Reimagining American Prisons Isn’t a Pipedream After the Holocaust, Germany Reimagined Theirs

Rp Germany Group
“When you first come into an American prison, your dignity is left at the door. It’s eviscerated. We’re working to bring that back to people held here."
Jermaine Young
Mentor at Cheshire Correctional Institution's T.R.U.E. unit

Today, we’re excited to announce that we’re back in Germany with a group of 29 justice practitioners, influencers, and leaders – and this time, we’re also visiting Norway to learn from their system. These Northern European models—while not perfect—provide the most powerful and accessible vision for what the United States could aim for in bettering the conditions of confinement for the 2.2 million people held in our prisons and jails.

Over the course of the next week, we’ll be learning how these countries use incarceration differently and sharing what we learn with all of you – both here on the Vera blog, and through Vera’s Twitter and Facebook accounts using #ReimaginePrison.

The programming for this trip will include seminars and discussions with German and Norwegian justice practitioners and academics, as well as robust interactions with people who are incarcerated. Through these discussions, the U.S. and European policymakers will exchange ideas and share successful strategies, with the ultimate goal of developing concrete, practical ways to translate lessons learned from Europe to the American context.

Planning this trip to Germany and Norway involved a lot of reflection from the earlier ones — and thinking about what made them such unique experiences.

Rp Germany Candice Jones Nick Turner

Most of the people present on our earlier trips already believed in the importance of criminal justice reform. The goal, then, was to underscore the need to move beyond incremental reforms towards a reorientation of the entire American system – to move towards reflecting a different set of values than the ones we’ve been working with. As part of those conversations, the groups discussed the need to move past the retributive model that has historically shaped US criminal justice policy towards a more comprehensive and humane understanding of deterrence and public safety.

Germany provided a good example of how this might be done. Participants learned that in Germany, life inside prisons mirrors life outside as closely as possible. Staff guide people incarcerated there through personalized plans, including counseling and employment programs that prepare them for societal re-entry.

German officials explained that, at their core, these policies are rooted in a recognition of human dignity – an understanding that the deprivation of liberty is itself the punishment, and that time spent in prison should prepare people to lead a life free of crime after returning home.

"We can't program our way out of mass incarceration – we have to change the culture inside these institutions."
Ryan Shanahan
Research Director, Center on Youth Justice at Vera Institute of Justice

These policies did not happen in a vacuum; they came in direct response to the Holocaust, at a period in which Germany was forced to reckon with its moral failings and codify laws that would ensure something like the Holocaust never happened again. For the American officials, academics, and advocates who joined Vera on its trip in 2015, Germany’s response to its own original sins highlighted the need for the United States to address its own – the ancestral line from slavery to Jim Crow and our era of mass incarceration.

The United States, a country in which black and brown people are held at drastically disproportional rates, has yet to grapple with those ancestral ties. As Vera’s President, Nicholas Turner, said last week, “The master narrative in the United States about people in prison is that they’re depraved and violent and a risk to our communities. That narrative is rooted in a long legacy of racism, white supremacy, and oppression that systematically works against people of color.”

The trip to Germany had a profound impact on the way many officials came to view their own correctional systems’ roles in ending racial disparities and increasing social equity.

“Whether you interact with the US prison system is too often determined by your birth, income, or community circumstance,” said Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy. “That isn’t true in other countries [like Germany]. We have to address disparities before we can ever truly change our system, and that’s what we’ve tried to do in Connecticut. Prison shouldn’t be where opportunity ends. It should be where opportunities that were previously-denied are given for the first time.”

Rp Germany Small Group

Connecticut’s partnership with Vera on the T.R.U.E. unit, and the early successes demonstrated there, have led to similar units in Massachusetts and South Carolina. Seeing these and other partnerships come from the initial trip, Vera staff knew how important the experience was for shaping plans to move beyond the low-hanging fruit of incremental reforms towards a total reimagining of existing systems. Once you’ve seen a criminal justice system that has minimized the long-term human and economic costs of incarceration, it’s much more difficult to dismiss a reimagined American system as some far-off pipedream.

It is our hope that those with us on the trip this time around – and the many others who engage with their work or are impacted by it – will return home galvanized, with a shared sense of purpose about the work that must be done. As Ryan Shanahan, a research director at Vera who spearheaded Vera’s work in this space, said last week, she’s seen firsthand the power of what’s possible when people take a leap of faith and invest in reform:

"We can't program our way out of mass incarceration – we have to change the culture inside these institutions,” she said. “I’ve worked in criminal justice reform and inside the system since the 1990s. Everything I knew about this system told me that a project like this to reimagine prisons was impossible. But look at what has happened [with T.R.U.E. in Connecticut]. It’s remarkable...and it’s possible.”