Prison Research and Innovation Initiative

a collage of inmates hugging their loved ones

Transforming America’s Prisons through Data and Evidence

Prisons in America are a challenging and costly problem. They consume a meaningful share of state budgets, house more than 1.3 million people, and employ more than 200,000 corrections officers in state-run correctional institutions. Prisons affect millions of lives, not just those who live and work in them but also the families who are left behind. Yet despite the scale and impact of prisons in the US, they are among the most understudied and least transparent public institutions in our country.

In response, we have launched a new effort, with funding from Arnold Ventures, to bridge this gap in knowledge through a Prison Research and Innovation Initiative. This five-year project will leverage research and evidence to promote a transformation of the prison system and shine a much-needed light on the profound impact conditions of confinement have on rehabilitation behind bars.

The Prison Research and Innovation Initiative

We are pursuing a new evidence-based approach to prison reform. This effort aims to advance a national movement of thought leaders committed to redefining the corrections profession and supporting ongoing prison reform efforts.

Key components of the initiative include the following:

  • The Prison Research and Innovation Network: We will support a consortium of four states, each working to establish a model of transparency, accountability, and innovation in one prison with the support of a university partner to enhance research and data capacity. The network will be a laboratory for testing new and evidence-based programmatic and operational changes and innovations.
  • Cross-site data collection and assessment: We will launch a climate survey of the people confined and working in each facility to develop new measures of the experience of living and working in prison. Data assessment will help identify other essential metrics, facilitate rigorous experimentation, and support the collection of comparative metrics across the four prisons. This work will inform broader efforts to encourage the adoption of common metrics nationwide that would enable comparability while enhancing accountability.
  • Policy landscape analysis: By analyzing data both within and across participating prisons and states, we will identify prospective policy levers and conduct analyses to project the impact of those changes. Examples might include examining how good time is calculated and earned, how parole board release decisions could be informed by better access to program participation data, and how data on age and health status might inform changes in compassionate release policies. We will share data and findings with organizational partners and reform advocates to advance efforts to address mass incarceration.
  • Strategic outreach: We will draw national attention to the problem of prisons in America by enlisting the input and expertise of state and national stakeholders, including people who have experienced incarceration, and by promoting awareness of the challenges of current prison operations and the importance of new, more robust accountability measures. We will establish a national advisory board to inform our efforts, convene a series of roundtables to establish a research agenda on prisons, engage in outreach to advocacy and litigation partners in the prison reform space, and develop a robust dissemination plan to elevate the experiences, lessons learned, and impacts achieved by participating sites.

To learn more about this exciting initiative and to sign up for project updates, please contact TransformPrison@urban.org.

In the News

Can Prisons Change? Arnold Grants $17M to Spur ‘National Conversation’ on Reform (The Crime Report)

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

How Scott Semple Helped Turn Connecticut’s Prisons Into a Nationally Recognized Laboratory of Reform (Connecticut Magazine)

More Information

Shining a Light Inside Prisons (Arnold Ventures, Part 1 of 3)

VIDEO: Young Men Emerging (Arnold Ventures)

PRESS RELEASE: Arnold Ventures Dedicates $17 Million to Support Fundamental Prison Reform

Photo credits: left, Getty Images/Marga Frontera; top center: AP Photo/Seth Perlman; top right: AP Photo/Steve Miller; bottom center: Thinkstock Images/Getty Images; bottom right: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli.