How Prisons and Jails Might Function if Addressing Trauma Was A First Priority

By: Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia

Community Engagement Mental Health Victims June 3, 2021

Incarceration is traumatic, and the institutions charged with that function—prisons and jails—often operate in a way that is most traumatic for the people who are incarcerated. But we often overlook the trauma that is also experienced by those who work to staff the jails, and the families of people who are incarcerated.

It’s an opportunity for us to do better, and the scale of the challenge is huge. Every year, people are placed in jails 10.6 million times. On any given day, approximately 2.7 million US children have a parent who is incarcerated, and more than 5 million children have experienced parental incarceration in their lifetime. Approximately 415,000 correctional officers work in our jails and prisons.


Over-policing of Black communities results in a disproportionate number of Black people being sent to jail for low-level offenses. My own father was arrested for marijuana possession when I was growing up in a small town in North Carolina, and he ended up going to jail and then to prison for a couple of years.

As a child, you never forget the experience of police officers hauling your father off. You do not forget having to interact with your father through a piece of glass. They are links in the chain of trauma that lie embedded within a person. And it radiates through communities. Yet, these communities have no pathway to power when it comes to the policies and practices of the institutions responsible for the safety of their loved ones. That must change. There must be a shift in power from correctional leaders to community members when developing and overseeing policies, practices, training, and environmental conditions within these institutions.

Image credit: Chicago


I ran the jail in Chicago, Illinois, otherwise known as Cook County Jail, as warden, for several years. I was one of the first clinical psychologists in the country to run a correctional institution. My focus was to use my training to instill humanity in the institution, but we don’t talk about how people are traumatized by the experience of incarcerating other people.

The numbers are stark.

When you talk about such trauma the attitude, historically, towards jail and prison staff is, “Suck it up. You signed up for this.” But the problem is that compartmentalizing the trauma just leads it to bleed out in other areas of your life.

A person’s partner might say, “you are snapping much more often.” Or point out that you are not the same person you used to be. It took me a while after I left the job to realize that it is not normal to sleep only two hours a night. It is not normal to be constantly ready for your phone to ring. To feel on the edge of your seat worrying about the next crisis. It takes a significant toll on a person, and it is hard to see the woods for the trees when you are in the thick of it.

People who work in the system are sometimes a little nervous when I bring this stuff up. They do not want to risk opening an emotional Pandora’s box by talking about the trauma they might be suppressing. My response is that the box is already open. The effects are already exerting themselves on you, on your family, and on those you signed up to keep safe.

Interconnected Humanity

At Chicago Beyond, we have started an impactful conversation about all this. In my reflection on my time at Cook County Jail, one of the big things we realized was that if correctional staff treated the people who were confined and their families with humanity, they could also see the humanity in themselves. We partnered with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to develop family-friendly visitation, because helping people who are incarcerated hug their children for the first time in years is humanizing for everyone. People had strong emotional reactions to working in visitation, and we talked about the implications. We also acted on them at the policy level.

We have produced a report on this at The Square One Project, called Harm Reduction at the Center of Corrections. It includes a first-of-its kind framework for correctional leaders to better support the people detained, staff, and the families of both. It provides recommendations for correctional leaders centering on safety, transparency, agency, asset-based approaches, and interpersonal connections for these three groups to minimize the harm created by jails and prisons.

The project of harm reduction is critical from this perspective. There are many specific measures that can be used in correctional settings to decrease harm, including incarcerating fewer people. But the key ideas center around one core concept: correctional leaders promoting human interaction that instills humanity.

We are talking about imagining a future for justice and public safety that starts from scratch — from square one — instead of tinkering at the edges or cherry-picking cordoned-off areas for reform. To do so, we need to get to the root of the problem: decades of neglect around communities with chronic poverty and the twin crises of ingrained racism. That begins with drastic systemic change. It requires addressing the specific harm we have experienced as people and extending the compassion we give to ourselves to other people – all people.

(Trans)forming Systems: LGBTQ+ People in the Age of Criminal Justice Reform

By: Olivia Dana (she/her/hers), Julian Adler (he/him/his)

Incarceration Trends May 20, 2021

Jurisdictions must take an intersectional approach to legal system transformation if they are to end the misuse and overuse of jails. This means understanding the drivers of overincarceration for any and all populations that have been overrepresented and disproportionately harmed by the criminal legal system—and developing culturally responsive strategies to address them.

