"We can nevertheless respect human dignity by enabling the effort to struggle for it. We can provide help—with education, sobriety, anger management, parenting, wellness, and so on—even if the outcome is uncertain. Among those who are greatly disadvantaged, the struggle for dignity itself is intrinsically meaningful, both for them as they envision a better future for themselves and for their community, which will have done something more than abandon the poorest among them."

~ Bruce Western, Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison, 2018Bruce Western, Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2018).

Our vision of a system committed to human dignity is indeed a generational, audacious goal. We do not believe it can be achieved over the course of a few years. No corrections systems has the ready financial means, much less the human capacity and political support, to redesign entire prison facilities, introduce new training, recruit more staff, or provide the new types of services required.Hinds, Kang-Brown, and Lu, People in Prison in 2017, 2018, 3. In that sense, a comprehensive human dignity-based model is a North Star.

However, we also believe that even if one could wave a magic wand and in 10 years’ time the American corrections system reflected the three principles we’ve enunciated above, we do not think that alone would be satisfactory. Three changes are essential. We must end mass incarceration, reducing the total prison population to a pre-1970s level of one person per 1,000 residents (or lower, if possible). We must end the practice of locating prisons in the remote rural periphery for economic gain. And we must end the practices that lead to disproportionate impact of incarceration on people of color. Put differently, we do not advocate for a prison and jail system of 2.2 million people, characterized by massive racial disparities, where people remain isolated from family and community, but which has human dignity at its core. These characteristics of our current system are also inimical to human dignity.

  • System size. Efforts to date have stabilized the size of the prison population nationally, and in some places led to modest reductions.Ibid., 2 (finding that, as of December 2017, there were 125,900 fewer people in prison since the peak population in 2009, representing an 8 percent reduction. Researchers also found that the Bureau of Prisons and 30 states had reduced the number of people held in prison in 2017. However declines were not universal.). But far more is needed: from sentencing reform to scale back the volume of people sent to prison as well as reduce the extreme sentence lengths for some crimes that were put into place during the “tough on crime” era; to police reforms that reduce overall contact with law enforcement, especially for noncriminal infractions among urban residents; to reentry services that provide meaningful supports for those leaving prison. A smaller system allows for better quality control and permits the expenditures required to achieve things like higher pay, more training for corrections staff, and better-designed facilities.
  • Rural siting. Second, we must reject further arguments to build prisons as a means of economic development for rural, depressed communities if we ever hope to reduce the isolation that so many people in prison currently experience. Little has been done to place prisons in regions closer to where the majority of the population originates, which in many cases would result in an increase in facilities closer to metropolitan centers. Such a move would place people in prison closer to family and friends, likely make access to community-based services easier, increase collaborations with a wider variety of local organizations and community groups who may be able to provide more extensive in-prison supports, and enable correctional facilities to hire officers from a greater pool of potential employees.DOJ, Issues in Siting Correctional Facilities (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1992) (finding that remote sites can make it difficult to attract qualified personnel, hinder family visits, and create problems during medical emergencies), https://perma.cc/K7EF-S6GZ. Also see Kevin E. Courtright, Michael J. Hannan, Susan H. Packard, and Edward T. Brennan, Prisons and Rural Communities: Exploring Economic Impact and Community Satisfaction (Harrisburg, PA: Center for Rural Pennsylvania, 2006) (finding that rural siting of prisons suffers from a lack of adequate infrastructure, making it particularly difficult to attract and retain qualified employees, particularly people of color), https://perma.cc/3WFX-4FM5.  

    The challenge is primarily an economic one: since 1980, the majority of new prisons built have been placed in rural areas, mainly to serve as a vehicle of economic growth—or at least slow economic downturn—in depressed locales.See note 157. Also see John M. Eason, “Prisons as Panacea or Pariah? The Countervailing Consequences of the Prison Boom on the Political Economy of Rural Towns,” Social Science 6, no. 1 (2017), 1-23. And, despite the lack of evidence demonstrating that prisons deliver a sustained economic boost to their hometowns, even when the prison population drops sufficiently to justify the closure of a prison, the political economy of many rural towns is such that continued financial straits and limited alternative development options may push them to support the continued operation of a local prison as the “least-worst economic development option” for the area.Eason, “Panacea or Pariah?,” 2017, 20. Until local economies reorient away from the corrections industry and toward more sustainable employment models, prisons in rural areas are likely here to stay.
  • Racial disparities. Finally, we must address the pernicious use of prisons to lock up our nation’s people of color. A system that continues our racist history can never be considered truly reimagined, even if human dignity forms its basis. This will require efforts at every phase of the criminal justice system, which unjustly burdens particularly black Americans through the unequal enforcement of seemingly race-neutral laws, and further compounds their entanglement with law enforcement and the courts through the biases that seep into decisions made by police, prosecutors, judges, and juries.See generally Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, 2016, 1-3 & 6. Also see Hinton, Henderson, and Reed, An Unjust Burden, 2018.


