Topeka K. Sam saw pregnant women transported in shackles. She saw women forced to use buckets as bathrooms. She saw children ripped from their mothers on visits.
And the day before government inspectors came to the prison on their annual visit, Sam saw the walls coated with fresh paint, the mold cloaked, and the prison’s secrets hidden away.
Which meant that no matter what kind of information was being written down on those clipboards, it wasn’t going to be accurate. It was never going to make its way into the public eye. And the prisons would continue to operate as-is — shackles and buckets and all.
“It was incredibly frustrating, depressing because you knew that no one knew the truth,” said Sam, who served three and a half years in federal prison and now runs The Ladies of Hope Ministries, an organization that helps women transition back into society after prison. “So everything looks pretty and they just walk through and look at us like we’re specimens. They … keep moving because there was a Band-Aid that was placed on it.”
Welcome to one of America’s most understudied, inaccessible, and unaccountable institutions: the U.S. prison system.
The calls for prison reform have been loud and powerful in recent years as state and federal governments tackle a system that is crowded, costly, and ineffective. But while much necessary attention has been spent on efforts to drive down the prison population, little has been focused on what’s happening inside prisons: the conditions faced by those who are incarcerated and those who work there.
Arnold Ventures hopes to change that and fill an important gap in the prison reform movement. The philanthropy announced $17 million for a slate of initial grants that will address the lack of research inside prisons and the often-inhumane conditions experienced by those incarcerated. The effort will bring together a number of groups and will look to key voices outside our country and inside our prisons for answers.
“The effort to end mass incarceration is really about shrinking the footprint of these institutions but also changing these institutions,” said Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice. “And sometimes in the field we only talk about shrinking the footprint rather than what it’s like to live in those places.”
‘Anecdotes Are What Built This System’
As it stands, prisons are closed systems, with little accountability to the taxpayers who finance their operations.
“Very little attention has been paid to what one might argue is the least transparent of public sectors — the public prison system,” said Nancy La Vigne, vice president for justice policy at the Urban Institute. “Whether the conditions are humane, whether the conditions are conducive to self-betterment and rehabilitation. There’s very, very little public data on anything to do with the experience of incarceration nor the experience of working in prison settings.”
Prisons have been impermeable to most research. With no comprehensive national data regularly collected from inside them, there is no way for the public to know about prison conditions, program offerings, social and legal visitation, the use of solitary confinement, the nature of prison labor — all things crucial to understanding the prison experience. While there is a federal data collection effort on “deaths in custody,” it’s not routinely administered, La Vigne said, and there is next to no publicly available information on the degree to which incarcerated populations — and corrections professionals — are injured or experience self-harm.
Even the families of those living in prisons are left in the dark, without access to information about the conditions their loved ones are experiencing inside.
In order for data to drive decision-making, prisons would need to be open and transparent. To help achieve this, the Urban Institute, supported by a $10 million grant by Arnold Ventures, plans to work with prisons in four states to develop key metrics to monitor health, safety, and the environment of the prison and test new policies and interventions, using the data to guide which programs should stay and which should go.
“There is so much research out there,” La Vigne said, “but I can’t think of one study that has considered the context of the prison environment in terms of whether people are able to pick up and benefit from program offerings. Is it reasonable to expect that somebody’s going to be able to really take full advantage of a GED program if they fear for their personal safety or if they are hungry all the time?
“We want to shine a bright light on what happens in prisons, by collecting and making transparent data on all of these different factors,” La Vigne said.
John Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections, expects there to be some resistance to opening up prisons for scrutiny, but he said he thinks most prisons want that transparency.
“I think people would be surprised that most systems would likely welcome more transparency,” Wetzel said. “Certainly there are some who wouldn’t, but I think the more people understand what’s going on in prisons, the more potential for improvement.”
Following the evidence is key to reforming the system, Wetzel said.
“Anecdotes are what built this system,” he said. “Willie Horton is an example of an anecdote that led to horrendous outcomes. The super predator — another anecdote not based on research.
“But it’s been my experience that when smart people see real numbers … they buy into the change you need,” Wetzel said.
Turner agrees there’s hunger for greater transparency among corrections leaders.
“I think there will be a great receptivity to it,” the Vera Institute of Justice president said. “I think there are leaders in corrections who want to make their work more transparent and engage with the public and figure out how to improve.”
Stakeholders at the Table
Making prisons transparent requires that all voices are heard, La Vigne said. And that means listening to everyone touched by the prison system — including corrections staff and incarcerated populations.
This is welcome news to Andy Potter, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, who has watched as past prison reform efforts have ignored the men and women working in the prisons.
“Folks have been trying to get their arms around this for many years,” said Potter, who joined the Michigan Department of Corrections in 1989, worked for 28 years as a corrections officer, and now leads the public sector union. “I’ve seen the pendulum swing many times one way or the other and it always seems as though the changes are trying to be done from the top down — and with a hammer. Instead, I just feel like there should be more to learn from those individuals who interact the most with those incarcerated and those who secure the area, the front-line staff. I think there should be dialogue started there.”
