Prison Reform

I have written several articles on postings related to Reform in America. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional areas rife for reform.

Prison reform is the attempt to improve conditions inside prisons, improve the effectiveness of a penal system, or implement alternatives to incarceration.

What is prison reform and why is it important?

Prison reform is one remedy to the ineffectiveness of our justice system that many states and the federal government have explored. Prison reform is focused on ensuring public safety and restoration for those impacted by crime through the creation of a constructive culture within our prison system.

What were the main goals of the prison reform?

The reforms are targeted to address the core behavioral issues that result in criminality, with the goal of reducing the likelihood that inmates re-offend either while incarcerated or after their release.

What is the problem with prison reform?

Starting Points. Prison reform becomes an issue worldwide. The central argument for prison reform is human rights. Imprisonment is related to deprivation of basic right of liberty, poverty, public health implications, and other detrimental social impact such as disrupting relationship and family structure.

What prison reforms are needed?

The penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation. Juvenile offenders shall be segregated from adults and be accorded treatment appropriate to their age and legal status.

What is the full meaning of recidivism?

Recidivism is one of the most fundamental concepts in criminal justice. It refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime.

What are the 3 highest categories for recidivism?

Of the sentences for violent crimes, the highest recidivism rate was for the “other” offense group at 75%, followed by robbery at 63.9%, then burglary at 53.5%.

What Is Criminal Justice Reform?

Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Laquan McDonald. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Freddy Gray. Philando Castile. Jordan Edwards. Breonna Taylor. These are some of the names that have been in the headlines not because of how they lived but because of how they died.

In the last few years, criminal justice reform has been woven into the fabric of a national conversation. Reports of police brutality, racial profiling, prosecutorial misconduct, and sentencing discrepancies seem like common occurrences. Grassroots advocates to celebrities highlight these inequities and argue that many laws disproportionately affect people of color and lower socioeconomic status.

The defenders of clients in criminal defense and immigration cases believe in everyone’s right to skilled defense. We genuinely care about each client, striving to secure for them a future full of possibilities. As former prosecutors, we also have the unusual vantage point of seeing criminal justice from both sides.

The question of whether our criminal justice system needs an overhaul is a complicated one. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. This blog is in no way an attempt to say definitively what needs to be done but is part of the bigger conversation. If more people, from inside and outside the system, engage in thoughtful discussion, maybe some answers will come to light.

Criminal Justice vs. Prison Reform

Both reforms are entwined but not the same. Criminal justice reform is an umbrella term that covers all aspects of the criminal justice process, from how law enforcement polices our communities to how prisons house and rehabilitate the convicted. Prison reform focuses only on prison, but there are many aspects to that as well.

Criminal justice reform addresses structural issues in criminal justice systems such as racial profiling, police brutality, overcriminalization, mass incarceration, and recidivism. Criminal justice reform can take place at any point where the criminal justice system intervenes in citizens’ lives, including lawmaking, policing, and sentencing.

Prison reform is the attempt to improve conditions inside prisons, improve the effectiveness of a penal system, or implement alternatives to incarceration. It also focuses on ensuring the reinstatement of those whose lives are impacted by crimes.

Food for Thought

To see how criminal justice impacts our country, let’s look at some numbers to help bring to life what could be an intangible system to some.

Some statistics helpful to the criminal justice reform conversation include:

  • The U.S. is 5% of the world population yet is 25% of the incarcerated population.
  • The U.S. spent $87 billion on jails and prisons in 2015.
  • The prison population is 11 times higher than it was 50 years ago, greatly outpacing the increase in our overall population.
  • The U.S. is the only country in the world where kids as young as 13 have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
  • Spending on police has tripled over the last 40 years.
  • black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person despite approximately equal rates of use.
  • Recidivism rates are high. A May 2018 U.S. Department of Justice report on state prisoner recidivism followed a sample of the 412,731 prisoners released by 30 states in 2005. About 68% were arrested again within three years, 79% within six years and 83% in nine years.
  • Improper argument at trial and withheld evidence of innocence were the forms of misconduct alleged most commonly by wrongfully convicted defendants.
  • 440 civilians have been killed by police in the first six months of 2021 with a total of 1,021 killed in 2020.

A Local Look

In Florida, they have almost 150,000 people in prison or jail. For every 100,000 people in the Sunshine State, 444 are incarcerated in prison and 330 in jail. That’s 21% higher than the national average. About 14% of our prison population is serving a life sentence and 178 juveniles are serving life without parole. Florida’s population has tripled in the last 40 years yet the prison population grew 1000%. Florida spends $2.3 billion annually on corrections, an increase of $100 million since 2014.

Organizations Focusing on Reform

There are numerous organizations whose mission is to change aspects of the criminal justice system, whether it is front-end policies in policing or back-end policies in incarceration.