Despite the challenges of this aspirational goal, movement toward human dignity in America’s prisons is possible today. Every jurisdiction in this country—local, state, and federal—can take tangible steps to begin infusing human dignity into their correctional operations. This is already occurring. On five separate visits over the last five years, Vera and the Prison Law Office, together and separately, have introduced officials from at least a dozen states to several different Northern European corrections systems where human dignity plays a central role, with the aim of inspiring change in correctional approaches here.In 2013, Vera and the Prison Law Office (PLO) jointly led delegations from three different states to prisons in Germany and the Netherlands. See Subramanian and Shames, Sentencing and Prison Practices in Germany and the Netherlands, 2013. In 2015, Vera brought together delegations from four different states (Connecticut, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Washington) and visited Germany. See Maurice Chammah, “How Germany Does Prison,” The Marshall Project, June 16, 2015, https://perma.cc/T76L-FDWC. In 2015, 2016, and 2017, the PLO hosted prison administrators from five states (Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, North Dakota, and Oregon) and visited prisons in Norway. See Prison Law Office, “The European Prison Project,” https://perma.cc/VWU7-L37W. During each visit and in each country, the American delegations toured prisons, met with incarcerated people, and engaged with corrections leaders working within systems founded on the central tenets of resocialization and rehabilitation. The visitors witnessed firsthand systems that were oriented toward building the fundamental skills that incarcerated people would need in the community, including concrete training, education, and job skills, as well as opportunities to make decisions about their own lives, from the clothes they wore to the meals they prepared.Subramanian and Shames, Sentencing and Prison Practices in Germany and the Netherlands, 2013.

Those who participated in these trips came back with a new outlook on the role and purpose of corrections. Many states have taken steps—both big and small—to infuse human dignity into their correctional facilities starting now.

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  • Leann Bertsch, the corrections director of North Dakota, left Norway with a resolution to “implement our humanity” and create conditions inside prisons that more directly related to outside life.Dashka Slater, “North Dakota’s Norway Experiment,” Mother Jones, July/August 2017, https://perma.cc/STW5-KQSM. The Missouri River Correctional Center in North Dakota—a facility that houses people convicted of lesser crimes or those approaching the end of lengthy sentences in the state’s maximum-security state prison—is now equipped with housing units that include up to 36 private rooms, each with toilets, showers, desks, real mattresses, and bulletin boards. Incarcerated people are free to close and lock their doors and wear civilian clothes. Through positive expressions of autonomy and responsibility, they can now earn more freedoms, like shopping excursions and day passes home. They can also serve on the resident committee and have input into the facility’s “Phases System” and, depending on where they are in these phases, they may be permitted to walk a network of trails without accompaniment, ride bikes on the property, shop online for groceries and prepare their own food, take escorted trips into the community for social interaction or to obtain job services counseling, and earn passes to leave the facility unescorted for overnight visits home. The facility also scaled up an existing work-release program so more men could be employed in meaningful jobs outside of prison prior to release.Ibid.; and Prison Law Office, The US-European Criminal Justice Innovation Program, 2015-16 Program Evaluation (Berkeley, CA: Prison Law Office, 2016), https://perma.cc/2JWQ-V53P. People coming out of solitary confinement spend time in a new behavioral therapy unit in order to transition back to the general population.Slater, “North Dakota’s Norway Experiment,” 2017.  
  • John Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s corrections director, attributes his changed attitude to corrections to his trip to Germany and the Netherlands: “We talk more now about the humanity of inmates, and the impact of harsh environments on both staff and inmates.”Maurice Chammah, “I Did It Norway,” The Marshall Project, October 31, 2017, https://perma.cc/72SN-VLNP. Following Wetzel’s trip, Pennsylvania launched new transitional housing units that focus on normalization and reintegration. Residents of the units are given access to enhanced reentry services, more individualized need-based support, and specialized vocational programming in high-demand fields.Subramanian and Shames, Sentencing and Prison Practices in Germany and the Netherlands, 2013. Also see Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Transitional Housing Units and Reentry Services Offices, brochure available at http://www.cor.pa.gov/Initiatives/Reentry/Documents/Transitional%20Housing%20Units%20and%20Reentry%20Services%20Brochure.pdf.
  • After a visit to Norway in 2016, Idaho Corrections Director Kevin Kempf said, “We came back totally converted,” and he is committed to reforming prison practices to better reflect community norms and expectations.Rebecca Boone, “Prison Chief Aims to Make ‘Hard Time’ a Rehearsal for Home,” AP News, November 25, 2016, https://perma.cc/QY5G-GAE6. While Idaho hasn’t yet launched a new unit or developed a new program, it has taken many small steps that serve to recognize the humanity of its incarcerated people and corrections staff. Idaho has reduced its use of solitary confinement and has created robust incentive systems to reward positive behavior among the incarcerated population. Prison administrators have also allowed staff and incarcerated people to invite their families to meet one another, repainted cafeterias and dayrooms, and replaced metal and plastic chairs with throw rugs and couches.Chammah, “I Did It Norway,” 2017.

