On October 10th the Vera Institute of Justice held their Reimagining Prison conference at John Jay College. The event was the culmination of their Reimagining Prison Project and the release of their Reimagining Prison Report, which makes the case for a human-dignity centered approach to incarceration.
The event was also held at the Cheshire Correctional Institution in Cheshire Connecticut, where members of the innovative T.R.U.E. Unit could be digitally telecast to the entire conference. Developed by Scott Semple, Connecticut’s Department of Correction Commissioner, with strong support from Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy, and the Vera Institute of Justice, the vision for the unit is: Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding, and Elevating.
“It’s my hope that when we all put our minds together, we can envision a system that lives up to the ideals in which our country was founded on,” said President Mason. She then moderated a discussion panel with Nicholas Turner, President of the Vera Institute of Justice; Malloy; and Stanley Richards, Executive Vice President of The Fortune Society.
I’ve recognized through working in the criminal justice system, how it treats people of poverty and color, and how opportunities afforded to white people and people with money are not afforded to people of color.” — Dannel P. Malloy, Governor of Connecticut
Why Reimagine Prisons?
Turner answered that question by thinking back to a trip his team took to Germany in June of 2015. “The idea of going to a country where the incarceration rate is a tenth of what it is in this country felt important to see. That helped us think about what we should be doing. That is what really spurred us to think about reimagining prisons,” said Turner. Governor Malloy, a partner in the project, also mentioned the Germany trip as an eye-opening experience regarding criminal justice practices. “It was interesting to see how differently they view the prison system, and how they look at it as an opportunity. We tend to view it as a punishment vehicle and that we should exact the highest punishment possible,” said Malloy. “If we could change that, then we would have less crime, lower rates of recidivism, and we could really turn lives around.”
“We need to get to the fundamental questioning of what the system is built on, one of white supremacy and racial oppression, and the dehumanization of people.” —Nicholas Turner, President of the Vera Institute of Justice
All three panel members also touched on our country’s history of discrimination and unequal criminal justice practices as a fundamental reason why, as a society, we have to rethink our prisons. “I’ve recognized through working in the criminal justice system, how it treats people of poverty and color, and how opportunities afforded to white people and people with money are not afforded to people of color,” said Malloy. “I also came to understand that we had too many people in prisons for the wrong reasons. We have to stop sending children to prison, because when you send a child to prison, you are likely to have him for the rest of his life entering and reentering prison.” Turner explained that to move forward, we have to confront our country’s history of racism. “We need to get to the fundamental questioning of what the system is built on, one of white supremacy and racial oppression, and the dehumanization of people,” said Turner.
“At Fortune, we know that the crime is what people did, not who they are.” —Stanley Richards, Executive Vice President of The Fortune Society
This concept of giving people in prisons a sense of dignity, so that they could embrace their own humanity, hit home for Richards. “As a former incarcerated man of color, I spent most of my life cycling in and out of prison. I did not see the beauty within myself,” said Richards. “It wasn’t until I went to school that I realized that I was not all the things all my teachers told me. I wasn’t the dumbest guy in the class. I wasn’t worth nothing. I realized that I wasn’t all of that.” His non-profit organization, The Fortune Society, provides hope and guidance for formerly incarcerated individuals, with over 50% of the staff being formerly incarcerated. “At Fortune, we know that the crime is what people did, not who they are. We let people know when they walk through the doors, they are not the worst thing that they have ever done,” said Richards.
How are we moving forward?
Having human dignity be the centerpiece for the Reimagining Prisons Project has propelled the work forward, and it’s having a positive effect. “Our prison population has gone from 18,000, down to 13,000. Right now we are the only state close to getting half of our prison population,” said Malloy. “We’ve had gigantic change in public safety. In 2016, we had the largest decline in violent crime of any state in the nation, and in that period of time we did that by a third.” Richards agreed and said that he’s seen the difference in New York City himself. “When I was on Rikers Island, there were 22,000 people incarcerated in New York City. Today we are at 8,200,” said Richards. “Safety is up, crime is down, incarceration is down, and we now have the possibility to close Rikers and have a much smaller footprint.”
“A lot of times, brothers commit crimes because they were victimized themselves.” —Jermaine Young, T.R.U.E. Mentor
Jermaine Young, a T.R.U.E. Mentor, said that what affected him, and the other members of the T.R.U.E. Unit the most, was a sense of humanity. “It’s not all about teaching young brothers ‘don’t do this, and don’t do that.’ It’s about getting to the human dignity issue,” said Young. “A lot of times, brothers commit crimes because they were victimized themselves.”
Christopher Belcher, a T.R.U.E. Mentee, said that growing up he just wanted to be a part of something positive, and that being caught up in the criminal justice system was something he never thought he’d experience. “It’s easy to be a part of something negative, just walk outside,” said Belcher. Now, being in the T.R.U.E. Unit, he’s often moved to tears by officers and mentors regularly showing him compassion and support. One of the officers coaches his basketball team. “He’s wearing a different hat as our coach, and I get to see him as something else, someone supporting me.” After he leaves the Cheshire Correctional Institution, Belcher hopes to become a strong advocate for prison reform.
The positive benefits are not only felt by the T.R.U.E. Unit mentors and mentees, but also the prison staff themselves. Scott Erfe, the Warden at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, explained that the T.R.U.E. Unit provided much-needed inspiration for his staff members. “We don’t get to see the positive outcomes, because if someone leaves and does something positive, we don’t see them,” said Erfe. “We only see the negativity if they come back to prison. Through the T.R.U.E. Unit, staff members can see the positivity and growth, and they want to get up and come to work.”
After visiting Connecticut prisons 23 times, and fully understanding how dehumanizing prisons were to both the individuals incarcerated and the staff members employed at them, Malloy feels even more compelled to reimagine the criminal justice system. “I encourage people to visit prisons to fully understand how much wasted time and wasted space is involved. Change like the T.R.U.E. Unit at Cheshire has a positive effect on the entire population at the prison,” said Malloy. “When correction guards come to me and say being in the T.R.U.E. Unit is the finest experience they’ve ever had in their 30-plus-year careers, that sends a message to everybody else. There is another way to do these things.”
Click here to read the full Vera Institute of Justice Reimagining Prison Report.