A prison program in Connecticut seeks to find out what happens when prisoners are treated as victims

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.

Inmates Festim Shyuqeriu, left, and Isschar Howard, middle, tour former Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy around a unit of the Cheshire Correctional Institution in Cheshire, Conn., on May 30, 2018. AP Photo/Pat Eaton-Robb
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.