Tag Archives: Restorative Justice

Better Than Church

The women file past me into the room. They all wear the same bland prison whites, a pullover top matched to loose pants with an elastic waistband. Most of the women are in their twenties and thirties, and not attractive in the conventional sense. Their collective presence jars me, though I do my best to appear nonchalant. The prison unit, a substance abuse felony punishment facility in Texas that offers treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, claims them for seven to twelve months because of drug possession or DWI conviction. A number of the women are missing teeth, due to crystal meth abuse. Some of the women’s faces betray hard decisions and painful memories – of which I will hear when they begin to speak.

I’m at a graduation ceremony for Bridges To Life (BTL), a restorative justice prison ministry that joins surrogate crime victims and perpetrators face-to-face. (BTL is a volunteer program that is not part of the prison’s in-house drug treatment efforts, but it buttresses those efforts all the same.) All of the women in the room have completed the ministry’s fourteen-week program that coaxes forth self-awareness, accountability, and restoration by requiring participants to engage in rigorous self-evaluation. Small group discussions allow participants to honestly share their stories with one another. The traditional healing practices of confession and forgiveness are used to help inmates examine the effects of their crimes upon themselves, upon their relationships with family and friends, and upon the relationships their offenses have created with the victims of their crimes.

It’s open-mic for this ceremony night of graduation. Three questions guide the women’s remarks: 1) How have you changed in the last fourteen weeks? 2) How do you feel now? 3) What do you want to say to the group?

The first woman to speak steps up to the wood podium in front of six neat rows of folding chairs, where her fellow inmates, ten BTL volunteers, the prison chaplain, and I watch her intently. She tries to speak but can’t as tears well up in her eyes. Immediately, a chorus of fingers snapping, raised in the air – as I’ll learn, their particular expression of support – fills the room. The woman covers her face with her hand and wipes her tears. She takes a deep breath and begins: “For the first time in a long time, I’m living actively and not passively. I feel alive again and my attitude has changed immensely. I’m letting feelings about my past go as I’ve learned I need to forgive myself. I feel important to myself again.” This last phrase jars me, but in a distinct manner from the jarring that internally shook me when the women filed into the room. I feel important to myself again – this particular description, the tip of an iceberg of human darkness and light, sets the stage. I will hear variations on the same wonderful theme for the next seventy-five, tear-inspiring minutes.

Released emotions, more tears, and at-the-ready snapping fingers accompany the ensuing testimonies, each one upon its conclusion met with cheers and applause that buoy the speaker back to her seat:

“I didn’t feel like I was worthy of change before, because I came here with a lot of guilt and shame . . . but now I have acceptance.”

“My everything has changed – the way I look at others and the way I look at myself. I’m proud of myself. I haven’t been proud of myself for years.”

“For so long, I hated myself and couldn’t forgive myself. But I feel lighter and freer now. The more I tell people about my weakness, the more restored God has made me feel. I have hope again.”

“Before I started this program, I felt like I was a victim. But when we wrote our letters, it occurred to me that I had harmed other people. I was blind, but now I see.”

The letters to which the speaker refers are confessional letters of apology to those harmed by the offender’s actions. A letter is written to a family member and a victim of the offender’s crime – the letters are not sent but used for small group discussion in one of the weekly BTL sessions, for the purpose of claiming responsibility, accountability, and forgiveness.

Others testify:

“Some of us haven’t had positive role models in our lives. To have ears listening to us, helps restore my hope. I have a future again.”

“I never used to care about completing anything. Receiving this certificate tonight is so important – now I know I can complete things. My self-esteem has been lifted up so much.”

“To come here and be loved and accepted and forgiven – we’re all God’s little miracles.”

Toward the end of the testimonies, another woman, after fighting back tears like so many before her, shares with the group six words of profound self-understanding:

“Now I remember who I am . . .”

By this time, I’ve come upon an eye-opening realization myself. I see that what these women are sharing, straight from their souls, is the most beautiful thing I’ve witnessed in some time. As a male in the yet male-dominated twenty-first century world, my first glance at women often times, almost instinctively, is one of simple examination for what my eye understands to be beauty or good looks. I don’t say this in a braggadocious way, but in a truthful and confessional way. The women this night – some with missing teeth, and others unkempt in prison whites and freed from having to present themselves to the outside world – remind me that what binds us together more than anything is the common humanity we carry inside consisting of feelings, emotions, and experiences. All of us are in need of the inner gifts of love, acceptance, and support. Outward displays of possessions, accomplishments, and good looks – all of these having positive attributes – are overemphasized in popular culture, often to the detriment of the more important inner gifts.

Bridges To Life has a crucial place in my new book on restorative justice, due out the beginning of 2018. The woman who invited me to the graduation, Ellen Halbert, told me ahead of time: “You’ll see. The graduation ceremony is incredible.” She was, and is, absolutely right. Ellen is a crime victim and a prominent restorative justice proponent – the prison unit in Burnet, Texas where we’ve gathered for the graduation, is named for her. She was a presenter, during an earlier session of the fourteen-week program with this same group. The women were so moved by hearing Ellen’s story that they insisted she come back for their graduation.

