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.
Before we can begin, volunteers must go through orientation. Gathered in a small classroom, we are advised to address inmates as “Mr.,” using only their respective last names, and to avoid asking about criminal histories. We are cautioned strongly to not reveal personal details about ourselves. We’re handed a form stating: “Friendship cannot develop between volunteers and inmates – relationships must remain impersonal,” and, “Volunteers should not trust an inmate’s intentions.”
VandenBranden counters the warnings by reminding us to not dehumanize the men we are about to meet. “There are bad men here, or the judge wouldn’t have sent me so much business,” she says. “But for the most part, the men you’re going to meet are good men, or trying to be.”
We’re then led into a separate classroom where the inmates, 27 total, are seated in a large circle arranged around a blanket and candle. Hushed conversations break out as we take our seats, volunteers and prisoners sizing up one another. Next to me, a 24-year-old, 5-foot-11, 285-pound black man with a neck tattoo and braided beard introduces himself as Quacey Jones. He’s friendly and deeply religious. He carries a Bible, telling me he wore out his last copy. Unprompted, he says he’s in prison for “rebellion against the Lord.”
Even though the Green Bay facility holds a lot of lifers, this group skews surprisingly young, with a median age of 28. The oldest inmate is 41, the youngest 21. Seven are 24 or younger. The group is racially diverse, with white, black, Latino, Asian and Native American prisoners all gathered around the circle.
Geske later tells me the primary objective of the first day is making everyone comfortable enough to open up. She begins the session by talking about the items placed in the middle of the room. The candle, she says, was made by prisoners in Northern Ireland, while the blanket comes from India.
“We used to light the candle, but the rules have become so tough, we’re going to have to use our imaginations,” she says.
Geske says the circle we are arranged in comes out of Native American traditions intended to strengthen a community. Throughout the program, we will pass a hand-painted stone around the circle, talking only when it’s in our possession, listening otherwise.
Geske starts the discussion with an innocuous request: Describe a time in your life when someone did something that influenced you positively. The circle delivers a trickle of taut responses, until a student named Gillion talks about a co-worker who gave her a law book after she expressed interest in becoming an attorney.
“That book sat on my shelf for years,” she says, choking up a little, “and in three weeks, I graduate from law school.”
Her revelation lowers the barriers of those in the room and sets off a chain of increasingly substantial soul-baring. This, Geske says, is common.
“People open up in circles with a talking piece,” she says. “If you ask a question that can potentially go deep, there will be some people who go deep. And when people do that, then others will open up as well.”
Many in the circle name people who are now dead. Kristen, a law student, talks about losing her father the previous year. “We used to talk every day at 5,” she says. “He’s kind of the reason I’m in law school. He made the plan and I did it. I miss him a lot.”
An inmate named Whittaker names the woman who took him in as a child after his grandmother killed herself and his mother overdosed on heroin. Another prisoner names his best friend. She died in his arms after shooting herself in the head.
Three inmates say they can’t think of anyone in their life who made a positive impact.
“To see somebody struggle and say, ‘I can’t even think of anybody who’s had a positive impact on my life,’ the sadness that attaches to that answer is really profound,” Geske says later. “We’ve had a number of guys when they said that, at the end of the three days, they’ll say, ‘The victim is now in that role for me. They’ve touched my life.’”
When the talking piece returns to Geske, she speaks of the ripples that flow through people’s lives because of the actions of others. The people just named, she notes, created positive ripples we carry with us today. But ripples can be negative, too. This is the heart of restorative justice.
Geske draws a large triangle on an easel. Each side of the triangle, she says, represents a party affected by crime: victims, perpetrators and the community. Approaching crime from a restorative justice standpoint involves looking at these sides and asking questions. Who was harmed, in what way were they injured, and what can be done to repair the damage?
“There are all sorts of people that are impacted who are never involved in the court system,” Geske says. Burglaries can affect neighbors of the victim by destroying their sense of security. A community hit by multiple burglaries can grow paranoid and unravel.
“People start looking at the people on the street differently,” Geske says. “You try to figure out who doesn’t belong in the neighborhood.”