The following is a list of some of the organizations involved in criminal justice reform:

Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice ReformThe organization is dedicated to comprehensive reform that ends overreliance on incarceration and eliminates racial disparities in Florida’s criminal justice system

Equal Justice Initiative. The Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.

ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. The Criminal Law Reform Project focuses its work on the “front end” of the criminal legal system—from policing to sentencing—seeking to end excessively harsh criminal justice policies that result in mass incarceration, over-criminalization, and racial injustice, and stand in the way of a fair and equal society.

Brennan Center for Justice. The center’s Justice project works to end mass incarceration and other criminal justice policies that target communities of color, and to create a rational and effective justice system.

Southern Poverty Law Center. SPLC is working to reform the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems, so they operate fairly and equitably; to ensure the dignity and humanity of those interacting with these systems; and to reduce the population of jailed, detained, and incarcerated juveniles and adults in the United States.

The Sentencing Project. The Sentencing Project promotes effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. UNODC’s work in criminal justice reform covers: police reform, prosecution service, judiciary (the courts), access to legal defense and legal aid, prison reform and alternatives to imprisonment, and Restorative justice.

Council on Criminal Justice. The Council on Criminal Justice works to advance understanding of the criminal justice policy choices facing the nation and build consensus for solutions that enhance safety and justice for all.

Some Good News

In fact, over the last decade, 34 states have reduced both imprisonment and crime rates, proving that less incarceration does not necessarily lead to unsafe communities. In Florida, the state legislature passed a bill that allowed for the expungement of criminal records of juveniles who took part in behavioral programs. The new Gail’s Law established a statewide database for tracking rape kits. In 2020, convicted felons who had completed their sentences (and had paid all court fees, fines, or restitution) were allowed to vote.

At the federal, state, and local levels, policy changes have begun to make small inroads, with criminal justice reform evolving toward evidence-based, commonsense approaches to public safety.

Moving Forward

The statistics and the work of reform organizations highlight how criminal justice reform isn’t just about those arrested or serving sentences. The financial, social, and health costs affect us all.

This conversation will undoubtedly continue for many years to come, but we hope the good news begins to outweigh the bad.

Why promote prison reform?

Central to the arguments to promote prison reforms is a human rights argument – the premise on which many UN standards and norms have been developed. However, this argument is often insufficient to encourage prison reform programs in countries with scarce human and financial resources. The detrimental impact of imprisonment, not only on individuals but on families and communities, and economic factors also need to be taken into account when considering the need for prison reforms.

Human rights considerations

A sentence of imprisonment constitutes only a deprivation of the basic right to liberty. It does not entail the restriction of other human rights, with the exception of those which are naturally restricted by the very fact of being in prison. Prison reform is necessary to ensure that this principle is respected, the human rights of prisoners protected and their prospects for social reintegration increased, in compliance with relevant international standards and norms.

Imprisonment and poverty

Imprisonment disproportionately affects individuals and families living in poverty. When an income generating member of the family is imprisoned the rest of the family must adjust to this loss of income. The impact can be especially severe in poor, developing countries where the state does not provide financial assistance to the indigent and where it is not unusual for one breadwinner to financially support an extended family network. Thus the family experiences financial losses as a result of the imprisonment of one of its members, exacerbated by the new expenses that must be met – such as the cost of a lawyer, food for the imprisoned person, transport to prison for visits and so on. When released, often with no prospects for employment, former prisoners are generally subject to socio-economic exclusion and are thus vulnerable to an endless cycle of poverty, marginalization, criminality and imprisonment. Thus, imprisonment contributes directly to the impoverishment of the prisoner, of his family (with a significant cross-generational effect) and of society by creating future victims and reducing future potential economic performance.

Public health consequences of imprisonment

Prisons have very serious health implications. Prisoners are likely to have existing health problems on entry to prison, as they are predominantly from poorly educated and socio-economically deprived sectors of the general population, with minimal access to adequate health services. Their health conditions deteriorate in prisons which are overcrowded, where nutrition is poor, sanitation inadequate and access to fresh air and exercise often unavailable. Psychiatric disorders, HIV infection, tuberculosis, hepatitis B and C, sexually transmitted diseases, skin diseases, malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea and injuries including self-mutilation are the main causes of morbidity and mortality in prison. In countries with a high prevalence of TB in the outside community, prevalence of TB can be up to 100 times higher inside the prisons. In most countries HIV infection in prisons is significantly higher than within the population outside prison, especially where drug addiction and risk behaviours are prevalent. Prison staff are also vulnerable to most of the diseases of which prisoners are at risk.

Prisons are not isolated from the society and prison health is public health. The vast majority of people committed to prison eventually return to the wider society. Thus, it is not in vain that prisons have been referred to as reservoirs of disease in various contexts.

