It sounds like the first line of a joke: "Three state corrections teams and some experts who are old hands at visiting prisons go to meet their warden counterparts in Germany and the Netherlands in mid-January to see what they could learn."
But it's a true story — and what high-level delegations from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania learned through the Vera Institute of Justice's European-American Prison Project is no laughing matter. What we learned, in fact, has serious and timely boots-on-the-ground implications.
Twenty years after the 1994 federal Crime Bill led to an upsurge in prison construction and punitive tough-on-crime sentencing measures, our national conversation around crime and punishment has shifted significantly. It is bipartisan. It is occurring in Congress and statehouses. Energy for reform is focused primarily on reducing sentence lengths, narrowing the population that goes to prison, and better preparing those who are leaving for reintegration.
A new report from the National Academy of Sciences, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, is an important marker highlighting the profound racial and ethnic dimensions of our system, one in which 34 percent of state and federal prisoners in 2011 were black, though they made up only 13 percent of the U.S. population in the last census; 22 percent were Latinos, who comprised 17 percent of the population. It is a criminal justice system that perpetuates a poverty trap in which black men under age 35 who do not finish high school are more likely to be behind bars than employed.
In addition to recommending policy changes that would limit rates of incarceration, the National Academies report also recommends improving the experience of incarceration and the harms associated with it — which extend beyond bars to the already suffering communities that prisoners and their families come from.
All of this brings us to an important meta-question taken up by the report: what is the role of incarceration at a time when how we incarcerate achieves little of what we know works to stop reoffending and create stronger people and stronger and safer communities?
For those of us who visited Germany and The Netherlands, the approach to sentencing and the prison philosophy we saw astonished and inspired us. Not only are far fewer people imprisoned, but even those who have committed serious violent crimes serve far shorter sentences.
In these European countries, prisons are organized around the belief that, since virtually all prisoners will return to their communities, it is better to approach their incarceration with conditions as close to "normal" as possible--with the addition of treatment, behavioral interventions, skills training, and needed education — and to remove them from communities for the shortest possible time so that institutional life does not become their norm.
Inmates live in rooms and sleep in beds, not on concrete or steel slabs with thin padding. Inmates have privacy — correctional officers knock before entering — they wear their own clothes, and can decorate their space as they wish. They cook their own meals, are paid for work that they do, and have opportunities to visit family, learn skills, and gain education. Inmates are required to save money to ensure that they are not penniless upon release. There are different expectations for their corrections officers — who are drawn primarily from the ranks of lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals — to be part of a "therapeutic culture" between staff and offenders, and consequently receive more training and higher pay. There is little to no violence — including in communal kitchens where there are knives and other "dangerous" implements. And their maximum time in any kind of punitive solitary is eight hours.
Prison policies grounded in the belief that prisoners should be treated with dignity were startlingly effective — and have eminently pragmatic implications here at home. The adverse social and economic outcomes for former prisoners in the U.S. are severe--and they are concentrated in communities that are already struggling mightily. With 95 percent of our nation's incarcerated individuals eventually returning home from prison — and 40 percent going right back to prison within three years — we would do well to heed the strategies used in these nations to teach prisoners how to be good and productive citizens that can rebuild their communities.
One cannot be re-socialized or rehabilitated if there is little or no opportunity to interact with the free world, whether through employment, family engagement, or study. And if, within three decades, we will be a country that is majority people of color, isn't it imperative that we do everything in our power to reduce the pernicious and debilitating impact of our criminal justice system on the economic agency of the people we will ultimately rely upon to fuel the nation's economy?
Can we re-imagine American prisons and their use? Yes. Pennsylvania is a system with some 51,000 inmates and 16,000 staff that reflects the racial disparities of the nation as a whole (one in every 58 black residents and one in every 129 Latino residents are incarcerated, compared to one in every 505 white residents). We have started to roll out "transitional units" in each facility for people within six months to a year of release, and we are piloting some of the normalization and reentry practices seen in Europe. We are also re-structuring our basic training for officers, emphasizing communications skills, motivational interviewing techniques, conflict resolution, and mental health first-aid training to begin to give officers the tools to be change agents. Vera and Pennsylvania are also working together to effectively and safely reduce the use of solitary confinement.
Approaches such as these can be implemented and tested in American prisons with a small cohort of the population or test piloted at different security levels. These pilots can be tied to incentive programs or units that may already exist.
Are there challenges to wholesale reform? Of course. Money. Infrastructure. Strains of racial division borne of our history and heterogeneity. And, cultural differences especially as relates to violence may mean that some European practices may not translate smoothly to the U.S. Yet we are at a moment of potential for significant shifts. It will require legislation and policy change, including rethinking sentencing for lower offenses and reducing the time for those who must be in prison. But the notion that we should strive to create an environment within our prisons conducive to our goal — to return good citizens to our communities — is a challenge we can and must meet.
Nicholas Turner is president of the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent nonprofit center for justice policy and practice. John Wetzel is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.