Young Adult Prison Reform Initiative Expands to Three New States

Restoring Promise will transform prison living and working conditions statewide in North Dakota, Colorado, and Idaho by centering human dignity.

NEW YORK, NY – Today, Restoring Promise, an initiative from the Vera Institute of Justice and MILPA, announced the expansion of its work to disrupt and transform the living and working conditions inside American prisons and jails. The addition of three new states are North Dakota, Colorado, and Idaho – marks the growth of a reform movement already building in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. Chosen through a competitive application process, the new sites each demonstrated the drive and vision necessary to replace a punishing correctional culture rooted in our country’s history of racial terror with one that values accountability through cultural healing, racial equity, and human dignity. Restoring Promise’s expansion is made possible through generous support from foundations, including Arnold Ventures, and other individual donors.

“We’re thrilled to be working with three new states that are making a bold commitment to ending mass incarceration, which includes the necessary work to transform our nation’s prisons”, said the Vera Institute of Justice. “At its core, Restoring Promise is about deepening our understanding of how the American legacy of slavery and genocide has shaped our current prison system. Upending a culture nearly 400 years in the making takes time and requires a collective healing process, but together we hope to help shift the public consciousness around how incarcerated people deserve to be treated.”

Taking lessons from Germany and Norway, and the youth justice reform expertise of formerly incarcerated grass root leaders in the United States, Restoring Promise repurposes existing housing units for young adult mentees (ages 18-25) and mentors (incarcerated people over the age of 25) in prisons and jails. Grounded in a collaborative research process, every unique unit is driven and designed by incarcerated people who are most harmed by the current system, along with corrections staff who experience harm as well. Together, they become agents of change and can determine a workplan, training, and staffing model that will make their daily lives safer, more engaging, and more hopeful.

“As we work towards a vision of ending mass incarceration, we cannot forget about our nearly 2.2 million brothers and sisters who exist in wretched prison conditions and languish behind bars”, said the MILPA Collective. “We too were once shackled, caged, mistreated, and left to deteriorate – and so we know that working across the aisle and bridging the gap between staff and incarcerated people is the only path towards sustainable reform. We look forward to collaborating with our new sites on a process to improve conditions for all.”

Though every Restoring Promise unit is different, young adults and mentors are meant to participate in practices towards self-determination, cultural identity, community strengthening, restorative justice dialogues, meaningful activities that promote or restore family and community connections. Mentors provide support by processing lived experiences and offering understanding, coaching, and perspective. Through school, work, and other programs, daily life reflects life on the outside as much as possible in order to better prepare people to thrive when they return home. Families and community are partners in this process. Staff not only feel safer at work and lead healthier lives, they also find greater meaning in supporting young people.

An early evaluation for the CORE Unit at Turbeville Prison in South Carolina, which celebrated its one-year anniversary last month, show a staggering improvement on the life of all people who live and work in the prison.

  • Incarcerated people feel respected: 81% of incarcerated young adults at the CORE Unit agreed that “staff treat incarcerated people with respect.”
  • The bridge between family and community and incarcerated people is strengthened: 100% of incarcerated people in the CORE Unit agreed that “my family and South Carolina Department of Corrections and CORE Unit staff generally get along”, and 80% agreed that “my family feels welcomed at this facility.”
  • Young people are better prepared for success: 100% of incarcerated people agreed that “I am getting the support I need to succeed.”
  • Staff feel they are in a positive place to work: 90% of staff in the CORE Unit agreed that “South Carolina Department of Corrections and the CORE Unit is a positive environment.”
  • Staff feel safer: 100% of staff at the CORE Unit said that “I feel safe working here.”

“Every choice I’m making now is because of the courage, leadership, self-love, and passion I learned from the staff, mentors and other mentees in Restoring Promise”, said Vanessa Alvarado, graduate of the WORTH Unit at York Correctional Institution and current full-time student in social work. When I was at my worst, everyone at WORTH showed me different. Because of them, I know that I’m going to be successful in my life, as long as I always remember that I am only as successful as the people I help get out of the hole I used to be in.”

In the new sites, Restoring Promise staff will support this change process every step of the way by providing technical assistance, facilitating trainings, and providing research support, data collection, and strategic planning to ensure reform is sustainable.

“We knew when we began thinking about opening the TRUE Unit that we needed more than incremental reform to build lasting change”, said Scott Semple, former Connecticut Department of Corrections Commissioner. “Working with Restoring Promise helped us create a process to move towards a bold, cultural shift in the way we worked with young adults. The results of their participatory approach were clear in the improved wellness of all those who lived and worked in the unit, and I look forward to the growth of this movement towards a corrections model centered around human dignity.”

Additional Statements of Support

“By bringing The Restoring Promise Initiative to the DOCR, it helps revive a sense of purpose - not only to our staff, but to our residents. It is an important step in living out our mission to provide opportunities for growth and to help young people thrive when they re-enter their communities.

– Leann Bertsch, Director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

“We know that the key to reducing the recidivism rate in Colorado is to improve the culture inside the prison, both for those who are incarcerated, and for the staff who work inside the walls every day. We are honored to have the opportunity to participate in the Restoring Promise initiative and to work with the Vera Institute to develop an effective mentorship program within our facilities. With 95% of incarcerated individuals returning to our communities at some point, providing programs that focus on rehabilitation and redemption not only improves prison safety, but also increases public safety as well.”

Dean Williams, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections

About the Vera Institute of Justice

The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice. Vera collaborates with the communities most impacted by these systems and works in close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement change. Across projects, Vera is committed to explicitly and effectively reducing the burdens of the justice system on people of color and frames all work with an understanding of our country’s history of racial oppression. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, providing legal services for immigrants, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. Vera has offices in Brooklyn, NY; Washington, DC; New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

For more information, visit

About the MILPA Collective

MILPA is about Cultivating Change Makers for the Next Seven Generations whose mission is about improving the health and well-being of the most system-impacted communities. MILPA was established by formerly incarcerated and system-impacted individuals committed to supporting next generation infrastructure and leadership, within community, organizations, institutions, and systems. MILPA uses healing-informed, relationship-centered approaches that incubate next generation leadership while re-thinking accountability and striving for racial justice to end mass-incarceration.

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