Trusting the Process—Restorative Justice Circle at Racine Correctional Institution

Andrew Center LogoWhen I was a new judge, Ret. Justice Janine Geske invited me, as a community member, to participate in a three-day restorative justice circle at Green Bay Correctional Institution. I asked Janine, who is an extraordinary circle facilitator, what she expected would happen during the three days.

Long before the Philadelphia 76ers would make the phrase (somewhat) famous, she emphatically told me to “trust the process.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I trusted Janine, who had become Distinguished Professor of Law at Marquette University and was leading the Law School’s Restorative Justice Initiative, as it was then known. Over the three days, I quickly discovered what she meant.

Eighteen years later, I found myself facilitating such a restorative justice circle at Racine Correctional Institution—and participants asking me, “What do you think will happen?” My answer was ready: “trust the process.”

Restorative justice circles are a structured process based on and rooted in indigenous practices. First Nations people use a talking piece, such as a stick, feather, rock, or selected object, to facilitate conversation in the circle. Whatever is used, it’s the person holding the object who has the right to speak, and everyone else must listen. The circle is considered sacred. First Nations people observed that the circle is a significant symbol in nature and represents wholeness, completion, and the cycles of life and human connection.

Restorative justice circles are a unique way of approaching harm from crime or wrongdoing. It is not focused on retribution or punishment but rather on “righting the wrong” and healing. Circles bring people who harm into facilitated dialogue with those who have been harmed and with members of the community. Empathy created in a circle is often palpable. Participants can obtain a deeper understanding of the ripple effects of harm from a criminal act and hopefully come to understand how the lives of those harmed have been changed. Circles also are about discerning ways to work toward harm repair.

After participating with Janine in circles and, more recently, facilitating circles at Racine Correctional Institute, I realized that deep listening, facilitated conversations, storytelling, and human connection in circles can lead to compassion, empathy, understanding, and healing. The energy created from using this respectful approach to talking with others provides a sense of interconnectedness that is not often present in our daily lives. “Trusting the process” is merely a shorthand way of saying that deepening communication and building trust in restorative justice circles can create a healing space for participants that can profoundly transform their lives.

I do all of this as Janine’s successor, directing Marquette University Law School’s Andrew Center for Restorative Justice, which was established in December 2021. The mission of the Andrew Center is to teach, practice, and promote restorative justice as a response to harm that can result in healing from the ripple effects of crime.

I include here some reflections by law students who participated in the restorative justice circles at Racine Correctional Institution.

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In one of his latest publications, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis called for the growth of what he terms “a culture of encounter capable of transcending our differences and divisions.” I find deep wisdom in Francis’ call to action because of how I have seen myself and others transformed by encounters with others very different from ourselves.

During the two days I was part of a restorative justice circle at Racine Correctional Institute, I was in sacred community with mostly—but not exclusively—incarcerated men. I found myself in direct encounter with people with whom it does not appear I have much in common. And I was profoundly affected and transformed by what I heard and witnessed, and most importantly, by whom I shared the circle with. Restorative justice circles are a sacred community—albeit a temporary one, in most cases, and in them can be found healing, hope, grief, joy, a sense of belonging—a broad spectrum of emotions. I will continue to process the ways I have been affected and transformed by this experience. However, I think one thing that affected me most was the display of courage shown by everyone in the circle, but especially our friends who are presently incarcerated.

Prison is a hard place; it is not a place where radical vulnerability is rewarded, even if it is one of the bravest things a person can do. The men incarcerated opened themselves up to one another and to the entire circle with such speed and ease after being just beyond spaces in which they cannot—or at least should not—do so. The way the men showed such courage to open their hearts to be affected by what they heard, and to make known just how it affected them in this space, in a prison, was unlike anything I have experienced in my life.

This encounter in a restorative justice circle transformed me in ways I am barely beginning to understand, and I know that it transformed others—especially the men. My hope is that Marquette University Law School and the Andrew Center for Restorative Justice, in keeping with their Jesuit roots, continue building a culture of encounter through transformative experiences and practices such as this.

Member of the Class of 2024

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Having the opportunity to directly participate in the restorative justice program held at Racine Correctional was one of the most impactful experiences of my educational career, if not my entire life. Connecting so deeply with community members, other students, and, most of all, the men within the institution was truly life changing. It was incredible to see the immediate results restorative justice can have in bringing people together and the immense and necessary healing that occurs within the practice. I am so grateful for the opportunity, and I look forward to continuing to learn more about and participate in this transformative process.

