John Schneider attended a week-long workshop in New York City on Mediator Training in Restorative Justice (conducted by David Doefler and Jon Wilson). In this article he tells the experience of one significant day in this experience This is a shortened version of his story - the full one can be found at www.integraonline.org.
Day At Sing Sing
by John M. Schneider, PhD
Many of our training group, including me, had never been in to a maximum-security prison, and felt the tension about what lay ahead on our tour and interviews with four inmates. Others had been in this prison, but had never seen where the men lived. We'd been watching videos earlier in the week of encounters between victims of violent crime and their offenders, videos that had deeply moved us of the intimacy of violence that bound victim to offender-which in the finest hours of some people's lives, humanized those who others still considered monsters and healed those whose hearts had been shattered by the offender's murder of one of their loved ones. We'd listened to a panel of victims, saw their pain and the price they continued to and would forever pay, witnessed their feelings of injustice in the criminal justice system and rage at the offender.
Now we were visiting the other side-the offenders, the ones who had not only killed, but had destroyed the lives of the families of their victims as well as their own families, Their actions had traumatized their neighborhoods and communities.
We enter this fortress, passed through security that made the airports' look like child's play. For the next five hours, we became exceedingly polite and submissive. We too were at the mercy of the iron hand of discipline that determined where we could go, at what pace we could move and when it could happen. It was not a time or place to be playful or humorous.
These were young men who sought meaning in their lives, found it in being of service to others, and wanted desperately to make things as right as they could with the families of their victims as well as their own families.
Their crimes were central events in their stories; their culpability readily admitted, their punishment accepted as just, their attempts at rehabilitation through education enumerated, their remorse shared as was their attempts at restitution by helping other inmates. Knowing full well that the program of restorative justice that David and Jon were pioneering had no status in their system, nonetheless, their desire to meet with their victims, to give them an opportunity to heal and discover whatever they needed to discover was universally desired.
Amidst the heartbreak and sorrow, of now knowing of the terrible isolation these men lived and would continue to, we better understood why restorative justice needed to be both victim centered and offender sensitive; why the retributive justice system served neither side well. "How does dehumanizing someone rehabilitate them? It doesn't. How does punishing someone give solace, restitution and healing for the victim's family? It doesn't. We'd seen how violence could breed an incredible intimacy and reconciliation between offender and victim that is fiercely resisted by the vast majority, but when embraced and realized, can transform lives. By now in this week of training, we had the awareness of that possibility. What was still needed was opportunity and the specific challenge of holding hope for those still in unforgiving or unforgiven darkness.