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What Happens When Prisons Prioritize Rehabilitation Over Punishment?

The Restoring Promise initiative is transforming prisons across the country and introducing a dignity-driven culture in corrections.

A sleeping area is decorated with memorabilia and a pink bedspread.
T.R.U.E. Unit at Cheshire Correctional Institution in Cheshire, Connecticut. (Photo by Restoring Promise)

For Olfonzo Staton, a person formerly incarcerated at South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Institution, life used to be bleak. Then came Restoring Promise, which brought some much needed hope and pride.

“It’s like the two tales of incarceration,” he said. “As a formerly incarcerated person, I know the folks experiencing our nation’s ineffective prison system have the desire to solve our problems. It’s possible to create a restorative culture in prisons by rooting out bias and expanding opportunity.”

Two years ago, following a violent disturbance inside Lee that claimed the lives of seven people incarcerated there, Lee introduced Restoring Promise, a set of compassionate and dignity-driven guidelines toward remaking prison culture. It does so by designing spaces for young adults (aged 18 to 25) that focus on healing, fairness, and respect. Every Restoring Promise housing unit is designed and driven by incarcerated people and corrections staff, empowering them to create a mutually supportive community.

Young adults are coached by mentors (incarcerated people over the age of 25) who help them realize their potential. Through classes focused on life skills, financial literacy, restorative justice, and meaningful connection to family and loved ones, mentors help young people prepare for a successful return to their home communities. COVID worsened already inhumane conditions in prison. Though the pandemic has made it harder to do this kind of transformative work, the need for it is now clearer than ever.

Before his release, Olfonzo served as one of these mentors on the inside and was instrumental in shaping Lee’s Restoring Promise unit. Today he is a MILPA staffer, a job that affords him the chance to advise other prison systems on creating housing units grounded in dignity.

“In general, if you're in a typical prison setting, you don't want to be seen as soft or weak,” Olfonzo said. Prisons are full of both incarcerated people and correctional officers just trying to survive, but Restoring Promise focuses on setting up opportunities for people to thrive free from violence and fear. Incarcerated people and correctional officers develop leadership and problem solving skills that lead to decreases in violence, increases in job satisfaction, and a space for people to productively express their emotions.

“Restoring Promise teaches you to be in tune with your soft skills, man, to let your fellow brothers know that you care,” Olfonzo said. “You can do that by a simple hug — most men in prison ain't gonna hug you, but in Restoring Promise, you are more in tune with yourself and allowed to be human. You can hug a guy and tell him that you love him and that you are there for him.”

A Surprise Snow Angel

Lieutenant Daniel Quinn of the Connecticut Department of Corrections has seen a lot in his seven years working in the maximum security Cheshire Correctional Institution as a correctional officer, but little as memorable as what happened on a snowy winter’s night a few years back.

“Everybody told us this one kid was going to be a major problem for us,” he recalled. The young man’s reputation as a hot-headed brawler distinguished him from others sentenced to do time in “the Rock,” as some call Cheshire.

And so Quinn and the other correctional officers (COs) kept a close eye on him. Then, Quinn witnessed something he never would have imagined in all his years working in prisons.

“So we were in the recreation yard during a snowstorm, clearing the pathways for our fire exits, and this kid — the one we’d been told was such a menace — just laid down in the snow and made a snow angel,” Quinn recalled.

Quinn was stunned. And the young man was just as surprised himself — he told Quinn it was the first time he’d ever made a snow angel. In the housing projects where he grew up, he never felt safe to be so childish and carefree for fear of looking “soft.”

But this was not just any prison: Cheshire’s unit for 18 to 25 year olds has operated with a different culture since 2017, when Restoring Promise opened the T.R.U.E. (truthful, respectful, understanding and elevating) unit. A joint initiative of the Vera Institute of Justice and MILPA Collective, Restoring Promise is about transforming systems like the one Quinn had come to know all too well.

“With the general population, there's never any real positive outlook,” said Lt. Quinn. “You think your day's successful if you make it home the same way you came in. Here in this program, you get to see your guys succeed. You're celebrating with them if they get their GED, and you are actively involved with the families.”

When Quinn elaborates on this dynamic, you start to wonder why this hasn’t been the norm before. “We had a kid acting out,” he said. “We tried the steps that we take within the unit, and it just wasn't working. Instead of giving up on him, sending him to general population or to segregation, I called the kid's mother and made him explain to her what exactly what was going on — leading to a better outcome. And that's unheard of in prison to involve the families.”

Things like that make his job feel “more human,” Quinn said.

At first, Quinn said, many of his fellow COs mocked the programs introduced by Restoring Promise. A signup sheet went around when the program was introduced at the Rock, and Quinn said only about 20 of his colleagues signed up, out of about 300.

“They would say things like we were turning prison into daycare,” he said. “They would harass you for being in the program.” Four years later, they are having to turn applicants away.

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‘This is the Future of Corrections’

The Young Men Emerging unit in the D.C. Department of Corrections is another program that is changing the culture of prison. Go inside the unit with this in-depth short film, “Emerging: The Story of YME” — produced by a former YME member — and learn how they build community and help one another take ownership of their stories.

With Respect and Dignity Come Better Results

“It’s not just burnout that correctional officers suffer from,” said Dr. Ryan Shanahan, Restoring Promise’s Research Director. “It's life expectancy. It’s significantly lower than the average in the United States. They have higher suicide rates than soldiers coming back from the front lines of the military.”

These bad outcomes for COs should come as no surprise, she said, as they work in spaces that are designed to torture and warehouse people. “There is little natural light, very limited access to fresh air and fresh water, and that impacts the people who work there as well. Then, you train them repeatedly to not see another human as human and to box that up so they can go home and be human themselves... it doesn’t work.”

Many people think that if we make jails too nice, people won’t be afraid to go back. However, data show that the lowest recidivism rates occur in countries like Norway and Germany where people are treated humanely.

In northern Europe, there is a belief that the more you make prison resemble life on the outside, the easier it will be for people to successfully transition home. Unlike U.S. prisons, with drab, gray stone walls, windowless cells, and lifeless fluorescent lighting, prisons in countries like Norway and Germany feature natural lighting and murals, often painted by incarcerated people. Opportunities abound in these prisons, which aim to help people rather than to warehouse them in cages.

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Prison Project: Little Scandinavia

Can the more humane Scandinavian incarceration practices and values work inside a U.S. prison? This unique pilot project follows SCI Chester in Pennsylvania as they convert unit Charlie Alpha to become Little Scandinavia.

This is the paradigm that Restoring Promise hopes to shift. Currently in use at prisons in six states, the initiative shows how the reintroduction of simple respect and dignity can bring about better results than unnecessary cruelty. The difference can be seen almost immediately. It is not uncommon to see, just weeks after Restoring Promise’s introduction, things like correctional officers and incarcerated people celebrating birthdays, playing board games, and cooking together — scenarios unthinkable in standard prisons.

And the emphasis on creating a softer culture is leading to hard numbers. In Connecticut, violence in the unit is rare and early results on reintegration success are encouraging.

“We're not in the business of changing people,” Shanahan said, “We're in the business of changing systems and prisons. It’s about creating opportunities for people to be their best selves.”

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