By Jo Bauen, Ed.D.
I work for Oakland’s Community Works West, a non-profit aimed at mitigating the impact of incarceration on individuals by using principles of Restorative Justice. Between 2013 and 2016 I taught a parenting class called Parenting Inside-Out to men in Solano Prison in Vacaville, California. The incarcerated fathers and I are now collaborating on what we call “Restorative Justice for Families.” Here’s our story.
By fall of 2016, over 270 men had competed Parenting Inside-Out, reconnecting with their families and coming to a new concept of fatherhood. Building on this work, in early 2017 I invited colleagues from Community Works West to speak about Restorative Justice. The fathers were extremely receptive to the concept of mending relationships and giving back what they have taken from society. I clearly recall one student, when he learned about Restorative Justice as an alternative to juvenile detention, stated, “I want to be you! I need to do this work so that young people do not make the mistakes I made.”
Given this response, a team of inmate leaders and I strategized ways to bring the tool of Restorative Justice into the wider prison population. Five men volunteered to be Restorative Justice Circle Keepers, so each could hold circles with other inmates. Community Works West’s Yejide Ankobia agreed to lead a monthly Restorative Justice Circle Keeper Training at Solano prison.
At our first session, Ankobia led us in slowing down to examine our values, demonstrating how to be fully present in the circle. She held space for the stories of each participant, so that we discovered the common bonds: centuries of oppression, racial injustice, systemic corruption and greed. Ankobia talked about the web of relationships in any family or community, and how important it is to mend relationships when they are damaged. And how every person in a community, classroom, or family system is completely necessary to the interconnected whole. We may only notice this when we lose someone to incarceration, death or illness, but if we value the web and each of our relationships, we can try to repair ruptured relationships and by doing so, strengthen our communities and ourselves.
Following the principles of Restorative Justice, Ankobia explained the steps for leading a Restorative Justice Circle—how to balance the acts of leading while also engaging as a participant—and demonstrated the skill of reading the circle and adapting in mid-stream. At the close of the workshop, the room was on fire, with participants ready to apply the principles to building a new society right there in prison.
Inmates as Leaders: Our Process
For our next session, we asked participants to be prepared to lead the Restorative Justice Circles and they arrived ready to do it, each having practiced in his housing unit. Our first leader, Jose, astonished us with his acronym “OICGDCC” for memorizing the seven steps: Opening, Introduction of the Talking Piece, Check-in, Guidelines/Values, Discussion rounds, Check-out and Closing. Jose explained that he had memorized the steps in order to use them with his family during their weekly visits.
Jose opened with a brief meditation, then introduced the talking piece—a rock from the prison yard. He spoke of the meaning of the earth within the context of prison and led the check-in with the question: “What is one skill or talent you have?” We learned about proud cooks, sportsmen, coaches, teachers, change agents; some shared their gift of words and poetry; David shared his dry wit.
Jose asked: “What is the hardest part about being at Solano for you?” We heard about what it meant to give up an early, naive definition of self and move to a more authentic one; the suffering of pretending to be strong and fearless, then having to watch that identity be destroyed. Carlos said he had changed so much that his family no longer understood him, so he had “learned to detach, with love.”
David was clouded by emotion and cried because he felt he had lost contact with his daughter and was appreciative of the group’s willingness to let him emote.
Abraham said he regrets that he spent 27 years separated from his purpose, unable to give what he was born to give. “Parenting Inside Out is an opportunity that was a long time coming. This is our future; our legitimacy, our redemption, our hope. I guess this is the reason why I didn’t give up.”
Six months into their training, the men fully recognized that they held a powerful tool they did not want to keep to themselves. They wanted to bring their expertise in Restorative Justice Circles to all of the prison’s four yards. They proposed a monthly “traverse” from the lower-level offender housing to the higher-level offender population. While I wanted to support the men’s well-intended proposal, I knew that due to the perceived security challenges of movement by inmates, it was highly uncommon for them to be allowed such access. After days of strategizing and drafting memos to the wardens and ranking officers on all the yards, somewhat to my amazement, we got our monthly traverse across the prison grounds approved.
On the day of the first traverse, the five Circle Keepers: Abraham, Silas, Carlos, David and Jose were ready. Prior to the traverse, we discussed our hopes and dreams, along with our fears. I learned that most of the men had spent time in the higher-level offender area and so, by walking to that area, they were revisiting the fears they faced when they were held there. They described the primitive, violent culture they remembered on Level III. David said he was revisiting his earlier self, a decade before he had committed to the changes he has now made. I learned that almost everyone was nervous about the responsibility of Circle Keeping, and few had slept well the night before.
Each Circle Keeper had a talking piece, and a memorized plan for his circle. I had five cloths to lay on the floor for ‘centerpieces’, and multiple copies of the memo authorizing the traverse, and the list of passes for the 50 higher level offenders. I had committed to memory the names of the Associate Warden, the Captains, Lieutenants and Sergeants on each yard and rehearsed the steps I’d have to take to get inmates from two yards into the Visiting Room. We made it into the Visiting Room with very little resistance. Miraculously I had help from several unexpected Solano staff and nearly 50 men were admitted to the Visiting Room. I opened the event with welcomes, our intentions, and introductions of the five Restorative Justice Circle Keepers. I asked each of the five Circle Keepers to offer his own understanding of Restorative Justice.
Next, we broke into five circles. With the Circle Keepers’ masterful facilitation, the groups warmed and opened up and went to the heart of the topics each had planned. The Restorative Justice Circle method proved itself. All around me I could tell that the men connected to each other and experienced the hope of Restorative Justice. When it was time to close the program, we heard reports back from each team: “I met a new friend.” “Thanks for looking me in the eye.” “Thanks for bringing hope.” “I want more training like this.”
