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Inmates play basketball in the yard at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C. Prisoners in solitary confinement get one hour of recreation a day.
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Let’s Go to Prison!

A national field trip to Incarceration Nation, under the shadow of Donald Trump

When an execution is scheduled at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., a select group of witnesses is invited to attend. In a small room crammed with blue plastic chairs, the families of the victim and of the condemned are seated together, inches apart, watching the culmination of their common story through two layers of glass.

But this November, one week after the election of a president who has revitalized “law and order” rhetoric and is a death-penalty enthusiast, there was a very different kind of gathering inside that same witnessing room.

This article was published in partnership with Vice.

In one corner stood a staffer for a Republican congressman, who is interested in learning more about prisons and how they can be improved. Next to the gurney (neatly made up with clean sheets) stood a formerly-homeless veteran, who said he was baffled at how much nicer this place seemed than his VA hospital. Behind him stood two college students, both considering whether to pursue a career in criminal justice, who had texted each other beforehand about whether they should wear heels. And down the hall, through the red-painted entranceway to death row, stood a woman with incarcerated family members, there to learn what life inside was like.

The execution gurney at Central Prison.

For at least this one day, they all had access to Central Prison, and could ask honest questions of its warden and other top officials, as part of the Vera Institute of Justice's "National Prison Visiting Week." Through a series of field trips to 29 facilities in 17 states, Vera welcomed a diverse array of community members — from bankers to prosecutors to real estate agents to teachers, doctors, and clergy — into Incarceration Nation. The goal was to promote the value of transparency: to demonstrate that if corrections officials allowed people in, the sky wouldn't fall. In the process, the organizers hoped, both staff and visitors would engage in a "re-imagining" of the very purpose of a prison: Is it punishment? Incapacitation? Deterrence? Rehabilitation?

The event was conceived during the administration of the first president ever to visit a federal prison, and in anticipation of a next president who had vowed she would reform criminal justice “from end-to-end.” So the election of Donald J. Trump, less than a week earlier, left many participants wondering whether this field trip would still be the new beginning that was intended, or rather a last gasp of idealism about reform.

Inmates eat at a cafeteria in Central Prison.

Either way, visitors came away with an education.

In California, people began crying when they saw the shackles and caging used during the treatment of mentally-ill inmates at California State Prison in Los Angeles County. They went home thinking about whether incarceration could be more humane.

In Connecticut, a banker and a fire chief were among those surprised to see inmates working at a clothing factory within Osborn Correctional Institution, because the textile industry has been virtually extinct in that state for decades. They left wondering if prison jobs are truly preparing anyone for future employment in the real economy.

In Colorado, a real estate agent and the associate director of an art museum chatted with lifers about what solitary confinement feels like. “They’d definitely never been in a room with so many murderers before,” said Rick Raemisch, executive director of the state’s department of corrections.

And in Philadelphia, several participants said that what they witnessed could directly influence their work. Marc Reason, a teacher and sports coach, plans to talk to his students (especially the boys) about the conditions he saw in lockup — as a warning. Tayana Timmons and Kateryna Hnatenko, two paralegals from the district attorney's office, even seemed ready to rethink their whole outlook on prosecution.

"All we usually see at our job is a file with a name on it; all we see is an inmate's crime," said Timmons. "We can kind of believe in the system — believe that in theory, it works. But this helps us see, hey, there are humans in jail here. You see the physical reason why maybe we should dismiss a case."

An inmate at the House of Correction in Philadelphia in November.

For newcomers, jails like Philadelphia’s House of Correction are more visually arresting than prisons, since they are so much busier with comings-in and goings-out. (Jails are for those awaiting trial or serving short terms; prisons are for longer sentences.)

But what Timmons and others saw at the HOC, a century-old jail that has faced lawsuits since the 1970s because of its overcrowding, was distressing.

With an emergency response team guarding them and announcements blaring over the loudspeakers, visitors strolled through a facility crawling with rodents and mold and so overcrowded that inmates were packed three to a cell, dangling their hands over the rusted bars as the tour group passed by. In the summer, because there is no air conditioning, this place gets up to 120 degrees.

"Try to get pictures," said Cara Tratner, a community organizer, to a reporter. "There are human-rights violations going on back here."

Capt. Xavier Beaufort, the burly and affable officer leading visitors around the jail, mentioned that when he was a trainee, he had been expected to handle as many as 200 inmates. At one point, he witnessed a murder, and has been dealing with the memory ever since.

Another officer, Lt. Darnice Harris, said it was refreshing to be honest about that kind of thing, because, normally, policy forbids staff from even describing the conditions to their friends.

And Bruce Herdman, chief of medical operations for the jail, agreed that "we should be held accountable publicly, and be honest about what we can't do. It's time-consuming for staff to get visitors in and out to see this stuff, but it’s worth it."

A view of Central Prison.

W. David Guice, the North Carolina commissioner of corrections, is a conservative Republican who carries a cane and speaks with a deep Blue Ridge mountain drawl. He said the Vera field trips came at an all-time-high for public interest in prison issues. "For someone who has been in this business for decades, believe me, these continue to be exciting times," he says. "What I hear when I speak on this issue nationally is a clear desire to embrace the moment.”

