Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by adrianna geo on Unsplash.

People form many kinds of communities inside prisons. Some are groups of negative, misguided individuals still looking to live in the same ways that led them to prison in the first place — continuing to cause harm and encouraging others to do the same.

And then there are those who are driven by a desire to reduce the harm they’ve caused to their communities, striving to pay their debt to society by building a positive-thinking community of individuals looking to reshape themselves and the way they move in the world.

I’ve been a part of both.

I’ve remained behind these walls for close to 20 years. In the beginning, I refused to accept full responsibility for why I was being confined: taking another human’s life. I always had an excuse for how that night played out and I rarely held myself accountable.

As the years wore on, I distanced myself from the more negative influences in prison and drifted towards those who were working to transform themselves from who they once were: individuals suffering from extreme trauma finding an outlet in destruction and pain, the only thing many of us knew.

One day, I learned of a concept that was new to me — restorative justice. I found a community of individuals who believed all humans had value, including me. The idea had been around for hundreds of years in indigenous communities, but I had never heard of it before. All I had ever been told — since the age of 12 when I was incarcerated for the first time — was that I was useless and a burden on society.

In the beginning, I struggled to understand how the concept worked. The system abused us when we caused harm, and those we harmed never seemed to heal. Forgiveness and healing were never part of the process. 

But this new community showed me there was a different way, a path where all could heal. They promised me that we’d be diving into some deep areas within ourselves, opening doors I didn’t even know were within me, that I had subconsciously closed off tightly so I could pretend my traumas didn’t exist.

They couldn’t have been more right. The work we did was painful, hard to confront and often embarrassing to reveal in a circle with others. But the reward of doing the work was invigorating. I shed the heavy weights that had been dragging me down for a lifetime, all while building bonds with others who related to me and my past. We grew together. Sometimes we even cried, which was unthinkable before I joined this community.

There were three restorative justice circles at the prison where I lived, with about a dozen people in each one. When the program started, I thought it would be like any other program I’d taken in prison — lots of talk with a certificate handed out at the end. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The circle changed the whole culture for us participants. I watched a new community emerge, one where guys helped each other be accountable for the way they had lived their lives, and to move forward.

Guys started using phrases I had never heard before. We talked about toxic masculinity and the role it played in the lives we lived, where all our problems were solved with violence. We also spoke about how we used violence to keep ourselves from becoming victims — harming others to keep from being harmed. We learned about how we might have taken advantage of our male privilege and caused harm, without even seeing, knowing or understanding it.

As we began to learn the language and understand restorative justice, we started to teach it to others. By doing this we became more comfortable digging even more into our past traumas. Many of us realized we had been holding onto things that highly impacted how we lived, interacted with others and navigated the world. We learned that “hurt people, hurt people.”

Most importantly, many of us realized we hated to harm others; that every time we did, it took a part of who we were away.

As we grew and changed, our relationships with loved ones began to change for the better as well. Many of us began to better understand our partners, daughters and sons, and we were able to talk to them about our challenges.

This new community spread like a wildfire inside prison. Conversations I never thought I’d hear in prison began to spark up everywhere. It felt incredible to learn to be myself, to let all my walls fall so I could just be me. 

Many of us began to live a healthier life, and the community within the prison started to change. People began accepting each other a little more and were more willing to take the time to get to know each other. We started to care about more than just ourselves. 

We began to heal, and I realized that “healed people, heal people.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Christopher Blackwell is a journalist incarcerated in Washington state and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, as well as contributing editor at PJP. He is the co-founder of Look2Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and works to pass evidence-based criminal justice reform that leads with racial justice. Blackwell has been published in many outlets, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, HuffPost. Follow him on Twitter @chriswblackwell.