A personal take on restorative justice

Tonight was my final night as a volunteer at the Oregon State Penitentiary, helping to teach Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to a class of long-term inmates, most of whom have committed one or more violent crimes. The year-long experience working with Rose City NVC’s Oregon Prison Project – which was unlike anything I had ever undertaken before – was very powerful for me. I’d like to talk about it a bit here, to share some of what I have come away with.

Tonight, in our final class, I was given the opportunity to go around the room and tell each student how he had touched my life during the year. It was a very meaningful exercise, and I was struck that in day-to-day life we rarely give ourselves and each other cultural permission to speak so openly to others about how they touch us. Some of the men seemed a little uncomfortable hearing this feedback, and I realized how unfamiliar it probably was to most of them. They are accustomed to hearing people’s feedback about what is “wrong” with them, and about the mistakes they have made. With the exception of certain friends and family, most of them probably do not receive much reflection of what is “right” (or simply human, with all the beauty that inherently entails) about them.

When I started the year last fall, I was nervous to think about entering a prison, especially a maximum-security one. I had been feeling an inner calling for several years to work with prisoners, although I didn’t know why; and NVC had enriched my life so much in the ten years I had been aware of it that I was yearning to find a way to help spread it. So when I heard about this opportunity, I knew I needed to proceed with it, despite my fears. But I admit that the first time I went through all those locked gates, and found myself standing in a large room with men in blue walking around, I thought, “Wow. These are prisoners. Am I going to be safe here?”

But when we went upstairs and set up the classroom, and the students began to arrive, I was amazed by how “normal” they all looked, and how friendly and polite they were. I kept looking around the class that first day, thinking how if I hadn’t known I was in a prison, I would never have looked twice at any of these guys; they looked like my friends, coworkers, and community members. They varied by age, race, and apparent socioeconomic backgrounds, and their personalities were as varied as one would expect to find in any social setting. In other words, these weren’t “criminals,” with some sort of monolithic “criminal personality,” but human beings, just like all the others I had known.

And yes, as the year went on, I came to learn about the crimes each person had committed. And yes, I was horrified by most of them. Their choices and actions had led to terrible pain and suffering for their victims, their victims’ families, their victims’ communities, their own families and communities, and, of course, for themselves. Most of them were filled with remorse and regret for their actions. I am deeply saddened to know that these violent actions have torn apart people and communities.

At the same time, I was so glad to be able to be there to put a human face on each of these offenders. Not surprisingly, the stories many of them told of their own childhoods were also horrific. Many of them suffered abuse, neglect, and/or poverty. Many of them had a number of relatives in prison. Many of them had been crime victims themselves, or knew people who had been.

Of course these sorts of hardships do not excuse violent, hurtful behavior. Nothing excuses such behavior. And nothing can bring back murdered loved ones for those who lost them, or fully heal victims of assault or attempted murder. But it is extremely clear to me that these offenders’ own traumatic experiences did set them up to be much more likely to commit these crimes. If we, as a society, want to stop violent crime, we need to stop violence from being committed against children. And whenever violence happens – by anyone, to anyone – we need to work together as a community to heal all affected parties as much as we can.

This is the basis of restorative justice: recognizing that when a violent crime happens, many people are affected, and all those people need to heal from the trauma, if we are to stop the cycle. Our current criminal justice system falls far short of that ideal. Rather than rehabilitation, in many cases offenders are simply locked up, warehoused, treated disrespectfully by correctional officers (who have their own unhealed traumas, and who commit suicide at alarming rates) and largely forgotten by society. Some members of society are glad to imagine “throwing away the key” for these folks, wanting them to suffer in penance for the suffering they have brought to their victims.

Meanwhile, however, the victims themselves very often do not receive the true healing they need in order to move forward with their lives. They are expected to feel better knowing that the offender is locked up and being punished; but this reality does nothing to actually heal the pain of their experience of the crime.

And, with relatively few exceptions, most of these inmates will one day be released. If they have been “punished” by incarceration, but not given opportunities to heal their own traumas, as well as truly recognize and understand the pain they have brought to others, then their chances of re-entering society in a constructive way, supporting themselves and making contributions to the greater good, are very slim. More likely, the habits they have learned in prison will express themselves in post-release behavior, and more people may end up hurt.

Teaching NVC to these particular inmates has been incredibly rewarding for me, because I have seen many of them finally begin to face and acknowledge their own pain; take responsibility for the pain they have brought to others; and begin to see themselves, and their relationship to the world, in a new light. Many of them want to contribute to society, either after release or from behind bars. Some want to write. Some want to work with at-risk youth. Many would like the opportunity to apologize to their victims and do what they can to repair some of the hurt.

Many of them will not have the opportunity to contact their victims, because by law in Oregon, any contact between victims and offenders must be initiated by the victims. I fully understand and support this. However, I am very heartened by a program that is just beginning, which will allow inmates – including some of the men in this class I just finished – to be trained as “surrogates” for restorative victim-offender dialogues. This means that if a victim does want to initiate a mutually healing conversation with their offender, but the offender is not willing to agree to the process (which involves months of preparation for each side with skilled facilitators, prior to the meeting), then the victim can meet with a surrogate instead. The surrogate would be an inmate who committed a similar crime. Studies have shown that both victims and offenders receive almost as much healing in such meetings as in those with the actual victims and offenders. I am inspired and hopeful to imagine some of these students – and either their own victims, or other victims of similar crimes – meeting and finding healing for both sides, acknowledging the damage that has resulted from the crime, and acknowledging a mutual willingness to see each other’s humanity, and move forward in goodwill.

For my part, I am simply honored to have been given a glimpse into a world very far removed from my own. I am honored to have been able to contribute, even in a small way, to the personal awakenings of some people who have led very troubled lives and who are looking for a new way to live. They have enriched my life, and I wish all the best for each one on his journey.

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