Edward Thomas, warden of Central Prison in Raleigh, agrees that an uncomfortably productive conversation is only now beginning to blossom. "From a warden's perspective, it's usually a) security, b) security, c) security,” he says, adding that allowing community members to have complete access to a prison would not be his natural inclination. "This is the first reimagining I’ve ever done.”

Whatever its loftier aims, Vera’s week of field trips left visitors with any number of seemingly perverse bits of protocol and odd facts. At the Philly jail, according to rules posted at the entrance, family members coming into the building are not allowed to wear plain white t-shirts. Bermuda shorts, though, are specifically allowed. Or this: During the intake process, inmates can put only five phone numbers on their "call list." But since their cell phones have already been confiscated, most cannot remember any numbers to write down.

Edward Thomas, the warden at Central Prison, talks to a group during a tour.

And did you know that women gain an average of 44 pounds while incarcerated; men only four?

For others on the visits, it was at best a kind of safari: an opportunity for strangers to nod their heads at the hassles and minutiae of daily existence in jail, and then go home to their comfortable lives.

"Learning is good, and the sheer physical reaction of being inside a jail — you leave feeling the weight of that. But it was like we were touring people's suffering," said Tratner, the community organizer. "It was surreal to see how normalized that suffering and the overcrowding were for the people who live and work there."

Allie Tiger, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, agreed. "Hardly acknowledging [the inmates] other than perhaps a glance and a smile or a nod, while our tour guide was talking to us about all the amazing and wonderful and life-changing opportunities" the jail offers, she said, "felt wrong."

Some of the facilities did use the occasion as an opportunity for marketing and public relations.

In Philadelphia, staff passed out catalogs of products made on-site by inmates, who are paid as little as 90 cents a day. Among the items listed was a Freedom Chair, "the ultimate in sitting and reclining comfort" and winner of nine international awards for its "revolutionary features and unparalleled ease of use." Many of these seats can be found in waiting areas at the airport, Captain Beaufort explained.

A death row cell at Central Prison.

At Central Prison in North Carolina, as visitors perused the one-person outdoor cages where inmates in solitary confinement get one hour of recreation per day, Warden Thomas focused mainly on how the bolts are painted orange so that officers will notice if they are tampered with.

Commissioner Guice, for his part, acknowledged that the tours are “about the education of the visitors, it's not allowing them to write our policies."

Nicholas Turner, president and director of the Vera Institute, said he had anticipated that corrections officials would try to show things in the best light. Before the week began, he debated whether these visits would be a kind of superficial glimpse of life inside, a dog-and-pony show.

"Is three hours sufficient to understand what goes on in a prison, to understand the human beings there? Of course not," he says. "But it can still be catalytic, the same way these videos of police shootings are catalytic."

D espite the organizers’ deep pessimism about the prospect of federal reform under President Trump, the field trips were also a reminder that the overwhelming majority of criminal justice transactions happen at the state (and local) level, and that reforms are taking place there, too.

In North Carolina, as Central Prison visitors learned, the number of inmates in solitary confinement has plummeted from about 5,500 to under 2,500 in just the past year, and 16 and 17-year-olds have been removed from isolation entirely. As recently as a year ago, mentally-ill inmates were being placed in solitary so frequently that the ACLU said the state's prison system was “in crisis.” Now, most of them are housed in therapeutic units.

In the new Trump era, Commissioner Guice says, corrections officials like him will continue to pursue the solitary confinement reform and rehabilitative and reentry programming they believe will help keep their inmates from resuming a life of crime when they are released.

In Philadelphia, thanks to a $3.5 million grant the city recently won from the MacArthur Foundation, the jail population has been reduced by 13 percent since July. By developing more accurate risk-assessment tools to gauge whether offenders truly need to be in jail (and putting them on house-arrest and GPS monitoring when they don't); by initiating reviews of nonviolent cases to determine if bail could be set lower; and by opening a triage center and other treatment and housing options for mentally-ill people who get arrested, the city aims to have the population cut by 34 percent in three years.

Laurie R. Garduque, director of justice reform for MacArthur, which has given similar grants to 19 other jurisdictions across the country, says she recently surveyed all of them about whether the election will affect their efforts. “No,” was the unanimous response.

"Counties recognize the importance of this," she says. "City officials recognize it. The bench recognizes it. Increasingly, even DAs and sheriffs know there are smarter ways to use their money than to lock people up."

And that progress is durable, Garduque says, in large part because the public is paying more attention. North Carolina may have gone for Trump, but surveys indicate that 69 percent of voters in the state believe too many nonviolent people are in prison, and 77 percent say the goal of incarceration should be rehabilitation.

Cells in a wing of the House of Correction in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, North Carolina now has one of the most "progressive" death rows in the nation. No one has been executed here since 2006, and inmates are allowed to mingle with each other and spend hours outside. They are the most well-behaved population in the prison, officials say, largely because they have become a community.

So the two college students, Anna Landis and Allison Pearman, who came along on Vera’s field trip to figure out whether they wanted to devote their future careers to the criminal justice system, were surprised to see the red-uniformed residents of death row playing volleyball in the yard.

It was still a sad place: guards with rifles looked down from a tower at the condemned men, many of them very old, some in wheelchairs.

But when they had signed up for this unusual field trip, they said they expected to feel only disgust. Instead, they saw something human. So they clasped their fingers onto the chain-link fence and watched.