This blog will talk about life on death row in the USA and give insight into the world of those who must live there. How do their cells look like and what do they do all day long? And what about their families and friends: are they still around to support them?

Inmates, their family members and pen friends but also victims’ family members have a voice in this blog and share their experiences through interviews and narratives. The articles will be uploaded in no specific order and sorted into the categories. Questions and suggestions for topics are welcome.

Ines Aubert, Switzerland, 2021

Please get in contact for a short-term correspondence with a death row prisoner.

Interview with Abraham Bonowitz from Death Penalty Action

The questions were asked by Ines Aubert, 2021

Abe, thank you for agreeing that we conduct this interview. Let me start with a simple question: how would you describe yourself?

I am a loving, authentic, and powerful leader. I am a bit of a procrastinator, but when I get going, I don’t hold back. I don’t see barriers – only hurdles – and I’m always up for a good challenge. What makes me angry is injustice, and I have had to learn to pick my battles.

What made you accept my request for this interview, as I am from Europe and not directly involved in your activities?

Like my friend, Bill Pelke, when I see an open door, if I am able, I will walk through it. Unlike Bill, I did not make a promise to God to walk through every door that opens. To me, your invitation is an opportunity to share with others how easy it is for ordinary people to do extraordinary things, and to make a difference in the world. My hope is to inspire others to also pick an issue or a challenge and pour themselves into it. So, if this is that opportunity, let’s get on with it!

Your suggestion that it is easy for ordinary people to do extraordinary things is very inspiring. I agree with you that life is much more animated if we pour ourselves into something, as you put it. I know that Bill Pelke had a particular moment on a crane when he realized he had to start his journey of forgiveness. Was there a similar moment in your life when everything began?

Two moments come to mind:

The first is the moment I changed my mind about the death penalty. The first time I encountered the issue as an adult was after I had joined Amnesty International to help free prisoners of conscience and stop torture. I did not realize that Amnesty also worked against the death penalty. I went to a meeting on the campus of Ohio State University, and I was surprised when the speaker was talking about the death penalty. I argued with her, saying “an eye for an eye, “and “I’ll pull the switch myself.” I stuck around to do the other work, and I was tolerated when I told others that they didn’t have to do the death penalty work, or maybe just work to stop executions in places like the Soviet Union or South Africa.

In 1990 or 1991, I was at an Amnesty regional training conference in Minnesota, but one of the speakers was talking about the death penalty and using Ohio statistics. I’m from Ohio. Prof. Michael Endres was the speaker, and he said, “If you are going to kill someone in Ohio, just don’t do it in Franklin County (Columbus), Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), or Hamilton County (Cincinnati), because those counties have the tax base to be able to afford a death penalty trial. Kill in a rural county, and they can’t afford a death penalty trial, so you can’t get a death sentence. In that moment, I pictured myself jumping from one side of the fence to the other, because I can’t stomach unfairness. It should be about the severity of the crime that decides the severity of the punishment, not money or politics or geography. However, it turns out that the factors that determine who gets a death sentence and who does not have very little to do with the crime. Of course, race, mental capacity and the quality of representation have a lot to do with it, too.

The second moment was when I was once I was well into the work, in 2003, and struggling to find the support I needed to do this work full time. I had an encounter with a messenger – a spirit traveler – who told me that I would have the resources I need to do this work. That has allowed me to take leaps without knowing how I would land, and in fact, it has been the case that sometimes it has been tricky, but everything always works out. I know that sounds unusual or strange, but it is true. It is a longer story but suffice to say that I was drawn to be in a place that was so out of the way and unplanned by me that when it happened, it was undeniable. That event informs how I live my life and do my work every day.

It sounds as if you found your mission. Yet, I almost can’t believe you once believed in the “an eye for an eye”! But as you said, at the beginning of this interview, you don’t see barriers and therefore could jump “from one side of the fence to the other” as you put it and change your opinion. Is there something you would suggest we do right now in support of the abolition of the death penalty?

The first thing people can do is simply check themselves to make sure they are opposed to the death penalty, and to know what their “why” is so that they can articulate that – at least to themselves. Study the issue a bit so that you can understand current statistics and realities and therefore be able to address parts of the issue that may not be your primary motivating factor. There are many aspects to the death penalty, and it is helpful to understand at least the basics of the various concerns, including wrongful convictions, victim’s issues, issues for the families of the accused, legal issues and realities, costs, deterrence, fairness, concerns about execution methods, etc.

Next, communicate with your elected officials and policymakers who control how government responds to violent crime where you live. If you live in a country with the death penalty, that will be public and elected officials from where you live and on up to the whole country. For example, if you live in the United States, that’s going to be your county, your state, and/or the national government. If you live in a country without the death penalty, then focus on a country that does. I have been encouraging everyone who does not live in the United States to write a personal letter to the US Ambassador in your country, asking them to convey your opposition to state governors and to our president.

Next, at www.DeathPenaltyAction.org, you can always sign petitions in support of various campaigns and in individual cases of prisoners who are facing executions.

The only actions that people outside the US can’t sign are those where we are writing to elected officials about policy proposals. This is because if you don’t live in a place where you can vote for them, they don’t really care what you think, and in some cases, they may even wonder why you are bothering them.

Execution protests are one thing, and that’s not a problem, but when we are talking about legislation, it can damage our efforts to send messages to legislators who are not yet aligned with us, and who don’t represent you. That might shift a bit if you are a business leader who works or owns a business that employs people and pays taxes in a policymaker’s district. Then, your voice is louder than mine and I beg you to use it!

Beyond that, if you are able, help people and organizations who are doing the work. Volunteer. Send money. Tell others that there is a need and invite them to take these actions, too. It’s a curious thing that many people will ignore opportunities to help until someone they know asks them directly.

Finally, if you really want to understand the issue, read the writings of prisoners, or even create a supportive relationship by offering to be a pen pal. But don’t do that if you cannot stick with it and be forthright about how much time you have to be engaged in such correspondence and what your limitations are. Some people have created deep friendships and relationships.

I truly like that you ask us to find our position and sophisticated arguments to verbalize that based on facts and realities.

Well, and based not only on what speaks to you, but also on what speaks to the person you are talking to.

And I think we should take your plea seriously that we should not contact legislators who don’t represent us.

Legislators, yes, unless they are allies and you are thanking them.  Governors, presidents, ambassadors are fair game!

I assume you launched DeathPenaltyAction to bundle these efforts. Is there a way to determine what your contribution to or impact on a success has been? What do you consider a success?

Most of our real successes in stopping executions we cannot discuss because they have been behind the scenes working in collaboration with legal teams. That’s true for me personally as well as for the organization. Suffice it to say we engage in strategic organizing and strategic communications, which boils down to getting the right message delivered to the right decisionmaker by the person or persons that decisionmaker can best hear the message from. The best such moments are when a prisoner’s lawyer credits our work with helping to stop an execution. That’s happened twice in the past six months, and it is very unusual when lawyers will say that out loud.

