When the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was first built in 1829, it promised to be the leading edge of what was to be a reform of the corrections systems around the world. In contrast to other prisons that focused primarily on retribution, Eastern State put an emphasis on reform instead of punishment, and served as the model for more than 300 prisons worldwide.
The facility, which wasn’t closed until 1971, now serves as a museum focused on criminal justice and rehabilitation. Visitors can view the cells of notorious criminals like Al Capone and Willie Sutton and imagine what it was like to live life behind bars.
On June 20, a new generation of prison reformers gathered at the old penitentiary to examine the future of incarceration. The event, sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice, served to launch the institute’s “Reimagining Prison” initiative, which hopes to use improvements in the criminal justice system to create stronger and safer communities.
“Obstacles get in people’s way,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney told those gathered for the event. “For some of them it’s obstacles they create, in others they are created for them. But it doesn’t mean you don’t get an opportunity to come back to us as full human beings with full potential. None of us are perfect. We need to give people the ability to redeem themselves, and our communities will be better for it.”
The Reimagining Prison campaign brings together three disparate groups—stakeholders in the criminal justice system (both prison administrators and those who have served time in prison), policy makers and elected officials, and the general public—in an attempt to influence legislation and change the current culture of incarceration.
Fred Patrick of the Vera Institute stated that the objective is to create a system that “places human dignity at its philosophical and operational core and also promotes public safety, successful reentry, and transparency.”
In April, the Vera Institute led various policy makers and justice reform advocates in a tour of several correctional facilities in Germany. The trip, which included Prison Fellowship Vice President for Advocacy and Public Policy Craig DeRoche, was featured in a 60 Minutes documentary on the differences in incarceration between the United States and Germany. And just as the Eastern State Penitentiary served as a model for reform in the 19th Century, the German system can be instructive for similar reforms in the United States for the 21st Century.
“Reimagining prisons starts with reimagining communities,” said John Wetzel, head of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. “How do we grow a culture of empathy for our prisoners? We need to start by acknowledging the humanity of people in prison. People shouldn’t have to be defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
Developing a productive culture within the prisons starts with wardens and prison staff who believe that restoration and transformation are possible outcomes, and who seek to release changed men and women back into their communities. Prison Fellowship’s Warden Exchange program helps corrections officials share ideas and best practices in order to change the culture in prison and to facilitate successful reentry. To learn more about Warden Exchange and how you can support these efforts, click here.