Behind the Walls

It’s called restorative justice, and it asks crime victims to come face to face with convicts. Why would they? And how did an avowed skeptic of the concept become its biggest advocate?

The coffered rotunda at the Green Bay Correctional Institution often catches the uninitiated off guard. Exiting the lobby of the maximum security prison – the last place your movements are solely subject to your own free will – visitors filter through a succession of five gates, each opening only after the former is secured with a heavy clank.

Passing through the final gate exposes a vast two-story, 4,900-square-foot room supported by four massive, chalky rose terrazzo columns. Inmates built this room a century ago, as they did the cell blocks now confining their spiritual progeny. Inmates also painted the murals displayed atop the high walls. They depict scenic landscapes that are the antithesis of confinement.

Impressive as the structure may be, Virginia VandenBranden and Janine Geske are more concerned with restructuring the inmates themselves. For nearly two decades, they have run seminars focusing on restorative justice, challenging inmates to develop the emotional tools needed to place their crimes in context.

Broadly explained, restorative justice looks at the ripple effects of criminal actions. Less concerned with questions of guilt and innocence than asking who suffers from crime and why, restorative justice is an approach that’s gained traction in the United States and abroad over the past 25 years. That’s especially true in South Africa. After the abolition of apartheid there, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed – based on restorative justice theory – to solicit testimony from victims and perpetrators of human rights violations, allowing, Geske says, “everybody to hear and put into light the harm that had happened.”

I’ve come to witness the program at Green Bay as one of its sessions unfolds. Joining me are a group of law students from Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as community members and other restorative justice advocates. For the next three days, we will sit alongside some of Wisconsin’s worst offenders and work to create a dialogue about the multifaceted ramifications – physical, emotional and spiritual – that happen when crimes are committed.

The program is part of a larger class called Challenges and Possibilities, taught by VandenBranden and developed to help convicted men regain their self-worth while aligning their outlook with accepted social values. Geske, a former Marquette University law professor and Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, leads the restorative justice component.

Geske was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. And though she’s now a staunch advocate of restorative justice, there was a time when she wanted nothing to do with it. “Somebody had talked to me about restorative justice, and my reaction was, ‘Why would a victim, particularly of a violent crime, ever want to sit down with somebody who’s committed that crime?’ That just seemed crazy. It seemed like some wacko liberal idea,” she says.

Her ambivalence, if not antagonism, toward restorative justice led her to decline a request made by then-Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson to head a task force on the topic. The assignment went to a colleague, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. “They still laugh at me,” Geske says, “because that’s all I do now.”

Geske’s mind changed after VandenBranden finally convinced her to witness a session for herself. “It was like an instantaneous transformation. I was so amazed,” Geske says. “To me, on a very personal level, I experience God in that room more than anywhere else I go. The transformation, the amazing things that happen, just because people are sitting quietly and are talking to each other in a respectful way – it inspires me.”

What happens during these sessions that could persuade a former doubter like Geske to adopt such reverence toward restorative justice? I’m here to find out.

Read the rest of this story using Milwaukee Magazine’Member Pass.

‘Behind the Walls’ appears in the March 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the March issue on newsstands beginning Feb. 29.

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.