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Initial grants will focus on opening prisons to rigorous research and changing the conditions of life inside

Washington, D.C. – Arnold Ventures today announced a $10 million grant to the Urban Institute to support its Prison Research and Innovation Initiative and a $7 million grant to the Vera Institute of Justice to support its Reimagining Prison initiative. The two grants anchor Arnold Ventures’ broader prison reform strategy, also announced today, which will support efforts to safely reduce America’s prison populations, increase data and research on prison systems, reorient prison cultures and conditions to support human potential and dignity, and improve preparation for successful reentry.

“Decades of research show prisons are failing to improve public safety. We witness, time and again, how inhumane prison conditions—coupled with a lack of reentry support—devastate individuals, families, and entire communities,” said Kelli Rhee, President and CEO of Arnold Ventures. “We are committed to helping reduce prison populations and to helping turn prisons into institutions that respect human dignity and draw on evidence and data to strengthen people and communities.”

Read more: Arnold Ventures’ Vision for Transforming Prisons

The Urban Institute’s Prison Research and Innovation Initiative is an ambitious five-year effort to infuse transparency, accountability, and innovation into the prison sector. Urban will foster prison-researcher partnerships in four states, using data and evidence to guide innovations in prison design, operations, and culture. Partners will test new policies and interventions and develop key metrics to monitor health, safety, and the environment of the prison.

“This initiative will shine a much-needed light on the profound impact conditions of confinement have on the ability to support rehabilitation behind bars,” said Nancy La Vigne, Vice President of Justice Policy at the Urban Institute. “By bringing new data and evidence to bear, we can instill transparency and accountability in the prison sector and promote the well-being of all who live and work there.”


Read more: Shining a Light Inside Prisons: First in a Series

Arnold Ventures’ support to Vera will allow the organization to expand its Restoring Promise initiative by opening radically-reimagined housing units in three additional state corrections agencies, in partnership with the MILPA Collective. Vera will also assess the impact of their on-the-ground model for reform through a robust research agenda. These efforts will align with the Reimagining Prison campaign, a national movement to transform the American prison system by reshaping the norms and narratives about prisons, those who work in them, and those who are incarcerated.

“We’re grateful for support from Arnold Ventures as we radically transform the experience of incarceration, grounding it in a foundational commitment to human dignity,” said Nicholas Turner, President of Vera Institute of Justice. “Our country has a long and fraught history of racial oppression that has allowed our prisons to become warehouses of dehumanization, and as a result, we’ve lost generations of men and women—particularly young men of color—to the brutality of incarceration. This is a uniquely American tragedy, and one that all Americans should care about. To disrupt it is difficult and necessary, but most importantly, it is also possible.”

Watch live at 4 pm EST, May 15: “Transforming Prisons: A Conversation from Inside the DC Department of Corrections with Arnold Ventures, Vera Institute of Justice, the MILPA Collective, and the Young Men Emerging Unit

In addition to Urban’s and Vera’s projects, and to support its broader reform strategy, Arnold Ventures announced a slate of grants and research publications:

  • The University of Minnesota Law School’s Robina Institute of Criminal law and Criminal Justice today released “Levers of Change in Parole Release and Revocation,” a new report that highlights the significant discretion paroling authorities hold in making release decisions, which in turn shape American prisons. In light of this often underutilized power, the report offers twelve “levers of change,” or ways states can reform release processes to support safe reductions in prison populations.
  • Urban Institute last week released “Next Steps in Federal Correction Reform, Implementing and Building on the First Step Act,” a new brief documenting the First Step Act’s key measures, the actions and oversight needed for faithful implementation, and the reform’s limitations. Drawing on the data-driven and evidence-based recommendations of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, the report outlines logical and evidence-based next steps to advance federal corrections reform.
  • A grant to Drexel University, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Norwegian Correctional Service, and Swedish Prison and Probation Service, to design a housing unit in the Pennsylvania correctional system modeled after those in Norway and Sweden. Researchers hope to implement and evaluate the Scandinavian-inspired model, renowned for the way it centers values and practices around human dignity.
  • A grant to Justice Policy Institute to capture key lessons learned from the Young Men Emerging unit at the District of Columbia Department of Corrections. This innovative pilot program—developed by correctional staff in partnership with individuals sentenced to life in prison—is designed to meet the unique needs of young adults. The resulting report will provide the groundwork to scale the program by documenting the unit’s planning process, design, and preliminary outcomes. A complementary collaboration with Unchained Media Collective will document-- with interviews and video footage—how therapeutic approaches like the Young Men Emerging unit can support transformational change for participants.
  • A grant to One Voice, an organization that brings the perspectives of corrections officers and other front-line staff to the reform discussion, building common ground approach to safe, effective and sustainable prison reform. Through a National Corrections Council, comprised of key leaders representing law enforcement staff across the country, One Voice will develop strategies to help these leaders become allies in reform.
  • A grant to The Ladies of Hope Ministries to support “Faces of Women Imprisoned,” a program designed to elevate the stories of formerly incarcerated women in the movement to end mass incarceration. This initiative will support training in communications and policy advocacy around mass incarceration and conditions of confinement, bringing a human lens to issues surrounding women’s incarceration.

“We have a moral, political, and fiscal responsibility to fundamentally change our country’s approach to incarceration,” said Jeremy Travis, Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. “Thanks to significant efforts over decades by advocates, researchers, and practitioners, systematic change has never felt more within reach. For that reason, as the reform movement continues to make critical strides towards ending mass incarceration, it’s vital that we also shine a light on what’s happening inside prisons and commit to transforming cultures and conditions.”

As part of its work, Arnold Ventures is eager to engage with people and organizations who are using research, advocacy, and/or communications strategies to reduce America’s prison populations, increase data and research, reorient prison cultures and conditions, and improve preparation for successful reentry. Arnold Ventures recognizes the scale of the problem will require the input and work of those proximate to the issues, and particularly seeks inclusive partnerships with those who have experienced incarceration, have family members who have experienced incarceration, have worked in prisons, and/or are working on issues aligned with its mission. If you would like to connect or submit ideas, please reach out to prisonreform@arnoldventures.org.