Restoring Promise

An initiative to disrupt the American prison system.

The design and nature of mass incarceration in America and the culture that sustains it are among the most profound, most unyielding, and least addressed problems for justice today. We warehouse 2.2 million people in cramped, unhealthy spaces devoid of natural light, fresh air, healthy food, and connection to community and family. This is a direct consequence of a 400-year through-line of systemic racial oppression and white supremacy in America. In this age of mass incarceration and the surging momentum to end it, we must also commit to a national movement to disrupt the American prison system.

Restoring Promise, an initiative of the Vera Institute of Justice and MILPA, works with prisons and jails to address the root causes and consequences of mass incarceration in how it manifests in prisons and jails. We work directly with prisons and jails to transform the culture, climate, rhythms and routines that define the prison system, starting with young adults. Young adults are “mentees” who participate in meaningful daily activities, deepen their connection to their culture and healing, cultivate an ideology of self-determination, and restore relationships with family and community. Mentors (people over the age of 25) support them in their personal growth. Staff undergo intensive training to become agents of change in support of this mission. We believe that we can begin to bring the prison reform movement to a critical tipping point: within each housing unit, prison, and state we have worked in, we hear incarcerated people, corrections staff, and agency leadership reflect “we can’t and won’t go back.” Our goal is nothing short of igniting that sentiment into a wave led by incarcerated people and line staff.

Currently in prisons and jails in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina, this critical work is supported in part by a new grant from Arnold Ventures, which will allow the Restoring Promise initiative to expand to three more states, launch the national communications campaign, and expand the evidence base around prison reform.

Take a look at CBS’ 60 Minutes feature on Restoring Promise’s first unit, T.R.U.E.—Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding, and Elevating—a transformed housing unit for young adults at the Cheshire Correctional Institution. Modeled after modern German practices, T.R.U.E. places an emphasis on dignity and accountability.
Explore this dynamic multimedia collection of stories, co-produced by the people who live and work in Restoring Promise’s second unit, P.A.C.T.—People Achieving Change Together—at the Middlesex Jail and House of Correction in Massachusetts. Through Their Eyes offers a hopeful glimpse of what the future of American justice could look like.
Read a New York Times and The Marshall Project feature on Restoring Promise’s third unit, W.O.R.T.H.—To Help Young Women in Prison, Try Dignity—at the York Correctional Institution in Connecticut. W.O.R.T.H is truly the first-of-its-kind in a women’s prison.
Explore highlights, rare footage, and rich media providing 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.
Read The Marshall Project’s feature on the T.R.U.E. unit and how it fuses best practices from abroad lessons and of youth justice reform to replace the current punitive model of corrections with one that prioritizes healing, restorative justice, and hope.

Series: Dispatches from Germany

Can We Learn from Our Past?

The Holocaust forced Germany to fundamentally change how it incarcerates people. In America, slavery morphed into mass incarceration.

The 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime—a loophole that has continued the wide-scale persecution of black and brown people through the criminal justice system. The result is a U.S. prison system designed to warehouse and dehumanize people. From the length of sentences ...

Blog Post
  • Alex Frank
    Alex Frank
September 14, 2018
Blog Post
To understand how we can reckon we the United States’ legacy of slavery and its evolution into mass incarceration, we must look to other countries. The legacy of the Holocaust forced Germany to fundamentally change how it incarcerates people by upholding human dignity. It’s time for the U.S. to do the same.
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.
Architecture and design has a role to play in creating a reimagined prison: a place that heals, invests in human dignity, and restores communities. Watch a video created by architectural firm Mass Design Group for Vera's Reimagining Prison project.
On the path to ending mass incarceration, we must reimagine our response to young adults so that it ensures access to programs and opportunities that prioritize restoration and reconciliation.