Strong Returns is on a mission to make prison reform
the Millennial generation’s issue in the 2016 election.

For this to happen, Millennials need to start sharing stories about the prison system and the prison reform movement. These stories start with authentic encounters with the prison system, are amplified through storytelling over campus networks, and can be weaved together into a Millennial Prison Reform Agenda worth pushing for in the 2016 elections.


Why Prison Reform?

Americans care about the rehabilitative mission of prisons. In poll after poll, a vast majority of respondents assert that “the criminal justice system should try to rehabilitate criminals, not just punish them.” We want Strong Returns: prisoners reentering their communities with a second chance at life and the necessary connections and personal tools to find success.

And yet, the prison system has not been held accountable to rehabilitative results. Whereas the best prisons around the world are held to the standard of “better out than in” — prisoners being better off after prison than they were at the start of their term — American “correctional facilities” often leave the formerly incarcerated in worse shape than when they entered. Potential is squandered, families are fractured and communities are left open to recidivism risks.

Why Millennials?

Millennials – a generation free from the baggage of old “tough on crime” debates – have attitudes especially receptive to the project of revitalizing the rehabilitative mission of prisons. 58% of Millennials, compared to 36% of those over 65, support allowing non-violent drug offenders to seal their criminal records. 41% of Millennials, compared to 26% of those over 65, believe the criminal justice system is racially biased.
Furthermore, recent Millennial movements have proven immensely helpful to multiple causes as students have shared personal stories with their campus networks. The DREAM Act and gay marriage became salient youth issues when DREAMers shared their stories of being undocumented to classmates and LGBT students came out to their friends in conjunction with social media campaigns. If campuses were to be activated for prison reform to the level they are now around these issues, Millennials could help force prison reform on the agenda for the 2016 elections.

The Millennial Prison Reform Agenda: BuildPushVote

This mission is centered on building, pushing and voting a Millennial Prison Reform Agenda, the first-ever prison reform agenda developed to express Millennial values and publicized with Millennial voters in mind. The agenda will be realized in three phases:

  • Phase 1 in 2015: BUILD the Millennial Prison Reform Agenda by spurring and organizing a generational conversation on the prison system and prison reform.
  • Phase 2 in 2016: PUSH the Millennial Prison Reform Agenda by challenging 2016 candidates — from state legislature hopefuls to Presidential nominees — to pledge to support the Agenda.
  • Phase 3 on Election Day 2016: VOTE the Millennial Prison Reform Agenda by turning out young people to support candidates who have pledged support for the Agenda.

Building the Agenda

You don’t build a generation-wide agenda by just proposing one and asking for followers. First, it wouldn’t produce an authentic, effective Millennial Prison Reform Agenda: we are not prison reform experts nor are we sages of our generation. Second, even if we were, Millennials rarely get excited about joining things they didn’t help create.

That’s why we are building an agenda by helping to spur and organize a generation-wide conversation about prisons and prison reform. We want to spur young people to share stories with us and each other about their encounters with the prison system and then we want to organize this Millennial conversation into a Millennial community out of which a Millennial agenda will arise. This is the way our generation likes our politics: authentic, viral, and bottom-up.

The coin of the realm here, as with Millennials generally, is stories. The stories in our project start with (1) authentic encounters with the prison system; (2) are amplified through storytelling over campus networks, and can (3) be weaved together into a Millennial Prison Reform Agenda worth pushing for in the 2016 election.

1. Facilitating Encounter

This generational conversation starts with authentic encounters with the prison system.

Most Millennials, including ourselves, have had little encounter with the prison system. We have all heard whispers from behind the walls that have left us uneasy — the random stories of mistreatment, the occasional talking head mentioning racial disparities in the justice system, the graph popping up on a Twitter feed of incarceration rates shooting up — but we have never taken the time to really look behind the wall. We want to help these Millennials look behind the wall.

