Photo: Karsten Moran for The Marshall Project

Dignity Principles

A Guide to Ensure the Humane Treatment of People in U.S. Carceral Settings

Contributors: Rashaad Porter, Sharon Taylor, and Elizabeth Ige

The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Behind the numbers are people: the people serving sentences who must endure inhumane prison conditions; the people working in prisons who must endure unhealthy work environments; and the Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities that must endure the impact of the deep racial disparities in mass incarceration’s worst impacts. Mass incarceration grew from our nation’s history, rooted in the genocide of Indigenous people, the enslavement of Black people, and the mistreatment of immigrants and people in poverty. And the dehumanizing conditions we accept for the people working or incarcerated in prisons—isolating incarcerated people from their families and communities, mandating staff to work overtime, and limiting fresh air and light for both groups—is a direct reflection of this country’s reluctance to acknowledge these roots.

The outcomes of mass incarceration are dire. People who serve time in prison face many collateral consequences, including limited employment opportunities upon reentry, housing instability, and poor health outcomes that may worsen during their time incarcerated due to inadequate medical care and traumatic conditions. Corrections professionals also experience poor mental and physical health outcomes, with higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than military veterans, and more than double the rate of suicide of police officers.

The design and architecture of many prisons and jails were historically focused on confinement, punishment, and control. The environment of carceral facilities is detrimental to the people who live and work within these institutions. Cells are a restrictive, harmful, and undignified space for people to inhabit. A major shift is needed to reimagine the conditions of correctional environments.

Restoring Promise, an initiative led by the MILPA Collective and the Vera Institute of Justice, envisions a world without mass incarceration, where we work to shift correctional culture to ensure that if people must be confined, they are treated with dignity. Restoring Promise partners with corrections agencies to replace punishing correctional cultures with safer, healthier approaches rooted in everyone’s humanity and centering healing, race equity, restorative practices, and family partnership. Restoring Promise’s work is done in collaboration with the people most impacted by prison: currently and formerly incarcerated people, corrections professionals, family members, victims and survivors, advocates, community leaders, and policymakers.

Since 2017, Restoring Promise has partnered with correctional agencies to create housing units grounded in dignity for young adults. Building on lessons from Restoring Promise’s young adult work, and in partnership with national organizations working in and with prison systems and jurisdictions to significantly reduce harm for all who are incarcerated, Restoring Promise has created this set of principles for ensuring human dignity behind bars to help corrections professionals, incarcerated people, and advocates—including nonprofit leaders and government officials—improve prison conditions and culture.The guidelines for physical design changes were informed by engagement with Restoring Promise’s partner MASS Design Group. Although the Dignity Principles provide a guide to create more humane environments in prisons, Restoring Promise also encourages decarceration to reduce the number of people held in prison and eliminate the racial disparities behind prison walls.

Honoring What Has Come Before—Mandela Rules

We hope the Dignity Principles serve as a bridge connecting the prison reform work of the past with the work of those currently alongside us championing dignity. Restoring Promise’s Dignity Principles emerged out of the works of countless others organizing, testifying, building evidence, striking, and championing change. They build on a legacy of people and work committed to improving prison conditions. They expand on Vera’s Reimagining Prison (2018) report and would not be possible without efforts like Confronting Confinement: A Report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons (2006), which explored safety and accountability in prisons. The Dignity Principles are also an outgrowth of the years of work that went into the United Nations’ Nelson Mandela Rules (2015), which engaged global leaders and established practices to ensure dignity for all those incarcerated internationally.

Recently, there is an encouraging wave of attention paid to the impact of our choices on how we incarcerate, such as in reports like Essie Justice Group’s Because She is Powerful and One Voice’s Blue Ribbon Commission Report. We will continue to update this list of resources that inspire and push the Dignity Principles.

Dignity in Motion

As the prison reform movement evolves and changes, so will these Dignity Principles. Restoring Promise wants the prison reform community—and those who work and live in carceral settings—to feel ownership of this publication and the principles within. We invite communication and commit to updating the principles as we learn more.

Restoring Promise is collaborating with departments of corrections nationwide to implement these principles, not only at the individual housing unit level, but throughout the entire correctional system.

Dignity Principles

  1. Correctional environments must be free of violence. This foundation is necessary for any improved conditions and culture to thrive. Leadership should understand the connection between safety and positive relationships rooted in care and trust among those who live and work in correctional settings.

  2. Correctional environments should reflect a commitment to human dignity. Carceral conditions—including the built environment, as well as the facility’s policies, procedures, and practices—should encourage supportive treatment. The environment should reflect the inherent value of all people and demonstrate that the agency’s priority is the health and wellness of all who live and work there. Equitable treatment and access to opportunities must include those who have disabilities or mental health conditions. All correctional settings must provide equal opportunities that comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility regulations and foster gender and racial equality.

  3. A healthy correctional work environment fosters psychological and physical safety. Corrections professionals should understand their role as one that promotes human rights for all, be empowered and valued by leadership, and be supported in healing processes needed to address traumas from the workplace.

  4. Correctional environments should be a place where incarcerated people and corrections professionals are heard, respected, and included in decision-making. Accountability, not punishment, should be central to all agency policies and procedures. Equitable treatment for all people—without personal biases, discrimination, or judgment—should be a core value.

  5. Correctional environments should cultivate an atmosphere in which people can pursue personal goals and self-discovery through a meaningful and consistent daily schedule that includes workshops and educational opportunities. Correctional environments should also provide opportunities for those who are incarcerated to have a voice and choice in decisions that impact them.

  6. Correctional agencies should partner with families, community organizations, and those most impacted by incarceration in ways that acknowledge, respect, and facilitate strong connections between incarcerated people and their loved ones and support systems. Visitation spaces in correctional environments should be designed with care and evoke a sense of beauty and belonging so people using them can feel welcome and hopeful. Facilities should keep in mind not only the visitation space itself, but the experience of visitors arriving and walking to and from the space.

  7. Correctional agencies should consistently share information with the public about policies, practices, and operations, as well as conditions within facilities, to promote accountability and continuous improvement of correctional culture.