Some ripples are seen in statistics. Married women who are raped are at an increased risk of divorce, the marriage unable to survive the trauma of the attack. And various studies report that children of incarcerated parents are five to seven times more likely to be incarcerated themselves.
Geske divides the circle into groups. She tells us about three teenagers who robbed a Sears at Bayshore mall by jumping over a counter to steal money from a cash register, knocking over an elderly employee in the process and breaking his hip. She asks the groups to find the ripples caused by the crime.
My groupmates begin by listing the injured man. He’s harmed physically, financially and emotionally by the loss of personal dignity obtained by working. We also list the man’s family and the families of the teens, one suffering from a victimized relative and the others from the criminal prosecution of loved ones. We then list Sears and Bayshore as affected parties, reasoning that both organizations will now have to spend more money on security. Even then, the store and mall may still lose business from people who perceive the area as a dangerous place to shop. This is on top of the direct financial loss to Sears caused by the robbery.
Digging deeper, we also identify ripples spreading to other Sears employees, determining that they may be concerned for their safety, or sad over the harm done to their colleague, or just burdened with having to work extra hours with one fewer co-worker. The group places other teens on the impact list as well, believing they will now be profiled by mall security.
Disagreements arise over a suggestion to list the elderly man’s medical staff, with some prisoners arguing that it’s their job to treat him anyway.
“So you think that nurses and medical professionals that take care of sick, injured or dying people – that doesn’t affect them because it’s their job?” asks Joelle, an adjunct assistant law professor at Marquette. The nurse goes on the list.
After the exercise, we have one final circle before breaking for the day. Most of the inmates voice positive feelings about their exposure to the program.
“I appreciate being part of this group,” says Whittaker. “We just meshed a little bit more. In life, you don’t get too many friends, so I consider you all friends.” Another prisoner tells us, “When I first heard a judge was going to be here, I thought, ‘I’m not going through that again.’ But I’ve never opened up the way I did.”
Before we leave, Geske warns that tomorrow will be a journey through rougher waters.
After returning to the prison and passing through all those gates, we encounter several new faces. Some, we would find out, belong to survivors of violent crimes. They have come to share their stories.
It takes a special brand of people to discuss the worst experiences of their lives with complete strangers, some of whom have done the same things to other people. But their participation is vital to restorative justice.
“People’s rage is totally justified. I often wonder where I would be if I were in their shoes,” Geske says, “but in terms of this program, we want people who can share their story and experience in a way that brings the rest of the room into your journey, in hopes that it will affect people in their behavior.”
Before we begin, I make small talk with the prisoner next to me – an older, somewhat withdrawn man named Allen. He talks about living in Milwaukee before being incarcerated, and about working back then in the laundry room at Columbia St. Mary’s on the East Side.
Allen, I would later find out, has been in the Wisconsin prison system since 2000. One of his favorite pastimes is watching “Around the Corner with John McGivern” and seeing places he’ll never get to experience himself. He says he wishes he could go to one such place with his dad someday.
The first survivor to speak is a thin, silver-haired woman named Mayda. Her initial words immediately telegraph the personal tragedy she’s endured.
“We don’t often think of an automobile as a murder weapon, but it can be,” she says. She tells us how her son Bryon, a 24-year-old forestry major at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, was killed by a drunk driver in April 1999 shortly before his planned graduation. “It’s been 16 years and a lot of memories are fading, but I can still remember the way he spoke.”
Mayda recalls how Bryon, an avid cyclist, embarked on the adventure of a lifetime upon graduating high school in 1993. He and three friends postponed furthering their education to bike the perimeter of the United States, traveling 11,000 miles over nine months.
Six years later, Bryon was on another bike ride when he was struck and killed by a pickup truck. Its driver was a 23-year-old intoxicated man. “It’s amazing how two young men just about the same age, hearing the same societal messages about drinking, made two different choices,” Mayda says.
She tells the men about the impact Bryon’s death – she uses the word murder – has had on her life. She encounters triggers that remind her of him everywhere, including the green prison uniforms worn by the inmates, which she says resemble Bryon’s UW-Stevens Point soccer uniform. “There will never be closure. Bryon’s dead. He always will be,” she says.
The passage of time has brought her a measure of healing, though in other respects, it’s harder than ever. “January is a time I find my emotions sinking,” she says. “Every year is worse than the last. Sixteen years later, no one is there to hear the same stories.”