Detrimental social impact

Imprisonment disrupts relationships and weakens social cohesion, since the maintenance of such cohesion is based on long-term relationships. When a member of a family is imprisoned, the disruption of the family structure affects relationships between spouses, as well as between parents and children, reshaping the family and community across generations. Mass imprisonment produces a deep social transformation in families and communities.

The cost of imprisonment

Taking into account the above considerations, it is essential to note that, when considering the cost of imprisonment, account needs to be taken not only of the actual funds spent on the upkeep of each prisoner, which is usually significantly higher than what is spent on a person sentenced to non-custodial sanctions, but also of the indirect costs, such as the social, economic and healthcare related costs, which are difficult to measure, but which are immense and long-term.


Key among standards and norms that relate directly to prison reform are:

  • United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners
  • Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention and Imprisonment
  • Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners
  • United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-Custodial Measures (Tokyo Rules)
  • United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (Bangkok Rules)

Other UN instruments relevant to the prison system:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners
  • UN Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
  • Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials
  • Basic Principles on the use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials
  • Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty
  • UN Recommendations on Life Imprisonment
  • Basic principles on the use of restorative justice programs in criminal matters
  • Kampala Declaration on Prison Conditions in Africa
  • Arusha Declaration on Good Prison Practice


It is of utmost importance that prison reform is not regarded in isolation from broader criminal justice reform. UNODC believes that effective prison reform is dependent on the improvement and rationalization of criminal justice policies, including crime prevention and sentencing policies, and on the care and treatment made available to vulnerable groups in the community. Reform of the prison system should therefore always take into account the needs relating to the reform of the criminal justice system as a whole and employ an integrated, multi-disciplinary strategy to achieve sustainable impact. Thus, reform initiatives will usually need to also encompass criminal justice institutions other than the prison service, such as the judiciary prosecution and police service, as relevant.

An integrated approach also takes account of areas that are typically not regarded as part of the “criminal justice system”. These include, for example, the development of substance dependence treatment programs in the community or psycho-social counselling programs, to which certain offenders may be diverted, rather than being imprisoned, thus ensuring that services in prison are not overstretched, trying to meet the needs of a growing number of prisoners with special needs.

The integrated strategy to prison reform can benefit immensely from the establishment and development of collaboration and partnerships with other UN agencies and other international and national organizations engaged in complementary programs.


UNODC’s technical assistance in the area of prison reform covers the following thematic areas:

  • pre-trial detention;
  • prison management;
  • alternative measures and sanctions;
  • social reintegration.

A cross-cutting theme relevant to all prison related interventions is healthcare, including specifically the prevention, management and treatment of HIV/AIDS and drug dependency. Read more….

Pre-trial detention

There are three main issues that need to be taken into consideration in the context of pre-trial detention: firstly, pre-trial detention is overused in most countries worldwide and in many developing countries the size of the pre-trial prisoner population is larger than that of the convicted prisoner population. This situation contradicts the provisions in international standards, including ICCPR, that provide for the limited use of pre-trial detention, only when certain conditions are present. Secondly, pre-trial detention is the period most open to abuse in the criminal justice process. Recognizing the particular vulnerability of pre-trial detainees, international human rights instruments provide for a large number of very specific safeguards to ensure that the rights of detainees are not abused, that they are not ill-treated and their access to justice not hindered. Thirdly, although pre-trial detainees should be presumed innocent until found guilty by a court of law, and treated as such, conditions in pre-trial detention are often much worse than those of prisons for convicted prisoners. In addition, the lack of resources for prisons in many low-income countries means that people in detention do not have access to legal advice and assistance, with the result being that they may overstay on remand, and/or not receive a fair trial, further adding to the congestion of prisons. Therefore, improving access to justice, supporting legal and paralegal aid programmes, improving information management and cooperation between courts and prisons, to speed up the processing of cases, as well as assisting with the development of safeguards for pre-trial detainees, such as independent monitoring and inspection mechanisms, comprise important elements of UNODC’s work in the field of penal reform.

Prison Management

In order for a prison system to be managed in a fair and humane manner, national legislation, policies and practices must be guided by the international standards developed to protect the human rights of prisoners. Prison authorities have a responsibility to ensure that the supervision and treatment of prisoners is in line with the rule of law, with respect to individuals’ human rights, and that the period of imprisonment is used to prepare individuals for life outside prison following release. But often national legislation and rules relating to the management of prisons are outdated and in need of reform. In many countries the prison department is under the authority of police or military institutions and managers and staff have received no specific training regarding prison management. Staff morale is usually low and effective leadership to drive prison reform is lacking. Information collection and management systems are also very inadequate (or non-existent) in many prison systems worldwide, hindering the development of sound policies and strategies based on reliable, factual data. UNODC can provide much assistance in reforming national legislation, developing training programmes for prison managers to improve their leadership role and staff to apply international standards and norms in their daily practice, and by contributing to the institutional capacity building of prison administrations.

