Since my January 4th blog “Surmounting Tough Conversations After Incarceration,” I took a 30-hour training in Reintegration Support Circles. Support Circles are a means to resolve issues without shame or blame or winners or losers. Reintegration Support Circles seek, among other things, to re-unite Returning Citizens (RCs)* with family members, friends, clergy, social workers, and maybe other supportive members of the RC’s community (usually 6 or 7 persons) in a structured and circular setting. The aim is to generate a shared, positive vision for a Returning Citizen.
Circles are one of many processes associated with Restorative Justice, a conflict resolution process, philosophy, and set of practices, that is fast finding its way into schools, juvenile justice systems, and even adult criminal proceedings. Circles have their source among the ways of Indigenous peoples in North America, New Zealand, South Pacific, Africa, Alaska, and elsewhere.
While participants in a Reintegration Circle have had a relationship with the RC, some may not have seen her for five, ten years, or even longer. They may feel stigmatized by her being incarcerated. A child may not have had the presence of a parent who was locked up for much of his life. Relatives have moved on, and the RC has much catching up to do.
Two goals of a Reintegration Support Circle are for the participants to feel secure enough to speak from the heart, and ultimately reach consensus on vital issues concerning the RC’s future.
Our training consisted largely of “role plays,” where we would take the part of a Circle participant such as a RC, a relative, or a third party.
I was initially put off by the ceremonial nature of the process, which was co-led by two facilitators (or “Circle-Keepers”). They began the process with a “mindfulness exercise” — such as taking deep breaths or reciting a prayer or poem: something to get us relaxed and centered on the process. A Keeper explained that through the next phases of the process the Circle could become a “safe place” from which we would all benefit, not just the Returning Citizen. (“Weird” was the first word that came to my mind.)
On the floor lay a colored cloth (or Centerpiece) with several objects on it: a rock, an ornament, some pictures. Among them was a “Talking Piece.” A Keeper invites persons to speak only when holding the Talking Piece. (Now it was feeling a little “new age-y.” But I was determined to press on.)
A Keeper asked us to “check in” by identifying ourselves, share how we felt about taking part in the Circle, and our relationship with the Returning Citizen. Even though this was a “role-play,” everyone took their parts seriously. Soon a different vibe enveloped our circle. The mood became more somber. We sensed that in that moment and in that circle, we were all equal.
We were then asked to suggest Guidelines for how the Circle would be conducted. Most – not all – suggested a Guideline, such as “listen with humility,” “speak non-judgmentally,” and “keep our remarks confidential.” After recording them on easel paper, a Keeper asked whether we were comfortable with them. When no one demurred, we understood we would abide by these guidelines. This round generated even greater commitment and further invested us in the process.
At this point we owned the Circle. (To be continued.)
[Tarek Maassarani, a skilled peace-builder, educator, and international peace educator conducted the training. Alex Lambert III of the DC Attorney General’s Office also led a couple sessions and provided training materials.]
*When the “Returning Person” is not a citizen, the term “Returning Resident” is used.