Tears poured down my cheeks. Hunched over on a hard plastic chair, elbows on knees, I buried my face in my hands. The group was silent. I had just shared the details of my crimes. Robbery and sexual assault. I confessed to being every woman’s worst nightmare. Recounting these moments from years ago brought a resurgence of guilt and shame. I had been a young, strung-out, ruthless gang member, with zero respect for women, and I had an accomplice to impress.
The host of our group embraced me with a hug, her gentle hand rubbing my back. “I’m proud of you,” she whispered in my ear, validating my emotions, and washing away years of crippling embarrassment. She was a sexual assault survivor.
On May 3, 2018, I completed Bridges to Life, a 14-week restorative justice program. I walked out of that experience with a level of healing and restored confidence I never thought was possible. I became friends with women who experienced the opposing side of my worst actions. They didn’t see me as a perpetrator, and I didn’t see them as victims. We began unsure of what to expect and ended as true friends. We built relationships — bonds that had a face, a name, hopes, dreams and purpose. We shared each other’s pain. We laughed together, cried together, held each other and understood.
Almost two decades since my crimes, I am still paying the price for those poor choices. My family and community are still paying a price. Most of all, those I’ve harmed have paid an unfair price, and their voice has been silenced by a justice system numb to the idea that reconciliation between victims and offenders is a possibility in many circumstances.
Todd Rogers, a man in my group, described the power of forgiveness. “In the decades since my criminal convictions, nothing and nobody could convince me that I could still do great things in this life,” he said. “That all changed when someone who knew firsthand the impact of my actions spoke into my life. It felt like I was freed from a cage of regret, and destined to be a difference maker in this world.”
Little did we know at the time, but this was one of the last in-person groups ever held here. During COVID the prison would only allow prisoners to have the Bridges to Life workbooks, and watch a video. There was zero human interaction with survivors. Now, the entire program has been eliminated, depriving a new generation of prisoners of this life-changing experience.
With an incarcerated population of 2.2 million, the U.S. does not have a system premised on reform or creating model citizens. It is a system that incapacitates, punishes and builds upon the failures of society. This system traumatizes souls, incarcerates minds, destroys the spirit and shackles the body. Broken people enter its gates, and exit, oftentimes worse and wholly unprepared to engage a world that has passed them by.
Our court system, where justice is supposedly dispensed, is no better. I was guilty, but many are not. The guilty are often overcharged by zealous DAs. Imprisoned without bail, or any chance that they can afford bail, the accused are prosecuted with little influence from the victim and ultimately tried by a jury of their peers — whom they’ve never met.
Our system purports to give voice to victims, but sadly, victims have almost no bearing on the final outcome. It is the voice of a prosecutor, with far too much power and authority, that has the final say before “justice” is dispensed by a judge — often mandated by archaic laws.
Those convicted of crimes are often sent to a prison compound far from their loved ones, for decades, without any choice from the victims or community. Stripped from the process is any opportunity to reconcile, or set terms for restitution or reinstatement into society. This does a disservice to everyone involved — the guilty, the crime victims and society as a whole.
The system should begin first with the victim, or the family of the victim. There is no accommodation to determine whether victims would like to seek alternative measures in restitution, reconciliation or accountability from the perpetrator. Instead, there is a presumption that victims desire the harshest penalties, sending offenders to a full-time school of criminality, a gladiator arena falsely labeled a correction center. As if the name isn’t Orwellian enough, prisoners lose all dignity and are subjected to daily violence and racist segregation promoted by a government agency: the Department of Corrections.
I don’t advocate being “soft on crime,” but neither do I believe that locking people up for decades is making the world safer. Too often we lock up young people who are just learning how to function in the adult world. We force them into a system that does not teach them what they need to know to be productive citizens. Under the best circumstances, it creates model inmates, maybe, but never model citizens. Most return to public life worse than when they began their prison sentences, only to be overshadowed by a national recidivism rate that’s staggering — as high as 70 percent within the first five years out and 80 percent for prisoners with juvenile records.
