When I first formally entered the ‘field’ of restorative justice, I was tasked (along with other Community Justice Center colleagues) with taking a ‘promising’ model of offender reentry–Canada’s Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA)–and adapting the program to Vermont’s reentry infrastructure and bureaucracies. Through planning, collaboration and a whole lot of trial-and-error, we were able to both translate Canada’s COSA model; and hold true to the program’s core values and processes. Today, Vermont COSA has established its own unique identity (and proven effectiveness) that is, in turn, being replicated and translated in other communities and states.
From the outset, I found this work engrossing, challenging and complex. My learning process was primarily gained from the experiences and stories of Core Members (clients), and their daily struggles to reintegrate, trust, change and–put quite simply–be happy. I also witnessed the competing and sometimes contradictory mandates of the organizations and agencies tasked with ‘managing’ these individuals.
These stories and experiences did not take place in a vacuum. People reintegrating the community from prison are often under highly-restrictive supervision that would test almost anyone’s capacity to be successful. To this, you can add pernicious barriers to employment and housing; and the legacies of trauma, violence, addictions and mental illness that warp decision-making and self-regulation. It’s a recipe for failure, plain and simple.
COSA is one high-intensity, community-based response to these reentry challenges. It posits that consistent, clear and empathetic relationships offer the Core Member a chance to successfully overcome both external (housing, etc) and internal (impulsivity, etc) challenges; and provide a sense of belonging based upon mutual sharing, support and accountability. It’s not, however, easy work.
I have come to think of the COSA volunteer’s primary responsibility as offering empathy with boundaries. A COSA volunteer walks with–not for–a person through their reentry and reintegration. COSA asks that volunteers willingly invite a Core Member into their lives; to break bread together; to share both their gifts and shortcomings; and to stay present and available as someone struggles and potentially ‘fails’. This is not an easy proposition; it is ambiguous, often challenged, and always changing. It is, however, a powerful proposition.
Canada COSA is guided by two simple yet profound principles. The first principle–No More Victims–points to a central purpose of reintegration circles: community safety. COSA volunteers form relationships with people who, left to their own devices, are most likely to harm others again. With time and lots of sweat equity, the volunteers build relational authority with the Core Members, helping them weather the inherent challenges of reentry without resorting to violence, substances or deviancy. This, in essence, is community safety.
The second principle–No One is Disposable–is a deeply felt and lived expression of radical inclusion. I have had numerous opportunities to ask Core Members to reflect and share on the meaning of having a team of volunteers. I most frequently hear two sequential responses. First, they often express a sense of bewilderment: “why would someone sign up for this and me.” This initial reflection is often followed very quickly by intermingled expressions of gratitude and belonging, such as: ‘these are my best friends…’; or ‘they believe in me…’; or ‘I appreciate the way they challenge me…’ Again, no one is disposable.
In many ways, I believe that these two principles form the broader crux of our shared responsibility, which is community reintegration. No More Victims and No One is Disposable are foundational values with nuanced applications; and they should inform how we welcome people back to the community.
What would these values would look like when fully actualized? How might communities and jurisdictional authorities embrace a nimble balance of support and accountability? How do people identify, establish and commit to personal interests that are in direct alignment with community’s need for safety? How do we create a flexible and safe container that allows people to learn from both their successes and mistakes? What do restorative obligations look like when someone has been incarcerated for two, five, or ten years? How do we share in these responsibilities across all facets of community life? How do we create opportunities for sharing stories and learning from all members of our community?
I have started this blog as a way to explore these and other questions. Most of the time, I will be sharing posts, articles and research that I find interesting. On occasion, I will also share my own musings, such as above. I welcome both comments and guest posts if they fit the broader content of Community Reentry. Just drop me a note and describe what you would like to share.