PEEK INSIDE THE SUMMER 2011 ISSUE OF YES! MAGAZINE
It was the summer of 2009. I was on my second day of work for the U.S. Census Bureau, knocking on doors in rural South Carolina.
My cell phone rang. It was my supervisor.
“Patrice, headquarters called me and told me to send you home immediately and to take back all government property,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
She knew me as a 61-year-old gray-haired mother, a former Washington Post reporter, an author and motivational speaker. She knew nothing about me 40 years ago, when I was a 21-year-old heroin user. I knew exactly why they were sending me home: I am a convicted felon.
In 1970, I spent part of a summer in jail for a drug charge and received five years probation. But that was just the beginning. In the decades since, I have learned what it’s like to try to change your life in a fearful society that believes it’s safest to lock up or discard anyone who has ever made a criminal mistake or had a problem with addiction. And I have learned that there’s another way—a way that offers the possibility of restoring dignity and hope both to the people who make mistakes and those victimized by crime.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports that one in 32 adults in the United States is behind bars or on probation or parole. One quarter of the prison population is locked up for nonviolent drug offenses, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Each time a person is locked away behind bars, it leaves a void in a family, neighborhood, or community. Most often, the burden of incarceration falls on communities of color. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a leading organization promoting alternatives to incarceration, writes, “The war on drugs has become a war on families, a war on public health, and a war on our constitutional rights.”
“We are exiling millions of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters—making them missing persons,” says Carol Fennelly, director of Hope House, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that helps children stay connected with incarcerated parents.
I was lucky. I was becoming an addict when I was convicted. The system that sent me to jail did nothing to address my drug problem: It put me on probation and ordered me to pay more than $2,000 in fines, which only made me more bitter. I was a single mother who could not find a job because of my criminal record. I did not see any connection between the high fines and my behavior. I did not see how I was expected to dig myself out of the hole I was in.
Anyone labeled an “offender” or “ex-con” has a difficult time finding employment. Even though I served a short sentence, once I got out of jail, I could not find a job. I didn’t know how to answer the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Some days I lied; some days I told the truth.
Ban the Box for a Fair Chance
Breaking through "tough on crime" policies to give all Americans a chance at employment.
If I lied, I usually got fired within two weeks when the results of the background check came in. If I told the truth, I didn’t get past the interview.
I searched for a job for at least three months before I finally received a break: A woman at a mental health center took a chance and hired me to work as a clerk in the business office in spite of my criminal record. Over the next several years, I took creative writing courses at night, got accepted into a journalism training program, and eventually became a newspaper reporter.
But I have never forgotten that those doors probably would never have opened without the woman who was brave enough to give me a chance.
Finding Real Justice
Years later, as a reporter at the Washington Post, I wrote my autobiography, Laughing in the Dark, and started giving motivational speeches and running workshops for women in prisons around the country.
The more time I spent in prisons, the more I came to believe that there had to be a way to keep our streets safe without throwing people away. Everywhere I turned, I saw myself. I met women, most of them mothers, serving too much time for crimes (embezzlement, check fraud, prostitution, burglary) committed because, like me, they had a drug problem.
Then I discovered what I had been looking for—an alternative to incarceration called restorative justice.
In restorative justice, all of the parties impacted by an offense—offender, victim, and community—are involved in determining a resolution that addresses the harm caused by the crime. Restorative justice acknowledges that crime is about more than breaking the law: Therefore, the resolution is about more than simple punishment.
In North America, restorative justice has roots in the very communities that have been hurt most by the prison system. There is evidence that similar approaches were used by West African slaves brought to the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia and by Native Americans.
While researching restorative justice, I found cases such as one in Norfolk, Va., where a youth stole his parents’ car, crashed it into another woman’s car, and ran. Instead of serving time in juvenile detention, a restorative justice program allowed him to work and pay the woman back for damage to her car and income she lost while her injuries prevented her from working. The youth and the victim met, and he was able to see the connection between his bad decisions and the harm he had caused. It struck me that he received what I missed. He was given work to help him pay his restitution. The process was respectful to everyone: The young man left changed but not labeled a criminal.
I met Morris Jenkins, a criminal justice scholar at the University of Toledo. Jenkins’ work demonstrates how communities have historically resolved crime. The Sea Islands have preserved much of the unique Gullah culture of the West Africans who were brought there as slaves generations ago. Jenkins found that before there was a bridge from the islands to the mainland, the island people used restorative justice to settle civil disputes and some criminal complaints. “They called it the Just Law,” Jenkins told me recently. “One of the ladies in her 90s told me a story about how they used to have these community meetings at faith houses—little shacks, not churches. They would bring together the offender and his folks, and victims and their folks, and the elders—and they would come up with a resolution.”
