Prison reform advocates, lawyers and former inmates met at the UConn School of Law on January 29, 2019, to discuss a Connecticut prison pilot program designed to rehabilitate young adult offenders.
“This all really requires a change in mindset about the way we think about prison and justice in Connecticut,” said Scott Erfe, warden of the Cheshire Correctional Institute, where the initiative began.
The TRUE program, aimed at rehabilitating offenders between the ages of 18 and 25, is named for its credo: Truthfulness to oneself and others, Respect toward the community, Understanding ourselves and what brought us here, Elevating into success.
In the Cheshire prison, where the program launched, inmates are separated from the general population, provided with counseling and educational programs, assigned to an older inmate for mentoring and allowed more free time. The program is the first of its kind nationwide.
Erfe was joined on the panel by Matthew Lowen of the Vera Institute of Justice and Abdul Bradley, a graduate of the TRUE unit. The panel was moderated by UConn Law Professor Jamelia Morgan. The event, sponsored by the American Constitution Society at UConn Law, was called “Reimagining Prison: Shifting the Culture of Incarceration from Retribution to Rehabilitation."
Bradley, who spent two years in general population before he was moved to the TRUE unit, said the program gave him educational resources and hope for life after prison.
“Teaching transitional skills is a cornerstone of this program,” Abdul said. “It really gave me a reason to wake up and smile.”
While the program is still in its early days, expansion has already begun. Starting in 2018, the York Correctional Institute, a Connecticut women’s prison, opened its first TRUE unit. Additionally, two prisons in South Carolina and one in Massachusetts are planning to open TRUE units in 2019.
The program is designed loosely off of a German rehabilitative prison model. In addition to uplifting inmates and encouraging them to pursue practical skills, the unit works to break down the barriers between the incarcerated population and prison employees.
Ending stigma associated with incarceration is essential to changing the conversation about justice, Erfe said. He said it is crucial people understand the arbitrary nature of the criminal justice system.
“The only difference between the people here in this room and the people behind bars is they got caught,” Erfe said. “Every single person here has done something that could have put them there, but you didn’t get caught.”
Watch the discussion on the Connecticut Network.