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The “Expression Room” in the T.R.U.E. unit
Transforming Prisons

Thinking Beyond the Prison Cell

For decades, prison has been the default punishment in the United States, leading 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.

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Shyquinn Dix, 23, stood before the judge in a Connecticut courtroom. Mounds of paperwork had been submitted, Dix and his lawyer had pleaded his case, and now Dix was waiting to hear whether he would be granted a sentence modification that would allow him to leave prison early to attend college.

But first, Dix needed to say something.

“Thank you,” he told the judge, who had, two years prior, sentenced him to four years in prison on felony charges of conspiracy to commit check fraud.

“I didn’t say yes yet,” the judge said.

Dix knew that. And he knew the judge could decide to keep him in prison. But the thank you wasn’t about what was to come — it was about what had already passed.

“Thank you for sending me to prison,” Dix said.

Dix wasn’t referring to the kind of prison that 1.5 million Americans are in today: crowded cells festered with violence and stripped of humanity. His was an alternate model: a unit called T.R.U.E. at Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut for 18- to 25-year-olds that is centered on human dignity and restoration. There, Dix had mentors. He had a corrections officer who helped him open up about the anger smoldering inside him. And he was given a whole new mindset about his life.

If it wasn’t for the time he spent in T.R.U.E. — if he had been kept in general population, if he had remained in a system that locked him in his cell for 22 hours a day — he never would have addressed the issues that landed him in prison in the first place.

“I feel like I already was locked up before I was ever incarcerated,” Dix said. “Mentally, I was locked up. Because my mindset was so warped, and I always thought so negative. I never imagined that by being incarcerated, I would find my freedom.”

The unit where Dix served part of his sentence — the unit that changed the life of this now-rising junior in college — is one of only a handful of its kind in the United States. But the approach, which is based on the way prisons are run in Germany, is gaining attention and traction as more voices call for prison reform in America and more people see the good that models like it are doing.

Last month, Arnold Ventures gave the Vera Institute of Justice — one of the organizations behind T.R.U.E. — a grant to expand its Restoring Promise initiative and transform prison units in three additional states. The grant fits in with Arnold Ventures’ comprehensive prison reform plan, part of which is to find alternatives to the current prison system that don’t leave incarcerated people worse off than when they entered.

“For decades, we have operated with a system that is based on values of incapacitation and retribution and of denial — denial of rights, denial of services, of programming, of education,” said Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice. “And we are at a moment in time where society has raised the important question of why we do prison in America the way we do it.”

John Wetzel
A year after John Wetzel became secretary of corrections for the state of Pennsylvania, the state’s prison population was 51,757. Today it is just under 47,000. (Jacqueline Larma/The Associated Press)

Finding Solutions

John Wetzel has been asking himself the same question for much of his career. He’s also been on the hunt for just how meaningful change can happen.

The secretary of corrections for the state of Pennsylvania has studied the statistics coming from his prisons, and he’s looked for patterns. He’s convened bipartisan groups to talk about what can be done and helped get legislation passed. He’s visited the overseas prisons that T.R.U.E.’s unit is based on and is working to replicate something similar in his state.

He’s also seen the explosion of the prison population and studied ways to safely reduce it. And he knows, from first-hand experience, that it can be done.

When he stepped into his current role in 2011, Pennsylvania’s prison population was out of control. For 25 years, it had been growing by an average of 1,500 people per year, and to accommodate those numbers, the state was drafting plans for three new prisons.

Wetzel — who had spent his career in county corrections and had never stepped foot in a state prison — didn’t flinch. Instead, he made it his mission to reduce the population. He was so confident that he talked his boss, Gov. Tom Corbett, into pulling the plug on one of the three new prisons and said he would find a way to reduce the state’s prison population.

Wetzel didn’t take on this mission blindly: He had experience — though on a much smaller level. While warden of the Franklin County Jail in south central Pennsylvania, he faced a similar problem with a growing incarcerated population and had been able to reduce the jail population by 20 percent during his nine-year tenure — by studying data, talking to the community, and rethinking the way things had always been done.

So during the two months before he was sworn in as Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections, he repeated those steps. He toured all 27 state prisons, hitting every block and talking to staff and incarcerated people. He listened to focus groups and families and met with corrections officers and other prison staff.

