“Healthy relationships are crucial for successful living.” Take this from a group of men who know unhealthy relationships. This group of inmates have been charged with crimes that impacted many people in their communities, their families, and ultimately, themselves.
I have come into Yavapai County Jail in Camp Verde, Arizona with Northern Arizona Restorative Justice (NARJ.org). I am a Board Member and restorative facilitator. I have facilitated hundreds of recovery and restorative circles.
This jail has over 100 volunteers who are allowed to meet with inmates. This facility is working to create programs that are beneficial in reducing recidivism and creating a safer community.
That is why Barry and I volunteer to meet with people incarcerated there. We want to see people restored. We want to create a dialogue around healing from trauma, addiction, and mental illness. We want to stop punishing sickness. Instead, we want to repair the harm these things cause.
The harm that these men had done as a result of their addictions, pathologies and mental illnesses, were what Barry, Janice and I, and this group of 12 men, were here to explore.
One might expect to be conned in a room filled with convicts.These men, though, are eager to tell the truth.
“What about repairing the harm?” Barry asked the group. “What are your thoughts on reparation? If we break down to the harm we have done to ourselves, and start with repairing that, we can move into forgiveness.” “We are here to look at the humanity.” he continued.
Barry talked to the group about forgiveness, and that concept felt very foreign inside these walls.
Some of these men had done some horrible things. They had a real hard time understanding how to move into forgiveness.
Barry explained to the group that he cares about who these men have hurt and how they can repair the harm and move forward. He explained how we have seen children, men, and women, successfully move forward after horrible harm has happened in their lives with the assistance of restorative justice.
“What’s that AA term? Something about a moral inventory?” I asked the group.
“Fearless” one inmate said.
“Fearless and searching” another finished.
“Fearless”, I repeated. “It takes that type of look at yourself.” I reminded everyone. “I hear this desire for something different, but part of that process is looking at the mistakes that you have made”.
“How would you go about repairing?” I asked again, referring everyone to the harm they have caused, and the harm they have themselves suffered.
One guy who described his pattern of explosive anger responded, “To try to change my environment, and change my outlook on it instead of going right to rage when I feel she is doing something to me. I feel like I am being betrayed at that time. So I learned that about myself today. Maybe I need to step outside of the box, and go outside, instead of saying hurtful words.”
This man bore the wounds of a man who had “been let down by everybody”. And he realized he had only given in to his anger because “I had been hurt.”
I asked the group to imagine “What would it look like to share and to acknowledge the feelings of being hurt? Now I know I’m asking this to a bunch of gangsters...” the group laughed. “and we don’t talk about being hurt, but underneath a lot of these…”
“It’s like a kid. I act like a kid” someone interrupted.
“Totally. But a kid is screaming out because they’re hurt. And when we have the awareness that says, ‘okay I’m lashing out and I want to smash something because I’m hurt’, what would it look like for you to acknowledge and say ‘I’m hurt. I’m feeling hurt’”.
“I AM feeling hurt.” the man said, and he publicly acknowledged a hurt he had never before had the courage to share. He also learned to recognize what it is to feel hurt, as he mentioned “I don’t know how to distinguish that right now”. And most importantly, he saw a way out. He saw a way that he could address this old pattern in a new way.
The whole group saw it.
This group would later acknowledge that they had “never seen anything like this.”
I’ve seen a lot of circles, and I had never seen one quite like this, either..
“Were you scared to say that you were hurt?” another man asked.
“A lot of times, I feel like, ‘You should know’” the man emoted. He had a common misconception among men. He thought that his wife knew what he was thinking and feeling. The foolishness of this expectation was lost on no one.
“I heard forgiveness” another man spoke up. “...you know...ummm...I’m in here...first of all because of what I was doing....but partially, what helped me get in here is somebody told on me. Honest to God, I came in here and I was angry about that, and then I realized, you know, I was praying, and I was reading my Bible, and I started realizing, you know what, first of all, if I wasn’t doing what I was doing, no one could have told on me. I also realized that I need to forgive that person that wore a wire on me. It wasn’t necessarily for him. It was for myself. I didn’t want to walk around with that anger. It takes a lot of energy and I don’t want that burden, you know”.
“I’m looking at 15 years,” the man continued. “Not good. But ultimately, my relationships have gotten better. I’m in a safe spot. I’m out of my addiction...I’m not saying I’m happy. But something had to happen for me. Ultimately, I want to be forgiven. I want mercy. Because I have done harm and I’m not innocent here. I want to practice forgiveness and loving people and trying to be the best person I can be.”
Janice, the inmate coordinator of treatment programs, spoke up, “I’ve heard a lot of people say that they were rescued, not arrested.”
I’ve heard stories of people being rescued by going to prison. But I’ve also seen the side effects of arrest and imprisonment, and know that many of those imprisoned are lost to destruction and addiction. I've seen fear on the faces of community members and the pain of victims. Neither victims nor offenders; not to mention our communities, are restored by our current justice system that relies on punishment, not restoration.
What would it look like for our community to create justice and restoration for all involved?
That is one of the many questions I leave this jail with every time I visit.
I know that restorative circles are a part of the solution. But they are only a part.
There are other circles that must overlap to create connection and healing. Healing harm is always going to be a community exercise in forgiveness and restoration.