Reimagining Prison in Germany and Norway

Vera is working to reimagine prisons—to create a system rooted in human dignity that requires a wholesale change of what it means to live behind bars. As described in our recently released report Reimagining Prison, we have found inspiration in Germany, where part of a reckoning with the horrors of the Holocaust was a prison system recognizing the human dignity of those it holds. Prison life there approximates as much as possible the positive aspects of life in the community, and is a centrally focused on rehabilitation, resocialization, and reentry. We know it is possible in the United States—our Restoring Promise initiative has already opened restorative justice units for young adult men and women in Connecticut and Massachusetts, soon to be joined by South Carolina.

In October 2018, we brought our third delegation to Germany, and this time to Norway as well, to learn together, be inspired by what we learn, and bring lessons back to the U.S. We were joined by corrections leaders and staff; policymakers right and left; advocates both right and left; funders; and media and social media. The study tour brought participants to the Northern German states of Hamburg, Berlin, and Brandenburg, then finally to Norway. The delegation visited seven prisons, and in Berlin, observed a criminal court proceeding and held discussions with judges and prosecutors. It also included visits to a concentration camp and the Holocaust memorial, to put into historical context the commitment to human dignity after World War II. Photos, blog posts, and other highlights of the journey – as well as our Reimagining Prison report and launch event video – are below.

Vera’s trip to Germany and Norway provoked deep consideration of whether the U.S. prison system can move towards one that is based on human dignity. Photos from the trip are available here.
The delegation included a diverse group of people from government, advocacy, media and philanthropy. The full list of names along with bios is available here.
Rebecca Vallas has a conversation with Rudy Valdez, the filmmaker behind HBO’s The Sentence, a documentary highlighting the toll mandatory minimums take on families; Vera Institute of Justice President Nick Turner on “reimagining prison”.

Reimagining American Prisons Isn’t a Pipedream

After the Holocaust, Germany Reimagined Theirs

Connecticut’s partnership with Vera on the T.R.U.E. unit, and the early successes demonstrated there, have led to similar units in Massachusetts and South Carolina. Seeing these and other partnerships come from the initial trip, Vera staff knew how important the experience was for shaping plans to move beyond the low-hanging fruit of incremental re ...

Blog Post
  • Kindred Motes
    Kindred Motes
October 14, 2018
Blog Post
For the American officials, academics, and advocates who joined Vera on its trip in 2018, Germany’s response to the Holocaust highlighted the need for the United States to address its own history—the ancestral line from slavery to Jim Crow and the era of mass incarceration.

“I Thank God I’m Not in an American Prison”

As Young Germans Tell Their Own Incarceration Stories, Comparisons Arise

Yusef spoke about the difficulty of serving out his sentence – and about his commitment to making the most of the time spent at Hahnöfersand: “I’m serving four-and-a-half years. That may not sound like a long time to people familiar with the US system, but for me, it is too much. It is very hard. I left my family on the outside, and I have a young ...

Blog Post
  • Ryan Shanahan
    Ryan Shanahan
  • Kindred Motes
    Kindred Motes
October 17, 2018
Blog Post
While the German juvenile justice system is unquestionably more humane than the American system, it is still imperfect. Learn more about the differences—and some surprising similarities—in this post from Hahnöfersand, a juvenile correctional facility just outside Hamburg, Germany.
Vera's tour of prisons in Germany and Norway inspired discussion across the digital landscape about reimagining a prison system in the U.S. based on human dignity. Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter at #reimagineprison.
In this report, the Vera Institute of Justice reimagines the how, what, and why of incarceration and asserts a new governing principle on which to ground prison policy and practice: human dignity.
The Vera Institute of Justice and staff and residents of the T.R.U.E. unit at Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut convened to Reimagine Prison in the United States. The event includes a simulcast and a discussion with incarcerated young men and corrections officers from the Connecticut prison where the T.R.U.E. unit operates as an example of radical reimagining and re-engineering.
Explore highlights, rare footage, and rich media that provides a real-life glimpse into the socio-political conditions leading to mass incarceration and places on the ground where human dignity has already taken root.
Reflecting upon lessons learned from the tour of German prisons, Vera President Nicholas Turner and Deray McKesson of Pod Save the People discuss the possibilities and realities of transforming the prison system back home.