As we linger in the room and share refreshments with the graduates and volunteers, I – a preacher – share with Ellen my evaluation of the evening: “You’re right, Ellen. This was great – better than church.” She smiles and nods her head. She’s seen it before and she’ll see it again: The healing power of shared story and testimony to make a new way forward, for bearer and listener alike.

 

T. Carlos Anderson is a pastor and writer based in Austin, Texas. His first book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago). JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

 

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Restorative Justice, Face-to-Face

I’m committing the bulk of my attention this calendar year to the fascinating field of restorative justice. I’m writing a new book (available in 2018) that tells the story of a young man who killed two people in a 1996 drunk driving wreck and subsequently received a forty-year prison sentence. He experienced transformation not because he decided to rehab his life, as if it was a do-it-yourself solo job. His reformation came via a gradual process that was greatly enhanced by encounters he had with surviving victim family members, and other victims of crime. His healing was the direct result of face-to-face encounters with those deeply and innocently wounded by the ravages of his crime and other crimes.

State-sponsored retributive justice is a bedrock of modern Western society as understood in the colloquial phrase “You do the crime, you do the time.” Societal order and expectations are positively shaped by laws and corresponding punishments of their violations. In retributive justice theory, the state is the principal victim and consequent administrator of punishment.

Restorative justice—distinct from retributive justice—goes back to traditions that pre-date modern Western societies. Its goal is to restore the relationships damaged by crime and sustain the community where both victim and offender reside (usually the case). In restorative justice theory, the person violated is the principal victim, not the state. Face-to-face encounters between victim and offender aim to match victim needs and offender responsibilities as concerns confession, apology, information, restitution, reconciliation, and future security. In restorative justice practice, offenders take responsibility for their crimes by acknowledging their debt to their victims and by paying them back, if possible, in concrete ways. A grade school teacher, for example, practices restorative justice when she has two of her students, previously fighting, sit down face-to-face to work out their differences instead of sending them to the principal’s office for mandatory discipline.

A restorative approach is not applicable to all situations of crime victimization. Situations of sexual abuse, especially, are not suited to face-to-face encounters. Surrogate meetings, where victims encounter offenders—offenders of similar crimes but not the offender(s) in their particular case—are effective vehicles to positively impact both parties.

Texas’s was the first state criminal justice system to offer a restorative approach for victims of violent crime—its program starting via profoundly unique circumstances in 1993. A woman by the name of Cathy Phillips wanted to meet with the imprisoned killer of her daughter. She didn’t know the man but wanted to tell him face-to-face what her daughter meant to her and what his actions did her family. Anthony Yanez was sentenced to life without possibility of parole for the brutal kidnapping, rape, and murder of Brenda Phillips. Most of Phillips’s friends told her she was crazy, but she was undeterred. As there was no official means by which to pursue her desire, Phillips eventually appealed directly to Texas governor Ann Richards. Richards had previously appointed the first crime victim, Ellen Halbert, to the powerful Texas Department of Criminal Justice Board—and Halbert’s advocacy led to Phillips having her day across the table from Yanez. The meeting, with a trained mediator present, allowed Phillips to unburden a part of her soul. It wasn’t about forgiveness or reconciliation—it was about honesty and disclosure: This is what you did to my family and you need to hear me out. The meeting occurred in 1991. Yanez offered an apology and Cathy Phillips said she felt better after the meeting, with some of her questions answered. She no longer had to play the “What you don’t know will drive you crazy” game.

Ellen Halbert and John Sage receiving TDCJ Board special recognition for prison ministry work in April 2017. Sage’s “Bridges To Life” prison ministry uses restorative justice practices to bring together offenders and surrogate crime victims.

After Phillips’s encounter with Yanez, Halbert helped direct funding to the victim services unit of Texas’s criminal justice system and a victim-offender dialogue program was created and made available to victims of violent crime in 1993, the first of its kind in the nation. To date, almost forty other state criminal justice systems have followed suit.

My book-to-be tells its story in narrative fashion, the specific story of the 1996 wreck fitting into the larger story of Texas’s foray into state-sponsored restorative justice practices. The goal is to reveal the life-changing and -enhancing practices of restorative justice. Before I delved into this project, like many, I was only vaguely aware of restorative justice practices. This book aims to expose many to its healing ways.

A number of friends and acquaintances have asked if this book project has anything in common with my first book, Just a Little Bit More, which exposes economic and social inequalities and offers a better way forward. This new book will be very different in form and message, but, yes, it will lift up, as does Just a Little Bit More, face-to-face meetings as a powerful balm to cure some of what ails us in our current day. The sharing of and listening to a genuine story, told with humility and honesty, holds within it the ability to help us see our shared common humanity. We need more of that today.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

 

 

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