Alternative Measures and Sanctions

Overcrowding is a key concern in almost all prison systems worldwide, while punitive criminal policies, as well as a shortage of social protection services in the community, continue to contribute to the rapid growth of the prison population in many countries. As mentioned earlier, overcrowding is the root cause of many human rights violations in prisons. Solutions to overcrowding need to be explored and implemented in almost all countries in which UNODC is operational.

While overcrowding can be temporarily decreased by building new prisons, practice shows that trying to overcome the harmful effects of prison overcrowding through the construction of new prisons does not provide a sustainable solution. In addition, building new prisons and maintaining them is expensive, putting pressure on valuable resources. Instead, numerous international instruments recommend a rationalization in sentencing policy, including the wider use of alternatives to prison, aiming to reduce the number of people being isolated from society for long periods.

The use of non-custodial sanctions and measures also reflects a fundamental change in the approach to crime, offenders and their place in society, changing the focus of penitentiary measures from punishment and isolation, to restorative justice and reintegration. When accompanied by adequate support for offenders, it assists some of the most vulnerable members of society to lead a life without having to relapse back into criminal behavior patterns. Thus, the implementation of penal sanctions within the community, rather than through a process of isolation from it, offers in the long term better protection for society. Supporting the introduction and implementation of non-custodial sanctions and measures is therefore a key element of UNODC’s work in the area of prison reform.

Social Reintegration

One of the principle objectives of the United Nations in the area of prison reform is to contribute to the successful reintegration of prisoners into society following their release. Social reintegration initiatives should start as early as possible within the criminal justice process in order to have maximum effect. This means that diversion from the criminal justice process (especially of vulnerable groups) to appropriate treatment programs, non-custodial sanctions, instead of isolation from society and purposeful activities and programs in prisons, can all be considered as elements of a comprehensive “social reintegration” policy. Interventions to support former prisoners following release from prison, continuum of care in the community for those in need, will all be more effective if the period in prison is used to prepare a prisoner for re-entry to society. This policy requires close coordination between criminal justice institutions and social protection and health services in the community and probation services where they exist. UNODC can offer key support and advice in this area, including supporting the development of social reintegration programmes in prisons and in assisting with the planning and implementation of continuum of care and support in the community.


Equivalence of healthcare and the right to health is a principle that applies to all prisoners, who are entitled to receive the same quality of medical care that is available in the community. However, this right is rarely realised in prisons, where usually healthcare services are extremely inadequate. Prison health services are almost always severely under-funded and understaffed and sometimes non-existent. Most of the time under the responsibility of the authority in charge of the prisons administration, prison health services work in complete isolation from national health authorities, including national HIV and national TB programmes. Specific women’s health needs are rarely addressed.

The right to health includes not only the access to preventive, curative, reproductive, palliative and supportive health care but also the access to the underlying determinants of health, which include: safe drinking water and adequate sanitation; safe food; adequate nutrition and housing; safe health and dental services; healthy working and environmental conditions; health-related education and information and gender equality.

Technical assistance provided by UNODC in this area is based on the premise that penal reform and health in prisons are interrelated, and that an integrated strategy needs to be adopted in addressing the enormous challenge of HIV/AIDS and other transmissible diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) in prison settings. Improved prison management and prison conditions are fundamental to developing a sustainable health strategy in prisons. In addition, prison health is an integral part of public health, and improving prison health is crucial for the success of public health policies.


The Federal Bureau of Prisons is undertaking sweeping reforms designed to reduce recidivism and strengthen public safety.  By focusing on evidence-based rehabilitation strategies, these reforms touch virtually every aspect of the federal prison system, from an inmate’s initial intake to his or her return to the community.  The reforms are targeted to address the core behavioral issues that result in criminality, with the goal of reducing the likelihood that inmates re-offend either while incarcerated or after their release.  In doing so, the Bureau is creating safer prisons and safer streets, underscoring the Justice Department’s philosophy that one of the best ways to prevent crime is by reducing recidivism. 


Below is a summary of the most significant recent and ongoing reforms at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), starting from an inmate’s arrival at a Bureau facility and continuing until his or her return home.  

