Prisons are full of people who were once victims of violence and abuse.
As many as 75 percent of people who are in prison have experienced violence or childhood neglect, according to data from the Department of Justice.
Prisoners report past abuse at rates up to twice that of the general population. Youth who get caught up in the criminal justice system have experienced chronic trauma at rates triple those of youth in the general population.
A study of people who spent time in prison, conducted by sociologist Bruce Western, found that 42 percent had witnessed a violent death as children.
Advocates of criminal justice reform are beginning to catch up with what social scientists have shown for years: The correlation between being the victim of a crime and committing crime cannot be ignored in serious conversations about sending fewer people to prison.
However, the U.S. justice system focuses almost exclusively on punishing people who commit crimes. What if our justice systems treated victims of violence who harm others as also deserving of healing?
A pilot prison program in Connecticut entering its third year is beginning to answer that question. Connecticut modeled the program on a German prison for young people. I visited that German prison and two others last summer as part of research funded by Yale Law School.
Connecticut’s experiment with rehabilitation
In May 2018, I toured a prison in Cheshire, a suburb outside of New Haven, Connecticut. That’s where the Connecticut Department of Corrections is running a pilot program called T.R.U.E., which operates on the idea that acknowledging and healing trauma is essential to a successful post-prison life.
T.R.U.E. stands for truthfulness to oneself and others, respectfulness toward the community, understanding ourselves and what brought us here and elevating into success.
During my visit, I met several of the 21 “lifers,” prisoners who are serving decadeslong or life sentences and mentoring 52 younger prisoners. The younger prisoners are between the ages of 18 to 25, and have been convicted of serious crimes such as armed robbery and homicide. Mentors try to equip them with practical, social and emotional skills to earn a living and live law-abiding, productive lives when they are released.
I spoke in-depth with five participants to learn about their work.
Mentors counsel their mentees on confronting their pasts, including how their own histories of being victims of violence relate to their incarceration and how to consider the world from their victims’ perspectives.
Mentors have single cells with doors they can leave open, to encourage the young men they are counseling to drop by for conversations. The private cells are meant to provide the mentors with space for honest, one-on-one talks with the younger men.
T.R.U.E. participants told me that for the first time in their lives, they felt sufficiently safe to let their guard down enough to reflect and learn practical life skills like how to prepare a resume.
T.R.U.E. mentors and correctional officers who sign up to work in the unit receive training in how to talk with and counsel people who have survived violence, as many of the mentors themselves have. Mentors then design and teach a curriculum focused on rehabilitation and life skills, ranging from how to do laundry and manage a bank account to how to navigate conflict productively.
Through a simulated banking system the mentors developed, the mentees save mock currency and pay “rent” and “taxes.” They also study in philosophy, economics and English classes led by mentors or local college professors.
When conflicts among T.R.U.E. participants arise, they engage in conflict-resolution circles, where the disputing prisoners sit with other T.R.U.E. residents and engage in guided, structured conversation to de-escalate disagreement.
The German model
T.R.U.E. was founded in 2017 after Connecticut’s then-Department of Corrections Commissioner Scott Semple and then-Governor Dannel Malloy toured European prisons on a trip led by the nonprofit research organization, the Vera Institute of Justice. The Vera Institute’s mission is to improve justice systems to ensure fairness and promote safety.
Semple and Malloy were inspired to establish a prison unit that would focus on young adults, the population most likely to commit crimes and to be victims of crime.
T.R.U.E. is modeled on one of the German prisons the Connecticut delegation visited, in a town called Neustrelitz. I also visited this facility in July 2018.
At Neustrelitz, 19- to 25-year-olds convicted of serious and often violent crimes are provided with comprehensive therapy and vocational and life-skills training.
On my visit, the German correctional professionals I spoke with said the first thing they do when a prisoner enters is conduct a weekslong assessment of their social history, including any history of being a victim of violence or abuse. They then offer treatment and rehabilitation programs based on this detailed information.
My German hosts were puzzled when I asked whether they measure the success of their work by reduction in the number of prisoners who return to prison after their release.
They explained that their work arises out of an inherent duty to heal, train and teach every prisoner in their care, regardless of the severity of their convictions. They measure their success by delivering therapeutic, educational and vocational programs. The German correctional model is built on the principle that prisons owe training, education and therapy to the people in their custody.
This may seem counterintuitive in the U.S., where the success of justice programs is often measured by whether participants in the programs are re-arrested or return to prison. Can a new way of thinking about justice, such as what is embodied in the T.R.U.E. approach, work in the U.S. system?
Too few T.R.U.E. participants have been released to measure success by whether they will return to prison. However, data show that among a cohort of more than 3,200 Connecticut prisoners, those who participated in programs designed to reduce their risk of being re-arrested were 10 to 12 percent less likely to commit another crime than counterparts who had not participated, six and 12 months after their release. This is according to a report shared with me by the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management.
They also report that T.R.U.E. has had no violent incidents while the participants are in prison. This is remarkable when data show that 21 percent of prisoners are assaulted within a six-month period.
These data suggest that prison programs that provide a combination of counseling and educational and work opportunities reduce violence and the risk of returning to prison. The Department of Corrections is committed to the model indefinitely and has started a unit like T.R.U.E. in the state’s prison for women.
Building prison programs that heal all victims, including those who have injured others, is consistent with the recognition that people who commit crimes are often survivors of crime themselves.