Building Community Behind Bars

One unit at a North Dakota prison is reimagining its culture and creating safer environments for people who live and work there.
Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
May 29, 2024

Block C of the East Unit at the North Dakota State Penitentiary (NDSP) in Bismarck, North Dakota, doesn’t fit the mold of what most prisons in the United States look like. Doors painted teal, yellow, and light blue line the ground and mezzanine floors. In the center, couches and yellow, blue, and green ottomans are splayed across the lounge. Many of the unit’s walls have been painted by the people who live in the unit. On one is a quote in yellow script: “The road to change is always under construction.”

Beyond its appearance, the sounds in the unit are most striking. Conversations fill the space. Young people gather around an officer’s desk at the front of the room, engaged in a playful chat. In the back of the room, a few residents rearrange furniture to set up for the day’s lunch.

The difference is even evident in the unit’s name, chosen by the first group of people who lived there: U.N.I.T.Y. Village, which stands for “Using Natural Integrity for Teaching Youth.”

The unit, which opened in March 2022, is the result of a partnership between the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR) and Vera’s Restoring Promise initiative, which works with the MILPA Collective and correctional partners nationwide to transform existing housing units into places that are grounded in human dignity, accountability, and healing for young adults. It is one of six Restoring Promise sites; the initiative partners with five states—Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, and South Carolina, in addition to North Dakota.

“Our work is premised on the belief that incarcerated people and corrections professionals deserve to be treated with dignity and experience safety, healing, support, and connection to family and loved ones,” said Matthew Lowen, associate director of site work for Restoring Promise. “Leading with human dignity benefits everyone who interacts with our prison systems.”

Building trust through mentorship

The vast majority of the more than 1.9 million people incarcerated today endure brutal conditions—from being warehoused in cramped cells to experiencing violence that threatens their mental and physical health. These environments are also detrimental for corrections officers, who have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than military veterans and more than double the suicide rate of police officers.

But Restoring Promise is reimagining what prison culture can look like. The initiative’s goal is to create safer prison environments where incarcerated people can receive support while they learn, grow, and heal, which can help them succeed when they return to their communities.

Sixty-three people live in U.N.I.T.Y. Village. Fifteen of them are mentors—incarcerated people over the age of 25 who are typically serving long or life sentences. They offer guidance to the 48 young adults, or mentees, who range in age from 18 to 25.

For many of the mentors, this job—for which they are paid by DOCR—is an opportunity to provide the guidance and support they wish they’d received.

“There was a time when I struggled in my life, and I didn't have help,” said one of the mentors, who has been at U.N.I.T.Y. Village since it opened. “I ended up going down a destructive path that eventually led to prison. . . . I just want to make sure I can help someone else be where I’m at now without going through what I went through.”

In U.N.I.T.Y. Village, residents spend up to 13 hours a day outside their rooms; many work within the facility or attend school. Twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, they gather with unit staff in the lounge for check-ins and check-outs. Residents are prompted with a question to get the conversation going. It might be as simple and straightforward as, “What’s your favorite team?”

“I might not know somebody, but when I hear their favorite football team is the 49ers, now I got something to talk to them about,” said Daniel*, a mentor. “You get that relatability.”

There’s also time during these check-ins to share openly, celebrate accomplishments, and, importantly, address conflict. Residents and staff across all Restoring Promise units have adopted restorative justice practices, such as healing circles, where they gather to have open discussions and solve issues through conversation and dialogue.

“When people have problems, we get to the bottom of the problems instead of just saying, ‘this is the punishment,’ and moving on,” said Daniel. “If somebody's having a hard day, or if they do something they're not supposed to, we take the time to get to know what led to that.”

That candor, over time, has built trust between the mentors and their mentees.

“People don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” said one mentor. “[It’s about] spending time with these guys; showing them you do care.”

Mentors, mentees, and staff have built relationships, and, in turn, have created a community. In unpublished surveys conducted by Vera since the unit opened, both mentors and mentees report feeling safe in U.N.I.T.Y. Village. They feel they can communicate openly and have a sense of community. Mentees, in particular, feel their time in the unit is productive and that they’re gaining life skills. Even staff report that their quality of life has improved, and they are less stressed working in U.N.I.T.Y. Village.

