True Confessions: Restorative Justice

Words by Jemar Tisby

Illustration by Chris Koelle

One night 20 years ago, an 18-year-old man named Richard and his friends went out joyriding. Drugs fueled their night of foolishness, but the money soon ran out. “Why don’t we rob that gas station?” he joked. But then the laughter turned into a serious plan. They got a BB gun, unloaded and without a CO2 cartridge, but it looked real enough. So they pulled it out, walked into the store, and robbed the cashier. In a second robbery, a real gun was involved, and Richard drove the getaway car. Law enforcement soon caught the perpetrators, and Richard was convicted of two concurrent 20-year sentences.

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For decades, Richard blamed his circumstances on others or minimized his crime. “I thought, it was only a BB gun, and it wouldn’t have fired if I had wanted it to,” he reflected in an interview years later. Never did it occur to him the damage he caused the cashier. She had to quit her job and suffered anxiety attacks because of trauma from the robbery.

Richard’s perspective began to change only when he took a course in restorative justice led by Dr. Linda Keena. When she started her career in the criminal justice system as a parole officer, she recalls thinking to herself, I can’t believe I get paid to do this. Now with a doctoral degree, years of teaching experience, and a position as Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Mississippi, Dr. Keena devotes most of her free time to volunteering in a prison, teaching classes designed to help inmates process what they’ve done and to learn to serve others.

Dr. Keena spends four hours a week teaching a course on restorative justice at the Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Restorative justice is an approach to reform that is “victim-centered and focuses on repairing harm to victims and their communities through dialogue and restorative practices.”

Keena explains, “What we know is that for many victims or survivors, one of their main desires regarding healing is that the offender acknowledges the harm that was done.” They simply want to hear offenders admit they committed the crime and accept responsibility for it. Restorative justice moves the gaze solely from the offender and onto the one harmed. Sometimes inmates convicted of felonies do not even know the names of their victims. So Dr. Keena helps them research who they victimized and what the impact has been.

Through restorative justice exercises, inmates look at the “ripple effect” of their crime. They ponder who else may have been harmed by their conduct, and they have to verbally admit to others what they have done. “Many of these guys have been incarcerated for decades, and for decades they’ve been blaming other people and situations for their behavior. Now they’re being forced to acknowledge and to own it,” she says.

In Richard’s case, he had an awakening when he sat before a panel of victims. They were surrogates because, in Mississippi, the inmates are not allowed direct contact with their actual victims or survivors. But the experience is powerful nonetheless. “At the victim impact panel, I finally realized that what I did was not a joke, not a game, and that what I did severely traumatized my victim,” Richard said. He now comprehended that what he thought was not a serious incident actually had created an awful burden for the people he swept up in it. He could, at last, admit the part he played in causing the pain of another.

At the same time, restorative justice is not about reliving the past only to wallow in it but about allowing truth and confession to release both the offender and the offended. Victims often feel a sense of relief just knowing that perpetrators have taken responsibility for their actions. Conversely, inmates like Richard realize that what he did as an 18-year-old does not entirely define him.

“My favorite quote from restorative justice is, ‘You are more than the worst thing you’ve ever done,’ ” he reflects.

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The restorative justice course is actually the second class Dr. Keena teaches. She starts out with a class on entrepreneurship based on the book, Who Owns the Ice House, co-authored by a Mississippi sharecropper who rose to become one of Time Magazine’s “most outstanding emerging entrepreneurs.” Keena believes that before inmates can grasp restorative justice concepts, they need to start by looking at problems outside of themselves and how they can find solutions. This class gives the men experience in looking beyond their own situations and realizing they can be agents of change for others.

Earlier this year Dr. Keena, along with some students from the University of Mississippi, worked with inmates to pack more than 100,000 meals for an organization called Feed My Starving Children. They were able to gather enough meals to feed 277 children every day for a whole year. The idea started in one of her entrepreneurship classes.

Once inmates have changed their mindset by working on projects designed to serve others, then they are ready for the deeper personal work of restorative justice.

For Richard, the impact could not have been more profound. “My one big takeaway from restorative justice is this: In the beginning, I was focused on what was done to me. After restorative justice class, I became focused on the ripple effect of my crime—what it did to my victim, what it did to my family, and what it did to others I don’t even know about.”

Deputy Warden Trish Doty agrees. “I have difficulty most days remembering [Richard] is a convicted felon. He is a leader at this facility and takes seriously the mantle of helping his fellow man.”

The work of restorative justice is heavy. It requires emotional work from inmates, victims, survivors, and instructors such as Dr. Keena. But a victim-centered approach to criminal justice reform ultimately offers healing, forgiveness, and redemption. Everyone is more than the worst act they’ve committed or the worst harm they’ve endured. Restorative justice keeps that truth central and helps break cycles of violence in society.