Lili Bee interviews a violent offender just released from Sing Sing, and talks about remorse, learning to see consequences, restorative justice, and goodness.
This is the story of Juan, who as a young man considered robbery a valid means to bring home money to feed his wife and baby. He became proficient at robbing cab drivers, but one robbery went awry as he struggled with the cabbie, an African American who was putting his four children through college with his earnings from driving a cab. In the struggle, Juan’s gun accidentally went off, killing the cabbie. Juan was arrested that day and sentenced to twenty-five years to life in Sing Sing Maximum Security Prison, upstate New York.
I am about to meet Juan through an introduction by Mary, a woman I mentored at seminary some years ago.
As a seminary student, Mary was already a licensed psychotherapist with a Manhattan practice, a wife and mother of a five-year old, and an amazingly present human being.
When it came time for her to select her outreach volunteer commitment, a mandatory prerequisite for graduation, Mary chose prison work with the Osbourne Association Long-termer’s Responsibility Project.
It’s been a few years now since Mary graduated from seminary and was ordained. We caught up recently and she told me she still felt greatly enriched by the volunteer work she was committed to doing inside the prison system. Despite her very busy life, she travels some distances every week to continue her work in the maximum security prisons upstate, to make a difference, to help be part of the solution to a problem she felt passionately about. As I waited to meet Juan, I asked her how she’s been changed by her work in restorative justice. Here was her response.
After Mary left, I waited alone for Juan in the quiet cafe I’ve selected. When he walked in, I was taken aback at his size: Juan appears six foot five and absolutely enormous, shoulder to shoulder. Clearly, he has spent a good amount of time building an impressive and intimidating physique. He is amiable and remarkably centered for a man who’s just been released last summer after twenty five years in prison.
Lili: Juan, what do you think makes someone a ‘good man’?
Juan: It’s not difficult for me now to discern what it is to be a decent human being. To me, it’s someone who considers the other. It’s the small acts, like giving someone else the seat on the subway. Holding open a door. It’s always trying to put the other one first.
Lili: How did you arrive at this?
Juan: I recognized I was in the labyrinth of despair and confusion. That’s what I call prison, a labyrinth of despair and confusion..And I asked myself, “How can I save myself from being in this labyrinth?”
I realized I had to change the way I looked at things so that the things I looked at changed. I had to start to ask myself the hard questions, like, “Why am I here? Why am I doing this?” I realized I needed to start by doing something that would distance me from those who weren’t doing anything at all to better their situations, the ones who were just hanging out.
Lili: Does one have a choice about that in prison, really?
Juan: One does have a choice about how one spends one’s free time inside. So instead of just going to the gym every day, being in a gang, hanging out and watching TV, I started to work on my reading and writing skills, study the law, go to school. And then apply the ethics and values to my own life that I was reading about, learning.
I really had to apply some of that critical thinking I was learning about to some hard truths: I lost a son while I was in jail. He was a baby when I went in, and an adult when I came out. I lost a wife- she left me when I was sentenced to 25 years, which I understand. She had to go on with her life. So I devastated one family and then hurt my own. So I had to reflect and realize the effects of my actions.
Lili: What was your mindset in the weeks, months, years before your crime?
Juan: I was self-centered. I didn’t ever think about consequences…
Lili: So you never considered the effects your actions might have? Having a gun?
Juan: Well, I knew it was wrong in my own head, but (pause)….robbery was my way to get quick, easy money and I never wanted anyone to get hurt.
Lili: Then why the weapon?
Juan: To scare people with. To get them to give me money. But I never intended to use it….
Lili: It sounds like at some point you had a realization, a switch….if that’s true, how and when did it happen?
Juan: I was upstate in Sing Sing in 1986 and I did an exercise called, “Pros and Cons”. On the pro side, I wrote down a lot of things: I have a kid, I have a wife, I have a home, I can read and write, I have a GED which almost no one inside had, I have my health, I have my parents who love me.
There were a lot of things on the pro side. But I couldn’t really come up with anything on the “con” side. I couldn’t figure out what I didn’t like about myself! I put down that I was selfish, aggressive, angry. But that was it. My “pro” side was actually kind of long.
