Embracing Dignity

A Multimedia Look into the U.S. Prison System and How to Disrupt It

Embracing Dignity

A Multimedia Look into the U.S. Prison System and How to Disrupt It

"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."

— Fyodor Dostoevsky

A Crisis In American Incarceration

Mass incarceration is one of the most profound, most unyielding, and least addressed issues society is facing. Today, 2.2 million people are warehoused in prisons and jails across the United States. Too often, these are cramped, unhealthy spaces, devoid of natural light and fresh air. Young men of color and their families carry a disproportionate share of this burden—a sadly predictable fact in a country where racial oppression and white supremacy have persisted for centuries. Rarely do they have opportunities to access education, care, or training that could help them to develop and succeed. Deprived of positive human contact, they live on the edge, hypervigilant to violence and contributors to it.

Staff are not immune to these problems. Working in corrections is one of the most dangerous jobs in America, contributing to heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and exhaustion. The result? A vicious, never-ending cycle. Because of mass incarceration, we are less safe, our families are distressed, and our communities are fractured.

Although slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment, one exception remained: as punishment for a crime—a loophole that has perpetuated the large-scale persecution of Black and Brown people through the criminal justice system. State constitutions adopted similar language, and policies and practices like convict leasing were put in place to ensure it was implemented, laying the foundation for today’s justice system and cementing an association between Black skin and criminality.

The following video montage shows how mass incarceration is not simply a modern phenomenon, but rather a consequence of a 400-year legacy of systemic racial oppression in America.

Today, the media floods American households with shows like Lockup and Oz that reinforce harmful narratives about the people who live and work in prisons. Incarcerated men and women are reduced to a violent, scary “other,” easy to neglect and cast away.

The result is a U.S. prison system designed to warehouse and dehumanize people. Every aspect of U.S. incarceration—from sentence lengths to the deplorable conditions inside correctional facilities, and from forced labor to the death penalty—is defined by punishment and retribution.

Millions of lives. That's what's at stake.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

America at a Crossroads

As mass incarceration has risen over recent decades in the United States, Germany has fostered a more humane prison system. Understanding Germany’s approach is key to understanding how policymakers and prison reform advocates can disrupt the brutality of the U.S. system.

In contrast to the American Constitution, the German Constitution post-World War II stipulates that “human dignity is inviolable”—legally binding every officer of the state to respect and protect it. As a result, Germany has no death penalty. Life sentences do not actually last a lifetime—they last 15 years. Privacy is a right, prison spaces are designed to look and feel like the outside community as much as possible, and decisions made within the prison are shaped by a need to protect the dignity of all people living and working inside.

Human dignity should be inviolable in America. It isn’t, and the condition of our prisons reflects that fact. The question is whether it is possible to construct something wholly different, and to do so in a way that has a chance to transform prison practice in America. The answer is a resounding yes.

The Clear Line

To put American mass incarceration into perspective, we can look to countries like Germany and Norway.

Susanne Gerlach (left) is the d irector general for all prisons and probation in the German state of Berlin. She and other German and Norwegian corrections professionals flew to Montgomery, Alabama on a global exchange with their American counterparts. There they toured the Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice—confronting the clear line connecting slavery and the American prison system today.

The Impact on Society

Prisons and jails often operate away from public view. However, society is deeply impacted by the culture and conditions inside them. Christiane Jesse (left) is the director general of prison administration in Lower Saxony, Germany, home to Germany's largest juvenile prison, Jugendanstalt Hameln. Looking from the outside in, she shares her thoughts on the costs of mass incarceration to American society.

Hoping for Change

Ioannis Laziridis (left) is a corrections officer at Jugendanstalt Hameln, a German prison for young men up to 25 years old. After going through an intensive two-year training program to become a corrections officer in Germany, he describes his shock at learning about the brutality of the American prison system and his hope for change to come.

"I sometimes think what will it take for the the U.S. to change?"

