On the afternoon of Wednesday, Oct. 10, the Center for Prison Education (CPE) livestreamed a conference about prison reform led by the Vera Institute of Justice that featured several CPE students. The three-hour long seminar was the culmination to Vera’s Reimagining Prison Project, launched at Eastern State Penitentiary in June 2016.
CPE Academic Development and Planning Manager Kristen Inglis reflected on how unique this event was in an email to The Argus.
“The truly distinctive aspect of this conference was that it was livestreamed from a correctional facility and available for viewing to anyone with an internet connection,” she wrote. “That kind of access is remarkable—it’s extraordinarily rare for the broader public to see inside a prison and hear from prisoners directly…. That kind of person-to-person encounter is key to changing the public perception of prison and prisoners.”
Isabel Bartholomew ’18, the current CPE fellow, echoed this sentiment in her comments.
“Often conversations about prisons and prison justice leave out the voices of those actually incarcerated—because they’re inaccessible, by design—and it’s so important that prisoners themselves should be directing and informing reform efforts whenever possible,” she wrote in an email to The Argus. “As people on the outside interested in prison justice, we should be listening to the wants and needs of folks inside.”
The Vera Institute of Justice advocates for a drastically smaller correctional system and a dignity-centered approach to criminal justice.
“Since the launch, we’ve engaged hundreds of bipartisan stakeholders—incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, corrections leaders and staff, crime survivors, reform advocates, policymakers, scholars, thought leaders of various political persuasions, and many others—and undertook significant research and program activities to inform our vision for incarceration in America,” the Vera website reads.
The event included remarks from a number of people including Fred Patrick, the Director on Sentencing and Corrections at Vera; Karol Manson, the President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Dannel P. Malloy, the governor of Connecticut.
Perhaps most importantly, the conference included a group of incarcerated men and corrections officers who are part of the T.R.U.E unit at Cheshire Correctional. This unit, which Vera helped develop and which is modeled after a youth prison in Germany, is unique within the United States prison system in a number of ways.
“Many American prisons have classes, jobs, and rehabilitative programs, at least on paper,” reads an article from The Marshall Project. “But in the TRUE program, the older prisoners have been granted the trust and latitude to develop a radically different environment, somewhere between family and reformatory, with strict rules, incentives and long days of work and study. The young men go through a series of stages, learning to confront their pasts, to be vulnerable around their peers, to resolve conflicts through communication instead of violence, and to master basic life skills they may have missed, such as managing a personal budget.”
When Patrick introduced the event, he outlined the overarching vision of the Reimagining Prison Project.
“Some of you have asked why reimagine, and why reimagine now?” he said. “Americans are being newly asked to reckon with the truth of our nation’s past, including an examination of the deep roots that our current prison practices have in the country’s history of legalized slavery and racial oppression. This reckoning must include a deep consideration of the purpose and use of incarceration in the country.”
Patrick nodded to the importance of reform efforts that focus on lowering incarceration rates, while also calling for an evaluation and reexamination of current prison practices as well as the actual experience of incarceration.
Later on in the event, Mason moderated a panel with Governor Malloy, President of the Vera Institute Nick Turner, and Senior Vice President of The Fortune Society Stanley Richards.
In discussing the goal of the Reimagining Prison Project, Turner spoke of his June 2015 visit to Germany, where the incarceration rate is a tenth of what it is in the United States, life sentences are 21 years, and 85 percent of the people processed through the criminal justice system get only a day fine.
“We learn by analogy,” he said. “Part of what we do as human beings is we compare ourselves and what we do to others, and that helps us to think about where we need to course correct or do things differently…. We knew we needed to do something big, to create a north star essentially for us to reframe the how, what, and why of prison in this country…. We needed to confront our history, the dehumanization that exists in our prison system then embrace human dignity to do that.”
Mason then asked Governor Malloy what drove him to embrace this work.
“Throughout my adult life, I’ve recognized the weaknesses in the criminal justice system and how unfairly it treats people in poverty and people of color,” Malloy replied.
Malloy also emphasized the way in which Germany looks at prison as an opportunity for change whereas the United States’ model frames prison as a mere vehicle for punishment. Since Malloy’s election, the prison population has gone from about 18,000 to 13,000. By January, it will be below 13,000, the lowest number since 1993. Malloy and Mason pointed to the consequent improvement in public safety, drawing a link between decreasing incarceration rates and decreasing violent crime rates.
Stanley Richards discussed the importance of human dignity as the founding tenet of the Reimagining Prison Project, which seeks to fundamentally change the criminal justice system through both individual and systemic change. He echoed this connection between decreased incarceration and increased public safety and crime in the state of New York.
“As we build these smaller facilities, how do we build it so that we create the culture that we want?” Richards said. “We don’t want the culture that existed on Rikers Island. We want a new culture.”
Later on in the conference, National Justice Correspondent at NPR Carrie Johnson facilitated a conversation including two participants of the T.R.U.E. program: Chris Belcher, resident, mentee, and CPE student; and Jermaine Young, resident and mentor.
Young, one of the original T.R.U.E. mentors, pointed to the fact that the program can be mentally and emotionally draining but explained that ultimately the gratification of seeing the mentees succeed makes the difficulties worth it.
“Being a mentor is about teaching as well as being taught, or at least wanting to be taught…teaching them about how to be a human being again.” Young said. “Because we throw that word ‘human being’ around a lot, as well as dignity…[the] first step in jail is that your dignity is eviscerated at the door. So we try to restore that back by the programs the mentors have created as well as facilitated…. You have to create a culture where people are treated like human beings, and then they’ll act like human beings.”
Belcher spoke of his experience as a mentee in the program.
“I’ve learned to place people at a higher value,” Belcher said. “Before coming to prison, I told myself that I would never find myself in this system…. Basically what I wanted to do here is make true changes to myself and help other people change so I could be a success story to show those who have been marginalized and counted out that there is a way to beat the odds. A lot of us just want to be a part of something. In our communities, it’s rare that you find something positive to be a part of.”
Towards the end of the event, Baz Dreisinger, Founding Academic Director of John Jay’s Prison-to-College Pipeline, moderated a panel which included two additional T.R.U.E. mentees and CPE students: Robert Bullock and Abbas Mohamad.
Part of this panel was a discussion of the intersection between education and ending mass incarceration. Mohamad spoke of the opportunities that education can afford.
“Education allows us to make better choices in life…. I think education buys you options. After I get out, it allows me to have a better choice at getting employment,” Mohamad said.
The Oct. 10 event coincided with Vera’s release of a report from their Reimaging Prison Project. According to this report, the United States holds 2.2 million people behind bars with jails and prisons combined. While Black Americans comprise 13 percent of the nation’s population, they comprise more than 35 percent of the prison population.
“It is time to acknowledge that the United States has used incarceration as a tool of racial subordination—and to radically alter how prisons function by infusing human dignity into every aspect of correctional operations,” the report states.
The vision of the Reimagining Prison Project includes a crucial sense of urgency.
“The time is now to cease tinkering at the margins, and to drive fundamental change in American prisons,” the Vera website reads.
Noa Street-Sachs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.