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Inspire Change: Giants witness T.R.U.E. Unit

JUSTIN-TUCK-CHESHIRE

They say those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution. So, the Giants got close.

Over the offseason, Ring of Honor member Justin Tuck and current Giants cornerback Darnay Holmes visited Cheshire Correctional Institution, a Level 4 high security facility located just north of New Haven, Connecticut. In conjunction with the Vera Institute of Justice, MILPA Collective and their Restoring Promise initiative, they went to witness the T.R.U.E. Unit, a groundbreaking approach that reimagines incarceration for men aged 18-25. The name is an acronym for Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding, and Elevating.

"I had done 12 correctional facility visits throughout my life, and I would say the 11 others were more surrounded by pain, surrounded by no hope, to be honest with you," said Tuck, who is on Vera's Board of Trustees. "Being in the typical correctional facility, it led you to feel like their lives were over, they were not even considered humans at that point in some capacities, and it was almost like a wasteland of a place where human beings go to rot after making mistakes.

"I don't think anybody's going to argue that most people behind bars have made mistakes, so let's start there. Going to the T.R.U.E. program at Cheshire, that was the first time I've seen a helpful attitude from everybody involved, almost a friendship between the correctional officers and incarcerated people. It was almost a teammate-like atmosphere of, yeah, you did something wrong but let's figure out how can we give you hope until you get back into society. That was the first time I'd ever seen that setting where I felt like every person I met had hope for what their future could be."

The bedrock belief of Restoring Promise is that reform must be achieved in partnership with people who live and work in prisons.

"A lot of us grew up in inner cities, so we know some the struggles these kids deal with," said James Vassar, a lieutenant in the Connecticut Department of Correction and member of the T.R.U.E. program. "We sort of have a frame of reference to what it's like to grow up in the inner city and also to try to change the dynamic of what correction is and what law enforcement is. To change that narrative, it was a challenge. It always is a challenge, but we have great support from the administration to change that narrative."

The Giants have partnered with the Vera Institute of Justice, a national advocacy and policy organization fighting to end mass incarceration, since 2018. Through this work, the Giants have witnessed the impact of the criminal justice system on communities, learned about innovative models of public safety and policing, and supported Vera's efforts to create a criminal legal system that delivers safety, equity, and justice for everyone.

The T.R.U.E. pilot program stems from a trip by a U.S. delegation to Europe led by Vera in 2015.

"I thought that I was super progressive and radical, and I went to Germany and Norway, and it felt like a chamber was unlocked in my brain," said Ryan Shanahan, director of Restoring Promise. "I didn't realize that the system had trained me to not ask for too much. And that the amount of 'no's' that I got for nine years limited my ability to be creative and imaginative and to dream of a different approach to doing things wholesale. It just was a real pivotal moment for me. I had been trying to chip away at this work either through one component like families or one component like prison conditions, and I wasn't marrying all of the things together or weaving all the things together. It's not just conditions. It's culture. It's staff. It's leadership from incarcerated people who've been the most impacted. They know the way to change it."

The latter is the driving force behind T.R.U.E.

After Shanahan brought her ideas to then-Connecticut Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple, together they sought mentors among those serving life without parole.

"I was really moved," Semple said. "They teach staff, the people that engage, to build trust with the population. They are more about getting folks to actually do the work of rehabilitation."

Originally, 12 of those who applied were selected and trained and now live as paid mentors on the unit with a group of mentees that keeps growing. The mentors of T.R.U.E. track the number of young people that come back, and according to their numbers, only 21 percent of mentees have returned to prison.

"Your brain is not fully developed until you're 25," said Christopher Belcher, a Vera research assistant and former T.R.U.E. Unit mentee. "So what T.R.U.E. tries to do is create a therapeutic space that counters your normal prison culture, that has all these different negative factors in it, and tries to create positive factors – things that you're not learning on a daily basis in regular population. We come together and actually have these conversations to try to prepare people to get into society and stay out of jail."

The impact of the mentorship is a two-way street.

