By Laura Jamieson
State Representative Ronald Waters presented his stance on "education over incarceration" at a Germantown Friends School assembly on Wednesday, January 16, organized by the student-run GFS Human Rights Group. "Ninety percent of the people who are incarcerated in our state will be returning back to the streets," Rep. Waters told the students. "It is important that we think about what type of person will be sent back into the community."
Pennsylvania’s incarceration rate is among the highest in the country. Waters believes that "restorative justice"—an approach that focuses on education and reconnecting prisoners with their families and communities—is the key to change. "We need to find alternatives to helping people," he says. "Lawmakers are too often focused on reacting to crime instead of reducing crime. The state spends $2 billion dollars [annually] to incarcerate people—it’s the third biggest budget item—but it’s a tough fight when we try to get resources to educate our citizens."
Waters says that with education, job training, addiction treatment and reinforcing bonds between perpetrators and their families, "we can send them out better men and better women."
To do their part, GFS students are hosting a book drive for the men in Graterford Prison to read to their children. Spanish teacher and faculty advisor to the GFS Human Rights Group Bob Rhoades explains, "the books are for Fathers And Children Together, a prisoner-initiated program for fathering ‘from within.’" The Germantown Monthly Meeting social concerns committee is overseeing the book drive.
"In the past, we have focused on international topics and this year we wanted to look at issues in our area," says Sonali Singh ’13, one of the leaders of the Human Rights Group. "We started looking at prison reform and restorative justice as a way to improve lives and break the cycle of prisoners returning to jail." Adds co-leader Michaela Krauser ’13, "The most important part of [what we do] is educating and empowering our community to get involved in issues that they didn’t know about before or didn’t understand."
Robyn Buseman, Director of the Restorative Justice arm of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, also spoke at the assembly. She works with people who committed crimes, the victims and members of the community to bring about forgiveness through the cooperative effort of creating murals in their neighborhoods.
A mural in Germantown depicts Michael Whittington along with the victim of his crime, who was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of the assault, and the victim’s mother. "I was young, dumb and hanging with the wrong crowd," said Whittington, who also participated in the assembly. "I did some stupid stuff and spent five years in prison."
After the incident, the victim and his mother reached out to Whittington. "I can’t believe that they forgave me for something like that," he shared, brimming with emotion. "Forgiveness changed my life. It’s a very powerful thing." Whittington is now a coordinator for the Mural Arts Program Forgiveness Project; he works with prisoners to create murals that inspire people to stop the violence.
"It’s a beautiful situation," he said.