The guys in green fidget in their chairs, eager to begin the graduation ceremony of the 13-week restorative justice program they have just completed. Graduation marks the end of the program and the beginning of understanding what their crimes have done to their victims, the victims’ families, their own families, employers, insurance companies, the criminal justice system, themselves. They begin to understand the physical, the emotional, the financial, the criminal, the punitive, the restorative. But it is only a beginning.
Tanya is a victim, a survivor. She was robbed at gunpoint by two teens who then pistol-whipped her. She limps, her face is crooked, her right arm is unnaturally stiff. When she takes your hand to shake it, she cannot grasp it because her thumb is pressed into her palm and her fingers remain straight.
Tanya taught the guys in green about the aftermath of her attack. “I walked around with a huge chip on my shoulder for about a year and a half,” she said. “Everything was focused on the offenders. The justice system, my friends, even my family talked about the offenders. No one talked about me. I felt like I had no voice.”
She said she got sick of being a victim. “I do have a voice, and I have a right to use it. The restorative justice program gave me this voice.”
She is a strong supporter of the program and participates in restorative justice programs throughout the state. “I take what I learn with me everywhere I go.”
This is the third restorative justice graduation ceremony at Columbia Correctional Institution. There were 20 slots available for participation in the program. Fifty-seven men applied. Two men dropped out before completion. Almost 900 are incarcerated at CCI. Most of these men will be released and reintegrated into society.
I talk with one man who will be released in five years. He wants to start his own business, a prison catalog company. There are four catalogs inmates may order from. He wants to start another. He knows what the customers want, he says, touching his Jheri-curled twists with the tips of his fingers. He would also like to start a restorative justice program of his own, or a prevention program for youth, so they don’t end up like he did – accepting a plea bargain to reduce that first-degree intentional homicide charge to second-degree reckless homicide and hiding a corpse.
He appears sincere in wanting to go straight on the outside. He talks about the ripple effect his crimes have caused. He is young and strong and hopeful. He wants to go to Madison instead of back to Milwaukee so he can start fresh, away from the influences and behaviors that got him in green scrubs behind red bars. He knows he might have to work for someone else for a while before he can start his business. I feel his excitement in doing something worthwhile. I wonder if he knows how hard it will be once he leaves the security of his brothers, the name most offenders give to their fellow inmates.
“Some men leave here and return to their families, their jobs,” said Rev. Jerry Hancock, who oversees the program. “Others will get on a bus to be taken back to their county of residence with their prison clothes on, and that’s it. It is our hope to give them choices. But many of these men have no hope to return to society. The average sentence of the men in this room is 20 years. Some will be here 40 years. They have to learn how to have some hope for their future in this community, this new community in this prison, and that’s what we’re really focusing on with the restorative justice program.”
What choices will a young black man from the ghetto who’s done time for homicide have? Who will give this man a chance? He remains hopeful. I find myself looking away from him. I feel bad for this murderer. I don’t share his optimism. I worry he will not be able to separate himself from his previous life. He won’t know how to do it or where to go for help, where to go to live, and he will fall into the same behavior that put him in prison. I worry that progressive, colorblind Madison will not give him a chance.
I hope I am wrong. I hope the program is effective and there are fewer Tanyas out there sharing their stories. I shake his hand, smile, and thank him for speaking with me, then turn to mingle with more felons.
Part 1, Part 3