"Personally, it gave me hope," said Andrew Dickson, a T.R.U.E. Unit Mentor. "I had been in prison eight years before the T.R.U.E. program started, and at that point, I was growing better, but I was away from people so much that my social skills were diminishing. I didn't have that social intelligence. I didn't have that level of care that's necessary to transition home and actually be a productive member of my community or my society or my family. … To do something so positive that it brings organizations like Vera and the Giants to your front door, it lets you know you're on the right path and you're doing amazing work and to keep working."

Before Tuck, Holmes, and the rest of the Giants contingent visited the T.R.U.E. unit, they saw a typical general population block. Although it was empty at the time, the differences were stark.

"[T.R.U.E.] was eye-opening just to be able to see guys able to have this camaraderie in this system they implemented," Holmes said. "I feel like they may have different goals, but they all have the same end goal, which is being a better person. I feel like they're all going to accomplish that by being in this institution for sure. I feel like in order for people to really be inspired to take action, they've got to see this panel. They've got to see this work. It's got to be on a bigger stage. Different people have got to air it out. It's got to constantly be aired out and get it in the right hands of the right people. That's one of the things that can be done."

The day reached a crescendo when Isschar Howard, a T.R.U.E. Unit mentor, delivered a parting message to the Giants.

"People used to come here and they'd make promises after promises and 'we ain't going to forget y'all' and I don't know, it just felt like they forgot us," he said. "They really did. It felt like they forgot us. … I'm hoping this time is different."

Tuck, a two-time Super Bowl champion, was overcome with emotion.

"I can't say anything to give you confidence in knowing that hopefully this time is different," Tuck said. "I'm already trying to think of how do we get more people here to see this, and who are those people. Roger Goodell will get an email from me today."

Tuck's involvement in the community didn't begin or end with his playing days. With his wife, Lauran, he co-founded R.U.S.H. for Literacy, a foundation that encourages low-income youth to read, understand, succeed, and hope. He also sits on the board of the Pure Edge Foundation, which focuses on bringing health and wellness to underserved children. In his spare time, he earned his MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and is a managing director at Goldman Sachs.

Needless to say, Tuck gets asked to be part of a lot of charities. But through longtime friend Bari Mattes, who served as senior advisor to Senator Cory Booker for 12 years, Vera caught Tuck's attention.

"One, it is such a great and needed organization," Tuck said. "Two, I did some work throughout my career with criminal justice reform, visiting prisons and the like. Honestly, I joined the board because I thought I could make a difference, and I thought it was something that I could be passionate about, and it truly was an organization already moving the needle. … I think the biggest mistake we can make for anybody trying to deal with trauma is to give them a false sense of hope. [T.R.U.E.] just has a different impact, different feel to it. I'm excited about going back and spreading the word about what this can be."

Sticking to his word, Tuck returned over the summer with a special contingent that included NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Network Chief National Reporter Steve Wyche.

"This program, what was so impactful to me was that it was all about teaching these young men how their life is still ahead of them," Goodell said. "[It was about] what are they going to do to take advantage of the opportunity when they get out and how mentors, who are going to be in there and have been in there for maybe a lifetime, are making a difference in their lives, so that they're successful when they walk out of there. To me, that's what we're looking for – rehabilitation, not penalty. We're looking to see these people go on and be successful and these young men be contributors to society, and they appreciated the fact that we care about that."

The most memorable moment, Goodell and Wyche agreed, was when they we were all in one wing together just before they were about to wrap up the day.

"They passed the microphone along," Wyche recalled, "and one of them looked at Justin Tuck and said, 'Justin, you were here before and told us the next time you're coming back, you're coming with the commissioner, and here he is. To most of us, that's the first time someone in life upheld a promise."

"It was a jarring moment because, one, my hat is off to Justin because he really felt this was an important moment for these young men to return, to come back and to do what he said he was going to do," Goodell said. "That was important to Justin. It was important for me to support him in that context. But I feel the same way. You don't just go there, visit, and leave. You have to carry what you learned."

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