German-Inspired Reform Calms Prison

Yale Law School photoYoung inmates are getting direction — not just detention — in one corner of Connecticut’s prison system, and they’re straightening out as a result.

State Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple created the experiment called the TRUE program (which stands for Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding and Elevating) — to help 18-to-25-year-old inmates mature into responsible adults behind bars, and prepare for successful and productive lives after they have been released from prison.

The program, inspired by a fact-finding visit Semple took to Germany with the governor in June 2015, is currently in place in one 70-bed unit at the Cheshire Correctional Institution. Because of its early success, Semple is looking to expand it to other units at Cheshire, as well as to the York Correctional Institution for Women.

Through the TRUE program, the young inmates are paired up with mentors who are older, fellow inmates serving life sentences for crimes that they committed while they were young.

Social workers from the Vera Institute of Criminal Justice lead roundtable conversations with the young inmates that encourage them to talk about how they are feeling, what they are hoping to accomplish through the program, and what their goals are for after they are released. The program applies “restorative” justice techniques that bring people who have been harmed and people causing harm together to resolve their conflict via face-to-face conversation as opposed to through further outbursts of violence.

Semple said that the program also rests upon active involvement of family members of the incarcerated, as well as open lines of communication and respect between the prison staff and the inmates.

Several months in, the program has been a success, Semple said on the latest episode of WNHH-FMs “Community Justice Insider with Babz Rawls-Ivy & Jeff Grant” program. “We’ve had little to no incidents in that unit [at the Cheshire Correctional Institution]. In essence, [this program has] created less trauma exposure and improved the health and wellness of the staff and the population.”

Semple noted that correctional officers often get a bad rap, and rarely get as many accolades as police officers, judges, or probation officers. Their work, especially in the context of the TRUE program, is critical for the successful rehabilitation of these young inmates, he said.

“Their job is extremely, extremely important in terms of the mission of improving public safety,” he said. “Because if they fail, the likelihood of failure from a public safety perspective is much more prominent.”

Nearly three years into his tenure as commissioner, Connecticut’s prison population is dropping precipitously, from a high of nearly 20,000 in 2008 to around 14,000 today. Two prisons have closed or contracted in this year alone, including Enfield’s medium security prison earlier this month.

And, with initiatives like the TRUE program at Cheshire set to expand, Semple said, he feels confident that the department he oversees is getting closer by the day to its mission of correction, not incapacitation.

“We are the model in the United States right now,” Semple said about Connecticut’s DOC. “We’re one of the few states in the country that has lowered its incarceration rate and its crime rate, and we’re beginning to see a reduction in recidivism.”

“It’s important that, whoever’s the next governor,” he continued, “they need to take a look at some of the practices that have been in place. And to realize the benefit in improving folks’ overall wellness.”

German Inspiration

Invited by the Vera Institute of Criminal Justice in June 2015 to observe how other countries’ prison systems prepare inmates for re-entry into society, Department of Correction (DOC) chief Semple and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy found in Mecklenburg, Germany’s Neustrelitz Prison a facility that was specifically designed to meet the emotional and developmental needs of its 18 to 25-year-old incarcerated population.

Instead of throwing young people into lockdown or solitary confinement when they acted out, the German prison had programs that encouraged self-expression, communication between fellow inmates and staff, minimum-wage employment, and a certain degree of autonomy that tried to mimic what life was like outside of prison bars.

A self-proclaimed data-driven, incentive-based commissioner who is willing to experiment with different ways to reduce recidivism, Semple was deeply inspired by the respect, encouragement and sensitivity with which the German prison system treats its young inmates, he said.

“We’re not the department of incapacitation,” Semple said. “We’re the department of correction. And our job is to help correct people. We’re very good at dealing with problematic issues. Our facilities are clean and, for the most part, quiet. But how do we move beyond clean and quiet? It’s as simple as being responsive to people who want to be accountable to themselves.”

After returning from Germany, Semple crunched the numbers on his own prison system. He found that 3,000 people, or roughly 20 percent of the state’s incarcerated population, fell between the ages of 18 and 25. Those younger inmates accounted for roughly 25 percent of all disciplinary incidents within the state’s prison system.

“We do know that this is a very impulsive age,” Semple said. He admitted that, when he was a teenager growing up in Waterbury in the 1970s, he was involved in activity that very well might have gotten him arrested if he were in high school today.

He talked to the governor, reached out to the Vera Institute, and decided to bring a little bit of the German incarceral approach to the Nutmeg State.

Inspired By Personal Tragedy

Semple started out as a correctional officer at the Cheshire Correctional Institution back in 1988. Over the years he has served as legislative liaison for the DOC, warden for the Garner Correctional Institution, deputy commissioner of operations for the DOC, and, as of 2015, DOC commissioner.

Shortly after Semple became deputy commissioner, his son Matthew was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Soon after he became commissioner, his son passed away.

Semple spoke about how he and his wife struggled to decide whether or not he should accept Gov. Malloy’s offer to serve as commissioner when going through such a difficult time in their lives. Ultimately, he decided to do it, heeding his late son’s strong encouragement to take the position.

“The things you traditionally get worked up about did not seem to bother me as much because quite frankly the worst thing in my life has already happened,” Semple said about how his son’s life and premature death have inspired his passion and willingness to experiment as the head of the DOC. “So why not be bold? It really led and energized the direction that I felt compelled to take this department to.”

“Criminal Justice Insider” airs every first and third Friday of the month on WNHH FM at 10 a.m. Listen to the full interview with Scott Semple by clicking on the audio player above or Facebook Live video below.

“Criminal Justice Insider” is sponsored by Family ReEntry and The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.


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