“I wouldn’t ever have expected to have this amount of trust with the [corrections officers] and case managers, and this many people fighting for me,” said Ryan*, who came to U.N.I.T.Y. Village as a mentee and recently became a mentor. “It’s amazing to have this sense of family.”

Indigenous traditions

While Black and Latinx people are overrepresented in jail, in prison, and on parole across the country, Indigenous people are the most starkly overrepresented group in North Dakota. According to data from Vera’s Incarceration Trends project, Native Americans make up five percent of the state’s population but represent 22 percent of people in jail and 20 percent of people in prison. The DOCR has found that Native Americans in North Dakota are six times more likely to be in prison, on probation, or on parole than white people.

Daniel, with the support of staff, has been able to introduce and facilitate Indigenous practices at NDSP, such as sweat, a spiritual ceremony held every two weeks at the sweat lodge in the facility’s yard. He also teaches Indigenous culture and Lakota language classes in U.N.I.T.Y. Village and recently started offering a class for people incarcerated at NDSP.

“I felt like I had purpose . . . when I started learning about my Native culture,” said Daniel. “I started to realize who I was as a person. When I teach them and I see the pride on their faces, it’s so rewarding.”

Daniel has seen that pride spread throughout the unit. At a sweat he attended in November, every single person from U.N.I.T.Y. Village was able to introduce themselves and say a prayer in Lakota.

“That was so awesome,” he said.

Family connections

All Restoring Promise sites emphasize the importance of maintaining and strengthening family ties during incarceration—which research shows helps people succeed when they leave prison, leading to safer communities. U.N.I.T.Y. Village has held events during which families have been able to visit their loved ones in the unit and have even participated in healing circles.

“I can see the relief when they [get] to tour this block,” said Daniel. “And we get to see another side of the mentees, too, when the families are here.”

One resident, Casey*, came to NDSP just a few months before U.N.I.T.Y. Village opened. He had never been to prison, and he was understandably apprehensive when he arrived.

“I was just waiting for something to happen,” he said. “And my mom was stressing more than me.”

Casey became one of the first to join the unit as a mentee. After he moved to U.N.I.T.Y. Village, one of the first things he did was call his mom.

“You don’t really have to worry about me,” he told her.

All residents take classes taught by mentors (and occasionally mentees) on topics ranging from mental health to Indigenous traditions and practices. While at U.N.I.T.Y. Village, Casey has taken a class on public speaking, a skill he wants to develop. He presented at one of U.N.I.T.Y. Village’s family day events. And, for the first time, he’s thinking about college.

“When I was on the street, I wasn’t thinking about college,” Casey said. But in U.N.I.T.Y. Village, his mindset has shifted, and he’s found a sense of purpose. “I’m taking initiative and applying myself, because I have the means to progress and be better. . . . Now I see a future, and I just can’t wait.”

Meanwhile, Ryan, the mentee-turned-mentor, will soon be up for parole. He’s excited about what lies ahead—and grateful for the support of the community he has helped build.

“I have a relationship with almost everybody in here,” he said. “It’s gonna be hard to leave this behind, because it’s so much a part of me and part of my story.”

Beyond Block C

The development of U.N.I.T.Y. Village required the buy-in of DOCR leaders.

“Coming to prison is a traumatic experience,” said Lacie Zander, a unit manager at NDSP who oversees U.N.I.T.Y. Village. “Part of wanting people to leave better is making sure that we don’t continue to hurt people while we have them.”

Colby Braun, the director at the DOCR, said that at the start of the partnership in 2019, he was concerned about the high number of young people of color in North Dakota prisons and saw Restoring Promise’s model as a possible solution. Five years later, he says, it’s clearly working.

“It's truly what every community should strive to be, and here it is inside of a maximum-security prison,” said Braun. “People actually truly care about each other, and they’re there to support one another.”

The DOCR is planning to expand the U.N.I.T.Y. Village model by opening two more Restoring Promise sites—one at Missouri River Correctional Center, a minimum-security facility in Bismarck, later this year, and another in the block next to U.N.I.T.Y. Village at NDSP in 2025.

“Public safety isn’t about sending people to prison, said Braun. “Public safety is what happens inside of that community within that prison. And, if we can move that beyond the walls—if we can move that into our communities—that’s public safety.”

*Names have been changed to protect identity.