Rachel Epp Buller: What is the mission of Offender/Victim Ministries and what kinds of programming does that mission include?

Libby Schrag: Our mission is “to address the needs of offenders and victims for restoration, rehabilitation, friendship, restitution, and reconciliation.”

Our founding program is the M-2 prison visitation program. Through this program, over 100 volunteers meet monthly with inmates at Hutchinson Correctional Facility who otherwise receive few or no other visits from the outside. In 2001, we expanded our prison ministries to include a variety of prison arts. The exact programming varies based on who comes forward to volunteer, but we have had everything from drama, choirs, creative writing workshops, poetry workshops, guitar lessons, literature discussion groups, visual arts, and probably some I am forgetting.

We also offer restorative justice programming at the local level. In 1983, we started one of the first structured restorative justice-based programs in the country when we began our Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP), now called Victim Offender Conferencing. Through this program, victims have a chance to meet with the offender in their case – to get questions answered, to share how they were impacted, and to discuss what the offender might do to help make things right again.

We expanded programs to include restorative justice-based mentoring through our Impact and Anger Management programs. We work with clients of all ages in these programs in a one-on-one format. We process the impact of the offending behavior in the broadest terms, and also help participants develop strategies to make safer, healthier choices in the future.

Our most recent program is for perpetrators of domestic violence. We offer four groups each week for men convicted of, or diverted from, domestic violence offenses. Our primary goal in this program is victim safety. We offer a space where men are led to acknowledge their abusive behaviors, to examine the belief systems that allow for that abuse, and to feel encouraged in their ability to change.

REB: What are some of the ways that Bethel College students and local citizens have been involved with OVM? And what do you see as potentially beneficial about those encounters, for all parties involved?

LS: OVM was founded in 1973. At that time, our only program was the M-2 program, and we had 11 volunteers matched with inmates. (Also at that time we were called the Interfaith Offender Concerns Committee. We officially incorporated in 1973 under that name.) We still have one couple visiting today that was part of that original cohort, and another that started the year after and continues today (i.e., they have been M-2 volunteers for 43 and 42 years, respectively!).

We have had support and participation from students at Bethel College (and other area colleges) in a variety of programs for decades, long before I arrived here. I remember M-2 recruitment at Bethel when I was a student in the late 1990s. We have had interns from various academic departments (psychology, social work, mediation certificates, even IT) in each of our programs. We have had students volunteering with our agency as part of a Service Learning Scholarship at Bethel.

Similarly, we have had community volunteer support in everything from program delivery (all of our programs either currently use volunteers or have at some stage) to office support to building software systems. Given the way our organization is funded, we try to be as careful with our resources as possible. That means that our first thought is often how to utilize interested, capable volunteers to expand our operations.

I think some of the most unique and enriching opportunities come for the volunteers involved in program delivery. For those who have been involved in the prison ministries aspects of our work, it is an opportunity to “cross an invisible boundary.” (I wish I could remember exactly how Raylene Hinz-Penner said it once, when reflecting on why she became interested in creative writing in prison.) For most people, prison is an abstract concept. But the challenges of mass incarceration are very real for those who have been caught up in the system, or who have a loved one who has served or is serving time. On a large scale, when people have some direct exposure to an issue such as mass incarceration, it helps to move forward the conversation about how we are doing justice in this country. On a small scale, there are around 1,800 individuals at Hutchinson Correctional Facility who are living with the consequences of a mass incarceration policy. Every time we can connect with one of them and say that they still matter, and we still see them, it makes a difference.

In our other programs, our volunteers are an important part of rounding out the connection with the third component of restorative justice. We talk about the victim and the offender, but the community is also a player. Community involvement in the justice process is part of restoring wholeness. Communities both suffer the negative consequences of crime, either directly or indirectly, and they are also part of the solution, part of the support for the person working on changing behaviors or making amends. Our volunteers gain new understanding of what is happening in their community, and they provide support for a new direction.

REB: During the past few years, two Bethel College faculty members (Ami Regier and John McCabe-Juhnke) worked with inmates at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility on, respectively, creative writing and theater projects. What involvement, if any, did you have in their work? How do you understand the potential role of education (arts-based or otherwise) in a prison setting?

LS: OVM hosts the Prison Arts Project at Hutchinson Correctional Facility. We provide an access point for folks like Ami and John to get involved at HCF. We provide support in the way of training (although the prison has taken back some of that role), processing different dynamics, and basically being the contact point for the prison in setting up and approving the various programs.

I think there is a lot that could be said about the role of education, and particularly arts-based education, in prison. Fundamentally, I think that prisons are dehumanizing, and the arts counter that. The arts are a humanizing force. There is certainly data that confirms that educational experiences contribute to success for those released from prison. Those who have received educational support are much less likely to re-offend. That definitely matters, but I feel that even if the recidivism outcome was unaffected, offering these opportunities in prison is important just for assisting inmates in coping with the incredible isolation in prison. They are isolated from their family and friends, of course, but also there is a culture of self-preservation and mistrust. We often hear from participants in our programs that the time they spend in our workshops/classes are the only times that they feel truly connected with any of the other inmates, even. In one way or another, all of our prison arts programming creates a context for collaboration and support that is otherwise rarely if ever experienced within the prison.