“I was just studying the hell out of the system,” he said.

And it wasn’t long before Wetzel and his staff came up with ways to bring the numbers down — mostly by studying the data and seeing where it took them. For example, a simple administrative change to the way parole board hearings were run ended up increasing the number of releases each month.

Wetzel also supported a bipartisan coalition to help get effective legislation passed. The coalition consulted with nearly every group that had a hand in prisons — including sentencing judges, victims’ rights groups, state employees, and groups advocating for incarcerated people — and it crafted policy proposals. The criminal justice reform act that came out of that effort contained textbook ways to safely lower the prison population: It banned individuals convicted of certain misdemeanors from being sentenced to state prison. It returned parole violators to community corrections centers rather than prison. It created a risk assessment for judges to use when sentencing individuals. And it allowed for performance contracting in all of the state’s halfway houses, paying providers based on the recidivism rate of people coming through their doors.

And very soon, the population started dropping. In 2012, the state recorded the greatest one-year decline in 40 years. And the numbers keep going down. When the bill passed in June 2012, Pennsylvania’s prison population was 51,757. Today it is just under 47,000.

“All the changes we made … it was not like ‘John the genius’ coming up with this stuff,” Wetzel said of his work at the state level and in Franklin County. “We just look at the data and always do a team approach, and I always put really smart people around me.”

And he always remembers that the goal isn’t just to bring down the prison population: it’s to rehabilitate those who are currently serving a sentence, give them the tools to leave prison better than when they came in — and then get them out of the system for good.

Shyquinn Dix and James Vassar
Shyquinn Dix is pictured with T.R.U.E. corrections officer James 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. (Courtesy of Shyquinn Dix)

Redefining Prison

Dix just finished his sophomore year at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, where he played basketball for the Owls and was honored as a first team all-conference and second team all-state. Even more important to him: He made the dean’s list both semesters and received a university leadership award for “Rising Star of the Year.”

He gives a sad laugh when asked how he thinks his life would be different had he not been accepted into the T.R.U.E. unit.

“I would probably still have a warped mindset; I used to think I had the worst life and that everyone was against me,” Dix said. “I wouldn’t be in college. I wouldn’t be in Maine. I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you.”

And he wouldn’t have learned the tools to live his life minus the anger and resentment. Instead, he would have remained in general population, where he was the first 13 months of his prison sentence. There were few opportunities for restoration when he was locked up there.

“You go from being free and doing whatever you want to being locked in a cage 22 hours a day. Having everything stripped from me,” Dix said. “It’s not just about having your freedom, of just walking around. You get everything — your dignity, any type of power you thought you have, all of that is taken away. That’s what scared me the most.”

Offering an alternative to prison — minus the stigma, minus the disrespect, minus the poor conditions, and plus significant opportunities to grow — would give those who are incarcerated a better chance at not returning to the system, experts say. What those alternatives look like is part of what’s being researched in the field of prison reform.

Topeka K. Sam, who served three and a half years in federal prison on drug conspiracy charges, acknowledges the harm she did but says she does not believe prison was the answer. If she had been, say, sentenced to go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings every day of the week for a year, it would have allowed her to see the impact drugs had on people. Or if she had been given some type of mental health treatment where she could talk about some of the trauma she had experienced in her life, it would have been more effective. It would have helped and not hurt, which is what incarceration — “a dark, violent place” — does, she said.

“I don’t care if you’re in a camp or in a super-maximum security facility, any time you are stripped away from your freedom, from your family, and put in isolation without any resources, that doesn’t make people happy,” said Sam, who now runs The Ladies of Hope Ministries, an organization that helps women transition back into society after prison. “So when we think about reimagining prisons, yes, we want to make sure people are getting the things they need, but let’s talk about not sending people to prison. Let’s talk about getting people out of prison.”

Decades of research have also shown that prisons fail to deliver sufficient public safety benefits that would justify their use as America’s default punishment. Evidence, in fact, shows that sending people to prison can produce worse public safety outcomes.

