Scott Semple has told the story many times. Even so, there’s still a glint in his eye as he talks about the trip he took to Europe that changed the course of his tenure as Connecticut’s correction commissioner, and might just change the U.S. prison system.
In the summer of 2015, Semple traveled to Germany to learn about the way prisoners are treated in that country. It is a system focused more on rehabilitation than punishment. The trip was sponsored by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice and included corrections officials from other states as well as Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. What they saw astonished many on the trip.
In Germany, prisoners cook their own food and don’t wear uniforms. They live in their own rooms with private bathrooms. In some instances they can even leave for work or weekend getaways. As one reporter wrote for The Marshall Project, “except for the razor wire,” the prison “looks like a liberal arts college.” And the system appears to work. Far fewer people are imprisoned in Germany than in the U.S., and those who get out are less likely to return.
During his visit, Semple was particularly impressed by Neustrelitz Prison, a German farm designed to house “emerging adults,” those between ages 18 and 25 whose brains are still developing.
“They started talking about brain development and neuroscience and that this particular population has a tendency to be more impulsive and easily manipulated,” Semple says one morning at his Connecticut home. When he got back from Germany, he studied the 18-to-25 population imprisoned in Connecticut and found there were 3,200 people in that age group incarcerated within state prisons. That amounted to less than a fifth of the state prison population at the time, but it accounted for a quarter of all disciplinary incidents.
Both Semple and Malloy decided they would try to create a prison for emerging adults based on the European model. “The goal was to improve the overall wellness for the staff and offender population. To encourage a cultural shift,” Semple says.
Budget concerns made devoting a facility for 18- to 25-year-olds an impossibility. Instead, they settled for a single cell block that was initially designed to house about 50 people. It seemed small compared to the lofty goal of a dedicated facility, but Semple says, in retrospect, starting small was a blessing in disguise, because it allowed them to get it right. The TRUE unit opened in early 2017 with fewer than 20 men. Even so, it was the beginning of something big.
Over the past few decades a revolution has occurred within Connecticut prisons. In 2008 the state had more than 20,000 people imprisoned and now has just more than 13,000. Since 2013 alone, the population of state prisons has decreased by about 4,000, or more than 20 percent. The TRUE Program has been profiled on 60 Minutes. As a whole, Connecticut’s prison system has become, to borrow wording from
The Connecticut Mirror, “a nationally watched laboratory of reform.” Simultaneously, violent crime in the state has dropped more than 19 percent since 2012, a decreasing crime rate that is second only to New Jersey.
For the past four years, Semple, who stepped down as Connecticut’s correction commissioner in January, has been at the center of much of this positive change in the state’s prisons. It’s a surprising turn of events for a man who in 2014 was ready to retire. In August of that year, after Correction Commissioner James E. Dzurenda departed, Semple, who had been deputy commissioner, was promoted to interim commissioner. However, neither Semple nor Malloy expected the position to be permanent. For one thing, Semple is a Republican. For another, Malloy wanted to go with an outside candidate. On top of that, Semple wasn’t even interested in the job. He had worked in corrections in the state since the 1980s, was already eligible for his pension and felt his career was winding down.
Then tragedy struck Semple’s family.
Semple and his wife Christa’s only child, Matthew, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Matthew was 15. Initially this made Semple even less interested in the commissioner position. “I really just wanted to focus on the health of our child and my family,” he says.
But Malloy was increasingly impressed with Semple. The governor’s top adviser on criminal justice, Mike Lawlor, knew Semple from their time in the General Assembly, and recommended him to lead the Correction Department. “I talked to the governor and said the perfect guy to run the Department of Correction would be Scott Semple,” says Lawlor, now an associate professor at the University of New Haven. “He’s very well respected by the rank-and-file correctional staff, and by the union, which is very important.”
As Semple’s son received treatment, his wife encouraged Semple to keep his job, as did Malloy. “He was ready to retire and leave employment and I prevailed on him to take as much time as he needed to address his family needs, but come back when he was ready,” Malloy says. “I basically told him I wouldn’t let him retire.”