The LGBTQ+ population has received strikingly little attention in the criminal justice reform movement, including the Safety and Justice Challenge. In order to address the overrepresentation of queer people in the criminal system, jurisdictions must challenge discrimination against LGBTQ+ people before, during, and after their system involvement, and they must question the impact of their own policies on this community. This is especially urgent as LGBTQ+ people continue to be increasingly targeted for discrimination by other powerful state forces.

Most recently, the current legislative assault on transgender youth shocks the conscience and makes our skin crawl. It targets an already vulnerable group of kids—with a disturbingly high rate of suicidal ideation—for political gain, threatening their physical and mental health and general wellbeing. But while this latest display of cruelty and bigotry is particularly staggering, it is not terribly surprising. The wellspring of transphobia and homophobia in the United States runs deep, far, and wide. And it is rarely disguised.

It took the Supreme Court of the United States until 2020 to hold that it violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to fire a person simply for being gay or transgender. In addition to failing to protect, laws targeting the LGBTQ+ community, whether directly or through discriminatory enforcement, have run the gamut. Some laws have been plainly aimed at punishing gay sex, such as the paradigmatic anti-sodomy laws, which existed in many states until the 1970’s and remained in force in others until ruled unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas in 1993.

Other laws appear facially neutral but are discriminatory in their enforcement. New York State recently repealed its “walking while trans” law that police used to detain and arrest individuals on suspicion of “loitering for the purposes of prostitution”—a practice so disproportionally used on trans women of color that it is sometimes referred to as “stop-and-frisk for trans women.” Elsewhere, however, the law remains on the books.

Adding insult to injury, there is an emerging trend of attorneys nefariously misgendering trans people in legal proceedings. And if they end up incarcerated, LGBTQ+ people frequently face abuse and ill-treatment in jails and prisons, with one study finding that 40% of transgender people were sexually assaulted while incarcerated in a given calendar year (for a good resource on policies to address this, look here).

In case there was any doubt, this bias and harm transcends the realm of laws and legal systems. Consider the ostensibly non-adversarial space of mental health care. It took the American Psychiatric Association until 1973 to remove the diagnosis of “homosexuality” from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM)—and only after an extensive campaign. It then took until June 2019 (the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City) for the American Psychoanalytic Association to issue a formal, “overdue” apology for “past views that pathologized homosexuality and transgender identities.” The association’s press release acknowledged the role played by “the American psychoanalytic establishment” in perpetuating “discrimination and trauma.” Strikingly, one of the earliest examples we can find of court-ordered outpatient mental health treatment as an alternative to incarceration involved conversion therapy for men charged with violating Maryland’s anti-sodomy laws in 1938.1

All told, it is hardly coincidental that—even in 2021—LGBTQ+ people are disproportionately represented at every stage of the criminal legal system. Lesbian and bisexual women are four times more likely to be arrested than straight women. And as Black people have borne the brunt of mass incarceration, so too have Black members of the LGBTQ+ community. Nearly half of Black transgender people have experienced incarceration and 38% have reported being harassed by the police. Made worse by the discrimination that many face in their own homes and communities, LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience unemployment, poverty, difficulty accessing healthcare, and homelessness, all destabilizing factors that can lead to and prolong their criminal (and civil) legal system involvement.

Despite their overrepresentation in the criminal legal system, LGBTQ+ people have been largely ignored by the justice reform movement. This must change—both at the federal and local level. In addition to legislative changes that can directly or indirectly effect criminal justice and those that can harm or support the dignity and well-being of the LGBTQ+ community, there are many improvements that can be made at the local level as well.

Jurisdictions must take a hard look at—and attempt to correct for—the drivers of LGBTQ+ overrepresentation in their criminal legal systems, creating accountability measures for system actors. It starts with reviewing existing policies, practices, and training protocols to ensure that they are inclusive, respectful, and responsive to the needs of LGBTQ+ people, especially those that are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. System actors must also authentically engage LGBTQ+ people and community organizations in collaborative policymaking and be sure that this representation includes transgender, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming people of color. Jurisdictions should also review their data collection practices and should work with LGBTQ+ organizations to consider more inclusive and representative data policies.

