This story was originally published by The Marshall Project, a We Are Not Divided collaborator.

Despite their names, state “departments of correction” in the United States aren’t known for correcting much. More than seven of every 10 prisoners, according to some studies, are arrested again less than four years after they are released. And while recent years have seen the beginning of a national decline in the number of male prisoners, the situation has not improved much for women, who remain incarcerated at stubbornly high levels.

Connecticut is trying to push back by focusing on one group that is especially likely to return to prison: young women, ages 18 to 25.

It began in the summer of 2015, when Scott Semple, who runs the Connecticut state prison system, spent a week visiting prisons in Germany. Two American nonprofit organizations have been running such trips in recent years, and they have helped to inspire a handful of prison reform experiments in both red and blue states. The goal is to promote rehabilitation by mimicking the European emphasis on personal dignity. For example, Pennsylvania is teaching corrections officers to think like therapists, while North Dakota has been giving prisoners keys so they can lock their own doors.

Correctional Officer Hastings shoots hoops with a few of the residents at York Correctional Institution. Credit: Karsten Moran for The Marshall Project

Semple was especially struck by a German prison for young adults, in which men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 were housed in a verdant compound that resembled a liberal arts college. They were given intensive therapy and training in trades like welding and farming.

Neuroscience studies have shown that our brains keep developing well into our third decade, meaning people in their early twenties can still exhibit the impulsiveness and poor decision-making we associate with teenagers — ask any parent or insurance company about this — but are also especially receptive to help. With this in mind, Washington State has raised to 25 the age of considering an offender a juvenile for some crimes, while Chicago and San Francisco have created specialized young adult courts.

Since his trip to Germany, Semple has put Connecticut at the forefront of efforts to bring such ideas into prisons. Last year, the state started a program for young men called TRUE, at the Cheshire Correctional Institution. Officials from South Carolina and Massachusetts have visited and started young adult programs of their own.

The newest program, called Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard Work, or WORTH for short, began in June at the York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in eastern Connecticut. There are currently 14 women who live with 10 older mentors, who are also serving time. Together, they are given wide latitude to develop the program themselves. The days are packed for the younger women with counseling, classes and addiction help, giving them a version of parenting they may have lacked.

Officers are trained to talk to the women about their traumas and vulnerabilities. There is an emphasis on planning for a crime-free life after release: everyone has a job inside, and they apply for a new one every two weeks, meaning they get frequent opportunities to interview and write resumes.

The Vera Institute of Justice, which has been helping prisons set up programs like these, pushes the administrators to ask the prisoners what kinds of assistance they need. The organization creates surveys for the staff and prisoners, and then holds meetings to unpack the results and design classes and routines. Even giving the prisoners a tiny bit of control can influence the way they think about themselves. When they were setting up WORTH, “there was a heated debate about how they’d do laundry,” says Alex Frank, a project director at Vera. “Does everyone do their own? Do we assign two people? It was very much self-governance.” Inspirational quotes adorn walls covered in chalkboard paint, paper flowers sit atop meal tables, and in the big outside yard, the women often play basketball with the officers, which is rare in other prisons.

Vanessa Alvarado presents information about alcohol during a Tier II Addiction Services Group meeting on Friday afternoon. Credit: Karsten Moran for The Marshall Project

“I’m the president of the health and wellness committee here,” Lauren Karpisz, 24, says. “We’re starting to have exercise classes a few times a week and will post healthy recipes using food items from the commissary.” She wants to organize a prison version of the cooking competition show Chopped.

Karpisz is serving three years for her role in an assault on a 53-year-old man during a home invasion and attempted robbery in Waterbury. “I’m a drug addict,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I was on drugs, and seeking more drugs, and somebody was hurt.” In the WORTH program she began to explore how she’d gotten there. She now explained that she had been prescribed medication for chronic pain from a young age, and had drifted toward heroin.

It wasn’t an excuse, but an explanation that could serve as the basis for change. All of the young women here are encouraged to articulate how circumstances and their own decisions combined to produce their crimes. They are given guidance on how to handle their emotions without reacting impulsively.

“We don’t have to hide behind our attitudes here,” says Jazmine Ortiz, 20, who is in prison for a probation violation stemming from more serious crimes committed as a juvenile. “We have the opportunity to open up to the mentors. They know what to look for when we seem shy or isolated.” When there is a disagreement, the women sit in a circle and “work through it like a family would.”

“We don’t have to hide behind our attitudes here. We have the opportunity to open up to the mentors.”

