You might imagine correction officers rolling their eyes when Alexandra Frank talks about restorative justice and turning prisons into therapeutic places where staff and inmates gather for morning and evening “check-ins” to set goals, resolve conflicts and prepare for a future outside the walls.
But then you haven’t seen her in a circle of correction officers and lifers at a maximum-security prison in Connecticut, hashing out the way best way to handle the most disruptive demographic in prison, young people ages 18 to 25.
Alex Frank is a social worker employed by the Vera Institute of Justice, a think-tank founded in the first year of the Kennedy administration. Her specialty is figuring out a smarter way to deal with an impulsive demographic that is 10 percent of the U.S population, yet accounts for 30 percent of all arrests and 21 percent of prison admissions.
It’s a big ask, re-imagining prison. But that’s what Vera is asking as the U.S. struggles with the consequences of being the nation that imprisons more of its citizens per-capita than anyplace else on the planet.
Vera notes that about 95 percent of prison inmates eventually go free. The question that poses is deceptively simple: Do you want them to come out broken or better?
In Connecticut, a state with a falling crime rate and a steadily shrinking prison population, Vera has found an eager partner in the state Department of Correction. Its commissioner, Scott Semple, was among U.S. officials who inspected German prisons at Vera’s invitation in 2015, seeing what a prison system based on rehabilitation looks like.
Semple has opened four community reintegration centers geared to preparing inmates to succeed after release. His latest effort is an experiment at Cheshire Correctional: a 70-bed unit for inmates no older than 25.
It’s built around intensive days of activities, guided by COs willing to try something different and an unusual cadre of mentors — men doing life sentences for crimes committed while they they were young.
CT Mirror: What is your role and Vera’s role in developing the Young Adult Offender unit at Cheshire?
Frank: Vera’s role was to work as a thought partner with DOC. Vera has a lot of experience in the juvenile justice arena where the population is similar. One of the big lessons learned from that was the importance of proximity to family and community. At the onset, a lot of the thought partnership with DOC was around place and design and family involvement and asking and answering a lot of the big questions it takes to make a big change like that.
CT Mirror: How unusual is this project? You’re providing basic research. You’re actually participating in designing the program. You are participating in training the correction officers. And then you will participate in the evaluation.
Frank: For Vera, we have a long history of partnering with agencies to both initiate major reform efforts and implement them, evaluate them and everything in between. This type of thing, to focus on young adults who are in prison, is very cutting edge. It’s very trail blazing. Connecticut has kind of taken that big leap. We don’t have a playbook that Connecticut is taking off the shelf and implementing. The design of the model is different. It required us taking the best of what we knew in the field that works and also a leap of faith, here and there. I think I said to the folks in Connecticut a few times, for something like this they needed to be willing to jump in with both feet, knowing both what the water feels like and also not being able to see clearly to the bottom. And they did it.
CT Mirror: You looked for best practices in the U.S. and overseas as well. What were the areas where there really wasn’t a lot of guidance?
Frank: It’s a funny question in some ways, because there are a lot of things asked and answered, pretty quickly and definitively, like the importance of mentorship. We know that mentors and mentorship is important to young people and emerging adults and young people in general. But mentorship as a central core component of a program, there isn’t a ton of research that says that’s the thing that’s going to make a difference. But in Connecticut, that’s one of the things that’s different.
That was an idea hatched by Warden Erfe [Scott Erfe is Cheshire’s warden] who saw the potential in people serving life without the possibility of parole to be meaningful partners and mentors to the young people on this unit. The research on the role of mentorship with young people in the community is strong, to show how impactful that is. But prison-based mentorship is different. There were different concerns. There were different questions. And so this is an opportunity to look at what it means to work in partnership with incarcerated people, and to work in partnership with them as mentors on a young adult unit.
One of the things the mentors have said to me is they are mentors, but the young people have become mentors, too, to each other. So how we define this has been challenged by this group in a lot of ways.
CT Mirror: You use the term “restorative justice.” What do you mean by that in the context of this program?
Frank: A lot of how the day is structured is around the circle process that is used in restorative justice. When conflict happens typically in prison settings across the country, conflict doesn’t get resolved through conversation and communication. It typically gets resolved by someone going to solitary confinement or lockdown or something. But the reaction typically isn’t a circle. When I say a circle, I mean all of the people impacted by the conflict come together and a facilitator facilitates a conversation between and across all of the people who have been harmed by this conflict and the person responsible for causing the harm.
On the unit, they use the circle process. They use it to start the day to talk about their feelings, to talk about good things in their lives, to celebrate success but also as the way to resolve conflict on the unit. And before even conflict becomes a fight or a heated argument the purpose of building in circles through the day is for people to share how they are feeling. If they are annoyed with someone in their group they would share that in a circle. They talk about it. The point of the circle process is to resolve the conflict. You end with a resolution.
CT Mirror: Is this something these young adults don’t have experience with — talking out a problem?
Frank: I was introduced to restorative justice as ‘community conferencing.’ I think it’s one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. There’s a long history of sort of outside agents solving problems for other people who are in conflict. What restorative justice and community conferencing does, it gives that power back to the people who are in conflict. That skill to learn and be comfortable with at this age and time in your life is huge. It’s something I look back on and say, ‘Wow, I wish someone brought me into a circle when I was in school and said, ‘We’re going to talk about what happened.’ That’s an important skill to learn. It’s not one that’s taught often in school or at home.