Our work is a combination of behind the scenes work and exerting public pressure through protests and petitions. Those absolutely have an impact, even if it does not stop executions. When more people are actively signing petitions and supporting the work of those of who are acting in the streets, it sends a message. Most of the time, decisionmakers never know about a protest in front of their office, and they never see the petitions. But the fact that people are involved in these actions gives hope to prisoners, encourages their legal teams (sometimes it annoys their legal teams!), and gives the media a vehicle by which to tell the story. Prisoners know when we are outside while a fellow prisoner is being killed. I’m told that gives them hope and a feeling that they are not alone. If nothing else comes of it, in my opinion that alone makes it worth doing.

Google “Death Penalty Action” including the quotation marks, and then choose “news”, and there you can see our impact. Images of our protests and with our carefully crafted messages on signs that are highly visible and highly readable have become stock images which are repeatedly used as accompanying images to news articles unrelated to our protests. And you know, most people don’t read more than the first few paragraphs, or even the headline. But they always look at the picture. Editors have a choice: a mug shot of a murderer or accused murderer, a picture of a gurney or an electric chair, or a picture with one or more of our signs in it. When they use a photo with one of our signs, that’s our impact. This is “earned media” and free advertising for our movement, and it often appears in places where you can’t buy advertising!

By Jeremy Hogan, The Intercept

What are the organizations or offices you collaborate with most? 

We collaborate with anyone who will work with us, but we are very close with the Journey of Hope, From Violence to Healing, Red Letter Christians, and various state organizations with which we are collaborating.

I loved to hear that you mention writing a prisoner as one way to become active. Are you in contact with death row prisoners, too?

I am a terrible pen pal. You know how long it took for us to get going on this interview. I get cursed out every time I talk to my first pen pal, Anthony Apanovitch, who has been on Ohio’s death row for over 30 years. He wrote a letter to Amnesty International, and I was an Amnesty volunteer in Ohio. Amnesty sent the letter to Rick Halperin, and Rick sent it to me. I wrote to Tony and then started visiting him. This was way back when Ohio’s death row was still in Lucasville in the early 1990’s, before the Lucasville uprising.

I lost touch with Tony and the others when my son was born, which is also the time I was becoming very busy organizing to abolish the death penalty in New Jersey. I recently reconnected with him. He calls me every so often, and now we also share e-mails.

I had a pen pal on Florida’s Death Row in the early 1990’s, as well. He had a heart attack and died before they could execute him. There’s another guy on Florida’s death row who I am sure I have disappointed by losing touch after I left the area. I’m ashamed about that, but I had come to know the reality that there is only so much time in the day. As far as I know, he’s still kicking. I’ve known and spoken with a couple of dozen prisoners on Death Rows and I have visited prisoners on Death Row in Alabama, California, Florida, Ohio and Texas. I was on the prison farm in Angola while they were filming “Dead Man Walking”. I have been to many prisons, protesting outside.

I want to say two more things regarding this topic: 

First, my experiences visiting and corresponding with prisoners has shaped my approach to this work significantly. I’ve also been a prisoner myself a few times, for very short periods, thank God! I have a huge respect for anyone who can maintain hope in such conditions, year after year. I don’t understand it and I don’t think I could do it myself.

The other thing is that I have purposely made it a point to NOT get deeply engaged with many prisoners. The first “round number” execution at which I protested was the 400th, Flynt Gregory Hunt, in Maryland. I was arrested for protesting at the 500th execution and again at the 1000th. For the 1500th, I was in Paris on a family vacation, but I still managed a small demonstration with folks from the French Coalition. Now we’re at 1534. None of the people with whom I have been a pen pal with have been executed, but I have met a few who have been killed, and if I had had a personal relationship with many who had been executed, I don’t know if I could still be doing this work. I know many who have burned out seeing their friends continuously being executed.

I connect with prisoners who have execution dates through friends who make that their focus, as well as through their families.

You are an amazing person. In your first answer you wrote: “I am a loving, authentic and powerful leader. I am a bit of a procrastinator, but when I get going, I don’t hold back.” I must say, I can confirm the latter: procrastination, then full attention. From your answers, I clearly see the “loving” and “authentic”, and have no doubt that you are a powerful leader.

Thank you for your full attention to this interview, and I wish you all the best with your Death Penalty Action and all your other projects.

www.deathpenaltyaction.org

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Interview with Ursula Corbin

The questions were asked by Ines Aubert, 2021

Ursula, we have known each other for twenty years as we are both active in the anti-death penalty field. You were also among those who launched the Swiss organization lifespark which arranges pen pal-ships with Death Row inmates and of which I am a member. Can you give us a short summary of your journey from the start to the current situation in which you have published a book entitled, “Du sollst nicht töten”?

It all began in the summer of 1986 when I joined an Amnesty International group. At one of our meetings, our leader said that he had received a letter from a man who had been sentenced to death in Texas. This man had been given an execution date and had less than three months to live. He wrote that his greatest wish was to communicate with someone before he was killed. It was asked which of us could write in English – and I was the only one who spoke up. I got the order to take over this. So, I wrote my first letter to a prisoner.

The execution was postponed, and it took eight years until he was executed. We had quite an intense exchange of letters during those years, and I also visited him several times at Ellis One Prison in Texas.

After his death, a radio station contacted me for an interview with them. This interview was broadcast in the area and reached several prisons. Shortly thereafter, I received dozens of letters from prisoners who wanted to correspond with me.

The whole thing was just too much, so I founded the lifespark organization together with two other Swiss women (also letter writers). I was the facilitator of pen pals, Alice was President, and Beatrice the Actuary/Treasurer, but other women were also involved in its founding.  After three years, we had already arranged almost 150 contacts. However, since I was corresponding with five prisoners myself, had a family and ran a business, it all became too much for me and I resigned from my position, but stayed on as a passive member.

In 2006, together with three colleagues from our Amnesty group, I founded the organization Reach Out. There were some Death Row inmates who had absolutely no one left, neither family nor friends, to help them financially from time to time to buy the essential things they needed (warm clothes, shoes, writing paper, stamps, etc).

With 45 members and their annual contributions, we have been able to send these men a small amount every three months. In addition, they receive a food parcel about once a year and every now and then a book or a subscription to a magazine.

Until 2019, I wrote several prisoners over all these years and visited some of them every year, as well.

Then came 2020 and borders to the US were closed. There were no more permits to visit in the prisons. Correspondence was also very difficult. It sometimes took weeks until a letter arrived – or then they simply disappeared somewhere.

Since I was retired and we had to stay home a lot because of Corona, I suddenly had a lot of time. I began to write down some of the stories of those prisoners to whom I had written for many years. I found a good coach and a publisher. After reading through my first chapters, they wanted to publish this book. I was pleased, of course, and so I wrote down the stories of eight of my pen pals – exactly as they had told me about their lives and deeds in hundreds of letters.

