I teach prison inmates to be accountable for their crimes. Their future depends on this work.

‘They may be surprised by how much further along they are than many of us living outside the prison walls’

By: Rebecca Weiker

My experience with the concept of accountability is a little different than most people in today’s world.

Restorative justice for inmates
Every Wednesday, I drive to a California State prison 70 miles north of Los Angeles to sit in a circle with men who are serving life sentences for homicide and other violent crimes. We can see each other’s faces and hear our voices as we discuss things that most people outside the prison walls would never reveal to other people. Tell us about the worst thing you’ve ever done. What will you do to atone for actions that can never be repaired?

Some of the inmates will have a chance to go before a parole board to show that they are no longer the person who cared little for his life or anyone else’s. For the men sentenced to life without parole, often called “the other death sentence,” the class is a place of hope and connection. They do the work so that if and when the door of freedom finally opens for them, they will be ready to walk through it.

The class, called Restorative Justice/Victim Awareness, supports participants in a journey towards insight, healing, and accountability. This incredibly difficult and vulnerable work happens in a maximum security prison yard, which is a place of trauma and fear. Once during a guided meditation, I asked the men to imagine a safe place. In our discussion afterwards, several people said that our circle was the only safe place they could imagine, which may have seemed like a contradiction, but I understood.

In 1992, my sister Wendy was murdered. The person responsible for her death was killed by the police, so I never received an acknowledgement, explanation, or an apology. I feel both seen and safe in a prison room talking with people who understand the gravity of that experience and are accountable for the death of another human being. Understanding their remorse gives me the answers I never got and this helps me to heal.

Learning to listen and communicate
Their transformative work begins with accountability for the past, but it is practised in the present moment and holds the promise for future freedom. In one session, each man draws his “anger volcano”; they identify what creates the lava that builds and the unmet needs that lead to an eruption. They learn communication, how to identify their feelings and needs, and how to speak and listen with empathy.

In one exercise, they sit in pairs and each person speaks for two minutes without interruption about a difficult issue in his life. His partner is a compassionate listener, saying nothing but offering his open-hearted presence. When I debrief with the men afterwards, I ask them if their wife/partner/girlfriend has ever told them, “Don’t fix it, don’t tell me what to do, just listen to me,” and many hands are raised, with smiles of acknowledgement. After our exercise, these men now understand what their partner at home was asking for, and what it means to have someone listen. 

These men learn how to talk about what they did, without saying, “mistakes were made” or blaming someone else for their behaviour. They discuss what real remorse sounds like, and the steps to make reparations when the crime was murder.

On the news today, we see men with power living in the free world who are still not required to do this work; their non-apology apologies and spokespeople and lawyers continue to insulate them from their victims and the consequences of their actions even though they may have been credibly accused of rape, trafficking and even murder.

Becoming accountable and getting out
In prison, men have to accountable, honest and vulnerable. They must reflect on their childhoods and whatever trauma, abuse or neglect they experienced so they can connect the dots between their past, who they became, and who they want to become.

The inmates come to understand that the work of healing and transformation isn’t separate from their everyday life. Many of the men have loved ones on the outside who visit on the weekends and dream of their homecoming. Transformation and freedom don’t have to wait for some future moment but can create healing and peace in the way they treat their wives or their girlfriends and their children now. In fact, their future depends on doing this work.

The only way out of prison is to prove to a parole board that they are no longer the same person that committed the crime and are not a threat to public safety. To win their freedom, these men need to prove that even though their behaviour was not a reflection of their best self or their true self, they are nevertheless responsible for what they did. This is a profound and painful truth. When they get out of prison, their work of accountability continues in every relationship they have.

When I drive home, some 70 miles after these sessions, I think about how they may be surprised by how much further along they are than many of us living outside the prison walls.

Rebecca Weiker is the Program Director of Re:store Justice, where she leads transformative justice work with victims and incarcerated individuals, both inside prisons and in the community. She is dedicated to creating opportunities for transformation and healing for everyone impacted by violence, including victims and people responsible for harm.

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