This hasn’t necessarily been comfortable for the officers, many of whom are used to an environment in which rules are ironclad and nobody is encouraged to share feelings or life histories. But a few have taken to their new role as quasi-therapists and social workers. When Lt. Russell Hanes learned that one young woman would get nervous when men were behind her — owing to earlier abuse in a relationship — he encouraged other officers to tell her when they were approaching. “Staff had to give inmates a chance, but inmates had to give staff a chance, too,” Jeffrey Zegarzewski, a deputy warden, says.

Plenty of staff members and prisoners think the program is too permissive and unlikely to change the behavior of the young women. The corresponding program for young men has been in place for a year. It is credited for a reported drop in prison violence, but not enough people have been released from any of these programs to indicate whether they will reduce recidivism. One study found that less than half of Germans released from prison are convicted again within three years, though not for crimes serious enough to bring them back to prison. In the same time frame, more than two-thirds of Americans are arrested again. But scholars caution against direct comparisons, because the countries differ radically not only in prison conditions but also in sentencing practices and definitions of what constitutes crime.

These new programs are expensive, too. At its current capacity, WORTH will involve roughly six officers overseeing 60 women, while in other parts of the prison two officers may oversee 90. The department originally wanted to convert an entire prison for young male adults, but couldn’t afford it. Connecticut officials have not issued a comparison of the cost per resident between the new and old approaches.

Lieutenant Russell Hanes, left, and counselor Colleen McClay, in bright red at center, chat with residents. Credit: Karsten Moran for The Marshall Project

What’s most striking about this program is hearing prison officials talk about a newfound sense of purpose. They no longer reduce success to statistics about arrests or disciplinary infractions. They tell stories of individuals gaining control of their lives and reconnecting with estranged family members.

And they use the word “dignity” a lot, much like their counterparts in Europe. They take pride in the idea that they are truly a department of correction.

“Sometimes when I’m having a bad day, I hop in the car and visit one of these units,” Semple said. “Can you measure that? No, but you can feel it.”

It was weeks until my release, and I couldn’t believe how fast time was flying by. I had spent close to 13 years in prison, and I was actually about to go home. It just didn’t feel real. I had so many plans and aspirations. I was convinced that I was going to succeed. But for this success to mean what I thought it should, I was clear about one thing: I was going to redefine myself, independent from my past.

You see, once you’ve been to prison, society has a way of deciding how you’ll be perceived. But I wasn’t just worried about discrimination; I was worried about being undervalued. I didn’t want to brand myself as a “formerly incarcerated person.” No offense intended to those who do, but I wanted people to value me for my talent, not use my incarceration as an entry point.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that in redefining myself so adamantly apart from my past, I would cut myself off from a portion of my life that played a significant role in the person who I have become. It would leave a significant void. Sure, I would encounter discrimination by connecting with my past, but I also stumbled upon a world of empathy, understanding, support and amazement.

I got my first hint of this the day after my release when I stopped by a Capital One bank branch to open a checking account. I went into the bank with all of the necessary documentation, including a temporary learner’s permit from the DMV I had gotten an hour earlier, and my New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision “Released” ID card. 

Uncertain of the reaction I’d get as I handed over the ID to the banker, I said, “I know this might be strange, but…” Before I could get any further she responded, “It’s not strange at all. My brother is upstate right now.” Upstate meaning one of the prisons in upstate New York. “I’m hoping he’ll be like you and do something different when he comes back this time.” Because of that connection, she went above and beyond to be helpful to me that day.

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    Sometimes we forget about the sheer number of Americans whose lives have been touched by mass incarceration. Casual interactions like this point to a sobering fact: In the U.S., incarceration is no longer strange, especially in Black and brown communities. Some 44 percent of Black women and 32 percent of Black men have a family member who has been in prison, and that doesn’t even include friends, neighbors and acquaintances. 

    But knowing this, and even having had experiences like the one at the bank, did not convince me that I needed to rethink my mission to break with my past. Within a month of being home, I took an exam I had studied for while I was in prison to become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. I thought this “higher level” certification would make me stand out, even though the truth is that strength coaching was a craft that I had learned and refined while in prison. But I was on a mission. So I went to every gym I could find, I mentored, I worked, and after less than a year, I found my way into one of the top strength gyms in New York City, JDI Barbell. 

    alex hall
    Credit: Lucy Chrysiliou

    I developed close relationships with members and lifters, but I didn’t tell them about my past. In fact the owner of JDI Barbell asked me not to. I had no issue with it, and obviously neither did he — he had hired me, after all — but he thought that members didn’t necessarily need to know. That was fine with me. I didn’t want to be a good formerly incarcerated coach, remember. I just wanted to be a good coach. 

