By Shawn Khalifa, Contributor Writer
History was made and we were there. It was the first Restorative Justice Fair held inside an American prison.
The three-day August fair opened inside the Facility-E Gymnasium at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility. One hundred chairs formed the foundation of a connecting circle. Brahmankyrie, a Restorative Justice super-supporter, gave her opening salvo on her BOSE speaker system.
“Welcome!,” she greeted the participants. The overstuffed gym, with tight security, had a long line of residents hoping to enter but they were turned away due to overcrowding. All those within the connection circle were invited to a grounding exercise that involved deep breathing and placing feet flat on the floor—each inhale bringing up positive energy and love from the planet that sustains us, while exhaling negative energy into the core of the earth. “Did you feel it?,” asked the leader
District Attorney Khemal Johnson-Williams came into the prison in the name of Restorative Justice. D.A. Johnson-Williams walked around the entire circle shaking hands and saying his name.
He then joined the circle and passed around questions such as “What can another person do to make you feel valued?” Speaking beads and a microphone were passed around so that all could be heard. Fully participating, D.A. Johnson-Williams transformed from district attorney to a victim of crime. He shared that four of his close family members and a best friend had been tragically murdered. “How do you honor those that you have lost?,” was another question the DA passed around.
“My definition of living amends is not being willing to compromise with criminal behavior due to a changed belief system,”
Dr. Andrea Travers, of VOEG (Victim Offenders Education Group), held a remorse-processing workshop in the prison visiting room.
“The event made such a strong impact on me because it dealt with remorse, something I have had a hard time dealing with,” said participant Aurelio Martin Sepulveda. “The manner in which the process was explained was very insightful. I was able to relate to everybody present in one way or another. I am grateful to learn from that experience.”
From a stage in the middle of the yard, performers spoke about “giving living amends” during their performances.
“My definition of living amends is not being willing to compromise with any form of criminal behavior due to a changed belief system,” said Melvin Price, a participant performer.
Anon Jon Alexander added, “In sharing our talents with fellow, alongside free staff and visitors, Echo Yard is opening a portal of positive reinforcement, which in turn expedites rehabilitative reintegration back to society.”
Alexander performed “Chrysalis” a song about metamorphosis.
“Because from prisoner to president, we all have the same 24 hours to be used constructively,” said Alexander. “When invested into such creative expression, it is also less likely to get sucked into negative politics or tribalism/violence.”
On Booth Day, thirteen canopies were arranged in a “U” formation facing the stage. Purple decorations were on display (purple being the signifying color for domestic violence awareness). Under the canopies were 26 Arts-In-Corrections programs, peer-to-peer groups, Southwestern College, Mental Health, The Brahman Project, Eastlake Church, and several other service providers.
The fair atmosphere picked up when the booths opened and the stage lineup was in full swing. Bill Brown, of the Prison Yoga Project, got everybody grounded with early morning chair yoga. Romero and Rose followed with a native flute song and rattle. With the relaxing energy established, Essie Mae Horne stepped on stage to share with the crowd her loss. The participants provided a healing ear and were honored by the privilege of being able to hear her story.
District attorney Marissa Bejarano, also came to the prison to talk with its residents. She spoke about the effects of sex trafficking on the victims. It is rare, if not unheard of, for a district attorney to visit the prison to share but Facility-E received two. A moment of silence was also held for the victims of shootings throughout the United States.
Raquel Funches, of Southwestern College, https://www.swccd.edu/ was available to assist, motivate and interact with the facility’s large college student population at their booth. The booths were staffed with a combination of residents and service providers. Funches’ support and generous effort to instill “No Violence” into the culture at this facility will never be forgotten. She is a driving force of Restorative Justice.
“It was an empowering experience to witness,” said Funches. I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to be included in the residents’ rehabilitative efforts.”
Raquel shared her booth with Tanya, another proud advocate for Restorative Justice, and Patrice, the Director of Southwestern College’s Restorative Justice Program. Another strong voice in the community was the head of the Alternative to Violence Program (AVP), Shandreka, who kindly postponed the AVP class to allow herself, facilitators and students to get the most out of the weekend.
The biggest impact was felt off-stage in the facility’s Multi-Faith Room. One by one, residents read their remorse letters to women who had suffered from abuse. Then a purple friendship bracelet was placed on their wrist.
“We all came together in the spirit of Restorative Justice, and remorse,” said Ryan Grider. “This was the most powerful room I’ve been in during my 17 years of incarceration.”
“An overwhelming feeling of remorse, and surrender filled my heart. For offenders and victims of crime to come together to heal, it speaks volumes of the real work it takes to restore justice. I am so grateful that I had the privilege to be part of this powerful process,” Grider continued.
The fair weekend ended as it began with Brahmankyrie in a jam-packed gymnasium practicing a Satsang meditation of forgiveness. The canopies came down for the last time. The message of connection, love and healing rang throughout the event.
“These three days of the fair were the best days of my life,” said Ruben Radillo, E-yard resident.
This article was edited for length and according to the AP style