A curious crowd packed into The Raleigh Playhouse and Theatre on Thursday to learn more about prison reform and restorative justice through the Southern West Virginia Reentry Council's screening of a film titled "Healing Justice."
A film by Shakti Butler, Ph.D., "Healing Justice was created to evoke a range of powerful emotions from viewers with the hopes that they will be inspired to resist and redesign a justice system that functions as a method of racial control."
Facilitator Ronald English of Charleston, who formerly worked as a unit manager at Mount Olive Correctional Complex, started the event by speaking on his experiences working with inmates during the late 1990s.
"There are certain rules and practices that you have to abide by in prison for general safety," English explained. "But how it makes you feel at the end of the day, even as your job, allowed me to see a need for criminal reform."
With the growing awareness that the country's current school-to-prison pipeline is a national civil rights crisis, Butler addresses the fact that zero tolerance in schools, the presence of police, security systems, more suspensions and expulsions do not deter, reduce or address the deeper causes that give rise to misbehavior or crime.
The film ultimately calls for the elimination of children of color and poor children being propelled into the justice system by addressing trauma and exploring the possibilities of proper justice.
Panelist Donna Eleo, who has worked as a licensed addiction counselor for 25 years, stressed the importance of allowing inmates to heal through restorative work such as counseling, creating art and communicating with the people they hurt most through the crimes they committed.
"Punishment isn't doing anything. Inmates are being released and they're still hurting," Eleo said.
Panelist Betsy Jividen, Commissioner for the West Virginia Division of Corrections, went on to discuss lessons learned throughout her career in law enforcement.
"I know that I was once part of a system that was focused on punishing with longer sentences," Jividen said. "Are we really healing our victims and are we really healing our inmates?
"It's about making people aware of the impact on the community if we aren't more inclusive."
Members of the community, some being convicted felons themselves, shared their success stories about life after incarceration and the process of reintegrating back into society. Other attendees like Rashida Dickerson, who simply came to be more informed about the struggles those who have been incarcerated face, expressed their opinions on the film.
"Hurt people hurt people just like healed people heal people," Dickerson said. "You can let the pain break you or you can make something of it."
To wrap up the event, Rick Wilson, who has been the director of the American Friends Service Committee of West Virginia Economic Justice Project since 1989, shared an update on recent legislation passed to aid those who were previously incarcerated. One bill allows nonviolent offenders to have felony charges expunged after five years, which took affect on June 7. Misdemeanors may also be eligible for expungement after one year.
Another major legislative stride for former inmates was the passage of a bill allowing them to receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits, a change that benefitted more than 10,000 individuals in the state of West Virginia, according to Wilson.
English said he felt that Thursday's discussion was productive and eye-opening.
"It's just amazing to see how things are moving and shifting in West Virginia," English said. "The conversation we've had today is unlike any other that I've engaged in.
"I appreciate those that have shared and proved that they are speaking from a point of absolute transformation."
Annie Sumpter, the Senior Rehabilitation Counselor at WV Division of Rehabilitation Services who also organized the event, said she looks forward to possibly having a second session of "Healing Justice."
"It was important to have this discussion to change the mentality about trauma, people that are oppressed and people that are re-entering the community," Sumpter said. "We need to look at things differently.
"There's more to process and more to talk about."
Other panelists included Young Dowell, a West Virginia native who was involved with the justice system; Dr. Robert Hayes, FMRS Regional Youth Network Developer; and Janine Bullock, Beckley Councilwoman for Ward V.
Those interested in joining the Southern West Virginia Reentry Council may attend the meetings on the third Monday of every month starting at 10 a.m. at the Division of Rehabilitation Services Office conference room.
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