A human dignity pilot in Connecticut—and beyond

Nowhere is the impact of these European visits more apparent than at the Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut. Inspired by how the German prison system treats young adults aged 18 to 25, the Connecticut Department of Corrections (CT DOC) established the T.R.U.E. program in early 2017 with assistance from Vera. The program’s name, developed by residents of the unit, is an acronym for Truthfulness (to oneself and others), Respectfulness (toward the community), Understanding (ourselves and what brought us here), and Elevating (into success). In Germany, young adults are often adjudicated as juveniles and, if incarcerated, are separated from the rest of the adult population. Building on this model, 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 for life after prison. This undertaking has required a firm sense of purpose and a commitment to stay the course from CT DOC, which decided to implement this approach not with its most rule-abiding population, but with its most disruptive group: within the state prison system, the highest number of behavioral infractions and violence stems from those aged 18 to 25.

The T.R.U.E. unit exemplifies many of the practice principles set out in this report, and it serves to demonstrate not only that a corrections system can prioritize human dignity as a central value, but also that such a practice can lead to transformational results.

The first practice principle—respect the intrinsic worth of each human being—is at the core of the unit’s existence. The T.R.U.E. unit strives to cultivate a sense of community and camaraderie between staff and the young adults. In T.R.U.E., officers and young men shake hands, play cards, tell jokes and, above all, respect and support each other. Mentorship is key to the unit’s model. A group of older men who are serving life sentences act as mentors to the young men. The mentors live in the unit among their mentees and work together with the staff to develop and lead therapeutic programs. They also work with staff and mentees to establish and enforce agreed-upon rules and multiple systems of accountability. Together, the staff, mentors, and mentees have created an atmosphere of kindness, compassion, and trust—one that recognizes the intrinsic worth of each person who lives or works within its walls. 

Unlike in the other units inside the same prison—where officers and young men alike describe an “us versus them” environment, where “tans” (the incarcerated) are always wrong and the “uniforms” (the officers) are always the “bad guys”—the T.R.U.E. unit elevates and supports the development of personal relationships—this report’s second practice principle. This has had a profound impact not only on the mentees and the mentors, but also on the staff—corrections officers and counselors—who work with the men day in and day out. All of the staff who work with T.R.U.E. volunteered for the role, taking what the warden described as the “biggest risk in their career,” swimming against long-established institutional culture and a certain level of fear. Staff received specialized training on topics like family engagement, conflict resolution, motivational interviewing, and mediation. The staff members—many of whom had a dozen or more years of experience working in other units in Connecticut—admitted they had themselves experienced trauma and extreme stress over years of violence, recidivism, and difficult working conditions. On the first anniversary of the T.R.U.E. program, staff and counselors described openly their deep feelings of care toward the men, the pride they took in their work in the unit, and the joy they had in coming to work each day. This change in their attitude toward work has made them better employees, better friends, and better parents.

The unit’s commitment to supporting personal relationships extends to proactively taking steps to involve mentees’ families in the prison experience and helping to build those fundamental connections. This starts with an orientation night for family members where staff explain the T.R.U.E. program, what to expect, and the role they hope family will play during a family member’s term in prison. When family members visit, they are allowed to sit side by side with their loved one, and mentees are encouraged to hold their children and embrace their family members—actions usually prohibited by typical prison visiting rules. Staff and mentors are also encouraged to mingle throughout the visiting period to meet the families, talk about how the mentees are doing, and establish genuine relationships. 