However, it wasn’t the governor who convinced Semple not to retire. It was his son. “Essentially, he said you don’t like being bossed around so you might as well be the boss. That inspired me to take this on,” Semple recalls.
Matthew died on Jan. 1, 2015. Three weeks later Malloy named Semple commissioner, removing the “interim” tag. The loss of Matthew made Semple more determined in his new position. “When the worst thing in your life has happened, you can’t hurt me,” he says. “So I decided that I was going to take a very bold approach and move quickly.”
Since Malloy became governor in 2011, he made criminal justice a priority. Marijuana possession was decriminalized (which alone led to about 6,000 fewer arrests per year). The age of juvenile jurisdiction in criminal cases was increased from 16 to 18. And one of Malloy’s signature pieces of legislation, the Second Chance Society Bill, loosened mandatory minimums for drug possession and made it easier for those convicted of nonviolent crimes to be granted parole.
Under Semple, prison reform would get an additional boost. As Malloy puts it: “I had three very good corrections commissioners who allowed the system, each in their own way, to evolve, although, quite frankly, Scott was a superstar.”
Almost immediately, Semple began introducing a series of reforms he’d come to refer to as “pillars.” One looked at release policies. “At the time you had 16 operating facilities, this was in the beginning of 2016, and [there were] 16 different wardens with 16 different perspectives on how to make appropriate determinations for release and what type of stipulations needed to be applied in order for that person to be properly managed in the community,” Semple says. “I thought that was problematic because different people have different perceptions of how to manage people.”
The department found that people with similar histories were being treated differently. “So we melded that into one unit,” Semple says. “So it was one-stop shopping and there was more continuity in decision making and assessment needs. Ultimately what happened was we are able to be more aligned to making sure that people with similar criminal backgrounds were managed in the same way. Not only did that happen, but because we put resources into one unit, they were able to review a lot more cases than had been previously reviewed.”
This led to a decline in incarceration numbers.
Another pillar was re-entry. An existing correction facility was converted to the Cybulski Community Reintegration Center, to help prepare offenders for re-entry into society. “We created a therapeutic milieu where the population was provided with re-entry skills and tools that they needed to be successful to go back out to the community,” Semple says.
Other pillars included reforming the state’s parole system and incentivizing prisoners to move from maximum- to lower-security prisons. Together these pillars helped state officials do a better job recognizing prisoners who should be released and those who should remain incarcerated.
Amid implementing these new policies, in the summer of 2015, Semple and Malloy took that influential trip to Germany.
After Germany, Semple began working with the Vera Institute of Justice to open a pilot program dedicated to creating a better prison environment for emerging adults. Cheshire Correctional Institution was selected as the spot for that program, which would eventually be called the TRUE unit, an acronym for Truthfulness (to oneself and others), Respectfulness (toward the community), Understanding (ourselves and what brought us here), and Elevating (into success).
Cheshire is a level 4 facility that, in general, lives up to the toughness implied by its nickname, “the Rock.” The prison’s warden at the time, Scott Erfe, who is now district administrator within corrections, was initially skeptical of the concept.
“My first reaction was not that positive, to say the least,” Erfe says. Over time Erfe became a believer and had one of the defining ideas for the unit. “I started thinking about how we’re going to make this work. Because we wear badges — staff wears badges — we’re automatically the enemy.” He knew they’d need to break down this us-versus-them mentality. In the past he’d been struck by the impression that “lifers,” longtime prisoners with no end to their sentences in sight, had on at-risk youths. He wondered what would happen if they utilized lifers who had made positive changes while incarcerated as mentors. This was something that was not part of the German model, and after hearing the suggestion, it was Semple’s turn to be skeptical.
