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Mediation program eases prisoners’ reentry into society

By DIANA SMITH, Staff Writer

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Ann Shy says she would be bored to tears in a mediated settlement conference.

Move that mediation to a prison setting, however, and the Carrboro lawyer is ready to play ball.

And thanks to a new initiative she’s spearheading through the Elna B. Spaulding Conflict Resolution Center in Durham, the games are on.

Shy leads a mediation program that allows North Carolina inmates who are nearing their release from prison the opportunity to identify an outsider who they believe will be important to their success when they reenter the community and have three mediations with them. Volunteer attorneys and community mediators facilitate the sessions.

It’s the latest addition to dispute-resolution programs in the state, and only the second of its kind in the country. The first prisoner reentry mediation program was piloted in Maryland in 2006.

 The program has two purposes, one immediate and one more overarching, Shy told Lawyers Weekly.

First, pre-release mediation creates an open forum between inmates and outside participants so that they can begin to mend burned bridges.

Success at that level can lead to achievement of the second goal – better outcomes for the individual and, hopefully, less recidivism.

“What you find is that each of these individuals have their own demons, and once you identify those, you can work on developing a plan that preemptively defuses situations,” Shy said.

And because the greatest risk of recidivism occurs within 24-48 hours of release, it also develops concrete support plans even before the inmate reenters the community, added Lorig Charkoudian, who founded the Maryland program.

But these aren’t mediations in the traditional sense. 

 

The skill set

Unlike court-ordered mediations, there are no ground rules for civility in prisoner reentry mediation. People are free to speak as they wish.

 Also, mediators receive 16 hours of specialized training in “strategic listening” and issue-spotting techniques so they are able to identify root topics that may emerge from a flood of concerns voiced by participants.

 “It’s a very different model than most of us in North Carolina use as mediators or as parties to mediation,” said Durham attorney and volunteer Corye Dunn. “This model is much less concerned with coming to resolution and much more concerned with allowing the parties to say and hear what they need to.”

One key tool that mediators employ is what Charkoudian calls “radical acceptance.”

“We’re not agreeing or disagreeing; we’re not cheerleading or finding common ground,” she said. “We’re just honoring and accepting exactly where people are in this minute. The idea is that as we work on understanding deeply without judging, people feel understood and start to understand each other.”

That’s when a change begins to happen between the parties, she said. “And the shift is an authentic one because it didn’t come out of us telling people how to behave. It came out of them feeling heard and understood.”  

 

How it works

Every session has two mediators and begins with structured brainstorming. Both the inmate and participant dish out any concerns they might be feeling about the upcoming release.

Topics might range from how to find housing, employment and applying for benefits to how to maintain sobriety.

“For example, in a reentry mediation someone might say, ‘I’ll be respectful in your house’ and then there would be a long discussion about what respect would look like,” Charkoudian said.  

And resolutions do come, both in the form of a written agreement between the parties and a tangible sense of relief that emanates from them after the mediation, said Shy, who participated in two sessions last week.

“These aren’t feel-good sessions where we just sit around and talk,” Shy said. “We’re looking for real, cathartic breakthroughs.”

 

A lawyer’s duty

Beyond the obvious goal of reducing recidivism, Shy sees the prisoner reentry mediation program as an example of a way attorneys can fulfill a larger obligation to provide a service to society. 

“Lawyers sometimes get pulled away from the flesh and blood of their clients. This is the flesh and blood, but it’s in such a well-designed formula that it’s beautiful,” she explained. “It appeals to the logical lawyer in me. It’s not therapy, it’s not counseling, it’s not social work. It’s as clean as a contract.”

Editor’s note: For more information about the prisoner reentry mediation program, contact Shy at [email protected]


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