I chose the title because “Du sollst nicht töten – Thou shalt not kill”; this was to apply to everyone involved – from the perpetrators who had murdered and were convicted of it to the states which, after all, commit murder when they execute someone.

In your opinion, what would be a more appropriate punishment for murder?

There is a good alternative to the Death Penalty: life without parole. This could be applied to any individual who poses a threat to society. We do not need to kill anyone thus making ourselves guilty, as well.

How many inmates are you still writing to?

At present, I am still corresponding with four prisoners: two of them quite regularly, the other two less frequently.

What impact have these pen pal-ships with your pen friends on Death Row had on your life?

Of course, these 35 years that I have been caring for prisoners have made a difference in my life. I think I have certainly reduced prejudices. After all, no one is born a criminal. A baby is like a book with blank pages. During their youth, pages are filled by their parents and through personal experiences. A person is shaped by the environment in which they grow up. At some point, they can freely decide which path they want to take. These decisions are sometimes wrong and carry bad consequences.

The fact that I have repeatedly witnessed injustice has made me very angry. But it was precisely this anger that gave me the courage and strength to stand up against the death penalty and for prisoners. I am aware that I cannot change anything about the death penalty itself, but I can bring some humanity and sometimes hope into a cell.

Certainly, it was not always easy for my family and husband to “spare” me so many hours. I used to write long letters, spending several hours almost every weekend. But over the years, I have found a healthy balance and fortunately my family is quite tolerant. They fully support me and think I am doing something useful.

Over many years you were active in different ways for prisoners on Death Row. 
I assume we have made similar experiences with the public. For example, I have heard people say that someone who has killed someone don’t deserve any attention. How do you justify writing a book with their stories?

I do not agree with these people who say that someone who has committed murder should not receive any attention anymore. Nobody ceases to be a human being because he has done something horribly wrong. How can we even be sure that he really did it, and what the circumstances were which led to his deed?

My book includes the stories of eight men on Death Row. The ones who are still sitting on Death Row and are alive and accessible to me, I asked them for their consent to have their stories published in a book. They all agreed. Logically, I was not able to talk with the ones who are now dead, but I am certain that these men would have given me their consent, as well.

Here is another question that I often hear: Why do you care about Death Row prisoners and not about the elderly or the blind who need attention, too?

The elderly and the blind have plenty of good organizations from which they can obtain help. For Death Row inmates, there are only a few small organizations which find them penpals if they would like to write to someone.

What would be for you the best outcome with this newly released book?

Well, it would be nice if the book would eventually be translated into English and go on the US market, as it is there where people would need to read it. Hardly anyone there knows anything about their own justice system and about the men on Death Row. Perhaps it could help to change their outlook on the Death Penalty.

How do you feel today about the organization lifespark that you helped to launch
in 1993?

I have remained a passive member of lifespark for all these years and am quite proud that it is still going strong and doing a good job!

When someone joins lifespark, they are placed in a penpal relationship with the inmate at the top of the waiting list, regardless of age, gender, interests etc. I fully agree with this way of distribution, but can you say in your own words why you chose to set it up like that as opposed to having pen pal ads allowing them the choice of whom they want to write?

When we started lifespark, there were no computers or social media to work with. We used a simple list and connected the first inmate on top with the person who wanted to write.

However, when I arranged penpalships with inmates, I did not blindly follow these rules. After several months, I came to realize that it was easier for a penpalship to last if the ages are in the same range.

My experience has shown me that pen pal-ships succeed for many different reasons and that age isn’t such an important criterion. As for myself, I have a pen pal who could be my father and one who could be my son, and both are dear to me. That’s why I think the way lifespark handles it is a good method.

I know that pen pal ads that portray a good-looking inmate receive much more attention than an ad with a photo of a less attractive person. I have heard about a handsome inmate who received so many reactions to his pen pal ad (set up by another organization) that he wasn’t able to even respond to everyone.

I think it’s a great achievement that almost 2000 pen pal-ships have been set up since you helped to launch lifespark, and more inmates are waiting to be connected.

Thank you, Ursula, for creating lifespark many years ago! I wish you all the best with your book.

Ursula Corbin: Du sollst nicht töten, Rüffer & Rub, 2021

Whoever wants to have a short-term pen pal-ship with a death row inmate first before deciding whether to start one long-term, can do so through connectdeathrow.org.

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Interview with Ruedi Szabo, one who knows direct victim-offender dialogue first-hand from the viewpoint of the offender

The questions were asked by Ines Aubert, November 2017

You have your own personal story about Restorative Justice. Can you explain what this is all about?

23 years ago, I committed seven robberies and almost beat my ex-wife’s lover to death. I was sentenced to nine years in prison for attempted manslaughter and qualified serious robbery, for which I served six years.

Crimes were processed in a conversation group, and the prison chaplain talked to me about the themes of remorse and atonement. This then led to my personal victim-offender dialogue. I initiated practically all conversations alone, first near the end of my prison sentence with correspondence through letters, then by telephone and afterwards with meeting, mainly in a restaurant.

You know restorative justice first-hand from the viewpoint of the offender. Can you tell us something about these conversations?

One of the first conversations was with a man who was the branch manager of a post office and bank (Zurich cantonal bank) in H. His wife picked him up at closing time and waited with their small children (at that time, a 3-year old boy and a 7-year-old girl) in the package room of the post office. I entered the premises through the rear entrance and held a weapon on the mother and her two children, as well as another employee present. The mother had a panic attack and crying fits and feared terribly for both of her children. The branch manager saw both of us masked robbers through the glass security door to the counter room. He opened the door from his side. My accomplice went into the counter room, and, according to my memory, I forced the five employees and the mother with both children into a corner with a table and a kitchenette and guarded them there. Due to my excellent military training, the robbery was perfectly timed, and we were outside again within minutes.

After my release from prison in 2001, I contacted the branch manager and father of the two children and set an appointment to meet in a restaurant in W. In therapy, I learned to allow the victim to express themselves however they want. I learned from this family how traumatic the hold-up was for the mother and the children, from which they suffered for years. The mother could never enter her husband’s workplace again because she suffered from panic attacks. The boy, likewise, suffered from fear of the dark, large, black men and became a bed wetter. He could not sleep in his own bed anymore because he was afraid that the black men would come to get him. He felt protected and secure with his parents in their bed. It took about two years for him to stop wetting the bed.

The girl was in the first grade at that time, and a very good pupil. After the hold-up, she suffered from attention deficit disorder and experienced great difficulty concentrating. She was in psychiatric treatment and received private lessons. After about four years, she could reintegrate in a normal class.

The parents suffered for years from the psychiatric aftereffects and their marriage almost fell apart because of this. Through counseling, they were able to save their marriage. I was deeply impacted by how much and for how long a four-minute hold-up affected this family.

I appeared twice on television with the father, during which he as the victim could describe the dramatic encounter and its effects. I stood for reparation as the perpetrator of my crimes. The victim not only had the psychiatric suffering to bear, but also unbelievably many financial problems to handle. 

