This document—unlike anything we have ever produced at the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera)—is about the possibility of radical change. It asserts a dramatic reconsideration of the most severe criminal sanction we have: incarceration. It articulates a view that is sure to be alien to many. Yet we need not accept as a given the way we do things now, and we encourage you to envision a different path. Indeed, our vision has concrete reference points. It is in the hope, daring, and promise of a small unit for young adults in a Connecticut maximum-security facility. It is inspired by what we learned studying and visiting prisons in Germany, where the very conditions and operations of that entire system are defined by a commitment to uphold human dignity—a commitment born of that country’s coming to terms with the Holocaust. And it is rooted in our own obligation—now physically exhibited in a museum and memorial in Montgomery, Alabama—to acknowledge and atone for our brutal history of dehumanization and racial oppression and to understand how it has shaped what we do today in our justice system. Our mission is to link these things and suggest a path forward that is as much about reconciliation as it is about criminal justice reform.

In October of last year, John,*[]* Name has been changed to protect the individual's privacy a young adult in Cheshire Correctional Institution where—most people spend 22 hours a day in their cells—was accepted into a new small housing unit. Though the unit is within the same facility, John was handcuffed and shackled and placed in a prison van, subjected to strip searches, and given a medical assessment. In transit, John spent time in a kind of purgatorial interstitial space, waiting in what he described as “a full cage from top to bottom, something like on the show Lockup or Hard Time.

But once inside the new unit, John entered a different world. The corrections officers greeted him and shook his hand. They asked him and the other young men in the unit serious questions about their goals and expressed genuine interest in their thoughts, feelings, and plans. In a letter to his family, John described this place as “not a regular prison environment [but] an open, caring, hopeful environment.” He began to develop relationships both with older men who act as mentors in the unit and corrections officers, with whom he played chess, talked, and reflected on visits with his family. Each day, John attends group discussions with other young men and older mentors, he participates in town hall meetings where everyone gathers to talk about and resolve issues, and he joins programs that teach him about conflict resolution and money management. He spends the majority of his days outside his cell—attending programs, moving freely around the unit, and playing basketball in the outside courtyard. John, like all the men in the unit, is learning about responsibility and actively working to become a better person for himself and society. 

John’s prison experience spans two possible futures for America’s prison systems: the continuation of the punitive, retributive, and dehumanizing routines of the past; and the possibility of a reimagined future built on a wholly different set of foundational principles, designed to promote safety and success. The new unit John found himself in—called T.R.U.E., an acronym that stands for Truthfulness (to oneself and others), Respectfulness (toward the community), Understanding (ourselves and what brought us here), and Elevating (into success)—is a groundbreaking model in which we and our partners in Connecticut reimagine incarceration for young men aged 18 to 25. It was inspired by a visit to a young adult facility in Germany, where corrections officials from Connecticut were first exposed to what could be, not just what had always been. It represents a hopeful possibility for change in the way America handles incarceration. According to one of its participants, “the T.R.U.E. program is dedicated to the reclamation of moral integrity,” inherent in which “is the recognition of the dignity of all prisoners in general.” 

Unfortunately, while T.R.U.E. has inspired several other similar efforts, at the moment its goals and practices are shared by only a tiny fraction of prisons in America. At the vast majority of the facilities in the massive network of prisons across the country, people spend endless days in cells; they are marched to and from their limited activities; and their names and identities are lost, replaced with numbers, uniforms, and a stultifying idleness and isolation that impede cognition and fundamentally alters social-psychological processes. And for those who work behind the walls, the daily existence can hardly be described as enviable. It is telling that in American prisons, staff count down the years to retirement using the same language as those they are paid to keep locked up. In prison, everyone is serving a sentence.  

More than a decade ago, Vera’s own Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons tried to bring life behind bars fully into focus. We detailed the punishing and often inhumane conditions of confinement suffered by the hundreds of thousands of men and women who are held in our nation’s prisons. We did so because we believed the country was malignly ignorant of what was going on behind those grey walls. While we painted a picture of these harms, we did not sufficiently examine the deep roots that our current practices have in this country’s history of legalized slavery and racial oppression. We do so here.  

Today, in America, we are in a different moment that demands such an examination. We owe it to those on whose behalf we work to be more forthright and more searching. We owe it to the millions of Americans who are grappling with our racism and its implications to a degree that has not existed for decades. We are indebted to the scholars and advocates who have brought these roots painfully and inexorably to the surface over the last few years, as well as to those who dug deep in the century before, but with a less attentive or welcoming audience. The day in which these hard and shameful truths can be spoken—and must be examined—is here. With the opening in Montgomery, Alabama, of the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, and the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, which memorializes the lives of those lynched in our nation’s campaign of racial terror, Americans are being newly asked to reckon with the truth about our nation’s past and to sow seeds of hope for the future. 

Our reckoning must include a deep consideration of the purpose and use of incarceration in this country. While policymakers, the public, and our reform allies now express dissatisfaction with the overwhelming costs—in outright expenditures, persistently high recidivism rates, and opportunities lost—of the current system of incarceration, reform efforts have tended to focus on stanching the flow into our system of mass incarceration. This is good, and right. We must, however, also evaluate our prison practices and include a critical re-envisioning of the purpose and experience of incarceration. Despite the lowest crime rates in decades, we have 1.5 million people behind prison bars. One and a half million—2.2 million if you count jails. Let those numbers sink in. We have lost generations of young men and women, particularly young men of color, to long and brutal prison terms. Even when they return home, they remain lost, as deplorable prison conditions and treatment seriously impair their ability to live productive and healthy lives long after release. And so, we find ourselves at an important crossroads. 

In June 2016, we launched this initiative, Reimagining Prison. We sought to explore how America could do things differently—how we could fundamentally alter the way we view people who make mistakes and come into contact with the justice system and how we could fundamentally alter our conception of the obligations we have to them as fellow human beings in this shared enterprise of democracy. This project, and the resulting report, is—as I said above—nothing like any that Vera has ever done in the past. It was an elaborate and challenging thought experiment, which brought together voices and ideas of corrections chiefs, formerly incarcerated people, scholars, thought leaders from across the political spectrum, and members of the public. Through these discussions and through policy, academic, and practical research, we have settled on a singular foundational value—human dignity—on which a new prison system, and new ethos of confinement, should be based. This report presents a vision of what could come to pass should we decide as a country that incarceration will no longer be used as a tool of racial oppression. It presents a vision of what could come to pass should we decide as a country that those whom society fears—those for whom incarceration is the last and only tool we can muster to redress the harms they may have done—are not banished as members of our human family and forever retain the inalienable right of human dignity. 


Nicholas Turner

President, Vera Institute of Justice