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This report’s third practice principle—respecting a person’s capacity to grow and change—underlies the bulk of the activities that take place in the T.R.U.E. unit. The programs and sessions attempt to give young adults an opportunity to establish an adult identity that is based on a deep awareness of their relationships with others and society. This approach attempts to generate in the young men a sense of self-worth and individual and social responsibility, and to encourage and prepare them for responsible action within society after release. Some salient manifestations of this approach in the T.R.U.E. unit include the following practices: 

  • The day begins and ends with a healing circle in which staff and incarcerated people participate. These circles are based on principles of restorative justice and require each participant to share at least one word describing his thoughts or feelings at that time, and they place incarcerated people and staff on equal footing in sharing their experiences. At these circles, issues of importance to the community often surface and are dealt with throughout the day. These circles become places in which participants can share individual-level stresses or hurts, as well as those that affect the full community. Young men often share anxieties or sadness about visits with family or other common hardships of incarceration, about which other participants, mentors, or staff then reach out to check in or offer support throughout the day.  
  • For 13 hours each day, cell doors are open and the young adults are free to be in the common space, a dedicated outdoor area, or one of many converted cells within the housing unit that serve as a library, study room, meeting room, and quiet space. Their day is heavily structured—filled with therapeutic sessions, school, and life-skills programs. 
  • The mentees are expected to hold themselves and each other accountable. When traveling to the other parts of the prison for work assignments, school or college, or to see visitors, young men in the T.R.U.E. unit wait at the “bus stop,” where a corrections officer is ready to escort them to the other part of the facility. If a young man does not arrive at the “bus stop” on time, he misses the activity for the day and, if he misses on too many days, may lose the opportunity altogether. This is in direct contrast with movement strategies in other units, where individuals are called out of their cells for their required activities. While it is rare for someone to “miss” work in these other units, neither do the incarcerated men within them build a sense of responsibility about meeting obligations.
  • Behavioral issues are also dealt with differently at T.R.U.E. If a mentee acts in a manner that is inconsistent with the unit’s policies and rules, he works with his mentor and a counselor to create a “corrective action plan.” This is developed in collaboration as a suitable response to the level or seriousness of the transgression. T.R.U.E. does not force anyone to change. Instead, it creates the circumstances and environment in which change is possible.  
  • As part of its commitment to restorative justice, staff and residents in T.R.U.E. have also delved into the history of racial oppression in the United States and its connections to mass incarceration. Having frank discussions about race inside an American prison between staff and incarcerated people encapsulates the unit’s achievements, in the warden’s view. In other units, these discussions would have been avoided for fear of violence, but in T.R.U.E. they were met with respect and openness.   
Other jurisdictions are also joining the movement to reimagine the purpose of young adult confinement from punishment and retribution to accountability, restoration, and healing.
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The framework under which the T.R.U.E. unit operates—including the structure of the mentor/mentee units, the programs and groups offered during the day, the physical alterations to the unit, and the time in and out of locked cells—was developed as a collaboration between incarcerated people, corrections officers and counselors, administrators, and Vera staff. During these planning sessions, staff and incarcerated people engaged in healing circles. During one of these sessions, a formerly hardline corrections officer overcame one of the fundamental barriers to operationalizing human dignity in prison when he asked the incarcerated men to see him, too, as a whole person and to meet him at the start of this project as someone who is capable of change. A truly dignity-based system recognizes the integrity and capacity of every person within its walls—a commitment that must go both ways. In the year since, this officer has undergone a radical shift in his view of himself within the corrections system. The difficulty he experienced in asking for acceptance during the planning stages and the professional and personal growth he has experienced since has become emblematic of the changes underway in Connecticut and the benefits that can come from such efforts. 

Inspired by the success of its T.R.U.E. program—where CT DOC has witnessed striking results across measures of safety and wellness for both young adults and staff in the unit—Connecticut opened a similar unit in May 2018 at York Correctional Institution, the state’s only prison for women, and plans to create another one at Cheshire.Research results regarding the impact of T.R.U.E, on file with Vera (report forthcoming). For information about the new unit at York Correctional Institution, see Clarice Silber, “New Prison Unit Opens to Help Young Female Inmates,” Connecticut Mirror, July 9, 2018, https://perma.cc/TF3K-EQ9F. Other jurisdictions are also joining the movement to reimagine the purpose of young adult confinement from punishment and retribution to accountability, restoration, and healing. In the fall of 2017, Vera began a partnership with the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office in Massachusetts, which has since opened a similar young adult unit in its jail in February 2018. Shortly after that, through a competitive application process, South Carolina was selected to join these partners in transforming custody for young adults.

Though T.R.U.E. is an enormously promising model, it does not completely reimagine prison in the way this report envisions. The unit, however altered, is a slightly renovated wing of a prison. It still looks and feels like prison. Only one age group is eligible for its benefits—an advantage that doesn’t go unnoticed by the rest of the prison’s population. The people in the unit still wear uniforms, and the food and hygiene products that are offered remain the same as those offered to the rest of the prison. But it is emphatically a place to begin.