As a correctional chaplain for over 18 years, I am motivated by those I have served and continue to serve through a prison pen pal program. I work with returning citizens, and also as a resource person for those who work to improve the care of people who are aging and dying in prisons and jails. I am also motivated by knowing many victims of crimes.
Since beginning to volunteer to help victims of crimes, I have become acutely aware of their pain and suffering. If the accused has been found and taken to court, I sit with the victims, hear their impact statements, hold them as they cry, and follow them long after the case is over. I get referrals from various groups, such as EMIR Healing Center (Every Murder Is Real) and CARIE (Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly), as well as referrals from prosecuting attorneys and from word of mouth. As a survivor of a felony assault by an inmate who broke my nose and lacerated my mouth, I know the concerns that arise for victims and their families when those who assaulted them draw close to being released from prison.
When I talk to those I have worked with on the defense side, I hear them say that they represent the poor and that many of their clients were victims themselves at some point in their lives. Much of that is true. When I am with the prosecutors, I hear them say that they are the voice of the victims, and that is true. When I talk about the need for those on both sides to come together from a restorative practice perspective, I hear too many on both sides say that that is not possible. I believe it is vital, if there is to be any healing for those who commit crimes and for victims.
Through the pen pal program, I have written about the impact of crime on the victims and victims’ families. Some inmates have said that they wish they could tell the victim or family how sorry they are. This is true of those serving life sentences as well as those who have the prospect of being released. I was delighted to learn of a program created by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that makes that possible. Run by the Office of Victim Advocate, the program is called the Inmate Apology Bank.
When I am with people committed to ending mass incarceration, I often raise concerns from the victim perspective. Very often this is met with discomfort and arguments on how those who commit crimes have been victimized by racism, poverty, abuse, and a failed system. That is true. Those who commit crimes, however, have a choice, while their victims do not.
I was an advocate for two families whose children were murdered at close range by someone with a sawed-off shotgun. It was one of the most painful weeks I’ve spent in court as an advocate. When sentencing the young man to life, the judge acknowledged that society failed him when he didn’t get the support he needed. He had seen his father murdered when he was four years old, and when he was 11, his grandmother died and he went into the system. The judge also said that the young man had a choice when he picked up the gun and shot the 18-year-old and 23-year-old to death. They had no choice. I agree with the judge.
One of the first crime victims I got to know was an 82-year-old man widower who lived in a tiny row house with his cat and belongings that were precious to him. In one month, he had three break-ins. Along with other items, his medals from the war were taken. The police told him that they could not adequately protect him. He gave away his cat, moved in with his daughter, and developed metastatic cancer. He died in a home devoted to people without money dying from cancer. I was at his funeral and have continued to provide support to his daughter.
I’ve heard people say that this man experienced nonviolent crimes. He was not physically hurt, but the end of his life was traumatic and emotionally violent. Knowing where he lived, I imagine that those who ruined his life were poor themselves and probably had addictive diseases.
I have cared for those incarcerated who said that their crimes were nonviolent because no one was harmed. Not true, though. The challenge for me is how to address some of the root causes of the crimes, while not excusing them because of societal failures.
Another person I saw in my role as chaplain was a woman who had a long arrest record. As she learned to trust me, she shared that she had had her first child when she was 13 years old. She did not know if the father of the child was her own father, her uncle, her brother, or one of their friends. The trauma of her life led her into addiction and into the world of crime to support her habit. Where were the adults who might have helped her after the rapes? Where were the programs that focus on addiction and trauma? These are the questions I asked myself while providing support and then following her when she was sent into another prison.
I approach my role with a focus on what I call political service. It is providing service to those who have been wounded—both victims and those who commit the crimes—while looking at the structures that need to be radically changed. I believe the prison and jail systems need to be overhauled, developing a real commitment to reentry by finding jobs and housing.
I have sometimes asked myself the reason for trying to bridge this gap. It is very painful to have to hold both perspectives. I see the faces of those I have journeyed with who are in prison, and that motivates me to want to address the issues of mass incarceration. I also hold in my mind the faces of the victims, and that motivates me to continue to listen to their needs and to make sure those voices are heard.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, “You have to listen and understand the suffering of one side, and then go and listen to the suffering of the other side. Then you will be able to tell each side, in turn, about the suffering endured by the other side. That kind of work is crucial, and it takes courage.”
Unless we find a way to communicate with those on both sides, real systemic change will not happen, or it will be extremely slow. I feel I owe it to those behind bars and those traumatized by crime. Even though the work is painful, doing less would violate my religious and spiritual beliefs. I try to follow what the prophet Micah said was required of us: “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God“ (Micah 6:8).