Reflection on Practice

Building Bridges: A Restorative Journey at Green Bay Prison Wisconsin

Building Bridges: A Restorative Journey at Green Bay Prison Wisconsin

This April, 4 members of Facing Forward, Nadette, Marie, Susan and myself, Catherine, took a trip to Wisconsin to take part in a Restorative Justice Programme in Green Bay Maximum Security Prison.  Facing Forward is committed to working with those who have been harmed by serious crime and those who have harmed people with serious crime in a way that tries to repair the harm in some way and we were eager to see what we could learn from this American Restorative Justice initiative. The following is an account of my experience there.  The trip showed me that even, or perhaps especially, in a maximum security prison, where access to wider community is severely limited, that restorative principles and processes can work, can be highly effective and often have long term consequences.

Green Bay is more often known for its famous “Packers” than the home of a maximum security prison and is a quiet sleepy town.  After two flights and 12 hours we arrived at our hotel, settled in and slept off our tiredness. The next morning was “Day 1” of the workshop and at breakfast we met Janine Geske who had invited us over to Green Bay.  Janine had trained us in Restorative Practices on other occasions when she was in Ireland. She is an ex Supreme Court Judge of Wisconsin and is director of the Marquette University Law School Restorative Justice Initiative.  Janine drove us to the prison, 5 minutes drive away. She has amazing energy and commitment and drive and it is that that has kept this programme running for 14 years.  Janine is trusted and in good standing with the prison staff, even so, admitting 30 plus people takes some time. We locked away our phones and passports and went through the scanners and eventually all met in a large room for briefing before the workshop began.

In there we were advised to disperse ourselves around the rooms; this was a rare enough occasion where the men, some of whom were going to be behind bars for 30 + years get a chance to mix with community members. We were told that however anxious we were feeling, we would be amazed at just how safe we would feel in the room without prison officers. We were also told to observe certain rules to ensure the continuation of this restorative intervention. For example, you don’t give anyone your address, give anyone a hug or violate any of the terms and conditions of our welcome. We were told that we would have the honour of eating the same lunch as the prisoners so were told not to worry about going hungry. This was met with much laughter and groans from some returning community members who knew what to expect. Janine also asked us to answer the questions put into the circle by speaking from our own experience and from the heart, and to avoid any ‘teach’ or ‘lecture’ pieces which those of us who are used to ‘facilitating’ can lapse into.

So there were about 30 community members and also 30 prisoners in a large room and we all took our seats and we introduced ourselves to our neighbours and vice versa.  Day One of this particular workshop is about Building Community. The power of a good circle process, reduces the ‘us’ and ‘them’ categorisations which we carry around with us and increases our commonality and our empathy for each other. So the morning began with Janine doing a little about Restorative Justice and the ripples emanating from any harmful action. She spoke about the Restorative Circle and the talking piece; when we are handed the talking piece we should answer the question for ourselves and not comment on what someone else has said. We can also offer silence and hold the talking piece. When a person has the talking piece the job of the rest of the community is to listen closely to our words.

The opening question in a process like this should be a positive one and indeed Janine asked such a question of us. Our question was to talk about someone who had touched us deeply in our lives and not to limit that to parents or family members. Whoever sprang to mind was the right choice for each of us.  As there was about 60 people in the room this question took us to lunchtime. It opened us up to the positive in ours and others lives and showed us that people we stigmatise, care for loved ones just as we all do.

We broke for lunch and we experienced the joys of a U.S maximum security lunch which was delivered to us. Sadly this was the only day that we would get to eat prison food. One of our little group Marie, now mother to the beautiful Isabelle, was pregnant and was warned by both her neighbours to avoid the meat dish at all costs!!!

The afternoon was composed of dividing the room up into smaller groups and working together on restorative projects which we were to present to the other groups later. This resulted in much fun, comradeship, laughter and animation and provided active learning opportunities for us all.

The day closed with a question asking us about the impact of the day. What was it like for everyone? We were told that the next day would be difficult for some people as some community members were victims of serious crime and were going to talk about it.

T The second day began with a briefing prior to the workshop again and we were asked to sit beside someone different.

The second phase of any restorative project is around naming the harm done and explaining what it is like for people who have been harmed by serious crime. Three people who had been victims of violent crimes described their experiences: one person had been subjected to a violent mugging; another was violently attacked and raped while out jogging early morning and a third person spoke about the loss of her son who was killed by a man driving while drunk.  We broke for lunch and the three survivor’s accounts took most of the day. We finished with a circle describing our immediate response to the speakers.  At the end of the day Janine asked the men who were incarcerated to try to respond in some way, when they were in their cells that night, and show their appreciation to the speakers for being willing to share such a deep and traumatic part of their lives.

The third phase of any restorative process is about repairing the harm. This does not mean that damage done goes away or that one can ever be the same as before the crime but that an attempt is made to repair the harm in some way.

By our third day, we had all made friends with prisoners, community members and facilitators in the prison. The wondering and the anxiety of the first day were long gone. The morning circle asked us all to respond to what we had heard from the three survivors the day before. People’s responses varied hugely but all acknowledged the harm done and responded to the survivors in some way. The men in jail responded in varying ways, some wonderfully creative including cards, songs, poems, commitments for the future and honest open acknowledgment of the pain of the survivors and seeing the possible impact that they might have inflicted on victims of their crimes.  After lunch, we broke up into groups again and played a game (again with a restorative theme) which involved some acting ability. Hoots of laughter were heard. The day finished with a closing circle where everyone was asked what they would do that was different to mark these three days and everyone responded with varying commitments or remarks.

This programme is running for 14 years and it is now welcomed in the prison as it has transformed prison life for the better. The Warden/Governor Michael Baedon described how it has reduced the incidents of violence within the prison and reduced the stress of prison life for prisoners and staff working there.

One of the reasons that it works is that there is ample preparation; the key to any good restorative intervention. This three day workshop is part of a 16 week programme called Challenges and Possibilities and occurs on week 12 of that programme. The first 12 weeks are spent doing personal development, building self esteem, developing responsibility and accountability and learning to be successful both in and out of prison. They also learn about restorative justice and a variety of professionals come and work with the men.  The participants (in prison) have to apply and say why they would like to do the course and there is a waiting list for the course.

We need to bridge the gaps and build community between those inside and outside prisons. Restorative processes are possible everywhere, they require preparation, planning  and careful execution and trust in the processes.

by Catherine O’Connell