Incarceration in Germany

What We Learned From German Prisons

EARLIER this summer, we led a delegation of people concerned about the United States criminal justice system to visit some prisons in Germany and observe their conditions. What we saw was astonishing.

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs…

READ MORE: What We Learned From German Prisons, NYTimes

 

How wonderful to have another perspective on how to treat people behind bars! Germany has a totally opposite approach to criminal justice to ours, training staff for several years so that it can effectively help people to be successful when they are released from prison. At its heart, Germany’s philosophy of how to treat people who have broken the law is about human dignity. In the United States, we are primarily about punishment. The statistics in the article say it all about which approach is better—for people who break the law and for society at large.

Our current focus on prison reform cannot be only about fixing sentencing guidelines or releasing people who are serving draconian sentences for non-violent offenses, though those steps are necessary. As Nicholas Turner and Jeremy Travis say, we must re-think our values. Also, we must ask ourselves how mere punishment–often with long periods in solitary confinement, and without education and robust, positive rehabilitation programs, make it possible for people to get out of prison and automatically become good citizens with good jobs to support themselves and their families. The article says that German prisoners are “expected to exercise good judgment.” My prison students taught me the simple lesson that if I treated them with respect, they treated me—and their fellow students—with respect. When I raised my academic expectations and told them they were capable of good work, they became successful students. When prisoners are treated as bad, throwaway people, often their behavior reflects that.

The article points out the fundamental differences between the two countries. In spite of—or maybe because of–Germany’s history of the Holocaust, they need to treat protect the human dignity of their incarcerated citizens. The authors state, “Most notably, America’s criminal justice system as constructed in slavery’s long shadow and is sustained today by the persistent forces of racism.”

Our current system has wrecked families and communities, and the damage will be felt for decades to come. We have a long way to go to fix our overwhelming prison problem, but this information provides hope that we can begin to change our thinking and move forward in more hopeful, ultimately sustainable, ways.

What’s Alive in our Hearts?

This past year has been a terrible one for African-Americans—and for the country. It is hard to feel like we’ve made progress in bridging and mending our racial divisions—sometimes it feels as if we are falling backward when we see continuing deaths by police and see the violence and sense of hopelessness in impoverished inner cities. I see profound segregation in neighborhoods, in towns and cities, in states where white people live in different areas from people of color, and it feels like our landscape is made up of people living in separate circles who rarely interact, preventing us from the kind of dialogue that would yeild new understandings.

I’ve just read Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder, a story of listening carefully to Dan, the Native American elder, and writing down what Dan has to tell him. Five lessons within the book are relevant and could help as we face the challenges of our racial divides.  

First, as the old man talks about the history of what has happened to native peoples, he says, “Look at what your way did to our people. When you came among us, you didn’t care what was alive in our hearts. You wanted to know facts.” [1]

Exactly. We have a multitude of facts and figures: the numbers of people killed and by whom, statistics around gun violence and suicide, and all kinds of polling data, especially since Ferguson in 2014. I don’t hear very much at all about what is in people’s hearts. Specifically, I don’t hear about people’s fears, among them the fears white people have about young black men and people of color in general, fears of violence or loss of jobs. White people need to hear how much people of color everywhere fear the police, fear that they cannot secure good jobs, fear that their children do not have enough opportunity in education or employment, fear that they cannot find adequate, affordable housing, fear that their children are hungry.

The second is in the story of how the land was taken and the vast differences between white people and native people regarding the land itself. Dan tells Nerburn that to natives, the land was the place where ancestors were buried, where sacred stories and ceremonies took place, and that the land gave his people life and life for the spirits. He says, ”The worst thing is that you never listened to us. You came into our land and took it away and didn’t even listen to us when we tried to explain. You made promises and you broke every one.” [2]

As I heard the stories of being African-American, Native-American and Hispanic-American from my prison students, I heard the vast differences between being a person of color and being a white person in the United States. Learning to listen well to differences and caring enough to ask the right questions is hard and necessary work—but such a helpful first step.