Mayda closes by asking the group to take Bryon with us on some of our adventures. Like Bryon, however, some of the men present will never have another adventure; more lifelong ripples of terrible actions executed in ill-conceived moments.
The next speaker is a woman whose face exudes strength. Her hair is cropped short, and she tells us that few people understand why she talks about being sexually assaulted, but she receives a certain measure of healing and empowerment from addressing the group.
“What I get back in support in this room allows me to be a survivor,” she says. A lot of people expect her to be angry, she says, but she tells the men – seven of whom have sex crimes convictions – that her words don’t stem from anger. She doesn’t want to be dismissed as purely emotional. She wants to prevent more rapes.
I’ll call her Joan, which is not her real name, and her story begins while she’s living and working in another state. She tells us that, while out for a run one morning, she saw a car passing her, moving too fast for the residential street they were on. It disappeared around a curve. Moments later, Joan rounded the same curve, and “the absolute first thing I knew was a hand over my mouth and a gun in my back.”
“You know what I want,” her attacker barked, forcing her into his car.
Joan had recently discovered she was pregnant with her second child, and now, speeding toward an uncertain fate, her thoughts centered on the life she carried inside her. The car slowed as it turned a corner. Desperate, Joan tried to escape, but the car door wouldn’t unlock.
Enraged, her attacker screamed, “Do you not believe that I can kill you?”
The man drove Joan to a secluded area of a state park, marched her to a field at gunpoint and ordered her to undress. “There is nothing more humiliating than having someone with a gun pointed at you asking you to take your clothes off,” she says.
A profound sense of disassociation swept over her as she was raped. “I was not present at that experience. When something that traumatic happens, you retreat to a little spot in here,” she says, pointing to the back of her head.
Afterward, the attacker looked at her and said, coldly, “What am I going to do with you now?” Her thoughts drifted toward her husband and 3-year-old child, both about to lose her in the middle of a field, and “how sad it was I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye.”
Thinking fast, Joan told her rapist it was safe to let her live, because her husband was incredibly jealous and would blame her if he found out what happened. Joan promised to not say anything or look at the man’s face, but she needed to get back soon or her husband would grow suspicious.
It worked. The man returned Joan to her neighborhood. Three weeks later, he turned himself in to police after failing in an attempt to abduct a teenage girl. He was himself married, with young children.
Like Mayda, Joan continues to be distressed by the crime. For years, she carried a butcher knife with her at home, sleeping with it at arm’s reach. Her husband was tormented by his own feelings of failure and loss. The anniversary of her attack, October 6, remains a terrible day for her, causing her to feel physically ill. Every year on October 7, she buys herself flowers.
We break for lunch after Joan’s story. As we do, Geske tells the men, “Be gentle on yourselves.”
When we return, I catch up with Allen. A fight had broken out earlier between two prisoners, and he complains about the facility being filled with “hot-headed kids off the street.” He hopes to be transferred to another prison with an older population.
The third survivor, Gervis, begins his story. A middle-aged black man, he opens by reading a poem, and then, like the other survivors, he tells us the date his life was shattered: May 27, 1976.
“It is etched in my memory forever,” he says. “The last time I saw my father alive, I was getting ready for school.”
Gervis recalls walking home that day to encounter a crowd gathered in front of his father’s liquor store at 11th Street and Atkinson Avenue in Milwaukee. The store was prosperous, and Gervis can still see his father dressed in white, a pencil placed behind his ear, taking inventory. He remembers him buying a Cadillac.
“Cadillacs for black people back in those days were a sign of success,” he says.
At the scene, he was approached by a woman he vaguely knew. She cried about how sorry she was for him and his sister, even though nobody would tell him what happened. Inevitably, he discovered the truth: His father had been murdered during a robbery.
“He’s the king. Ain’t nothing going to happen to him,” Gervis says. “But just like that, he was gone. You don’t know what to do with that. It’s rage. I remember swinging and flailing at everybody.”
Gervis grips the audience with his story of loss. Little by little, he shares his intimate struggle to persevere, just as Mayda and Joan did. At least seven inmates in the group are serving time for death-related convictions, and here they are, soaking in Gervis’ incredibly raw account of living with the anguish of a loved one’s murder.