I must say that I find it very shocking to hear your report. This family experienced unspeakable suffering due to a four-minute robbery which you timed so well. It is good that you have taken accountability for it. Were there reactions to the television appearance?

In February of 2016, I was invited by a journalist K., to a radio interview. The theme was religion and violence. One of my earlier victims, an employee of the post office in G., heard the interview and became very upset that a media platform had been given to me as a perpetrator, and that I was allowed to present myself as a “good person”. She herself was affected by panic attacks and nightmares at the post office for more than twenty years after the robbery. Ms G. could only go out at night when accompanied by her husband or her now-grown children. She wrote me a letter which I received through Ms. K. We met each other two months later, accompanied by her husband. This conversation was also for both of us very liberating.

You have had other media appearances, even with Ms. G. Would you like to tell us about that?

When I received an invitation from the Swiss Congress of Criminologists to give a presentation on 9 March 2017, I asked Ms. G. to join me. I was expected to give a 20-minute presentation about how I, as an offender, had experienced my trial and six-year-long imprisonment. I wanted to promote Restorative Justice and my goal was to present the results of my victim-offender discussions. As the victim, Ms. G. stated how it was for her during and after the hold-up and about the years-long anguish up until the moment that we met for our first discussion last year. It was impressive for all the listeners.

Ms. G. has already said that she is willing to support our organization Swissrjforum in victim-offender discussions in Swiss prisons.

Were all your victim-offender discussions successful as well as healing for the victims?

For such a challenging discussion with a victim of my robbery, I asked for the support of St. Gallen Victim Assistance. Ms. B. was the president of Victim Assistance, and in the scope of reparation, she was engaged in the Saxerriet prison, where I was serving my sentence and arranged the discussion with the victim.

This woman suffered a stroke after the hold-up and has been partially paralyzed ever since. It was only upon meeting her that I became aware of her severe disability with spastic movements.

This disability is a result of the bank robbery? That’s horrible!

At that time, this woman was the manager of the E. post office. As I guarded the people and my accomplices cleaned out the safe and cash drawers, she consistently walked with me about 1.5 meters in front of my pistol. As I then ordered her not to do that, she said rationally: “I fear for my co-workers and I am helpless, but if you shoot, then you have to shoot me first”. Her courage truly impressed me.

Because of her courage, I wanted to apologize to her after I was released from prison. I was informed that she was not in good health. After the robbery, the police and forensics team came and took statements. The woman had to find new personnel for the following day so that the post office could remain in operation. On the following Saturday evening she was expecting guests and was cooking with her husband. While they were cooking, she told him all the details of the robbery. While doing so, she had a dizzy spell and fainted. Her husband called an ambulance. In the hospital, it was discovered that she had suffered a stroke which paralyzed two-thirds of her body. Perhaps there were some predisposing medical factors, but for me there was a causal connection: she had described the robbery while cooking, and the entire stress of what had happened during this explanation led to the stroke. I was very shocked about the fact that I was the cause thereof and that I had destroyed a person’s life, although I left the scene of the crime thinking that I had not caused anyone any physical harm. This woman is severely handicapped for the rest of her life, can no longer work, cannot make long vacations, and is dependent upon equipment and medication.

The best part was that she forgave me during the conversation, which I felt bitterly. Before that, it had been difficult for me to forgive other people. 

I can understand that the processing of your crime must be profound for you. The consequential damage to these people is extraordinarily severe. What have you concretely learned from these encounters with victims of the robbery?

As I was more and more preoccupied with the victim-offender difficulty and completed my education as a social worker, l learned to better understand the victim through psychological and pedagogical approaches. In therapy we spoke in detail about the difficulty of psychological injuries which I experienced as a child due to physical abuse by my father. The therapist showed me how the feeling of inferiority resulted therefrom and was occurring within me, as well as how people build up protection around themselves and seek refuge through violence. During my education, I learned through theoretical approaches how criticism can be felt as rejection and how it can lead to feelings of shame and rejection. 

It appears that for you the victim-offender dialogues have had a crucial influence on your future life. Do you know if your fellow prisoners have gone along the same path?

I have to answer in the negative. I don’t know any other prisoner who, in this stretch of time, participated in such talks. In Switzerland, victim-offender dialogues are rarely supported because among the circle of experts, a persistent perception exists: that this confrontation can be re-traumatizing for the victim and stigmatizing for the offender.

When such dialogues are led unprofessionally without background knowledge in addressing vulnerability, shame, feelings of inferiority and rejection, one can make things much worse. One must be proficient in questioning techniques: Where does the person stand? Is the person stable? How does the person avoid statements which he/she senses as provocative? Is he/she capable of inquiring when he/she has the feeling that he/she has misunderstood something? 

In Restorative Justice, the victim and the offender are prepared in a professional manner prior to confronting each other. In the event of psychological instability on the part of the victim or the offender, then there is no meeting. The offender is asked particularly about his/her motives. These must arise out of genuine remorse. As a former jailbird, I notice quickly whether a person’s remorse is genuine, or if he/she only wants to have a few hours of release from their prison cell.

There are programs which deal with the victim-offender dialogues on several evenings. It is important that where possible and desired the victim and offender can meet eye-to-eye. It was sensational how after these eight evenings, the victim and offender were often able to approach each other sensitively; there were some very moving scenes. The wonderful thing is that it is a win-win situation for both involved.

Can you describe such a moving situation?

A woman over 70 was robbed in her automobile and her purse was snatched away. Because her keys and identification were in her purse, she had dread fear that the thief would be able to break into her house. The juvenile criminal with whom she had a dialogue was not the one who committed the crime against her, but one who had committed the exact same crime. Throughout the entire resolution process, the young man said that she could be his grandmother whom he loves above all else. At the end, they hugged each other.

I still have contact with some of my victims and together we give presentations or appear in the media. In so doing, it is important to me to ensure that the victim always takes center stage, and that I as the offender thank the victim that he/she has the courage to conduct these dialogues with me.

About four or five years ago, I became a member of Prison Fellowship Switzerland with the goal of establishing victim-offender dialogues in Switzerland. Unfortunately, it was extremely difficult to get this idea through to the prisons.

In the German juvenile detention center Seehaus, I was invited again and again, as an ex-jailbird, as a “cart horse”, where I explained unsparingly and in all detail about my own crimes. Because my victim-offender dialogues were very successful, I could take away the juveniles’ fear of dialogue. 

Ruedi, you speak much about you as the offender and your victims. You are not only an offender. Can you tell us a bit about Ruedi as a person?

I am the father of five children. Contact with them has always been very important to me. It was they who made me realize in prison that I need to act as a role model now.

Today I work in the “Falkennest” in L. with some juvenile criminals and some violent young adults who can no longer find their way. In so doing, there is crime rehabilitation and, if possible, organization of dialogue with some of their earlier victims.

