I remembered who he was, the last time I saw him over two decades ago, and what I had done to him and his family. I remembered leaving his brother dead in the street in front of his parent's house where he would be the first to find him. I remembered that he wouldn't leave his brother's body until the police came and pulled him away, unsure if he was the perpetrator. And I remembered that he was so distraught he would have to be hospitalized.
I remembered the trial and how angry I was, how indifferent I was to the pain and stares of his family greeting me every time I entered the courtroom. I remembered the pictures of his brother being entered into evidence, the trauma he demonstrated while testifying and the words of his parents after I was convicted. I even remembered the responding EMT who hurried to scrub the street clean so that his mother would not have to encounter so grim a reminder.
I cannot tell you what he was feeling as we both sat down to face each other.
I looked at him and called his name, and he nodded. And when I took a step toward him, the man that I had followed behind the curtain extended his arm out as a barrier. "Look Kush, he told us that he testified against you..."
I understood the concern and waved off the men standing between us. I could feel my eyes watering as I continued toward the young man who stood up as I approached. "I'm so sorry for what I did to you and your family," was all I could think to say. He let me hug him tightly and the two men relaxed once they realized that we would not kill each other.
"We'll give you some time to talk before we start," they said before disappearing behind the curtain.
I cannot tell you what he was feeling as we both sat down to face each other. I could only imagine a wide-ranging confluence of emotions crashing together as he grappled with the weight of our situation. Anger. Hatred. Confusion. Discomfort. Anxiety. Relief. Or maybe these only begin to scratch the surface.
It is even difficult to describe all that I was feeling then, or even now as I write this. Mostly, I felt hopeful that I could do some good for someone who I had immeasurably harmed. There was also some sense of relief at having the opportunity to express regret, to try to explain, to tell him how I had become someone different than the murderer he knew. Then there was the feeling of inadequacy, that nothing I said could really matter. And underneath it all was an abiding vulnerability in the face of the only judge who, in that moment, really mattered.
"Just this morning, I was reading the apology letter that I wrote to you and your family," I began. I could feel myself growing uncomfortably hotter as I continued. "I sent it to the Apology Letter Bank so I don't know if your family ever received it, but I can give you a copy if you want." It was an awkward opening, I admit, but soon enough we found our way into an easy enough conversation.
I admitted that I didn't know what to say, though I commented that we had been given a rare opportunity. I asked him if there was anything he wanted to know, if there was anything that I could do to help him. I listened as he told me about all his family had suffered after I had taken his brother away, how he himself was eventually incarcerated for killing someone, and how he struggled with seeing me after all that time. I learned that he had a daughter who, along with the rest of his family, was concerned when she found out that we were in the same facility together.
Finally, he told me that he was preparing for his own parole hearing date after almost 15 years, and how he would feel like a hypocrite if he did not try to forgive me when he himself was seeking forgiveness. And then he gave me one of the most meaningful compliments I had ever received. "Hearing people talk about you and watching you this past week, I knew that you weren't the same person that killed my brother."
It felt like hours, but we had only been behind the curtain for about twenty minutes before we were told that the program had to start. He allowed me to hug him once more and I promised to help him in any way I could. Knowing that he was preparing for his first parole appearance, I was especially determined to help him secure release.
When we emerged, I could feel dozens of curious eyes scrutinizing us for hidden tension. We assured everyone that we were okay and I returned to my seat to observe the program in silence. But while I took detailed notes and was trying my best to focus, my mind was still racing over what had just happened.
I imagined the conversations that were had in the room over the last week since I had arrived. How could they ensure that violence would not ensue? To be sure, everyone in the room had heard horror stories of similar situations ending unfortunately. How could they know that I did not already know who he was? Should they intervene? Did they have the responsibility, or even the right, to intervene? Should they tell me if it turned out that I did not already know? I imagined battle lines being drawn as some favored one approach over the other. They had to have come to the conclusion that eventually I would find out. In fact I would have learned who he was that night once I heard his name during the program. Hence, things came to a head. "Kush, come. We have a problem."
It then occurred to me, in a more personal sense, that advocates of "tough on crime" rhetoric and policies sought outcomes that were decidedly divorced from the needs of the survivors they claimed to represent and the accountability they claimed to foist upon those who had committed harm. By law, the state prevents incarcerated people from reaching out to those that they had harmed. Permitting them to write apology letters to a bank that harmed people can access is the extent to which the state seeks to actively engage these parties after a conviction is secured. Beyond that, survivors and the people that harmed them are on their own, so much so that they could eventually find themselves in the same place, sharing a physical and emotional space where the potential for violence was likely.
Indeed, sitting down for twenty minutes with someone I had harmed produced more accountability than the twenty years I had been incarcerated. Behind bars, in an upstate prison cell, I had control over when and to what extent I considered the ramifications of my actions on the people I had specifically hurt. In that vacuum, I was insulated from the pain that I had caused and could take the leisurely route to accountability by focusing largely on my familial and societal obligations. It was one thing to think in abstract terms about what my hands had wrought and quite another to see it up close staring you in the face, scrutinizing your intentions, your sincerity, your commitment to doing better.
