Whenever someone asks James Jeter to describe prison, he tells the same story:
Jeter’s cellmate was walking to dinner. Jeter, then incarcerated at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, was not present. His cellmate had left his shirt untucked, disregarding the instruction of a corrections officer two days prior. That evening, the corrections officer yelled at Jeter’s cellmate, “Tuck your shirt in!” He complied but did not acknowledge the corrections officer and kept walking. After dinner, Jeter found his cell in disarray. All his belongings were tossed carelessly to the middle of the floor, jumbled together with those of his cellmate. All his food was opened and his floor was wet and slippery with cleaner.
“That incident is prison because I’m always in that state. I’m always a hostage and I’m always in a home invasion,” Jeter said. “Whenever I have to live in that constant state of vulnerability, there’s no space to grow.”
The Cheshire Correctional Institution’s Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding, and Elevating pilot program aims to provide 18- to 25-year-olds with that space to grow while in prison. TRUE, which was established at the Cheshire Correctional Institution in March 2017, supports incarcerated young adults with specially trained mentors and programming geared toward preparing them for success after their release.
Roughly 3,000 miles east of Connecticut, incarcerated young adults in Neustrelitz, Germany, experience a dramatically different prison system.
According to officials from the Vera Institute of Justice, the inside of a German prison has more in common with a liberal arts college than with a standard American prison. Instead of brown or orange uniform jumpsuits, incarcerated people wear their own clothes. Instead of drab, cramped cells, incarcerated people live in rooms that look like “dormitory rooms that you would have at Yale or any other school,” according to Vera’s President and Director Nick Turner. A law requires that cells have access to natural light. Individuals have their own private bathrooms and sometimes keys to their own cells. Posters, family photos and other decorations deck their walls; laptops and TVs sit on their desks. They retain the freedom to vote, to get the newspaper and to cook their own meals.
In 2015, a team of Americans, including Connecticut’s governor and leaders from Vera, traveled to Germany to observe the prison system and plan reform at home. “It was funny to watch the corrections administrators when they saw [aspects of the system] in Germany,” Turner said. “They kind of couldn’t believe it.” According to Turner, this trip inspired Connecticut’s TRUE project.
Steffen Bischof, director of public relations at the Neustrelitz prison, explained that German prisons are less restrictive and punitive than American ones. “Our constitution reads, … ‘The dignity of man is inviolable,’” Bischof wrote in an email. “Every person deserves respect, no matter what he or she did!”
Turner explained that Vera chose Germany because the country possesses both a model justice system and a population with characteristics comparable to those of the U.S. In Germany, “Mere deprivation of liberty is, in and of itself, the punishment,” Turner said. “The conditions shouldn’t be the punishment. How you’re treated shouldn’t be the punishment.” With that starting point, the German prison focuses on what Bischof called Resozialisierung, or resocialization. Potential corrections officers must complete a competitive application process before earning a spot in the prison. Training for officers takes two years and includes role-playing, intelligence tests and physical tests.
In addition to considering the human rights of incarcerated people, Germany’s commitment to dignity proves beneficial from an economic standpoint. Though, according to The Marshall Project, Germany spends about 1.6 times more per incarcerated person than the U.S. does, Vera statistics show that the country’s incarceration rate is more than nine times lower than the U.S.’s. Germany also enjoys a lower recidivism rate. Some argue that even if the U.S. spent more on individuals in prison, it would not be enough to impact the country’s relatively high conviction rates and would ultimately become an economic burden. Vera points out that over time, a system more conscious of the lives of convicted individuals earns high economic returns as it lowers recidivism rates.
TRUE brings a taste of the German prison system to a small number of incarcerated young men in Connecticut.
Abdul Bradley spent two years incarcerated in the general population of the Cheshire Correctional Institution, then one year in the TRUE unit before his release last January. After first hearing rumors about the more lenient policies in TRUE, he was “flabbergasted.”
Bradley and Jeter described the cells for the general population as small and monochromatic. Once in the TRUE unit, however, Bradley could paint his own cell and hang up photos and decorations, such as posters with inspirational quotes.
Inmates in the general population usually spend 22 hours a day inside their cells. “[Prison is] an environment that can hide dysfunction,” Jeter claimed. “[Incarcerated people are] in their cells all day long, so you expect them to be in their beds. You don’t realize that they’re really in their beds because they’re suffering through deep depression.”
In contrast, incarcerated young adults in the TRUE program meet at 7:45 a.m. daily for a check-in, during which they listen to an inspirational word of the day, quote of the day and rule of the day. Each person in the circle then shares his name and picks a number one through 10 to represent how he is feeling.
“This remarkable sharing of emotions … might feel common for many of us who have not been locked up, but [it’s] totally unusual in a prison context,” Turner from Vera said.
Throughout the day, members of TRUE have access to several rooms, including a library, a barber shop, study rooms, a computer room and an expression room that features a large chalkboard for writing out thoughts and feelings. In the center of the unit mentees participate in learning activities like slam poetry, “hip-hop hermeneutics” — in which individuals select songs and explain their personal reactions to the music — and discussion groups.
TRUE members are not required to return to their cells until 9:25 p.m.
Bradley cited improved family visit rules as one of the most important features of TRUE. He gave his mother a hug for the first time in five years after joining the program. Typical contact visits at the Cheshire Correctional Institution — which are only offered as privileges to those without disciplinary issues — allow one brief embrace after the incarcerated individual and his family member converse from opposite ends of a table. The TRUE unit allows engagement visits in which incarcerated individuals may hold their children and sit next to their family members.