And then I realized in doing that exercise, that in actuality, I didn’t have most of the things I put down on the “Pro” side— I no longer had a wife or a home. All that I was left with was that I could read and write and that I had a diploma, and that I liked to help people.
When I realized that I didn’t have anything, that I was sitting in a cell and didn’t have my child, my marriage, my home, I cried. I couldn’t stop crying and actually passed out and then had a breakdown. That was it. I had a breakdown there.
Lili: So, it took you a year or two to realize you had nothing?
Juan: Yes. I was just on ‘automatic’, on survival in there for the first year. I threw myself into that culture of hanging out, lifting weights, being the tough guy and making sure nobody messed with me. I didn’t hit my bottom for a year or so.
Lili: What prompted you to write the Pro/ Con exercise?
Juan: I read a book called Transactional Analysis and in the book, they explained that exercise. And that got me to think about my life, to discover who Juan really was. And I was looking at a bleak twenty four years in front of me.
Lili: Juan, do you feel like prison did it’s job?
Juan: Yes. For me, I was helped.
Lili: How’s that?
Juan: I got my education in there. I got two degrees, an associates degree and a master’s degree.
Lili: So you feel like that couldn’t have happened otherwise?
Juan: Hard to know. Maybe. But being inside definitely forced me to hit bottom. And then I decided to do the work, to come to the realization that I had robbed and killed a man. And I could never be that man again, ever. So I began a twenty-plus year journey of transformation.
Lili: How did Mary help you to work on yourself, to come to remorse?
Juan: She was instrumental in helping me stop coming from my head, and start opening up here (points to his heart). Mary knew that if I could tell my story from the heart, I would stand a chance for parole. She did a lot of work to get me out of my “cold and distant” stance.
She helped me see how I shut myself down when I was 13 and my 12 year old brother died of leukemia. To tell you the truth, that devastated me. I saw how I kept running away and couldn’t connect emotionally with anyone. I felt that my whole family died when my little brother died.
Mary helped me with all that in the year we worked together. She helped me connect to my anger that my mom was always getting beat up by my father.
Lili: Was it difficult to feel that vulnerability when you were in prison?
Juan: Yes, but as I told Mary, I was tired, exhausted of this persona, this tough guy who could so easily get in a fight if someone disrespected me. And in jail, you’re constantly in an environment set on testing your machismo. I decided I didn’t want to be that guy anymore.
Lili: That sounds like a tough jump to make: from tough guy to a man finding his buried feelings.
Juan: It wasn’t too hard because I was ready. I was also surrounding myself with a few other guys who also wanted to get a degree, to learn, so we’d go off and study, go to classes there. I was already starting down the right road when I started studying and getting out of the gang and drug culture inside.
Lili: Didn’t that make you unpopular in there?
Juan: Not really…the other guys respected me because they came to me for help. Help to explain what something meant, help in writing a letter.
Lili: If you could distill it down to a single point, what should be done to make prison more humane?
Juan: They need to make college available in each prison, which is not the case. Most do not have it available. But for me it was key to have that as a focus. And it hasn’t stopped, I haven’t stopped learning.
Lili: Tell me your thoughts on restorative justice.
Juan: It puts a man on the road to redemption, to allow a man to work towards regaining his humanity by reaching out to the victim…and taking into account the collateral damage of your victim’s entire family. And then you work on ways to demonstrate how you can give back to society, so you can be accepted by that society and not be defined by your actions from years ago.
Lili: Is this a choice you made on your own?
Juan: It is. I wrote letters to everyone in the victims’ family and presented them to the institutional parole officer and the parole commissioners.
Lili: And this is after, what, 23 or 24 years?
Juan: Yes. So restorative justice says that I can work towards my redeemable self, and I am a redeemable man, but that’s only through actual works. I studied restorative justice from books, from the Quakers. Working with Mary made it come from my heart, not my intellect which could easily say, “Im sorry for all this” but not really mean it.
After I spoke my letters for all the members of my victim’s family to the parole commissioners, I felt free. One of the parole officer’s jaw dropped open and he pumped his fists in the air and said, “Yes, that’s it”. I slept though the night for the first time in twenty five years.
Lili: That’s powerful. Any desire to help others learn about restorative justice?
