“And so, in honor of the breakthroughs you’ve made, and your breakaways from gangs and addictions, I’ve brought something.” I reached into the tote bag and pulled out a one-inch, 5 x 7 wooden board. “I need someone to—”
“Hey, I’ll do it,” said Mr. Phillips, the tall, heavyset man sitting a few seats to my right in the circle of inmates and volunteers. He jumped up from the blue plastic chair with surprising speed for such a large man. Mr. Phillips’s sad eyes and gentle smile sat atop a fullback’s body.
“You place your—”
“I got this, Ms. Whitman, I know how to hold it.” I didn’t mind being interrupted twice by Mr. Phillips. Recently, he’d shared a lot about his rough childhood. I was glad to see him smile.
Mr. Phillips kneeled, placed his palms underneath the board, and curled his long fingers around the sides, holding it horizontal, about three feet from the prison floor. I raised my right hand like a salute, palm at the top of my forehead but facing outward, then yelled “Kiah!” as I attacked the board with a fast, downward knife-hand strike. The board broke with a loud, satisfying crack. The men looked at me—a short, elderly, White lady—for a moment of stunned silence before they whooped and applauded, an unexpected payoff for the hours I’d trained to earn a black belt in my sixties.
“That’s a hard act to follow,” said the inmate to my left, accepting the talking piece, a small, grey cloth starfish. He revealed a sunrise scene he’d painted the previous night, symbolizing the glimmers of hope he’d experienced in the Restorative Justice program, a twelve-week course offered at several Wisconsin prisons. The shades of red and orange brought a welcome contrast to the grey walls and drab green of the men’s uniforms. This session, when we share creative offerings, is my favorite part of the program.
When Mr. Phillips held the board for me, we were an odd pair—a contrast in age, skin color, and background—but for a few moments we connected. I needed his strength to support the board, and I trusted him not to flinch as my strike sped towards the board and his fingers; if he flinched, the board wouldn’t break and I’d look like an idiot. It felt good to trust someone so different from me. But as often happens in the program, we were linked in a deeper way: we had admitted to the group the long-buried secret that we were victims of violence. Carrying a secret for many years had made Mr. Phillips lash out in anger, a murder for which he was serving a life sentence. I buried the shame of my secret inside, resulting in bouts of depression. We both found prison to be the one place where we felt safe enough to be honest.
The Restorative Justice format is similar to group therapy. In weekly meetings each participant, including volunteers, answers a question or comments on a topic. As the weeks go by, the questions become increasingly difficult and personal. The first week, we name a favorite food or describe a happy memory associated with food. The third week, we’re asked to describe a time when we felt disrespected or ostracized. Going around the circle, each participant speaks, knowing they will not be interrupted or questioned. The hardest questions force inmates to think deeply about the consequences of their crimes. They begin to understand the extent of the harm they caused, not only to the victims, but to the victims’ families, their own families, and the community. To be ready for that, however, most of them need to talk about the traumas they experienced, often in childhood, that made them shut down emotionally. Until they break down their self-protective walls, they remain unable to care about—or even register—the pain of others.
In every group we hear heartbreaking stories, but those that haunt me the most involve men (I’m sure there are women, too) incarcerated at a young age, caught in a system that punishes past behavior while offering few opportunities to learn useful job skills or to develop as compassionate human beings. Restorative Justice programs provide the latter. The program’s most intense sessions, week ten, comprise three consecutive, all-day meetings. By this point, we all trust that in the circle, confidentiality is sacrosanct. For those behind bars, showing vulnerability can be dangerous.
On day one of the three days we divide into small groups, each given the story of a real crime committed in a nearby city. After the groups discuss the ripple effects of that crime, we reassemble, and an inmate summarizes the discussion, explaining the extent of the harm done by one crime. In the afternoon, we each describe the ripple effects of an incident when we caused harm. The volunteers may not have committed crimes, but we’ve certainly hurt people.
The second day, the most impactful day of the program, we listen to the stories of two crime victims, survivors of crimes committed in the past (not by anyone in the program). In the men’s programs, the morning session is devoted to a rape victim’s story. In the afternoon, a long-time volunteer, Peg, describes how the brutal murder of her beloved grandmother affected multiple generations of her family. This day is the hardest—powerful but tough, with lots of tears.
But on the third day, only tears of laughter and delight as we present our creative responses, made between the previous day’s session and 8:30 a.m. of the final day. The men share poems, drawings, paintings, sometimes impassioned letters to their future or past selves. Each group reminds me how much creative talent is locked up behind prison walls.