One alternative that should be more widely available is Bridges to Life, a faith-based, nondenominational program that connects victims to offenders. People of all faiths or no faith are equally welcome and valued.
John Sage started Bridges to Life in 1998, five years after his sister was brutally murdered. He struggled to recover from the shock, anger and grief. John felt called to do something productive to help victims heal and move on, and offer the offender a chance at rehabilitation. In seeking lasting justice, he developed a program based on a restorative justice model that connects communities to prisons in order to reduce repeat violent crime.
Restorative justice is a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of prisoners through reconciliation with victims and the community at-large. Restorative justice is not new. It was practiced in Africa and smaller Indigenous communities long before the colonization of territories by Western European powers.
The goal in restorative justice is to get participants to take responsibility for what they did and empathize, as they listen to crime victim survivors talk about the impact that violent crime had on them and their families. This may begin as uncomfortable, but quickly becomes a powerful experience, with the potential for accountability, restitution, forgiveness and healing — a truly restorative process, meeting the ends of justice.
In the restorative justice theory of change, prisoners self-identify with new, positive identities, replacing old negative self-identities. As a result, they develop healthy social support that reinforces these new identities. The concept: If you think you are scum, you will act like scum. However, if you think you are gifted, with talents, abilities and a positive identity, that’s how you will more likely act on a regular basis.
Restorative justice views crime not simply as the breaking of a law, but as damage to individuals, property, relationships and the community. It represents a holistic approach to addressing criminal behavior. And it becomes a great tool toward healing the communities harmed.
When we build relationships, we humanize each other and rather than simply being faceless people, we become friends, family members, students and mentors. Behind these relationships are real people, with real names, feelings and experiences. It then becomes easier for participants to understand the harm they caused and to take responsibility.
The primary focus of restorative justice is victim impact, which allows the perpetrator to gain empathy for their victim or other people who have been victimized in similar ways. This occurs in moderated confidential meetings with the victim and the victim’s family, or with a victim of a similar crime willing to participate in a restorative process.
It’s a chance to be heard and listened to by both sides. It’s a chance for the offenders to examine themselves, and understand why they made the choices they did, how they harmed the victim, family and community, and what they can do differently in the future.
Restorative justice recognizes ways to mend broken relationships. It is a program focused less on punishment and revenge, and more on rehabilitation and redemption. It is a volunteer process that should be made available, should the victim want it.
Bridges to Life is one of the first nationally recognized restorative justice programs. Over the 24 years that it has been operational, over 55,000 prisoners have graduated, in 185 prisons and rehab facilities, with the help of 3,100 volunteers.
A 2020 National Police Foundation Independent research study compared the recidivism rate of those who go through Bridges to Life, to those who don’t. Program participants decreased their chances of recidivism by 30 percent, with a 62 percent reduction in people returning to prison for a violent crime. It’s a powerful program with proven results.
Advocates of the current prison industrial complex are content with restorative justice being a part, or fragment, within the failing system of warehousing. I strongly believe that it must become the system itself, and the way in which we resolve disputes within communities.
With programs that have worked, but have been disbanded or greatly scaled back — like “bring a lifer to work,” furloughs and parole — it wasn’t the public that cried out for mass incarceration. It was lobbyists, on behalf of Department of Corrections-backed unions, private prisons and corporations seeking to profit off of the prison industrial complex.
Case in point: There are over 4,100 private companies in the U.S. profiting off of mass incarceration, which is a multi-billion-dollar business.
Commercials, ads and propaganda have convinced people that the streets are full of monsters who are irredeemable, and worthy of death, life in prison or decades behind bars.
However, very few people are irretrievably broken. People, and most prisoners, naturally respond to incentives, treatment of unmet trauma and addiction, and investment into their future.
