‘Taking a Leap’ to More Humane Incarceration

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Illustration courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative.

“We’re taking a leap,” said Scott Erfe, the warden of the super-max Cheshire Correctional Institution in central Connecticut.

The inmates seem to agree the leap is worthwhile.

In a live-streamed interview Wednesday, young men who have been living most of this year in a special, insular unit where they can choose their own clothes, prepare their own meals, develop case plans with goals for education and employment, and are encouraged to have visits and contact with family, said the program had given them new confidence and changed their lives.

“I want to make true changes in myself and help others make changes,” said Chris Belcher, one of the young men taking part in the TRUE program at Cheshire.

“A mentor once started crying when she was visiting, and it immediately just made me feel that someone actually cared about me. That makes a big difference. Being able to become vulnerable meant a lot to me. It helped me keep doing what I’m doing.”

A prison mentor, TRUE resident Jermaine Young, agreed.

“It’s about teaching (an inmate) to be a human being again….If you’re treated like an animal long enough, you’re going to start acting like an animal.”

The TRUE program, supported by the Vera Institute of Justice, is one of a handful of experiments around the U.S. to change correctional practices.

Dannel Malloy

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy. Photo by Graham Kates/The Crime Report

“We tend to look at prison as a punishment vehicle and we should exact the highest possible price,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said at a John Jay conference Wednesday that featured the livestream broadcast from Cheshire.

“If we could change that dynamic in the United States, then we would have less crime, lower rates of recidivism, and we could really turn lives around.”

The conference was held to highlight a major report issued by Vera Wednesday, entitled “Reimagining Prison,” which called for transformative changes in both correctional practices and prison design.

“The fundamental experience of people who currently live and work behind prison walls remains one of isolation and hardship, of which the public is generally and wrongly tolerant,” said Nicholas Turner, Vera’s president.

“We’ve lost generations to a modern incarceration system, designed to degrade and dehumanize and to extend racial oppression. But a radical change is possible—and, in some places, it’s already here.”

In Connection, before being accepted into TRUE, many of the men, aged 18 to 25, lived 22 hours a day in their cells in a super-max long nicknamed “the Rock.”

When asked why Cheshire was chosen for the TRUE unit, co-developed and sponsored by the Vera Institute, one staffer said that family members being able to get to the prison, located in central Connecticut, was a factor. Some 58 men have participated, working with 12 mentors along with prison staff.

“Corrections is a black and white world,” said Erfe, the Cheshire warden. “TRUE is in the gray area.”

(L-R) inmates Jermaine Young, Chris Belcher, Cheshire Correctional Institution Warden Scott Erfe . Photo courtesy John Jay.

There have been no incidents of violence in the TRUE unit since it launched 18 months ago, and the program is expanding to a women’s prison in Connecticut and a jail with the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office in Massachusetts.

At the conference, Cheshire’s warden and other staff talked about the need to develop new ways to incarcerate people—and to change the sometimes toxic dynamic between staff and prisoners.

“I’ve seen for myself a staffer working 20 years, getting his retirement, but unable to even enjoy it because of all the deep stress,” said Erfe.

karol mason

John Jay President Karol Mason and Vera President Nick Turner. Photo courtesy John Jay

In her opening remarks, John Jay President Karol Mason praised the education emphasis in the TRUE unit and running through the Vera report.

In John Jay classes taught to prison residents, she said, when a teacher asks a question, “every hand goes up.”

The idea for TRUE was born from a visit to Germany by Connecticut correctional leaders and Vera Institute officials. They said they were struck by the fact that human dignity within the German prisons is paramount, often attributed to the country coming to terms with its creation and perpetuation of the Holocaust.

Recidivism rates are far lower in Germany than in U.S.

“Vera’s whole concept on how to reimagine prison was spurred by a trip we took to Germany,” confirmed Turner.

“We saw that their system was rooted in human dignity and not dehumanization. That came from confronting their original sin. We have to do that here. We haven’t.”

In the U.S., more than two million people are behind bars—the vast majority in state and local prisons.

The recent prison incident in South Carolina that left seven dead, as well as prison strikes across the country the 2016 and 2018 protesting inhumane treatment, serve as tragic wake-up calls that something is fundamentally wrong in American prisons,” according to the report, noting the historic timeline of an American prison policy that has been overtly built on slavery and the Jim Crow system.

For a summary of the report, please click here.

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report.

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