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Nick Turner, Whose 'Serendipitous' Start at Vera Institute Has Become His Life's Work

Today, Turner leads the storied reform organization, but he started there as an intern. He talks to us about how their criminal justice work has pivoted during the crisis, what he’d ask the presidential candidates about criminal justice, and how he would spend two extra hours a day.

Nick Turner began his career at the Vera Institute of Justice in the summer of 1995 as an intern and today leads the criminal justice reform organization as its president. He’s seen the landscape change quite a bit over the past 25 years — from the push for mass incarceration in the Clinton era to today’s growing state and federal reform efforts — and is grateful for his early start at Vera.

“Looking back, there was something about Vera that piqued my curiosity, and I’m very grateful that I had the courage to just follow my gut and say, ‘That sounds like a fascinating place to work for the summer,’ and took a gamble,” Turner says. “It was serendipitous, and it’s just a nice reminder that, in some respects, life kind of happens by accident, not by planning. You stumble upon things that are wonderful and improbable, and they end up being these things that define us.”

Today, Turner and the organization are busier than ever as the coronavirus pandemic threatens the lives of those who live and work inside prisons, jails, and immigration facilities. Amid the upheaval, Turner spoke with Arnold Ventures about the work the Vera Institute of Justice typically does, how their work has pivoted during the crisis, and what he’d ask the presidential candidates about criminal justice if only he had the chance.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Arnold Ventures

Obviously, things have changed dramatically over the past month with regard to priorities that organizations have. What is Vera most focused on right now with regard to the coronavirus pandemic?

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Nick Turner

Well, three things. The first is obviously ensuring the health and safety of our staff and their ability to pursue our mission in a very different way than we had before — in a socially distant way, at home — and that they have what they need to be able to continue to do the work that thousands of people who are touched by the justice system and the immigration system rely on us to do. Not all of our work involves going into facilities, but a lot of it does, so a lot of that work has ground to a halt. We actually imposed a travel restriction and restrictions on our staff going into facilities before the broader restrictions were put in place for social distancing because we did not want to be responsible for the potential of carrying the virus into facilities where people are unprotected. The Restoring Promise work [a Vera model that repurposes housing units for young adults in prison to focus on human dignity instead of punishment] involves spending a great deal of time inside prisons with people who live and work there to envision and construct and create these communities, and we can’t do that anymore in the same way.

The government, bafflingly, also continues to pursue removal proceedings for immigrants in detention — including children — and so we’re faced with the challenge of providing counsel or dealing with inconsistent offerings of video hearings. We also work with a set of prosecutors who have been elected as reformers, and we often convene them in groups or we go to their offices and conduct trainings and help them implement new policies. We’re not able to do that, though some can be done by video conference or telephone, but there’s less of that. The lobbying and advocacy that we do for legislative change is obviously now being done by telephone and video and not in the halls of Congress or in state capitols. So there’s a lot that has to be reimagined, but some of the most valuable stuff, which involves human contact or engaging with government-run systems and access to them, has been put on hold.

The second thing is to respond to the urgency of this crisis. Right now, public safety means public health. It’s well-established, beyond debate, that jails and prisons and detention centers are places that are disease vectors and are incapable of protecting people’s health. Nothing could be more important right now for the people who are central to our mission to be able to avoid those places. It is literally life and death. We’re working extremely hard to get the word out — to law enforcement and the people who run these facilities — that they need to be doing everything they can to cite instead of arrest, to stop immigration raids, to find means of discharge for people with underlying conditions who are pregnant, who are over 55, whether it’s medical furlough or compassionate release or other release mechanisms. We’ve pivoted very hard to focus on that and to use our relationships and the knowledge we have. Frankly, it is disappointing how slowly some system leaders are moving.

The third thing is to think about what the social and economic consequences of the pandemic will have on the degree of care that people have for the issues that we work on. In a potential atmosphere of scarcity and fear, will people care less? Will we have the resources to effectively continue our mission? We have to be constantly assessing what we think that looks like and think about how this organization can advance change in what will be a radically altered environment — one we know will be radically altered but we don’t quite know how.

I suspect that even after free society emerges from social distancing, the ramifications of the virus and fear of transmission will be present in these locked-down and very unfree places for a far longer time.

