The prison setting and the word “redemption” in the Ludlumesque title are vaguely evocative of the most popular prison movie of all time, The Shawshank Redemption.
A prison sentence, though, is seldom a redemptive experience for anyone.
Not the prisoner, certainly, who often goes from bad to worse behind bars. Not society, which hasn’t improved during the prisoner’s incarceration and then has a worse problem to deal with when he’s released.
Often enough, not even the victims or their families, who get no real sense of closure or healing from the trial or the imprisonment of the offender.
The Redemption Project With Van Jones, a powerful eight-part CNN series premiering on Sunday, April 28 at 9pm (ET/PT), dramatically highlights an important movement in criminal justice called restorative justice.
Restorative justice allows victims to have a voice, promotes offender accountability and focuses on healing for victims and offenders as well as their families and the wider community.
Victim-impact panels and direct or indirect victim-offender communication, ranging from offender apology letters to facilitated personal encounters, are all parts of restorative justice.
Among other benefits, research shows that victim-offender mediation leads to greater satisfaction for both victims and offenders and reduces recidivism rates.
For CNN contributor Van Jones, an attorney and promoter of criminal-justice reform, restorative justice offers an important corrective to the criminal-justice system in its current form.
Over the eight episodes of The Redemption Project, Jones meets with victims of violent crimes who have agreed to meet the convict who shattered their lives.
There are parents who meet the killers of their children and a daughter who meets her mother’s killer. There are survivors who were left for dead by their shooters. A young woman who is injured severely, physically and cognitively, due to a drunken driving accident meets the woman who was behind the wheel.
The stories take place all across America, from small-town Wisconsin to South Central L.A. to the southern coast of Alaska, a state with no existing victim-offender dialogue program.
Drugs are a recurring factor, sometimes linking offender and victim. In the pilot episode, “My Mother’s Killer,” a woman named Mariah Lucas who was only a toddler when her mother was murdered learns that the man who killed her, Jason Clark, had been selling her drugs.
In the Alaskan story, “A Mother’s Justice,” when a mother named Terria Walters meets her son Christopher’s killer, a man named Joshua Beebe to whom Christopher sold drugs, she reads him a card Christopher wrote to her when she herself was in prison for drug use — a card he never sent, but one she found after he was killed.
Another part of the social fabric of these stories is religion, from the Walters family’s routine grace before meals to Jason Clark’s religious tattoos, including a verse from Psalm 22 outlining the perimeter of his face.
Each encounter is unique. Often it’s the convicts who reach out to their victims, but not always. What each party wants or hopes for from the meeting is different. Facilitators help to prepare all parties for the dialogue, but when they actually sit down, what happens or doesn’t happen is up to them.
Most of the offenders seem haunted by their own crimes and committed to taking full responsibility. Jason Clark seems to want only to give Mariah whatever peace or satisfaction he can, telling her, “I deserve whatever it is you have to say to me.”
But Joshua Beebe, the young convict in Alaska, equivocates, telling Terria that he’s “sorry about what happened.”
“He didn’t own it,” Terria says, but Joshua unconvincingly professes not to see the problem with his wording. Their encounter may help Joshua take a small step toward accepting responsibility and moving his life in a constructive direction, but much work remains to be done.
Forgiveness, too, is a recurring theme, but it is not taken for granted. “I forgave you a long time ago,” one survivor says, but another resists: Forgiveness, she demurs, is “above my pay grade.”
A number of survivors, seeking meaning in their suffering, have become activists against drugs, gangs or whatever factors led to their loss. Sometimes they want to help rehabilitate the offender, or to encourage him to help others avoid going down the same path.
Other times family members seem to want a piece of their loved one that only the offender may have.
Donald E. Lacy Jr., a comedian, actor and activist, knows that the young gang member, Chris, who fired a 12-gauge shotgun into a car belonging to a rival gang, killing his daughter, knew his daughter from high school. The first time we see him smile is when Chris tells him that his daughter was “always with friends, always at the front of the pack.”
What I found most moving about all of these encounters is how they seek to put a human face on both sides of the crime, to seek forms of reparation and atonement beyond anything achievable by the institutions of the law.
In a press release, Van Jones said, “I wanted to do The Redemption Project because I think we have lost our sense of grace and empathy and the capacity to forgive in our culture, at the highest levels. This series is my attempt to put some medicine into our very sick system and to uplift people who are doing extraordinarily courageous things every day.”
These courageous acts are of more than personal interest to the victims and offenders, and the stories related in The Redemption Project are of more than voyeuristic interest to viewers. We all have a stake in justice, and real justice is about more than conviction, sentencing and time served.
Too often we think of justice and mercy as opposed to one another. In reality, justice itself presupposes mercy and is founded upon it, according to St. Thomas, and in every work of God is both justice and mercy.
All human efforts toward justice should strive toward restoration and redemption. The Redemption Project is far from a complete blueprint of what such efforts should look like, but it’s an encouraging signpost along the way.
Caveat Spectator: Mature themes, including frank references to murderous violence and drug trafficking and use. Older teens and up.