Susanne Gerlach, Director General Prison and Probation Administration, Berlin, Germany

Looking for Real Change

A delegation of corrections professionals from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina joined advocates on a global exchange tour of German and Norwegian prisons—believed to be among the most humane prisons in the world—hosted by Restoring Promise, an initiative of the Vera Institute of Justice and MILPA Collective.

This is what they saw.

Sachsenhausen, a former German concentration camp and prison, outside of Berlin, Germany

A Mass Reckoning

Sachsenhausen sits on the outskirts of bustling Berlin, Germany. A former concentration camp and prison, it was a place of unspeakable horrors nearly 75 years ago. From the moment people passed through the gates, they were stripped of all human dignity and self-determination.

The contrasts between how Germany and the United States grappled with their histories to create their present are significant. Today, Sachsenhausen memorializes and acknowledges its painful history to prevent it from being repeated.

"Most unexpected for me were the parallels that could be drawn between the concentration camp and our US prisons; the physical design and control strategies utilized."

Virgina Barr, Division Director, South Carolina Department of Correction

In Germany, there is a determination to prevent history from repeating itself. There isn’t a collective memorialization in the U.S. for indigenous people who were murdered by colonialists or for African people who were kidnapped and enslaved as there is for the Holocaust in Germany.

The U.S. has buried its history of racial oppression and violence and its connection to its modern-day prison system.
"Healing doesn't mean our wounds don't exist."

—John Pineda, Deputy Director of MILPA Collective

Designed for Dignity

Unlike the U.S. prison system, the German and Norwegian systems place a heavy emphasis on reintegrating incarcerated people into society. The result is a system intentionally designed around human dignity and normalization—a principle that requires life inside prison to resemble life outside as much as possible. People have freedom of movement and expression. They have a right to privacy. Whereas U.S. corrections officers train for approximately six weeks, German officers undergo two years of intensive training in psychology, constitutional law, and more. They approach their work not through the lens of security and custody—as in America—but rather as social workers.

In Germany and Norway, a central goal of correctional institutions is to support people who are incarcerated in becoming productive citizens when returning home. Susanne Gerlach, director general of prison administration and probation for Berlin, Germany, puts it best: “You are not sentenced to bad food. You are not sentenced to not seeing your family. We want you to see your family.” We heard similar responses in many correctional facilities in Germany and Norway—from the officials, the frontline officers, and the very people who are incarcerated—all of whom responded to the American-style of incarceration with shock.

That is why, in May 2019, an American delegation of corrections professionals and leaders from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina—all part of the Restoring Promise initiative— joined a study tour of German and Norwegian prisons intending to learn best practices from abroad and make meaningful changes back home.

Jugendanstalt Hameln (Juvenile Prison)

The largest juvenile prison in Germany, Jugendanstalt Hameln looks like any other bleak correctional institution from the outside. Inside, however, the story could not be more different.

A Global Exchange of Ideas

Impacted by her visit to Montgomery, Alabama—the former capital of the American Confederacy and domestic slave trade—and from learning about mass incarceration in America, Christiane Jesse (left), director general of prisons in Lower Saxony, Germany, expressed her desire to become a partner in the movement to transform the American prison system.

She extended an invitation to American corrections professionals from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina to visit Germany's largest youth prison, Jugendanstalt Hameln, and exchange ideas, solutions, and best practices that they could bring back home to the United States.

