November 6, 2018
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How young women are building promise in a Connecticut prison

An innovative new program aims to restore a sense of self worth in women's lives through mentorship, education, and self-expression

W.O.R.T.H., which stands for Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard Work, is a new approach to education at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut. Photo by Connecticut Mirror

The sound of laughter must have roused the curiosity of the corrections officers.

One by one they popped their heads around the corner, with a slight smirk or quizzical look on their face, as if they felt like they were missing out and wanted to take part in what was going on.

The laughter they heard came from incarcerated women, who were participating in one of multiple trainings that would help them prepare to be part of a new approach to working with young people, ages 18-25, at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut. The women were chosen through a competitive application process to be mentors at the W.O.R.T.H. unit, which stands for Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard Work.

That day, there was laughter. There was excitement. There was hope. Hope for what was to come. It was inspiring to witness, and the time these mentors spent together provided a well-needed release as they anxiously anticipated the start of their new jobs. At the end of that training, each person reflected on their day—laughing and talking honestly about the challenges they and the young women they are committed to supporting are facing. It was important that everyone had a chance to share—to know that they have a voice, and that they are unique.

W.O.R.T.H. is truly the first-of-its-kind in a women’s prison. With support from Vera’s Restoring Promise team, the young adult unit was modeled off of its brother, T.R.U.E.— our pilot unit at Connecticut’s Cheshire Correctional institute, which has operated for over a year without a single act of violence. The mentors and staff at York brought the W.O.R.T.H name to life—putting in countless hours of hard work in partnership with Vera’s Restoring Promise team to ensure that the unit is a success: It prioritizes family engagement, self-expression, peer support, personal growth and development, education, and career readiness.

The W.O.R.T.H. unit inside the prison is a space that fosters healing and accountability over punishment. Photo by the Vera Institute of Justice

Every aspect of W.O.R.T.H.’s design intentionally embodies the spirit of the “human dignity principle”—the concept that every human being possesses an intrinsic worth, merely by being human. From its culture to its physical environment to its daily routine, W.O.R.T.H. was re-purposed, designed, and transformed from a vacant, old unit inside the prison to become a space that fosters healing and accountability over punishment.

The hard work of everyone involved paid off, and last month Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy and First Lady Cathy Malloy presided over a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Though media were in attendance, the day was really about the amazingly dedicated facility leadership, living unit staff, mentors, and the first cohort of mentees. There was this sense of optimism and community in the air at W.O.R.T.H. that is so uncharacteristic of a U.S. prison. “When they leave this place, they don’t have to settle. They can go forth,” said one of the mentors about why she’s dedicated herself to guiding the young women there.

It’s restorative—both for the people who live and who work there.

This story first appeared on the Vera Institute for Justice’s Think Justice Blog.

Ryan Shanahan, Alex Frank, and Matthew Lowen

Vera Institute of Justice

Ryan Shanahan is Research Director, Alex Frank is Project Director, and Matthew Lowen is Senior Program Associate at the Vera Institute of Justice. The Dispatches from W.O.R.T.H. blog series takes you behind the scenes of a new and innovative model at Connecticut’s York Correctional Institution: a unit that reimagines incarceration for young women aged 18-25. Over the next few months, you can visit their homepage where you’ll hear from staff, mentors, Vera’s team—which is supporting the program’s implementation—and the young women living in W.O.R.T.H.