Thank you, Ruedi, for your openness. You gave us a very interesting insight into your life and into your past. I wish you all the best on your future journey.

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Interview with Claudia Christen, president of the Swiss Restorative Justice Forum

The questions were asked by Ines Aubert, September 2017

Claudia, you were the animating spirit for the launching and became President of the Swiss Restorative Justice Forum in January 2017. Can you explain what Restorative Justice is?

Restorative Justice (RJ) is a philosophy of justice based on core values and a variety of practices.

RJ recognizes that crime primarily harms people and their relationships, and that the duty of justice is to repair the harm done and restore the lives and relationships of the ones affected by the crime.

Thus, RJ seeks “to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible” (Zehr, 2002, p. 37).

To achieve this, RJ creates opportunities for victims, offenders and community members to meet and to discuss the crime and its aftermath, if they desire to do so. This encounter allows victims to tell their story, which is an important step in healing from the harm suffered.

Offenders are encouraged and supported in making amends to help repair the harm caused, insofar as possible. Solutions are sought together with the victims in order to meet the real needs and address the harm adequately. The goal is the restoration and reintegration of victims and offenders.

Many of the offenders also have been victims of severe abuse and violence and, in addressing their needs and trauma, they become less likely to reoffend, as unhealed trauma is considered a major risk factor for offending behavior. It is, thus, an inclusive process that seeks to heal what has been broken, promote in offenders awareness for and empathy with victims, and help them become accountable for their behavior and the resulting consequences. This process also allows many offenders to realize for the first time what suffering their acts have caused and how the consequences may be long-lasting for the victims.

In essence, RJ considers that the traditional legal system does not respond adequately to the needs of victims, offenders, and society in general, and that all parties should actively participate in the achievement of a healing form of justice, the way many ethnic, cultures and religions around the world still practice it.

Can you tell me a little about your history with Restorative Justice?

I have worked for years in different prisons in Santiago de Chile in the area of conflict resolution and peacemaking as a mediator and instructor.

One day I was asked to implement a program in restorative justice, based on the methodology of restorative dialogues. This triggered my interest in RJ and I applied to Simon Fraser University in Canada to study RJ for one year. These studies impacted me deeply and changed my worldview in significant ways.

From there on, my main focus in work has been on restorative justice and restorative practices. Although we left Chile in 2014, I knew that RJ would continue to be my main focus, even in Switzerland where RJ is still very little known and hardly put into practice.

Currently, I am writing my MSc dissertation in criminology and criminal justice on RJ and trauma-informed work. Right now I am also preparing the start of an RJ in-prison program and am very excited about this opportunity to start something like this in Switzerland. Additionally, I’m involved in a working group of the European Forum for Restorative Justice. The goal is to define the values and standards for RJ practice in Europe. This collaboration provides many insights into how other European countries are including restorative justice not only into their criminal justice systems but also into education and social affairs. I have learned a lot and appreciate all the suggestions and new ideas, as well as the mutual support.

What are the first goals you have for RJ in Switzerland?

Our first goals for Switzerland were mainly related to informing people in key positions about RJ. We have had many interesting opportunities, so far, and are still working on this, as this goal will certainly accompany us for another while. It is also our goal to help develop, implement and evaluate the practice of RJ in a variety of contexts, mainly though in the criminal justice system. Supporting others and offering training in RJ is another goal, and we enjoy every opportunity we have in doing so. Research into RJ in Switzerland is important to us too, as it is essential to be able to present Swiss results of the application of RJ.

More information about our work and contact details can be found on: www.swissrjforum.ch

On the Swiss Restorative Justice Forum homepage, there are four main practices that “are meant to put into practice the theory and philosophy of Restorative Justice”. Let me quote a few paragraphs and sentences from your homepage:

1. Victim-Offender Mediation: Victim-Offender-Mediation is one of the oldest and most broadly used forms of restorative practices throughout the world. Qualified mediators facilitate a voluntary meeting between victim and offender. Both can share their experience, express their feelings and seek their own way to find solutions, repair the harm done and work towards achieving justice. The process emphasizes the active participation of both stakeholders.

2. Conferencing: Family Group Conferences are intended to provide a personal encounter between offenders, victims, their families, and supporters, including any other representatives, who need to be involved. The aim is to support offenders as they take responsibility and change their behavior; empower their families to take an active role; and address the needs of victims. It should be a culturally sensitive process, empowering families in their respective roles, and aiming at achieving goals, such as: accountability, involving the victims, strengthening the offender’s family, and consensus decision-making, besides others. To achieve these goals, specific guiding principles, sensitive to the stakeholders’ situations and needs, are to be practiced.

3. Circles: Circles cannot only be used reactively but serve proactive purposes too, promoting healthy and restorative relationships. They are often used in prisons for working with groups of inmates and sometimes involve participants from the community. They have proved to be a valuable tool to address many issues such as conflicts, harm, trauma, and relationship building. Circles are also being used successfully in schools, communities, corporations, different kinds of organizations and work places to strengthen relationships, work on teambuilding, share visions and create plans, solve conflicts, build stronger communities, and improve mutual understanding.

4. Restorative Dialogues: Restorative Dialogues between victims, offenders and community members may have profound effects on the participants. In some programs, direct stakeholders are involved in other programs in which unrelated victims and offenders meet to discuss the effect crime has on individuals and the community, the harm resulting from it, what it means to accept responsibility, and how to make things right. Such facilitated dialogues may help to start a healing process in victims and help offenders confront the harm their actions have had on others. It can even help offenders start healing from their own traumas they may have suffered in the past, especially during their childhood.

I personally was mainly aware of the Sycamore Tree Project by Prison Fellowship which belongs to the Restorative Dialogues. I admit that I even mistook it to be Restorative Justice, but it’s only one of many programs and approaches. It was Dan Van Ness who started the program wherein which victims of crime meet with unrelated serving prisoners. This means it’s an “Indirect Restorative Dialogue”. Can you give us an example of your work with one of the four practices?

I have worked with Restorative Dialogues, in particular the Sycamore Tree Project in Chile. It is very interesting to see the impact such a program can have, even when offenders and victims are not directly related. We choose the participants in a way that the crimes committed by the prisoners are as closely as possible related to the victims’ experiences. This provides a basis for mutual understanding and heightens the impact the victims’ stories have on the prisoners. But it also allows the victims to ask questions about such crimes, why they are committed, how offenders choose their victims or targets, if there is, for example, a big chance of offenders coming back to a house they have broken into to take out more things, if they are likely to take revenge in certain cases, etc. All of this can help victims find meaning from their experiences and somehow process the past in order to take steps into the future. Not having answers to their questions often keeps them trapped in the past and makes healing from their trauma difficult.

This kind of approach also helps offenders to see the “person” that has been harmed and develop victim-empathy, as there is a tendency to deny the fact that people like them have been hurt and are suffering – often much longer than the prisoners would ever assume and often also much more than they would ever imagine.