At Jugendanstalt Hameln, as at many German prisons, communal kitchens in residential areas are designed around the principle of normality, allowing incarcerated people the opportunity to prepare their own meals.
The principle of normality dictates that life inside prison should resemble life in the outside community as much as possible to support reentry.
As a result, many German prisons are designed to allow freedom of movement and access to sunlight and nature, among other things. Here, prison is designed as a micro-society that mimics life on the outside.
Cells at Jugendanstalt Hameln reflect the design of an actual bedroom, with open access to windows, sunlight, and air, and rights to both privacy and self-expression. Here, incarcerated people have access to regular clothes and belongings from home to help normalize their experience.
The grounds of the prison are covered in grass and trees, allowing incarcerated people access to nature.
The prison also has a building that provides crucial services to incarcerated people, including education, thereby limiting interruptions in schooling as much as possible. When incarcerated people complete their courses, there is no indication they were educated in prison—a policy that reflects a commitment to normality.
The visitors' lounge at the entrance to the prison is designed to maximize openness and let in natural light—a calm, welcoming, non-authoritarian atmosphere for those who enter the prison from the outside community.
Incarcerated young adults are trained in firefighting by community members who serve as volunteer firefighters—one of the several skills-training programs the prison offers for reentry. After release, incarcerated people have the opportunity to become firefighters in the community.
With a standard-sized track and soccer field in the center of the prison grounds, many incarcerated young adults opt to exercise on their own time or play soccer with peers and staff in a display of camaraderie.
With an athletic director overseeing athletic programming, sport is intentionally woven into individualized sentence plans to foster motivation and support personal growth—a plan developed in collaboration with the incarcerated person and their family that sets goals for personal growth throughout their sentence.
The prison provides incarcerated people with access to state-of-the-art exercise equipment (including spinning machines), an outdoor soccer and track field, basketball courts, and a standard-sized gymnasium throughout the day. One young adult who trained at the facility is now a professional soccer player in Germany.
Trained to be Agents of Change

To become a corrections officer in Germany, Ioannis Laziridis (left), underwent an intensive two-year training similar to the education one receives for an educational degree that included examinations on the topics of psychology, criminal law, educational theory, and communication strategies, among other things. In the U.S., corrections training rarely lasts longer than three months and the threshold to become an officer is low, whereas in Germany, corrections is considered a specialized field that requires a much more technical skill set and ability to communicate effectively.

Justizvollzugsanstalt des Offenen Vollzuges (Open Prison)

Not unlike an apartment complex or halfway house, Berlin's open prisons are designed and operated with minimal security measures, allowing incarcerated people significant freedom of movement inside and outside to better reintegrate them into society on release.

At Berlin's open prisons, incarcerated people are free to come and go and may venture out into the community to work, see their loved ones, and take care of their social responsibilities—as long as they return by 8p.m. Notably, there are no bars on windows, no barbed wire, no exterior walls, and little surveillance—all to create an atmosphere that fosters trust and safety.
This open prison has an outdoor common space where incarcerated people can sit and gather, like a park, and pathways throughout the compound, which incarcerated people take advantage of for exercise and leisurely strolls.
The "openness” of the prison is literal, but also intentionally aesthetic—featuring natural materials, unobstructed windows, access to sunlight and nature, fresh air, and open doors.
There are common spaces throughout, which are used by incarcerated people to hang out and relax.
The residential kitchens, like every other aspect of the prison, are designed to reflect the outside community as much as possible. People can cook, prepare their meals, wash their dishes, and store their extra food just like they would at home. Because the goal is to support incarcerated people in reentering society, the design is not as oppressive as that of U.S. prisons.
Units in the open prison are called “Haus” or House, designed like apartment complexes to foster a sense of normality within the prison. The "cellblocks" look quite different from American ones because they are designed to respect incarcerated people's freedom of movement and privacy.
"This is definitely something I can see in South Carolina."

Jasmine Fitzgerald, Corrections Officer, Turbeville Correctional Facility, South Carolina Department of Corrections

Halden Prison

Known as the world's most humane prison, Halden Prison resembles a micro-society inside its walls. From the architecture to the residents’ daily life, every aspect is intentionally designed to normalize life and uphold the dignity of incarcerated people—not punish. It is a glimpse of what the future of American justice could look like.

