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T.R.U.E. mentees and Dannel Malloy
Transforming Prisons

Leading Prison Reform from the Inside

When it comes to prison reform, the people deciding new policies have typically never stepped foot in a prison cell. But that may be changing, as new efforts seek out the voices of those who live and work in prisons to help shape what the future could look like.

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Within minutes of walking into the unit in Connecticut, Andy Potter could feel a difference.

The spider sense that typically kicks in when the former corrections officer enters a prison — putting him on high alert — was missing. 

“In all my years working in and around prisons, the feeling was different when I walked in. I didn’t have the same extreme heightened sense of tension,” said Potter, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization. “Mentally, physically, it was just different.”

Potter was visiting the T.R.U.E. unit at Cheshire Correctional Institution, a prison community for young men 18 to 25 years old that, while in its early stages, is being hailed as a model for prison reform. Like the prisons in Germany, the unit is centered on human dignity and restoration, and it relies on the people who live and work there to shape how the community is run.

Gone are the policies that traditionally restrict staff and incarcerated people from learning about each other and working together. At T.R.U.E., they are the ones proposing activities for the daily schedule and pulling together learning opportunities.

Bringing corrections officers and incarcerated people into the prison reform conversation and letting them play a significant role in crafting what reform looks like is a bit of a foreign concept — literally. While many European prisons use this tactic, American prisons have for centuries relied on policymakers, legislators, and program directors to dictate change. But as the fight for comprehensive prison reform gains steam across the country, more people are asking those closest to the problem what they think.

“They will be most impacted by any changes we can make, so they should be able to shape what those changes are,” said Ryan Shanahan, research director of the Center on Youth Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice, which helped develop the T.R.U.E. unit and four other units like it through its Restoring Promise initiative. “They also understand in a way that I will never be able to the changes that need to be made to get closer to a principle of human dignity because they have been exposed to dehumanizing conditions. They know it best.”

Andy Potter
In 2017, Andy Potter, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, founded One Voice, a national campaign that gives corrections officers and other front-line staff a voice in the prison reform debate. (Courtesy of Michigan Corrections Organization)

A Part of the Solution

Potter, who joined the Michigan Department of Corrections in 1989, has seen his share of prison reform initiatives while on the job. He’s watched for decades as politicians and government agencies have made attempt after attempt to reform prisons without consulting the people who know prisons best: those who live and work there.

In 2017, Potter founded One Voice, a national campaign that gives corrections officers and other front-line staff a voice in the prison reform debate. Part of his mission is to familiarize corrections officers with what’s happening around the country and introduce them to what prison reform might look like. Which is why he brought a group of corrections officers and other front-line staff to T.R.U.E. earlier this spring.

Typically, when it has come to prison reform in the past, “They’re not introduced to these reforms in a way that helps them to create, craft, be a part of any solutions or testing of any models,” Potter said. “They’re not brought in on that level. They’re basically told this is because of reform and now your duties have changed. So I wanted them to explore a different way of seeing what larger reform could look like inside of a prison system and how the officers and front-line staff play a role, and it’s a pretty intricate role in Connecticut.”

When the players behind the T.R.U.E. unit — the Vera Institute of Justice, MILPA, and the Connecticut Department of Corrections — started planning the unit, the first thing they did was survey the people who lived and worked in Connecticut prisons to understand the culture there.

And then, “we disrupted the traditional research experience,” Shanahan said. They took the data from the surveys and brought it back into the prisons so the incarcerated people and corrections officers who provided them with that information could be the ones to analyze it.

“Instead of us sitting in our offices in New York City and coming up with conclusions about what the survey data told us, the incarcerated people and Restoring Promise staff were given the opportunity to do that analysis and then make recommendations for what would have to change if we wanted to see a difference in those numbers,” Shanahan said.

Ryan Shanahan
Ryan Shanahan, center, research director of the Center on Youth Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice, appears on a Reimagining Prison panel in October 2018. (Courtesy of the Vera Institute of Justice)

Those recommendations then became the map for the work group and leadership teams from Vera and MILPA to use as a guide as they were developing the training, daily activities, and policies and practices that would have to be changed in order for this model to work.

“For us that’s a really important first step, because it communicates to our corrections partners that there aren’t going to be any changes that we make before talking to the people who would be the most impacted by any of those changes,” Shanahan said. 

And that’s what Potter wanted to show his group. 

“Corrections officers I’ve talked to, and I’ve talked to a lot of them across this country, when they hear the words reform, they hear that the folks who are incarcerated are going to be given advantages, are going to be given special treatment, are going to be treated better than they are. And that breeds animosity and that makes them fearful for their jobs and livelihoods,” Potter said. The T.R.U.E. example is “starkly different from the way most states are operating right now, but I do think a lot of states are open to that change and are working their way toward that. Including officer and staff input will be vital to making that change a reality.” 

‘A Sense of Pride’

As Potter and his group toured T.R.U.E., they saw corrections officers interacting with incarcerated men, groups working at tables, and work charts on the walls where the men hold one another accountable. The language was even different: Those who are incarcerated aren’t called “inmates.” They are “mentees.” And they receive guidance from a group of 10 “mentors” — men serving life sentences who were chosen to help the mentees prepare for life after release. 

