In these days of increasing racial injustice and fear of “the other,” we are losing sight of what we might call civilized society. We’re witnessing the blatant denial of civil rights for black and brown Americans. And increasingly, many of us are feeling as if we can’t trust each other, elected officials, or our public safety institutions. But at one California State prison, there is cause for hope; here, in the most unlikely of locations, a Restorative Justice practice, led by incarcerated felons, offers a powerful model of healing for us all.

I work for Oakland’s Community Works West, a non-profit aimed at mitigating the impact of incarceration on families by using principles of Restorative Justice—that is, by focusing on rehabilitation and repairing the damage caused by crime. Three years ago, I was tapped to pilot a parenting curriculum at Solano Prison in Vacaville, California. Solano houses approximately 4,000 men, and over time, in the course of teaching the parenting class, I witnessed hundreds of inmates in my classes suffer due to broken relationships with their families. I realized that these individuals clearly needed ways to make amends, not only to their victims, but also to their spouses, and especially, to their children. And so I introduced the idea of Restorative Justice to my students and their families.

Restorative Justice: Reweaving the Web of Life

Restorative Justice starts from a belief that the path to justice lies in problem solving and reparation, rather than punishment and isolation. A Restorative Justice Circle is a practice that brings victims, offenders, and community members together to address the harms committed, and to attempt to restore broken relationships (the Spring 2016 SSIR article, “Embracing Healing Justice in California,” offers more detail). When I raised the possibility of implementing Restorative Justice Circles at Solano Prison, the fathers were extremely receptive. So I assembled a team of inmate leaders, and we strategized ways to bring the practice to all of my parenting class graduates. We decided that I would train five men (out of the 270 graduates of my programs) to become Restorative Justice Circle Keepers, so each could hold regular circles with other inmates. In addition, a colleague of mine at Community Works West, Yejide Ankobia, agreed to lead a monthly training session.

At our first meeting, we concentrated on slowing down thoughts, being fully present in the circle, and examining our values. We heard each participant’s story, and we discovered many common bonds: centuries of oppression and racial injustice, systemic corruption, and greed. We talked about the web of relationships that exists in every family and community, and how important it is to mend relationships when they are damaged. We discussed how each person in a community, classroom, or family system is completely necessary to the interconnected whole, even if that person doesn’t realize it. We explored the idea that people may only notice this web of relationships when it is damaged or broken—when someone dies, or when they can’t participate in family life as they normally would because of illness, or when we are separated from someone because of incarceration. We also talked about how, if we value the web and our interconnected nature, we can try to repair ruptured relationships, and by doing so, we may strengthen our communities and ourselves.

In addition, Yejide and I introduced the seven steps of a Restorative Justice Circle. They are: Opening, Introduce the Talking Piece, Check-in, Guidelines/Values, Discussion Rounds, Check-out, and Closing. At the end of the session, we asked the five inmates to prepare to lead a Restorative Justice Circle of their own.

Inmates as Leaders: Our Process

Everyone arrived at the next training ready, having practiced holding circle with men in their housing unit, and we selected Jose to lead that day (I have withheld last names to protect privacy). Jose first explained that he had memorized the seven steps he had been taught at the first meeting, in part to prepare for this meeting, but also so that he could begin to use them with his family during their weekly visits. He then guided us in a brief meditation, and after that, he introduced the talking piece: a rock from the prison yard. He talked a little about his choice—sharing his thoughts about the meaning of the earth within the context of prison. Jose said that he loves connecting with the earth, though his opportunities are severely limited while he is incarcerated. This rock, therefore, represents his relationship with nature. He led the check-in, asking, “What is one skill or talent you have?” Jose talked about his own love of gardening. We learned about proud cooks, sportsmen, coaches, teachers, change agents. Some shared their gift of words and poetry. One participant, David, revealed his super dry wit.  

Jose then asked, “What is the hardest part about being at Solano for you?” prompting the men to talk about what it meant to give up an early, naive definition of self, and to try to move to a more authentic one. We heard about the suffering one endures while pretending to be strong or fearless, and what it is like to watch one’s identity be destroyed.

Carlos said that he had changed so much that his family no longer understood him. David, his voice clouded by emotion, said he felt he had lost contact with his daughter. Abraham said he regrets that he has spent 27 years without the ability to give what he believes he was born to give.

Jose confessed that the hardest part about his incarceration is the dual pain of not parenting his daughter, while knowing that he took the life of another family’s child. He shed tears, and looked us all in the eyes, before leading the circle to its close.

Widening Circles

Silas Robinson leads a Restorative Justice Circle at Solano Prison. (Photo by Jo Bauen)

Over the next six months, in subsequent circles, the group honed their skills as leaders, and exchanged facilitation techniques: poems, prompts, guidelines, even behavior management techniques. They discussed breakthroughs witnessed in their circles, such as when men forgave themselves or their fathers, and began to emote and value empathy. Six months after that first meeting, the group asked me to help them bring Restorative Justice Circles to all of the inmates at Solano, including high-level offenders, in order to help even more men.

Soon after that, we kicked off the larger program—initially reaching more than 100 inmates—half the men were low-level offenders (as are the five leaders), and half were high-level offenders and held in a separate part of the facility. These programs began by introducing the five Circle Keepers, defining Restorative Justice, and then breaking into five groups of 10 participants each. These groups proceeded to explore restorative principles; the impact of crime on self, family, and community; the similarities and differences across race, class, and gender, and our interconnectedness. The method proved itself. When it was time to close the program, we heard reports back from each circle: “I met a new friend.” “Thanks for looking me in the eye.” “Thanks for bringing hope.”

At the debrief, everyone was ecstatic: “It shows me I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.” “I knew it was all or nothing, so I gave all.” The men exchanged notes on what tools they used in their respective circles. Everyone agreed: we have built a means of sharing power, hope, and strength.

Transformative Powers

In a Restorative Justice Circle, we feel the contours of each other’s pain as well as each other’s joy. The process asks each of us how we have been harmed and how we harm others. These questions require everyone present to understand that racism, poverty, poor schools, and limited jobs translate into angry young adults who choose drugs, gangs, violence, and crime. And these same questions lead me to understand how people who walk in privilege are interconnected with those who do not.

I see acutely how I have benefited from my whiteness, from good schools and jobs, as well as from people who work in low-wage jobs. I see how opportunities have been open to me, because they were not open to others. We have all been harmed, and we have all done harm. I conclude that we must all seek a better way to coexist. And I wonder: What could Restorative Justice Circles do for groups of people outside prison walls? What could they do to help prevent crime, to repair and strengthen communities?

I believe Restorative Justice is a necessary tool for building solidarity across differences. In this current season of exclusion of so many we call “other,” can we embrace our common humanity and commit to a new approach to justice?