During dinnertime in Jen Porter’s childhood home in Bountiful, Utah, her parents often served healthy portions of piping hot debate. Topics included United States–Iran relations and the nuclear arms race, but she remembers losing her appetite one evening when discussion turned to America’s prison system. The idea that prisoners who have served their terms are routinely released in the middle of the night “with 10 bucks and a ‘good luck’ ” angered Porter, who was 12 years old at the time. She remembers storming away from the table “in a fury” to write her congressman.
Now 26, and armed with a Harvard M.B.A., Porter intends to put her simmering indignation to good use. She and her collaborator, onetime corporate lawyer Jane Wilson, have launched the Reset Foundation, an organization to create and fund what would be the first nonprofit private prison for adults. With a focus on education and re-entry support, Reset plans to open its first “campus” in California this winter, followed by a second pilot project in New York next year.
Porter and Wilson, who were introduced by a mutual friend in 2012, immediately bonded over a belief that the country’s criminal justice system devotes scant resources toward preparing prisoners for life upon their release, yielding what they believe to be disastrous results. Wilson, long a volunteer teacher in prisons, knew all too well the nation’s staggering recidivism rate — more than two out of three criminals are rearrested within three years after release — and outlined detailed proposals to reduce it. Months later, she quit her lucrative law firm job in Manhattan and invited Porter, who had previously worked at the venture philanthropy fund New Profit Inc. in Boston, to help start Reset.
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Though many prisons already offer inmates some classes, typically GED prep courses, education is “peripheral to the culture,” says Porter, over apple strudel one recent morning at a Manhattan café. Porter points out that most prisons limit education to just an “hour or two” per day of static lectures, the same approach that failed to enthrall most inmates during high school; a vast majority of prisoners are high school dropouts, a fact Porter says proves that a different approach is sorely needed. As detailed in Reset’s business plan, education in a typical prison might benefit inmates but “gains are all too often undercut” upon the return to a harsh and frequently violent setting.
Reset’s co-founders approached multiple counties in California to win approval for their pilot project. Porter says a deal with a government partner is impending and feels confident enough to spend plenty of time poking around motels, mothballed schools and military barracks to hunt for an ideal site; prisoner-students will ultimately live in secure architect-designed facilities that mimic college campuses instead of cement cells.
Reset’s co-founders foresee county courts offering convicted criminals the chance to serve their sentence at the experimental institution. It’s not a far-fetched scenario; courts commonly sentence drug offenders battling addiction to mandatory rehab, and localities in California are in the market for fresh ideas. In 2011, federal courts ordered California to alleviate overcrowding in state prisons. The state then shifted a slew of state prisoners to county jails. The result: overcrowding at many smaller institutions, which struggle to cope with an influx of inmates.
Reset recently hired an experienced director of academics to develop its curriculum, which will be customized for each student-prisoner. The organization is also on the verge of announcing a partnership with an established charter school to help run its inaugural institution and provide accreditation to graduates.
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The proposed day and evening schedule of learning is not for slackers. Reset’s candidates — limited to men between the ages of 18 and 24, who are serving one- to three-year sentences for crimes not of a violent or sexual nature — must demonstrate the “personal motivation to succeed.” Life skills workshops, such as lessons on parenting and anger management, will start at eight in the morning, followed by two hours of literacy and basic math education. Students then take a career class to learn workplace skills like using computers or writing memos. Lunch might be served with a mentoring session. In the afternoons, students will tackle projects focused on the humanities or science. And the opportunities for education do not end in the evening. Students receive one-on-one therapy, addiction counseling (if needed) and join support groups. Upon release, graduates return to Reset for “ongoing support and check-ins.”
Should a student flunk anger management, discreet security specialists —whom Wilson describes as “almost like bouncers” — step in to diffuse conflicts. Reset has yet to determine whether security staff will be unionized. But Porter argues that a positive environment, “and how busy you are,” are far more effective at maintaining calm than the threat of a baton to the gut.
Educating inmates has proved to be “the single most effective crime prevention measure,” concluded a 2003 study published in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change. The study tracked nearly 26,000 released prisoners in Texas; ex-cons who had received an education were significantly less likely to serve time again than those who had not taken classes while incarcerated.