As I investigated these stories, I realized restorative justice offered everything my experience with the corrections system did not. I had wanted to change my life, so I could be a good daughter, sister, and mother. But I didn’t know how to change. Being on probation, paying restitution, and being disregarded when I applied for a job did not address my desire to be a good person or help boost my self-esteem. The punishment and judgment against me crippled me even more.
Once I committed my crime, I never felt as if I was part of a community. No one saw the power in getting me to realize the harm I had caused to my family. My parents were ashamed. I disappointed friends and neighbors who had helped me over the years. I knew that some of them probably even felt I had brought shame to our close-knit neighborhood. No one ever considered finding a way for me to give back, to feel forgiven and accepted again. I had to put all of the pieces together myself—find a way to repair the harm I caused, forgive myself, and be a part of the community again—a process that took years.
Transforming the System
Over the years since I discovered restorative justice, the number of programs has grown slowly. Today, as federal and local governments search for ways to save money, more attention is being paid to alternatives to incarceration. Many restorative justice programs are now operating in partnership with the court system.
My friends, Ivy and Saleem Hylton, receive clients referred by the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in Washington, D.C. The couple co-founded Youth and Families in Crisis, which runs innovative restorative justice sessions in Prince George’s County, Md.
The Hyltons have seen incredible changes in former perpetrators of violent crimes who have attended their restorative justice sessions. They teach relaxation and meditation to clients to give them tools for controlling their emotions and refocusing their attention. Using a restorative justice practice from Native American traditions, they hold discussion circles in which each person has an opportunity to speak without interruption and learns to truly hear and respect others, often for the first time.
I spoke with Antonio Addison, who spent 15 years in prison for a murder conviction: He believes participating in the circles and learning to meditate has saved his life.
“We started with prayer and then the circle,” said Addison. “Some spoke up; some were not open. I would share my deepest emotions. The only peace I had felt in my life was when I was in the hole in prison, in solitary.”
Addison found he could create a feeling of peace by using sounds introduced to him at the sessions, such as the sound of the ocean or soft bells. “I would play the CDs to relieve stress before I went to sleep. Then I started using them when I got upset or angry, and I found they relieved me of those things so [my emotions] didn’t build up and explode.”
In one year, with the Hyltons’ help, Addison accomplished something he could not do in 15 years of incarceration: He is able to control his anger before it explodes into rage. Now, at 41, Addison is married, has two-year-old twins, is a supervisor for a major utility company, and gives back by volunteering with the Hyltons, encouraging new participants by sharing his story and answering their questions.
Restoring Hope and Imagination
Five years ago I co-founded a nonprofit organization, The Brown Angel Center, which helps women transition from prison to the community. We run workshops for the women in the Mecklenburg County Jail in Charlotte, N.C. A couple of months ago, I was teaching the women about restorative justice. They sat silent, intrigued.
“We need that here,” one said.
“It makes so much sense,” said another.
At the jail, the women are waiting to be sentenced or to begin long prison terms. They are separated from their children, and some have already lost custody because their sentences are too long to allow them to continue parenting. One thing hasn’t changed since I started speaking in prisons 16 years ago: Most women I meet are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. Restorative justice would help them; prison time does not.
Voices of Compassion
Personal stories of life beyond bars.
Meanwhile, restorative justice practitioners say we have just begun to use our creativity to develop inventive programs to address crime. I speak at colleges around the country, encouraging a new generation of leaders to consider applying their talents to create a new model of justice. I stand before these students and the women who are locked up as an example of the distance one person can travel in a lifetime.
Dressed in my best business suit, I hold up my mug shot to illustrate to them that you can never know what a person might become, what potential they have within. My photo shows me at 21, a baby-faced girl with a large afro and a sign hanging around her neck that says, “Charlotte Mecklenburg NC, 19 Jun 70, 70 – 90.”
“This is what a drug addict looks like,” I say. “This is what a teacher looks like. This is what an author looks like. This is what a mother looks like.”
Why real justice means fewer prisons.
The American problem with mass incarceration is less about crime than it is about how—and who—we lock up.
"I was overjoyed when I got my voter registration card. I was a real citizen!" Ex-offenders on reclaiming the human right to vote.