The third lesson comes from Nerburn’s foreword where he talks about letting go of our own understanding of other people’s historical realities, their lives and the situations they find themselves in today. Nerburn writes about his time with Dan, Dan’s friends and family and says, “They literally and figuratively kidnapped me, and would not let me go until I paid the ransom of giving up my own understanding. They wanted me to realize that I had walked through Alice’s keyhole, and the world I had entered was not mine to reduce to the size and shape of my own understanding.” [3]

It is hard to give up our own perceptions and ideas of what we think is the truth. I love Aniais Nin’s quote that says, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” My students and I were so lucky to have inmates who were not in our high school program visit and talk to us. Mr. Terrence was from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and came in to tell us about the values his people held and how wide the gap was between people on reservations and the general American culture. He said,

“Our young people have a very hard time when they are growing up. They must keep their feet in two places—one foot in your world and one foot inside the house with the dirt floor on the rez. If they leave the rez, they risk losing who they are and lose being Indian. That is a very bad thing. One of the problems with this is that white people think a dirt floor is a bad thing. They don’t understand that hundreds of years of culture are in that family and in that house.”

The fourth lesson is about guilt. We also need to recognize that many of us still harbor a sense of guilt about what was done to people of color in the past. Nerburn says in his foreword,

“I have never met an Indian person who didn’t somewhere deep inside struggle with anger and sadness at what has happened to their people, and I have never met an honest and aware non-Indian person in America who didn’t somewhere deep inside struggle with guilt about what we as a culture have done to the people who inhabited our continent before us. We can like each other, hate each other, feel pity for each other, love each other. But always, somewhere beneath the surface of our personal encounters, this cultural memory is rumbling. A tragedy has taken place on our watch, we are its inheritors, and the earth remembers.” [4]

In my prison classes, the issue of slavery brewed beneath the surface all the time. My students saw their incarceration as a form of modern-day slavery, and the cultural memories of slavery and Jim Crow came out in discussions of their family stories. One day, after an emotional discussion of slavery, Mr. Loving, an older white man, stayed back after class to tell me, “Mrs. Wenzel, it is hard to live in this place with so many young black men, and this is the first time I’ve recognized how guilty I feel about what happened to black people during slavery. I can sure see why black guys make this connection.”

I’m not sure that feeling guilty about things that happened in the past is useful. We weren’t there and we didn’t perpetrate the horror and damage done to so many people. I think it would be far more helpful to face the horrors of the past and learn how they are still alive and powerful today. It would also help to recognize how we as white people today still benefit from racial hierarchies and the institutional structures of racism. I wish there were forums in which white people and people of color could discuss their common anger and sadness about what has happened in the past. We would need a trusting space in which to do that.

Last, I am uncomfortable with the idea of enemy, because our politics of fear and anger put us in opposing camps all the time. I loved elder Dan’s idea of re-framing the idea of enemy after he sings a song in Lakota and explains it to Nerburn,

“I wrote it when I knew I wanted to speak. I went to my hill and spoke to my grandfathers. They gave me that song. They gave it to me in the wind. They said I had too much anger to speak. They told me that anger is only for the one who speaks. It never opens the heart of one who listens. There are good white people, they told me. They want to do right. They are not the enemy anymore. The enemy is blindness to each other’s ways. Put away your anger now, they said.” [5]

I refuse to believe that huge numbers of Americans are bigots, incapable of learning and respecting people who look different and have different experiences of being Americans. Recognizing and discussing our hopes and fears, in trusting and safe places, would be a huge step forward in the healing process. Reading books and aritcles by people of color would help too. I think we are capable of summoning our best selves: our courage to feel pain—the pain of others and our own, our openness to truth we hadn’t considered before, and our desires to make our relationships better. In the process, we could discover our common humanity.  We need to know what is alive in our hearts—and in the hearts of our fellow Americans.

more “What’s Alive in our Hearts?”

A Ruling Passion: Abolishing the Death Penalty

Mr. Walls was my student at the end of his very long sentence, finishing his last high school credits and feeling grateful to be leaving prison with a diploma. On the first day of my Civics class, he grabbed a front row seat and did far more than the assigned work. One day he spoke to me in the hall about his interest in the abolition of capital punishment, asking me if he could address the class. He got to know people well when delivering books to people on Death Row in another institution. “Most of them were poor and black,” he told us. He went on to argue that the death penalty solved nothing: it did not deter crime, it did not bring the victims back, and it added layers and layers of loss and grief to the families and loved ones of the people who were executed. He talked to anyone or any group who would listen: he wrote letters to the editor and letters to legislators. He worked on this issue all the time. I called it his “ruling passion.”