To do this, we are bridging Millennials and the prison system by getting connected with both of the sides we are hoping to bridge and then facilitate:

The Prison System
by databasing and contacting…
by contacting and organizing…
(a) Those with direct experience in the prison system who are open to creating advocacy connections with Millennials and campus groups: formerly incarcerated people, family members of the incarcerated, workers in the criminal justice system, and groups that work with the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.

(b) prison reform leaders and organizations: politicians, activists, and advocacy organizations.

(c) policy thinkers: think tanks, journalists, and academics focused on prison reform.

(a) Campus groups working on issues tied to prison reform: social justice, racial justice, libertarian and evangelical groups.

(b) College courses studying prison reform.

(c) Prison activist or service groups directly involved in the prison system

Having contacted these two groups, we then aim to facilitate encounters between them by directly connecting those Millennials we have organized with those we have contacted in the prison community, challenging the Millennials to help amplify the stories of those involved with the prison system to their own networks.

Many other Millennials know the prison system all too well. They either are incarcerated, have been formerly incarcerated, or have a close relative that has been. We want to help amplify and organize these Millennials’ voices, too.

The Strong Returns Tour
To launch Strong Returns, we are going on campus tour of the Deep South. We are using the tour to spotlight and prefigure our encounter → storytelling → agenda model by:

  • (a) facilitating an encounter between a student ambassador and a person involved with the prison system;
  • (b) working with the student ambassador to provide a platform for the formerly incarcerated person to share their story in a campus event to activate students; and
  • (c) tune attendees into the developing Millennial Prison Reform Agenda.

Each campus event will feature: (a) the student ambassador’s completed portrait of a person involved with the prison system; (b) a direct account and Q&A with the featured formerly incarcerated person in the portrait; (c) the participation of a local prison reform group or active state legislator; (d) the participation of a local professor; and (e) a brief presentation by us on how Millennials can get involved in prison reform in the 2016 elections.

Strong Returns campus events are designed to demonstrate to students the different parts of the prison system — from inmates to returning citizens; from prison reform groups to criminal justice scholars — to which they could reach out in the coming years. They are also designed to serve as the spark for the creation of continuing campus groups that could serve as a bridge between their campus and the local prison and reentry community.

2. Sharing Stories

Millennial movements grow through viral storytelling. We want to help young people turn their direct encounters with the prison system — with the formerly incarcerated and their supporters, with critical information about the problem, and with leaders and organizations pushing solutions — into stories worth sharing. The centerpiece of this effort will be the Strong Returns Storybank

The Strong Returns Storybank
What’s a storybank? Story banks are sharable collections of experiences surrounding an issue. They are effective tools often utilized by issue campaigns to move media and legislators. Examples include Dignity in Schools’ “School Pushout Storybank,” Family Values @ Work’s “Working Families Storybank” and, innovatively, the LGBT movement’s “It Gets Better” campaign.
What’s the Strong Returns storybank? The Strong Returns storybank is the first ever Millennial-driven storybank of encounters with the prison system. Each story is submitted by a Millennial and presented with a Millennial audience in mind. We house the story bank here on this site as well as on our various social media channels. Portraits in The Strong Returns Storybank are going to be easily browsable, sharable and include ways to contact each entry’s original storyteller.
What types of encounters with the prison system? We are starting with stories stemming from four categories of encounter:

1. Direct encounters with the Prison System: Millennials who are incarcerated, have been incarcerated or are close relatives with someone incarcerated can use their submission to the storybank as a way of “coming out” as a prison activist.

2. The formerly incarcerated and their supporters: Millennials who have met with an incarcerated person, a formerly incarcerated person, the family of an incarcerated person, a worker in the prison system, or a group that does direct service to prisoners and recent re-entrants can use the storybank to amplify the voices of those who know what happens behind the wall.

3. Information: It is key to see how stories from the prison system fit within larger trends. That’s why we are even including stories in the storybank that depict new, engaging ways to share data, trends, and policies.

4. Leaders and organizations building solutions: Millennials aren’t just moved to action by evermore stories of what’s going wrong: we also are inspired by what’s going right. Millennials who are building solutions, or have encountered someone building solutions — be it a politician, an activist or an organization — should spotlight these bearers of hope in the storybank.

