“I have no idea how to be ‘normal.’ I need to humble myself and admit I need some guidance. I’ve learned a lot along the way. I possess a lot of knowledge and skill, but knowledge and skill mean nothing if you do not have an environment that is conducive to them. I need help creating an environment where I can apply these things.”
These words are from a formerly incarcerated person participating in the Transitional & Recovery Coaching program through Center for Community Justice (CCJ) in Elkhart, Ind.
While much of the news around the country focuses on the shortcomings of the criminal justice system, CCJ offers a unique alternative. “Restorative justice looks at crime through a relational, human lens. The criminal justice system looks at crime through a legal lens,” says Don French, coordinator of the program.
That lens can make a big difference for the men and women coming out of incarceration into their communities. “These different views of crime lead to different views of justice,” says French. “One sees the potential for repair and the other sees the potential for punishment.”
The ultimate goal of the program is reducing the recidivism rate in Elkhart County, the percentage of people re-incarcerated within three years of their release from prison. But the broader, and perhaps more important, goal is returning power to those from whom it has been taken.
The program focuses on defining individuals by their strengths rather than by their worst choices. Coaches are all volunteers who undergo training in the dynamics of coaching a person through transition and/or recovery, and some volunteers go on to seek certification in these disciplines. Participants identify the key characteristics they seek in a potential coach.
French is quick to point out that it is not a level of supervision associated with the court system. “The people we coach are in charge. They tell us what they need, we don’t tell them what they need,” he said. “Our coaches connect returning citizens to resources and provide a positive support system in the process.”
Coaches and returning citizens work together for up to one year, although the majority collaborate for about three months. There are three distinct areas of emphasis: goal setting, problem-solving strategies and self-awareness.
“Transition and recovery can be unstable journeys for many of the folks we serve. A coaching relationship is one avenue for them to reestablish stability, thereby empowering them to make decisions from the perspective of solid footing,” said French.
CCJ has served the local community for over 40 years. In 2012, it became evident that there was a need for assisting returning citizens through their reentry journey. Now, in addition to coaching through that specific transition, coaches also aid men and women through the journey of recovery – with an emphasis on peer support.
For many people coming back to their community, the pull to return to the same detrimental environment is strong. “Everyone we coach has their own definition of ‘normal,’” says French. “Unfortunately, they haven’t experienced it for very long time – if at all. They have had a difficult time asking for help, but are now ready to invite someone into their lives to assist them.”
Returning citizens have a great deal of knowledge, but learning how to apply it takes extra support. Having a positive influence supporting them as they navigate the reentry process can help with overcoming the significant obstacles they face.
The work of CCJ aligns well with MCC’s mission of peace and justice in the local community, according to Juan Sebastian Pacheco Lozano, peace and justice coordinator for MCC Great Lakes. “Their methodology to carry out and implement their programs through a restorative justice lens is something that we understand as valuable in our effort to achieve a more just society,” said Pacheco.
MCC’s connection with CCJ runs deep, with its roots in the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) developed by Howard Zehr and others as the basis for its founding in the 1970s. Although not directly an MCC program, Zehr worked for MCC at the national level directing the Office on Crime and Justice and worked with Elkhart’s program through Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference.
“Mennonites were really the core of this thing, right from the start,” said Zehr. “MCC played a strategically important role in starting the program in many communities.”
Pipeline to Prison Learning Tour
In addition to a grant for this specific coaching program, MCC and CCJ have partnered over the past three years in hosting an annual Pipeline to Prison Learning Tour in northern Indiana. The learning tour provides first-hand educational opportunities for people to understand the realities and complexities of mass incarceration and the racial disparities within the judicial system.
While the in-person learning tour scheduled for this summer was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, Pacheco and CCJ staff are working on plans for a virtual learning tour that will take place online each Monday afternoon in August from 2-3:30 p.m. (EST). More information about the virtual learning tour is available at mcc.org/gl-pipeline-to-prison-virtual.
Mass Incarceration Webinars
MCC Great Lakes is partnering with Great Lakes BIC to offer a free, occasional webinar series focused on mass incarceration. The first webinar on “Peace, Justice and Racial Reconciliation in the Church” will be held online on Thursday, July 23 at 7:00 p.m. (EST).
Framed with a time of biblical reflection, Bishop Lynn Thrush will interview Pastor Tracie Hunter and State Senator Cecil Thomas about their experiences of faith and race and how that interacts with the court and prison system. Tracie Hunter is the pastor of Western Hills Brethren in Christ in Cincinnati, OH and became the first African American Judge elected to Hamilton County's (OH) Juvenile Court in 2010. Participants will come away with a better understanding of the narrative of racial difference and learn more about Pastor Tracie’s story. More information at: mcc.org/gl-webinar-racial-reconciliation.
A call for compassionate release
The Mass Incarceration Network of MCC in the U.S. recently released a statement calling for the compassionate release of some incarcerated people in light of the current health crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further brought to light the need for drastic reforms of our criminal (in)justice system. It is impossible for incarcerated people to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) preventative guidelines, such as practicing social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands.
While the MCC U.S. Washington Office advocates for compassionate release from federal facilities, over 90% of the country’s prisoners are held in state facilities. Therefore, speaking truth to power needs to also happen in individual states and local counties.
Out of a Christian understanding of mercy, MCC asks our constituency to join the many voices crying out for compassionate release by contacting your governor, state representatives and local (county) officials (e.g., county administrators, attorneys, sheriff and so forth) to advocate for reduction in prison and jail populations. Advocating for compassionate release is an important step in dismantling mass incarceration. Community support for people released will be essential so they may flourish.