News of Nebraska outlawing capital punishment is welcome, as is the continuing conversation about the efficacy of lethal injections and the spotlight on what happens to people when it goes wrong. I am heartened by knowing that other states are considering a ban on what Mr. Walls called “killing people legally.” Innocence projects around the country are discovering just how many people are innocent; the fact that we still kill innocent people is chilling. I am also encouraged to read information from Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Marc Hyden, the national coordinator, and other right-leaning opponents have been persistent for years in claiming that capital punishment is “out of line with the conservative ideas around respecting human life, upholding fiscal responsibility and limiting the scope and power of the government.” [1]

Keeping people on Death Row and carrying out capital punishment raises other questions. In an article from Harper’s magazine, Kenneth E. Hartman writes about his experiences of Christmas in prison from his early years in the 1980’s when even the guards got into the spirit of celebration with inmates. He then traces his holiday experiences through the next decades when not only did prison populations swell to unbelievable levels, but punitive attitudes grew to new and cruel heights. Hartman says the new philosophy of corrections is a “more aggressive approach to crime and criminals that holds that rehabilitation to be both pointless and fruitless.” In other words, these are throwaway people beyond any redemption.

Sent to a new facility, Hartman asks a staff member if the canteen could sell eggnog, something he had enjoyed during the holidays in another prison. The staff member says it would be impossible and asks, “What would the victims think?” Hartman replies that he doesn’t know. [2]

Exactly. No one knows what victims think or feel because only a very few are part of the process. If offenders and victims were given a chance to talk face to face, would each victim or member of victims’ families all want the person put to death? Would they want people on Death Row to suffer terribly every day for the rest of their lives? Or, would they want the space and opportunties for them to heal through the process of facing and taking responsibility for their crimes, thereby recovering their full humanity?

I am impressed with the conservative groups who are working to abolish the death penalty because it interferes with their core values. It speaks of their integrity to match actions with beliefs. People who want capital punishment and work hard to keep it going, even in the face of the recent horrors with lethal injections gone terribly wrong, need to be able to say that it is perfectly acceptable to kill people who might be innocent; be able to say that it is acceptable to kill people because they are too poor to hire a good lawyer; and be able to say that it is acceptable to mete out the death penalty on people of color far more than to white people. American citizens need to recognize—and honor–the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, including torture.

In an article in the New York Times called The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison by Jessica Benko, I was struck by the stark contrast of Norway’s highest security prison lying in the middle of blueberry fields, where the people inside are allowed fresh air and sunlight every day. We have the grim situation in this country where 80,000 people live in solitary confinement, many not seeing anything other than a small patch of sky for decades. Inmates in Norway are treated with compassion and respect, and the goal is to do as much as possible to prepare people to get out. Benko at the New York Times interviewed Ragmar Kristofferson, an anthropologist who teaches in a correctional training facility. “If you treat people badly, it’s a reflection on yourself,” he says. “In officer-training school,” he goes on to explain, “guards are taught that treating inmates humanely is not something they should do for inmates but they should do for themselves.” [3]

In Norway, if someone does something terrible, he or she is not automatically a terrible person. In the United States, if you make a mistake and commit a crime in this country today, you become that mistake—and can lose your life.  If we treat people humanely and with respect, they tend to respond humanely and respectfully. If more people could personally know and have relationships with people facing the death penalty, I think our attitudes would drastically change. Our current ruling passion in many parts of the country is to punish—and punish severely with strong voices fanning the flames of revenge and retribution. The problem of obtaining drugs to execute people is creating conversations in a few states to bring back the gas chamber, the electric chair and even—the firing squad. The violence toward people behind bars with very long sentences for non-violent crimes, the murders of black people by police, the 80,000 people in solitary confinement and our thirst for the death penalty are all part of our retributive thinking. That thinking needs to be balanced by more voices of reason, compassion and mercy. Abolishing the death penalty would support offenders’ families and it would support victims’ families if they were part of the process. If we could make our policies more compassionate and do it for ourselves as Norway does, it would move us all into a more humane country.


