The Movement for Restorative Justice

It’s a warm weekend not far south of Boston. Behind the thirty-foot walls of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution’s Norfolk prison – the state’s largest, with some 1,500 inmates – five men stand together facing a crowded auditorium. A large banner at the back reads: “Building safer communities inside the prison and beyond the walls of incarceration – what is it going to take?” Each of these five inmates has been convicted of a violent crime; most are serving life sentences for murder. Their audience includes not only about 150 other prisoners, but judges, prosecutors, teachers, political and community leaders. It also includes a number of mothers of homicide victims whose sons were killed.

To the plaintive introductory beat of a drummer on the stage behind them, the men take turns walking to the microphone and reading from handwritten statements. These are letters of public apology. One fellow, his voice cracking, says he “took two lives” – because his mother had never recovered from what he’d done. Another speaks of how he’d murdered two of his closest friends, to impress the other members of his gang. A third talks of having driven the getaway car and not actually shooting anyone, but how this was no excuse.

For the first time, they are openly acknowledging their wrongdoing and the harm it has caused their victims, their communities, and their own families. There is no “making it right.” But through taking responsibility and holding themselves accountable for their actions, perhaps a healing process can begin. Even, for some of the mothers and fathers of homicide victims, a possibility that they will find it in themselves to forgive.

Now Janet Connors is addressing the group. She is a lifelong resident of a tough neighborhood in the Boston suburb of Dorchester, and the mother of three. One of those children was slain in 2001. “We can’t bring our sons back, but we can bring them forward,” she says. In 2006, Connors met inside the prison with two men convicted of her son Joel’s murder – the first time state correctional officials had allowed this to happen. She felt the apologies “were coming from the heart” and offered them “half her forgiveness.” The other half would come with their commitment to lead different lives.

For this third annual retreat at MCI-Norfolk, occurring over two long days, the men in a Restorative Justice Group at the prison worked with the Director of Treatment and a Volunteer Coordinator to put it together. And the weekend contained many moving moments that the attendees would not soon forget. As psychologist David Trimble put it, “there are no spectators here” – the intensity of the exchanges forcing everyone to “go to our broken places.”

I was among those present, a witness not only to the offenders and victims who addressed one another, but a participant in several small group circles where inmates passed a “talking stick” among themselves and to outsiders involved in the dialogue. Together we sat in folding chairs and wrestled with difficult questions about taking responsibility, what constituted amends, and what needed to change in society. Together we listened, and learned. In this multicultural group, racial barriers did not exist.

One inmate admitted that this marked the first time he’d ever thought about his victim. “Tell us more,” someone said quietly, as the man became teary-eyed. “First you try to get away with the crime,” he continued, his voice quavering. “Then when you get caught, you try to get the best deal, and then in prison you just try to survive.” He said he’d spent years using various means of “escape,” seeking to justify his act. Now he could begin to tap into empathy, to understand what he’d done and the impact it had on others. The sincerity in his words was beyond question.

A father spoke painfully of how he regretted not being able to ever see the young man who’d killed his thirteen-year-old son – himself murdered two weeks later – because there were questions he wished he could have asked.

Later, an inmate addressing the entire gathering would describe how that same father’s son had once been his best friend…the marvelous qualities the boy had, and how the murder had devastated him and the entire school class. Indeed, he felt at the time, “if this could happen to Stephen, it could happen to me.” The tragedy in 2007 had turned him away from being a good student. He believed he had to prove himself. Eventually this landed him here in Norfolk after committing an armed robbery.

The slain boy’s father followed the prisoner to the podium. He was crying. He spoke of how the prisoner’s recollection of his son had deeply touched him. And how long he’d spent unable to forgive. And the terrible effect that had upon his own family.

The commonality was heart-wrenching.