From day one, identifying an inmate’s individualized “criminogenic” needs.  BOP embraces a corrections philosophy that reentry preparation must begin on the first day of incarceration.  The first and most important step in reentry planning is obtaining information about an individual inmate’s risk of recidivating and programmatic needs that will inform development of an individualized reentry plan. Social science research indicates each inmate possesses his or her own “criminogenic factors,”[1] such as criminal history, substance abuse, and education level. By identifying these factors as soon as an inmate enters custody, the Bureau can ensure that the individual receives appropriate services and can monitor his or her progress throughout the term of incarceration.  In 2016, the Bureau retained an independent social science research organization, American Institutes of Research (AIR), to evaluate BOP’s existing criminogenic assessment tools and to propose improvements.   This evaluation, which will be completed in the fall of 2017, will increase the effectiveness of correctional programs by ensuring the right services are delivered to the right inmates, that these programs are aligned to the risk level and unique needs of each individual, and that all services are delivered at the intensity and frequency necessary to reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

Building a “school district” within the federal prison system. Research shows that inmates who participate in correctional education programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not, and that every dollar spent on prison education saves four to five dollars on the costs of re-incarceration.[2]  With guidance from the Bronner Group, an educational consulting firm, BOP is building a semi-autonomous school district within the federal prison system and will offer programs for adult literacy/basic skills, high school diplomas, post-secondary education, and expanded opportunities for individuals with learning disabilities.  In November 2016, the Bureau announced that it hired Amy Lopez, a veteran correctional educator, to serve as the first “superintendent” of the BOP school district.  Under the new system, each federal inmate will be assessed upon incarceration to determine his or her education level and determine the type and level of instruction needed.  That “individualized education plan” will follow the inmate through his or her time in BOP’s custody. 

Launching a tablet-based pilot program for inmate education. BOP is launching a pilot program to determine the feasibility of a “blended” education model that combines classroom instruction with online education (provided through tablets customized for the prison environment).   Similar pilots have been successfully launched in Ohio and California.  The pilot program will be rolled out at two prisons in early 2017 and will be expanded to additional sites in future years.  BOP is currently reviewing bids from vendors to provide the necessary hardware and software for the pilot program. 

Supporting the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program.  Second Chance Pell is a pilot program announced by the Department of Education in July 2015 that will allow eligible incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants and pursue postsecondary education with the goal of helping them get jobs and support their families when they are released.  Seven BOP facilities are participating in this program, which allows select colleges and universities to provide funding to cover tuition, required fees, books, and supplies for inmates seeking educational opportunities. 

Encouraging inmates to develop marketable job skills. BOP is expanding opportunities for occupational training, with a focus on ensuring that inmates develop the job skills they need to find work after release from custody.  As part of this effort, BOP is working to revitalize Federal Prison Industries (FPI), also known as UNICOR, the agency’s largest and most successful job training program.  Research shows that inmates who worked in prison industries were 24 percent less likely to recidivate and 14 percent more likely to be gainfully employed after release from custody than other inmates.  In 2016, the Bureau hired Gary Simpson, a former manufacturing and operations executive of a Fortune 100 company, to restore FPI’s viability and increase opportunities for inmates.

Developing standardized, evidence-based programs to reduce recidivism.   Research shows that recidivism risk can be effectively reduced through evidence-based programming that targets criminogenic needs, such as courses in cognitive behavioral therapy and other topics.  Inmate programming also makes prisons safer because inmates occupied in productive activities are less likely to engage in institutional misconduct.  As a result, BOP is expanding access to critical National Programs, including BRAVE and STAGES, and developing new National Programs where programming gaps exist.  To achieve this goal, the Bureau will request additional appropriations to increase its staffing of critical positions, such as social workers, psychologists, and treatment specialists.  This year, the Bureau developed a standardized Release Preparation Program, required for all releasing inmates, that will be offered nationwide.  In addition, the Bureau is streamlining its many locally developed programs to focus on evidence-based programs with a proven track record of reducing recidivism.  As part of this process, the Bureau developed an “Inmate Model Programs Catalog,” which contains curriculum guides for about 50 “model” programs that Bureau facilities are encouraged to adopt nationwide.  In addition, the Bureau has developed a new computerized system to better track which facilities are implementing which model programs.  Finally, the Bureau is committed to increasing inmate enrollment in appropriate programs by improving its case management process and providing greater use of incentives.

Prioritizing mental health treatment for inmates.  BOP is working to overhaul its policies on the treatment and care of inmates with mental illness.  Among other changes, in May 2014, BOP issued new internal guidance prioritizing the use of cognitive behavioral therapy and other evidence-based treatment programs proved to be effective in correctional settings.  Since then, BOP also established a number of “secure mental health step-down units,” which provide housing and treatment for inmates with serious mental illness and a significant history of violence, and has launched a pilot program to provide dedicated mental health staff within restrictive housing units.  In addition, as part of the Bureau’s education reforms, the agency hired its first-ever school psychologist to assist in developing programs for inmates with special learning needs.

Ensuring inmates receive appropriate substance abuse treatment.   BOP has provided intensive substance abuse treatment for inmates for more than 20 years. The Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), one of the Bureau’s most effective recidivism-reduction programs, has been expanded recently to include additional programs for Spanish-speaking inmates, inmates with a dual mental health diagnosis, high security level inmates, and female inmates.  In addition, to help inmates with a history of opioid dependence as they transition back to the community, BOP has recently launched a regional field trial to offer Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for certain inmates, with plans to expand the program.

