“I bear witness to people who are forgotten by most and judged as unworthy and unforgivable, especially by themselves.” A volunteer talks about helping others find remorse.
This post is Mary’s response to Lili Bee’s question: “Mary, the work you do with these people is such a grace. But what about your own experience—how have you been affected by working with these violent offenders serving hard time?” Read Lili Bee’s interview with Juan, here.
Ministry leads us to open our hearts in unexpected places. It has led me to prison work. Many volunteers are drawn to prisons because of the incarceration of someone they love; I was drawn because prison was completely alien to me and because, truthfully, it scared me. I once gave my mother a notebook that said “Do one thing every day that scares you,” and we sometimes laugh about where we are in our attempts to self-induce fear. As if life isn’t scary enough.
I was curious about violent offenders. How was I different from them, but importantly, how was I the same? I have a violent streak as all people do, but for the most part it remains in my head and turns its brutality against myself. What kind of monster can turn it outward and actually harm another human being?
The Osborne Association’s Longtermers’ Responsibility Project trains and then pairs volunteers with violent offenders serving long sentences. We meet with our clients and help them come to a greater sense of remorse and responsibility for the impact of their crimes. Restorative Justice recognizes the far-reaching effects of any act of violence and aims to support healing for all: offenders, victims, survivors, and the communities in which they live. I have worked with two individuals who committed murder: a young woman who killed an acquaintance at 15, and a man who shot and killed a taxi driver while attempting to rob him. Together we have explored issues such as responsibility, judgment, shame, identity, deep pain, remorse vs. guilt, and what restorative as opposed to retributive justice really means—what needs to be restored, and how does that happen?
Sitting with my clients and listening deeply to their stories encourages them to explore truths they are longing to express. I bear witness to people who are forgotten by most and judged as unworthy and unforgivable, especially by themselves. The process is painful, but never more painful than living in the numbness that makes violence possible. Ironically, the most cynical individuals I have met in prison are the officers.
One gift has come through a personal inquiry into responsibility. Inspired by clients who have courageously held themselves accountable, I took on a practice of seeing what it would be like to take responsibility for everything—everything—I am unhappy about. No matter what, to try and find my part. It’s a surprising practice that makes me less split off in relationship. Irritation at a colleague turns from a mental rehearsing of grievances into a memory of a moment last week when I was impatient and critical with him. Hurt by a friend I perceive is not “seeing me” leads me to contemplate ways in which I am less than clear about how I show up to be seen. Cut off in traffic? Well…I was there.
I realized I often don’t accept responsibility because I don’t want to feel guilty. Guilt paralyzes because it reinforces “I’m bad,” but remorse—a cornerstone of restorative justice work—evokes compassion for another being’s suffering. Remorse is restorative in that it opens my heart, restoring me to a bigger sense of self. My incarcerated clients and I have come to the same understanding that the heart has more than enough capacity for remorse, whereas we tend to shut down in the presence of guilt.
As someone who values freedom, I was struck by an experience my female client had. After 14 years with a good prison record, she was awarded a plum job: picking up garbage on the highway with a team of inmates. But on her first day out, she became so dizzy she had to return to the prison. Processing this, we realized that for years she had never been outside an enclosed space. Even the exercise yard was surrounded by thick walls with razor wire. The sudden lack of parameters she experienced on the highway disoriented her completely.
This led me to contemplate my own enclosures. I moan about my own prison “walls,” but I cling to their familiarity and safety without even knowing it. I long for freedom from structures that imprison me, but the truth is I would probably be totally disoriented without them—like my client on the open highway. This makes me more aware of how gently and respectfully we need to dismantle our defenses if we truly want to be free of them. The point is not to get rid of fear; rather to cultivate a different relationship to it.
I have come to feel a profound connection with the people I imagined so different than me. It’s not easy to take responsibility for the wake of devastation that follows a murder. This is especially true in prison, where vulnerability can be dangerous. But the clients I have met there are learning to forgive themselves enough to know their own value and move forward in their lives, courageously and with commitment to ongoing healing. By the time they went to their parole boards, both my clients had come to an understanding that the authorities could keep them in prison, but no one had the power to take away their ability to grow and heal as human beings. It’s been one of the richest experiences of scaring myself I’ve ever had.
photo: bojphoto / Flickr