CRIMINAL JUSTICE has gotten plenty of air time in the presidential debates, including the most recent one. Policing reforms, sentencing reforms, closure of private prisons, and offender voting rights have all been covered.
Little time, however, has been given to a central question of criminal justice– how can correctional facilities help offenders correct behavior and reenter society? Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden’s criminal justice reform plans come closest to addressing this in emphasizing rehabilitation and redemption. Yet while many people consider the possibility of redemption fundamental to the justice system, few US correctional facilities take this task seriously. Even in Massachusetts, which recently passed a set of bills overhauling the criminal justice system, little focus has been placed on what correctional facilities can do to enable inmates to become productive citizens.
Three facilities in Massachusetts, however, are piloting a promising program that aims to rehabilitate and empower inmates. The program is called Repairing Harm and is implemented through the Center for Peace, Development and Democracy at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
Repairing Harm is a 33-week program that draws inspiration from the Insight Prison Project, a California-based initiative that has been implementing restorative justice programming within correctional institutions since 1997, and is one of several prison-based restorative justice programs operating in the United States today. Repairing Harm is built on tenets of restorative justice and on the belief that transformation can occur when individuals understand the connection between trauma and criminal behavior. Participants in the program are offered a supportive space in which they are guided towards taking responsibility for their actions.
Over the last three years, I’ve spent time in all three of the institutions where Repairing Harm is implemented. I’ve observed Repairing Harm sessions, spoken with facility administrators, and interviewed 21 Repairing Harm participants to learn about their experiences as part of an ongoing research evaluation of the program.
Repairing Harm’s weekly sessions create an environment where participants learn to be vulnerable – something almost unheard of in prisons, where vulnerability can be a tremendous risk. Skilled facilitators help participants feel, in one inmate’s words, “like somebody cares, like we’re not just lost causes.” Each session builds on the others: participants first confront their own histories as victims of violence, then engage in exercises helping them process their crimes out loud with other group members. Participants also explore ways they can take responsibility for harm they have caused by bringing positive change to their families and communities.
Surrogate victim dialogues, where program participants hear from victims affected by crimes similar to ones they committed, may be the most profound element of Repairing Harm. Participants describe being “hit hard” by the “remorse” and “hurt” they felt listening to stories of pain and suffering caused by crime. Many note how moving it was to hear victims speak about forgiveness. The transformational power of sitting with and listening to individuals who have lost family members to violence should not be undersold. In one participant’s words, “When you actually see somebody, somebody impacted by somebody who you put your hands on…it makes you rethink.”
Repairing Harm participants state that, as a result of experiences in this program, they have reached out to loved ones in their community, improved relationships and addressed long-standing conflicts. They talk about being more reflective about their behavior in prison and being able to “catch themselves” before their emotional state gets out of control. At a recent restorative justice workshop, one correctional facility offered Repairing Harm participants the opportunity to share letters they wrote during the program with over 100 crime survivors, academics, community leaders, and other incarcerated men. Some wrote to family members and some wrote to victims of their crimes. The letters described how they have taken responsibility for crimes committed and how they are repairing or intend to repair that harm.
My research indicates that programs like Repairing Harm can spur transformation among individuals and institutions. Preliminary data suggests these efforts may even help transform the communities these incarcerated men call home. As presidential candidates continue to call for criminal justice reform in other areas, those concerned with justice should point to Repairing Harm and similar programs as a way to center rehabilitation in the justice system.
Karen Ross is an assistant professor of conflict resolution at the University of Massachusetts Boston.