Helping inmates maintain family ties while incarcerated.  Research shows that close and positive family relationships during incarceration reduce recidivism, improve an individual’s likelihood of finding and keeping a job after prison, and ease the harm to family members separated from their loved ones.  In April 2016, BOP announced a series of family-friendly initiatives aimed at strengthening the bonds between inmates and their children and families.  These programs included expanded video-conferencing visitation; the launch of a pilot program that engages children of incarcerated parents in positive youth development activities; new guidance and training for BOP staff on how to make visitation spaces more child friendly and interact with children in a developmentally appropriate way; educating inmates on how to keep in contact with children who may be in foster care; tip sheets for parents, correctional staff and mentors to support children of incarcerated parents; and a new interagency partnership to develop model policies that can be used by state and local prison facilities to help strengthen family ties.  In addition, all Bureau facilities are now required to hold at least one “Family Reunification Event” per year. 

Enhancing programs for female inmates.  In December 2016, the Bureau will resume housing female inmates at its facility in Danbury, Connecticut, making it easier for female inmates from the Northeast to remain in contact with their families.  In addition, the Danbury facility will house an integrated treatment facility for female inmates, which will include RDAP, a mental health step-down program, and a trauma treatment program.  Over the past year, the Bureau has sought to enhance its overall programming for females, culminating in its first-ever national conference for Bureau wardens and agency leaders on gender-responsive programming. 

Reducing the use of solitary confinement and other forms of restrictive housing.  In January 2016, the Department of Justice announced a series of reforms designed to safely limit the use of solitary confinement and other forms of restrictive housing throughout the criminal justice system.  As part of this effort, BOP agreed to end the practice of placing juveniles in restrictive housing and to limit its use for low-level disciplinary infractions.  In addition, the Department of Justice issued more than 50 “Guiding Principles,” which cover a range of important reforms areas including the use of restrictive housing as a form of punishment, the appropriate conditions of confinement in restrictive housing, and the proper treatment of vulnerable inmate populations, such as juveniles, pregnant women, LGBT inmates, and inmates with serious mental illness. 

Phasing out BOP’s use of private prisons.  In an August 2016 memorandum, the Department announced that the Bureau would be reducing—and ultimately ending—its use of privately operated prisons.  As part of this phased approach, the Bureau expects to end the housing of inmates at three or more private contract facilities within a year of the memo’s release, and will reduce the total private prison population to less than 14,200 inmates by May 1, 2017—a greater than 50 percent decrease since 2013. To further this objective, the Bureau recently reduced the beds sought in a pending solicitation to private prison companies down from 10,800 beds to 3,600 beds.

Reforming and strengthening federal halfway houses.  The Bureau is overhauling its use of Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs), popularly known as “halfway houses,” which provide housing for approximately 80 percent of inmates during the final months of their federal sentences.  Since the early 1980s, the ownership and operation of RRCs have been fully privatized, with BOP relying on a mix of for-profit companies and non-profit organizations.  In November 2016, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memorandum directing BOP to leverage its purchasing power and overhaul this private market.  Among other things, the memorandum directed BOP to establish clear, uniform standards for all RRC providers; expand the collection and publication of RRC performance data; and explore alternative models that would create a more effective and efficient market for federal reentry services.  

Helping inmates obtain government-issued ID prior to their release.  Access to government-issued identification documents is critical to successful reentry.  Without such documentation, men and women leaving correctional facilities face extreme challenges securing employment and housing, registering for school, opening bank accounts, and accessing other benefits, such as health care, that are critical to successful integration.  BOP is working to ensure that every federal inmate obtains government-issued identification, including a Social Security card, birth certificate, and state-issued photo ID card, prior to his or her return to the community.  In November 2016, BOP announced that it would begin covering the costs of obtaining these documents prior to an inmate’s release to an RRC, after independent consultants determined that doing so would actually save BOP approximately $19 million per year (by making it easier for RRC residents to obtain employment and housing, thereby facilitating their transfer to less-expensive home confinement).  In addition, in April 2016, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch sent a letter to all 50 governors seeking their assistance in helping federal inmates obtain state-issued IDs. 

Equipping inmates with information and resources as they return to the community.  In April 2016, the Department of Justice issued its “Roadmap to Reentry,” which identified five evidence-based principles guiding federal efforts to improve correctional practices and programs for returning citizens.  As part of this effort, BOP published a “Reentry Handbook,” which provides practical guidance to inmates as they return to the community, with over 20,000 copies distributed to inmates in its first year.  In addition, BOP activated a reentry hotline to assist formerly incarcerated individuals as they transition to the community.  These efforts dovetail with the Obama Administration’s broader reentry efforts, including codifying the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, and supporting the Fair Chance Business Pledge, which calls on companies to commit to hiring formerly incarcerated individuals.