1. Khan, Naureen, With Nebraska Leading, Conservatives Reconsider the Death Penalty, Aljazeera America, June 2, 2015.

2. Hartman, Kenneth E., Christmas in Prison: Greeting the Holidays in an Age of Mass Incarceration. Harper’s Magazine, December, 2014.

3. Benko, Jessica, The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison, The New York Times, March 26, 2015.

A Father’s Restorative Justice

When I first read my friend Ron Simpson-Bey’s article, My Son’s 14-year-old Killer Deserved a Second Chance, it took my breath away. It is one thing to work for and advocate restorative justice for strangers, but it is quite another to want to give your son’s killer another chance. I was moved by several ideas put forth in his  article: the power of forgiveness and the good that comes when “victims,” are brought into the justice process; where he says we don’t make out communities safer by artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders;” and his emphasis on teenagers as children, not adults. The article makes me think about how white privilege makes many of us unaware of how so many families and communities of color are unheard and unconsidered every day. I am privileged to share Ron’s thoughts—as yet another Father’s Day approaches. I have included the full text of the article as it was published in The Root, below.


My Son’s 14-Year Old Killer Deserved a Second Chance

We don’t make our communities safer by creating artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders.” That’s why I advocated for fair treatment for the teen who killed my son, and why we must insist on it for all children of color in the criminal-justice system.

By: Ronald D. Simpson-Bey | Published June 11, 2014

My only son, Ronald D. Simpson III, was murdered on Father’s Day 13 years ago. Ronald was 21. His killer was a 14-year old boy.

We were devastated, as any parents would have been. Despite this, my son’s mother and I did not want our son’s killer to spend the rest of his life in prison. We don’t believe in the concept of an eye for an eye. We also did not want to compound an already bad situation by taking another child away from his family and community forever.

We recognize that even though he committed a horrible crime, the boy who killed our son was still a child. We wanted him to be processed in the juvenile system, which was set up specifically for children. We wanted him tried there and held there after his conviction to prepare him for release. The judge granted our wishes. The young teen was sentenced in juvenile court and told that he would be released at age 21 if he met the requirements of the court and demonstrated his rehabilitation. He succeeded and was released.

We were fortunate that we dealt with a prosecutor and judge who were willing to consider our wishes. As evidenced by the growing national support for restorative-justice programs, my family’s perspective is certainly not unique. The residents of the communities that are most impacted by both violence committed by young people and extreme sentences often recognize that we don’t make our communities safe by creating artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders.” We know that many of the children accused of crime have themselves been victims of violence, neglect, poverty, inadequate schools and failing social services. In addition, many of our families are suffering after having lost some members to violent crime and others to jail.

But too often, the voices of poor people and people of color are silenced on these issues. Prosecutors and others in the criminal and criminal-justice systems are far more likely to prioritize the perspectives of individuals from wealthier, whiter communities. The only victims who are considered legitimate are those who are in lockstep with prosecutors looking to implement the harshest penalties possible. Victim services, financial resources and other types of support are often meted out accordingly.

Research had proved what parents already know: Children are still developing and possess tremendous capacity for change. We also know that they do not have the same capacity as adults to resist pressure from peers and adults, think through the long-term consequences of their actions or remove themselves from dangerous situations.

As we approach Father’s Day, I call on parents and other interested people from these communities to insist on having our voices heard. We must insist that police engage our communities fairly and stop targeting children of color. We must insist on accountability from juries who determine the fate of our young people.

And as states throughout the country reconsider their juvenile sentencing policies, we must insist not only that they eliminate life without parole but also that they replace it with reasonable alternatives that provide young people with a chance to pay for their mistakes and then later have fruitful, fulfilling lives.

Everyone makes mistakes, and all of us—especially children—possess the capacity to change. We are all deserving of forgiveness and a chance to begin anew. This is a basic tenet of virtually every faith tradition, and one of the founding principles of our great democracy.

The child who killed my son is now a young man. I am not in direct contact with him, but we are forever bonded. My son and his sister had a child together, so my grandson is his nephew.

He has grown into a productive man because he had a second chance, which is all that any of us could want. Together, we can be sure that more young people get the chance they need and deserve.


