The Open Door Experience by Roger Letourneau
20 Jul, 2012
When I first heard about restorative justice, it had been described as an offender/victim face-to-face. In a sense, an opportunity to make amends. Not having participated in such an event myself, I’ve been nevertheless able to see the rewards it brought to those offenders I know who have. First in the development of empathy and then (also related to empathy) a discernible growth in the will and determination not to re-offend. I have also been witness, albeit only on film, to the benefits drawn by the victims: a lesser sense of being labeled “victim”; grief recovery; greater closure than the only fact that the offender is behind bars; and even empathy towards the offender. The positive results are certainly to be sought—but participating in this type of face-to-face is not readily available to all (offenders and victims alike) — the reasons are many, let’s call it “red tape”. I wish to speak of another form of restorative justice, one available to all, and which I believe to be equally (if not more) beneficial to society long term: the Open Door experience.
MSCM’s (Montreal-Southwest Community Ministries) Open Door project, now in its tenth year, provides an opportunity for all offenders to reconnect with society. Organized by MSCM and its volunteers, the weekly meetings welcome all to participate and express themselves freely in a friendly environment based on equity and respect. Participants include volunteers, members of MSCM, community members, ex-offenders, and inmates through escorted outings from prisons. The latter is how I got my first experience with Open Door.
Activities vary from guest speakers to interactive discussions and games. Personal topics and/or accounts are also presented by the participants (including inmates). On occasion, through MSCM’s implication with community building: community building workshops are organized—I have been blessed to participate in two such workshops. The inclusive and accepting nature instills (especially for those, like me, who have spent many years in jail) a deeply needed sense of belonging as well as a feeling of responsibility and accountability for the criminal acts we have committed.
As a long-term offender, I have come to understand that there are many victims to every crime: there is the obvious direct victim of a criminal act; the family and friends of the victim; the family and friends of the offender also find themselves victimized as one of their own is taken away; the last victim, but not the least, is community, society as a whole—not only from the enormous cost of crime, but from the intrinsic fear that criminality casts over every member of society.
Open Door’s restorative justice model lies not in the sledgehammer effect of the offender/victim face-to-face, but rather in the slow drilling effect of repetitive exposure to community in a safe, helpful and loving atmosphere.
He who has the necessary resolve to involve himself fully in the Open Door process will quickly find himself reconnecting with community at a very deep and meaningful level. A level that unequivocally creates empathy. A level in which one ceases to view society as a huge uncaring machine but rather as a group of individual good-hearted human beings (of which the ex-offender is an equal partner) who deserve love, respect, and security. This change of attitude towards society inevitably improves self esteem and elevates one’s desire, willingness, and dedication to remain law-abiding—more so than the dread of returning to prison. It also encourages us to continue our involvement with Open Door as a means to retain and strengthen our new found values. The positive ramifications are such that many remain participants after being released from prison. I am but one of them.
Through MSCM’s Open Door project, I have met the most kind-hearted, unselfish, peace-loving, friendly people I have ever come across in my life. People whose mere proximity blankets us with a sense of security, a feeling of well-being, and an aura of serenity. The spiritual profit one gathers from the Open Door experience is commensurate and, once acquired — unbreakable. It inspires us to endlessly cultivate the goodness we are capable of so that we too will naturally exude our good nature into the lives of all those we meet in our everyday travels. And that is where the long-term restorative justice potential of Open Door can be found: alleviating every day some of the fear we have caused society.