From Death Row to Restorative Justice.

Restorative justice is a system that fundamentally views crime as injury rather than wrong-doing, and justice as healing rather than punishment. Whilst visiting New York, Minneapolis, Hawaii and Texas (thanks to receiving a Winston Churchill travelling fellowship) I’ve uncovered some remarkable US-based programs that bear this out. But as founding director of The Forgiveness Project, a UK-based charity that delivers a restorative justice programme in prisons, I’m also surprised by how often the death penalty is central to the conversation.

Rev. Cathy Harrington explained to me that whilst forgiveness is not something she can consider for the man who murdered her beloved 26 year-old-daughter, Leslie, in 2002, she has never supported capital punishment because to be involved in someone else’s murder would only create more pain and more victims. When both her sons were initially in favour of the death penalty, Cathy contacted Sister Helen Prajean (of Dead Man Walking fame) who encouraged her to try to find meaning in her daughter’s senseless and brutal death by writing Leslie’s “gospel”. As the years passed Cathy has been able to detect glimmers of meaning, mostly by living and working among the poor. These are what she describes as moments of grace: inexplicable connections based on a common humanity and insights that have shed light on her stumbling path.

A week after meeting Cathy, I cross paths with Sister Helen Prejean herself. She is speaking at the Roman Catholic Basilica downtown Minneapolis and the word grace comes up again. She is describing the first time she met a man on death row. Never having come face to face with a murderer before, she didn’t know what kind of monster to expect. “But then, I looked into his face and saw his humanness,” she says. “It was a moment of grace.”

I am not a Christian and I don’t completely understand what this word grace means but I know it is about meaning-making, finding a gift in the wound and a profound spiritual experience that has the capacity to soothe.

In June this year Texas marked a solemn moment in criminal justice history when it executed its 500th inmate since resuming capital punishment in 1982. Over coffee, on a misty November morning in Houston, Reverend Richard Lopez tells me he has witnessed nearly a hundred such deaths. Like Sister Helen Prajean he has stood by the side of the condemned, shared their last meal, laid one hand on their ankle as the lethal fluid is administered — and prayed for God’s grace.

As he recounts the stories of several of the men who he has attended to, he frequently falters, his eyes thick with emotion. Here is a man still deeply troubled by what he has witnessed. His original calling was to offer solace to the condemned, encourage repentance and show the way to God’s forgiveness. Even the hardest and most brutal of men have softened to Rev. Lopez’s gentle kindness. He went on to create support systems for the families who come to witness their loved one’s last moments. Observing how devastated the mothers were as they watched their adult children move rapidly from a state of relative health to sudden death, he also created a system whereby family members could immediately after the execution visit the funeral home to say their good-byes in privacy.

His description of the execution chamber is graphic. In the middle of the room is the gurney on to which the condemned is strapped. There are two small viewing rooms, adjacent to the chamber — one for the victim’s family, the other for the family of the condemned. A curtain covers a glass screen as the families enter the rooms through different doors — neither permitted to see the inmate until he or she is strapped down. Only at that point are the curtains opened to reveal the macabre spectacle. A microphone hangs over the mouth of the condemned who is given two minutes to utter his last words.

Whilst working at the infamous Huntsville Unit, Rev. Lopez decided to extend his services to the families of victims. For a man of God so deeply committed to the healing power of forgiveness, he found this ministry the hardest of his life. “Only one in ten could hear the word forgiveness. It was too difficult and I had to give up,” he admits, describing how families would often arrive cheering the day that the execution had finally arrived. You sense that in the end he became worn down by this losing battle, and the realization that forgiveness was often seen as an insult to people so deeply wounded by murder.

For 29 years Rev. Lopez ministered to the incarcerated on Death Row. Nowadays, however, he prefers to help out his friend John Sage, whose sister was brutally murdered in 1993 and who founded the remarkably successful Bridges to Life rehabilitation program which operates in 30 Texas prisons plus several juvenile and transitional housing facilities. During my time in Texas I attend three Bridges to Life sessions in three different facilities and witness first hand the power of this victim impact program delivered by an army of volunteers, many of whom are victims of crime themselves. Like the volunteers, the inmates are almost all believers, seeking God’s mercy to support them on their distance journey. The helpful hand of God is something entirely new to me given that the majority of the offenders taking part in The Forgiveness Project program profess no faith. But it’s different here in Texas, as I am reminded more than once. This is the Bible belt.

However, the Bridges to Life program also has many similarities, as does the peer driven ManAlive violence prevention intervention in Austin that I witness, and the Huikahi Restorative Circles re-entry model for offenders in Hawaii, not to mention the VOCARE program in Minneapolis that brings together victims, offenders and community members and the T.A.S.T.E program for parolees in Long Island. These programs all bear testimony to the possibility of redemption. They share the belief that self-healing starts with accountability and accountability starts with acknowledging the pain and suffering of your victims.

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