Ronald D. Simpson-Bey is a program associate for the American Friends Service Committee in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is a co-founder and board member of the organization Chance for Life.

This article was first published in the The Root, which aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by editorial staff.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders.
Practices and programs reflecting restorative purposes will respond to crime by:
  1. identifying and taking steps to repair harm,
  2. involving all  stakeholders, and
  3. transforming the traditional relationship between communities and their governments in responding to crime.

Russian writer and philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If he could examine our prisons today, I think we would be judged very harshly. If he could see the millions of people in them and see how we are criminalizing poverty and childhood damage, we would be judged inhumane. If he could learn of the draconian sentences for non-violent crimes, we would be judged unjust. If he could see what damage mass incarceration is doing to families and communities and how difficult we make it for people getting out to put their lives back together, we would be judged foolish and shortsighted. If he could see the number of children we condemn to adult, violent environments and lifelong sentences, contemplate the tens of thousands of people in solitary confinement and understand the way most incarcerated people are treated, we would be judged ruthless and brutal. If he could understand its racist elements, I think he might point out our core value of equality and label us hypocritical.

Criminal behavior is complex, and some of its root problems like poverty, mental health issues and poor—or no—educational opportunities seem intractable, but there are better ways of dealing with criminal justice if we care enough about our identity as a people. We need a sharp 180 degree turn toward restorative justice. The ways is which we carry out “justice” is tragically broken and sick, and the damage being done is affecting us all. It—and we–need to be healed.

Across the Line

Making big changes and seeing the world very differently require courage. Maya Angelou said, “Courage is the most important of all virtues, because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” Individual people can so easily put blinders on about big, painful problems, but we are also capable of moving from a place of safety and security over into an unknown space where we feel insecure and often frightened. Making courageous decisions needs moral muscle and a desire to feel honor and self-respect. It is how we grow. Instead of focusing on these national faults lines in our criminal justice system, we could focus on our strengths, our capability for great compassion and our deep concern for the common good. If individuals are capable, then so are we as a nation capable. I’ve found people’s courage and capabilities amazing—especially among my students in prison.

Dropping out of school has serious consequences, especially to people’s self-respect. People who drop out often feel like failures and losers. None of my prison students had graduated from high school before I knew them. I think about the first days back in school for these men—how vulnerable they looked with their wooden faces and wary, anxious eyes. But, they had already crossed the first difficult line, the doorway into the office to sign up. They had to swallow their pride about their grave mistakes. I found it so interesting when asked about the decision they most regretted, that they said it was not the crime they committed, but dropping out of school. “If I hadn’t dropped out, I wouldn’t be here,” they answered.

They had to look in the mirror and face themselves as people with very rusty basic skills in reading, writing and math and as adults who knew very little about what was in their textbooks. In the macho world of prison, it took great courage to be doing the right thing for their lives, to face the unknown world of being back in school. They had to face their fears about failing again, open their books and begin. They had to decide that their lives were worth something, that they just might be capable of succeeding after all. One young man wrote me a note about three weeks into the semester, saying that he wasn’t sure he could do the work, but he wanted me to know how hard he was trying. He said it took him a whole year to “not be too scared” and sign up for school. I watched and was awed by his courage. I watched their courage every day.

I see a connection between being courageous—and the development of personal dignity. I wrote about South Africa in my last post, and how its people still give us shining examples of what it means when we put ourselves in vulnerable positions and do amazing, out-of-the-ordinary things.

Nelson Mandela gave the world so many shining examples of both courage and humility. There were many ways he could have reacted to his twenty-seven years of political imprisonment. If he had meted out punishment, many people would have understood a sense of anger and revenge. He could have punished the people who took away so many precious years. He could have called for the same kind of humiliating damage he himself had experienced. Instead, he invited one of his white jailors to his inauguration and gave him an honored place, showing his country and the world a new level of human stature, a new humanizing dignity and a new kind of courage.

The United States has our own shining examples of astonishing courage and dignity in the face of tragedy. The Christian Science Monitor Weekly magazine on April 13, 2015 has a cover photograph of Ricky Jackson, who served 39 years in prison, making him the person serving the longest sentence in America’s history for a crime he did not commit. The article called Innocence Found: The Ricky Jackson Story follows the intricacies of Jackson’s case and his efforts to free himself. It follows the Ohio Innocence Project, whose members started working on the case in 2006.