“Most [prisoners] think about their crimes and the criminal justice system, and they use this language: ‘I caught a case,’” says Geske. “That’s a very common verbiage, and I always think it’s really telling. The system does this to you, is sort of the perception. Most of them have not thought about the victims and their families, and so they start thinking about that.”
Gervis remembers attending his father’s funeral and asking why do we do this to each other. Now in his 50s, Gervis says his father’s death hurts to this day. There are times he’s thought about taking revenge. Once, he drove to the home of one of the killers, now released from prison. Ready for a confrontation, he spotted the man out in his driveway. The man looked nervous.
“The dude’s in hell,” Gervis says. “He’s still looking over his shoulder to this day. I felt empathy for him. I can’t do this because he has a family.” He drove away.
Gervis did come face to face with another man involved in the murder. He visited him in prison two years ago as part of a victim/offender dialogue program. The man cried as they were wrapping up, and Gervis embraced him. “I was holding another human being,” he says, “that happened to do something wrong to my family.”
He makes a request of the group: “If you get a chance, forgive yourself for what you may have done, and that’s where you start.”
A quick discussion follows the speakers. Many in the room are deeply moved, and a heavy atmosphere hangs over the circle, laden with the silence of weighty reflection. Many speak of the deleterious role violent crimes have played in their lives. Several prisoners have lost friends and family to murder or drunk drivers, or they know people who have been sexually assaulted. Some inmates are telling the same stories for the second time in two days. It gives the impression they do so a lot, but Geske says that’s incredibly rare in prison.
“These guys who, as they say, put masks on in the prison – don’t cry, always a tough guy – break down in this circle and really become vulnerable,” Geske says. “That they are able to do that in the context of a maximum security prison is amazing.”
Others begin to talk about the hurt they caused. A man convicted of robbery says he now sees the ripples of what he thought were victimless crimes.
“I hurt for each and every one of you,” says another. “I hurt for my victims. I have a lot to think about.”
Geske ends the day by telling the men they’re in for a rough night. She asks them to spend time in their cells making something to give to the speakers tomorrow.
The inmate seated next to me as the group assembles is a wiry white guy named Zirbel. I ask him how he’s doing. “I’m a prisoner. I love it,” is his sarcastic reply. “It’s everything I wanted to be when I grew up.”
I ask what he thinks of the class. “I like it. I would recommend it to other people who are semi-serious and not complete idiots,” he says. “I would think that normal people would want to distance themselves. That they come and they say, ‘Thank you for letting us come,’ that doesn’t make sense to me.”
How hard is it to get into the program, I wonder. He tells me prisoners are selected by VandenBranden or recommended by another prison staff member. If they enroll, they must not commit any infractions during the program, or they will be removed. Zirbel tells me he’s received write-ups for transgressions as minor as an untucked shirt. Another inmate says tickets are sometimes given for pulling too many napkins from the dispenser in the cafeteria.
That the men strive so hard to follow the rules while in the program is a testament to its popularity and their resolve to be included. Studies have shown restorative justice can have a lasting influence on participants. One study from 2014 looked at 1,880 accused or convicted offenders for two years after their participation in restorative justice conferences, and found such programs are a cost-effective means of reducing recidivism. The Green Bay program in particular has the support of many prison officials, including the deputy warden, Sarah Cooper. She told me it can produce “life-changing events” for some of the inmates.
The group quiets as the talking circle commences. A number of inmates had difficulty sleeping, as Geske predicted. One of the first to speak is Quacey Jones.
“Yesterday was my three-year prison anniversary,” he begins. “But I’m joyful. In this time, I found myself. I know who I am.” He recites a poem he composed last night for the survivors. He tells Mayda, “If I had the chance, you would see your son and his friends pull up on their bikes again.”
Whittaker – the inmate who spoke of his mother’s and grandmother’s deaths on Day 1 – now discloses that, unlike many of the other men, he’s leaving prison soon. He has a little more than a month remaining.
“When I first took this class, it was keeping my mind busy before release,” he says. “Being in this class, it helped me with my anxiety. I robbed a guy at gunpoint when I was 17. I don’t never want to put a gun in anyone else’s face.”
