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Restorative Dialogue - Part One

Updated: Sep 26

He looked so familiar.


I had just arrived at the facility, the first medium security prison I had ever been in, and my eyes were keen to recognize people I had not seen in a long time. I reconnected with dozens of individuals that left me behind in the maximum security prisons where we first met, but for some reason I could not remember where I had met this particular young man. I assumed that we had met on Riker's Island or Brooklyn House, or maybe we had never met at all and he was simply being courteous because I was being greeted by so many of his friends. In any case, we greeted each other cordially every time we passed each other in the hallways. On one occasion we were in the school building together and, even though he was a student at Nyack College and I was a writing tutor for Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), he asked if I would help him with his papers. And of course, I agreed.


A few days later, I was moved out of reception into a regular housing unit. I was kept in the main building but, with a cart full of property, I still had to traverse several narrow winding hallways through a mess hall and dorm areas to reach the stairs leading to the top floor where I was being housed. Finally, after unloading my four bags of property and lugging them up four flights of stairs, I checked in with the officer. She checked my identification to make sure I belonged there and pointed me toward the room I would be staying in.


Even in this new housing unit, I found that there were several men that I knew and they helped orient me to my new surroundings. I left my property in front of the room and headed to the closet for cleaning supplies. By the time I was done cleaning, the rest of the men living in the unit were returning to the block and two men in particular stopped by the room to greet me, confirm who I was and to give me a handwritten message, "Your name is Kush, right?"

"Yeah," I responded, acknowledging the name that I had adopted early in my incarceration. People usually associated the name with the famous marijuana strain until I revealed that Kush was the name of an ancient kingdom in Northeast Africa, and incidentally the name of one of Noah's many grandsons. When I first became a member of the Caribbean African Unity organization (CAU), I spent a lot of time reading about Kush and the 25th dynasty, in particular, in our culture classes.


It turned out that the message was from my former vice president of the CAU when we were at Shawangunk Correctional Facility. A good friend, he wanted me to know that he was leaving tomorrow and wouldn't be able to see me before he left. He heard that I had arrived at the facility and wanted to send his regards, and also implore me to work with the men of the Caribbean community there on several important projects. It was two of these men delivering the message who would later brief me on some of these projects.


Once I was settled, I sought these men out and was especially intrigued to learn about their parole preparation program. Every Saturday and Sunday evening in the room set aside for the Rasta Church, they volunteered to help anyone with an upcoming parole hearing date prepare for the most important interview they would have while incarcerated. Parole packets were prepared and reviewed, participants were questioned about the programs they involved themselves in, and most importantly, they were grilled about their instant offenses. What was the thinking that led to that offense? How had they addressed that thinking? Had they taken responsibility for their actions and acknowledged the harm caused? These were some of the questions that participants were confronted with during a typical preparation session. I committed to participating and posing these questions unaware of the extent to which I would be answering these questions myself.


That Saturday I attended the preparation workshop for the first time. At the front there was a desk where everyone signed in and someone was always busy typing up material for parole packets. I greeted everyone, a good number of whom I had known for decades from the very beginning of my incarceration, and moved deeper into the room where men were busy pouring over paperwork or were engaged in deep discussion. Much of that discussion concerned their own upcoming parole hearing dates and I noticed the young man whose face seemed so familiar to me was occupied with paperwork of his own. I greeted a few more friends and settled down in a chair to read while waiting for the program to begin.


After I read a few pages of my book, one of the men who briefed me about the program approached. "Kush, come. We have a problem," was all he said. I left my book in the chair and immediately followed him to the back of the room, behind a curtain where the other man who had briefed me about the program was standing. Next to him, seated in a chair, was the familiar looking young man. I waited patiently for them to explain what was going on and noted that they seemed to be looking for the right way to begin.


After a few moments, the man I had followed behind the curtain began. "Kush, I'm going to be straight up with you. Since you've been here, there has been a lot of turmoil in the community."

At this I was thoroughly confused. How could I possibly be the seat of controversy in a place I had only been in for little over a week? But then he continued, pointing to the young man seated in the chair. "This man says that you killed his brother."


And then I remembered.


to be continued...

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