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Restoring Promise Expands Prison Reform to Three New States

The program transforms conditions for those living and working in prisons, with the goal of centering human dignity as a core value in correctional facilities.

The “Expression Room” in the T.R.U.E. unit
The “Expression Room” in the T.R.U.E. unit at Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut is a chalkboard-painted communal area where young adults can express themselves on the walls and to others without judgment. (Courtesy of Vera Institute of Justice)

The Vera Institute for Justice and the MILPA Collective announced recently an expansion of Restoring Promise, a program that aims to shine a light on our nation’s jails and prisons and change them for the better. Three new states — North Dakota, Colorado, and Idaho — are being added to reform efforts already underway in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina.

Restoring Promise is supported in part by a $7 million grant from Arnold Ventures to the Vera Institute. The program transforms the U.S. criminal justice system by centering human dignity as a core value in correctional facilities. Accountability, healing and racial equity replace a model rooted in punishment. Families and communities are made partners in the process rather than kept in isolation.

These reforms help maintain the basic humanity of everyone involved in jails and prisons — employees and the incarcerated alike — and ensure that these facilities aim toward a goal of rehabilitation.

The concrete walls and barbed wire fences of America’s prisons and jails not only work to keep people inside — they also keep people out. For too long, our nation’s carceral facilities have functioned like black boxes of public policy, rarely held accountable for expensive budgets, cruel practices, or poor outcomes.

Our nation has an $80 billion corrections system that was designed to warehouse people. We need a wholesale shift in how this system functions,” Arnold Ventures Vice President of Criminal Justice Amy Solomon said. This means changing the prison environment so that everything is targeted at improving well-being inside and improving the odds of a successful reentry outside.”

Restoring Promise creates mentorship opportunities that connect young adult mentees with formerly incarcerated mentors. Each program is based out of a unique housing unit in which incarcerated people and corrections staff work together to craft a new training and staffing models that make their lives safer and more hopeful. This model is built on best practices from systems abroad and expertise from people formerly incarcerated in U.S. facilities.

After just one year of Restoring Promise at the CORE Unit at Turbeville Prison in South Carolina, incarcerated people already report a significant improvement in the quality of life for everyone at the prison.

  • 80 percent of incarcerated people said their families felt welcomed at the facility.
  • 81 percent of incarcerated young adults said that staff treated them with respect.
  • 90 percent of employees said they worked in a positive environment.
  • 100 percent of incarcerated people agreed that their family and corrections staff got along.
  • 100 percent of employees said they felt safe at work.
  • 100 percent of incarcerated people agreed they’re getting the support they need to succeed.

While members of the Restoring Promise units guide their own programs, Vera and MILPA provide technical assistance, training, research, data collection, and strategic planning.

For Arnold Ventures, Restoring Promise is one part of a broader prison reform strategy that aims to reduce U.S. prison populations, improve data and research on prisons systems, and refocus prison cultures and conditions to support human potential and improve preparation for successful reentry.

1 in 2

Number of U.S. adults who has experienced the incarceration of a family member

The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly one quarter of its imprisoned population. It wasn’t always like this. The current jail and prison population is four times larger than in 1980.

The harm inflicted by a bloated and punitive correctional system doesn’t end at the walls and wire. One in two adults in America have experienced the incarceration of a family member. That separation can inflict trauma on children and other loved ones. It hurts communities by removing people from jobs and child care. And when people are inevitably released from incarceration, they often reenter society worse off than before. Most prisons lack the resources necessary to improve mental and physical health, nor do they provide the education and skills that help people transition back to normal, productive lives.

Reducing the number of people in jails and prisons and transforming their experiences while behind bars can help reduce the fundamental harm that sits at the core of the American carceral state. 

T.R.U.E. program
Criminal Justice

Transforming Prisons

More than 1.5 million Americans are incarcerated in U.S. prisons, yet in many ways, our country remains in the dark about life inside. This default punishment has led to overcrowded cells, budget shortfalls, and conditions that breed violence. As people across the nation demand a better system, there’s a push to come up with more humane approaches and seek out the voices of those who live and work in prisons to help shape what the future could look like.