Go to Prison

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Marquette Law School

prisonLast week I had the honor of joining my colleague Janine Geske on her regular journey to Green Bay Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison reminiscent of the prison in Shawshank Redemption.  The prisoners at Green Bay run the gamut of serious crimes from sexual assault to drug distribution to armed robbery to homicide.  Janine runs a three-day session on restorative justice, meeting with about twenty prisoners as part of a several-month program on the challenges and possibilities faced by these men.  She has been running this program here for years as part of our Restorative Justice Initiative, and I was so excited to finally fit this in my schedule.  Having done this trip last week and then spent the past weekend in services for Rosh Hashanah, I have had plenty of time to reflect on crime, punishment, repentence, and redemption.  In retrospect, I don’t know that I could have timed this better.  Suffice it to say, the experience was amazing. 

First, let me set the stage. 

We are told to dress “prison appropriate” which means no metal anywhere (other than your shoes) unless you want to take off that particular piece of clothing or undergarment to run it through the metal detector.  We (Janine; a few law students; community members interested in RJ, including someone from LA interested in adopting this program for California; and me) go through five sets of bars that open only when the one behind you closes.  The circle is held in the prison classroom, where we sit in a large circle of chairs – prisoners interspersed with staff and outsiders.  Although we can see their full names on their name tents, we use first names and flip our security-issued name tags around so no one can read the full name.  It’s a little daunting, so even more powerful, as the day moves forward.

I went on the second day of the RJ program.  On the first day, the prisoners are broken into groups, and each group charts the ripple effects of a single crime, an armed robbery at a mall.  From the flipcharts posted around the room, I can see the groups have done an impressive job.  A single theft not only affects the victim and the store, but the victim’s family, customers and other workers at the store, members of the broader community who might shop at the mall, the suppliers, and so on.  Today, on the second day, we hear from two victim-survivors in the morning.  The first is a the widow of a police officer killed at a domestic violence shelter, taking a bullet for a 15-year-old who had been defending his mother against her abuser.  She speaks in excrutiating detail: hearing the sirens, being woken to go to the hospital, hearing her sneakers squeak with his blood, seeing the line of blue uniformed officers lining the hospital hallway, telling her two small children.  It is impossibly hard to hear this and I wonder what the prisoners think.  The next woman who speaks lost her son to a drunk driver.  (She hates that phrasing “lost.” It is much too passive.   As she noted, she didn’t “lose” her son – she knows exactly where he is.  I should say he was murdered.)  Again, we learn the details of his life: a warm, vibrant college senior who, in the year between high school and college, biked with three friends around the entire perimeter of the continental U.S.  He was biking when he was killed, just a few days before his last college exam.

And then we break for lunch.  As Janine warned the inmates, lunch might be difficult.  They will be thinking about what they have heard.  We get to leave for lunch and the sunlight is a welcomed intrusion.

When we return, it is time to go around the circle and hear from the men.  The statements are amazing – as Janine tells me, many of these men will never be released from prison.  Their statements do not go to the parole board, and they often wouldn’t help them anyway.  Almost all of them start by thanking the women for speaking, many of them are crying and talk about their own loss and vicitimization as part of what got them to prison in the first place.  Here is a sampling:

“I want to apologize to you.  I belong here and you have helped me understand the hurt that I have caused.” 

“I will take your story and try to change the world for good.” 

“I used to think that victimizing someone after you have been a victim is power.  But this is real power, the power to help others, the power to help change.” 

“I used to view myself as the victim and blame others.  I never saw the ripple effect.” 

“I was hurt so I wanted to hurt others.” 

“Males are born but men are made – and this is one of the starting points.”

At the end of the afternoon, the prisoners heard from one more victim, the sister of a man imprisoned for life for murder, who just graduated law school at Marquette.  And the men heard about a different ripple effect, on their families and loved ones, who lost their brother or son in the crime they committed.  

Unfortunately, I could not go for the third day, where the prisoners talk again about what they have heard and then look forward to what they can do with what they have learned.  The warden at Green Bay loves this program: In-prison behavior from these prisoners improves while they are there and the likelihood of repeat offending once they do get out goes down.

Let me close with what I was thinking on my drive home:  First, I felt blessed that I was just a visitor – not a victim, not a relative, not directly touched by any crime.  Second, I was amazed to see what restorative justice and dispute resolution can do to individuals even in the worst circumstances.  And finally, I was so proud that this program is supported by Marquette and part of our dispute resolution curriculum.  I know it has a dramatic impact on our students as they go out into the world and practice law.  They, too, will learn the ripple effect of their actions – good and bad – and what good they can do as lawyers in the broader community.

Cross posted at Indisputably.

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2 Responses to “Go to Prison”

  1. The St. Thomas More Society guides Marquette Law students into the Wauwatosa Juvenile Detention facility once a month. Students present legal information valuable to juveniles taken into custody with the help of Milwaukee Public School teachers and security guards. Its a valuable experience and a great way to get pro bono hours.

    Last year, the program received the Friend of Education award from the Wauwatosa Teacher’s Union.

    For more information contact Ron Tusler or Jeremy Hager.

  2. I had the good fortune of participating in one of these visits early in my law school career. It has since changed completely the way I view criminal law. Any time I am involved in a conversation about the criminal justice system, it is hard (if not impossible) for me to keep from drawing on what I have learned at these experiences. In fact, if the person I’m talking to doesn’t know about Restorative Justice, I feel the conversation is … unbalanced.

    Maybe I’m just an RJ snob. But I truly believe that this type of work can change the course of an education.

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