Crime and Healing

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

By Robert C. Koehler

“I have nowhere to talk about this except here in a prison setting,” Peg said. “You are my community.”

The circle grew close, intimate — sacred — as the three women spoke.

There were about 35 of us in all, sitting on hard plastic chairs. Twenty wore green: the inmates. The building was wrapped in razor wire. It was a maximum security prison called Columbia Correctional Institution, in Portage, Wis. Built for 450 prisoners, it houses, two decades after it opened, about 900. The setting was old justice, but something new was happening.

Not all that new, maybe. Restorative Justice — a multifaceted system of criminal justice and conflict resolution that puts healing and truth-telling at its core, not punishment, revenge or the culling out of humanity’s undesirables — has been around and evolving for about 20 years now. It’s slowly gaining a foothold in court systems and schools around the world: It is part, I’m certain, of an invisible wave of change that is transforming the planet. Nothing about it is simple, but something precious beyond compare can emerge from the process. Suffering can abate, torn lives and broken communities can heal, good can come from bad.

But these were not pretty stories we were hearing: a rape, an armed robbery, the murder of three elderly women. The tellers, Peg, Debbie and Tanya — the three angels, as many of the inmates started calling them — had been victimized by these crimes, and each spoke in unrelenting detail about what happened.

The women spoke on Wednesday, day two of the three-day circle process I took part in last week, led by Jerry Hancock, a former defense and prosecuting attorney who became a United Church of Christ minister four years ago and now works under the auspices of the UCC Prison Ministry Project; and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who is currently a law professor at Marquette University. The week was part of a three-month Restorative Justice class at the prison, at the end of which the inmates who participated get a diploma, and changed lives.

“My grandmother’s body was found in a field beneath a pile of tires.” This was Peg’s story. Her beloved grandmother, whom she called Mema, age 88, was, along with two friends also in their 80s, kidnapped and murdered — “kickboxed to death” — a quarter century ago in a Pennsylvania field. The killer had approached the three women as they were leaving an event. “Your tire is dangerously low,” he’d said to them. “Let me drive you to a gas station.” They accepted his offer.

Each woman spoke for nearly an hour, retelling their traumas in moment-by-moment detail. Debbie was accosted one evening as she was putting coins in a pop machine in front of the general store in her town. A man held a knife to her back, pulled her into an alley, beat, slashed and raped her. After it was over, she went home and took a hot shower to wash off the shame. “I looked in the mirror and didn’t know who I was.”

She had four children at home. Her husband had been working night shift. When he came home and found her still awake, just sitting on the bed, he knew something was wrong, though her first response was, “I’m fine.” He called the police. She went to the hospital. They photographed her naked, bruised body. “I was a piece of evidence,” she said.

Tanya was getting cash from an ATM when two boys — ages 16 and 14, she later learned — suddenly surrounded her. The 14-year-old stuck a gun to her head and held it there as the machine spit out cash in hundred-dollar increments. At one point she looked, with peripheral vision, into the gun boy’s eyes. “I saw nothing in his eyes,” she said. He later pistol-whipped her three times. She remembers each thud and crack as the gun hit her skull.

These women spoke not with anger but almost lovingly. They were messengers. They had seen hell’s landscape. Each talked of the impact of the crime on friends, family: the ripple effect. Debbie’s marriage fell apart. Her children were traumatized. Tanya grew estranged from her parents. Peg held Mema’s murder inside her for decades. There was simply no context in her life in which talking about it in all its detail was possible.

The context in which it was possible was Restorative Justice. We sat in a circle of equals. We listened and absorbed their words. Afterward, and over the next day, each person in the circle had chances to respond. The inmates began talking both about their own victims and their own pain. “Mema was with me all night,” one of the men said on Thursday morning.

This is only a sliver of what happened over an extraordinary three days. We talked frankly and from the heart about crime; we listened to each other. Something shifted, though I can’t say precisely what. Life felt sweet, fragile . . . precious.

“Be more than a survivor,” Debbie urged. “Be a lifeguard.”

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at

© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.