Restorative Justice Behind Prison Walls

The men serving time at Norfolk Prison helped put together a retreat meant to inspire inmates to rehabilitate, mend the harms they have caused, and make promises to the community in and outside the prison walls that they will live more honest and honorable lives. It felt transformative.
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On June 22 and 23, I made a promise to individuals typically considered convicted murderers, thieves, and drug dealers, most of whom are serving at least one life sentence for their crimes. I have sat on my thoughts and words for a few hours now because, in all sincerity, whatever I see on my screen seems lifeless, devoid of everything I experienced in the company of these men. Yet, I made a promise to tell the story of those two days.

With the help of my friend and colleague Professor Karen Lischinski, the men from the Restorative Justice Group at MCI-Norfolk Prison worked for many months to host a two-day restorative justice retreat behind prison walls. Let me repeat: The men serving time at Norfolk Prison helped put together a retreat meant to inspire inmates to rehabilitate, mend the harms they have caused, and make promises to the community in and outside the prison walls that they will live more honest and honorable lives. The experience felt transformative.

Our retreat began with the cadence of Native American drums, thus paying respect to the centuries-old practices of restorative justice that would give framework to the entire weekend. To the beat of these powerful sounds, more than 30 community members -- from mothers affected by homicide to state officials committed to meaningful change -- went through prison security and entered the auditorium where more than 100 incarcerated men had been escorted. Very rarely do prisoners in the United States and outside community members meet to discuss issues that affect individual and community life. This retreat was one of those opportunities. For the first half of Saturday, the men attended workshops on accepting responsibility, on the impact of crime on families as well as communities, on creative change, and on deep inner-personal exploration.

After lunch, we reconvened and heard reflections from some community members and prisoners. As an outsider, I appreciated and admired the candor with which some of the men spoke about their crimes and personal journey to rehabilitation. All of them felt the suffocating grasp of their public confessions -- their public apologies. How frightening and liberating it must have been to speak in front of dozens, letting everybody know one took the life of a little girl and with it, the life of mothers and fathers, cousins, teachers, and friends. How humbling it must have been to let oneself cry in front of one's own cellmates, acknowledging the harm caused. And yet, no one was there to judge--not even the mothers whose sons had been murdered, not even judges and government officials whose job is to be "tough on crime." Rather, everyone present was there to support each person's journey to restoration. When M chocked in his tears and paused to extract words of repentance, the entire auditorium erupted in cheers and applause of encouragement, "Take your time, brother! Take your time!" More applause. And with such encouragement, M continued.

More heavy emotions filled the room when Kim Odom walked to the podium and began to narrate the life of Steven, her 13-year-old son who was murdered in 2007. As she spoke, I turned around and saw a number of men wipe tears off their cheeks. In the two days, the men would also hear from Janet Connors, whose son Joel was murdered in 2001 and Veola Green, whose mother, brother and nephew were all taken from her.

Relating to pain caused

"Raise your hand if you know someone who has been murdered," asked Janet Connors of the men. More than half the prisoners in attendance raised their hands. "Hurt people hurt people," continued Ms. Connors. In fact, every man in that room could relate to the harm they had caused another human being -- we have all felt pain. But as one of the men had reflected earlier, "Healed people heal others, too." This was the men's impetus for being present. This explained why men destined to live the rest of their lives inside prison walls would volunteer to attend a restorative justice retreat.

While we think of prison walls as impenetrable, as concrete shields that protect us from criminals, the truth is that the men in the cells are also fathers and grandfathers, sons and uncles, brothers, friends, husbands, role models and leaders who are connected to the very streets on which we all walk. We might prevent the actions of one individual by locking him up forever, but ideology knows no boundaries. Concrete is not impermeable to the message of peace, rehabilitation, and redemption. Truth is: their healing -- their restorative journey -- consists of our very safety. As one prisoner articulated, "I might be locked up, but I still need to educate my son."


Present in the room were district judges, activists, survivors/victims of homicide, correctional officers, a state senator, members from the Massachusetts Restorative Justice Collaborative, as well as religious and spiritual leaders. As outsiders, our promise to the men consisted of apologizing for our failures as citizens of this world, for neglecting individuals in our communities, for not doing enough to create better opportunities for everyone in society. Our commitment as practitioners of restorative justice did not stop when we exited MCI-Norfolk -- that weekend just marked the beginning of a continued support of the men's transformation and their insistence on employing restorative practices to better themselves and their communities.

As for the men: Our weekend came to a close with a moving song one of the inmates composed. One man played the violin while the other sang the notes to the piano. We concluded with more public apologies and then a Responsibility Pledge Ceremony: To live righteous lives wherever the men may be, to make amends for their crimes, and to spread awareness about the impact of crime on families and communities.

One man's words have stayed with me to this day, "Because I stole that little girl's life, I now have to live the life of two people." And thus, the restorative journey begins.

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