Juan: Yes, and I did, for the last few years I was incarcerated. I worked with some of the inmates and taught them that to have a genuine shift, you have to come from the heart-centered self. I still work with them, and now with some of the families of the inmates, to teach them about it, and how when the inmate gets out, they’re not going to be coming from just themselves anymore.
Lili: What does the future hold for Juan?
Juan: I’m really proud of helping sixteen men work for their college degrees, filing all their applications, writing to the colleges, and I’m still helping those men.
And I’m studying for my CASAC certification, which I graduate from in March. I’m applying for a Master’s degree in social work to supplement my Master’s degree in social science that I earned in prison.
And I want to be gainfully employed, which is a challenge because not too many employers want to hire a felon. But I’m hopeful someone will give me a chance to prove myself.
My motto is; To whom much is given, much is required. And because I was given so much, all I want is to give back, to help others now.
Juan gives me a hug and enfolds me in his giant arms. I swear, I could feel that big heart in there and leaving him to return home, all I could do was pray for him to find an employer willing to give him the break he so clearly worked very hard to earn.
When I called Mary to thank her for the introduction, and to tell me more about the program, Mary explained that the Osbourne Association Long-termer’s Responsibility Project Project, a pilot program, allows prisoners who are serving 15 or 25 years to life sentences to apply to the program a few years before their hearings in front of the Parole Board. There are more applicants to the Osborne Project than there are volunteers, and it isn’t easy for inmates to be accepted. Eligibility depends on them not appealing their cases, and includes a thorough assessment of their readiness to consider taking full responsibility for their crime.
There are lengthy questionnaires and interviews and waiting lists for the inmates. I was unaware of this fact: an inmate, after serving his or her minimum term (in this case, the full 15 or 25 years) would be granted an average of seven minutes in front of the notoriously unyielding parole board. If the inmate’s request for parole was denied, the inmate would have to wait years again for their next shot at seven minutes, the national average of minutes a hearing lasted.
Many inmates either do not have access to the psychological and spiritual tools which make remorse an accessible experience, or for complex reasons, do not possess the orientation towards it. Some, however, do but are so often unable to convince the Parole Boards, that they end up resigning themselves to a life spent in prison, or start to plan an escape, as well depicted in the film The Shawshank Redemption.
According to Mary, it is exceedingly difficult to be paroled since it is in the interest of the parole boards to maintain their good reputations for low recidivism rates. What better way to ensure these low rates than not to grant parole to begin with? Not to mention, she added darkly, keeping inmates in jail helps keep people employed. The deck is so clearly stacked against the inmates it often takes a miracle to break through the stalwartly broken prison system.
An advocate for restorative rather than retributive justice, Mary works with inmates every week facilitating the courageous process of helping them arrive at authentic remorse. Although conveying genuine remorse for all the victims of their crime is an inmate’s greatest chance for convincing a parole board, it’s still no guarantee. But what the psychological and heart-opening processes Mary takes the inmate through does guarantee is that they will be set free internally, no matter what the official decision of the parole board is. They will be given the opportunity to finally stop being their own judge, jury and jailer.
When she is with them, Mary uses her trauma training to help inmates begin to open up safely through guided imagery, bodywork and of course, talking and deep listening. Additionally, through letter-writing assignments the inmate works on during the week to keep connected to the therapist, she or he connects to their own story first. Mary assured me she’s never heard a one that hasn’t been wrenching, childhoods derailed by every kind of abuse, incest, neglect, of watching mothers be battered, of severe poverty, gangs and drugs.
She then reminds me that no one, no one commits murder if they’re not numb somehow. It’s her task as a trauma specialist, she says, to unfreeze their numbness, to help them begin feeling remorse first for themselves, their stories. This process takes some time; usually there is too much guilt blocking them, and that guilt is inherently self-centered; “I’m such a piece of crap, I’ll never make good.” Remorse, on the other hand, is more selfless, it’s finding mercy for yourself in your own story of abuse, and then extending that open-hearted remorse out towards everyone affected by your crime. (Note: in NY State, it is illegal for convicts to contact victim’s families, so the exercises conducted between therapist and inmate are limited to that, to exercises, albeit transformative ones.)
When it’s time to say goodbye, I can’t help but ask her, “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?”