I joined the Restorative Justice program after I retired from college teaching. My third time, the group coalesced quickly, and the men opened up sooner than in the first two groups. As I witnessed them tear down the walls shielding them from their past, something in me responded.
On the second day, we listened to a woman tell the story of her rape. In the circle comments afterward, when it was my turn to speak I blurted out that I, too, had been raped. I hadn’t planned to say that. Until that moment, I’d never even called what happened to me rape. It was the 1970s; the man was the husband of a friend; and I did agree to stop by his office after dinner. I escaped from his office shaken and ashamed, convinced it was all my fault. Six weeks later I found out I was pregnant. Again, I felt completely responsible, and alone. Despite my pro-choice beliefs, choosing to have an abortion compounded the guilt and shame. When I called it rape in the prison circle, I was stunned and deeply embarrassed, but several inmates immediately supported me. Years later, I still remember their faces.
A week or so after that group ended, the leader called to ask if I would tell my story in a future program. I told him I’d send him the story, but that he probably wouldn’t want to use it. I thought he’d see it as a borderline case, too much my fault to call it rape. Like many of the prisoners, I denied the severity of the trauma.
Writing the story unleashed the humiliation, heartbreak, and sorrow I’d repressed for decades. To help me work through the strong emotions, I met with a sexual trauma therapist for several months. When I first thought about telling the story in prison, I wasn’t going to include the pregnancy and abortion, but my respect for the honestly of the circle convinced me to include everything. Two weeks before I told the story in prison for the first time, I set up a dress rehearsal.
In the program, the victims read their stories, both to create a little distance and to ensure they don’t leave anything out. I chose a family therapist and the youth pastor from my church— men I knew but not well—to represent the inmates. The sexual assault therapist, Peg, and two leaders from the RJ program completed the circle. Even without the prisoners, as I read the story, my hands trembled and my cheeks flushed “I’m not ready to do this,” I said
“You are ready,” Peg said, “But don’t expect it to get easier each time you tell the story. When you’ve done this a few years, if you find yourself calm and confident beforehand, it’s probably time to stop.” Peg had eight years of experience. Her advice made sense, because a crucial part of connecting with the men is letting them see your vulnerability. If they don’t, they’re not likely to trust you.
The night before telling my story, I was besieged with self-doubts. Why am I doing this? I’m too old, too White, too privileged. They’ll judge me for having an abortion—rape or no rape. Why would they care about my life when many of them have faced years of struggle, abuse, and pain? But the next day, a few minutes into my story, I sensed the room was with me—all twenty of the inmates, plus the handful of volunteers and two prison staff. Many of the men glanced away when I read the parts about the rape and suicide attempt. Some stared at the floor through most of the story, then looked at me when I got to the hopeful section at the end.
For decades I buried the story of the rape in my subconscious. Why was prison the place that exposed it? I credit the prisoners. Their courage in facing the extent of the harm they caused and their honesty in describing their own traumas affected me deeply.
One of the most stunning revelations occurred the fourth time I told my story. Mr. Williams, sitting halfway around the circle, stared at me during the entire story. In the early weeks of the program, he’d radiated barely-suppressed hostility. A Black man in his mid-thirties, he’d grown up in prison for a crime he committed as a teenager—an all-too-common story, especially for men and women of color. “I am the product of a rape,” he said, voice shaking. “All my life I’ve been angry at my mother for abandoning me at the hospital. After hearing your story, maybe now I can begin to forgive her.”
I stopped breathing; I think we all did. Distinctions between inmates and volunteers, Black and White, old and young, gone. As one, we experienced a holy, grace-filled moment.
In the thank-you notes inmates write, they often say my story changed their lives; telling them my secret has changed mine just as profoundly. The profound change in Mr. Williams was obvious; it took longer for me to recognize the change in me. Something had shifted. Perhaps the possibility of a new relationship between Mr. Williams and his mother—for her, reconnecting with a lost son—mitigated the guilt I felt about the abortion. When Mr. Williams spoke to me, he didn’t judge me for my decision. Instead, he gave it meaning.
A few months of therapy couldn’t rid me of the shame I share with most rape victims, but every time I tell the story in prison, a little bit of the shame disappears.
After playing flute professionally with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for five years, Ernestine Whitman became the flute professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, where she taught for thirty-three years. Since retiring, she has written a memoir.