“All the science tells you not to do that,” Semple says. But as he gave it more thought, he wondered if the science was inconclusive. “Although there’s a lot of science about brain development in emerging adults and things like that, there’s not a lot of information available as it pertains to incarcerated populations. I gave in and said, ‘OK, let’s try it.’ ”
With inmates chosen through an application process, the unit opened in 2017 on a small scale. After a week there was no incident. After a month, no incidents. Three months, no incidents. In Germany they accept that this age group is impulsive and that incidents are unavoidable. Semple expected fights to break out. “I was kind of dumbfounded that we weren’t experiencing acts of impulsivity. I was waiting for the ball to drop,” he says. Two years later, it hasn’t. There have been no fights and virtually no incidents at the unit. It recently doubled in size to include an adjoining cell block and has inspired imitations at other prisons in Connecticut and beyond. In Niantic, the Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard Work (WORTH) Unit launched in 2018 at the York Correctional Institution. Out of state, pilot programs modeled on TRUE have been launched in South Carolina and Massachusetts prisons. Semple, who now works as a prison consultant, is hoping to expand the concept on a national scale, and expects 10 more jurisdictions around the country to implement similar programs in the near future.
Semple believes TRUE’s success is largely due to the mentorship program. “The only thing that we did differently from Germany was the mentorship piece, and I really believe that has a lot to do with why we were able to impact the rate of incidence.” Semple adds that the unit’s application process seeks out “people who are willing to be accountable to themselves. If we simply choose people who are not problematic, it would make no sense.”
In the fall of 2018, Semple traveled to Germany and Norway on a trip, once again, sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice. This time Semple was there to help teach other U.S. officials about the European prison model and to share strategies on how Connecticut had begun to implement it. He also told officials from Germany and Norway about TRUE. They were impressed. The unit’s low incident rate is unprecedented, even in Europe. “They were intrigued by some of the nuances we implemented. Specifically, the use of mentors,” Semple says. Shortly after the trip, prison officials from both countries traveled to Connecticut to see how the emerging-adult concept had been implemented here and what they could learn from it.
Prior to visiting the TRUE unit this spring, I read many articles about it and watched the 60 Minutes segment. I also talked to several of those who had developed it, including Semple, at length. None of that prepared me for what it was like. Far from the grim atmosphere you find elsewhere at Cheshire, the TRUE unit is, in a word, chill.
The guards are relaxed. The prisoners are relaxed. The member of the correction department communications team who escorts me is relaxed, and I’m relaxed.
This is different from other prisons, both the guards and several men incarcerated here tell me. Different in a palpable way. “You feel less stressed,” says Amy Faraci, the unit manager. “You don’t feel like you’re always on the edge waiting for something to happen.”
Those who work in the unit receive special training, as do the mentors. The setup is as sparse as you’d expect for a prison, but that relaxed vibe still makes it feel more like a community center. The men incarcerated can go into and out of their cells as they please for most of the day. They are not limited in the time they have outdoors. They interact constantly with staff and have a say in what happens in the unit, which has its own economic ecosystem, with various jobs, job training and its own monetary system. This helps teach responsibility and rewards entrepreneurship. But something deeper appears to be happening here, something that goes beyond programs or policies.
Jaquarius Carter, 24, an inmate from Bridgeport convicted of armed robbery, says general population is a “big pie of division.” In the TRUE unit, everyone is working as a team. Before entering the unit, people must sign an agreement, which begins, “I agree to leave all gang or other group affiliations and loyalties at the door for the duration I am in the TRUE unit.”
Carter is mentored by Clyde Miekle, 47, of Hartford, and Isschar Howard, 40, of New Haven. Both men are serving long sentences for murder, and both hope to help Carter avoid the mistakes that brought them here.
“There’s nothing I learned here that wasn’t told to me before,” Carter says. But when he gets advice from his mentors, it carries more weight than it has from past teachers who did not understand his world. “You’re teaching me about Shakespeare and I’m worried about what I’m going to eat,” he says. He adds that his mentors “say something to me every day that gets me so mad, because they’re right.”
