By John Sage
Nobody can argue that crime is one of our country’s most pressing social problems. It destroys the personal well-being of perpetrators and victims alike and impairs the public safety and financial stability of the entire country. While our country is experiencing massive incarceration, victims remain largely voiceless in the system, and many offenders go on to re-offend, never having found peace and reconciliation.
I founded Bridges to Life (BTL) in 1998 after the brutal and senseless murder of my sister Marilyn. We are a faith-based, nonprofit organization based on a restorative justice model that emphasizes the involvement of victims, offenders and the community in the criminal justice system. The mission of BTL is to connect communities to prisons in an effort to reduce the recidivism rate (particularly that resulting from violent crimes), reduce the number of crime victims and enhance public safety. The spiritual mission of BTL is to minister to victims and offenders in an effort to show them the transforming power of God’s love and forgiveness.
Through the 14-week, curriculum-based program, inmates – many of whom have never even considered how their actions have affected their victims, their families and friends, and the larger society – hear firsthand from victims of crime and explore the concepts of accountability, responsibility, restitution and reconciliation. This approach addresses the very core of why people offend: anger, a lack of empathy for others and a resistance to taking responsibility for one’s own actions. Participants in the BTL process develop a sense of connection with the criminal-justice process that is not typically experienced.
Our primary purpose is radical change, and the centerpiece of our intervention is victim impact. Victims “tell their story,” which encourage the offenders to accept responsibility and not commit further crimes. In 2000, Jan Brown was in a deep depression and did not care if she lived another day. In 1987, her nine-year-old daughter, Kandy, had been kidnapped, molested and murdered. The killer had been executed in 1999. Jan has participated in about 45 BTL projects since 2000. She often states that the work she has done in BTL has “saved her life.” It gives her a venue to tell her story, meet other crime victims, help others, and feel joy and purpose in her life for the first time since Kandy’s murder.
Facilitator volunteers also receive more than they give: meaningful work, learning about the “other side,” gratitude and spiritual growth. A recent e-mail from a first-time volunteer who just completed a BTL project states, “I can’t even put into words what this experience has meant to me. My opinions, perceptions and outlook are all completely different. What a blessing each of you are. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
Accepting responsibility is the first step in the offenders’ process of change. One offender said: “I learned to be responsible as an individual, owning up to my actions, instead of denying them all the time.” Through the BTL process, offenders also learn to trust, listen with empathy, forgive themselves and others, and receive God’s forgiveness. The process leads to hope, essential to a changed and better life for both inmates and volunteers, and we have witnessed over and over that the families of the inmates are also beneficiaries of the program.
Debra Collins, a BTL graduate, eloquently described the essence of the program to over 400 people at one of our annual luncheons:
Hope in a very dark place.
Love in a place where hurt, anger, shame and humiliation are the rulers.
Kindness where rudeness and ugliness live.
Morality where immorality is stored.
Remembrance where most have been forgotten.
A time of love and understanding to those who have never known such.
The freedom to be who I was intended to be.
After spending more than 10 years in prison, Debra has moved on to receive an Associate’s Degree and is a licensed counselor at a halfway house in Houston. She is now helping other offenders heal from problems similar to those she experienced.
The BTL program has two main goals: (1) to reduce recidivism (re-offending) rates of program graduates; and (2) to facilitate the healing process for victims and offenders. With the assistance of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, BTL will coordinate 61 projects in 28 Texas prisons and three juvenile facilities in 2011. Our goal is to graduate 2,000 offenders from BTL programs with the help of more than 300 volunteers. Since its inception, more than 13,000 offenders have graduated from the BTL program!
Please visit our website to learn more about how this program changes lives. Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year.
This article first appeared in CMN’s December 2011 newsletter.