Potter and the others talked to the mentors, the mentees, and the corrections officers and asked questions: Does the program work? Do you feel safe? 

“Everybody we talked to there from the corrections officers to those folks who are incarcerated seemed to have a sense of pride in what they were doing,” Potter said.

Potter knows there are still questions about whether a program like T.R.U.E. could work on a bigger scale. His purpose in bringing the group to Connecticut wasn’t to convince them that it’s good, bad or otherwise.

“It was really to try to find a place where I could start this conversation where it made sense, and I thought the best way to do that was to take them some place where there was some innovative work happening where the staff were able to play a role that these folks could identify with.” 

Before the visit, most of the people in Potter’s group of corrections staff from across the country had concerns about the unit — that it was too soft, and no way could it work in their state. But after? “There was a turnaround in perception,” Potter said. “People certainly got a different impression and a different outlook when it came to what’s possible. I’m not saying they all agreed about everything. They had minimal exposure, but that minimal exposure was so worth it to hear the level of conversation that people were willing to have when we got back around: ‘What else could we imagine needing in our facilities to make it look more like this? What other ways could we have this be better for us and for them?’ It was not the same kind of conversation we were having before we left.”

One aspect of T.R.U.E. that gave them hope: The positive difference corrections officers are able to make there. By doing away with some of the “undue familiarity” policies and creating a team dynamic, there’s an opening to do a lot of good.

“Through my career, I’ve worked with so many officers who have saved lives and went out of their way to teach and coach and mentor — really good, solid people who came to work and wanted to make a difference throughout their career,” said Potter, who has seen the negative narrative about corrections officers often overpower the good. “There’s a lot of humanity in there that wants to be allowed to do the right thing and have the space to come to work and feel like they’re contributing.”

Which is what’s happening at T.R.U.E., as Shyquinn Dix can attest. Sentenced to four years in prison at age 22, Dix applied to be in the new unit with one goal in mind: to get out of his cell. He didn’t have intentions of changing his attitude or getting an education.

But a corrections officer at T.R.U.E. had other ideas. 

Shyquinn Dix and James Vassar
T.R.U.E. corrections officer James Vassar, right, saw Shyquinn Dix’s talent for basketball, brought a college coach to meet him, and helped him get a sentence modification that let him leave prison early to attend college and play ball. (Courtesy of Shyquinn Dix)

“I was quiet — it’s just my personality, I’m a quiet person — and he kept coming up to me every day like, ‘You want a second chance at life? You want a second chance at life? Take this program seriously.’ Every day,” Dix said. “He finally got me to talk after the third or fourth day. I was like, ‘OK, I’ll take it seriously, whatever.’ I was a little hesitant, but I started giving it a chance. That’s why I am where I am now.”

Where he is now is a college campus in Maine preparing for his junior year. And still talking every day to that corrections officer, James Vassar. 

It was Vassar who saw Dix’s talent for basketball, brought a college coach to meet him, and helped him get a sentence modification that let him leave prison early to attend college and play ball. 

And Vassar is not unique at T.R.U.E. Shanahan talks with pride about another corrections officer who brought his passion for small-engine repair to the program and held workshops with the incarcerated men. “He was able to bring his whole self to the community and share that with the community,” she said. “This is just unheard of in traditional corrections practice. When you’re a correctional officer, there is a boundary between you and incarcerated people that you do not cross, and you’re asked to check yourself at the door when you put that uniform on.”

Topeka K. Sam
Ladies of Hope Ministries founder Topeka K. Sam speaks during The Cut's “How I Get It Done” event in Brooklyn, New York, on March 4, 2019. (Craig Barritt/Getty Images for New York Magazine)

‘Wholesale Transformation’

Topeka K. Sam served three and a half years in federal prison and since her release in 2015 has spent her days trying to make sure the voices of incarcerated people are heard in the prison reform debate. As part of her Ladies of Hope Ministries, which helps women transition back into society after leaving prison, she set up a speakers bureau that encourages formerly incarcerated women to tell their stories.

The key is to keep those voices front and center — and to use them as a resource when it comes time to looking at reform options. 

Getting input straight from those who have lived the experience is what the Vera Institute of Justice is doing with its approach to units like T.R.U.E. When a unit is first being formed with a state corrections department, some of the first people partnered with are those from MILPA, a collective of formerly incarcerated people who understand the needs of those living in the system. MILPA helps with the research, design, and implementation of the units and is part of the staff training and onboarding for mentors.

But even they can’t necessarily say what’s best for the people living in prisons today. That can only come from those who are there now.

“They don’t assume to know after being locked up in California what it means to be locked up in South Carolina or Massachusetts,” Shanahan said. “The incarcerated people should be leading that.”

And they do at T.R.U.E. The mentors are a significant example of how beneficial it can be to use the experiences of the people in prison to help with healing and restoration.  

 “I had mentors growing up, but I never listened to them because I didn’t feel like they could relate to me, I didn’t feel like they had been through anything I was going through,” Dix said. “They were just people who went to college and got certified as mentors.” But in T.R.U.E., the mentors understood what Dix and the other mentees were going through. Dix said he knew there was nothing he could do in his life — past, present, or future — that these men hadn’t already lived through.