    Then, I got an Instagram notification. A member had messaged me. I clicked the message open and my heart skipped a beat. She had sent me a link to the first article I wrote for Reasons to be Cheerful, an article about getting my college degree while serving my time in prison. 

    “I thought this was you,” she had written. I wrote back and confirmed that it was me without hesitation — I wasn’t living a lie — but still, my stomach was knotty while I awaited her response. Finally, I got the alert: a new message. “I think this is amazing!!” she wrote. 

    I began to wonder if I was so preoccupied with not letting my incarceration define me professionally that I was letting it control me personally.

    Despite trying to redefine myself in a professional space, my past wasn’t a secret — I was open about it whenever it came up, clear about my mistakes, my role, who I was and who I am. Yet it was clear that I was living a sort of paradox, and I began to wonder if I was so preoccupied with not letting my incarceration define me professionally that I was letting it control me personally. My member’s response made me rethink my approach to talking about my past. It made me think that I should embrace my story more — not the story of my crime, but the story of my journey. 

    By doing so, I found warm receptions in unexpected places. Along with my work as a strength coach, I entered another professional setting. I was hired by the directors of an education company called Velocity Career Start who sought me out specifically for my experience in prison — not to flaunt it, but because the directors believed deeply that my experience made me the right fit for this program. While inside, I had studied education, tutored my peers and earned a bachelor’s degree through the Bard Prison Initiative. My experience fit the bill uniquely. I didn’t need to sing and dance my way around my past. 

    While I share these stories of positivity, I don’t want you to think it was all peachy. My past has surely brought discrimination, the type that comes as a package deal with a felony. When I went looking for my first apartment, I made the mistake of telling the management company why I didn’t have two years of tax returns to show. Do you think I got a call back? Let’s just say I never made that mistake again. 

    alex hall
    Credit: Lucy Chrysiliou

    Another defining moment for me is when a woman I was seeing — one who was deeply embedded in the social justice space — didn’t want to see me anymore after finding out about my past. As connected to the idea of humanity as I thought she was, she never wanted to know what happened, never cared to ask me a thing. Her mind was made up at the thought of a crime I had committed nearly 15 years ago. Experiences like these almost led me down another road. They made me fearful of sharing my experiences because I could still be punished for things I could not change. 

    But it became clear to me that I had to overcome this fear. A significant enough portion of my life occurred in prison that omitting it complicated my responses to even the most innocent questions: Where did you go to college? Where did you start lifting weights? Do you remember where you were when this song came out? The answer to all of these seemingly innocent questions is the same: “I was in prison.” There was no way I would be satisfied with a pure omission of some of my proudest moments merely because they happened in an unconventional setting.

    So my dissatisfaction led me toward what I consider a middle way. When omitting my past feels disingenuous, I don’t do it. I share my story, and I believe deeply that the people I lose in the process simply weren’t meant to be there. I’m content with that. 

    Ever since I have taken this approach, the acceptance that I have felt has been nearly unimaginable. People are often surprised: I never would have guessed. You don’t fit my idea about what a person who has spent time in prison looks like. Everyone has a cloud over their head in some way. We all have a story. Some of these statements may seem short-sighted. What does a formerly incarcerated person look, feel, or smell like? Not like me? Well, great! Thanks! But all jokes aside, I feel like I have broken stereotypes, opened people’s minds and helped to start conversations that we should be having. Even more, I have established deep and lasting connections with people who share my experience in some way.

    For example, I was talking to a person who I recently hired to do some plumbing work. I asked him where he picked up the trade and it turned into a conversation about him being a knucklehead and spending some time in prison. “I did some time myself,” I told him. It was an instant connection. Now he is my go-to guy for construction. If either of us had been scared to have that conversation, that never would have happened.

    alex hall
    Credit: Marcelino Rodriguez

    But not every conversation is that easy, and it doesn’t mean I am an open book. I constantly make choices. Recently, I was talking to a group of members and friends at JDI Barbell. We started talking about where we were the moment we realized Trump would win the 2016 election. I chose not to contribute. It was an organic omission, and no one thought it was odd, but I made the choice. If I’d spoken up, it would have turned a session of jokes into a moment of surprise and uncertainty. I wasn’t in the mood, so I let that one go. But I’ll tell you guys where I was: in the basement of my cellblock at Eastern Correctional Facility watching the TV, just as shocked as each of you were. 

    We all have choices. I have found a way to be content with mine.