My morning of peace at Stateville Correctional Center

After meeting inmates studying nonviolence, I'm convinced we need them back in their communities to nurture and guide their children and those of their neighbors.
Students with program director Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom. (WNV/Karl Clifton-Soderstrom)

Jamal greeted me with a smile and firm handshake, the first of several that we exchanged. He explained that he was dressed in white because he works in the kitchen. Sporting a neatly trimmed, gray-flecked beard and a dark blue stocking cap, Jamal confided, “I’m 36 years old and have spent half my life in prison. I’ve got 40 years left, but because my family has resources, I’m working with an attorney to have a judge evaluate the remainder of my sentence.”

Born and raised in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, Jamal’s enrolled in a master’s degree program conducted at Stateville Correctional Center by North Park University. North Park, on Chicago’s north side, has 3,200 students and is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church. 

Jamal. (WNV/Karl Clifton-Soderstrom)

I met Jamal and 30 of his classmates as part of a half-day spent with Henry Cervantes, the Peace Exchange Program Manager and an adjunct professor with North Park. I shadow Henry a lot — regularly in my role as an advisor to the Peace Exchange and our school-based Speaking Peace program—and on two occasions in Cook County Jail where Henry teaches weekly classes on peace and nonviolence. I was particularly interested in comparing the conflict prevention and resolution skills Henry and his team teach to Chicago elementary school students to those taught to the men of the Stateville/North Park program.

On Tuesday morning, Dec. 3, I rendezvoused with Henry in the Stateville visitor center where we were joined by Professor Kim Schiller and Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, the program’s director. 

No one, certainly not a visitor, casually strolls into a correctional facility, particularly if it’s one of Illinois’s three maximum-security prisons (Menard and Pontiac are the other two). After storing phones, car keys, and loose change in a coin-operated locker, we were issued badges and sent into gender-specific rooms to be patted down. We then exited the visitor center and walked a short distance to a large building attached to the prison’s 33-foot-high wall. We passed through three large, manned gates where our IDs were checked against the permission slips Michelle was carrying. We left this building and walked between the exercise yards and inmate barracks until we arrived at the building housing Stateville’s classrooms. Our IDs were once again checked. 

We entered a common area outside the classrooms and were immediately greeted by the students. Each man — there were roughly 30 — introduced himself with a warm smile and firm handshake. Henry had told me a bit about a few of them, so I enjoyed attaching faces to Nacho, Jason, David, and Mr. Rusty. This fellowship/greeting period lasted a full 30 minutes before we took our seats in the classroom. 

Two students with Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom. (WNV/Karl Clifton-Soderstrom)

By my estimate, two-thirds of the men were African-Americans with the balance split evenly between Latinos and whites. I’m terrible at guessing ages, but the men appeared to range from 30-something to 60-something. To apply for the program, inmates must demonstrate good behavior and have at least 15 years left on their sentence; there’s a waiting list.  At various points, I overheard references to time served: 18, 25, 30 years. In addition to the men and teaching staff, the class also included four women who are pursuing a MA in Christian ministry with a Restorative Arts track from North Park. 

I was offered and happily accepted a seat in the front row between Jamal and David. Turns out I was ideally situated to observe two end-of-term skits and discussions.

Skit 1: “You owe me two packs!” The group of six acted out a situation in which “a neutral third party discovers a conflict between two parties.” In this particular scenario, two men had waged two packs of noodles on something to do with a television commercial. Speaking and acting aggressively, the man who’d won the bet confronted the man who’d lost. His actions elicited similar actions from the bet’s loser. 

Before starting the skit, a group member shared the conflict resolution steps they would be demonstrating:

  1. A neutral third party (N3P) helps establish space, calm and order.
  2. The N3P gains understanding of the situation by giving both parties an opportunity to express themselves.
  3. The N3P helps figure out what each party needs.
  4. The N3P brokers solutions.
  5. Later, the N3P follows up to insure the agreed-upon solution works. 

The group said they’d really wrestled with describing conflict and violence and had arrived at these definitions:

  • Conflict: A source of contention, disagreement or misunderstanding between persons without resolution.
  • Violence: An act or setting that possibly causes harm or injury to yourself of others.

Skit 2: “Phone check, Homie!” Before the skit started, Jason took a minute to explain how phone calls in prison work. In the past, a 30-minute phone call (called a “click”) cost over $10. Today that same phone call costs $0.31 — yep, a penny a minute. The downside is that demand at the new price has outstripped supply: the number of phones hasn’t increased but conflicts over their use have. With that background, here’s the skit:

  • Three men walk into the room. David’s got a list of men in the order in which they’ll use the phone. The first man—Jason—completes his call, then lets the next man know that it’s his turn. Caller 2 isn’t quite ready to use the phone and responds, “I’ll get to it in a couple of minutes.” 
  • From “offstage”, Alex, who isn’t on the list, walks up to the phone, sees that it’s unused, and makes a call. 
  • Now ready to make his call, Caller 2 confronts Alex and states the phone belongs to him for the next click. Already on a call, Alex responds aggressively which prompts a similar response from caller 2. 
  • David, the keeper of the list, and Jason, the first caller, step between the men and restrain them. 

As part of unwrapping skit 2, Alex outlined the five steps of escalation, starting with confrontation and ending with physical altercation. The group then explained what they felt to be the keys to resolving conflicts:

  • Know oneself, “Am I the right person to step into this conflict?”
  • Know all parties to the conflict, including the environment.
  • Use positive, affirming words.
  • Know when to walk away.
  • Seek understanding.
  • Be aware of body language: “Don’t talk with your hands.”
  • Be humble.
  • Restate what you heard.

Both skits prompted wide-ranging and passionate discussions. Again and again, I was struck by the thoughtfulness of the remarks and how respectfully the men listened to one another. 

Professor Schiller initiated a passionate discussion with the question, “Do we ever deserve violence?” The students used real-world examples of domestic violence and gang violence to illustrate and support their opinions. The conversations were animated but always respectful and I noticed two of the most outspoken participants — one African American, one Latino — embrace after the debate.  One of the older men shared with me, “Incarceration, prison — it’s dehumanizing. We re-humanize each other.”

During their two-week trip to Rwanda this summer, on the 25th anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, our Peace Builders — part of the Peace Exchange’s leadership development program — witnessed a remarkable example of forgiveness. In a visit to a reconciliation village, they met 61-year-old Maria and 44-year-old Philbert. As a teenager during the genocide, Philbert killed Maria’s husband and three of her children. Sentenced by a “Gacaca” court to prison, Philbert was sent to live in Maria’s village when he was paroled. Many years later, Maria, a woman of great faith, had forgiven Philbert to the point where she asked him to emcee the wedding of her surviving daughter. 

As I reflect on my morning at Stateville and think about Maria’s story, I keep returning to the same conclusion: we need these men back in their communities nurturing and guiding their children, their neighbors’ children, and their neighborhoods’ children. As young men in their teens and early twenties, they did some terrible things, murder among them. Could I forgive the killer if one of the victims had been my child? Perhaps, but only if I was convinced that the older, wiser man exiting the prison was substantially different from the young man who entered it. I believe I saw signs of that transformation in the students seated in the Stateville classroom.

As Jamal put it, “When I get out, I want to help with violence prevention and interruption. I don’t want anyone else to do what I did. If I only knew then what I know now.”

Read a previous blog posted about Peace Exchange’s work here.

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.