To encourage that, Potter in 2017 founded One Voice, a national campaign that gives corrections officers a voice in the prison reform debate. By bringing them together with academics, policymakers, and other stakeholders to discuss ideas for prison reform, it shifts the conversation from debating the tensions between imprisoned people and corrections staff to one that is centered on protecting the safety and interests of all who are impacted by the corrections system.
“Our system is built around resentment, animosity, creating the atmosphere where dignity gets taken out of it in the workplace and for those incarcerated,” Potter said. “And to truly fix that first and bring humanity back into this, you have to start with the folks it affects the most. This just makes sense to me.”
Another voice ready to be heard: Topeka K. Sam.
Thinking back to those federal inspections, Sam believes those inside the system should be consulted to shed a light on what’s wrong. “You need people who live in a prison during those times to say, ‘Hey, this is what we need to look for’ and respect them in those places.
“So often we’re not looked at as an expert, and we should be the ones who actually are creating the data, driving the data, having input in … the polling, what are the questions, what are the right questions, what have you been missing,” Sam said.
Turner, of the Vera Institute of Justice, agrees the key to reform is listening to those who are on the front lines.
“This is a statement about the value of the lives that matter in there,” Turner said. “Those lives are not just people who live there but people who work there as well, and we as a society need to be committed to their safety and their well-being.”
Potter is glad Arnold Ventures wants to make prisons more transparent while assessing the efficacy of programs that are in place. “It’s important that we continue the reforms that work and also identify the ones that don’t, along with identifying the need for training and resources to implement those reforms. We need to be sure that the reforms don’t hinder safety and security.
“Look, we all have to be innovative, we all have to think about this and reimagine it differently,” Potter said. “But that also means we also have to be really honest about what works and what doesn’t work.”
Living Inside the Prison Walls
While incarceration itself is supposed to be the punishment, many prisons breed an atmosphere of deprivation that goes beyond losing one’s freedom. Those who are incarcerated are often faced with violence, isolation, a lack of basic human services, and limited access to their loved ones.
Which is why Arnold Ventures is also focusing its efforts on creating better prison environments.
Sam has seen the indignity of life inside prisons. During her time in federal prison, she was moved from Virginia to Connecticut to Illinois to New York.
“I’ve witnessed people talking to people like they’re less than,” Sam said. “Calling people inmates, felons, stripping you of your name, being associated with a number like you don’t even exist. I’ve witnessed being dehumanized and degraded and being locked into a cell because someone is angry and had a bad day. Being thrown into solitary confinement because they can.”
When Sam, who suffers from uterine fibroids, would ask for more sanitary pads during her period, she was told to put her used pads in a brown paper bag and show them to the male officers before she could get more.
“I’ve witnessed so much. Verbal abuse. The scare tactics. All of it. Because the system is made to oppress. It’s made to continue to back-break you. It’s not there to help. So a person who is already broken comes into a dark environment and then gets broken more, how do you expect them to come back?”
Sam points to the SPCA videos on television that show dogs in cages. “You feel so bad for the animals. But people are living like that on top of each other. In some places, no bathrooms, buckets that they have to use to go to the bathroom for more than one person in a cell.”
On top of the conditions, prisons remain violent places, rife with physical and sexual assault.
“You don’t know what it’s like until you experience it firsthand,” Sam said of prison life. “It’s different. It’s a different dynamic.” And that’s why prisons need a light shined on them, she said, so people on the outside can know what’s happening on the inside.
Arthur Rizer, director of criminal justice and civil liberties at the R Street Institute, says the only way to advance prison reform is to first address the inhumane conditions inside them.
“I believe as a great nation we have a responsibility to treat everyone with human dignity, and if we’re not treating people with human dignity, we are not only failing but we are doing things that are actually counter to everything that we claim to be,” Rizer said. “As a Christian man, we are supposed to ask ourselves what would Jesus do, and I find it very hard to believe that a man who was treated very poorly by the criminal justice system would be in favor of what we do now. And we can do better and we know we can do better. We have evidence of how to do it better and yet we don’t do it.”
I’ve witnessed so much. Verbal abuse. The scare tactics. All of it. Because the system is made to oppress.Topeka K. Sam Founder of The Ladies of Hope Ministries
Working Inside the Prison Walls
Changing the conditions inside prisons includes making life better for those who work there.
Potter, who spent decades as a corrections officer and now advocates for them, has seen the toll the job takes on the men and women working inside prisons.
“When corrections officers first take this job, the majority [do so] because they think they are going to make a difference,” Potter said. “They think they are going to be able to help somebody. … The day that they walk through the front gate of a prison, it starts to dawn on them that they are not there to help anybody. The environment, the rules and policies and procedures are not set up in a way that is conducive to that kind of thinking.”
For example, in some states, if a corrections officer is talking to an incarcerated person for too long, they may be accused of over-familiarization — and there’s a good chance they’ll be put under investigation.
But it’s not only about the policies. The work environment itself takes a toll. According to a 2018 survey, 81 percent of corrections professionals say efforts are needed to increase respect and address hostility between officers and those incarcerated.