REB: What are some of the biggest obstacles in your work?

LS: Two things come to mind: funding, and navigating large bureaucracies such as the prison system.

To the first point, funding offenders is a hard sell. Sometimes people are energized by the idea of working with juvenile offenders, in the interest of helping them get back on track. But for adults, and certainly the incarcerated, the general sentiment is usually punitive, and out of sight/out of mind. Once a person has received their so-called just deserts, many people see no reason to continue investing in them. We have come to rely largely on private contributions rather than statutory funding, when there is even such. There are not many options for state or federal funding. It is often only for program start-up, and depending on government priorities, it can leave a big vacuum when it is suddenly not available. So our job is to connect with individuals and agencies who see a value in continuing to invest in people who have committed wrongdoing, either purely out of a sense of common humanity, or because they see potential for increasing safety and community wholeness by working towards change in people, even when they have done significant harm. But it is always a challenge when we’re competing for the same dollars from agencies that have a more sympathetic service area.

The other big challenge is to continue to work within the prison with next to no power to carry out our programming in the manner we would like. The prison sets regulations that are nonnegotiable. Over the years, there have been significant restrictions placed on our volunteers. Those restrictions only ever tighten – they never lessen. To my knowledge, none of these restrictions have come about because of concerns with our program or volunteers in particular, but they come about because of challenges the prison has experienced elsewhere. By definition, our M-2 prison visitation program’s mission runs counter to the code for Department of Corrections volunteers. The prison expressly prohibits befriending inmates, or sharing anything on a personal level with inmates. Our M-2 program is all about befriending inmates who otherwise have no other visits from the outside. It’s a tightrope for our volunteers to walk. We navigate that fine line by maintaining strong relationships with the institution, and working hard to maintain their trust and confidence in us as an agency.

REB: You’ve had experience working with an inmate on death row who was later executed. How has that experience influenced your work?

LS: In grad school, my final practicum involved leading a group of undergraduate students in a hands-on experience with an actual case. We worked with the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, a nonprofit law firm that provides direct representation in death-penalty cases in Virginia. They had us work with their mitigation specialist on a case. We read the trial transcripts, and traveled with the mitigation specialist to Camden, New Jersey, and rural North Carolina to meet with the inmate’s family. Each of the students accompanied me and the mitigation specialist to death row to visit with the inmate.

In some ways, I experienced things that I already knew. The system is unfair. It is essentially a game. The inmate’s co-defendant received a significantly different sentence, all because he was tried first and testified against the defendant in our case. Nothing in the evidence suggested that his role in the events was materially different. Even the situation that made this a capital murder never made sense to me. It was a capital offense because it happened in the commission of another crime (a robbery), though it appeared as if the murder itself happened spontaneously when they were discovered, not out of premeditation. The system is tragic. There are no winners. I remember being so influenced by the experience of meeting this inmate’s mother and father (separate occasions; they were divorced). It was so clearly just another tragedy and another murder, this time by the state, that would never really make up for the loss the victims experienced. It was absolutely no-win, tragic all around.

In some ways, it was simply a more acute experience of the larger injustices that are so commonplace within the system. Any time we experience something with the gravity of life and death, we see and feel the realities more profoundly, and are thus more energized to be part of a bigger solution.

One experience of that larger process in particular always stands out to me. When we went to Camden (a city that has been significantly run down in recent history after major employers left the community and resources dried up), we met with Robert’s father to learn a little more about his early years. Camden being what it was, it had a lot of rough edges, with high unemployment and most residents of Camden itself working manual labor and factory jobs. I’m sure we knew at the time, though I have since forgotten exactly what his father did. In any case, Robert’s narrative fit the broader Camden story. His father met with us in a hotel lobby. The image I have of him was that he had on a brand-new pair of jeans with a crease precisely ironed down the center, freshly shined black dress shoes, and a crisp white button-down shirt. It was the crease in the jeans, though. I just felt this distinct sense that he was trying to bring dignity to our understanding of who Robert is, and who their family is. Because of this offense, his son had been reduced to one category, for the world generally and for us in our work: he was a death-row inmate. But nobody is just one thing, and certainly not only the worst thing they have ever done. I just imagined what it must have felt like for Robert’s dad to prepare for meeting with us. I imagined the anxiety of feeling like these are the people who have any shot at saving your son’s life, and wondering what we believe about Robert or his family based on what we have read about his case. That was a moment that I really started imagining a bigger picture – certainly thinking beyond just the victim and offender in a case, but also thinking beyond the more measurable aspects of justice and accountability, even from a restorative justice standpoint, to this bigger idea of identity and basic human worthiness. I find it kind of hard to express, but it all boils down to this sense that the criminal justice system is tragic for everyone involved. It is rarely transformative. Restorative justice doesn’t always feel as magical as I want to believe it can be, but it certainly has the potential for transformation in a way that I just don’t believe is possible in a traditional criminal justice system.