In 1985, at the age of 18, I was sentenced to life in prison for murder. I was sent to Georgia Industrial Institute, commonly known as Alto, after the nearby town. Throughout the system at that time Alto had a reputation for violence. Though I was tried and convicted as an adult, this prison was designed for “youthful offenders.” Only a handful of prisoners were over the age of 22, and many had arrived there at ages 14 – 17.
During 25 years of incarceration, I never again lived at a prison with the same levels of assault, robbery and rape. Alto was a hyper-violent place. There is an awful synergy when young marginalized men are placed in a situation with little supervision or protection. I remember thinking that Lord of the Flies was a perfectly logical picture of young men isolated from the adult world.
Until my release in 2009, I continued to meet young men who had had similar experiences in “youth prisons” or in youth detention centers (YDCs). I met many young men who were transferred directly from YDC into the adult system. Even though the adult prison was usually a safer place, they would maintain the same set of survival strategies they learned in the juvenile system. This often led to fighting and other behavior that caused them and others problems.
From 2005 until 2009, I was involved in a mentoring program that mixed older prisoners with these young men. They were well adapted to the environment of the youth detention centers, but their adaptations were not suitable for prison, much less the outside world. Prisons are communities, and when these young men entered the community with their annoying and often dangerous habits, there was often a “there goes the neighborhood” response from the older prisoners. One of our goals as mentors was to model a different approach to living in a prison, an approach that placed personal growth over violence and other nonproductive activities.
The mentoring project was conceived by a group of lifers who had served many years in prison. I brought my interest in restorative justice to the group because it addressed the role that prisoners could take in repairing themselves and their communities. I had studied several approaches to rehabilitation, and restorative justice seemed to offer the best method for affecting change in ourselves, our companions, our families, and in our community. The mentoring group was an example of a restorative effort that we, as members of a community with specific needs and skills, were best able to carry out. The various activities we did within the group were less important than the example we set for the young men of taking responsibility for ourselves and our community. We demonstrated an alternative to their habitual responses. This was restorative justice in action.
Restorative justice acknowledges the importance of involvement by everyone who is affected by crime. Society, families, friends, victims and offenders are all impacted when an act damages the web of connection. The needs of all must be addressed if full restoration is to be achieved. The offender’s role in this effort has been largely marginalized. Whether or not those dealing with offenders view them as needing help or needing punishment, the offender has been a bystander in the process. Either the system is doing something “to” the prisoner or “for” him. Both ways minimize his accountability and his ability to effect change within himself. What we learned, and what we modeled to those young men, was that without our own involvement in our rehabilitation we would never achieve our full potential as human beings.
Through this and similar experiences I became convinced that only an effort that fully involves the offender, that empowers him to be truly responsible for himself, will succeed in bringing about true rehabilitation. If an effort is able to mobilize this power, then it will take root among the prison population, the group that can best bring about needed change. Once an offender is able to take this step he can proceed to help his companions. By developing personal insight he gains empathy for others. Not only can restorative practices be used to address the actions for which someone is incarcerated, they can also be used to address the prison environment itself, where the various roles of offender and victim are played out almost daily. In our group we were able to address the actions that had brought us to prison and the many negative actions that took place in the prison.
Of course, many pieces of the problem are yet to be solved. Offenders must be able to take responsibility without giving up their legal rights. Structures should be created that allow for victim/offender dialogue when appropriate. Most importantly, in my opinion, safe spaces need to be created where the offender can focus on restoration instead of survival. When you live day to day worrying about being assaulted, killed, raped or robbed you have very little energy for introspection. Barb Toews, in her book Restorative Justice for People in Prison, writes about “restorative spaces,” places that promote respect, care, healing, accountability and nonviolence. In my experience, these places do not yet exist in what we call prisons and youth detention centers. I believe that I can begin that work now, with the people I know can affect the most change: offenders.