The Vera Institute is working to implement what they call a "Groundbreaking Young Adult Prison Reform Initiative." Per the Institute’s studies, young adults are now a population in the justice system for whom attention becomes increasingly necessary. The population is more frequently involved in facility incidents, is likelier to end up in solitary confinement, and returns to prison at higher rates than any other age group. Via a partnership with the South Carolina Department of Corrections, they plan to alter the living conditions for incarcerated members between the ages of 18 and 25.
The plan, titled the "Restoring Promise Initiative," seeks to achieve four goals: creating safety, strengthening communities, facilitating healing, and advancing equity. It is derived from "lessons on youth development, juvenile correctional best practices, international examples, and the voices of those directly impacted by the current system– incarcerated young adults and facility staff." The system has already been implemented in the Connecticut Department of Correction and the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office in Massachusetts.
Alexandra Frank, Senior Associate in Vera’s Center on Youth Justice, argues that the American criminal justice system prioritizes punishment and isolation over accountability and restoration, neither of which contribute to later safety and community wellness. In conversation with Teen Vogue, she states, “Your loss of freedom is already your punishment. Everything else has to be about preparing you to return home and be successful.” By reimagining the incarceration system, she claims that sustainable change for both people in prisons and out of them will become possible.
In the Cheshire Correctional Institution of Connecticut, where the plan has been in place since January 2017, the Connecticut Department of Correction “is already seeing striking results across measures of safety and wellness for both young adults and staff.” Frank recognizes that the problem with incarcerated persons extends far beyond the young adult population, but notes that the young adult population represents 21% of total prison admissions. Those who extend beyond that age often entered as young adults.
By creating environments where these young adults can be worked with rather than policed, she hopes that the number of young adults who return to prison can be significantly decreased, and that their lives outside of it will be wholly productive. Older inmates can serve as mentors for younger ones, and in building healthier relationships, they can be out of their cells more frequently. She drives for the presence of more activity rooms, where inmates can engage with religion or literature, get their hair cut, and pursue interests. Rather than solitary confinement, she pushes for constructive meetings with younger inmates, so that they might learn from their situations.
The strides at the Vera Institute and in the states adopting the Restoring Promise Initiative are valuable ones. Reforming the prison system is an issue long contested, and efforts to address it deserve recognition.