Eddie Vernon, a witness in the case, was only thirteen-years-old when the police and prosecutors coerced him into lying about what happened. His testimony sealed Jackson’s conviction—and that of two other young men, who were also innocent and spent decades in prison. After trial, Jackson was sentenced to die in the electric chair, and he spent two years on Death Row until the federal Supreme Court ruled Ohio’s capital punishment unconstitutional. The next thirty-seven years found him in a succession of prisons. When he went before five parole boards, they looked for a change in him and some kind of remorse. When he couldn’t demonstrate that because he was innocent, they extended his sentence each time. Eddie Vernon, after decades of his own remorse and guilt, finally came forward—terrified of being convicted of perjury. He too demonstrated great courage. Finally, the state withdrew and Ricky Jackson was freed.

What makes this story so compelling to me is that Jackson isn’t angry or bitter. He managed to live in prison with grace and humility, and he exhibits those same qualities as he struggles to put his life back together while dealing with the challenges of being out in the world. He has met with Vernon, and doesn’t harbor any resentment or anger toward him, knowing how much Vernon has also suffered.

Innocence Projects and organizations like Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative are finding innocent people on death row and serving years and years all over the country, creating tragedy for victims and their families and dishonor for us as a nation. I wonder how Ricky Jackson’s fate would have changed if restorative practices had been in place. As most programs involve the community, it might have been far harder, if not impossible, to coerce and believe the testimony of a thirteen-year-old boy. We have to drastically change course if we want to be move toward being more civilized, to use Dostoyevsky’s language.

When my students ventured across the scary line to sign up for school, they were being accountable to themselves, signing up to be their best, not their worst. They were moving beyond the labels of drop-out and felon and becoming students, then graduates. When graduation day came and they could finally wear the red cap and gown, they all walked and stood taller, their dignity and self-respect in place. Education is a part of restorative justice as it helps students discover their competence–and their goodness as human beings.

Maya Angelou also says, “I think the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.” All of the parts of restorative justice try to enhance the best in us: our ability to be responsible, our talent for creativity, our capacity to make moral choices, our power to be compassionate and our courage to be forgiving. With courage, we can all move across the line and begin to see our system and all of its victims differently. We need a change for the rest of us, because it would give us a much-needed new identity. It would honor us. We need to look no further for exemplary role models than those people who’ve spent years and years behind bars.

Unlearning Long Divisions: I Am Because You Are

Introduction:

The prison fence is an obvious structure that divides us, but we are separated in other more subtle structural ways, by how we build wealth—or are not able to, by huge opportunity gaps, by our own judgements, assumptions and inabilities to listen and know each other, by our geography, by neighborhoods, lifestyles, and cultural misunderstandings. America has always had its separations, during slavery and then under Jim Crow, of class, race, cultural groups and religions, but it seems that the rancorous voices of political campaigns, talk radio, online comments, and the addition of big money have all turned up the volume and deepened the divisions between us. Much of it is fear-driven, no more evident than how we perceive people who are behind bars. The ideas in the following posts come from my interactions with my inmate students, who taught me how to unlearn many of my own assumptions—and to see them and my country in new ways.


One fall, another teacher brought Mr. C down to my classroom a week or so after the semester had begun. He had quickly passed the basic skills test, and his teacher told me he needed far more challenges. He was a new inmate who had arrived the previous summer and was eager to learn, but a  dark cloud seemed to hover around him for several months. When I asked after a few weeks if he was okay, he told me he was out of energy and often depressed.

There were lots of questions I learned not to ask my students: their crimes, the length of their sentences or the number of their children. I did not think any of that was my business, and the one time I did look up a student’s crime, the information did nothing to improve a rather strained relationship between us. Knowing how long they had to serve and how many children were left fatherless in the world depressed me. News got around, however, and my teaching staff learned that Mr. C had a 33-year sentence for a drug offense. With good behavior, he would have served 27 of those years.

