals with a positive network of successful peers who support one another through the challenges of reentry; by connecting them to educational, professional, and economic opportunities to help them succeed; and by empowering them to serve as advocates for fair policies that decrease incarceration and improve reentry outcomes.
To help formerly incarcerated individuals succeed, the United States needs to prepare them to enter the workforce and support them in securing employment. Our country needs to develop training programs that provide them with valuable certifications and lead to well-paying, fulfilling positions. We need to expand employment opportunities through meaningful partnerships with big companies, business associations, and labor unions.
The individuals I work with are motivated, optimistic, and committed to tackling what's ahead. They often show up 30 minutes early and stay 30 minutes late. They work harder and faster than many of my colleagues in the film industry. They deserve a fair chance at meaningful work, and the right to make not just a living wage but as much as those who haven't committed crimes.
But to focus on education or employment, formerly incarcerated individuals first need stable housing. When released, the majority of members return to the neighborhoods that led them into crime in the first place or, even worse, have no home to return to. To address this need, ARC developed an innovative housing model in partnership with the California Community College system to provide housing, academic support, counseling, and other programming to formerly incarcerated individuals off a community college campus. ARC developed this model in response to members identifying housing as their greatest need.
We all want to be part of a society that offers second chances and provides opportunities to individuals seeking redemption. ARC's unique model combines support, opportunities, and effective advocacy to change lives and build safe, healthy communities. The success of our model is made evident by the low recidivism rate of members—less than 5 percent compared with California's three-year recidivism rate of more than 60 percent among men and nearly 50 percent among women.
BUILD THE ALTERNATIVES
by Raphael Sperry, president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, and Deanna Van Buren, principal of FOURM Design Studio
The growing call for prison reform raises many questions about the shape of our criminal justice system, but its literal shape—its physical structure—is often forgotten in these discussions.
As legislators, advocates, and community members push for alternatives to incarceration, we must also rethink the spaces in which we conduct justice. Previous waves of penal reform were accompanied by new styles of prisons, from the 19th century's first penitentiaries (an innovative building type at the time), to the "big house" cellblocks of the Prohibition era, to the warehouses and dayrooms of recent decades. But today's demands for buildings are different. As our organization, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, has long argued, the ingenuity and resources that went into building newer, "better" prisons helped create the horrors of mass incarceration we are starting to undo. We need to build something else entirely, not better prisons, to fix this problem.
Architects and designers are starting to identify how new types of structures in communities can improve the effectiveness of alternative approaches to addressing crime. One such approach is restorative justice, a peacemaking process that puts reparations at the victim's discretion, not the system's. Rather than punishing offenders with an arbitrary prison sentence, restorative justice programs emphasize the need to reconcile criminals with their victims, to make up for their crimes in ways agreeable to their communities.
Many of these programs, gaining traction in cities throughout the United States, are now run in the buildings of public agencies that can hinder their goals. For instance, having a victim and perpetrator meet in a courthouse or a police station can set the wrong tone: The security presence can make everyone feel like a suspect, and there are typically no spaces where participants can speak in confidence. Taking people out of their neighborhood and to a location of authority reinforces the message that the justice system is over and above the victim and the offender.
In Syracuse, New York, the Near Westside Peacemaking Project, by FOURM Design Studio and the Center for Court Innovation, is a cutting-edge example of design for alternative justice programming. In order to integrate peacemaking practices into areas suffering from high levels of crime, an existing building in the community was adaptively reused. FOURM and CCI created a peacemaking area nested within a living room for community gathering and built reflection spaces, a kitchen for breaking bread, and room for one-on-one consultations with the appointed peacemaker. The integration of soft natural materials and local artwork provide a domestic, personal feel that is fitting for a justice process focused on healing relationships. The center provides neutral territory for these dialogues and is appropriately integrated in the neighborhood, both in size and in location.
Scaling up the peacemaking approach doesn't necessarily mean making bigger centers; instead, it requires looking holistically at neighborhoods and entire cities to understand local assets, challenges, and opportunities. In Oakland, California, FOURM and the Institute for the Future worked with social workers, law enforcement, and local government to create the Restorative Justice City Map. This identifies areas where public services are lacking and proposes a network of new hubs that will bring together multiple alternative programs for addressing crime and violence. Other interventions include designing spaces that enhance neighborhood safety and expanding public schools into community centers that can provide health, adult-education, and other services that increase social cohesion.
The design of spaces for alternatives to incarceration is just beginning, which makes these projects exciting but also challenging. They have little precedent, so planning must rely on extensive community engagement to gain understanding of the needs they should address—the end users are the real experts here. Involving the community creates a spirit of partnership and respect, which is essential to making a long-lasting impact on public safety.
At its worst, prison design contributes to human rights violations—a prospect that ADPSR is working to prevent, through a proposed ban among architects on the design of execution chambers and solitary confinement spaces. But even at its best, prison design only responds to crime and violence after they have occurred. Architecture, design, and planning overall seek to solve problems before they occur. Criminal justice reform demands a new professional effort to design spaces where justice can be served in open air, not behind bars.
TAKE NO PRISONERS
by Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA
In 2015, it is hard to imagine an institution more harmful than a prison. With frequent reports of sexual assaults by correctional staff, hunger strikes by those opposing long-term solitary confinement, and many deaths in custody, prisons perpetuate violence and are antithetical to public safety.
In 2015, it is hard to imagine an institution more harmful than a prison.
In 2003, activist and scholar Angela Davis suggested that "our most difficult and urgent challenge to date is that of creatively exploring new terrains of justice where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor." Twelve years later, her admonition is more urgent and relevant than ever. Faced with the largest prison population on the planet, politicians in the US from Newt Gingrich to Hillary Clinton are rhetorically embracing the idea that mass incarceration is a national problem. Far fewer people, however, are ready to declare that prisons are fundamentally destructive and beyond reform. Both statements are true. As such, it is incumbent on all of us to collectively reimagine a viable and humane way to address our social problems beyond the endless cages. For these reasons and more, I am a prison abolitionist.
Yes, some individuals in prison have caused great harm to people and to communities. This cannot be minimized. That's precisely why I am so passionate about the need to create community-based structures to address harm and to mediate conflicts. As a survivor of violence, I want safer communities. Notably, most people who do harm will never be imprisoned. Building community-based structures will allow us to focus on harms that our current systems of policing and punishment ignore, neglect, or are unable to resolve.
From Ferguson to Baltimore, from Rikers Island to Guantánamo Bay, our prison nation ensures expensive and profound precarity and violence. Yet the current interventions posited as "alternatives to incarceration"—including drug treatment programs, boot camps, community-based supervision or probation, electronic monitoring, and community service—still depend on surveillance, containment, and sometimes punishment. We must create new forms of justice defined by principles of respect, interrelatedness, and mutuality, and we need to ask: Are prisons obsolete?
Obviously, abolishing prisons is not something that will be accomplished easily, but we do have a growing community-accountability movement we can build on. Organizations and groups like Critical Resistance, Black & Pink, We Charge Genocide, Common Justice, the Audre Lorde Project, and my own organization, Project NIA, among many others, are practicing abolition every day. We are doing so by creating local projects and initiatives that offer alternative ideas and structures for mediating conflicts and addressing harms without relying on police or prisons.
When I speak of abolition, I don't demand the immediate closing of all correctional facilities (though we can certainly accelerate the process through, for example, abolishing cash bail). The abolitionists I know understand that as a society we will always need to ensure accountability for people who repeatedly cause harm. Part of our work, then, must be to create the conditions necessary to ensure the possibility of a world without prisons. There are many vexing questions to puzzle through, but we can do this together. We must, we will, and we are.