The overrepresentation of LGBTQ+ people in the criminal legal system is a manifestation of the discrimination they face in state legislatures, schools, housing, employment, health care, and sometimes their own families. Discrimination is cumulative and compounding, and LGBTQ+ people are especially vulnerable to harm. It is incumbent upon the criminal legal system to be aware of the points of disparity for people who are LGBTQ+ and to make the changes necessary to do better.

Exploring the Difference Between Racial Equality and Racial Equity

By: Christopher James

Data Analysis Jail Populations Racial Disparities May 11, 2021

A focus of the Safety and Justice Challenge is reducing racial disparities amongst the pretrial jail population. We have made progress on reducing overall jail populations, but racial disparities remain pervasive and need our collective focus. Thus it is important that we collectively understand the difference between equality and equity.

We at the W. Haywood Burns Institute work to achieve racial equity and eliminate racial disparities as a technical assistance provider to the Safety and Justice Challenge. I personally have worked with several sites, including Palm Beach County, Florida, Harris County, Texas, New Orleans and East Baton Rouge in Louisiana, and Buncombe County, North Carolina.

Some of our racial equity work has been featured here on the Safety and Justice Challenge blog over recent months. Here’s a post by Yolanda Fair, a public defender in Buncombe County, for example, describing those efforts. Here’s another post on community engagement in New Orleans by Emily Rhodes and Natalie Sharp, who serve on the Community Advisory Group there.

Together, we have been able to highlight the importance of centering community in the SJC’s work. That means going beyond the traditional ‘community engagement’ efforts.

Community engagement, as it is traditionally attempted, tends to involve seasoned justice reform stakeholders reaching out to community stakeholders to say, “Hey, we just wanted to let you know we are doing this.”

But equity requires something more. It would ensure that those overrepresented in justice systems have access to collaboratives where policy is made. It is asking: “Who’s not here in the room?” It means prioritizing experts who have experienced the justice system and sharing decision-making power with them.

Nationwide, since the extrajudicial police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among many others, we have seen organizations large and small take well-manicured verbal stances in solidarity and calling for change.

I appreciate the words and sentiments put forth in press releases and the like. The vast majority of them call for equality. There’s nothing wrong with the word or concept of equality. But given this nation’s history, equality is not enough.

Here’s why we must push for equity:

It starts with defining the terms. Merriam-Webster defines equality as “the quality or state of being equal.” Think of this as “treat me just the same as anyone else.” Equity, however, is defined as “justice according to natural law or right, specifically: freedom from bias or favoritism.” Think of this as “respond directly to what I need, even if I need more than others to be made whole.”

I’m not saying equality is not our ultimate goal. I am saying that to start treating, say, the Black community “the same as everyone else” at this point in history will not go far enough in terms of achieving true equality.

In racial justice, equality should be the interpersonal standard. On an individual basis, we should all treat each other the same regardless of race. However, on a systemic level—including individuals acting in official capacities within systems—the standard must be equity.

The history of this nation’s relationship with Black lives begins with slavery—complete racial subjugation of people’s every human right and dignity for profit or whim, which we have updated in various ways since. Examples of this updating over the eras include sharecropping, lynching, convict leasing, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.

However, these are among the more overt ways the Black community has been marginalized. There are many pervasive ways Black people have been discriminated against, and those policies/practices impact the Black community to this day.

For instance, the GI Bill and its benefits were largely denied to Black people despite their qualifications. It was one of the largest wealth creation policies ever, and a primary catalyst to the development of America’s “middle class,” as well as the expansion of the wealth gap between White and Black people. Similarly, redlining was a practice by which banks would refuse to lend to Black people attempting to move into predominantly White neighborhoods in order to promote segregation. It kept Black people and other people of color in economically depressed areas.

We must understand that exclusionary practices like those listed above impact education funding and quality, job access, and upward mobility. The concentration of poverty and chronic disinvestment drives health and quality of life disparities and, ultimately, disparities within the justice system.

We have a history of intentional, strategic, and systemic racialized oppression which has weakened communities of color through no fault of their own. We must address the intentionally oppressive policies which have upheld this country’s racial caste system for far too long.