On the other hand, it also allows victims to see the person behind the “offender”. Many offenders have been victims of crime too, particularly in their childhood and/or youth. They often have suffered from severe trauma, too, and victims can somehow see how their life story has affected their life’s journey. This is not to excuse or justify what they have done, but it still can help victims on their path to healing.

I have also used circles a lot in different contexts, and what amazes me again and again is to see how restorative practices not only apply to the criminal justice system, but also provide us with a useful framework for working with society in general.

Can you give me an example how restorative practices could be applied in ways other than in criminal justice systems?

There are many possibilities J. Restorative practices have already been used for many years to build restorative schools – and this with great success and growing interest in an increasing number of countries. Restorative practices in schools can help to integrate children from other cultures, support mutual understanding, promote community building, help children to communicate respectfully, and resolve their conflicts peacefully.

Restorative practices are also an effective tool for trauma work and this is an area of growing interest for us as so many people – and in particular also children – arrive from countries where they have suffered severe trauma. As unhealed trauma is one of the main risk factors for the development of offending behavior, it is an area that definitely requires our attention, as prevention should be our main focus, wherever and whenever possible.

Circles, a restorative method, provide a wonderful tool for supporting children and adults in sharing their story and start healing from their painful experiences. For many teachers, this is an area of great concern, as they realize how traumatized some of their students are and they often feel helpless in knowing how to address their needs. They see, however, what consequences these life experiences have upon the children. In circles, painful life experiences can be addressed in a way that supports all students, no matter if they have been traumatized or not. The beauty of it is that restorative practices are not difficult to learn, but very effective. Teachers report that by implementing them, they ultimately find more time to concentrate on teaching, as students learn to address so many issues and conflicts among themselves, and the improved classroom climate provides a productive environment where students learn more easily and support each other. The approach can also help teachers in working with parents. School principals also find tools to address more severe issues, like bullying and violence in schools, etc., through other methods such as family group conferences.

Is there something an interested person can do to support Restorative Justice in Switzerland?

An important contribution is to inform oneself well about restorative justice and then spread the word in different contexts. It is important that many more people get to hear about restorative justice in general, and that they are provided with details about where they can receive more information or training, i.e. our Forum but also many international agencies that do fantastic work.

As we are also starting to implement restorative dialogues in Swiss prisons, we are open to include people who have been victims of crime into our programs. Former victims of crime are welcome to get in touch with us and check if there might be a possibility for them to participate in a dialogue with prisoners.

Another option is to ask for specific training in restorative practices and then apply these to whatever context the person is involved in. Restorative practices can be applied in so many contexts, and the methods are usually quite simple to learn and to adapt them. As aforementioned, there is the possibility to apply restorative practices not only in a school context, but also in community building in neighborhoods, businesses, working teams, mediation work with groups, etc., and for working with migrants in helping them heal from trauma, create cultural awareness, help integrate, build community with locals, prevent violence, etc. Circles are currently being applied in some refugee camps in Europe and have proven very helpful and effective. There are many opportunities, and we love to help wherever we can support people in implementing restorative practices!

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, Claudia. I wish Swiss Restorative Justice Form and its work all the best!

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What pen friends mean to me

“You ask me what my pen friends mean to me? Family, connection, love and the knowing we are all in this adventure together. Everyone I write to I love as family. This extended family is a chance for me to share and to give to. It’s a chance to be connected even though we are not even on the same side of this beautiful gorgeous sexy globe, we can touch and be touched in a deep profound spiritual way. Letter writing is an opportunity to spread encouragement, hope, humor and a crazy wisdom that possibly opens eyes to the wonders of this life and inspiration for readers to see that if a person on death row can be free then no matter what the situation anyone else experiences they too can be free! That each and every one is special and valued! So, as I say family, connection and love. WE ARE ALL IN THIS JOURNEY TOGETHER!”

An inmate on death row

Our correspondence has been an enrichening experience – That’s the truth!

By Stuart Patterson, pen friend of a female death row prisoner, 2019

Carlette and I have been writing to each other for years now, pretty well on a weekly basis. We’re not actually sure how many years – she says 9 or 10, I say 7 or 8 – but the truth is probably somewhere in-between. Our correspondence has been an enrichening experience, that’s the truth! You get to know someone pretty well over such a period, but you learn some things about yourself too.

Recently, I’ve been wondering why that’s so. Why did it open up certain truths for me? After all, when you’re corresponding for years with someone that you’ve never actually met face to face, one can imagine that the conversations would stay pretty superficial: the weather, world events, politics, what we each had for dinner… the details of daily living. But when a question of life and death is literally to the fore, a tacit, mutual agreement quickly develops – time isn’t for wasting on trivialities, nor is there room for not telling the truth.

So right from the start we told each other pretty heavy, intimate stuff. Don’t get me wrong – trivialities, daily routines, silly jokes, teasing and light-heartedness occupy a huge place and serve a very real purpose. And our letters are not all Proust and Schopenhauer! What I’m saying is we try to not lose sight of what’s essential: the truths and human emotions that link us.

A pen pal on DR always deserves the truth, but in a male-to-female correspondence, it’s perhaps especially important to be up-front about one particular aspect, so I told Carlette immediately that I was not interested in getting involved romantically with her, and she really appreciated my honesty. It’s not hard to imagine how someone on DR (that’s 21 years now) might want to project the fantasy of a love relationship on the outside, just to escape the dire truth of being on the inside. So it was that any element of seduction was simply put to the side, giving us the space to turn to other important things.

I didn’t need to know about the crime she had committed and didn’t ask her anything. After all, it wasn’t for me to judge her acts (this had already been done by others far more competent than me). But one day, her story sprang out at me from the internet – she had said I would find her photograph on a certain site. Thereafter, without me asking, Carlette told me more about what had happened and what a miserable existence was hers before her crime. She too had decided that the truth was best way forward for our future pen palship.

Our letters quickly led me to think more about judicial systems that provide for the death penalty, how this reflects on the society that makes such a provision, what’s the place of God in all this, the balance between victims’ rights and the criminals’ rights. It’s powerful stuff and I’m not saying I have answers to everything, but my goodness, what a fertile ground for thought! However, one nugget of truth that has come from all my internal questioning is that I now truly find vengeance – which the DP sometimes seems to resemble – the ugliest of human emotions.

Early in our correspondence, I had to find an answer within myself to another question which came from her: why did you agree to write to me? Strange though it may seem, I hadn’t actually considered this in any depth before becoming a member of Lifespark. It had been like a reflex, a knee-jerk reaction, when I heard that someone on DR was looking for a pen pal. Only after I started writing could I say with a convinced mind, I’m against the death penalty in all cases, I’m horrified at the conditions in which people are held on DR, I abhor the ways in which inmates on DR are legally killed in the US. These convictions have now become part of my identity but might never have crystalized into truths if it hadn’t been for Carlette.