“If we’re doing something that doesn’t make us safer, then why are we doing it?” said Arthur Rizer, director of criminal justice and civil liberties at the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank. “Why are we doing things that we know don’t make us safer? They actually make us less safe. And then we act all surprised about it.”

Arthur Rizer
“We have to understand that the way you think of human dignity is not being reflected in our criminal justice system. It’s just not,” said Arthur Rizer of the R Street Institute.

Rizer, a former prosecutor and police officer and leader in the criminal justice reform movement, believes that prisons should be designed to meet the goals of the criminal justice system — and while punishment can be one of those goals, it should not be the goal.

“We have to understand that the way you think of human dignity is not being reflected in our criminal justice system. It’s just not,” Rizer said. “We treat them like animals and surround them in a toxic environment and then we’re surprised when they come out worse than how they started.”

The system, as it operates now, creates challenge after challenge for formerly incarcerated people when they leave prison, setting them up to fail — and, many times, reoffend. Two out of three individuals released from state prison in the U.S. were rearrested within three years, according to 2014 numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Sam, who has dedicated her life since her 2015 release to helping women with reentry, knows about these challenges only too well and is glad Arnold Ventures is looking at the whole picture in its reform effort.

“I think they understand that it takes a 360 approach,” Sam said. “That you can’t just look at conditions of confinement. You should, but outside of that, when a person comes home they need resources. You have to look at reentry.”

Topeka K. Sam
Topeka K. Sam, executive director of The Ladies of Hope Ministries and co-founder of Hope House NYC, speaks at the ninth annual Women in the World Summit in New York on April 13, 2018. (Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press)

Life After Prison

When Sam was in prison, she spent a lot of time thinking about the fates of the women incarcerated around her. She knew the harsh truth that a prison sentence stays with a person long after they’ve left their cell.

“People go through that traumatic experience and come home and people are still treating them like outcasts, don’t want them to come to their neighborhoods, don’t want to offer them a job because of their pasts,” Sam said.

Sam knew she was fortunate: When she got released, she’d be able to live with her parents. Being given space and the chance to regroup would let her focus on creating a life for herself. But “everybody doesn’t have that ability,” she said. Upon release, they have to find a place to live, find a job, pay bills, and overcome the obstacles that come with having a record — and yet the system expects them not to revert and end up back in prison.

Knowing this — and how women are especially vulnerable upon release when they don’t have a safe place to live or support waiting for them — Sam and her friend Vanee Sykes came up with an idea while in prison in Connecticut to be a resource for those women as soon as they got out.

“I thought about what I wanted to do based on the lack of resources I saw in the prison and the lack of resources I saw that I was coming home to,” Sam said.

That’s when Sam came up with The Ladies of Hope Ministries, an organization that would help women as they transitioned back into society, as well as their children and other women with family members in prison. She and Sykes also conceptualized Hope House NYC, a safe housing space for women and girls to live after they left prison.

Once she was released, Sam got to work, organizing people around the country around issues that affect incarcerated women. They looked at conditions of confinement, the children of incarcerated loved ones, health care, reentry, and more. And not long into this work, Sam and Sykes received their first grant that allowed Hope House NYC to open its doors in 2017.

But even as Sam worked tirelessly to help those who might otherwise be shunned, she faced difficulties. When Hope House NYC opened in a rented duplex in the Bronx, neighbors complained about having women who had been in prison in their community.

News articles were written about the resistance and campaign to shut the project down. But Sam persisted.

“We’d be talking to them, and they’d be like, ‘Well my brother or my husband has been incarcerated for X amount of years,’ or, ‘Yeah the guy I’m dating is incarcerated,’ and I’m like, ‘OK, but when he comes home, he’ll be coming to you. Why wouldn’t you want a house full of women to have that same opportunity?”

It wasn’t long before the neighbors saw that there were no problems stemming from Hope House and that, in fact, its presence made the community safer.

“It gave women the opportunity to really see themselves where they deserve to be and not where the system wants to place us,” Sam said. “Because if it’s up to the system, you go into a halfway house that looks and feels like a prison and then they put you in a shelter if you can’t afford housing.”