Once he regained some balance, Mr. C was one of the most outstanding students I had ever taught. He took every class our high school program offered and graduated after several years with a long list of “A’s” on his transcript. Jobs were available to inmates as classroom aides or “tutors” in our program, so when I talked to him about helping me in my classroom, he eagerly agreed. He was a part of the program for over 20 years with his sense of calm, his sound advice and his creative ideas about course material. In day-to-day interactions with my students, he kept a sharp, but discreet, eye on them and would flag problems or talk to men on the side. We made few important decisions in the program without his wise counsel.

I soon learned that Nelson Mandela was his hero and guide about how to do time in prison well. We both noticed that Mandela’s sentence was also 27 years, and I could not take in enough books, articles or videos about him. Mr. C sparked my interest in South Africa too, and we watched as Mandela was released from prison, as Apartheid ended, and as he was elected president. My students, Mr. C, and I learned about and followed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as it was established with Desmond Tutu, human rights activist and retired Anglican archbishop, as its leader. Talking about how the victims of Apartheid were given a voice and about the whole concept of amnesty created many rich discussions in my Civics classes. I’ve been interested in other countries that have successfully used truth and reconciliation programs like Kenya, Namibia, Chile and Canada.

We learned about the African concept of ubuntu, the philosophy that we are all bound together and cannot be fully human without caring about each other. Ubuntu knits the bonds of kindness and sharing that connect all of us on the planet. Tutu says, “A person is a person because he recognizes others as persons.” Ubuntu says, “I can’t do well unless you do well.”

I was pulled into South Africa too, and in 2006 I went to Cape Town to volunteer in a center for  children who had been orphaned by AIDS, rescued from abusive situations or abandoned. South Africa is a powerful place, and my experience was life-changing. In addition to the many beautiful children who still haunt my heart, I had two other unforgettable experiences.

I took a ferry to and then a bus around Robben Island. When we got to the prison, our guides were former inmates, making it even more poignant as we stood in the corridor and gazed at Nelson Mandela’s small cell and saw the garden he had tended so carefully. We heard stories of how the inmates developed communication to continue their political work while incarcerated, and then we gathered for questions. One came from a woman who asked, “How did you possibly keep your spirits up for all of those years?”

The guide smiled at her and said, “You’re an American, aren’t you? I’m surprised you would ask that question, because we knew about the American Anti-Apartheid support and it made a huge difference to us.”

As volunteers, we were driven back and forth from Cape Town to Khayelitsha, the township where we worked. Moss, a high school teacher, was one of our drivers. He and I became friends, and he wanted to take me on a tour of Gugulethu, his township. As he drove me around, he told me how much South Africans admire and try to model their struggles after our Civil Rights Movement. I met some of his friends and neighbors in the township, and then he was eager to take me to the place where Amy Biehl was killed. Amy was a young American college student who was in Cape Town to study and work on voter registration as an Anti-Apartheid activist. She was murdered by four young men when she gave a friend a ride home. Moss went on to tell me how her parents came from America to be present when the young men applied for amnesty in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after serving prison terms. He wanted me to know that her parents not only extended their forgiveness, but they also created the Amy Biehl Foundation. He seemed proud to tell me that two of the boys involved in Amy’s death worked in its after-school programs.

All of the pieces of Amy’s story are compelling and inspiring. (See theforgivenessproject.com and the Amy Biehl Foundation on YouTube and Facebook.)

Mass incarceration is a kind of apartheid in the United States, as millions of people are banished to our jails and prisons, apart and exiled from the rest of us. We could do so much better. We could see drug use as a health issue and not a criminal one. We could create our own Truth and Reconciliation programs. We could move forward as a country and figure out our own ways of doing restorative justice. We could understand ubuntu and how it could make us a better people and a better country. I see hope on the horizon as people are beginning to understand the healing power of restorative justice for victims, perpetrators and the community as a whole. I will be writing more about this.

When Congress passed new legislation addressing inmates with very long sentences, Mr. C was released after “only” 22 years. He is back home in Kingston, Jamaica and is equipping and programming a community center in his old neighborhood. After securing enough grant money, he  has been able to employ many people and supervise its construction. He also works with a group of at-risk young men and tells me, “I’m doing all this for me.” Many of my students talked about wanting to work with vulnerable young people when they returned home. Like Mr. C, they also understand ubuntu.