In 17 years of incarceration I’ve never had a major infraction. I’ve taken sexual and psychological exams, and am documented as a low risk to re-offend. I’ve already passed a parole hearing to determine my low risk level, and whether I qualify to begin the next segment of my sentence. While the parole hearing report states that I am “conditionally safe to release to the community,” it concludes, “do not release Mr. Olson, as he still has over 30 years left on his sentence…”
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Because my sentence does not allow for meaningful release planning, I’ve instead begun to career and family plan while serving my sentence. I’m engaged to be married and have started writing and regularly producing a podcast called “The Abolition Christian.” I have a voice, and I intend to use it to make a difference in this world, first, to defend the vulnerable, and next, to expose injustice and advocate for change.
My dreams are simple: to own a house on a chunk of land, have a family, a garden, animals and be involved in a movement or ministry that contributes to my community.
Mass incarceration cannot be ignored. With our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters locked up, this is a problem that will only get worse if there is not significant structural change immediately.
This is one of the most urgent matters requiring action from our current generation. I believe they have both the courage and foresight to bring about a long overdue transformation, using the successful model of restorative justice to create a more just and equitable system.
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As Communications Manager for Bridges To Life (BTL), I would like to correct one statement in this otherwise spot-on article about our organization and work ! BTL originated in Texas and is currently conducted in almost all Texas prisons. Our records show that Mr. Olson graduated from the BTL program in one of our non-Texas locations and want to assure him that BTL is still active in that state (and we are approaching 75,000 graduates program-wide, btw!). In addition to my work for the organization, I am a crime victim speaker and volunteer facilitator for our program. Please feel free to contact me for more information and thank you again for this fabulous article!
This essay on Restorative Justice by Aaron Edward OLSON puts me in mind of the work of Chris HEDGES with his Rutgers U teaching programs within prisons – another way of rescuing those guilty and those innocent from with the Injustice system – and AEO is correct in identifying the vested interests and private prison systems with their various lobbyists as responsible for the ugliness of the hopeless and brutal system they support. That victims of crime – of person or property – as much as those who perpetrated the crimes need the chance to heal – to have their say – to be heard – to find reconciliation, to forgive and to be forgiven. I am writing from Australia – things are bad enough with our private prisons (a concept and ownership from the US – sadly) and state prisons – both juvenile and adult – and it is already going on for four decades since Professor Tony VINSON of NSW advocated for humanitarian reforms – three+ decades ago when my brother who was then working within the juvenile Injustice system (not my careful choice of word) would tell me of the things he was observing and valiantly doing his best to oppose – the bullying and taunting and in other ways demeaning of the boys in the institution where he was a Youth Worker with wood-working/carpentry/building skills to impart – including of the Superintendent embezzling the budget to build himself a house on the coast. (The Superintendent was himself gaoled.) Bravo, Aaron.
This is a very moving article, underlined by moving responses. Here in Canada, I did some pretty stupid things when I was 15 years old. Luckily nobody got hurt, and I describe my growth out of that period as “becoming a human being”. Had I not been a white kid from a rich neighbourhood, things could have been very different.
You might like to read: “A Crowbar In A Buddhist Garden”, by Stephen Reid, a rather harrowing account of one man’s struggles to live a meaningful life inside and outside of prisons. The account of his 18 year old daughter visiting him after he went back in the Big House after sliding back into robbing a bank to get a heroin stash is one to challenge the soul.
I really salute you Aaron, the way you have decided that even though you are still incarcerated, you can still choose to “live” as if you were free. And so you are free.
Hopefully humans can grow forward out of violence, especially the violence that is the US electoral, legal and prison system, where so many lives are just pawns in the electoral schemes of politicians.
Wow! Yes! I am deeply touched and want to help! My passion and purpose is to help people heal from old stories. To know they do not have to be defined by the last. Thank you!
Hi Brenda! Bridges To Life is always looking for new volunteers for our program. Here’s our website if you’re interested in more information: http://www.bridgestolife.org/volunteer