Response: January 2015 Issue

Restoring Justice, Restoring Lives

Restoring Justice, Restoring Lives
Inmates at a Missouri Department of Corrections facility in Vandalia donate hats they knitted for infants to local outreach groups.

Though I never would have predicted having this job in this place, I work for the Missouri Department of Corrections in Jefferson City, Missouri. I am blessed to get to work for the department's training academy. In this role I've been able to learn about what is actually happening in our country's prisons, and one of the programs I feel most connected to is the restorative justice program.

Restorative justice

The Missouri Department of Corrections has committed to the practice of restorative justice in the criminal justice system. When a crime is committed a debt has occurred—a debt to society, to an individual, and to friends and family members. The restorative justice program holds offenders accountable for this debt and provides a means for them to repay it.

Restorative justice takes place inside the department's institutions and within probation and parole. This program encourages offenders to reflect on the harm caused by their behavior through participation in reparative activities. Each offender within the custody and care of the Missouri Department of Corrections is given the opportunity to participate in the program while incarcerated. More than 14,000 incarcerated offenders participate, and they provide more than 200,000 volunteer hours of service each year.

In the probation and parole programs offenders participate in community service, pay financial restitution to their victims and make payments to the Crime Victim Compensation Fund and through reparation boards. Reparation boards comprise a diverse group of citizens who serve as the face and voice of the community. Members meet regularly with the offenders, and through intervention plans offenders are held accountable while repairing the harm to victims and the communities.

Impact of crime on victims classes

No matter the custody level of offenders, they participate in the impact of crime on victims classes throughout the department. This 40-hour curriculum provides victims with a safe and structured environment to talk about the impact of crime on their lives. These classes help offenders develop a sensitivity toward victims and a respect for the rights of others. The classes help prevent further victimization and hold offenders accountable for their behavior. Each of the 10 classes covers a different topic, including overview of victimization, property crimes, child and elder abuse, domestic violence, assault, sexual assault, drunk driving, robbery, drugs and homicide. This is a required class as part of the restorative justice program. More than 40,000 offenders have completed the class and are actively participating in one of the many activities within the restorative justice program.

Getting connected

Being raised in a "Corrections" family and now working for the department, I am always trying to find positive elements in a very negative environment. I was first introduced to restorative justice while taking an initial tour of the Jefferson City Corrections Center. Offenders within its walls are some of the worst of the worst. My tour guide asked if I was interested in visiting the restorative justice program.

I was taken into a crafting room, large quilting tables, floor-to-ceiling bags of fabric, tote bags, quilts and more. I never knew a placed like this existed within the walls of a prison. I was welcomed by smiles and hellos. I was asked to take a seat so each of the workers could introduce themselves and describe the program they were assigned to while serving their time. The men not only told me their names but also explained what they were serving time for homicide, aggravated assault, sexual assault, child endangerment, just to name a few. While they were explaining their projects, such as quilting, school kits, autism vests and fidget blankets, they were very proud of the work they accomplished and knowing that the items were helping a variety of individuals throughout the state.

One of my favorite moments that day was two men discussing the fabric selections for the quilt they were working on: Would purple flowers on a white background against striped pink and purple fabric work together? Needless to say their conversation broke some stereotypes I'd held. That's when I started thinking: How can I help? How can I work with this program?

Every October, the Missouri Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church hosts a an ecumenical event called "Festival of Sharing." One of the main attractions is the quilt auction. Participants in the restorative justice program make quilts—what if I asked them to donate a quilt? I worked with staff at the corrections center and a beautiful Mickey Mouse baby quilt was donated. It brought in $80 at the auction (which provided eight blankets to Church World Service). As Assembly 2014 approached, I contacted all of the adult institutions in the Missouri corrections system and asked if their respective restorative justice programs would like to donate quilts to the Assembly collection. I ended up with 25 quilts to ship to United Methodist Women in New York!

Giving back to the community

According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, in 2013, 26,674 offenders volunteered more than 1,079,900 hours on reparative activities. Community volunteers help oversee some of the projects in the institutions. Goods produced were delivered to shelters, day care centers, nursing homes, Meals on Wheels programs, hospitals, victims, schools, not-for-profit organizations and more. Some activities the program undertakes are refurbishing bikes and wheelchairs, building PET carts for people with disabilities, making happy hats for cancer victims, sewing pants to give to rape victims in hospitals and shelters, crocheting afghans for "Afghans for Angels" for parents who have lost infants, making lap blankets for veterans in VA hospitals and hats and scarves for children in shelters. They also work with various organizations to provide cards or flowers for shut-ins and nursing home residents. In addition, within the restorative justice program there are two successful subprograms: Puppies for Parole and Restorative Justice Gardens.

Puppies for Parole

Puppies for Parole is a unique program made possible through the partnerships the Missouri Department of Corrections has established with animal advocacy groups and animal shelters statewide. Selected offenders have the opportunity to teach rescue dogs basic obedience skills and help socializing them, making them more adoptable. Once dogs have successfully completed the program, they will be adopted through their original shelter.

"Restorative Justice builds the self-esteem of the offenders and helps them get outside themselves," said George A. Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections. "Offenders are able to help the community and develop a sense of altruism."

As of July 2014, 2,500 puppies have "done time" at one of Missouri's prisons. New programs have grown out of the original Puppies for Parole, and now offenders are providing special training to some dogs to work with people with disabilities, children with special needs, veterans and mental health patients. Not only does this have a positive impact on the dog and the offenders, but it also helps more positively shape the work environment for staff. Puppies for Parole operates solely on private donations and donations from offender organizations. Staff members not only donate to the program but some are now the proud owners of a doggy graduate!

Restorative Justice Gardens

In 2013, 325,748 pounds of produce, all grown in the prisons, was delivered to shelters, schools, food banks, senior citizen homes and other locations across the state. Gardens vary in purpose and size throughout the system. Greenhouses are popping up inside perimeters, seedlings are being started and even an orchard is now planted for future harvest.

Gardens provide fresh, local produce to be donated, but they also change the physical environment of the prison. Colorful vegetable gardens and flower beds are not what most people imagine seeing on prison grounds.

Finding compassion

"Altruism is the manifestation of compassion," Mr. Lombardi said. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95 percent of all state prisoners will be released at some point. Restorative justice programs help offenders find compassion, a quality that many are missing. Prisoners engage in dialogue with staff and community on the areas of need in society. When organizations or individuals receive gifts from offenders, we ask the recipients to share, in writing, the impact that gift had on them. Through these personal, individual letters walls are torn down. Offenders begin to feel the impact their vest, quilt, blanket, backpack, puppy or squash had on an individual, and through this process healing can begin.

"Doing your time isn't enough—you owe the community," said Mr. Lombardi. Community partnerships like Puppies for Parole, Restorative Justice Gardens and other altruistic activities help change the community's perspective on offenders. It gives us the chance to see the good in all people. Restorative justice offers the opportunity to give and receive forgiveness. The Missouri Department of Corrections is working to provide more than just a place to serve time and instead provide a public service, a chance for everyone to believe in and see change.

Stephanie Greiner is president of United Methodist Women at Wesley United Methodist Church in Jefferson, Mo., and coordinator for social action for the Mid-State District of the Missouri Conference United Methodist Women. She works part time as the connections coordinator for her church and full time as e-learning curriculum design specialist for the Missouri Department of Corrections in Jefferson City.

Posted or updated: 1/1/2015 11:00:00 PM
response: January 2015