Monday, June 18, 2012

Letter to a Prisoner

Hal Pepinsky,,
June 18, 2012
I just returned from the 14 International Conference on Penal Abolition, June 12-15, at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad.  The lead organizer, Catherine Ali, was founding director of the national mediation service.  She invited me to design and lead a workshop on mediation for three hours the first afternoon of the conference at the prison in Santa Rosa.  The last day of the conference, we met at the national prison officer training academy.
 The following is an excerpt from a letter to a friend who is in the “security housing unit” of the Indiana prison system.  We have corresponded for around a quarter century.  I wrote him about the upcoming workshop, including a copy of the story of prisoner/guard conflict that prison officers had made up.  It was important to me that the role play of the beginning of a mediation be grounded in the role players’ reality.  It turned out that the story itself became irrelevant after prisoners and staff all got into the act of asking each other questions and responding.  Here is the end of the letter I wrote to my Indiana friend Billy today:
….The mediation workshop and follow-up session went great.  In a room at the prison for the workshop, 25 prisoners, about 15 staff, the warden, 2 local mediators and I did the role play.  Once those playing guard and prisoner (chosen by their peers—a real prisoner facing a real guard.  After they had both started looking at each other in the eye, I went back and forth from the prisoners (sitting on one side across the aisle from staff) to raise hands and volunteer to ask those on the other side any questions they had, and respond to what someone on the other side had just said.  They quickly got to the here and now about issues they had with each other.  I was like “wow!” One of the mediators told me that everyone in the room including the warden spoke except one guard by the time our time ran out.  We had refreshments and I asked prisoners first and then staff how they liked the mediation idea.  Most of the guards and all the prisoners were enthusiastic, as was the warden.  Folks on both sides said this was the first time they had been able to raise real issues face to face with anyone on the other side.
  On Friday at the training academy for guards, the mediators who had been at the mediation and I talked about the possibilities for mediation.  One of the mediators, a woman known for doing more state-sponsored mediation than anyone else on the island, came back at the judge lined up to introduce us, with a detailed list of guarantees that would need to be built into the national mediation act.  The conference organizer had invited the judge who is in charge of court ordered mediation services.  He led by delivering a short clear and cogent paper he had written promoting expansion of mediation, and when we were done, he gave me his private email, was about to read my book, and said I might be invited to do more mediation instruction, online or perhaps by returning to Trinidad.  (Yes, I do have enough ego to feel very flattered.)  The prison was a new one just set up in a warehouse for guys about to be released only (which happened to be across the highway from the veteran member’s neighborhood, on whose association board she sat), but as the judge put it in his introduction, it is better to start with the easy cases (or settings) than not to start at all.
  I never thought I’d see the day when guards, their superiors, community activists, with judicial blessing, all were enthused by the idea of creating mediation in their own ways as diverse as victim-prisoner, prisoner-prisoner, staff among themselves, prisoner-staff singly or collectively…I don’t take for granted all the coincidences that made this moment so magical.  With a little further good fortune, the energy that built in and around the workshop will indeed let prison-centered mediation soon become practice, perhaps in ways unprecedented in prisons worldwide, and I am oh so thankful to the warm, welcoming and creative Trinidadians who made this experience so memorable for me.
  What are you up to these days?  Let me know if you’d like more books.

                                                                        Love and peace,

                                                                        Hal Pepinsky

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