A recent example: Carter was having a debate with a guard. “To me, I’m debating, but my body language is giving off all sorts of aggression.” Afterward, his mentors took him aside and showed him how threatening his body language appeared.
For the mentors, working with men like Carter is a profound chance at redemption, or some form of it. “You can see your life in theirs,” Miekle says.
Howard adds, “I did a lot of terrible things and nothing can ever change that.” But he says if he does good things through TRUE, nothing will ever change that either, and he can have the “narrative to say I did both.”
Semple says it’s too soon to see what effect the program will have on recidivism. “One thing we should keep in mind, a year from now the results may come back that recidivism may not be impacted at all,” Semple says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a failure. I think what you also have to look at, is to measure what harm looks like. The circumstances that get somebody incarcerated in the first place, more often than not, involve victimization [a crime that has a direct victim]. Maybe some people return and [their crime] doesn’t involve victimization. To me that’s also a success.”
Semple stepped down as commissioner this past January, days before Ned Lamont succeeded Malloy as governor. Lamont has promised to build on the social justice reforms of the Malloy administration, and Semple says his decision to step down had nothing to do with not wishing to work with Lamont, who, like Malloy, is a Democrat. Instead, Semple says he took the job initially because he felt he owed it to his son, but that debt has been paid. Semple went into the office for the last time on Jan. 1 to mark the anniversary of his son’s death.
Before Semple left, Lamont asked him to provide internal and external recommendations for a successor. Among the names he provided was Rollin Cook. The former executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections, Cook, like Semple, is a nationally recognized prison reformer. In Utah, he earned the praise of the ACLU and the state’s Republican governor. In December, Cook was named Connecticut’s new correction commissioner.
Cook says he has long been impressed with the reforms enacted in Connecticut. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime for me to continue to push these progressive ideas,” he says. He adds that his philosophy in general is, “Being incarcerated is the punishment,” but the goal should always be “to help those folks rather than just warehouse people.” Cook and Lamont both toured the TRUE unit shortly after taking office, and Cook met with members of Connecticut’s ACLU and plans on meeting with them regularly.
Discussing what still needs to be done in Connecticut, both Cook and Semple separately use the same phrase: there’s no more low-hanging fruit. In other words, future high-impact reforms will require investments and further collaboration with the legislature.
This legislative session there were several proposed bills linked to prison reform, including one that would outlaw discrimination against people for employment, housing and in other areas based solely on their criminal record. Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut is supporting the Clean Slate Act, which would automatically expunge the records of people with nonviolent records after they’ve remained crime free for a number of years.
Semple says more needs to be done to help those with records succeed when they are released. “Society needs to change its perspective on how to deal with the stigma of incarceration,” he says. “I think the notion of ‘do the time for the crime and all is forgiven,’ really needs to apply itself. We need to give formerly incarcerated people some semblance of hope that they can move on with their lives post incarceration.”
He also believes education needs to play a bigger role in prison reform.
“If you have been in the system and have an eighth-grade education or lower, within two years, the likelihood of you to come back is around 72 percent. If you do have an education of ninth grade or above the likelihood of coming back within 24 months is reduced by 31 percent,” he says. Currently, Connecticut’s prison system has relationships with four community colleges, one of which has an association with Wesleyan. But Semple says educational opportunities need to be expanded.
He would also like to see U.S. prisons rethink the full-time incarceration model. “If you think about incarceration in this country, we only know one way. It’s seven days a week, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day,” he says. “What if we became more versatile in how we apply justice?”
He envisions a pilot program that would allow carefully screened, nonviolent offenders to work in the day and come back at night. “You would think, wow, that’s pretty unique. [But] it happens in Germany, it happens in other parts of Europe. It’s called the open-prison concept.” It also used to happen right here. “Connecticut did it in the early ’70s and ’80s,” he says. Even so, it sounds too outlandish for Connecticut or most U.S. states today. But then again, so did housing youth offenders in an open environment where they would receive guidance from older offenders. Or at least it did at first.