When I’m on long business trips, I like to pass the travel time doing Sudoku. I think to myself: an unsolved Sudoku is a bit like being in prison, but when find you the true solution – and there invariably is one – you get set free. (Yes, I tend to work well under pressure!). But being on DR is like doing a Sudoku which has no truths, no logic, no hope, no solution, where the numbers don’t tally – a very cruel torture indeed! So here’s my truth: when I write to Carlette, what I hope for is very simple – to lift her out of her unsolvable Sudoku the time it takes for her to read my letter. That’s not very long in the space of a week, but just maybe it represents a precious moment of truth for her.

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Interview with Hannah* who has been married to a death row prisoner in Florida for nine years

The questions were asked by Ines Aubert

Hannah, when we meet, we talk, among other topics, about your relationship with your husband on death row. Can you tell us how what started as a pen pal-ship developed into a love story?

We started with/as a regular pen pal-ship. I never imagined it would turn into something more. Never even thought “more” would be possible. After corresponding for about a year, I had a vacation coming up and thought I would travel to Florida and could combine the trip with a visit to DR. I contacted another woman who often visited death row. She agreed to help me with the first visit as to how things are done and what is allowed and what not. Since I was staying in St. Augustine on vacation, we met in Starke and I followed her from there. It was kind of exciting and everything was so different. Just the thought of visiting death row at the time was almost “not real”. We had a very nice first visit. My pen pal was very polite – the whole situation in the visiting park was calm and nice. I can’t remember what I expected, but I certainly didn’t expect that kind of “normality” – if you can call it that. When I walked out of there, I knew something had happened: something I never had wanted to happen or even could imagine happening. I just knew I wanted to come back.

I can totally refer to you wanting to come back after the visit. I feel the very same when I leave the prison after visiting with my pen pals. How and when did the idea of marrying appear in your relationship and how long have you been married now?

My husband proposed about 18 months later. It felt like the right thing to do – out of love. We also thought it might be easier for me to obtain information in case the mail was late, or letters disappeared. Being his wife, I have more rights. We have been married now for nine years.

Do you want to share with us how the wedding in prison was and how you spent your honeymoon?

My husband was allowed to have family attend the ceremony; I was not allowed to bring anyone. We were actually lucky because the canteen man was there, so we were able to buy food and drinks. Also, the man who takes photos in the visiting room was there, which couples getting married after us did not have. We were able to say our own vows. After the notary read the usual marriage ceremony, he asked us if we would like to add our own words/vows, which we did. Once the ceremony was over, we had two hours of visiting time in the visiting park with about five guards watching. I guess that was our honeymoon. Our ceremony took place during the week. Now the prison does the ceremonies on a Saturday or Sunday right after the regular visiting hours.

Sidle off, by Fidel, 2021

I imagine it’s quite difficult to be married to someone on death row. In what ways does the fact that your husband is on death row impact your relationship most?

The fact that most inmates have been locked up for years, even though they have TV in Florida, they cannot imagine how things are now in the “outside” world. That makes a lot of things difficult to deal with. They mean only the best when they try to give you tips, but most of the time, the tips are so outdated. They want to have a say, but it takes too long for letters to go back and forth to wait for their input. Now, with emailing – inmates in Florida can send e-mails with a tablet – things are a little better. But, being married to an inmate, one has to be careful about who you want to confide in. You are “on your own” with everything.

Can you tell me a little more about you being careful who to confide in? In what ways are you “on your own”?

Most Floridians still think that the inmate “got what he deserves”. There is a lot of prejudice in Florida, maybe more than in Europe. It doesn’t matter to them if the inmate was never in trouble before he committed the crime that got him the death sentence or if the trial was in any way “unfair”. I learned very quickly just not to say anything. At the beginning, when I was looking for a job, I thought honesty to be the best policy. During an interview with the temp agency, I told them that my husband is incarcerated, and they looked at me in disbelief. After I started my first job, I told a colleague that my husband was incarcerated, and she told me not to say anything about that to other people – I might get fired. Yes, that would not have been legal, but they would have found some other reason to let me go. I needed the job, so I just didn’t mention my husband to anybody. To this day I still don’t.

I assume you know the many prejudices that some people have about women who marry someone on death row. What would you like to say to these people?

I understand why people are prejudiced towards women who marry someone on death row. Just look what is happening with Christopher Watts, who killed his wife and children for a fresh start with another woman. He is getting tons of letters from women -love letters. So yes, I understand the prejudice. Some women believe everything they are told by the inmate, that they had a difficult childhood, are treated unfairly, are not guilty. The inmates have a lot of time to write letters, poems, make drawings or other things, and some are very talented. It makes a lot of women feel special. They get attention that someone in the outside world maybe doesn’t have time to do. Some women just “march to a different drummer”, which is also the way it is in the “outside” world. I try to avoid women who tend to be “drama queens”, and usually the “drama queens” attract “drama queens”. BUT there are also some good, normal women who are married to DR inmates. As for me, I hate the prejudice because I hate not being able to tell my co-workers about my life.

Yes, I have heard about women who are fascinated by death row inmates and about some men being swamped with love letters from unknown women. There is even a word for the fascination by prisoners; hybristophilia. To me, you are a very thoughtful and down-to-earth woman. I feel your love for your husband is genuine and solid. When we meet, we talk about all kinds of topics and not always about your husband. I assume that keeping it secret where your husband is has a big impact on your social life. How do you handle this situation?

People know that I am married but that we don’t live together. It’s the truth, and I just avoid or don’t answer further questions. I don’t need people around me, I can be alone very well. I always have something to do, and if I want company, I have a few friends who accept my situation.

In what ways would you wish for the readers to change their judgement after reading this interview?

Well, hmmm – don’t judge a book by its cover; take the time to learn more about that book.

That would mean “Listen to me and to my story before judging”, right? That, to me, would be great advice, not only with reference to you and your situation, but in general when meeting people.

I agree absolutely!

I wish you and your husband all the best, Hannah, and I hope there will be many people who are open-minded enough to understand and not judge.

* Not her real name

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Interview with Lisa Rea, president of Restorative Justice International

By Ines Aubert, September 2017 (with paragraphs of an interview of 2010)

Restorative Justice International (RJI)

RJI is a global association and network with over 5,700 members founded in 2009 via social media at LinkedIn.com to support and expand victim-initiated restorative justice efforts worldwide. RJI’s president is Lisa Rea, a national and international restorative justice expert with 20 years of experience in the field. RJI’s Global Advisory Council is comprised of influential global leaders in restorative justice and justice reform, including crime victims and ex-offenders.  
For more information go to
www.restorativejusticeinternational.com

Lisa, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. What convinces you so strongly about the idea of restorative justice?

It is clear that the justice system is broken. It does not matter where you live in the world. We are all battling the same problems: an over-reliance on incarceration (for all offenders – violent and nonviolent). We do not understand that crime injures victims. By not acknowledging that crime injures victims there is a lack of understanding that to change offenders (and their conduct) they must be held accountable. When you are looking to drive down crime rates, you must look at how offenders are held accountable. You also must look at whether or not victims are satisfied once they are a part of the justice system.

