Can Prisons Change? Arnold Grants $17M to Spur ‘National Conversation’ on Reform


By TCR Staff, The Crime Report

Photo by Elentir via Flickr

Photo by Elentir via Flickr

Even as the momentum for reducing mass incarceration gains traction across the country, many in the justice community argue that the focus on getting numbers down shouldn’t distract from efforts to improve life behind bars.

Shocking reports of overcrowded and inhumane conditions and deadly violence in state facilities from California to Alabama have been dominating the headlines.

But surprisingly, there’s little hard data that can guide state legislators and corrections authorities to areas where they can productively invest resources aimed at reform.

A $17 million initiative launched Wednesday by Arnold Ventures aims to help them do that.

The largest chunk of the program—$10 million—will be awarded to the Urban Institute to expand its research into prison conditions. The remaining $7 million will go to the Vera Institute of Justice to support its three-year-old Reimagining Prisons Initiative, aimed at rethinking “the culture of incarceration.”

Kelly Rhee, president and CEO of Arnold Ventures, says the grants are aimed at producing a framework for “transformative” change.

“We didn’t think tweaking around the edges will work,” Rhee said in an interview with The Crime Report. “The system needs a fundamental, transformative approach to change.”

In a statement announcing the initiative, Rhee said that while reducing prison populations remained a central goal, the nation should be invested as well in the mission of turning prisons “into institutions that respect human dignity.”

“We witness, time and again, how inhumane prison conditions—coupled with a lack of reentry support—devastate individuals, families, and entire communities,” she added.

According to Nancy LaVigne, vice president of Justice Policy for the Urban Institute, the Arnold grant will be used to enlarge its research team in order to identify at least four state facilities where promising pilot projects can be developed.

The five-year program will involve collecting data on areas ranging from basic prison conditions to the experiences of corrections officers.

“We’re looking at prison climate, which involves anything from the lack of air conditioning to safety issues,” she told The Crime Report.

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