Alfred Lewis, Staryell Wright
Assistance By: Kristin Heinichen
There is a cycle of violence that occurs in human nature that a growing community of people are trying to address. Rather than focus on harsh punitive measures, some institutions of higher learning are teaching that cooperation can repair the effects of crime. One Chicago-based professor has brought this curriculum behind bars.
“Harmed people harm people, and healed people heal people,” Professor Kimberly Moe said.
Moe, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago, has been teaching at the college level for nearly 16 years. Her most popular class is her “Inside/Out” program where she brings DePaul students to Stateville Correctional Center and teaches the lot about restorative justice.
“We don’t go in to help, that’s not what we’re there for. We’re not there to serve or study people, just to study together,” she explained.
Restorative justice intends to repair the harm caused by crime. It fosters a dialogue between the victim and the offender, and promotes offender accountability. It’s a theory based on the concept that crime and misdeeds are offenses against individuals, rather than the state.
“It’s more about healing harm and less about punishing,” she said. “The United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world.”
Professor Moe emphasized that while her class is held in a maximum security institution, everyone operates on a level playing field. And little distinguishes the 60+ inmates she’s taught from her DePaul students.
“We all share our stories,” she said. “The guys aren’t interested in themselves, but about the world.”
The “Peacekeeping Circle” is one class exercise where only the individual with a talking piece has the floor. And talking without interruption encourages independent thinking.
“They get to the root issue of what’s going on to resolve things on their own,” Professor Moe explained.
Stateville, opened in March of 1925, is a maximum security state prison for men in Crest Hill, Illinois. Its operating capacity is 4,105 with a current population of 4,067. Stateville’s “F-House” cellhouse is commonly known as a “roundhouse,” which features an armed tower in the center of an open area surrounded by several tiers of cells. F-House is the only remaining “roundhouse” still in use in the United States.
It’s Professor Moe’s understanding that the conditions at the prison are harsh, and having to live there for any amount of time would be unthinkable.
“They live in the worst kind of circumstances you can imagine,” she said. “The guys I work with are considered long-term offenders…incarcerated a minimum of one decade.”
While Professor Moe believes exceedingly lengthy sentences to be an ineffective way to deal with wrongdoing, she is not there to evaluate the institution. Her aim is simply to provide a nonjudgmental forum with an opportunity for all participants to change negative life-long patterns.
“I don’t really care about their past at all, I see so much more than the acts they did or didn’t do,” she said. “They like to have an impact on the world and they see restorative justice as a way to do that.”
Patrick Pursley, an inmate once skeptical about Professor Moe’s class, quickly became a strong contributor.
“It has brought out the best in us and has affected our lives,” Pursley said. “The program humanizes inmates.”
Pursley has been incarcerated at Stateville for over two decades. During his time, he has completed Professor Moe’s class and begun to take part in “Think Tank,” the next component to her program where participants share their insights and observations.
“I think restorative justice is very relevant,” he said. “The cages are too full of inmates returning from society.”
Wanting to interrupt society’s cycle of crime, and encouraged by the holistic approach of restorative justice, Pursley created, “I Am Kid Culture,” an organization working to empower urban youth.
“I Am Kid Culture and restorative justice mutually share the role of positive communication,” he said. “Certain actions can harm people, and talking things out aids in one doing the right thing.”
Pursley was incarcerated in 1994. While he has never been on the Internet, he has enlisted others to create the site http://www.iamkidculture.org, where he endeavors to give a positive message to youth from behind bars. Posted here are stories by youth and adult authors. The core content is overcoming brutal upbringings and choosing the right path. Available also are newsletters and mini-lessons that are certified by IDOC (Illinois Department Of Corrections) for use in classrooms. Pursley hopes to add a contest portion which offers prizes to those who illustrate the best solution to an assigned hypothetical scenario.
“I Am Kid Culture allows kids to understand what culture is…so they can be leaders themselves and not follow the crowd by being gang bangers,” Pursley explained.
Restorative justice is not just a concept considered at the university level. It can be found in the Student Code of Conduct for Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Within the last year, CPS has moved away from zero-tolerance discipline and has begun to foster a sense of community through teacher and peer involvement. Students now have the opportunity to sit with a jury of their peers and work to settle their infractions with a favorable solution.
Pursley laments that had he experienced proactive measures rather than reactive ones as a youth, he would not be sitting where he is today.
“Absolutely. I know I would have [chosen]a different path had I been introduced to restorative justice at an early age,” Pursley said.
In a February 2014 report by WBEZ 91.5, Byrd-Bennett, CPS School Chief, said that zero-tolerance policies in Chicago Public Schools and nationwide “have done more harm than good.”
“When students are removed from the classroom for even a relatively minor disciplinary infraction, they miss valuable, valuable instructional time,” she said.
Pursley knows all too well that education is a game changer.
“Street life and violence is a dysfunction that’s handed down from generation to generation,” he said. “At 14/15 I was involved with the streets, no one showed me my talents.”
His conflict started with his life at home. He was raised by his mother and her alcoholic boyfriend.
“The only thing I can remember her teaching me is how to tie my shoes. There was no love,” Pursley recalled. “She was violent, he was violent.”
When he was 14, his mother relinquished custody to the State of Illinois.
“She said, ‘You don’t have to go to school today…You’re staying here.’ Then some men came and put me into a straight jacket,” he recalled. “I stayed in the psych ward for a few months. Then they put me in a group home in Rockford.”
From DeKalb, to Elgin, to St. Ann, to Aurora, to Freeport; Pursley’s life became a revolving bunk room of group and foster homes. As he sees it, his social and emotional development had been delayed. Because of this he could not effectively resolve conflict; only generate more strife.
“I was kicked out of each one of them for fighting,” Pursley said. “I eventually became emancipated but I was not educated at all…I turned to petty crime.”
Pursley takes full responsibility for the mindset and missteps that led him to prison.
“I allowed what other people think of me affect my behavior…I got myself into this by putting myself in and out of jail,” he commented earnestly. “There’s no justification; petty crime will only lay the way to let you get gobbled up by the system.
And Pursley believes that Kid Culture is a means to help others avoid the path of endless disciplinary incidents that he experienced.
“There’s a saying that it’s very easy to go to prison but hard to get out,” he said.
He is offering creative solutions. To take “academic ideas” and bring them “to the streets” where it’s most needed.
“People never really think of the ripple effect of bad behavior. My actions have directly affected so many of my loved ones,” he emphasized. “It’s a ripple effect, we’re all connected.”
Professor Moe is encouraged by Pursley’s intentions to spread the word about restorative justice. But even more so, she’s in awe of his fervor for life and justice.
“He is really wonderful…He appreciates breathing, reading good books and just living,” she said. “He taught himself so much, especially in the most difficult circumstances.”