We can no longer demand communities of color ‘pick themselves up by the bootstraps’ without providing the support which has been systematically denied them. Here is what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had to say about bootstraps: “White America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil.”

Equity means responding directly to the needs of each community, group, or individual. It means that while the response may look different depending on the need, the end result or goal would be to put each community on even footing.

Justice from an equity lens means acknowledging that cash bail systems on average ensure that communities of color, which experience significant wealth inequality compared to White people, will stay in jail and suffer life changing consequences because they can’t afford to pay, or might be more willing to take plea deals when they did not commit a crime, among many other examples.

It is only through racial equity—responsiveness to specific needs in communities of color because of the many forms of historic oppression—that we can ever all be equal.

Relishing the dream of equality without understanding the need for equity will doom us to repeat history—even the history we’re living today.

—Christopher James is a member of the Social Justice and Well-being team with the W. Haywood Burns Institute.


Here’s Why Jails Need Better Emergency Planning

By: Ronald Simpson-Bey

Costs COVID Interagency Collaboration May 10, 2021

The Safety and Justice Challenge has reduced jail populations around the country. But it is clear that racial disparities need more focus as part of the work. And COVID-19 made that clearer than ever.

As strategic allies to the Safety and Justice Challenge, my organization brings people with experience of incarceration to the table. Our view is that the people closest to the problem are the best placed to fix it. You would not have a conversation about women’s reproductive rights without women at the table. And it is the same with criminal justice reform. It is important that these are the people driving these conversations. The people most impacted by the injustices in the system should be at the table to inform the policy and work being done.

Formerly incarcerated people saw how COVID-19 once again laid bare structural inequities in the jail system. Black and Brown people stayed in jail for longer than White people during the pandemic. And they died of COVID at disproportionate rates in our nation’s jail systems.

We have seen incarcerated people’s lives at risk during previous crises. During Hurricane Katrina the Louisiana authorities looked after stray cats and dogs fast. Meanwhile they left people to fend for themselves in Orleans Parish Prison. They left them for days without food, water, or adequate ventilation. Then they moved them to a bridge with the flood waters rising all around. In New York, there was no evacuation plan for people on Rikers Island during two hurricanes. Incarcerated people in New York were also charged with making hand sanitizer — while still barred from using the sanitizer themselves, since it had been designated as contraband.

State emergency plans include labor by the detained, including digging graves. That happened in New York during COVID-19. Or putting out wildfires. That happened in California. But they don’t include planning to save their lives.

We show that Black and Brown people are disposable in the United States when we fail to plan for emergencies. Our society, our elected leaders, and those in power are neglecting the safety of millions. This type of systemic racism is the result of the generational legacy of slavery. And it is critical to decarcerate the United States by changing policies.

Many people spend time in jail while presumed innocent, before they go to trial. And yet too often, COVID-19 handed them a death sentence.

For the last nine months we have been running a #JustUs campaign. It is calling on legislators to enact proactive solutions for emergencies. Particularly for incarcerated people. One result: On September 30, Senator Tammy Duckworth introduced a federal bill to protect incarcerated people during disasters. And we have introduced a legislative roadmap for the next three years. One of our big recommendations is to pass Senator Duckworth’s bill.

Likewise, at the local level we are training formerly incarcerated people to speak up and get legislation passed. The #JustUs social media campaign features advocates in ten key locations — Alaska, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, South Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Wisconsin — who have been incarcerated themselves, and who are demanding that their representatives create official plans to protect those in jails, prisons, and correctional facilities in the event of disasters.

It could be the difference between life and death, particularly in a world with increasing natural and man-made disasters. We need emergency management plans in place yesterday.