Potter believes much of that hostility is fueled by a narrative that’s been around for decades and reinforced in TV and movies — that corrections officers are as much of a bad guy as anyone else. “There’s no good guy here,” Potter said of the long-held belief. “While it’s not actually the case, the perception is there’s no good guy working in prison and there’s no good guy in prison.”
Add that to the violence prevalent in prisons and it helps explain the high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among corrections staff, Potter said.
“It’s not uncommon for someone who is incarcerated to be stabbed or beaten to death in a cell by another person who is incarcerated. It’s not uncommon to see someone who is incarcerated trying to hang themselves,” said Potter, adding that when a fight breaks out, it’s the unarmed corrections officer’s job to run in and break it up. It’s also not uncommon for someone incarcerated to try to attack an officer.
According to data from the Vera Institute, corrections officers experience depression, PTSD, and suicide at rates significantly higher than the national average. In a recent survey of more than 8,000 correctional staff in California, more than half of officers reported that violence was a routine occurrence; 63 percent reported seeing or handling dead bodies while at work; and 73 percent had seen someone seriously injured or killed while on the job.
Just this past March, a corrections officer at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, with 25 years of service was found dead inside his truck — he had killed himself by keeping the engine running inside a sealed garage.
His was the fourth such death at Cotton in two years, and many believe it was caused by the stress of his job.
Potter has seen the situation play out over and over in his years in corrections.
“I’ve seen friends die, I’ve seen them retire and die, I’ve seen them overdose, I’ve seen them drink themselves to death, I’ve seen them commit suicide in terrible ways,” Potter said. “And I just have the conclusion that it has to do with the environment, and if it means that I can somehow bring folks together to think about the best ways to approach it from all sides, that’s a conversation I want to be in, and if it isn’t there, I want to start it.”
Wetzel of Pennsylvania has seen an alarming rate of staff suicides as well as an increase in suicides among people who are incarcerated, with nearly a third of his prison population suffering from mental illness.
“Frankly, my premise is the structure we have in our prisons damages everyone who is involved, including victims,” Wetzel said. “It’s important that we try to seek another model.”
Many in the reform community agree: It’s crucial to find another model on which to base our country’s prisons. As part of its broader reform strategy, Arnold Ventures is drawing inspiration from facilities in other countries that have radically changed what prison looks like for those incarcerated and those who work there — changes that have not only made life better but have improved public safety.
Take Germany, Norway, and Sweden. There, as Wetzel witnessed on a trip to explore their prison systems, those who are incarcerated are given space and privacy and are not subjected to sub-par conditions.
“It was a pretty transformative experience to see corrections in another country that was so humane,” Wetzel said. “Prisons aren’t crowded. Single cell. Very normalized environment, which is part of their constitution in Germany. The maximum time anybody can serve in Germany is 15 years no matter what you did.
“I’ve never had that point of reference of a system that was designed to not inflict further pain,” Wetzel said.
As part of a new grant supported by Arnold Ventures, Wetzel will be sending a dozen or so staffers to Sweden and Norway to learn more about their programs, and when they come back, he’s giving them a housing unit in an urban prison outside Philadelphia to see if they can replicate what they saw. They will randomly assign spots to incarcerated individuals and then measure the outcomes.
“We thought it would be interesting to see if Little Sweden could be successful in a place that culturally is as different as you can possibly get,” Wetzel said. “But we have to make that data case, and that’s why we wanted to do it with random assignments. I researched the heck out of it.”
Arnold Ventures is also providing a $7 million grant to the Vera Institute of Justice to support its Restoring Promise initiative, which uses some of the best practices from overseas and the juvenile system — like a commitment to family contact and providing safe and therapeutic space — to transform prison environments for young adults.
The institute has created five units, two in Connecticut, one in Massachusetts, and two in South Carolina, that are based on these best practices and also rely on the people who are incarcerated and who work in prison to help shape what a restorative, accountable, and healing community looks like.
The first unit in Connecticut, called T.R.U.E., opened in January 2017 at Cheshire Correctional Institution and in its short life has already seen significant success and recognition, including being featured on “60 Minutes.”
With the Arnold Ventures grant and in partnership with the MILPA Collective, Vera will open reimagined housing units in three additional states and assess the impact of the model through research.
“We have a process by which we transform communities for young adults into ones that are restoring promise,” said Turner, Vera’s president. “All of those things point at really embracing human dignity and human potential.”
Turner believes Arnold Ventures’ combination of grants to both the Urban Institute and the Vera Institute of Justice — one about transparency and accountability and the other about culture change in prisons — will be transformative.
“One of the reasons it has been so difficult to achieve transformation and prison reform and culture reform in prison is that they are the most nontransparent institutions in the country. We have 2.2 million people locked up and we can’t see how they’re treated,” Turner said of the combination of people in prisons and jails across the country. “So I just think that the pairing of a commitment to transparency with prison culture change is incredibly important, because they reinforce one another.”
Frankly, my premise is the structure we have in our prisons damages everyone who is involved, including victims. It’s important that we try to seek another model.John Wetzel Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections
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