Massachusetts prison practices restorative justice through dialogue
Massachusetts Correctional Institution. Photo credit: Flickr, Creative Commons.
By Dina Kraft
In a cavernous auditorium in the state’s largest prison, a group of about a dozen men serving life or lengthy sentences for homicide or other violent crimes take their seats in a circle with a mother who has suffered the loss of two murdered sons. Some of the inmates seem nervous, shifting in their seats, staring down at the floor.
Forgiveness is the topic they have been given to discuss at this, the first small group session at a two-day retreat at Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) — Norfolk on a concept called restorative justice. Based on indigenous traditions, it brings victims and offenders of crimes together in mediated dialogue.
Isaura Mendes, the bereaved mother, urges the men in her circle to fully face their culpability, but not to let their worst acts define them.
Several of the inmates say the shame they feel has made the notion of seeking forgiveness feel almost impossible.
“I’m in for murder, and I’ve been in for 23 years,” said Richie Hazard. “My two brothers were killed six months apart and I know what my mother went through. Later on down the line I ended up murdering, or being part of a murder, where I saw the mother on TV and she was crying and she fell down between two cops and had her head on a bumper. And whenever I think of forgiveness I always think of that image. And I think how could I forgive myself for that knowing what my mother went through.”
Sitting in circles like this one and opening up about their crimes and their own often traumatic backstories that preceded the violent, often deadly acts that sent them to prison is one of the centerpieces the Restorative Justice and Responsibility Retreat, now in its fourth year. It brings “inside men,” as the incarcerated call themselves, face to face with judges, pastors and relatives of murder victims. It is one of the only encounters of its kind in the United States.
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