Resources, “What Is Criminal Justice Reform?”; unodc.og, “Why promote prison reform?”;, “PRISON REFORM: REDUCING RECIDIVISM BY STRENGTHENING THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF PRISONS.”;, “America Works’ Criminal Justice Program: Providing Second Chances Through Work.” By William Eimicke and Steven A. Cohen;, “INNERCHANGE FREEDOM INITIATIVE.”;


America Works’ Criminal Justice Program: Providing Second Chances Through Work

Prison Fellowship’s Interchange Freedom Initiative

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative® (IFI) was a privately funded program that provided educational, values-based services to prisoners on a voluntary and noncompulsory basis to help prepare them to re-enter the workplace, religious and community life, and family and social relationships. The program was based on values reflected in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ but was open to prisoners of all faiths or no faith. Living in the same prison housing unit, participants were taught values and life skills for up to 18 months. Participants then received guidance from a mentor and support from a local faith community for 12 months after they were released from prison.

IFI was first launched in Texas’ Carol S. Vance Unit in 1997. Additional IFI sites opened in other states, including units for men and women in Minnesota.

In 2016, the program was renamed the Prison Fellowship Academy®. That same year, Prison Fellowship® launched its 40 to Fifty campaign, with the goal of having Academy sites for men and women in all 50 states by 2026.


Located in select prisons across the country, the Prison Fellowship Academy® is an intensive, biblically based program that takes incarcerated men and women through a holistic life transformation process. Participants are guided by Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers to lead lives of purpose and productivity inside and outside of prison.


A cornerstone program of Prison Fellowship, the Academy guides participants to identify the life-controlling issues that led to their incarceration and take responsibility for its impact on their community. Using biblically based materials, the Academy specifically targets criminal thinking and behavior, life skills, addictions, victim impact, and prosocial culture change. The Academy aims to develop prisoners who have leadership potential to serve as positive peer mentors and supporters of a positive culture, based on Gospel-centered values, throughout prison systems. Those who complete the program and are preparing for release will have the opportunity to connect to post-release resources and support in metropolitan areas.


12 months of day & evening content | Referrals to post-release resources and services | Course topics include:


Criminogenic Needs: Participants will address eight basic thinking errors to alter irresponsible attitudes and behaviors that contribute to criminal behavior.

Relationships: Participants will learn ways to establish and maintain healthy, God-centered relationships, examine the roles and responsibilities of being a responsible family member, and better understand the role feelings play in day-to-day life.

Life Skills and Reentry: Participants will complete a personal transition plan targeting skills needed for successful living, including financial responsibility, time management, healthy habits, legal issues, employment, and coping skills.

Addictions and Recovery: Participants will establish personal tools to identify their relapse pattern, warning signs, and relapse prevention to interrupt negative patterns and maintain responsible living. Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-focused recovery program, gives participants an opportunity to confront life’s “hurts, habits, and hang-ups” from a Gospel-centered perspective.

Spiritual Formation: Participants will complete Exercising My Faith modules, providing a Christian discipleship track for those of the Christian faith. When participants have a non-Christian religious preference, the Academy helps them apply universal truths found in the Bible to their lives. The Alpha course gives all participants a forum to explore the basics of the Christian faith.


After arriving at the Carol S. Vance Unit, Darryl enrolled in the Prison Fellowship Academy®, which offers incarcerated men and women a pathway to holistic life transformation. Darryl didn’t know it at the time, but he was taking part in a relatively new experiment in corrections spearheaded by Prison Fellowship founder Charles “Chuck” Colson.

Chuck Colson was no stranger to prison. After serving seven months for a Watergate-related offense, he founded Prison Fellowship and devoted his life to ministering to prisoners. In addition to his own time behind bars, Colson spent countless hours in prisons around the world. They were all largely the same—unpleasant places where criminal activity seemed to ferment instead of decrease.

But one of them was different.

Chuck Colson was no stranger to prison.


Colson would never forget visiting Humaitá Prison in Brazil for the first time. The courtyard was clean, and the buildings had whitewashed patios and fresh blue trim. The rooms inside were neat and orderly. The prison didn’t even have armed guards. Clearly, something was different at Humaitá.

At the time of Colson’s visit, the prison—once a notoriously squalid and violent men’s facility—had been run by Christian volunteers for 18 years. Since the volunteers had taken over, recidivism (the rate of former prisoners reoffending) had dropped dramatically—astonishing when considering the average worldwide rate at the time was 75 percent. How had this happened? Colson realized the prison ran on the love of Christ and respect for fellow humans.

Colson was hooked. He saw this as a way to build on the foundations of what he and Prison Fellowship were already doing behind bars with classes and events. He began dreaming of re-creating what he saw at Humaitá in the United States. He brought the idea to Texas correctional and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who was eager to see the idea brought to fruition. He ordered that such a program be established within 90 days.

