Occupation and Justice in Prison

For 5 years I have taken part in a Restorative Justice program here in Wisconsin. Restorative Justice is a prison-centered program that seeks to bring about a sense of healing in offenders, victims and communities. The leader of one of the Restorative Justice programs in Wisconsin prisons, Jerry Hancock, says that the program helps the offenders understand “the ripples of harm that their crime caused to the victim, the victim’s family, their own family, and the community. Once that happens, they can begin to repair that damage” (Hancock, J. Isthmus, January 2, 2009, 8-9).

My involvement in the program has focused on the nature of everyday life inside the prison. Are there ways to counteract the potential occupational deprivation experienced in prison? Sitting in a circle with 24 men who have committed crimes leading to very long or life-sentences in prison, we talk about the rhythm of their days: the balance of time alone and time with others; opportunities for new possibilities as well as the repetition of familiar activities and routines; daily occupations that offer challenges as well as occupations that are comfortable and easy; activities that represent special individual interests as well as activities in which the entire cell block takes part.

The men share with each other what they have done to try to make the days their own within the constraints of prison life. These sessions are the beginnings of repairing “that damage,” the term used by Jerry Hancock above — trying to ameliorate one of the “ripples of harm.” We are making an effort to come up with some answers to the question, “How can daily life within the walls be made more meaningful and balanced to the men who will be there for so long, or, for some, for the rest of their lives?”

A few days ago I received an e-mail from one of the primary volunteers in the Restorative Justice (RJ) program. With the e-mail came an attachment — an “amazing story” Susan wanted to share about a mid-October RJ event at one of Wisconsin’s prisons. Here is the story (almost as originally received) as Susan wrote it. The role of daily occupation in the story is powerful.


For the past couple of months this fall, a small group of community volunteers has been going to New Lisbon Correctional Institution (NLCI) for our Restorative Justice group.

Each week we arrive at NLCI after a 90 minute drive. More than one thousand men live here. We pass through razor wire, metal detectors, clanging metal gates, and grim security officers, finally entering an area of the prison not often seen by the public. We meet in a room that’s called the chapel, but it looks nothing like any chapel you’ve ever seen — with stark white, hard, concrete block walls, a too-shiny beige tile floor, stackable plastic and metal tables and chairs, harshly bright white ceiling fixtures, and no windows facing outdoors . . . Every time I go to prison I am grateful that I am allowed to leave, to go back to my home, my family, my dog. But I’m also incredibly grateful to be able to go to prison, to do this work that adds great meaning to my everyday life.

Our 12-week RJ program brings together volunteers, who represent “the community” — people living outside the walls — with “offenders” who live in this prison. About two dozen community folk, offenders, and the prison chaplain spend each Wednesday morning sitting in a circle on hard plastic chairs. Sometimes we bring a speaker, sometimes it’s just us, and we pass a talking-piece around the circle and share stories. The men in our group, representing the category called “offenders,” bring a range of ages and races, length of sentences, and a variety of backgrounds. Some committed crimes under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, and some were in street gangs. Some had “ordinary childhoods,” some survived unthinkable abuse. Whatever their circumstances, they have all been convicted of serious crimes, and many will not go home for a very long time, if ever again.

Whenever we do a program like this, several weeks into the series of these morning sessions, we always schedule a block of time when the group meets all day for three long days. We think of it as a sort of on-site retreat. To put this story in context, I will describe (in over-simplified terms) what goes on during the 3-day program.

On Day 1, we do some activities in small groups and talk in the circle about the ripples of harm caused by crime. Day 2 is the real heart of the program, when two volunteers tell in their own words what it was like to be victims of violent crime. Each victim speaks for about an hour. The person who committed these particular crimes is never in the same prison where the stories are told, but for many of the men, the type of crime described is all-too-familiar. The group hears the details of what happened, the impact and the ripple effects of the aftermath of the crimes on the lives of these individuals, their families, and communities. It’s always intense, emotional, and painful to hear. After the stories, we all take turns in the circle responding verbally to what we have just heard. Many inmates and community members have described this session as “life-changing.”

We ask the inmates to do some “homework” on the evening of Day 2. They all create something — it can be a poem, letter, drawing, song, or anything they want to share — that represents a “creative response” to the stories they have just heard. They bring these creative responses with them on Day 3, and they take turns explaining and sharing them. Then we conclude with some other activities and a closing circle in which we describe one thing we will do to put restorative justice into action.

So back to the story. We recently completed this 3-day “retreat” at NLCI. In the middle of our circle of chairs, we placed a beautiful crocheted afghan, a blanket-sized piece of art. This afghan, in the center of our circle, was the focal point of our group for all 3 days. It was designed and crocheted by an inmate named Ronald, who had been one of our inmate participants in an RJ program at another Wisconsin institution about a year ago. Ronald donated this beautiful fabric art . . . for our RJ program.

Picture this afghan’s design: Many rows of rippling stripes across its width, crocheted in shades of light and dark blues, maroon, and turquoise against a white background. The overall visual effect is like gazing at a rippling pool of water. The artist told us that these stripes represent for him the ripples of harm and the ripples of healing and hope, and that the three bold colors represent the three cornerstones of restorative justice: victims, offenders, and the community. We love this beautiful, strong visual statement of our process together. We take the afghan with us now to use as the circle’s centerpiece in all our RJ programs.

A man named Brian participated in our group this time. Unexpectedly, on the morning of Day 2, Brian was absent from our circle. The chaplain told us that Brian had been taken out of the institution on a medical visit, and would likely return the following day. If an inmate needs health services that cannot be done on site, the Department of Corrections transports that inmate to a clinic or hospital. Often an inmate will not know in advance that an off-site medical appointment will be scheduled. Brian was sorry that his medical visit meant he was missing his program that day. He shared that information with another inmate who was riding in the same van [to the medical appointment]. The other inmate asked, “Which program?” Brian replied that it was the Restorative Justice group. The other inmate proudly told Brian that he too had participated in RJ at another institution, and that he remembered it being a very positive and helpful experience for him. The two inmates spent the long van trip to the hospital talking about their common experiences.

On Day 3, Brian returned to the group. Because he had missed Day 2, he had not heard the victims’stories, nor had he heard about the homework assignment. So as the group went around the circle, sharing their drawings, stories, song, and letters, Brian apologized for having nothing to share with the group as his “creative response” to the victims’ stories. Instead, he contributed something even more amazing. He told everyone about this great guy he’d met the day before, and the conversation they’d had during the trip to their medical visit. Without fanfare, with just a shrug and a smile, Brian said, “Yeah, yesterday I met the guy who made the afghan.”

Everyone was stunned and amazed. We weren’t even aware that Ronald had been transferred to New Lisbon after finishing our RJ program the previous spring. Brian told us that Ronald was delighted to learn that his afghan was being used at New Lisbon by this RJ group. At lunchtime, the chaplain contacted prison security and arranged for Ronald to come to the chapel later that afternoon . . . As the men were getting ready to end Day 3, say good-bye, and go back to their cells, Ronald surprised us, rolling his wheelchair into the room, beaming from ear to ear. Brian proudly introduced him to the new RJ group: “Hey everybody, this is Ronald, the afghan guy!”

Ronald happily greeted the volunteers he had met months before. “Offenders,” “Victims,” and “Community” had come together, all touched by the shared experience. The restorative justice process was palpable. It was truly an “Aha! moment” for everyone.

Susan Heneman, Restorative Justice Volunteer

Thank you, Susan.

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