Vera Institute Tabbed for Multi-State Effort to Help Improve Prison Cultures

By CN Staff

NEW YORK CITY—On January 10 the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) announced the procurement of $1.5 million in new funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) to help corrections agencies transform cultures, climates, and spaces in prisons across their states. Over a period of three years, Vera will provide focused training and technical assistance to two corrections agencies and deliver ad hoc support to the field at large.

The grant program is the first of its kind from BJA and was initiated in response to feedback from corrections agency leadership and staff along with people incarcerated in prison in the years following the COVID-19 pandemic. Conditions in prisons result in stress and exhaustion as well as high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, turnover, and suicide among prison staff. COVID-19 compounded these issues, resulting in prolonged staffing shortages, social isolation, and reductions in education and supportive services. Three years later, many correctional systems are still recovering.

As the training and technical assistance provider for this grant program, Vera will work with corrections agencies to pilot a range of strategies designed to make prisons safer, more humane, and more effective for those who work, visit, and are incarcerated in them. Selected agencies will convene working groups to assess challenges and opportunities and create strategic plans that address issues related to culture, climate, and space. Corrections agencies will then work to implement the plan and develop strategies for sustaining the changes in the long term. Vera and an advisory board of subject matter experts from around the country will support the agencies through the process. Vera will also consult with corrections agencies that are not selected on an ad hoc basis and support the broader field by developing resources, hosting webinars, and organizing a national convening.

Vera’s new Dignity Principles: A Guide to Ensure the Humane Treatment of People in U.S. Carceral Settings will serve as the north star for this work. Building off The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (2015), also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, the principles outline ways corrections professionals, incarcerated people, and advocates—including nonprofit leaders and government officials—can align corrections policies and practices with seven principles: safety, human dignity, morale and well-being, fairness, purpose, family and community partnership, and transparency.

The release of the Dignity Principles and the announcement of the BJA grant mark a new phase in Vera’s six-year effort to improve conditions in prisons. Vera’s Restoring Promise initiative seeks to transform prison cultures, climates, and spaces by partnering with correctional leaders to reimagine housing units for young adults and realign corrections policies and practices with a commitment to human dignity. Transforming the United States prison system has been the goal of Vera’s groundbreaking work with corrections agencies since 2016 when Vera and the MILPA Collective opened the first of now seven young adult housing units in five states. Testimony from corrections staff and incarcerated people and results from a randomized control trial of Restoring Promise units in South Carolina demonstrated the benefits of treating people with dignity, which can create a sense of purpose beyond custody and control, forge community, and ultimately make prisons safer.

Vera will apply lessons learned from the work in Restoring Promise units to this new phase of work with corrections agencies. In the coming months, Vera will issue a request for proposals from corrections agencies interested in transforming their prison systems.