At the debrief, everyone was ecstatic: “It showed me I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.” “I knew it was all or nothing, so I gave all.” “We all won!” The men exchanged notes on what they had used for their opener, check-in, their values and guidelines, and their first rounds. Everyone agreed: we have built a means of sharing power, hope and strength through the Restorative Justice Circle Keeper process.
Someone said, “Our baby is walking. She is growing to meet the needs of hundreds of inmates at Solano.”
The five Circle Keepers have now completed a full year of hosting monthly Restorative Justice Circles for nearly 100 incarcerated men. The Circle Keepers and I are now training a new round of Circle Keepers on both Level II and III. I’ve recruited volunteers from the community to join the circles as witnesses and participants, with the hope that they will see the strengths I’ve seen, and rethink the role our society blindly imposes on incarcerated people. Meanwhile due to recent changes in state legislature, many of the men I work with will soon be released from prison. I see a new team of colleagues ready to lead circles on the streets.
“Restorative Justice takes into account the victim, the offender, the community, what led to the crime, and the “ripple effect” that resulted from the crime. Restorative Justice works from a belief that the path to justice lies in problem-solving and reparation rather than punishment and isolation."
This Has Never Been Done Before In Jail
Last November I was assigned to lead a Restorative Justice Circle training at San Francisco County Jail #5, in the Resolve to Stop the Violence Program (RSVP), one of Community Works West’s in-custody programs. RSVP takes place in a residential ‘pod’ that holds 48 men, all of whom have agreed to participate in a full-time program aimed at violence prevention. My Restorative Justice Circle training would be a voluntary complement to the existing programming. I was introduced to the community, and circulated a sign-up sheet for my weekly two-hour RJ circle. Twenty men signed up.
I began by ‘holding circle’, or demonstrating the seven-step Restorative Justice circle process. Participants quickly stepped up to share their values, their stories, their vulnerabilities and their growth. After several weeks, I polled to see if some of the men wished to become Circle Keepers, to lead the process themselves. Seven of the 20 men raised their hands. The self-selected Circle Keepers turned out to be quick learners, who needed little coaching in the principles and practices of Restorative Justice. After just a few training sessions, they were ready to hold weekly circles with the remaining participants. Six months in, the RJ Circle program was running smoothly, with positive feedback from both staff and inmate participants.
Then, in early May, two inmates in the RSVP pod had a serious argument that ended up in physical violence. Both were removed from the pod to separate sections of the jail. I learned of the fight from our staff, and as soon as I arrived at jail, from the Circle Keepers. “We want to handle this in a circle” they urged, and staff mostly agreed. But we needed to arrange a time and secure a space, plus we needed approval from the Captain to allow inmates to engage in addressing the conflict, as well as to let inmates move through the jail to accomplish an RJ circle. I had just attended a 3-day RJ Harm Circle training. I was eager to see the Circle Keepers test their wings in addressing a real, pressing conflict. But the weeks went by dealing with administrative details, and in some frustration I left for a two-week vacation. I came back to work, and was approached by glowing colleagues. “Your Circle Keepers held the Harm Circle, and they broke through the conflict and resolved it,” I was told. I was shocked that the inmates had held a Harm Circle without me when I had just barely learned to do the Harm Circle myself, and I was not even authorized to do it. But given the frustration I faced before I left town, I was glad to learn that something went right.
Once back in Jail, I asked the men how it went, and how they felt about it. I learned they had held three circles over three days. They told me, “We kept true to your method.” The staff wanted to intervene with suggestions, but the Circle Keepers said ‘no’, and steered the process according to the 7 steps. After beginning the circle process with an opening, check in, and values round, they invited the two opponents to read their accountability letters. The letters were sincere, which let everyone know the men were ready to work.
Lamar said, “When a circle works the way it should, no one has any personal agenda. Then everyone is authentic. And then everyone heals.”
“It was deep,” added Rob. “I wasn’t going to be able to share, but you kicked it off Corwyn, and that let me know I could go deep too. Everybody fused, like we shared one emotion.”
Rodney offered, “So then Rob, when you told about your father, I couldn’t hold it back any longer, because it made me think about my own children. I was choked up. And I know others were too.”
“What made it work?” I probed further.
Sam said, “We had a positive attitude. We believed we could help the men in conflict, and we did help them.”
Manu said, “This circle helped everyone, not just the two in conflict. It works if you let it.”
Rodney said, “It is about the power in the circle. Nothing is forced. Doors just kept opening.”
Lamar said, “You told us this practice comes from indigenous roots. I think we tapped into something.”
James recalled, “Everyone’s vulnerability helped me notice things. Then I could share my story.”
Lamar affirmed, “It is about establishing trust, and knowing you will not be judged.”
“It’s when you start with values, then everybody opens up,” said Rob. Then he added, “I’m kind of an airhead, but I’m also an intellectual. So I’m good at going along with the flow, and also holding people to the process.” This prompted the men to go back and forth about how they riffed off each other’s leadership skills, stepping forward and back to support the group through the circle process.
Eli said, “I feel that the whole vibe in the pod changed as a result of that circle.”
“This could be the ‘no violence pod’. We could cut it at the door,” Lamar added.
The conversation shifted:
“So, can we move through the jail like this?” Rob asked. He proposed that this team could be called on to address fights throughout the jail.
“This should be documented,” said Elliott, “They always report the negative stuff, and here is a positive story.”
“And can we get credit for what we’ve done? Because this has never been done before in jail,” said Eli.
Jo Bauen, Ed.D. is a popular educator, artist and restorative justice practitioner with Community Works West, based in Oakland, CA.