Before 2017, it was very rare to hear lawmakers discussing the horrific conditions women face while in jail or prison—let alone have them introducing legislation to address the issue. But through the work of an organization called the Justice Action Network, which lobbies at the state and federal level for bipartisan criminal justice reforms, policymakers began discussing the problem more deeply a couple years ago. JAN organized a conference called Women Unshackled dedicated to confronting the treatment of women in prison—including the fact that women often lack access to menstrual products and would be shackled while giving birth. The conference included a speech from California senator Kamala Harris, who raised the possibility of passing “dignity bills” to improve conditions for incarcerated women. Now, in partnership with the criminal justice organization #Cut50, JAN is working to advance those bills in 20 states, and has successfully lobbied to incorporate dignity for incarcerated women measures into the federal First Step Act, passed last December.
In criminal justice reform, “there are so many people with ideas for how to fix the system,” says Holly Harris (no relation to Kamala), the executive director of JAN. The issue, she adds, is it’s often difficult for efforts like the campaign for dignity for incarcerated women to gain traction and funding. Harris is now launching a new initiative, called the Coalition for Public Safety, specifically to identify and fund other innovative ideas in criminal justice reform. The success of the Women Unshackled initiative, she says, provided the motivation to establish a means of funding support of similar work in the justice reform.
CPS has existed for several years, but Harris and a diverse board of criminal justice reform and human rights advocates are relaunching it as something of a startup incubator for justice reform nonprofits. It will issue a request for proposals for nonprofits working on improving the justice system, with applications due at the end of September. From there, CPS will select 10 projects to fund and help scale. Harris says they’re open to a range of ideas, from bail reform to addressing the need for better educational opportunities inside prisons to building out alternatives to incarceration in cities. CPS’s board of directors includes people like Topeka Sam, who was formerly incarcerated and now also leads an organization called the Ladies of Hope Ministries that helps other formerly incarcerated women transition into good jobs or educational opportunities. Her experience and expertise, Harris says, will help guide CPS to identify other nonprofits trying to fix the justice system and improve conditions for people who have been involved with it.
Harris is also hopeful that CPS will open up ways for the criminal justice reform movement to reach a broader audience, including youth organizers. “I’m hopeful we’ll see some proposals that are focused on organizing the young people of America,” Harris says, citing the amount of change youth have precipitated in the movements against gun violence and climate change.
For the first year, CPS will be offering grants of $100,000 to 10 organizations. But Harris says the organization also will offer support for individuals who want to establish nonprofits in the justice reform space but haven’t yet done so. “If you have a great idea and you haven’t started the process of becoming a nonprofit, you can bring your idea to us,” Harris says. As CPS evolves in its new iterations, she says, she wants it to become something of an incubator for ideas, as much as a funder for established nonprofits.
Looking back to Women Unshackled, “that’s the trajectory we want these ideas to take” Harris says. Before that movement launched, there were no bills aimed at protecting incarcerated women, and now it’s part of one of the largest criminal justice reform initiatives implemented at the federal level.
“We want people and groups out there to really look to their communities and ask: What is a great challenge? Are there issues out there–like literacy and access to education—that have an inherent connection to incarceration? Is there a way to innovate around that connection?” Harris says. “That is precisely what we want this new organization to be about.”