Much of the anger of crime victims in the U.S., in particular victims of violent crime, is because they are forgotten. The needs of victims are ignored while at the same time victims are also used by those in the justice system who are seeking convictions, and longer sentences. Crime has been used as a political football often to elect politicians or keep them in power. This is not a U.S. only problem it’s sadly a global problem.

Do you recommend that every victim and offender participate in restorative justice?

I think restorative justice has great value for all injured by crime: victims, offenders and as well as communities. There are many ways to participate in restorative justice. Being a part of a victim offender dialogue or restorative justice meeting is one way. I think of it as “pure” restorative justice. But there is also something called “circles” or circles of accountability. That is defined as a victim offender meeting that involves family members of both the victim and the offender. These are increasingly used and quite successful.

There are times when surrogate victims participate in restorative justice programs where the end result has been successful or positive. That would mean real victims and real offenders coming together but in unrelated cases. That describes The Sycamore Tree Project. At first I thought using surrogate victims (and offenders) would not yield positive results. I was wrong.

What are some misconceptions about Restorative Justice?

There is sometimes confusion about the definition of restorative justice. Some think that any type of prison reform or criminal justice reform type measures are “restorative justice.” But if the victim is not central and involved in the process then it is not restorative justice. Some good reforms that are necessary and an improvement in our prisons and justice system can be called “more restorative.” However, if the victim is not integral in the reforms then it is not restorative justice. What tends to happen is that victims get forgotten which is a problem. That is why restorative justice was first created to put the focus on the fact that victims are injured by crime. Crime is not a crime against the state but against a victim, a real human being.

Are there some offenders or some victims who should never consider restorative justice?

I think all should have the option to meet – particularly the victim should have that option. Some might never choose to sit down have that dialogue. But the option to should be there. For offenders, I think all offenders should be able to meet their victim if that victim is agreeable.

This is where some standards must be set. I do not believe doors should be shut on lifers, for instance. If an offender takes responsibility for his/her crime then that act and the sharing of that remorse for the injury caused could mean a great deal to the victim/or the victim’s family. I know what it means to the victims I have worked with.

How could either an offender or a victim start the process?

RJI often suggests that restorative justice processes be driven by the victim. Thus, it’s usually better for an initiated contact to be coming from the crime victim versus the offender. For victims who are interested in contacting their offender, if they are in prison, they can go through RJI. We have a large network of members and affiliates and we can often assist either by referring or if possible sometimes working directly on cases.

RJI has found in recent years that there has been more openness by crime victims to be directly contacted by an offender by letter but there should be great care used if this were to happen. It’s best to go through a neutral party to initiate some kind of RJ process. Because we work with victims of violent crime new victims who are just learning about restorative justice contact us to meet those who have met their offenders and participated in victim offender dialogue. By hearing the stories of other victims many who have been injured by crime but unsatisfied with the current justice system are looking for something to help them. RJI strongly supports a victim’s right to restorative justice. We believe it should be in our laws as a formal right to choose restorative justice and have access to services and programs allowing contact with the offender or at least the option of participating in surrogate type programming.

What do you think about people such as our lifespark members who do so much for inmates on death row?

Since I first came to prison reform/justice reform work (in 1989) as a pen pal to a lifer through Prison Fellowship Ministries then I, of course, understand those who choose to seek to respond to the great need of others in our society in this way. Those in prison around the globe are often the most forgotten in our world. My concern for those in prison came from my faith.

What could our role as pen pals of offenders in a restorative justice be?

You could learn more about restorative justice and be a link to those who are doing restorative justice work, as you are doing here through this interview. Support restorative justice as a means towards systemic reform of a broken system. I think those offenders who are interested in restorative justice should learn more about it.

Do you think we should address our pen pals with the idea of restorative justice?

Yes. Some might say that educating offenders about restorative justice, especially those serving life sentences or on death row, only sets them up for something that will never happen.
I do not believe that. I can think of cases where the impossible happened but it is not easy. In fact, it is often very hard work for the offenders and the victims. However, the fruit that comes from restorative justice is real and can bring hope to all those who have been deeply injured and violated.

Participating in a restorative justice meeting has great benefits. However, it should not affect the sentence of the offender. That is something that often concerns crime victims and those who advocate for victims’ rights. The benefit comes from the healing that is possible. I have seen the value in the lives of both victims and offenders. It is tangible.

Would it be possible for our members to get in contact with victims and talk to them?

Yes, I do think there are victims who would speak to offenders about restorative justice and their experiences. Not all victims are at the same place in their lives as Bill Pelke, for example. But there are increasing numbers of victims in support of restorative justice worldwide. They have stories to tell and they are stories of hope.

Could Restorative Justice be effective in our everyday lives?

Yes, it is very applicable to our everyday lives. I talk often about restorative justice applying in the macro and the micro. Whenever any conflict occurs restorative justice principles can be applied to attempt to make things right and resolve the conflict. Healing comes, on some level, when we seek to resolve conflicts personally or after crime or violence. Do I use the principles of restorative justice in my own life? Yes. We all need it. Increasingly restorative justice is being used in our schools and in the same way the principles apply to family conflicts or disputes.

Has the years-long work with Restorative Justice changed you personally?

Yes, definitely. I’ve met some amazing people – crime victims and even those who have served significant prison time. Restorative justice has taken me to places I never thought I’d see and you could say that I would not have chosen to see. I spent a good deal of time visiting an offender in San Quentin and I’ve visited prisons in Bulgaria, Puerto Rico, New Zealand and of course in the U.S. I’ve met many victims of violent crime who have forgiven the offenders for truly horrible crimes. The road of restorative justice takes you to places of violence that are begging for new ways of responding to crime. The use of restorative justice in cases of wrongful convictions is another example. What restorative justice gives you is an increased thirst for real justice because our current justice systems are so lacking. This work also expands your capacity to care about people – hurting people. But hopefully we go beyond that and provide some kind of relief and hope to others.

What is your vision with regard to Restorative Justice?

As I mention in our short video restorative justice provides this new vision and gives us hope for changing our justice systems no matter what country you live. We start with the premise that our justice systems are broken. Restorative justice provides hope for those injured by violence and those that commit violent crime as well. It also acknowledges the fact that communities are injured by crime. Peace is broken after crime. How can that peace be restored? I’m convinced that we need law makers who understand the importance of restorative justice and are ready to work to change our laws to reflect it. This takes courage.

Throughout our justice systems we need professionals willing to commit to this vision because it’s the right thing to do. That will bring real systemic change. I’m encouraged by the change I have seen since I first started in the justice field. Change has happened and we need to commit ourselves to restorative justice every day and explore new ways of making it a reality. Everyone can join this effort and step up to be a part of the solution.

Thank you so much, Lisa. What you told us here is really encouraging and very moving. Everybody should learn about Restorative Justice – probably through this interview. I’m happy that you shared all of this with us!

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