Porter, a tall woman in a gray business suit, who is quick to flash a broad smile and deliver a fusillade of figures, makes a convincing economic case for turning prisons into schools. Reset schools, she argues, will be cost-neutral to operate, and each successful graduate will boost their lifetime earnings by more than $300,000 while saving taxpayers an estimated $338,000. Porter calls her calculations “conservative” and based her math on a few reasonable hypotheses. High school graduates earn far more than dropouts and therefore pay more taxes over their lifetimes; Reset’s graduates will presumably be less likely to return to prison or require social services, such as food stamps, saving state and federal governments such expenditures. Not factored into the figures is the incalculable benefit of reuniting families. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of state inmates are parents.
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Some criminal justice experts insist that the time is right for a radical experiment like Reset. Think of rehabilitation and punishment on a criminal justice seesaw. In the 1960s, the number of rehabilitative prisons rose, then dropped in the 1970s and 80s as crime rates soared and many elected officials and judges across the political spectrum touted their “tough on crime” credentials. “The main reason for the stunning growth in prison populations,” writes criminologist Elliott Currie in “Crime and Punishment in America,” his influential 1998 book, “was that the courts and legislatures did indeed get ‘tougher’ on offenders.” Currie reports that between 1975 and 1989 “the average prison time served per violent crime in the United States roughly tripled.”
“America took a somewhat unexpected turn in the 1970s toward mass incarceration and a punitive rather than rehabilitative stance,” laments Evan Elkin, a criminal justice consultant and a former executive responsible for innovation at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit group that aims to improve the justice system. As an example of a senseless punitive policy that effectively encourages recidivism, Elkin cites a federal ban preventing many felons from receiving financial aid to help pay for college. Many experts in the field, notes Elkin, assumed back in the 70s that the country would have developed “a more enlightened prison system that looks a lot more like Reset.”
The seesaw has begun to level. The last recession spurred some states to take a shiv to their massive prison budgets. Even law-and-order Texas has invested approximately $240 million in alternatives to incarceration since 2007. Michael Jacobson, author of “Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration,” suggests that “there’s not a social scientist alive who would imagine Texas,” known for express executions, would increase funding for prisoner education, expanded parole and drug treatment programs.
The American public seems poised for revamped criminal justice policies. A survey conducted in 2012 by the Pew Center on the States found that 69 percent of likely voters agreed that America’s prison population (roughly 1.6 million people are currently incarcerated) was too large and that alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders made sense.
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“People are ready for this,” says Wilson, 27, a ginger-haired woman with blue eyes who looks like a cross between Jessica Chastain and a young Sissy Spacek. She is palpably impassioned about her new career, pounding the café table to punctuate one of her points. Asked if anyone inspired her quest, she mentions Wanda, the first student she taught in a San Francisco jail. Wanda, who was in her 40s at the time and serving less than a year sentence, read at a fourth grade level but wrote a poem entitled “A Rose in a Cage,” which still moves Wilson.She wanted to be a community organizer,” Wilson remembers. “She wanted to be a good mother to her kids, and she was this beautiful, flowering rose in a cage.”
Though Reset’s co-founders can sound idealistic — “I have a fundamental, deep-seated belief that we can change,” says Wilson — they have made fast progress in turning their mission into a reality. Reset won the Open Society Foundation’s prestigious Black Male Achievement Fellowship, has raised more than $200,000 and has recruited a “serious” board, observes Jacobson, one of the country’s most respected criminal justice experts.
But Jacobson says the road ahead for Reset may be bumpy: “Running a prison — no matter what kind of prison you run, no matter how low-level the offenders — you are being given by the state the right to use force, and even, potentially, deadly force. There are not a lot of nonprofits that are comfortable with that . . .  Are they ready to deal with a riot?”
Another thorny issue may be powerful prison guard unions, which could consider effective prison schools as a threat to its members. While Reset remains small, Jacobson thinks the unions won’t pay them attention, but if the nonprofit significantly expands, “at some point CCPOA [California Correctional Peace Officers Association] would want to crush them.” Wilson plans to obtain government approval for Reset campuses by working with local judges and county government to avoid funding battles with politically connected unions.
Wilson and Porter know they face challenges, but they believe they possess an unlikely asset: inexperience. “Something that people have told us,” says Wilson, “is that ‘you are the people to do this, because you have not been in the system for so long. You don’t know how hard it will be.’ ”