Our campaign’s policy recommendations cut across the criminal justice system, involving everyone from courts to jails to law enforcement:

  • Bring in experts in the field of emergency management and public health to create plans that anticipate every emerging disaster.
  • Empower the corrections agencies to act without legislative or judicial intervention after declaration of a pandemic or crisis.
  • Require corrections agencies to evacuate when necessary to decarcerate, utilizing public health triage mechanisms according to highest risk, i.e. pregnant women, people with respiratory illnesses, those over 50, and those within two years of release.
  • Provide medical and humane treatment to those remaining, by providing access to the necessary safety precautions and forbidding the use of solitary confinement as a means of meeting those requirements.
  • Halt transfer of jail intakes into state correctional custody.
  • Require judges to use alternatives to incarceration when possible to avoid detention at all costs.
  • Ensure that no one is detained because of inability to pay, including cash bail or any past debts.
  • Stop all arrests for technical violations and eliminate in-person reporting and drug testing
  • Replace arrests with law enforcement citations in lieu of arrest.
  • Build a strong network of reentry services to transition people and ensure their success and safety after incarceration.
  • Create an independent oversight mechanism and reporting to legislatures for enforcement and compliance.

The full list of recommendations and our comprehensive platform can be found here.

People can get involved by demanding that their elected officials have emergency plans in place to release our country’s and our community’s most vulnerable immediately in the event of future disasters. Your involvement can expand this platform to the other 40 States and the District of Columbia.

To learn more and join the #JustUs campaign, visit:

—Ronald Simpson-Bey is Director of Outreach and Alumni Engagement at JustLeadershipUSA



Jail Costs Strain Local Budgets Even as Crime Falls

By: Julie Wertheimer

Costs Courts Diversion May 5, 2021

In 2015, the City of Philadelphia—where I led the local Safety and Justice Challenge work through 2019—contemplated replacing a jail that was more than a century old. But following a public outcry against building an expensive new facility, and thanks to concerted efforts by government agencies and community advocates working to reduce the level of incarceration in the city, Philadelphia was able to close the existing jail in 2018 without building a replacement—because the jail population had fallen significantly since historic highs in 2012.

As many cities, counties, and states face significant budget pressures as a result of the pandemic, spending on jails is receiving increased attention. The cost of these facilities has grown 13% over the last decade, despite falling crime and fewer people being admitted to jail. Spending on jails far outpaces many other vital services, such as fire protection, housing and community development, and libraries. About 1 in 17 county dollars nationwide is targeted for incarceration costs, with jails among the top six cost-drivers for the average county.

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently examined expenditure data for all U.S. localities and undertook an analysis of jail costs, primarily from 2007 and 2017, when jail spending could be disaggregated from the relatively small amount of other costs at local jails. We found that local corrections costs rose sixfold between 1977 and 2017, when adjusted for inflation.

These rising jail costs have occurred even though 2 million fewer crimes were reported to law enforcement in 2017 than in 2007. During that same period, jail admissions dropped 19%, from 13.1 million to 10.6 million, while the average daily jail population remained relatively flat, declining only 4%, or by 27,500 people. The gap between the change in admissions and population is because of rising average lengths of stay between 2007 and 2017.

Jail costs can rise for a variety of reasons. Growing populations lead to an increase in variable costs, such as utilities, but jails also carry sizeable fixed costs because of their physical footprint and staffing requirements—regardless of how full a facility may be. Counties with older jails may have to contend with frequent repairs or the prospect of replacing a deteriorating building with a new facility, an expense that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And the growing number of people with behavioral health and substance use issues in jails can contribute to escalating health care costs, which can eat up 1 in 3 correctional dollars.

And although people typically equate spending more on jails with safer communities, the numbers do not bear that out. Pew found that increased spending on jails as a percentage of local budgets within a state did not correlate with state crime rates:

A recent Vera Institute report on large city jails showed that safely reducing jail populations can be an effective way for local jurisdictions to curb incarceration costs. Of the jails in the study, almost half of those that cut their population by at least 30% since 2011 were able to decrease their spending. All but one of the jails that increased their population saw increased costs. Philadelphia was one of those cities that decreased its population by 45% and was able to achieve an 18% reduction in jail expenditures. And public officials can expand policies implemented during the pandemic—which have proved effective in safely lowering jail populations—to continue to downsize their jail systems even when COVID-19 is no longer a threat.

The data is clear and suggests a solution that can satisfy those with fiscal and safety concerns alike. By continuing and strengthening efforts to reduce jail populations, policymakers can make more effective use of public safety dollars while keeping communities safe.

­—Julie Wertheimer directs the public safety performance project at The Pew Charitable Trusts.