CT Mirror: This is a little touchy-feely. What was it like to get the COs, the staff to start to use a common vocabulary and buy into this, to get past the impulse to roll their eyes?
Frank: There is a two-part answer for me. One is I want to emphasize again how open-minded DOC was. They went into this initiative asking a lot of questions, asking all the right questions, then being really open to what the answer may or may not be. So when I broached the concept of morning check-ins that happen in a circle and evening check-ins it was different, and they were like, wow. But I really want to emphasize that they were really open-minded. they were willing to take a leap. And they did. And it’s become one of the central core characteristics of the model.
The second is in the third week of the training we had an opportunity to partner with an institution in California called MILPA. That stands for motivating individual leadership for public advancement. They are an organization that was founded and run by formerly incarcerated people. They do an absolutely incredible job doing mentorship and leadership and development with incarcerated people that is rooted and grounded in culture and healing. So they approach a lot of their leadership and mentorship development training through a healing-informed lens.
During that training they did a circle. MILPA has them in a circle, mentors — all people serving without possibility of parole — and staff. And during that circle people were able to share why they want to work on this unit. So people from very different perspectives all recognized that they were there to help ensure that young people were successful and that young people heal, grow and when they leave DOC, they never come back. They were able to come together and see each other in a completely different way.
A lot of the concerns they had about working in partnership on the unit, they were asking each other questions about how they were going to do this on on the unit. That circle process was so transformational. It both showed the power of using circles to resolve conflict, to bridge differences, to challenge the us vs. them mentality, to heal. They came out the other side and said, ‘We got this. We are going to do this.’ Now the circle process is so ingrained in the culture of the unit.
CT Mirror: Other than recidivism, what will Vera and the DOC be tracking in terms of outcomes to see if this works?
Frank: The things that we are focused on are facility safety. We want people who are incarcerated there to be safe, and we want the staff to be safe. Young adults in prison, they represent a disproportionate amount of incidents, such as fights and altercations. We are going to be measuring what that looks like in the young adult unit. Are incidents down for this age group with this model comared to any other unit? Recidivism outcomes are going to take a long time to measure. That’s one we’ll be looking to in the future. We really try to focus on the positive-use outcomes. Are young people getting more prepared to succeed when they return to heir community? Are they more connected with families and loved ones? Have their relationships grown and become stronger? How gas this this model helped or hindered relationship with families.
We’ll also be looking to hear from line staff. Do they feel safer? Do they feel less stressed? Do they feel their job is more purposeful? Stuff like that.
CT Mirror: This is an intensive day of activities, from morning until lights out. But what do you see as the level of rehabilitation that goes on in a typical prison?
Frank: This definitely diverts from the norm. [laughs] I haven’t been in every prison in the U.S., but this is definitely a major divergence from the norm. Are you familiar with out Reimaginging Prison tours?
CT Mirror: Yes, I was on the tour at Osborn Correctional in Somers. There were few jobs for people who wanted them; the jobs they had are anachronisms. It’s textiles in Connecticut, that kind of thing.
Frank: Reimagining challenges the notion of the traditional correctional model, punitive model of justice and what that means. We think we need to reimagine everything there is involving corrections for anyone who is incarcerated. The young adult work is really reimagining prisons for young adults. It’s asking that question about this population specifically. If you could reimagine prison for young adults, what would it look like?
Our partnership with Connecticut is our first state partnership on this. Our hope and ambition is to expand across the country. We believe we can reimagine prison conditions of confinement for all young people across the country. If it’s happening in Connecticut, it can happen in other places. This is a pretty big difference from what corrections traditionally has looked like. Connecticut was the brave trailblazer to jump in and pave the way. But we think there’s more we can do.
CT Mirror: To what extent is Vera’s mission to also educate the larger public?
Frank: We really try to engage a wide, diverse audience of people who are curious, interested and involved in reform in all different ways. It’s definitely an important part of our work. The more I think we can do that, I think the better off we are. There are some misconceptions about when we say reform. When we say restorative justice or healing, any of these kind of words, they are a little mystifying to people. What we are trying to do is demystify them.
CT Mirror: On Vera’s web site, you talk about this moment in time, when crime is at its lowest in about half a century. How has this affected Vera’s work?
Frank: It’s been an opportune time for prison reform. Crime has dropped. The prison population in Connecticut has dropped substantially. There is a lot of momentum to change practices, to change outcomes. There has been a recognition of what has not been working. The number of people willing and able to take the leap and change are fewer. Connecticut is unique in that.
CT Mirror: President Trump has repeatedly described crime in the U.S. as rampant, making claims contradicted by the FBI’s annual data on crime. Is there a concern the political climate may become more difficult to talk about reform?
Frank: No, we’re data people here. The truth is in the data. Crime is down. The prison population is down. We have a long, full-bodied library of research that shows exactly what doesn’t work and creates a road map for broad and significant reform. Our reimagining prison project is definitely not falling back.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.