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USA: inside a radical experiment to transform the lives of incarcerated women

Carrie Jones couldn’t climb out of the van. The ride between her former unit and this one hadn’t been more than a couple of minutes, but she was nauseated. Until then, it hadn’t all seemed so extreme, like such a break with what she’d become accustomed to over more than two decades in prison.

Sure, she’d had to pack up her stuff, but she’d done that “50,000 times,” she says. And true, she’d had to fill out some forms—that was fine, too. She’s more relaxed on paper, she tells me (with an ease that belies her claim.) A “ferocious reader,” as she puts it, she’s accrued more than 80 credits in the Wesleyan University Center for Prison Education initiative, despite the fact she had completed just her GED when she was was sentenced in 1997.

It was the van that set her off. Around her, women shouted and laughed. Jones was silent. “I couldn’t move. I was just sitting there, thinking, ‘I’m stuck.’” When the vehicle stopped, prison staff had to pull her from her seat. Jones had known that her routine would be different now; it’s the reason she hadn’t wanted to be part of the new unit at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut. She liked her schedule, her books, her hours alone.

But staffers who had spent time with Jones were determined. When it was announced that the new initiative would be housed in a renovated unit and emphasize rehabilitation and personal achievement, Jones was pleaded with to consider it. When she brushed off (repeated) entreaties, one lieutenant waited for her post-shift and escorted her to an information session. The unit would be exclusive, open to just 19 women—some mentees between 18 and 25 and some older women, who would serve as mentors. The pilot was to be called WORTH, which stands for Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard Work.And it had some precedent; 50 miles from York, the Cheshire Correctional Institution had launched TRUE, underpinned with the same restorative justice values, in March 2017. (At the time, it was the first unit nationwide to focus on the needs of adults under 25 in prison. Its name, too, is an acronym: Truthfulness to oneself and others, Respect toward the community, Understanding ourselves and what brought us here, Elevating into success.)

At some point, Jones caved. She submitted an application and was accepted. In May 2018, arms wrapped around her TV, she ducked into the van.

Both TRUE and WORTH affect a minuscule population relative to the enormous problem of mass incarceration in the United States, the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over two million people are now locked up in our prisons and jails. WORTH intends to accommodate 50 women, but that’s still a fraction of the female population at York, the lone prison for women in the state.

Even so, researchers believe the programs could have a disproportionate impact. In the battle to combat recidivism (or, a return to crime post-release) those under 25 have become a focal point—at once some of the most violent inmates and the most vulnerable. Studies can’t pinpoint the precise moment at which adult brains develop, but most research finds it doesn’t happen until at least 25. Meanwhile, the experiences of women behind bars receive far less attention, even as the number of incarcerated women between 1980 and 2016 increased seven-fold. Connecticut isn’t the first state to offer unique classes or non-traditional rehabilitation courses to those who’ve been sentenced to time in prison, but the new units are more holistic in their approach.

An experiment in restorative justice, the units test a radical premise: What would happen if we decided that the gravest punishment we could dole out was the revocation of a person’s freedom? What if we believed that to be the harshest sentence—and understood that once we separated people from their homes, their families, their communities, our sole purpose was to prepare them for some eventual return? To the wider populace, the notion sounds lax; prison isn’t a vacation. But what if it were more like rehab? At least 95 percent of all incarcerated people will be released at some point. When the state does so, don’t we want them to be as prepared as possible?

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