How are stories in the storybank structured? Stories can be text, photos, audio or video. Each story in the storybank is organized in the same way as this entire conversation: start with an authentic encounter, turn it into a story worth sharing, and out of that look towards helping build a Millennial prison reform agenda. Each story should be organized as follows:

1. Encounter: Tell a little about yourself and how you encountered part of the prison system.

2. Story: Tell the story of your encounter. As shown above, this can range from the son of incarcerated person talking about what it’s like to grow up with a parent in prison, a college student amplifying the story of a formerly incarcerated person she met, a really great explanation of how sentencing works, or an edited recording of an interview with a warden promoting a reform program.

3. Agenda: Each story should end by being tied to a proposal for what reforms should be in the Millennial Freedom Agenda.

How will stories in the storybank be promoted? Stories are promoted in three ways:

1. Strong Returns audience: We promote every new storybank entry on our site’s homepage, over our Strong Returns channels on social media, and in our weekly newsletter.

2. Social networks: We want those featured in the storybank — whether as a storyteller or the subject of a piece — to treat their entry into the Strong Returns storybank as an excuse to promote their support for prison reform over their campus and social networks. As each entrant tunes their social network into prison reform, more and more Millennials see more and more prison reform stories.

3. Publicity: In addition to posting stories to our Strong Returns network, we will also promote stories to appropriate journalists, politicians and advocates.

As the Storybank helps Millennials share prison system and prison reform stories with our audience and with each other, the foundation of a Millennial Prison Reform Agenda is laid.

3. Launching the Agenda

In addition to submitting stories about the prison system, we are also inviting Millennials to submit prison reform policy proposals to Strong Returns to be considered for The Millennial Prison Reform Agenda. We invite young people to design their submissions in the form of dynamic explainers, like how Vox or Vlogbrothers do, so that even those unfamiliar with the prison reform community can understand.

In late 2015, this generation-wide conversation will culminate in The 2016 Millennial Prison Reform Agenda laying out prison reform policy objectives that campus groups, and Millennials broadly, can rally around for the 2016 election. We will release the 2016 MPRA with information and storytelling designed for a Millennial audience and publicized over multiple mediums.

In 2016, we will promote the Millennial Prison Reform Agenda and seek pledges from 2016 candidates — from state legislators to Presidential nominees — for Agenda support once in office. As November 2016 gets closer, we will work to turn out the vote for Millennial Prison Reform candidates.

The Millennial Prison Reform Network

To capture the energy generated by this model and to integrate with present campus efforts for prison reform, we are launching a nationwide Millennial Prison Reform Network to connect and serve young prison reform activists across the country. The network consists of two parts:

  • Database: A Millennial Prison Reform wiki to house information on campus prison groups, Millennial activists, successful strategies, criminal justice professors, and prison reform organizations open to Millennial engagement.
  • Communication Network: A network of email listservs that facilitate connection with other young prison activists.


The easiest way to get started supporting the Strong Returns mission is to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and our Newsletter to stay in the loop:

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To learn about ways to get more deeply engaged in Millennial prison reform, check out our six ways to get involved page here.

Get In Touch

Strong Returns is spearheaded by Scott Johnston and Pete Davis, two recent Harvard college graduates and upcoming law school students.

scott Scott Johnston is an Escondido, California native and recent graduate of Harvard College, where he studied Sociology. He has a passion for human rights work that focuses on empowering those who are disadvantaged, and unwavering faith in our daily potential to change. When not working, you can often find him watching baseball, writing songs, and snapping photos. Email Scott at Scott@StrongReturns.org.
pete Pete Davis is a Falls Church, Virginia native and recent graduate of Harvard College, where he studied Politics. He is the co-founder of OurCommonPlace, a web platform for local community engagement, and a proud alumni of Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law, where he worked for two years promoting anti-poverty legislation. By night, you can find him playing folk music and hitting the D.C. alternative stand up circuit. Email Pete at Pete@StrongReturns.org.

Our work is made possible by the Ford Foundation and supporters like you across the country.

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