Yasmine Halmane, Staff Photographer

The Justice Collaboratory — an academic institution founded by Yale Law School affiliates focusing on criminal justice reform — has announced a partnership with the Connecticut Department of Correction to develop a new training program for the state’s correctional officers.

The training, to be implemented in one state prison later this spring as a pilot program and expanded to other Connecticut prisons over 18 months, homes in on the principles of a model called procedural justice to improve encounters between correctional officers and incarcerated individuals. While slightly hindered by delays and safety concerns due to COVID-19, the partnership has potential to be one of the first of its kind — with its focus on scientific evidence, research and feedback from incarcerated individuals and correctional officers — according to multiple Justice Collaboratory members.

“A big goal [of this partnership] is to reduce physical use of force, unless it is necessary within the rules and regulations of the Department of Correction,” said Arielle Baskin-Sommers, a principal investigator for this project and an associate professor of psychology and of psychiatry. “A hopeful and more subtle goal is that we actually can change some of the interaction styles and communication styles. That’s one of the fundamental aspects of procedural justice — it’s a different way to communicate.”

In theory, procedural justice improves perceptions of fairness by focusing on interactions between law enforcement and communities. According to the Justice Collaboratory’s website, procedural justice rests upon four pillars — neutrality, trustworthiness, respect and voice — and targets “less publicized, day-to-day interactions between community members and law enforcement.” As a result, the model says, strained community relationships can gain a new kind of legitimacy that is not necessarily reliant on officers’ legal authority, but instead is based on officers’ conduct being consistently “morally just, honest, and worthy of trust and confidence.”

The pilot training phase of the program is slated to occur over two days of seven-hour training sessions through a mixture of lectures, discussions and exercises in Connecticut prisons. There will be a three-week break between the first and second training days in order to allow the trainees to absorb the material, incorporate feedback from correctional officers and avoid disruption of staffing and operations schedules in prisons. Caroline Sarnoff, executive director of the Justice Collaboratory, emphasized that the project’s goals extend deeper than two days of training.

“I should probably clarify that we are using the term training in a broad way here, this is not a ONE AND DONE training,” Sarnoff wrote in an email to the News. “We are working to develop and pilot a first-of-its kind project to infuse fairness, safety and dignity into an inherently complicated system.”

The pilot is scheduled to take place in a single Connecticut prison, the name of which remains undisclosed at the moment due to privacy concerns for correctional officers. To act as a reference point, a separate comparison group from another Connecticut prison will complete the same surveys. The success of this training after it is completed will be measured through surveys of both correctional officers and individuals who are incarcerated, as well as incident reports.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to do away with no use of force necessarily completely, or the goal to do away with the prison system or anything like that,” said Baskin-Sommers. “The goal is to bring a little bit more fairness, transparency, humanity into the interactions. And then when you do that, things generally do get better.”

Prisons for future training sessions after the pilot have already been selected. Project directors aim to expand the program throughout the state if the surveys and incidences of use of force metrics show that the program is working. Eventually, the Justice Collaboratory’s leaders have ambitions to expand a refined version of the program throughout the country.

Sarnoff has wanted to partner with the Connecticut DOC since 2014, when she was working with the Connecticut nonprofit College Library Instructional Computing Commons, which works to strengthen relationships between incarcerated parents and their children through a book club.

“In that role, I spent time in [Connecticut] prisons,” Sarnoff said. “I knew then of a few targeted interventions, like the TRUE Unit at Cheshire, but it seemed to me that the incarcerated individuals, as well as the staff, could benefit from more theory-driven and evidence-informed programs and training.”

The TRUE Unit — its name stands for Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding and Elevating — is a program that seeks to reframe incarceration for men aged 18-25, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. The program, which is driven by neuroscience research about impulsivity in developing brains, supports mentorship pairings between older and younger incarcerated individuals.

The training model is being developed in part thanks to the expertise of principal investigators Baskin-Sommers, Tom Tyler, and Emily LaGratta of LaGratta Consulting, a firm that specializes in justice reform and procedural justice. Tyler is a leading expert on procedural justice and a co-founder of the Justice Collaboratory, while Baskin-Sommers has heavily researched the relationship between correctional officers and incarcerated individuals for over five years. According to Baskin-Sommers, the group has also met regularly with representatives from the Connecticut DOC.

The Justice Collaboratory has already conducted a research phase to inform the pilot program, including surveys of incarcerated individuals and focus groups of 20 line staff and supervisors. These surveys assessed officers’ and incarcerated individuals’ experiences and reactions to the idea of procedural justice.

The project is being funded by The Tow Foundation and The Herbert and Nell Singer Foundation. The Tow Foundation’s central goal is to end mass criminalization, with a focus on Connecticut and New York, while The Herbert and Nell Singer Foundation contributes to a variety of causes in Connecticut. Diane Sierpina, who directs the Tow Foundation’s justice initiatives, is optimistic about the project’s potential to start addressing deep-rooted issues in prisons.

“It’s so important that we look at how people are trained and the need for reinforcement of that training and addressing implicit bias and racism in our criminal legal system,” Sierpina said. “This is an opportunity to really start getting to the crux of the problem and change the environment and the way we treat people in the system.”

The training for correctional officers does not explicitly address racism in interactions between law enforcement and incarcerated individuals, according to Baskin-Sommers, as the Connecticut DOC already has training that focuses on racial bias and the planned sessions are “narrowly focused on procedural justice.”

“The relationship between [correctional officers] and individuals who are incarcerated is inherently complicated,” said Sarnoff. “We hope this project helps the [Connecticut DOC] and its staff advance positive practices. We hope the [Connecticut DOC] takes leadership in the field by showing that the goals of incarceration are not inconsistent with fairness and dignity.”

As of Feb. 1, there are 9,059 people incarcerated in Connecticut prisons and over 5,836 people employed by the Connecticut DOC.

Nicole Dirks | nicole.dirks@yale.edu

Correction, Feb. 16: One of the project’s cofounders is The Tow Foundation, not the Tow Foundation. The story has been updated.

NICOLE DIRKS