Moreover, forefront to my mind came the real possibility that the unresolved trauma of this young man, trauma that I had caused, led to his own homicide conviction years later. I had to ask the real question to what extent I was responsible for that life as well? I knew from my own personal experience that unresolved trauma, the result of a sense of powerlessness, which in turn yielded feelings of deep shame, could nurture violence as the new language of reasserted personal power.
I also had to ask to what extent our chance encounter represented healing and reconciliation? Although there were many factors that allowed us the space to begin a dialogue, those same factors weighed against a healthy resolution. The very community of men who vouched for my integrity and ensured a safe space for us also contained men who judged me as an "outsider" and this young man as an "informer." Both judgments, informed by these rigid labels, forced constraints upon our autonomy, particularly that of this young man, if we wanted to maintain community support. In that context, I had to question whether or not the motivation to reconcile might more appropriately represent the will of the community than our own.
True reconciliation required sufficient time for us to process our own traumas.
Time was also an important factor weighing against reconciliation. At the time, he was preparing for his upcoming parole hearing and might rightly be more focused on freedom than on reconciling with someone who, before our meeting, he may have perceived as an enemy. It also seemed to me that true reconciliation required sufficient time for us to process our own traumas. But perhaps I was overthinking in the aftermath of an unexpected revelation.
After a sleepless night where I continued to ruminate over how effective we could be in resolving our own issues, it became clear that we would need help. I was familiar with the principles of restorative justice, but it would be months before I discovered an appropriate model in the "dialogues" featured in the Redemption Project of Van Jones. For eight weeks, I watched as teams of counselors prepared both the harmed parties and those parties that had committed those harms to eventually meet under circumstances conducive to healing and meaningful reconciliation. The project revealed an arduous process that yielded the best opportunity to alleviate the traumas associated with the violence that permeated our lives. It was a process that took time, but at that moment, I could think of no better way to use the time that I had.
What benefits could a program similar to this bring to New York? What could it look like? Throughout my incarceration, I had encountered volunteer programs that gave some sense of what was possible. Directed by outside volunteers and incarcerated people, these programs contained important elements of what was needed to have meaningful restorative dialogues, commonly known as "victim-offender" dialogues.
Programs like Exodus, founded by Reverend Edwin Muller, with its goal of helping men become intentional beings focused on life-giving initiatives, required participants to confront obstacles to that intentionality.
It was impossible to do this, with any sincerity, without exploring the thinking and behavioral patterns that led to destructive outcomes for not just themselves but for the people around them. This exploration was aided by the unique dynamics of the study groups. Largely composed of men who were leaders in the community there was a great deal of trust that confidentiality would be maintained. Because of this, participants were allowed to be vulnerable, and with vulnerability came deeper explorations and unearthing of central traumas. Exploring these traumas became the focal point for identifying the traumas that we helped to find root in those we had harmed. Unfortunately, there was no mechanism for connecting our newly discovered life-giving selves with the people we had hurt except encouraging participants to write apology letters – and there was no way to know if those letters were ever received.
Aside from the trust, willingness to take responsibility and self-exploration fostered by programs like Exodus, the Osborne Association additionally provides the unique opportunity for incarcerated men to directly hear from a survivor of crime related trauma. In order to participate in Osborne's Longtermers Responsibility Project, prospective participants are screened through an interview where they need to agree to important criteria. All participants must have been convicted of homicide, have been incarcerated for at least ten years and have no appeals to their convictions pending. Participants must also commit to speaking openly and honestly during group meetings, and to completing all assignments.
Like Exodus, these assignments centered on self-exploration through identifying traumas, thinking and behavioral patterns likely to result in violence. It is only after the work of deep self-reflection is undertaken that the group is able to meet with someone willing to talk to them about their own trauma and suffering; a woman whose sister was murdered. The closest that most men get to engaging in dialogue with the people they had directly harmed, this encounter allows them to hear directly from someone directly impacted by deadly violence. Through this encounter she becomes an unlikely "surrogate" survivor whom group participants perceive as representing their own victims.
People are far more complicated. They are dynamic and capable of change.
What we see in the participants of these programs, and programs like them, moves beyond a willingness to take responsibility. It becomes evident that there is a hunger on the part of both the perpetrators of harm and their survivors to find a path toward resolution. Here, the philosophy of incarceration fails as it presumes the unalterability of human beings and maintains a rigid and unrealistic divide between so-called "criminals" and "victims." People are far more complicated. They are dynamic and capable of change. Many of the people we currently call criminals have been victims themselves and may become victims in the future. The policy of separating incarcerated people from the people they have harmed fails to consider this reality. Resting on the premise that incarcerated people are no more than their worst crimes and can only inflict more harm precludes the only real pathway toward healing.
Thinking about my own encounter, I cannot help but wonder what might have been possible with the support of counselors and trained mediators. Given the circumstances, I did what I thought was appropriate, but cannot be sure that the people I had harmed actually received the resolution that they deserved. I only had access to one member of that family for a brief moment and it would be unreasonable to see him as representing all of the pain that individual family members felt. They deserved more from me. They deserved more from the state that presumed to act on their behalf.