By Kate Kesteloot-Scarbrough, Executive Director, Mediation & Restorative Services
Prison might not be the first place you think of when you imagine alternative dispute resolution, but more than 40 men at E.C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon have been trained as community mediators and they are making peace every day.
Community can mean a town or an intentional gathering of like-minded people, as in a church community or a work place. It can also be a school or a neighborhood. I suspect we rarely think of a prison as a community, but I would suggest that prisons are their own communities and they are part of our community, and that is why a Community Dispute Resolution Center trained men to become mediators at E.C. Brooks.
Mediation & Restorative Services is one of 18 Community Dispute Resolution Programs in Michigan. In early 2014, E.C. Brooks agreed that Mediation & Restorative Services could bring Brian Pappas, PhD, JD, LLM, Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Michigan State University College of Law, into the facility to provide a SCAO-approved general civil mediation training to 25 men, the resident unit manager and the chaplain.
The goals in training the men as mediators were improving their conflict resolution skills, decreasing violence within the facility, preparing the men to bring those skills to their outside communities, and connecting them with community-based volunteer opportunities upon their release.
The facility staff and Mediation & Restorative Services jointly developed clear eligibility criteria for the training and prepped the applicants before they, and we, committed to the training. The July 2014 training was a full week--40 hours of intense intellectual stimulation and anxiety as each man took part in role plays to practice their new skills.
In December 2014, Pappas returned to the facility, bringing 12 MSU law students. The students and the E.C. Brooks community mediators took part in a mediation competition all day, with local area community mediators volunteering as judges. The prison community mediators showed up freshly barbered, groomed and shined, and they gave the law students a run for their money!
The students and inmates competed in three, two-hour rounds of judged mediation competition. The mediators assisted participants in resolving two conflicts typically faced in the outside community and one conflict typically found inside a correctional facility. The competition style and rules were consistent with those used at International Academy of Dispute Resolution Mediation Tournaments.
In July 2016, Mediation & Restorative Services and Pappas trained 21 more mediators at E.C. Brooks. Six men from the 2014 cohort acted as coaches and mentors to the new mediators. In December 2016, Brooks and MSU met again in competition. Although MSU College of Law won the competition, the winning individual mediator in both competitions was a man from E.C. Brooks.
The competition days were incredibly powerful for everyone involved. The competition judges included professional mediators, lawyers, court administrators, current and former judges and experienced community volunteer mediators. Without exception, the competition judges reported that they were impressed with the level of skill among the competitors, and that the experience moved them profoundly. The law students, too, felt strongly about the experience. One student shared his experience on Facebook:
“I will never forget the day I had today. Myself and several other MSU Law students spent the day at a Michigan state prison in Muskegon doing a mediation competition with inmates who received the same training that we had in August.
While my classmates and I learned to mediate civil and small claims matters, these guys learned how to mediate amongst one another. Sometimes they're small matters, but sometimes inmates' safety hangs in the balance. One man told me that an inmate died a few years ago as a result of an argument that for many would have been a minor incident.
It was incredible to get to know those guys and understand that while their decisions had gotten them there in the first place, their actions had the potential to make their community safer and more civil. I think so often, people forget that incarcerated individuals are still human, that they still have emotions, and that they still have the ability to make their world a better place for others, if even in a small way.
These guys are fathers, husbands, and friends. Some of them will die in prison, and they've come to terms with that. I guess it just goes to show that those we imprison are still human, and that human nature compels us, even subconsciously, to make the world around us a better place.”
The men of Brooks also had a strong reaction. One inmate noted, “We were competing with our minds. This is the closest I have felt to free in a long, long time.”
The facility guards observing the competition expressed their surprise and admiration for the men competing, and I watched a competition judge discuss “The Merchant of Venice” and the quality of mercy with a man who has been incarcerated for more than 20 years.
I have met regularly with the inmates to address specific skills and to prepare for the competition. During those times, we have talked often about how they are using their skills inside with other Brooks community members. After the competition, as part of the overall debrief, we talked for the first time about other ways they are using their skills. Several men noted that they are using these same skills with their families--using them to both deepen their understanding and also move forward in the process of reconciliation. One mediator told the group, “Talking with my family, I see now that my choices didn’t just imprison me; my family is imprisoned with me.”
It is probably not a stretch to say that most men living in our prison communities are not practiced at healthy conflict resolution and communication. One of the Brooks mediators said after the training, “I feel like I hear with different ears now.”
Mediators have strong listening skills; they are adept at looking at situations from multiple points of view, keeping conversation constructive, and shifting discussion from the parties’ positions to their underlying needs.
The inmates shared both their increased confidence and their pride in their accomplishments. Many of the Brooks mediators have lived inside for a long time, and the competition was a chance to see if they could interact effectively with “regular people,” as they put it. Several of the men specifically mentioned that they were less fearful of going back out into “the world” because they were confident now that they could talk with people and that they had something to offer.
Mediation training is not a panacea for all that ails people in prison, but it offers some encouraging potential. For example, conflict resolved respectfully and effectively in prisons could keep people safer; it could mean more days in general population and more days taking part in productive programming. Men who have become more skilled listeners and communicators may find deepened family relationships upon their return home, which could, in turn, affect their willingness to regularly support their children.
Skilled listeners and effective communicators are also attractive to potential employers, potentially making it easier for the men to be successful when they rejoin our communities.
Of course, a larger sample, more rigorously studied would be necessary to flesh out this picture.
In the meantime, the Brooks mediators are using their skills to assist other members of their community in resolving conflict peaceably, demonstrating that people in conflict can solve problems without violence and in a way that lets them both walk away with their dignity intact.
Kate Kesteloot Scarbrough is the Executive Director of Mediation & Restorative Services in Muskegon, Michigan; a Community Dispute Resolution Center serving Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, and Manistee Counties. Since 2000, Mediation & Restorative Services has worked closely with the Muskegon County Juvenile Court using the concepts and practices of restorative justice.