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  • Lane Shaffer, Staff Writer

Reentry and restoration: A storytelling event

Photo by Jason Lehman

On Tuesday, Nov. 28 the Restorative Justice Coalition hosted a storytelling event with four people who were previously incarcerated to discuss their experiences with reentry into society. They discussed the power of “sorry,” the barriers to success after prison time and common misconceptions about those who commit crimes.

The event brought community members together to hear from people directly impacted by the carceral system. It was a starting point for greater change and discussion around how to best support people reentering society after incarceration.

The four speakers are all engaged in work to better their communities and create a world in which incarcerated people have a clear path to success — whatever that success looks like for them. They described the difficulties of finding a job, getting an adequate education, working a laundry machine and getting support after being “in captivity” for over 20 years. For this reason, The Collegian is respecting the event organizer's request to only use first names of the four individuals in this story.

Key, the first speaker of the night, had been released from prison merely six weeks before speaking at Willamette. Now 51, he had been incarcerated since he was 24 years old. He described his time before incarceration as “wild,” and said, “I had no idea about taking care of responsibility. I had no idea about looking towards the future and thinking about what my future would look like if I continued on the road I was on.” He added, “If the word drugs was in it, I was there.”

This cycle of drug abuse is a common starting place for folks who end up incarcerated. The crucial part is how one rebounds afterwards. For Key, he began involving himself with the church, taking classes and developing mentoring and enrichment programs for other inmates to help them succeed after incarceration. “It’s not about rehabilitation in the prisons anymore,” Key lamented. “If you want to be rehabilitated you have to do it yourself.”

Sterling was another speaker at the event who now works for the Transformative Justice Initiative Program at Willamette, in addition to other roles. He credits some of his success to the support systems he had upon his reentry to society. “I’m an outlier in the terms of support that I came home to. I’m an outlier in terms of resources that I had available,” he said. “Some of those pressures, I didn’t face.” 

One reason that many people don’t have the resources they need upon reentry is that the carceral system is difficult to change — those most impacted by incarceration are often not present at the decision-making table. Kyle is another formerly incarcerated person working on remedying this issue through her role at the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC). After 26 years in prison, her first goal was to “go back into prison and continue mentoring.” However, she soon became involved with the OJRC and was talking with legislators and elected officials on a daily basis.

Kyle works to communicate the impact of incarceration and flaws in the system to leaders, some of whom are more supportive than others. “Our leadership at times doesn't act in the best interest of the people,” Kyle said. “That bothers me.” She, along with the other speakers, also emphasized the rehabilitative nature of prison in an ideal world. “Going to prison is an opportunity,” she said. “This is your chance to show the people that you love that when you said you were sorry, you meant it.” She said that when people are truly sorry, they show it through action: that is the power of sorry.

For people who do receive rehabilitative services, they can be highly beneficial. Zinn, the final speaker of the night, was able to take advantage of educational opportunities while incarcerated and came out prepared to thrive, receiving a bachelors in psychology as well as three associate degrees and a two-year engineering degree. When he was released, he got connected with a job in restorative justice so that he could start giving back. “I feel like I owe a lot, and I don’t have a lot,” Zinn explained. “That’s been one of my biggest struggles, just figuring out where I can be most effective and help.” 

A resounding message from the event was that in order to make change, people need to mobilize. “Quit coming and thinking that just because you hear our stories and empathize with us that you’re somehow part of the solution,” Sterling said. 

The speakers emphasized that even just starting conversations about the carceral system can be beneficial. If you're interested in participating in these discussions, the Restorative Justice Coalition meets Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m. in the University Center. You can also follow them on Instagram @restorativejusticecoalition to stay up to date on events and opportunities to get involved.

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