The green chamomile leaves shone brilliant green through the snow. I held my hat to keep the wind from blowing it off as I walked last week with my friend Jason Garlynd at the Oakhill Correctional Institution near Oregon, slowly pacing the Victims Memorial Circle, pondering the meaning of redemption.
A couple of years ago, a new razor wire fence went up around Oakhill, unearthing scores of boulders. Jason worked with Oakhill's inmates to create a hillside meditation circle with the boulders, aimed at bringing those who walk it into spiritual reflection about victims of all kinds.
As one walks around this meditative sanctuary in the middle of the prison grounds, with symbolic reminders of healing chiseled into a central boulder, one can ignore the razor wire and simply honor the complex human passage from hurt to healing.
I met a young inmate who had worked over 100 hours on building the circle. He described thousands of person hours spent in the slow work of placing boulders, designing drainage, planting and landscaping.
It was important work for him, he said, "a sort of healing experience," which helped him reflect on helping the world. The warden at Oakhill described the day the circle was dedicated as a "beautiful thing." People walked it slowly, he said, and seemed to emerge from it somehow transformed.
I doubt that this circle would have been built a decade ago. From the dysfunctional depths of justice and corrections systems around the world is growing a different idea of justice. Instead of focusing principally on punishment, this view, called restorative justice, focuses on repairing personal and community harm done by someone's offense.
My close friend Jo volunteers as a facilitator in Dane County's juvenile victim offender conferencing program, largely to restore her own sense of safety in the community.
"We have so many ways to be fractured as a society. I want to make an effort to get to know young people and take an active part in letting them know that I am aware of them, I am watching their behavior and I have expectations of them, because we are part of the whole community," Jo said.
Victim offender conferencing happens only if victims want it. The victim and person who harmed the victim talk face to face, focusing on making the person or people harmed feel whole again. A conference begins with the youth describing the crime, answering a victim's questions, such as, "How did you break in so quietly? Were you stalking me? Did you plan this? Why me?"
Answers can help victims regain a sense of empowerment and safety. Victims then share their story of the crime's impact on their lives, including its emotional impact on the victim and their family and community.
Although the youth has an opportunity to apologize, such conferences aren't about the victim's conveying forgiveness, but rather about restoring their sense of wholeness and safety and about the offender's taking responsibility for the harm they have done. Crimes prompting such conferences range from break-ins to bomb threats to e-mail threats. A recent case involved a carload of young men who broke into one car, stole the car stereo and were picked up later breaking into another car.
Sometimes victims, especially of violent crimes, are too fearful, angry or for other reasons don't want to engage in such conferences. Of the 15,000 offered victim services by Wisconsin's Department of Corrections, for example, less than 10 victims sought a conference last year. Some do participate in victim panels in prisons or other forms that restorative justice takes. Many don't want to engage in restorative justice at all.
This approach to justice doesn't solve all the problems of the criminal justice system, yet it offers great promise, including reducing the crime recidivism rate, which national studies demonstrate it has done. It offers a healing path both for offenders and their victims.
At the time of year when many religions celebrate the human potential to heal a damaged world, last week's prison visit showed me just a few ways that the term "corrections" can regain its meaning of restoration rather than just social punishment.
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times