Additionally, in the TRUE unit, incarcerated young adults form more positive relationships with corrections officers than they do in general population. Vera conducted one survey with incarcerated people before TRUE existed and then another survey with TRUE participants six months after the program opened. One question read, “Do I think a corrections officer has my best interest at heart?” Between the two surveys, the number of affirmative responses skyrocketed.
“[In TRUE], I sat down, talked to corrections officers for a couple hours, … played cards with corrections officers,” Bradley said. “You don’t get that in general population.”
In addition to corrections officers, incarcerated young adults in TRUE find guidance from mentors who are hand-picked from a group of incarcerated men with life sentences. Though not obvious candidates for mentors, men with life sentences all undergo training in motivational interviewing and therapeutic techniques, and many have college degrees from a Wesleyan program. Most importantly, Turner said, “They’re prepared [to be mentors] because of their own life experiences and how they have developed within the facilities.”
“A mentee can’t tell a lifer that they don’t know what they’ve been through because they have, they just did it 20 years earlier,” said Cheshire Warden Scott Erfe.
“The difference is, in the TRUE unit, we all want to uplift each other,” Bradley said. “In general population it’s like you’re just really on your own. If you do express yourself to somebody, it’s kind of seen as a weakness.”
Despite the overwhelmingly positive view of TRUE among participants and leaders in prison, the program is not well-received by all.
Jeter pointed out that many incarcerated individuals in general population don’t support TRUE. Though it serves only a small proportion of the population, the TRUE block obtains a disproportionate amount of the prison’s limited resources. “That’s a hard pill to swallow,” Jeter said.
In some cases, Jeter explained, TRUE harms the general population as it supports participants. For example, when TRUE threw a one-year anniversary party, the rest of the prison was locked down for longer than usual. “Their reality isn’t celebratory, it’s ‘I’m stuck in my cell more,’” Jeter said.
With only one block, it is currently impossible for Cheshire to admit every young adult who would benefit from the TRUE program. Bradley was rejected from TRUE three times before finally getting accepted. But the staff makes “a deliberate effort not to pick ‘powderpuff’ inmates,” said Mike Lawlor, Connecticut’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning. “This is a challenge. Let’s see if we can get some outcomes.”
Erfe confirmed that he and his staff select a mixture of well-behaved and non-well-behaved individuals for the block. As a result, he said, critics cannot point to the type of people admitted to explain the program’s success.
Even Erfe said he was “very skeptical” about TRUE at first. “Some of the ideology that may work in other states just won’t fly here at Cheshire Correctional Institution,” he said. “We house a lot of bad people. … It’s a maximum security prison.” Erfe noted that the Cheshire prison was nicknamed “the Rock.”
However, Erfe now stands a firm proponent of the TRUE philosophy. “Now after a year, after seeing all the progress that we’ve had here, it’s hard not to stand behind the program,” he said.
Historically, the American prison system has treated incarceration as a chance to punish offenders rather than to promote their growth. But Turner claimed it is “surprisingly easy” to find the capacity for the forgiveness of incarcerated people. “It boils down to this,” he said, “you [and] I are human beings and we’re not the sum total of the worst things we did.”
Connecticut Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple plans to open another unit of TRUE at Cheshire, which will allow twice as many men to benefit from the program. Additionally, Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard Work, or WORTH, a unit similar to TRUE, will open at York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Connecticut.
The Vera Institute of Justice is currently working to bring TRUE’s philosophy to prisons beyond Connecticut. In Middlesex County, Massachusetts, Vera just helped open a progressive prison unit called People Achieving Change Together. Vera is also working with criminal justice leaders in South Carolina to develop something similar. Still, “We come in with a process, not a prescription,” clarified Alex Frank, leader of the Restoring Promise project at Vera. “TRUE will be unique to Cheshire. We would never say, ‘Oh, TRUE should just be implemented in South Carolina’; no, South Carolina needs to come up with the program model that works best for them and their culture. Those are two completely different states.”
Lawlor, the criminal justice policy undersecretary, is optimistic that the TRUE program will continue even after Gov. Dannel Malloy, a proponent of a progressive criminal justice system, leaves office. Criminal justice is no longer a divisive partisan issue, Lawlor explained. He is heartened to see conservative legislators becoming champions of reform.
Bradley said that, only one year after its launch, the TRUE program has already created noticeable changes among incarcerated young adults. He highlighted one incident that revealed how TRUE helps individuals grow even in the face of harsh prison circumstances. Bradley and another mentee in the TRUE program passed a corrections officer from general population on the way to the gym. The other mentee was white and had his hair braided in dreadlocks. The corrections officer was also white. The corrections officer yelled out “wigger,” a racially charged reference to the hairstyle.
“That’s disrespectful,” Bradley said. “[But the mentee] didn’t respond in the way I thought he was gonna respond.” The other mentee simply kept walking and did not reply. When he returned to the TRUE unit, he debriefed the incident with a mentor.
“I think it showed growth,” Bradley said. “The way he responded to him was outstanding.”
As for himself, Bradley said, “I’m definitely thankful for being in there. I’m just trying to apply [what I learned] so the program can work, and it is working.”
About a month after his release, Bradley had already secured two jobs — one at PetSmart in Stamford and one at a restaurant in Norwalk.
“It’s crazy how doors open when you change your attitude,” Bradley said. “I think before I act. I want more out of life.”
Trutz von Warburg helped with German translations for this piece.