Since the volunteers had taken over, recidivism had dropped dramatically. … How had this happened? Colson realized the prison ran on the love of Christ and respect for fellow humans.


The Carol S. Vance Unit in Richmond, Texas, opened in April of 1997 with the full support of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. It was the first of its kind—an expressly Christian prerelease program.   The program was run on Christian principles, but people of any no faith could apply, be accepted, and graduate from the program. The program would go on to be called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI).

According to one report, IFI represented “perhaps the first full-scale attempt to offer comprehensive programming emphasizing education, work, life skills, values restructuring, and one-on-one mentoring in an environment where religious instruction permeates all aspects of the prison environment.”

The launch of IFI at the Carol S. Vance Unit was a huge win for Colson and Prison Fellowship. Now the question was: Does it work?

The launch of IFI at the Carol S. Vance Unit was a huge win for Colson and Prison Fellowship. Now the question was: Does it work?


Not only did the IFI program work, but the results were better than anyone could have imagined. In a study conducted by the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, graduates of the Academy in Texas were found to be 17 percent less likely than their non-Academy peers to be rearrested and 12 percent less likely to be reincarcerated, during the two-year period following their release from prison.

IFI continued expanding into other states, like Minnesota, where the Department of Corrections conducted a study to verify the Academy’s effectiveness. There, graduates of the full program had a recidivism rate of 0.8 percent, compared to the state average of 40 percent. With a proven track record of reducing recidivism, Prison Fellowship launched IFI programs at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Lino Lakes for men and Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee for women. An additional study led by Byron Johnson—distinguished professor of the social sciences at Baylor University and the founding director of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion—reported that the program in Minnesota resulted in a benefit of $3 million for the state. (All Academy classes are based on the same values, principles, and practices, but, depending on the facility, the Academy may vary in intensity (hours per week) and Prison Fellowship staff presence. Academic study results refer to the most intensive Academy programs facilitated by multiple staff members.)

Dan Kingery, now senior vice president of field programs, was the founding program director at Lino Lakes and Shakopee. He witnessed the transformative power of God through IFI first-hand: “What we saw was when you bring men and women together inside prison and decide to treat each other with respect and dignity, things start to change.”


‘What we saw was when you bring men and women together inside prison and decide to treat each other with respect and dignity, things start to change.’


To increase awareness and understanding of the program, InnerChange Freedom Initiative was renamed the Prison Fellowship Academy in 2016 under the leadership of James J. Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship. Though the name of the program changed, its DNA did not.

With the new name came a new season of growth. As of January 2019, there are 3,021 prisoners participating in the Academy at 89 prisons in 27 states. In each of these, the state departments of corrections facilitate the presence of Academy programs that are administered by Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers.

As the Academy has grown, its foundations have been solidified. The months-long, intensive program uses evidence-based practices to help incarcerated men and women unlearn negative thought patterns and replace them with healthy ones. Its biblically centered curriculum is standardized and used in each Academy around the country.

But the secret of the Academy isn’t the curriculum—it’s the positive environment created by the Prison Fellowship staff members, volunteers, and the prisoners.

The secret of the Academy isn’t the curriculum—it’s the positive environment created by the Prison Fellowship staff members, volunteers, and the prisoners.


“The Academy provides a prosocial community within an antisocial environment,” says Sam Dye, who served as the program’s national director from 2004–2010. That prosocial environment is possible because the Academy creates a community within the larger prison community, where the biblical truths behind the curriculum come to life. “Truth is more caught than taught,” as Kingery says. “The real accelerator is when you live out truth in the context of community.”

Academy participants live and learn together every day. Depending on the facility, some Academy participants live in cellblocks separate from the rest of the population. Academy program managers work in the prison every day—their offices are even inside the prison—so participants see them as committed and caring. The result is a new culture where respect, openness, and encouragement flourish.

‘The Academy provides a prosocial community within an antisocial environment.’


Through the Academy, God is restoring men and women and sending them to be leaders inside and outside of prison. One of those leaders is Darryl. After his release in 2002, Darryl volunteered at the Carol S. Vance Unit—where he did time—for several years before joining the Prison Fellowship staff and eventually becoming the manager of the Academy there.

But the story isn’t over yet.

Prison Fellowship is in its third year of a bold, 10-year mission we call the 40 to Fifty campaign: a $200-million commitment to transform corrections systems by putting 40 years of critical insights into action across America by our 50th anniversary. To that end, we plan to launch Academy sites in at least one men’s and one women’s facility in all 50 states by the year 2026.

When Prison Fellowship was founded 40 years ago, there were 440,000 men and women behind bars in the United States. Today, there are 2.2 million. That’s a 500 percent increase! And while more than 600,000 people are released from prison every year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that about two-thirds of those released will be rearrested within three years.

But there is hope. You can make a difference. With your support, men and women behind bars can seek to leave there past behind and find a new path forward. Together, we can end recidivism.

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