Restorative approaches to crime (sometimes called reparative justice) date back thousands of years, to the Code of Hammurabi in Babylon (circa 1700 B.C.), which prescribed restitution for property offenses. This is an approach that views crime and wrongdoing to be an offense against an individual or community, rather than the state. As Daria Lyman of UMass Boston’s Restorative Justice Juvenile Mediation Project put it, “the basic premise is that the internalization of responsibility and feelings of true remorse and empathy are the cornerstones of the kind of behavioral change that makes rehabilitation possible.”

The concept is derived from indigenous cultures, in particular the Maori peoples of New Zealand. (Native Americans have also practiced it for centuries; hence, the “talking stick” passed hand-to-hand in the small group circles.) The idea made its way into the California correctional system in 1997, when the Insight Prison Project (IPP) held a class for fourteen prisoners at San Quentin; today, the IPP offers twenty regular core classes there to some 300 inmates.

At Massachusetts’ Norfolk facility, it started several years ago following a period of tension inside the prison. “Many of the incarcerated were trying to figure out ways to lessen the tension and create a more peaceful community,” recalls sociologist Karen Lischinsky, volunteer coordinator of the Restorative Justice Group at Norfolk prison.

Especially prominent were some “long-termers,” or “lifers,” who desired to become better role models and work more closely with younger prisoners who would eventually be getting out. They began reading about international peacemaking tribunals like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They began applying the models to their own lives. As a report by Suffolk University Center for Restorative Justice described: “Rather than privileging the law, professionals and the state, restorative resolutions engage those who are harmed, wrongdoers and their affected communities in search of solutions that promote repair, reconciliation and the rebuilding of relationships.”

Judge Jay Blitzman has been a prime mover behind a model Juvenile Diversion Program in Massachusetts’ Middlesex County, which offers certain first-time offenders an alternative to the courtroom by reconnecting them to the community – through counseling, education, service projects and restitution for property damage. If a youth successfully completes the program, the District Attorney’s office will not go forward with prosecuting the case, nor will a delinquency charge appear on the record. Judge Blitzman, who attended the Norfolk prison retreat and came away strongly impressed by the sincerity he saw expressed, believes that adopting restorative justice models “in lieu of juvenile court arraignment and processing will qualitatively improve the administration of justice.”

Where might things go from here? Already within Norfolk, weekly men’s support groups are being held under the auspices of the non-profit Jericho Circle Project. Beyond the annual retreats, Norfolk correctional officials recently approved a Victim Offender Education Curriculum, modeled on San Quentin’s. It will bring together fourteen inmates with two outside facilitators in a pilot program, for weekly two-and-a-half hour sessions over a 34-week period.

On the second day of the 2014 retreat, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick came to meet with some incarcerated men and survivors in a circle setting, to discuss utilizing restorative practices inside prisons.

In the audience, I thought about the phrase “doing time” – and how, removed from the frenetic pace of our communication-oriented society of cell phones and Internet, these men have the opportunity to deeply examine themselves, where they came from, and where they hope to go. Through acceptance, through the painful process of amends, they can come to greater self-realization. Even if they never achieve parole, they can have a positive impact on others. Within the prison community, they can serve as mentors – pointing out a different path than what brought them together here.

It would take a heart of stone not to break, hearing the words of Isaura Mendes. She had lost two sons – stabbed to death and fatally shot, both while in their early twenties, ten years apart. She had stood up in court and publicly forgiven one of the killers. Now she spends all of her time volunteering in prisons across Massachusetts, embracing young offenders with her tragic story, seeking to give them a sense that their lives can be different.

Twice during each day, we had all done a meditation together. As the retreat drew to a close, there was music. Two inmates performed an original song, titled “A Heart That Forgives.” Janet Connors sang a capella, offering blessings of peace, as we prepared to file out – inmates through the back entrance, invited guests to the front.

More than a week has passed, and all the faces still linger in my mind’s eye. The experience had been real, raw, the many stories gut-wrenching and heart-rending. I could only hope that Restorative Justice is an idea whose time has come.