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Arnold Ventures

Over the past few years, you’ve been able to develop and expand your Restoring Promise initiative, opening reimagined housing units in state prisons that center on human dignity rather than punishment. What have you found to be the most surprising thing about this program as you’ve watched it play out?

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Nick Turner

I think the most surprising thing is the level of appetite on the part of corrections leaders. We put out an RFP last fall, and 13 states applied to participate in a process that was radically different from anything they’ve ever done before: let Vera and MILPA come into a facility, work closely with people who are imprisoned there and the officers who work there, to envision and construct units that are rooted in antiracism, healing, accountability, and community. Given societal narratives, and frankly the realities of culture and administration, those are things you would never think could thrive in a prison, yet here are 13 states that competed to be part of a thing where they share power with two nonprofits and people who are in their custody and their workforce. That’s a radical statement. It’s surprising to me that people were like, “We’re up for that; sign us up.”

The second thing that jumps out at me the most is seeing the sites that are up and running, being surprised by the endemic respect and care in them. I’m not surprised that human beings are capable of it. Rather, I’m surprised that they flourish in a built environment, a policy superstructure and a set of institutions formed by decades-old conventions that are antithetical to respect and care. It is a really remarkable thing to observe.

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Arnold Ventures

Vera has done a lot of work in New Orleans — studying ways to safely decrease the jail population, conducting research on 911 calls, and studying the use of fines and fees in the city in an effort to eliminate money bail. What is it about this city that makes it a valuable subject to study?

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Nick Turner

It’s a city with a story, and it’s a quintessentially American city; it’s a character in the American narrative that gives it a sense of importance. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, it was incarcerating at five times the rate of the rest of the country, and it had an abominable justice system. So post-Katrina, we decided, as many institutions did, there was an opportunity to reimagine life particularly for poor people, marginalized people, people of color in that city who suffered the brunt of all the societal inequities, particularly the criminal justice ones. And we made a commitment to stay. We have been there for 14 years, which I think is special; it’s not unique, but it’s not ordinary.

The overreach of the criminal justice system is most profound in the American South, and we think that the progress that can be made in that city against some terrible, terrible practices should stand as a beacon for the rest of the South for what is possible. Pre-Katrina, the parish jail population was over 6,500; it’s now at 900. It is as low as it’s been since the ’70s, and that’s a statement of incredible progress. There’s still more progress to be made; it’s still incarcerating one and a half times the rate or two times the rate that other cities are, but it’s a substantial improvement. That’s a really important story.

Even in the case of COVID-19, in the past few weeks, Vera has done a bunch of data-crunching about who is in the jails right now and who is in on low-level charges or are at risk, and we’ve worked with other organizations like Operation Restoration. We crunched the data about who was there, and Operation Restoration was bailing some people out, but also public defenders brought lists of people to the judges to say we need to be protecting people; you need to release people who are vulnerable who do not need to be there; public safety means public health now. And there has been a pretty significant reduction in the jail population in the past few weeks, and you want that to happen in a city like New Orleans. That shouldn’t just be a coastal story.

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Arnold Ventures

If you were a presidential debate moderator and could ask just one question of the presidential candidates on criminal justice, what would it be?

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Nick Turner

Twenty-five years ago, in 1994, the federal government passed the biggest criminal justice reform bill it had ever constructed — death penalty provisions and incentives for states to abolish parole and build more prisons and put 100,000 cops on the streets and abolish college education for incarcerated students. What would you do now, knowing what we know, to have a bill of equal or greater magnitude that reversed everything that that bill did?

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Arnold Ventures

Good news: There are now 26 hours in a day, but you can’t use them to work or sleep. What would you do with those two extra hours?

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Nick Turner

Well, thanks for that. I was looking in the wrong place for extra time. I’d spend it with my dogs. I have these two Vizslas — Hungarian hunting dogs — named Pablo and Buttercup. They’re super athletic, very loving and loyal, and running, watching them chase squirrels, or even napping with them are all great ways to unwind. They always put me in a better mood than I was in before. I was about to say, “don’t tell my family,” but they already know, and frankly they would be relieved that I’d devote two extra hours to the dogs than to them. Everyone wins.