The inmates are reflective and, in a way, gentle, expressing themselves in a manner both poignant and profound.
When Zirbel is handed the talking piece, he tells Gervis, “At pretty much the lowest part of your life, you had the ability to keep it together. When I look at you, I don’t see a victim. I see a person who did the right thing. That’s who I want to be.”
A baby-faced inmate in glasses named Sharp-Bestul opens up about the anger in his life after his father’s death. “I started going down a dark and hateful road,” he says, divulging that, when he got to prison at age 18, he joined a white supremacist group. “I wanted to make everyone feel as bad as I did.”
He claims to have spent more than three years – over half of his total time in prison – in “the hole” due to his behavior. But, he says, he’s changed. Now he studies Islam and has come to renounce his father’s motto: If it ain’t white, it ain’t right. “People know what I used to be, and know what I am now,” he says.
Allen, the prisoner I spoke with yesterday, stands up. Before, he was reticent, going so far as to conceal the placard bearing his name from the circle. Now, he is revealing.
“My name is Reggie Allen,” he says. “I’ve been incarcerated 15 years for homicide.” His is the only violent crime confessed to the group. He talks of struggling with his long imprisonment, dealing with “people with split personalities, including myself.
“One time,” he says, “I got to the point where I started hating people. The solution was to become anti-social. F**k everyone and f**k the world.
“I’m not trying to pour tears,” he continues. “I’m still hurting though. Thank you for making us all feel human, not like caged animals the way corrections officers make us feel, or we make each other feel.”
One prisoner talks not of himself. Instead, he reads aloud a poem he wrote from the perspective of Joan’s attacker. Its last four lines:
I’m sorry I violated the sanctity of your marriage
And for all the problems that I caused
But for making you question your belief in humanity
I apologize for that most of all.
When the circle finishes, the sadness everyone has unburdened themselves of dissipates, and a feeling of peace washes over the room. “This is why I love doing this,” Geske says.
We’re nearing the end of the program, but Geske has one final exercise planned. She divides us into groups with instructions to improvise a skit about a newly incarcerated drug dealer who learns about restorative justice.
“The skit idea came to me,” Geske later tells me, “because I was sitting next to a drug dealer who said, ‘I get this stuff, but I really don’t have any victims.’” Having witnessed the effects drugs can have on the community from behind her Milwaukee County courtroom bench, Geske wanted other prisoners to see drug-dealing differently. She also found role-playing has the unintended benefits of letting the prisoners assume the role of teachers.
“They teach the community members what it’s like out on the street,” she says. “What it sounds like when you’re dealing drugs. What the verbiage is. What the conduct is. How they perceive police. And the skits become very funny.”
The group I’m in appoints me the drug dealer, Zach the Mac (sobriquet bestowed by Quacey Jones). My backstory has me pulled over for driving while black. I was arrested because my mechanic, Basehead Ricky (Jones), left paraphernalia in my car after repairing it in exchange for drugs. I contact my lawyer and my assistant drug dealer and tell them to make Basehead Ricky take the fall.
After my lawyer (another inmate) shakes me down for money, they say they’ll work on it. As I wait, my cellmate (a law student) tells me about the benefits of restorative justice, outlining the plot of Macbeth to explain the ripples of destruction I’ve caused. Eventually, I agree to enroll.
Shakespeare, it’s not. And despite plenty of coaching, I don’t make the most convincing drug dealer. But, in the moment, after everything that was said this morning, it’s very funny, and the other skits are even more hilarious. It all adds a welcome dose of levity to the proceedings.
“All the years we’ve been here,” Geske says after all the groups have presented, “I think we had the most laughs today.”
As the time to depart approaches, Geske has a few more words. “How do we make a difference? We make a difference in the moments. Think of the moments during the day someone was kind to you.”
She closes by asking us to recall one specific action we’ve done over the last few weeks that has helped another person, and then ask ourselves what more we can do.
Going around the circle a final time, a room full of convicted men dwell not on the crimes they’ve committed, nor their punishments, nor the wrongs visited upon them, but instead speak eagerly of plans to create positive ripples for others.
Zach Brooke is a frequent freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at email@example.com.