What We Know

Solutions from Our Experiences in the Justice System

A thoughtful and surprising cornucopia of ideas for improving America’s criminal justice system, from those most impacted by it

“This is what we know, and we know it better than anyone else.”
—from the introduction by Vivian Nixon and Daryl V. Atkinson

Winner, 2021 Distinguished Achievement Award from Evident Change

When The New Press, the Center for American Progress, and the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted Peoples and Family Movement issued a call for innovative reform ideas, over three hundred currently and formerly incarcerated individuals responded. What We Know collects two dozen of their best suggestions, each of which proposes a policy solution derived from their own lived experience.

Ideas run the gamut: A man serving time in Indiana argues for a Prison Labor Standards Act, calling for us to reject prison slavery. A Nebraska man who served a federal prison term for white-collar crimes suggests offering courses in entrepreneurship as a way to break down barriers to employment for people returning from incarceration. A woman serving a life sentence in Georgia spells out a system of earned privileges that could increase safety and decrease stress inside prison. And a man serving a twenty-five-year term for a crime he committed at age fifteen advocates powerfully for eliminating existing financial incentives to charge youths as adults.

With contributors including nationally known formerly incarcerated leaders in justice reform, twenty-three justice-involved individuals add a perspective that is too often left out of national reform conversations.


“In What We Know, Nixon and Atkinson have gathered together voices that turn experience into expertise, and they leave us with a challenge: now that we’ve been told, will we listen?”
—Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet, lawyer, and author of Felon
“This volume features a variety of perspectives and should appeal to advocates of U.S. social reform and those interested in the nation's complex prison history.”
Library Journal
“A must-read collection of bold new criminal justice reform ideas from the true experts—those of us with firsthand knowledge of America’s harsh and unjust criminal justice system.”
—Susan Burton, founder, A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and author of Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women
“An exemplary, welcome, and necessary contribution, by turns forceful, specific, personal, inspired, and insightful, delivered by those people most impacted. This should top everyone’s reading list.”
—Nick Turner, director, Vera Institute of Justice
What We Know gives voice to the extraordinary insights and ideas of formerly incarcerated Americans. In so doing, it reminds us of the tragic loss of human potential locked behind our prison walls.”
—Neil Barsky, founder and chair, The Marshall Project
“Uniformly well-written and cogently argued, these essays cast a harsh light on the prison system and the obstacles millions of Americans face in getting their lives back on track. Policy makers, lawyers, and activists should take note.”
Publishers Weekly
What We Know demonstrates that solutions to the challenge of mass incarceration are often close at hand; the voices of people affected by the justice system show us the way forward to a public safety strategy that emphasizes dignity over punishment.”
—Marc Mauer, executive director, The Sentencing Project, and author of Race to Incarcerate
“[An] eye-opening volume . . . filled with very smart and very wise ideas about reforming the criminal legal system.”
Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books

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Read a review of What We Know in Publishers Weekly.

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