“It starts with understanding. They understand us,” Dix said. “A lot of COs can’t understand us.” They had never served time in prison. Or been shot. Or seen their friends die. “That was the difference right there.”

The mentors transformed his life, Dix said. 

“They taught me about what it takes to really survive in society; they taught me how to not make the mistakes that they made that made them not able to ever go home. They gave me books, advice how to handle myself. I learned so much. I can’t even …”

Juan Gomez, director of programs and innovation at MILPA, has seen “a wholesale transformation” in units like T.R.U.E., and he attributes much of that to the incarcerated people and corrections officers being given the opportunity to shape their own communities. 

“Those young men for the very first time feel a sense of belonging, of social, emotional safety,” Gomez said. “The staff feel safe, they actually feel invigorated rather than experience what they call correctional fatigue, their code word for stress and trauma.”

The reform seen in T.R.U.E. has created “a kinship network where they see each other not as guards and inmates but potentially as allies,” Gomez said.

All Hands on Deck

On a recent Thursday morning, Topeka K. Sam sat in her office, looking out the window as she prepared to go out and get her hair done. And as she looked at the sun, she started thinking about all of the women in prisons who can’t walk outside.

“They’ve been in there for years; they haven’t felt the air. People are … they’re buried,” Sam said. 

Her decision to insert herself into the prison reform debate was a matter of necessity, she said. 

“To think about the freedom I have — I don’t have a choice not to continue to make sure that this is something that people are hearing about, that people are wanting to do something about, and that I am doing my part.

“I knew that if I came home, I couldn’t turn my back on the things that I experienced and the things that I saw.”

In the years since her release, she has seen the momentum that is sweeping the country as people cry out for change — and she knows how important it is to take advantage of it in every way possible.

Last year, when the First Step Bill was introduced in Congress, there was talk against it in some circles. Some legislators and advocates of radical prison reform said it didn’t do enough.

But Sam saw that it was still significant. It didn’t address enough sentencing issues, sure, but it did offer relief for people in prison: It would end the shackling of incarcerated women who are in labor; provide free feminine hygiene products; eliminate strip searches conducted by male corrections officers; and keep mothers in close proximity to their children, requiring those who are incarcerated to be held within 500 driving miles of their families.

“There is an opportunity for people to come home in that bill,” Sam told Glamour magazine in June after the bill passed the House. “There is an opportunity for people who are left inside to have access to resources and new opportunities for them to be able to change their lives before they come home. As a person who has experienced incarceration, when I look at this legislation, I look at how this can help the people that I left behind.”

Arthur Rizer
Arthur Rizer (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Arthur Rizer, director of criminal justice and civil liberties at the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank, agrees that while the bill could have been better, “It is a real piece of legislation that’s going to help get people out of prison,” he said. “I’ve met people who were in prison who are no longer in prison because of First Step.”

It’s clear that the fight for prison reform has never been louder or more forceful — or seemed to have as much promise. With 1 in every 2 Americans having had an immediate family member incarcerated for at least one night — and 1 in 7 experiencing an immediate family member in prison for more than a year — more people are understanding the need for dramatic and radical prison reform.

John Wetzel, secretary of corrections for the state of Pennsylvania, attributes some of that to the opioid epidemic and how it’s bringing more people to the table with a vested interest in seeing changes to the prison system as their sons and daughters and brothers and sisters go through it. 

John Wetzel
John Wetzel (Jacqueline Larma/The Associated Press)

“The opioid epidemic has brought [together] people who had not been proximal to the problem, and as they see their loved one go through a criminal justice system that’s really screwed up, it’s changing the narrative,” Wetzel said. “The focus is now on addressing the root cause of the crime and not necessarily so much on punishment.”

Shanahan of the Vera Institute of Justice has spent her career trying to make ground in youth criminal justice. For years, she felt like she was spinning her wheels, getting nowhere as doors were shut and proposals denied. Now, to see the progress being made in units like T.R.U.E. — and how it has brought hope to others that such an approach is doable on a bigger scale — it feels like a dream. 

“I really believe that my entire career has prepared me to take advantage of this opportunity and bring to it all of the things I’ve learned, hard lessons of what didn’t work, frustrations of asking for what I thought was so little and not even getting that,” she said. “I took all of the lessons from that and now I’m getting this opportunity to apply it to this very different way, and there’s a lot of reasons why it’s working, why the alchemy is coming together at the right moment, but it’s so heartening. I felt really disheartened about prison reform and this has just given me a whole new perspective.”

Potter said he knows the prison system isn’t going to change overnight, but he’s more encouraged than he’s ever been.

“And I think it’s possible,” he said. “I think we’re in a time when there’s greater opportunity than I’ve seen in my 30 years.”

Those young men for the very first time feel a sense of belonging, of social, emotional safety. The staff feel safe, they actually feel invigorated rather than experience what they call correctional fatigue, their code word for stress and trauma.
Juan Gomez Director of programs and innovation at MILPA, on the T.R.U.E. unit