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A New Model for the US Prison System

W. Scott Cole

Posted on October 10, 2018 23:51

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The “New Model” is new to the United States. But we could learn from the countries we have been following on this prison system for years -- Germany and the Netherlands. The results should make anyone serious about criminal justice reform think.

In a study that, at this point, is five years old, the Vera Institute of Justice took a delegation of state officials from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania to tour the prisons of Germany and the Netherlands. What they found is surprising in its simplicity and results. At least one prison system in the United States has started emulating some of their practices, and more should do the same.

The average sentence length in the US is three years. In the Netherlands, 91 percent of sentences are one year or less; in Germany, 75 percent. Maybe a huge part of the reason is in the way the two countries approach their justice systems. They both rely heavily on fines and community-based sentences rather than prison. Their systems are focused around rehabilitation and resocialization rather than incapacitation and retribution, which best describes our approach to prison.

In our prisons, the inmates’ lives are heavily regulated. Comforts are very few, and everything is centralized and controlled more than a military base.

The prisons of Germany and the Netherlands, however, have centered around “normalization.” In other words, they try to make life in prison as close to that in a normal society as possible. Towards that end, inmates have the ability to cook their own food and wear their own clothes.

Three years ago, Connecticut prison officials spent a week touring the prisons in Germany. They noticed the same things. When their corrections commissioner came home, he started working to integrate some of what he saw into his system and the American experiment that began recently with a pilot project called TRUE.

Knowing that in prison, older inmates will “adopt” younger ones and give them advice, the commissioner focused on the younger inmates, pairing them up with older ones that act as mentors. Then he moved them into a unit of their own.

The mentors turned the unit into a temple of self-improvement. Work, study, and therapy can last from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. When altercations arise, mentors interfere before violence erupts and force the antagonists to sit down and talk things out.

When the guards see rule violations, instead of issuing write-ups and segregation time, they write the violation on a chalkboard without any names. The inmates figure out who the guilty party is, and issue their own punishments, which can range from push-ups to learning words from a dictionary.

There is the emphasis on practical life skills. The inmates get fake currency; they pay fake rent, bills, and taxes. The men are taught to analyze how their own anger and sadness harmed others and then chart another path.

Though it is too soon for any hard data to tell if this experiment would work, of the nine inmates paroled from the program since it started, only one has been returned to prison for a technical violation.

This could be the future of American prisons. We need to pay attention.

W. Scott Cole

Posted on October 10, 2018 23:51

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Source: WWL

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