Questions for Prison Activists
I recently held two meetings with the prisoners enrolled in the Circle Up/restorative justice course. It didn’t go well. I believe I understand the problem. The criminal legal system shields perpetrators of harm from the effects of their behavior. We are punished, but we aren’t held accountable. We rarely consider the harmed party. Preliminary hearings are the only time many of us hear the harmed party’s version of events. The courts are not interested in the impact of our actions upon them, just details. Since most cases end in plea agreements, we rarely hear victim impact statements either. This course is the first time many of us have been confronted with the effects of our choices.
The new readings centered on the work of organizations that provide comfort and support to mothers who have lost their children to gun violence. Many of the men were triggered. Some were paralyzed by guilt and shame. They were unable to work through theiremotions and be present to benefit from the readings. Others were angry. They felt that they too are victims of gun violence. Many prisoners have lost family and friends to gun violence. Some have been shot. They angrily wondered where their support was.
The PA DOC does not require prisoners to consider the impact of their behavior on others, let alone work to remedy it. The only program that requires us to admit we even committed harm is the sex offender program. This is new ground for many men here. They want to do the work, but these unresolved feelings are getting in the way.
I need some guidance on what we can do to provide the infrastructure necessary to do this important work. How can we help the men work through and resolve their feelings of anger over their own losses AND work through the accountability process? How can we help them overcome shame AND still accept responsibility for the harm they’ve committed? We really need advice and suggestions on materials to do this foundational work.
Stevie & the Circle Up study group