At Vera, we believe that ending mass incarceration means more than reducing the number of people locked up. It also means a transformation of incarceration to center human dignity and promote healing, restoration, and accountability rather than punishment—a radical break from the dehumanizing conditions under which most incarcerated Americans live today. In our work, this includes reimagining prison for incarcerated young adults, ending the widespread use of solitary confinement, exploring ways to better connect people who are incarcerated with their families, and expanding access to higher education in prison. Vera’s approach draws on lessons from countries like Germany and Norway, which take a much less punitive approach to confinement, with far better results.

Establishing a new normal for young adults

Inspired by Germany’s approach to incarceration, Vera partnered with the Connecticut Department of Corrections to radically transform conditions of confinement for incarcerated young adults aged 18-25. The program—called Restoring Promise—has since expanded to four correctional facilities in three states.

In the summer of 2015, Vera invited Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy and his Corrections Commissioner, Scott Semple, on a tour of German prisons. One of the facilities they visited was a youth prison in northern Germany, where occupants live on a farm and participate in intensive therapy while working with animals and developing job skills. They learned that this special environment was informed by neuroscientific findings that the brains of young adults are still developing, which is one of the reasons 18 to 25 year olds are prone to impulsive behaviors that can land them in prison.

There has been an almost complete absence of violence in any of the Restoring Promise units.

The officials were inspired by what they saw in Germany and after returning to the United States, asked Vera to help them create a version of the youth program in Connecticut. The result is the T.R.U.E. unit, established at the Cheshire Correctional Institution in early 2017. T.R.U.E. is a therapeutic unit for young men that focuses on developing their sense of self, autonomy, and responsibility, and keeps a clear focus on preparing them for life after prison. The program’s name, developed by unit residents, is an acronym for Truthfulness (to oneself and others), Respectfulness (toward the community), Understanding (ourselves and what brought us here), and Elevating (into success).

The impact on both the young men who reside there and the prison staff who work on the unit is significant—so much so that it was the subject of a recent 60 Minutes segment. Restoring Promise units, like T.R.U.E., are notable for their almost complete lack of violence—an unusual outcome, given that a disproportionate number of prison fights in the U.S. involve young adults. Solitary confinement is no longer used. Young adults report feeling safer, more prepared to succeed, more connected to family, and more fairly treated. Staff report greater calm and satisfaction. While still too early to be measured definitively, recidivism is lower.

Building on the success of its T.R.U.E. program, Connecticut opened a similar unit in May 2018 at York Correctional Institution, the state’s only prison for women, and a second unit at Cheshire.

The success of T.R.U.E. has other states paying attention. In fall 2017, Vera began a partnership with the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office in Massachusetts, which opened a similar young adult unit in its jail in There has been an almost complete absence of violence in any of the Restoring Promise units. 12 February 2018. Shortly after that, through a competitive application process, South Carolina was selected from a group of seven applicants to join these partners in transforming custody for young adults. Other states continue to express strong interest in participating.

Restoring Promise begins with a focus on young adults. But we’re not stopping there—this project is an entry point into broader justice reform. By placing human dignity as the philosophical and operational core of how American jails and prisons are designed, staffed, and managed, Vera’s Restoring Promise initiative is shifting the goal and culture of incarceration from retribution to rehabilitation.

Changing the lives of incarcerated people through education

A quarter century after the 1994 Crime Bill banned the use of need-based Pell Grants for students in prison, Vera is increasing access to postsecondary education for incarcerated people and leading a nationwide campaign to repeal the ban.

Access to college in prison is proven to significantly reduce recidivism and increase the chances of success for individuals returning to their community from incarceration. Americans across the political spectrum strongly believe it is a smart investment, and in recent years, efforts to build robust postsecondary education programs in prison have accelerated—with the support of a broad range of stakeholders, from correctional officers to college administrators.

In January 2019, we published evidence to bolster the growing consensus on education in prison. Our research decisively concluded that repealing the federal ban on Pell Grants would help people who are incarcerated break the link between lack of opportunity and recidivism—a link that has disproportionately trapped people of color in generational cycles of poverty and incarceration.

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Issued jointly with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, our research found that repealing the ban would:

  • Increase employment rates among formerly incarcerated students by 10 percent on average, and boost combined earnings among all formerly incarcerated people by $45.3 million during the first year of release;
  • Provide employers with a larger pool of skilled workers to hire; and
  • Reduce recidivism rates among participating students, saving states a combined $365.8 million annually in prison costs.
Vera reports: $182.9 million in savings to states if 25% of the Pell-eligible prison population participated in postsecondary education; $548.8 million savings if 75% of those eligible participate.

Armed with this evidence, we are pursuing action. Through the Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, Vera is working with state and federal prisons—in partnership with 65 colleges in 27 states—to establish and support college-in-prison programs that provide quality higher education both in prison and post-release. Since the initiative’s launch in 2016, more than 1,000 participants have earned degrees and credentials.

Vera is building on this momentum to catalyze nationwide support. We’re taking senators to prison graduation ceremonies, so they can see the promise of a future where all students have access to education and opportunities to unlock their potential. We’re bringing college presidents, corrections leaders, and formerly incarcerated students who have benefited from college in prison to share their successes with Capitol Hill policymakers. And, we’re connecting businesspeople with formerly incarcerated students to learn how postsecondary education in prison has changed their lives and the communities in which they live.

We’re pairing these efforts with a national communications campaign to cultivate broad public support for postsecondary education in prison at the state and national levels—with the eventual aim of repealing the federal ban on Pell Grants for students in prison.