Trending Topics

Charting a new course in corrections: A path to dignity for all

The Vera Institute of Justice has developed an alternative approach to corrections that relies on dynamic security strategies, restorative practices and a mentorship model


U.N.I.T.Y. Village, an alternative housing unit supported by the Vera Institute of Justice in North Dakota.

Photo/Vera Institute of Justice

By Clinique Chapman

Across the country, corrections departments are grappling with overwhelming challenges that trap staff and incarcerated people in a dangerous loop. Staffing shortages lead to frequent lockdowns and disruptions in programming, which could lead to violence in prisons. Unsafe conditions coupled with mandatory overtime contributes to burnout and low staff morale, ultimately resulting in staff departures as the cycle repeats. Pay raises and more prisons will not address all the challenges corrections systems face — prison populations are rising again since their pandemic-low, and conditions in some are worsening — but this spring, an opportunity made possible by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) will enable select corrections departments to chart a new course.

Designed for Dignity, an initiative of the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera), will help corrections departments create and sustain safer and more humane environments for the people who work, visit, and are incarcerated in prisons. Over 24 months, Vera will provide two states with training, technical assistance, data collection, and analysis with funding from BJA.

The impact of understaffing in corrections

Change, for many state corrections systems, cannot come soon enough. In January, The Marshall Project reported that the number of people who work in state correctional systems — including prison guards, administrative staff, parole and probation officers — has dropped by 10% since 2019. In many states, officers work 15 to 20 hours of overtime every week, and 16-hour days are common. The burden of these mandatory hours compounds the challenges of an already stressful job. Prison staff suffer from poor health outcomes, have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than military veterans, and have more than double the suicide rate of police officers. Mandatory overtime coupled with low pay, insufficient training, and minimal emotional support routinely push officers and departments to their limits.

The impact of understaffing is felt by incarcerated people as well, who suffer through reduced access to education, case management and supportive services. In one state, staffing shortages stalled release planning, such that people granted parole remained behind bars. In another, the corrections department had no choice but to reassign teachers and case managers to officer posts. When reassignment is not possible, corrections departments have resorted to lockdowns with increasing frequency and reduced visitation. While these may be necessary to ensure safety and security in the short term, prolonged confinement and isolation exacerbate anxiety and worsen mental health problems in the long run.

Even taxpayers and communities across the country pay a price for these staffing shortages. Corrections agencies spend millions of dollars on overtime every year. This spending eats up a sizable portion of agency budgets and can take away from spending that would otherwise be directed to education, workforce training, and supportive services — programming that has been proven to reduce recidivism thereby making communities safer.

BJA funding for innovation in corrections

The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) has responded to these challenges by directing funding toward innovation, something Vera has been engaged in for years. Through partnerships with corrections departments in Connecticut, Colorado, Idaho, North Dakota, and South Carolina and the MILPA Collective, Vera has developed an alternative approach to corrections that relies on dynamic security strategies, restorative practices, and a mentorship model.

Vera supports alternative housing units for young adults ages 18 to 25, who are coached by older mentors over 25 who are serving long sentences, as well as specially trained corrections professionals. Mentors lead classes focused on life skills, financial literacy, conflict mediation, and healthy connection to family and loved ones, helping young people build relationships, improve communication skills, and prepare for a successful return to their home communities. Corrections officers also benefit from training focused on leadership and conflict resolution.

This alternative approach to young adults and corrections culture contributes to lower incidences of violence in the units, greater job satisfaction, and a more positive work environment. A study of our work in South Carolina funded by the National Institute of Justice found that our housing units were safer than general housing. Unit residents had 73 percent lower odds of being convicted for a violent infraction and 83% lower odds of solitary confinement stay during the first year of participation compared to those in other prison housing units. Overall, the number of young adults convicted for a violent infraction in the general prison population was 2.5 times higher than the number of those convicted in our housing units. Working in Vera’s alternative housing units clearly improved staff morale as well — 97% of staff reported feeling safe in the units, 89% reported that their quality of life had improved since working in our units, and 91% reported having grown professionally.

Our aim now is to take the lessons we have learned through our work in these states and apply them to address the system-wide challenges so many corrections departments are facing. These challenges are immense, but I do not believe they are impossible to overcome. Doing so, however, will require corrections agencies, advocates, and incarcerated people to work together. We have more in common than we may think. I personally realized this years ago when I worked at the D.C. Department of Corrections. Talking to my colleagues in corrections and the people incarcerated in the city’s jail, I realized that we all wanted the same thing at the end of the day: to live, work and return home to our families safely.

There are 1.2 million people incarcerated in our country’s prisons and 390,000 people working in state facilities. All incarcerated people and corrections staff can and should be treated with dignity. All can and should experience safety, healing, support and connection to family and loved ones. Aligning our corrections policies with a commitment to the human dignity of all is the first step.

This spring, we hope two states will join us in our effort to reconceive what is possible in prison and build a new model for correctional systems across the country, with funding from BJA. To learn more about Designed for Dignity or to apply, click here. Vera will host an informational webinar on May 1, 2024. Applications must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. PST, May 29, 2024.

About the author
Clinique Chapman serves as an associate director for the Restoring Promise initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice.