17 States Open Up Prisons and Jails to Local Communities—and National Leaders—to Foster Transparency as Part of National Prison Visiting Week

New York, NY—Mayors, Chamber of Commerce leaders, public school teachers, physicians, prosecutors, faith leaders, and other community members will visit prisons and jails in 17 geographically and politically diverse states, from Nebraska and Michigan, to New Jersey, North Carolina, and Ohio. It’s all part of National Prison Visiting Week, led by the Vera Institute of Justice. The effort aims to increase the understanding of incarceration and conditions of confinement, encourage transparency of facilities, and foster public engagement around criminal justice reform. Prison Visiting Week will take place the week of November 14-18, and involves state prisons, local jails, and federal Bureau of Prison facilities.

In recent years, the American public and policymakers have reached a near-consensus that mass incarceration is not working. And the growing momentum to reduce the number of people behind bars also provides a parallel—and as yet underutilized—opportunity to reexamine the purpose and goals of incarceration, and the values that underlie its use. Prison Visiting Week is a component of Vera’s Reimagining Prison initiative, which will address these questions with widespread input from key stakeholders including people who have been incarcerated, victims, law enforcement, reform advocates and the general public. The 18-month initiative aims to produce a vision for a system of incarceration that is significantly smaller, rooted in human dignity, effective for public and facility safety, and committed to helping people succeed upon release.

Prisons are among the least transparent institutions in the United States, despite the fact that they are supported by taxpayers and return approximately 95% of their residents to our communities. In order to reimagine a new future for incarceration in the U.S., the significant logistical, cultural, and physical barriers between communities and prisons must first be reconsidered. Prison Visiting Week aims to begin this process by bringing approximately 400 community members, most of whom have never been to a prison on a comprehensive and eye-opening visit to a typically medium-security male or female facility. There, they will have the opportunity to interact with people who are incarcerated and staff, observe group activities, and learn more about the current state of incarceration. In addition to local community members, some visits will host key influencers—including elected officials and community and public leaders in areas such as education, law, and, entertainment—who will share their experiences with the broader public through social and traditional media.

“As we recalibrate our over-reliance on incarceration as a response to crime, we must not only revisit when to use incarceration, but why—and how. In order to truly reimagine our incarceration system, we must first break down the barriers between prisons and larger society. We are extremely pleased to partner with corrections departments across the nation who share our vision of prison transparency and visibility, and who have opened up the doors to their facilities this week.”
– Fred Patrick, director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections

“It is important to note that this bipartisan effort has been embraced and driven by public officials, with more than a third of participating states run by Republican executives. While some pundits have worried that momentum for reform of our system of incarceration has slowed, the strong message from the states and cities in the country—where 90 percent of all justice is administered—is that we need to fundamentally rethink what we are doing and create a system that produces true public safety through restoration.”
– Nicholas Turner, President of the Vera Institute of Justice

“It is vitally important that prisons be transparent. Inviting the public into our prisons helps the public see incarcerated people as citizens and that every part of society is responsible for their incarcerated citizens. Greater visibility helps change the dialogue from one of ‘us v. them’ into one of ‘we.’”
– Leann K. Bertsch, Director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and President of the Association of State Correctional Administrators

“As conservatives, we believe that government accountability and transparency is crucial, and prisons are no exception. The conditions in our nation’s prisons implicate our tax dollars, public safety, and most of all our shared belief in the inherent dignity and value of every human being. We must ensure that the entire criminal justice system, including our prisons, are subject to public scrutiny, just as we seek to hold public schools and other government agencies accountable for results. As we continue to work from a conservative perspective with policymakers across the spectrum to expand the use of alternatives to prison to hold offenders accountable who do not pose a danger to the public, we will also focus on ensuring that programs and conditions behind bars make it less likely that people returning to society reoffend.”
– Marc Levin, Policy Director, Right on Crime and Director, Center for Effective Justice, Texas Public Policy Foundation

“The citizens of America should see firsthand what goes on in the prisons they are spending $80 billion annually on, and as important the people impacted by our policies—on both sides of the wall as well as the victims of crime.”
– John E. Wetzel, Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

“My children grew up in the visiting room. Seeing them while incarcerated was important for me but more important for them. We maintained a connection and built a bond, as difficult as the circumstances were, that was extremely valuable when I returned home. Those visits meant the world to me. It made me feel human in an environment where those moments are rare. Visits to prison by members of the community are also important—up to 95 percent of the people here will return home, and we need to start building relationships with each other now.”
– Dawan Williams, Coordinator of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Guild; formerly incarcerated at Pennsylvania’s Graterford State Correctional Institution and graduate of its FACT (Father and Children Together) program

“The Bureau of Prisons is proud of our facilities, our programs, and most importantly our dedicated staff. The Bureau is pleased to open our doors to members of the local community so they can observe firsthand how we ensure the safety and security of staff, inmates, and the public, and the work our staff do to prepare inmates to reenter society.”
– Thomas R. Kane, Acting Director of the United States Bureau of Prisons Vera has worked with the following state and local corrections departments to organize Prison Visiting Week visits:

San Quentin, Folsom, and Lancaster prisons in California
Freemont Correctional Facility in Colorado
Osborne Correctional Institution in Connecticut
Central Detention Facility in Washington, DC
Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans, Louisiana
Macomb Correctional Facility and Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Michigan
Minnesota Correctional Facility -Shakopee in Minnesota
Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey
Omaha Correctional Center in Nebraska
Green Correctional Facility and Coxsackie Correctional Facility in New York
Central Prison and Maury Correctional Institution in North Carolina
James River Correctional Center in North Dakota
Grafton Correctional Complex and Northeast Reintegration Center in Ohio
Laurel Highlands Prison and the Philadelphia Department of Prisons in Pennsylvania
John J. Moran Facility in Rhode Island
Additionally, the federal Bureau of Prisons organized visits in the following facilities:

FCI Morgantown in West Virginia
FPC Pensacola in Florida
FPC Bryan in Texas
FCI Milan in Michigan
FCI Elkton in Ohio
FCI Terminal Island in California