By Sharon Schmitz, RSM
I was a Sister of Mercy, halfway through a sabbatical year when, in 1993, the phone rang. “Would you consider teaching the course, Breaking Barriers, to women in prison?” the caller, Sister Mary Jo Heman, OP asked.
My background had been in Nursing and Theology, but after reading the course syllabus and viewing the associated VT’s, I said “yes.” Eventually, working with incarcerated women would become a full-time ministry.
Over the years, as women asked for classes focused on other topics: feelings, forgiveness, stress, grief, self-esteem, et al, I created Becoming All We Can Be (BAWCB). It is based on Judeo-Christian Scriptures and Restorative Beliefs and Practices.
Re BAWCB being grounded in Scripture: I have long been intrigued by the English translation of God’s Name (YHWH) given to Moses: “I AM.” We say “I am” frequently each day – I am feeling up or down, going here or there, doing this or that – unconscious that, in each instance, we are acknowledging the primacy of God’s Spirit within us.
Prayer and reflection on this led me to Meister Johannes Eckhart, 13th century mystic who put it this way: “the seed of God is in us…Pear seeds grow into pear trees, nut seeds into nut trees, and God’s seed into God.”
In Jesus’s words, “The kin-dom of God is within.”
Re the grounding of BAWCB in Restorative Beliefs and Practices: We have no better way to grow into the particular i-amness that each of us is than to live out of the six Restorative Beliefs:
- Every person has equal value simply because we exist. (We are Seeds of God.)
- Every person has the responsibility to become his/her best self. (In other words, to Become All We Can Be and, in God’s words to Abraham, to “go forth to find our authentic self, to learn who we are meant to be.” [Translation by scholar/author Charlotte Gordon, in her book, The Woman Who Named God.])
- When conflicts occur – as they inevitably will – all persons involved are responsible to resolve the conflict in such a way that everyone wins.
- If a harm occurs, the person who caused the harm is responsible to repair it.
- The harm/repair situation is seen as a learning experience and an opportunity for personal growth – not a punishment.
- Both people (the one who received the harm and the one who caused it) continue to be equally valued once the harm is repaired. (Jesus’s post-resurrection conversation with Peter – “Do you love me?” – exemplifies this.)
When applied to the Criminal Justice System (CJS), restorative beliefs and processes are called Restorative Justice.
After release from prison, women must: find safe housing and a job; drug rehab and healthcare, repair and restore broken family relationships; visit probation/parole officers; attend AA/NA/CA meetings, etc. For some, it is easier to slip back into old behaviors than to continue pushing forward in healthy ways. To help women counteract relapse, we began the Center for Women in Transition, St. Louis (CWIT). Its mission: to provide restorative, wraparound, gender specific services for women exiting jail/prison. CWIT serves upwards of 150 women each year with low costs and a very low recidivism rate.
Each incarcerated women is as unique as you and I. For example (and I have changed names):
Teen boys “befriended” Anita, a mentally challenged 19 year old. They taught her to hot-wire cars. Police arrested her three times for stealing and damaging vehicles. “Options for Justice,” an organization which helps adults with developmental disabilities through the CJS was eventually able to help her.
Lucy, also 19, shoplifted to meet her needs. Lucy’s adopted mother lost her birth certificate and mistakenly believed that copies were unattainable so she could not get a social security number. With information Lucy gave me, a copy of her birth certificate arrived within a week.
Situations of most women, however, are not so easily solved.
At age 5, Melanie and her 3 year old sister played together in a boat at the edge of a small pond. Melanie easily exited the boat but the younger child fell against a rock and died. Years of illegal drugs numbed Melanie’s guilt feelings. She was incarcerated several times in her 20’s and 30’s for crimes (stealing, forgery, etc.) related to her addiction. With BAWCB and therapy she worked through her grief.
Cassie, maybe 55, deep in sadness, explained her situation in what seemed like a poem: “I be a druggie. Husband’s a dealer. Stay married, stay addicted. Leave him, burn in hell. No way out.”
A review of stories about Jesus and the question, “do you think Jesus would want you trapped for the rest of your life?” brought relaxation to Cassie’s shoulders and a smile to her face. I don’t know what happened to Cassie after her release but I’ve never seen her back in jail. I trust that she has made a new life.
Five of every eight women in BAWCB report repeated childhood rape and/or incest. At least two of every eight have diagnosed mental conditions: PTSD, Anxiety, Depression, Bi-Polar, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Most are intelligent but lack a GED. Low self-esteem is rampant. The majority of women (perhaps 70-75%) use drugs to self-medicate.
A majority have young children who, by virtue of their mother’s imprisonment, become victims of the system.
Most (95%) of the women’s crimes are non-violent. In those that are violent, the women’s roles are usually subservient to men with whom they’re associated.
The Catholic Church encourages restorative justice (emphasizing repair of harm and healing relationships) instead of punitive justice which focuses on punishment for breaking laws. Those interested in the Catholic Church’s statement: “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice” can access it on the web.
NOTE: Sharon Schmitz, RSM can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org She will facilitate a Workshop to prepare others to teach Becoming All We Can Be in September, 2016. Click here to see a flyer for the workshop.