A Top Justice Reform Funder Targets the Prison System, Aiming for “Radical Change”

By Philip Rojc, Inside Philantropy

A rising tide of funder interest in criminal justice reform has opened up more resources to confront mass incarceration. Yet despite plenty of grants to spur state and local reform around issues like pretrial justice, sentencing, and parole, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the prison system itself. That may stem from the fact that prison reform isn’t exactly low-hanging fruit. Prisons are designed to be closed systems, leaving outsiders with few levers to influence how they operate.



Nevertheless, in the midst of a serious ramp-up of its criminal justice commitments, Arnold Ventures wants to take on the problem. “No other institution in the country is more in need of systemic change than the prison system,” said Arnold Ventures’ president Kelli Rhee. “But we don’t know a lot about what happens inside prisons, and what we do know is not great.” To shed more light on how to reform institutions that house over 1.5 million Americans, Arnold recently announced a new prison reform strategy along with over $17 million in grants. 

The bulk of this initial commitment is going to two organizations—$10 million to the Urban Institute and $7 million to the Vera Institute of Justice. In the context of rising philanthropic engagement in justice reform, Vera’s president Nicholas Turner called Arnold’s investment “unique in terms of size and scale and what it’s targeting.” He went on, “Arnold is saying that the effort to dismantle mass incarceration requires us to look at the condition of mass incarceration, the how and why and what of incarceration, and that’s a unique statement.”

Turner heads an organization on the forefront of many tough battles in justice reform, including efforts to reduce the number of people entering the system—the front end—and programs to help former inmates reenter society and avoid recidivism on the back end. But there isn’t much focus right now on what happens in the middle. Arnold and its grantee partners believe the time is right to change that. “This is large in scale,” Rhee said. “We don’t believe this should involve tinkering on the edges. It’s time to make radical change, and there’s an urgent need for research.”

Research and Development

True to the Arnolds’ belief in the power of evidence to guide good policy, Vera and the Urban Institute want to take a rigorous look at how prisons should change. The Urban Institute’s Prison Research and Innovation Initiative is a new five-year effort to gather information on the conditions of confinement, building on research the Urban Institute has been developing for several years. “Prisons consume a large share of public resources, but they’re one of the least transparent of public sector entities,” said Nancy La Vigne, Vice President of Justice Policy at the Urban Institute. “Prisons are uniquely closed systems, designed to be out of sight and out of mind. It can be hard for researchers to gain access.” 

La Vigne spoke of a protective culture among corrections officials who often view sharing data as opening themselves up for scrutiny. Given the fact that many prisons do play host to abuse, that’s sadly understandable. However, “there’s a growing collection of reform-minded secretaries of correction and wardens who think differently,” La Vigne said. That’s why the Urban Institute is preparing to set up shop at four prisons that’ll serve as incubators for new methods of data collection and reform behind bars. 

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