Restorative Justice: Perspective From Former Inmate & Teacher | Not in Our Town

Restorative Justice: Perspective From Former Inmate & Teacher

Alton McSween, a former educator and coach, uses the principles of restorative justice in local schools. 

By Tenny Minassian

They started with a circle. The boy sat in the center, his entire family and community surrounding him. The community elders, his parents, along with the parents of his victim, held a private meeting in a tent.

They asked each member of the community to speak about a recent death in the community, telling the perpetrator in the center of their circle how his actions affected each of their lives. The boy addressed each person, reflecting on his actions and realized the effect they had on himself and his entire community.  

For Alton McSween, this Native American tribe’s response to violence relate to the principles of Restorative Justice. McSween, was released from San Quentin State Prison in April 2013, after serving 12 years for charges of petty theft.

McSween, a former NFL player, teacher, and sports coach, now applies the Restorative Justice principles he learned at San Quentin in his local community and schools.

Restorative Justice is now being used in schools as an alternative to suspensions and expulsions because zero tolerance policies have proven to be ineffective. McSween said the Restorative Justice process brings the perpetrator of harm together with others in “talking circle”  and or support group, to reflect on what has happened, speak about the wrongs that have been done, and take steps to make amends.

Prior to joining the Restorative Justice Interfaith Roundtable at San Quentin, McSween attended symposiums on the topic, learning how to apply Restorative Justice in his personal life.

“As I’ve learned through Restorative Justice, there is no such thing as a victimless crime. The people that you affect, it’s just amazing the web of those relationships and the victim and perpetrator.  You’re connected for life, you’re forever connected,” said McSween.

Taking Responsibility

One of the ways Restorative Justice helps transform lives is by instilling the concept of taking responsibility for one’s actions. McSween emphasized the importance of this step in the Restorative Justice process.

“One of the things you hear a lot is when guys say, ‘I caught a case.’ It’s something that those of us in Restorative Justice don’t like and we tell people not to say that. You don’t ‘catch cases’, you catch baseballs and footballs. You commit a crime. What we did in San Quentin was when you spoke about your case, you didn’t say, ‘I caught a case,’ you’d say, I committed a murder against John Doe, and it gives you ownership and responsibility for what you did, and also it gives a lot of respect for your victim,” said McSween.

After serving his sentence for petty theft, McSween has been busy giving back to his community. He is both a Narcotics Anonymous and an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, and he does service and volunteer work. He is also attending school to become a certified addiction specialist, as well as training to become a domestic violence counselor.

“Working on yourself is part of Restorative Justice, working to become the best person you could be,” said McSween.

McSween sees the importance of becoming a change agent in the community and using his experience by working with youth as a preventative measure against bullying and criminal activity. Although he recognizes the stigma attached to the word “ex-con” he embraces the term because it allows him to share his experience.

“I try and use it to my advantage because people will see I’m doing some positive things, and they’ll say ‘he’s an ex-con’ and it opens the door for other guys to do the same. I always tell people, I’m not the only one out here doing these things. There’s a lot of guys trying to pay back for what they did from a restorative standpoint,” said McSween.

A Circle for Change

Stemming from Native American tradition, the talking circle is a centerpiece of the Restorative Justice process. Talking circles are a tool that can be used by any group looking to provide a safe place to express feelings and resolve issues.

The concept is quite simple. A group of inmates would gather around, sitting in a circle and a group leader would hand the “talking stick” or “talking piece” as some refer to it, to the first person that had something to share. Only the person with the talking stick is allowed to speak, while the rest of the group listens. The talking stick is then passed around and each person has the choice to speak or skip their turn.

“I use it to this day as a tool with some kids I work with out in Richmond and I fully intend on incorporating it into anything I do with Restorative Justice in the schools. I’m a new fish in the water with regards to Restorative Justice in the schools, I’m still learning and want to learn more,” said McSween.

Administrators and teachers are also utilizing talking circles when working with students and parents on issues of bullying or disruptive classroom behavior.

Restorative Justice in Schools

McSween was an educator for years and feels the principles of Restorative Justice remain the same when applied to schools; understanding the consequences of your actions, accepting responsibility, and repaying society with positive behavior.

Commenting on the discipline system set up in schools, McSween says we need to go beyond suspension or detention. Teachers and administrators should communicate with students when they act up, and try to understand the real motivation behind the student’s behavioral problems.

“I think it’s incumbent upon schools to have a safe place. No child should have to go to school and be worried about that. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be a youngster in elementary school getting bullied everyday,” said McSween.

McSween points to the value of establishing trust between teachers and students, making youth more comfortable to speak up about bullying. With the increase in technological advances, McSween compares verbal bullying to the cyber-bullying and texting culture that younger generations have to learn to cope with now, saying this can only make things more difficult for kids. He speaks to the value of setting an example with proper communication within the classroom. He hopes to incorporate Restorative Justice principles such as understanding the harm they have done to others, in local schools.

“Like I said, I can’t undo what I did, but from this point on I can do all the positive things I can to pay back society for the things I’ve done wrong,” said McSween.

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog on Restorative Justice in public schools.

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