By Karima Amin
Prisoners Are People Too, Inc.
For the last three months, Pastor James Giles and I have had the privilege of working with youth (ages 16-21) at the Erie County Correctional Facility. The groups have been small (6 to 12 attendees), but very productive. Our visits have been bi-weekly on Friday evenings and the prisoners voluntarily sign up to meet with us.
The circles, 60 to 90 minutes, have included participant introductions and an introduction to the peace circle process. A few of the young men know us from the Buffalo community, but Restorative Justice is a totally new concept. I always include a “nugget” of Black History that has so far been proven to be a way to connect prior knowledge with something new. For example everyone in the circle knew Malcolm X and a little bit about him (from the Spike Lee movie) but no one had read or heard of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Since several of them had commented on continuing their education, I shared a Malcolm X quote that they have now memorized: “Education is your passport to the future. Tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”
Our circles have concentrated on constructive thinking, informed choices, goal setting, and problem solving (personal and community). A few of these young men already have children and they are happy to be discussing (talking about and listening to) better ways to live their lives.
I think that having a corrections officer in the room is a deterrent to full and honest disclosure, but we have to abide by the rules of the facility’s administration. With the passage of time, our circles have become more relaxed and open. Pastor Giles’ input is both street-wise and spirit-led.
The young men we work with are responding to an opportunity to have their lives enriched. Some are facing state prison time. Some are facing more time at this county facility. Eventually, all of them will return to lives on the outside. Pastor Giles and I are privileged to have some positive impact on how they come back.
Karima Amin is Founder/Director of Prisoners Are People Too, Inc., and a member of the Open Buffalo network.