At this prison graduation, the focus is on knowing the effects of their crimes
May 28, 2010
....During this season of high school and college graduations, 16 men received a very different kind of diploma Monday at Columbia Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison.
Over three months, the inmates voluntarily completed a 30-session course on restorative justice, a curriculum meant to help them understand how much they'd harmed their victims, the community and themselves. For some of them, Monday's graduation ceremony was the first time they'd done anything worthy of even minimal praise.
"I've been in all sorts of programs and always been kicked out," said Darren Morris, 33, whose peers voted him class speaker.
....Morris told his classmates Monday that, until he took the restorative justice course, he'd dealt only intellectually with the pain he'd caused his victims.
"This time, it wasn't my head, it was my soul that was processing things," he said.
That's the goal of the curriculum — to get criminals to think beyond themselves, said the Rev. Jerry Hancock, who leads the course as director of the Prison Ministry Project, a program of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Madison.
"If these guys can learn to live lives of integrity in whatever community they're in, then there's some hope, even if that community is a maximum security prison," he said.
The curriculum, begun five years ago, has no religious requirements, and no taxpayer money is involved, Hancock said. Inmates hear from victims, judges, lawyers and others.
About 80 men sought to be in this year's class at the 830-inmate prison. Staff members picked 22, based in part on receptiveness to personal growth. Six participants either dropped out or did not complete the course due to conduct problems or transfers, said prison social worker Emily Peissig.
Class completion has no bearing on when inmates are released or when they are eligible for transfers to other prisons, said Greg Grams, Columbia's warden. He attended the ceremony and encouraged inmates to think of the day as a beginning, not an ending.
Thomas Routt Jr., 43, said he wanted to participate to work through his guilt. At Routt's burglary sentencing 15 years ago, a mother read a letter in which her 3-year-old daughter told the judge she worried Routt would break back into her house and steal her little brother and her toys.
"That just killed me, and I've beaten myself up for the last 15 years about that," Routt said. "I want that little girl to know how sorry I am."