I work for Community Works West in California State Prisons and County Jails, training inmates and parolees in Restorative Justice (RJ) Circle Keeping methods. The people I work with become experts at something I believe they, due to their life experiences, uniquely master. Here is one story.

Last November I was assigned to lead a RJ Circle training at San Francisco County Jail #5, in the Resolve to Stop the Violence Program (RSVP), one of Community Works West’s in-custody programs. RSVP takes place in a residential "pod" that holds 40 men, all of whom have agreed to participate in a full-time curriculum aimed at violence prevention. My RJ Circle training would be a voluntary compliment to the existing programming. I was introduced to the community and circulated a sign-up sheet for my weekly two-hour RJ Circle. Twenty men signed up.

I began by "holding circle," or demonstrating the seven-step RJ circle process. Participants quickly stepped up to share their values, their stories, their vulnerabilities, and their growth. After several weeks, I polled to see if some of the men wished to become Circle Keepers, to lead the process themselves. Seven of the 20 men raised their hands. The self-selected Circle Keepers turned out to be quick learners, who needed little coaching in the principles and practices of RJ. After just a few training sessions, they were ready to hold weekly circles with the remaining participants. Six months in, the RJ Circle program was running smoothly, with positive feedback from both staff and inmate participants.

Then, in early May, two inmates in the RSVP pod had a serious argument that ended up in physical violence. Both were removed from the pod to separate sections of the jail. I learned of the fight from our staff and, as soon as I arrived at jail, from the Circle Keepers. “We want to handle this in a circle,” they urged, and staff mostly agreed. But we needed to arrange a time and secure a space, plus we needed approval from the Captain to allow inmates to engage in addressing the conflict as well as to let inmates move through the jail to accomplish a RJ circle. I had just attended a 3-day RJ Harm Circle training. I was eager to see the Circle Keepers test their wings in addressing a real, pressing conflict. But the weeks went by dealing with administrative details and, in some frustration, I left for a 2-week vacation.

I came back to work and was approached by glowing colleagues. “Your Circle Keepers held the Harm Circle and they broke through the conflict and resolved it,” I was told. I was shocked that the inmates held a Harm Circle without me when I had just barely learned to do the Harm Circle myself, and I was not even authorized to do it. But given the frustration I faced before I left town, I was glad to learn that something went right.

Back in jail I asked the men how it went and how they felt about it. I learned they had held 3 circles over 3 days. They told me, “We kept true to your method.” The staff had wanted to intervene with suggestions but the Circle Keepers said "no" and steered the process according to the 7 steps. After beginning the circle process with an opening, check in, and values round, they invited the two opponents to read their accountability letters. The letters were sincere which let everyone know the men were ready to work.

Lamar said, “When a circle works the way it should, no one has any personal agenda. Then everyone is authentic. And then everyone heals.”

“It was deep,” said Rob. “I wasn’t going to be able to share, but you kicked it off, Corwyn, and that let me know I could go deep too. Everybody fused, like we shared one emotion.”

Rodney said, “So then, Rob, when you told about your father, I couldn’t hold it back any longer because it made me think about my own children. I was choked up. And I know others were too.”

“What made it work?” I probed further.

Sam said, “We had a positive attitude. We believed we could help the men in conflict and we did help them.”

Manu said, “This circle helped everyone, not just the two in conflict. It works if you let it.”

Rodney said, “It is about the power in the circle. Nothing is forced. Doors just kept opening.”

Lamar said, “You told us this practice comes from indigenous roots. I think we tapped into something.”

James said, “Everyone’s vulnerability helped me notice things. Then I could share my story.”

Lamar added, “It is about establishing trust and knowing you will not be judged.”

“It’s when you start with values, then everybody opens up,” said Rob. “I’m kind of an airhead, but I’m also intellectual. So I’m good at going along with the flow and also holding people to the process.” This prompted the men to go back and forth about how they riffed off each other’s leadership skills, stepping forward and back to support the group through the circle process.

Eli said, “I feel that the whole vibe in the pod changed as a result of that circle.”

“This could be the ‘no violence pod.’ We could cut it at the door,” Lamar added.

The conversation shifted:

“So, can we move through the jail like this?” Rob asked. He wanted to know whether this team could be called on to address fights throughout the jail.

“This should be documented,” said Elliott. “They always report the negative stuff but here is a positive story.”

“And can we get credit for what we’ve done? Because this has never been done before in jail,” said Eli.

Written by Jo Bauen, Ed.D. jbauen@communityworkswest.org