The Connecticut Experiment

Young brains are still evolving. One prison is trying to take advantage of that.

A pilot program called TRUE at Cheshire Correctional Institution represents the edge of experimentation for prison officials trying to help a population — young adults, roughly 18-25 — long known as the most likely to end up in prison and to commit more crimes after their release. Public officials have recently started to listen to neuroscientists who say the developing brains of young adults are still prone to impulse. They’re not juveniles under the law, but like younger teens, their minds are plastic and receptive to change. Vermont is raising the age of who is considered a “youthful offender” to 21, Washington is allowing certain crimes committed by those up to 25 to stay in juvenile courts, legislators in Texas are studying how “gaps in services” contribute to crime among 17- to 25-year-olds, and Chicago and San Francisco have set up special courts for young adults.

Uniquely, Connecticut is focusing attention on young men who are already in prison. Inspired by a youth prison in Germany, the state has placed about 50 of them in a single unit, along with a small group of older prisoners who serve as mentors. Many American prisons have classes, jobs, and rehabilitative programs, at least on paper. But in the TRUE program, the older prisoners have been granted the trust and latitude to develop a radically different environment, somewhere between family and reformatory, with strict rules, incentives and long days of work and study. The young men go through a series of stages, learning to confront their pasts, to be vulnerable around their peers, to resolve conflicts through communication instead of violence, and to master basic life skills they may have missed, such as managing a personal budget.

It’s too soon to tell what this experiment will yield. The program is tiny, encompassing only two percent of their age group in the Connecticut prison system, and much of its early success relies on the particular men involved. Though it has curbed violence inside the prison — and though none of the nine men released from the program have been incarcerated for new crimes — the real test will come over the next few years as the department tries to expand the program and participants return home in larger numbers.

Left-leaning supporters of prisoner rehabilitation tend to talk about the social and economic forces that lead to crime, while conservatives focus on personal responsibility and poor choices. These two approaches are not in conflict in the ethos of the TRUE program: a bad environment causes bad decisions, but it’s up to you to rise above it.

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