Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

The Power of Proximity: How Restorative Justice Can Bridge Society’s Divides, Creating a Safer and More Humane World

August 31, 2023
| Special Edition 2023: Community Justice Reimagined

By Armand Coleman, with Ashley Pettus

I served 28 years in the Massachusetts Department of Correction system. For most of that time, I was committed to building a reputation as one of the top gangsters in the state. I had a strict code: never show weakness, protect your crew, and fiercely punish disloyalty. My reputation only grew during the 10 years I spent in the “hole” (the term used to describe the segregation unit where men spend 23 hours a day alone in their cells).

When I finally started to change, it was not due to anything that the system taught me. As a second-degree lifer, with a terrible disciplinary record, I was excluded from most prison programs. Determined not to get swallowed by the hole like the guys around me, I embarked on a self-improvement campaign, finding ways to get books, practicing writing, and changing my thinking by applying the following motto: do the opposite of what your criminal self would have done.

But it wasn’t until the final quarter of my incarceration, after my transfer to MCI Norfolk, a medium security prison, that I was able to participate in a process that would fundamentally transform my mindset and my heart and set me on a new path. The Restorative Justice Group — created by a handful of men inside MCI Norfolk — broke down the barriers that to that point defined my life and allowed me to be and feel part of a community, one that even included those who put me behind bars.

My Background 

From early childhood, I experienced a feeling of not belonging that would motivate me to seek strength and protection wherever I could find it. Growing up in Queens, New York, with a single mom who struggled to pay rent, I lived much of the time at my grandparents’ home, surrounded by my uncles, several of whom were only a few years older than me. As the youngest and smallest, and the only Coleman (they were all Johnsons), I held a marginal place in the household. When my grandfather regularly purchased new clothes and shoes for his sons, I was excluded.

By the fourth grade, I had formed “the young yard boys” gang with friends and regularly preyed on classmates for lunch money. By middle school, when I was not in juvenile detention, I was selling drugs under the tutelage of a few uncles. I became known for my fearlessness and aggression in the face of violence. At 16, I survived a stint in Rikers Island physically unscathed.

In 1990, I relocated to Boston as part of the drug gang that had now become my family. One night at a club in Roxbury I shot and killed another teenager I considered to be a snitch. In my mind, I was doing right, defending my “street uncle” and showing my loyalty. I was 17. I was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 15 years. For those first 15 years, I did nothing to increase my chances of release. Rather, I doubled down on the behaviors that had earned me the respect of my peers and resulted in prison.

My resistance to prison authority and to any semblance of “rehabilitation” landed me in the hole for years. But even as I grew tired of fighting, I remained blocked from holding myself fully accountable for my crime.

My Growth Path 

Arriving at MCI Norfolk after more than two decades in maximum security prisons, I had little confidence that any program — even one organized by fellow prisoners — could alter my understanding of myself and my crime. But the first restorative justice circle I attended unsettled many of the assumptions that governed my life. I listened to parents who lost children to violence as they described the intense pain of their loss and amazingly, expressed a desire to work with us, the perpetrators of harm, to bring about change. Their willingness to reach across what I thought was an unbridgeable divide moved me to break my longest held rule: I cried openly.

Later, I participated in circles with not only survivors, but police, judges, and even prosecutors. From those early moments forward, I was able to speak of my crime in detail, taking full responsibility for the life I had taken and the ripple effects of the harm that I caused. Over the ensuing years, I witnessed dozens of similar moments when those on opposing ends of the legal system were able to listen to each other’s experiences and respond as fellow human beings, rather than as representatives of institutions or power groups.

At the same time, these experiences allowed me to connect the dots in my life. I learned how a childhood sexual assault that I had never spoken about wired me to respond to even the mildest taunt as a threat to my masculinity. I learned how I was trained early to view snitching as a transgression warranting violence. (At age 5, an uncle smashed me in the head with a brick for tattling; my mother condoned his action.) It turned out that the restorative justice motto of “hurt people, hurt people” profoundly applied to me.

I soon became one of the most dedicated restorative justice practitioners and a leader in expanding that program inside MCI Norfolk. We focused on recruiting the most influential men in the prison, many of them lifers, viewed as irredeemable and thus excluded from prison programming. We hosted visitors from across the country who wanted to learn what we were doing.

The Transformational Prison Project  

Our work culminated in 2016 when, in collaboration with outside volunteers, we launched the Transformational Prison Project (TPP). TPP enabled us to expand restorative justice trainings and programs to correctional institutions across the Commonwealth with the goal of transforming prisons from places of harm to places of healing.

Since my release in 2019, I have worked alongside my three co-leaders to build TPP into an organization that heals communities and individuals on both sides of the prison wall. We at TPP are committed to providing a supportive community for returning citizens, many of them former lifers who participated in the restorative justice process inside prison and long renounced their old gang identities and affiliations.

New problems arise for these men, however. Reentering a now alien society, particularly after a decade or more, many of them need practical assistance in navigating housing, employment, health care, and technology, as well as emotional and social support to keep them on a path of positive change. In this regard, TPP acts as a reentry organization grounded in restorative practices.

For example, TPP helps with the difficult process of getting a state ID and offers a digital literacy program — two critical first steps for participating in society. We also provide mental health support through our Center for Wellness and Restoration. This Center is run by clinicians who have direct experience working inside prisons and with formerly incarcerated individuals. The Center holds regular mental health circles in which participants can share issues from family and relationship tensions to the residual trauma of incarceration. Clinicians also serve as case managers, connecting men with housing and job resources and helping them access medical care, among other services.

For those men who want to work with TPP, we offer a fellowship program that enables them to participate in and facilitate circles. In some cases, these circles take place in the communities where these men previously caused harm and in juvenile facilities where youth face many of the hurdles that they once faced.

TPP also works with law schools – as well schools of social work, medicine, and public health – to impact how the future stewards of these disciplines view and interact with people engaging with the court system, including those who are incarcerated. In sharing our experience with students and academics, we seek to convey the power of restorative justice to change lives and foster accountability in ways that courts and prisons cannot. For example, Ryan Gunderman, a recent graduate of Harvard Law School, described his encounter with TPP, in his second year Criminal Procedure class, as a critical turning point in his legal education: “Before that point, I knew I believed in prison reform but really had no concrete idea about an alternative approach. Hearing first-hand what restorative justice had done for TPP’s leaders, and then participating in their facilitator trainings, I finally felt: here’s a solution, and I don’t think I can abide by anything else.”

In the coming years, TPP hopes to extend its reach into more institutions and communities, continuing to use the power of proximity to bring healing and transformation, one circle at a time.

Armand Coleman is the co-founder and executive director of the Transformational Prison Project. He is also a Galaxy Gives leadership fellow as well as a Represent Justice ambassador  

 Ashley Pettus is a freelance writer with a passion for telling stories of personal transformation. She volunteers with a number of criminal justice organizations in Massachusetts, including TPP.