Member of the Class of 2025

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It’s difficult to find just a few words to describe my circle experience at Racine Correctional Institution. Humbling, haunting, compelling, and hopeful come to mind. This was an unforgettable, deeply impactful experience.
I remember my first thought walking towards the prison: “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I was walking into a school.” Indeed, we met in one of the classrooms. They were on the Shakespeare unit, by the looks of the announcement board. By the second day, it became apparent that many of the men had gone away as teens, adding to a sad irony. Saying goodbye to the circle members on the third day was much harder than I expected it to be. I have found myself reflecting on small and strange things, like pausing as I choose which streaming service to watch tonight, considering Tommy*, who went away so long ago he has never seen a cellphone up close.
The growth of the group was incredible to see. The first day, we got to know one another and talked about the ripple effects of harm. Even the most reserved folks, or those clearly wary of the circle process and all the “feeling” talk, offered a thought by the end of the first day. The second day, the three victim survivors told their stories of being impacted by violence. One was shot; one was raped; one’s son was murdered. Across generations, genders, and races, every single person in the room was visibly impacted by these raw, detailed accounts of harm. The light and humanity in the room outweighed the tears and pain in a lovely and surprising way as the victims also shared their healing journeys, a continuous process for them all.

Prison is not a place where it is safe to cry or be perceived as weak. But the survivors’ openness and incredible ability to find a space of healing in places like circles in prisons created a space where vulnerability was valuable for everyone on the third day. People shared their fears, hopes, regrets, ambitions. Adam* shared how nice it was to be called by his first name for three days by people who saw him for who he was, not what he did, a thought echoed by many. The inmates thanked one another for sharing and crying, as it allowed others to share and cry. They committed to one another to continue to support each other and create space for each other to heal while they serve their sentences. A few community members shared feelings of guilt for leaving the inmates behind. One of the quietest circle members, John*, expressed gratitude but said, “We made our choices. You can’t feel guilty for that; we take responsibility and decide what we do next.”

If you are reading this as a free person, know that you have many more similarities with these inmates than you do differences, when it comes down to what really matters. I think of Sam*, who reminded me of my baby brother as we chatted during a break. They have the same birthday and favorite rapper and both quit playing baseball when they had great potential. A half hour later, sitting next to me, he shared that he was about eleven the first time he saw someone get shot. He later shared he himself has been shot twice. We may grow up with different circumstances and make different choices that others cannot understand from the outside. But we are only a variable or two away from a completely different life at any moment. My little brother, anyone’s little brother, is just a few bad choices away from a cell next to Sam where all the cards are on the table. What connects us as human beings is so much stronger than what we presume makes us different.

People want, and need, to feel safe, to be heard, and to heal. Creating a space where that is possible is a gift to each participant and the communities to which they belong. If I had to simplify my biggest lesson from my three days at RCI, it would be that to understand, one must deeply, actively, empathically listen because, while the saying goes, hurt people will hurt people, the inverse holds true. Those who find healing can, and will, foster healing for others.

* Names changed to respect privacy.

Member of the Class of 2025

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I’m a 2L in the Restorative Justice Clinic and recently took part in the Racine Correctional Institute restorative justice circle with about twenty of the inmates, teaching them about, and discussing, victimization and the ripple effects of harm. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend one day of the three-day circle, but it was one of the most amazing, touching, and educational experiences I’ve ever had. If I could take part in a restorative justice circle again, I would do it in a heartbeat. Learning about restorative justice is one thing, but being able to witness how it can shape people is on a whole other level. It was the first time I had ever participated in a circle, so I came in with no idea how it was going to go. We talked about the process in our class, but I had never taken part in an actual circle.

Restorative justice processes of circles, dialogues, conferences, and more are amazing, but a huge part of the processes depends on participation and willingness of the offender. I feel as though, sometimes, initial thoughts about this may encompass some skepticism because you would think that offenders who commit serious crimes may not want to take part in anything around restorative justice. However, after being a part of the circle, I was completely wrong. I was surprised in the best way by how the inmates got to be so open, positive, and willing to share their stories, reflect on their lives, and learn about the ripple effects of the harm they have committed. Not only this but listening to them talk about how they wanted to keep practicing restorative justice even after the circle was done was so impactful and profound. Taking part in the circles not only changed the inmates but changed me as well. It was such an overwhelming, humbling, and transformative experience that I will carry with me always.

The experience of the RCI circle reminds you of how blessed you are. I feel as though participating in any restorative justice practice can remind you of how blessed you are. I’m blessed to be able to go home, watch TV, spend time with my friends and family, but also blessed because I got to have the opportunity to take part in the circle, sit with the men listening to the victim impact stories, and be able to empathize to their thoughts and feelings. Restorative justice allows for a coming together of those harmed—the victim, offender, and community members—to encourage accountability and repair harm. Repairing harm or an emphasis on healing is rare in the traditional legal system. So, being able to take part in any restorative justice practice can give you a sense of feeling blessed and grateful that you get an opportunity to take part in something so special, rare, and simply just transformative in the legal field. In that circle, I felt no different than the other people sitting there with me. We were all humans, and we all had a story. I was so proud to be there and am sure I will always feel the effects of that experience.

Member of the Class of 2025

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