Tag: restorative justice

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.


Restorative Justice Behind Prison Walls

Editors note: Pierre shared his experiences with restorative justice at our recent Common Peace Community gathering.  This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

By Pierre Berastain

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. (more…)

When people can’t forgive, they’re stuck

Russell Crowe as Javert

By Alan Bean

Genuine forgiveness feels a lot like open heart surgery; but without it, we’re lost.

To celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary, Nancy and I went to Les Miserables, a musical I had never seen before.  Nor have I read the 1500 page novel, although I’ve been hearing references to it all my life.  Unavoidably,the movie presents an impossibly compressed version of the original story line.  But they got the theme right: forgiveness.

Early in the story, Jean Valjean is paroled after serving nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread.  But for repeated escape attempts he would have been released much earlier.  Unable to find work, Valjean comes under the care of Bishop Myriel, a compassionate cleric whose deeds of kindness have earned him the informal title “Monseigneur Bienvenu”.  Unable to sleep on a comfortable bed, the restless Valjean steals the Bishop’s silver and flees into the night, only to be captured and hauled back to the Bishop in chains for identification.

Myriel tells the gendarmes that his guest received the silver as a gift.  In fact, he was also given two silver candlesticks that he neglected to take with him.  When the two men are alone, Myriel tells Valjean to use the silver to become an honest man.  Overwhelmed with this display of unwarranted forgiveness, Valjean is transformed. (more…)

Task Force to Host Historic Restorative Justice Conference at Harvard Law School

By Pierre R. Berastain

Over the past year, the Massachusetts Restorative Justice Task Force has prepared to convene a daylong restorative justice summit at Harvard Law School. On November 3rd, 2012, Building Communities of Care Wherever We Are will seek to equip participants with tools to build restorative justice and transformative practices in their communities, schools, youth centers, domestic violence and sexual assault centers, faith communities, and prisons, among other contexts. The conference will be held from 8:30am to 5:00pm in Milstein East in Wasserstein Hall at Harvard Law School at 1585 Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge, Mass.

The initiative comes at a particularly important time given the alarming statistics that reflect the inefficiency of the criminal justice system, mainstream domestic violence and sexual violence programs, and the inimical zero tolerance policies implemented in school districts nation-wide. Today, for instance, the United States comprises five percent of the world population, but holds 25 percent of world prisoners. According to the NAACP, “Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, one in every 31 adults is in some form of correctional control.” The cost of these correctional programs amount to over seventy billion dollars annually. The system disproportionately impacts people of color — or people of the global majority. For instance, according to the NAACP, “five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of Whites.” And according to The Sentencing Project, “African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).” These issues have special implications in Massachusetts, which spends six times more per prisoner than per public school pupil — a greater disparity than in any other state. In 2007, Massachusetts spent $78,580 per prisoner and only $12,857 per pupil. The disparities in justice and the surging cost of our punitive criminal justice system demand new paradigms of addressing offenses in our society.


Declaration of Interdependence

Posted by Pierre Berastain

I recently came across this Call to Action video by Let it Ripple.  Given that my work centers around restorative justice, I found the clip particularly compelling.  What would it be to feel interconnected?  What change would it create in our communities?  The implications of interdependence and interconnectedness are powerful: it is a call to  LGBQ/T rights, children rights, a more humane immigration reform in our country.  To read the Declaration of Interdependence, please click here.

Affirmative action and the traumatized twentieth

By Alan Bean

As this excellent article in Colorlines suggests, simple racial inequality has no bearing on the affirmative action debate, and for one simple reason:

 In order to argue that affirmative action is necessary to remedy past discrimination, schools would have to present evidence showing that they’ve previously discriminated against the groups they’re now going to great lengths to admit. Doing so would open them up to litigation from students of color who’d been denied.

With equity off the table, universities have only one legally acceptable argument: affirmative action creates a diverse student body and diversity is intrinsically beneficial to students. This argument makes sense to white administrators who would feel uncomfortable presiding over a homogeneous student body.  According to Colorlines: (more…)

A mother’s thoughts on life-imprisonment for children

By Pierre R. Berastain

The United States Supreme Court ruled this past month that children cannot receive life-without-parole sentences.  The following letter from a mother appeared on Douglas A. Berman’s blog.  In 1986, Dr. Linda White’s daughter was abducted, raped, and murdered.  In 2000, Dr. White met her daughter’s killer thanks to Bridges to Life, an organization that employs the practices of restorative justice and victim-offender dialogue to help victims of crime heal by allowing them to meet their perpetrators.

On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs that it is cruel and unusual to impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on children.  As a mother whose daughter was murdered by two teenage boys, I speak for many victims’ family members who support the Court’s sound decision.

I certainly never imagined that I would become a passionate advocate against life imprisonment without parole for juvenile offenders. I had never confronted the issue until November 18, 1986, the day my world was forever changed when my 26-year-old daughter Cathy, then pregnant with her second child, was killed by two teenage boys.

This tragedy set me on an unlikely path that led me to discover that even youths who commit the worst crimes have the capacity to grow into mature, redeemed adults.  I know this because I watched my daughter’s killer, Gary, become such an adult.

I spent the years following Cathy’s death studying to become a grief counselor.  I became involved in a restorative justice program, Bridges to Life, that allows convicts and crime victims to open a dialogue and work toward reconciliation.  In 2000, I opened myself up to this dialogue with Gary.

When I met Gary, I found that he was a very different person from the boy who once committed a horrible act.  He was a remorseful grown man desperately seeking forgiveness and a chance to make up for the hurt he caused.  My decision to forgive Gary does not mean that what happened is OK.  It can never be OK, and Gary knows that as well as I do.  But keeping him in prison for a longer period would not bring my daughter back.

Gary has now been out of prison for over a year.  He has since dedicated himself to being a positive influence in his community, including working with drug and alcohol addicts at his church.  He regularly tells me that he wants to live a good, impactful life as a “memorial” to my daughter.

Gary is a poster child for why I believe life sentences are so unjust for juveniles.  I have seen that youth have enormous potential to change, and that we should not lock them up without giving them a second chance.

I have also seen that my story is not unique.  I was one of many victims’ family members who appealed to the Supreme Court to do away with juvenile life-without-parole sentences.  While each of our experiences are different, we are united in our belief that keeping children like Gary permanently locked away only compounds the ugliness of crime with the ugliness of hopeless prison sentences.

I strongly believe that young offenders need to be held accountable for their actions. But it is wrong to sentence them to punishments that fail to take into consideration their age and capacity for change.  By denying children the opportunity to someday earn release, you are telling these kids, as Justice Ginsburg stated, that they are throwaway kids.  As they go before judges for resentencing, factors that were dismissed before, such as their age at the time of the crime, their histories of abuse and neglect and their roles in the crime must be considered.  I will feel a sense of calm that children who made tragic mistakes will have an opportunity to be judged by more than their worst act.

Even though he committed an unspeakable crime, Gary was not a throwaway kid.  Had he been sentenced to life-without-parole, he would never have been able to become a living memorial to Cathy.

“I forgive you, and God will, too.” These were the last words Cathy spoke before her death.  I know Cathy would be gratified to see Gary have a second chance and become the positive member of society that he is today.

Stories of redemption like Gary’s are testaments to why the Supreme Court got it right by prohibiting mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children.  The Court has taken an important step in upholding America’s promise to never give up on our children.

The following is part 1/4 of Meeting with a Killer, a brief documentary on Dr. White’s experience.