‘Disrupting Prison’ Reform Initiative Expands to Six States

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restoring promise

Photo courtesy Vera Institute of Justice

Three new states have been selected to participate in a model national initiative designed to test whether incarceration strategies used in Germany and Norway can work for young adult offenders in the United States.

North Dakota, Colorado and Idaho will join the “Restoring Promise” initiative spearheaded by the Vera Institute of Justice and MILPA Collective, a California-based nonprofit led by former incarcerees, in what organizers called an effort to “disrupt and transform the living and working conditions inside American prisons and jails.”

The new states will join Connecticut, Massachusetts and South Carolina in an effort, funded by Arnold Ventures, that will “repurpose” existing housing units in selected facilities with input from incarcerees themselves.

A similar approach, replacing traditional rigid discipline with more open settings, has been used in Germany, Norway and some other European nations to detain young adult offenders (aged 18-25) and adult prisoners that takes into account the nature of their original offense and their potential for successful reintegration into civilian society.

A tour of the European facilities taken by senior U.S. corrections officials several years ago galvanized many of them into rethinking how they did their jobs, and soon became a key component of the growing prison reform movement.

“Bringing the Restoring Promise Initiative to (North Dakota)…helps revive a sense of purpose—not only to our staff, but to our residents,” said Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in a statement accompanying the announcement.

“It is an important step in living out our mission to provide opportunities for growth and to help young people thrive when they reenter their communities.”

The numbers of senior state prison officials who have signed on to the prison reform concept has given added weight and traction to ideas long advanced by criminologists, activists and former incarcerees.

“We know that the key to reducing the recidivism rate in Colorado is to improve the culture inside the prison, both for those who are incarcerated, and for the staff who work inside the walls every day,” said Dean Williams, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

“With 95 percent of incarcerated individuals returning to our communities at some point, providing programs that focus on rehabilitation and redemption not only improves prison safety, but also increases public safety as well.”

An important component of the program is assigning older mentors to young adults in detention to assist them in setting new goals for behavioral change, and for restoring broken relationships with families and communities they left behind.

Some of the other programs in the initiative have already received compelling endorsements from inmates and correctional staff, reflecting what Vera calls a “staggering improvement in the life of all people who live and work” in the facilities.

Since the model CORE Unit at Turbeville Prison in South Carolina was established a year ago, a survey of the young-adult inmates found that 81 percent agreed with the statement that “staff treat incarcerated people with respect,” Vera reported.

Some 90 percent of the staff surveyed said the CORE unit was a “positive environment,” and 100 percent said they felt safer.

Connecticut corrections officials similarly praised the TRUE program, established at a facility in Cheshire, CT.

“We knew when we began thinking about opening the TRUE Unit that we needed more than incremental reform to build lasting change,” said Scott Semple, former Connecticut Department of Corrections Commissioner.

“Working with Restoring Promise helped us create a process to move towards a bold, cultural shift in the way we worked with young adults. The results of their participatory approach were clear in the improved wellness of all those who lived and worked in the unit.”

Ending the “Legacy of Slavery”

The Restoring Promise initiative’s long-term goals go well beyond simple changes in discipline and administration. According to Vera, it represents a step towards ending a racially biased, punishment-oriented approach that has disproportionately harmed minority communities.

“At its core, Restoring Promise is about deepening our understanding of how the American legacy of slavery and genocide has shaped our current prison system,” Vera said.

“Upending a culture nearly 400 years in the making takes time and requires a collective healing process, but together we hope to help shift the public consciousness around how incarcerated people deserve to be treated.”

According to MILPA, “disruption” is crucial to ending mass incarceration in the U.S.

“We cannot forget about our nearly 2.2 million brothers and sisters who exist in wretched prison conditions and languish behind bars,” the MILPA Collective said in a statement.

“We too were once shackled, caged, mistreated, and left to deteriorate, and so we know that working across the aisle and bridging the gap between staff and incarcerated people is the only path towards sustainable reform.”

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