Halden was designed to mirror the routines of daily life on the outside. So, incarcerated people are required to walk outside to their daily commitments of school or work or therapy, over uneven ground, up and down hills, traveling to and from home, as they would in the world outside.
The visitation house at Halden is perhaps one of its most striking features. Families can pay their incarcerated loved ones an overnight visit in a house that is designed to mirror a house on the outside.
The visitation's house's backyard has a sandlot and toys for incarcerated people's children, so they do not feel unsafe or threatened — creating a welcoming environment that helps incarcerated people maintain their relationships, instead of isolating them.
A central goal of Halden is to help people prepare for life after release. This starts by supporting incarcerated people in fostering meaningful family connections. Seen here is the master bedroom in the visitation house where families can spend quality time with their incarcerated loved ones.
Halden Prison has received much international attention because of its architecture. The design of Halden was inspired by a need to replicate, to the greatest extent possible, Norwegian society that surrounds the facility. It was designed to meet incarcerated people and staff in a friendly, non-authoritarian way.
The principle of normality is so central to Halden's design that residences look more like university dorm suites than the restricted cellblocks that characterize American prisons. The inspiration behind this design is the idea that the more institutional a prison looks and feels, the more difficult it is for incarcerated people to successfully reenter society.
Incarcerated people are given a magnetized key card to swipe whenever they enter or leave a floor or building on the compound, allowing officers to easily track their whereabouts without restricting freedom of movement. At Halden, the "cellblock" is just a standard hallway—in contrast to the archetypal, restrictive design of U.S. cellblocks, which facilitate warehousing instead of normality. As a result, the maximum number of people on any given floor is 12.
The cells are designed to respect the dignity of incarcerated people. As such, there are no bars—windows are made from reinforced safety glass—allowing unrestricted access to nature and sunlight. Incarcerated people have private restrooms in their cells and enjoy a right to privacy and self-expression. They do not wear uniforms—they wear the same clothing they would wear outside. They are allowed to bring some belongings from home to normalize their environment.
In Norway, incarcerated people have access to the same books, magazines, movies, and music that people outside can enjoy through their libraries. In what is called the "import model," Halden's library is part of the outside community’s public library system; education, healthcare, and other services are also “imported” from the community.
As a result, even the commissary at Halden looks like a supermarket, offering many of the same foods and fresh produce one would find in the outside community. Despite losing their freedom, incarcerated people do not lose their rights in Norway—they are as entitled to these benefits as any other citizen, regardless of their convictions.
In addition to the diverse amenities Halden offers to incarcerated people, one of the most popular is the recording studio, where incarcerated people recreationally play music and sing individually or in bands. It is a state-of-the-art space equipped with a professional sound mixer, several electric and acoustic guitars, and a drum set.
Halden Prison Deputy Governor, Jan Strømnes, walks U.S. corrections officers and officials from South Carolina, Massachusetts, and Connecticut around Halden as part of a Global Learning Exchange hosted by the Restoring Promise initiative.
Reaching for the North Star

While in Norway, Virginia Barr, Division Director at the South Carolina Department of Correction, discusses how Halden Prison is a north star for the U.S. to strive toward.

In this age of mass incarceration and the surging momentum to end it, we must commit to a national movement to disrupt the American prison system. The question is whether it is possible to construct something wholly different, and to do so in a way that has a chance to transform prison practice in America. We believe—resolutely—that the answer is yes. With our Restoring Promise initiative, the Vera Institute of Justice and the MILPA Collective have developed a solution that radically transforms the living and working conditions and culture of prisons into safe environments that center healing and human dignity.

Restoring Promise works directly with prisons and jails to transform the culture, climate, rhythms and routines that define the prison system, starting with young adults. Young adults are “mentees” who participate in meaningful daily activities, deepen their connection to their culture and healing, cultivate an ideology of self-determination, and restore relationships with family and community. Mentors (people over the age of 25) support them in their personal growth. Staff undergo intensive training to become agents of change in support of this mission.

We believe that we can begin to bring the prison reform movement to a critical tipping point: within each housing unit, prison, and state we have worked in, we hear incarcerated people, corrections staff, and agency leadership reflect “we can’t and won’t go back.” Our goal is nothing short of igniting that sentiment into a wave led by incarcerated people and line staff.