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Accompaniment: An experiment in healing justice

By: Laura Magnani
Published: July 30, 2013

Helping Hand

Photo: Cristian Bernal

Note: Laura Magnani, a member of Strawberry Creek Friends Meeting in Berkeley, Calif., and the director of AFSC’s Bay Area Healing Justice program, tells the story of how local Quaker congregations accompanied a formerly incarcerated man back into the community.

A few years ago Arthur (not his real name) sent a letter to Strawberry Creek Friends Meeting from a state mental hospital, asking about Friends practices and about friendship. He expected eventually to parole to our area, but as a sex offender, he knew his re-entry would be very difficult. He had been in prison or the hospital for close to 25 years.

Over the years, three different Friends corresponded with Arthur and occasionally reported to the Care of the Meeting Committee. It began to look like Arthur might be getting out and the meeting needed to decide what it could and couldn’t do for him.

Cell Block 7 by Melody Kramer

I, as an AFSC staff person, as well as a member of Care of the Meeting Committee, told the committee about an accompaniment process pioneered by Friends in Canada, which involved forming a circle of support and accountability around a former sex offender. It is a well-tested process originally developed by First Nations peoples in the Yukon and elsewhere.

Could Strawberry Creek, with AFSC help, take on this responsibility?

Many members of the meeting have experienced sexual abuse and might not be able to worship alongside someone with such a history. We had waded into these waters a few years before with very mixed results. But Arthur was not asking to worship with us. The nearby Oakland Worship Group, which has no children, was clear that Arthur would be welcome with them.  

Coming home with “sex offender” label

Quite suddenly, with only a few days notice, Arthur was released in mid-December 2012. Three members of the meeting agreed to be on his accompaniment committee, and an intern from Pacific School of Religion, working with AFSC for the academic year, joined us.

Coming “home” right before the holidays was particularly challenging. Our schedules were erratic. Social service agencies were closed until after the New Year. Emotions were potentially running high. 

Concertina Wire by FiDalwoodAlmost immediately Arthur realized it would be better for him to find a place to live in San Francisco, which had a much better track record with formerly incarcerated people than Alameda County. He ended up at a single occupancy hotel half a block from the AFSC offices and the San Francisco Friends Meeting. 

In addition to attending the Oakland Worship Group, he immediately connected with an Episcopal Church in San Francisco and an LGBT community center. Eventually he began attending the San Francisco mid-week worship group, which also does not have children.

What is it like to “come home” to a society that clearly doesn’t want you? California has strict laws about where former sex offenders can live, making it almost impossible to find legal housing. There are strict reporting requirements with the police department. The names, faces, and addresses of people who have been released are broadcast widely. 

Arthur was confronted by strangers who recognized him on the street. Colleges and prospective employers shut their doors repeatedly when they learned about his past. But one school was willing to let him sign up for classes, and Goodwill eventually gave him a job sorting donations, as well as job training for other positions. Sorting donations makes no use of his real abilities. He is educated, quite computer savvy, and is interested in music, religion, and many other things.

As he thinks about what other jobs to apply for, he keeps trying to find situations where he won’t run into unaccompanied children—not because he is afraid of how he might react, but because there is an assumption that he will re-offend, so he is constantly in danger of being in a compromising situation. Is it really possible to be out in the world without encountering children?

Practicing peacemaking

Although not a sexual abuse survivor myself, I know way too many women who are, and wasn’t sure what kinds of issues could get triggered for me. I also imagined that someone locked up for so long could be very needy, and wasn’t sure I was up to the job.

Light through the Bars by FiDalwoodThe job of accompaniment turned out to be much easier than we expected. Arthur had a small trust fund that would see him through the first months financially. He is intelligent, has job skills, and is hard working. He has done a great deal of work on his compulsive behavior, immediately found a therapist upon release, and learned to navigate public interaction with the help of the committee and other networks he developed.

What he needs from us is mostly friendship and encouragement, which all four of us have been able to provide in our own ways.

The recidivism rate for sex offenders who have entered into serious treatment programs is in the single digits, but the public is unaware of this.

What really is our job as peacemakers? Is there any room for forgiveness when so many people have been so seriously damaged? Can we call ourselves “Friends” if we don’t welcome everyone?

The Oakland Worship Group was clear that it does welcome everyone, although they were taken by surprise when a young child came to meeting with her mother shortly after Arthur arrived. So they went to work to make provisions so that all needs could be met. An off-site location was identified where child care could be provided. A notification system was set up so that the meeting would know when Arthur was expected and appropriate arrangements could be made. But because Arthur lives in San Francisco, and there is a convenient worship option with the meeting there, he has chosen to drop his participation in Oakland.

For AFSC, engaging in these kinds of experiments in healing justice is essential. We can’t teach nonviolence or healing values without practicing them. We can’t preach love and acceptance while keeping our doors shut and locked.

And neither can we turn our backs on people who have been hurt and traumatized. Taking someone out of society for 25 years only intensifies the alienation and social disconnectedness. It doesn’t prepare him or us for the possibility of reconciliation and transformation.

Though our work with Arthur may not be transferrable to all similar situations, it helps us use the muscles that are needed for accompaniment and healing. Each experiment prepares us for the next occasion as we try to see what love can do.

About the Author

Laura Magnani

Laura Magnani is director of AFSC’s Bay Area Healing Justice Program in California and has worked on criminal justice issues for over 35 years. She received her BA from the University of California in ethnic studies in 1971 and an MA from the Pacific School of Religion in 1982. She has worked on criminal justice issues for AFSC since 1989. She wrote "America's First Penitentiary: A 200 Year Old Failure in 1990" and co-authored the AFSC publication, “Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System" in 2006. She is a member of Strawberry Creek Meeting of Pacific Yearly Meeting.