Sam has taken a holistic approach in her mission. It’s not just about giving women shelter. It’s about feeding them and giving them job opportunities. She created a speakers bureau run by formerly incarcerated women that gives them the opportunity to speak in public and teach in symposiums. She developed the Angel Foods project, where grocery store donations are delivered to families who are impacted by incarceration. There are plans to expand Hope House and the Angel Foods project to other states. And Sam is even looking toward an expansion model with buildings that have cafes, hair salons, and nail shops — owned and operated by impacted women — and affordable housing units for people to rent.

“Because at the end, we want to make sure after they’re in our program up to 18 months that we’re placing them in beautiful places they can live for the rest of their lives,” Sam said.

Passing it Down

Dix knows how critical these first years out of prison are for him. Despite the multiple news stories written about him and his appearance on “60 Minutes,” he is very down-to-earth about his realities.

“I’ve only been out of prison for nine months,” Dix said. “I’ve been doing all this good stuff, but my mindset is still evolving and changing. It’s not that I don’t trust myself, but I don’t trust people in society in certain environments. You can’t be sheep around wolves.”

Instead, he’s taken himself out of situations that could get him into trouble. And he’s seeing the influence his choices are having on others, including his younger brothers, ages 21 and 11.

“They are changing so much because they see what I’m trying to do,” Dix said. “I’m not hanging out with certain people no more. … I don’t want to be around toxic people. [They’re] seeing that, and I know it’s teaching them a lot.”

Dix wants to be a role model for them and his two young children, ages 4 and 3, and is grateful he has been given that chance. He knows others aren’t so lucky.

Wetzel, the corrections secretary for Pennsylvania, can vividly recall a time very early in his career when he was a training academy director in Berks County, Pennsylvania. A middle school teacher had reached out to him and asked if he would do an assembly for her kids.

“She had discovered,” Wetzel said, “that 25 out of the 28 kids in the class had a parent incarcerated. That was just the most shocking thing I ever heard in my life.”

Nearly 20 years later, Wetzel can still remember what that punch to the gut felt like. “That never left me,” he said. “I still know the numbers. I can still see the kids’ faces. It was so impactful.”

Those faces and those numbers are what started him on the prison reform path, and he soon began engaging in the community, trying to find ways to help children of incarcerated parents.

Today, he has two other numbers memorized: The approximately 47,000 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s prison system have a combined 81,000 children.

John Wetzel
Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel talks about his efforts to support early childhood ⁦education April 18, 2019. (Courtesy of Deb Sahd)

Wetzel does a lot of work involving children with incarcerated parents. He holds multiple events a year advocating and lobbying for increased funding for early childhood education programs. His team created an area in every visiting room that has games and toys so the children don’t feel like they’re in a prison while waiting to see their parent. His office developed child resource centers, which offer brochures on programs that children may be eligible for. They passed a law that puts a 1 percent surcharge on every contract over $5 million that goes into a charitable trust specifically for programs for kids in high-crime areas. And they are about to start a new program training parole officers about the early learning programs available, so when they’re in the house dealing with both the parents and the kids, they can be a resource.

“It’s just so heartbreaking when the kids know as much about my visiting policies as I do. And know about the culture of the different prisons and know what the visiting areas look like,” Wetzel said. “It’s an experience you would hope a [child] wouldn’t know about.”

It’s just one more thing that can be helped by prison reform, and there’s no denying the benefits. When Dix began serving his sentence in general population, his sons and girlfriend visited but were restricted. In the beginning, there was a glass divider and he couldn’t even give them hugs. As time progressed, because he wasn’t in on a violent charge, he was able to hug them at the beginning and end of each visit.

But when he was at T.R.U.E. during family engagement nights, they were able to sit next to each other and interact, be a family.

“There’s no table, there’s no glass,” Dix said. “Me and my sons would be drawing together, taking pictures and playing. I’m literally holding them the whole hour and 30 minutes or two hours. My girlfriend the same thing — holding hands, talking. We were sitting right next to each other. Like I’m free again.”

Coming soon: Part 3, Leading Prison Reform from the Inside

You go from being free and doing whatever you want to being locked in a cage 22 hours a day. ... You get everything — your dignity, any type of power you thought you have, all of that is taken away. That’s what scared me the most.
Shyquinn Dix