Freelance writer Zach Brooke spent three days immersed in a restorative justice program at the Green Bay Correctional Institution and emerged with the article featured in this month’s Milwaukee Magazine.
Restorative justice asks crime victims to come face to face with offenders. This theory of justice assesses and tries to repair the damage that is caused by a crime, Brooke explains.
"It is a supplement to and not a replacement for the criminal justice system," he says. "In the criminal justice system's very narrow but vital and legitimate functions of trying to try, convict and sentence criminals, sometimes there are things that fall by the wayside - including the impact to the victim, the impact to the community, maybe even the impact to the offender and definitely the offender's family."
Restorative Justice At Work
In Green Bay, Brooke observed 27 inmates, law students and graduates and community volunteers come together for the Challenge and Possibilities program. The class was lead by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice (and former restorative justice skeptic) Janine Geske and Virginia VandenBranden.
Rather than connect offenders with the victims of their own crimes, the program pulled together unconnected individuals. The offenders who participated in the program were vetted by judges and met certain criteria that demonstrated the experience would be taken seriously, he says. The inmates were part of an "exceptional [group who] really who have to be on the ball to be in this class," Brooke explains.
The focus of the three days Brooke observed was on both the offender and the victim.
"We go around a circle, and the only person who can talk is holding this talking piece, in this case it was a hand painted stone," notes Brooke.
Geske started off the first day with the goal of getting everyone comfortable with each other and with sharing with the group, he says.
The second day was all about the victims. Brooke says a "very welcoming, empowering feeling" was created in the room as people listened to victim's stories.
Victims participate, Brook says, to help themselves let go of the suffering they have endured and to influence the offenders.
"Traditionally, [after hearing from the survivors] many, many offenders have trouble sleeping," Brooke says. "They're thinking of this stuff for the first time, they're thinking about their own crimes."
The third day was dedicated to the prisoners' reflections. Brooke says the inmates benefit by simply being able to talk. "In prison, they have to be very tough, wear masks, just to survive, and a lot of people don't tell these vulnerable stories that they are really sharing in this circle," he says.
Judge Geske also gave the prisoner's an assignment - to write or create a piece of art for the survivors in the program. "It was incredibly powerful to see how they had been moved by the survivor's stories. That to me was just jaw-dropping," Brooke says.
By the end of the program, all participants left with a new found perspective on their life experiences.
"I think just the understanding that things that had happened to both the survivors and the offenders were bad and shouldn't have happened, I think that gives rise to a lot of peace," says Brooke.