A Restorative Promise Inside a Prison

By Pierre Berastain

The Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk
The Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk

When Howard Belding Gill became the first Superintendent of the Norfolk State Prison Colony, presently known as the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, he created what became known as the first community prison in the United States. Intended as an experiment to introduce a rehabilitative rather than solely punitive model, the prison held men like Malcolm X, who described the place with “no bars, only walls” as practicing “penal policies [that] sounded almost too good to be true.” The staff was conceived not as guards, but as educators and counselors, psychiatrists and mentors. Years after he left his position as Superintendent, Gill returned to MCI Norfolk to mentor young prisoners and visit old inmates turned friends.

Today, MCI Norfolk is a medium-security prison where bars have gone up, but where the commitment to rehabilitation and community remains an important pillar for the Department of Corrections. That is why, on June 13th and 14th, MCI Norfolk staff allowed Dr. Karen Lischinsky, Volunteer Coordinator for the Restorative Justice Group at Norfolk Prison, to work with the incarcerated men and put together a two-day Restorative Justice and Responsibility Retreat. During the retreat, over a hundred inmates were introduced to principles of rehabilitation, community responsibility, and personal introspection. Speaking to the large auditorium of men, Sister Ruth Raichle encouraged the men to think of their lives as interconnected, not just amongst themselves but also to the outside community. “Justice is not something done to us,” she said, “It’s something we build together.” She was speaking of the importance of making amends by publically recognizing the harm they had done and thus begin the process of finding their innate humanity and reconnecting with the outside community. Many inmates acknowledged, however, that responsibility extends past a one-time recognition of their crimes. Rather, responsibility comprises a life-long journey of personal healing and introspection. Reflecting on his own journey, and I heard an inmate say that healing rather than harm is the mark of a responsible life. He wanted to end the cycle of violence he had inherited and contributed to.

The restorative justice retreat at MCI Norfolk gives inmates an opportunity to begin a healing process so that they can live more responsible lives in hopes that one-day, they can return to society. Such commitment to rehabilitation and reintegration cannot be undervalued, especially when, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95 percent of state prisoners will be released from prison at some point. As a result, more and more prison administrators throughout the country are looking for new initiatives that prepare prisoners for re-entry upon leaving prison.

Yet, attending the retreat were also a number of men who would never leave Norfolk’s prison walls. Their promise to better themselves, to live more fulfilling lives, extended beyond personal gains. Inmates spoke of being fathers, grandfathers, or uncles who did not want their loved ones to show up in the cell next to them. I felt a sincere commitment from a number of men at the retreat who wanted to take responsibility for their crimes and learn better ways, as I understood from an inmate, of facing the nightmares in his closet.

Breaking the cycle: 189 years

In the small group discussions, the men showed emotional reactions as they heard victims of crime narrate the pain they felt from the absence of their murdered children. Kim and Ron Odom, whose 13-year-old son Steven was killed in 2007, asked the men to take responsibility for the harm they had done to parents and community. “You have left an indelible mark,” Kim Odom said, “but you can prevent more harm from being done. As a mother, I can tell you we don’t bring murderers into this world.” She and her husband asked the men to reflect and make a promise to change.

For the men of the restorative justice group, that promise has created a more peaceful community inside MCI-Norfolk. I think all of those of us present found it amazing when we heard an inmate say that collectively, the men of the restorative justice group have 189 years without any disciplinary tickets. That accomplishment was possible because of programs like the Restorative Justice Retreat, which brings together inmates and community members who remind the men of their promises. At this year’s retreat, Isaura Mendes spoke to the group about the murder of her two children, Bobby Mendes, 23, murdered in 1995 and Mathew Mendes, 22, murdered in 2006. As the men listened, they sank in their chairs and tried to keep tears inside. They were beginning to grasp for the first time how they are responsible for hurting so many in their own communities.

For many of the incarcerated men who attended the retreat, having mothers return every year and remind them of their commitment to live more peaceful lives reinforces the message that society has not forgotten them, that we remember and hold them accountable. During the retreat, I heard an inmate say he had never felt someone care about him, and that he was amazed to hear mothers speak and see the humanity in him. Many others echoed that feeling.

A number of inmates also spoke of loved ones — a brother, a mother, a close friend — who had been murdered. For them, the process of healing lied in the realization that retaliation does not bring back the smiles of those no longer with us. “That requires a paradigm shift in our culture,” said Ron Odom as he reflected on the need to disrupt the cycle of revenge. Mr. Odom urged the men to nourish their minds with new ideas. A prisoner agreed, telling his fellow inmates in the auditorium that Norfolk can hold their bodies, but it can’t control their minds. He urged them to think deeply about their responsibility, identity, and commitment to the larger community.

It can start at Norfolk

While most prisons in the United States do not operate under a restorative model, MCI Norfolk continues the legacy of Howard Gill to rehabilitate and reintegrate. For True See Allah, an ex-inmate who this past January received a pardon from then Governor Deval Patrick, his time at MCI Norfolk gave him the opportunity to change. “Norfolk is the wound that gave birth to me,” he told the men. We can only hope that more U.S. prisons provide space for inmates to understand the impact of their actions and make meaningful changes in their lives. Our criminal justice system ought to move past punishment and instead adopt a model of reform that helps those incarcerated understand the implications of their deeds. This takes time, but the results can be truly transformative both for individuals and entire communities.