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Open Circle turns around lives of prisoners

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Human trash.

That's how prisoners are viewed by many people, says prisoner advocate Murray Barkman.

"When I drive to Stony Mountain penitentiary, I pass a landfill and I think, 'That's where we put garbage,'" he says. "'Then I get to Stony and I think, 'This is where society puts what it considers its human trash.' "

In both places, he says, "we just throw it away. We don't think about recycling or redeeming it. We just dump it."

At the end of this month, Barkman will retire after 10 years as head of Open Circle, a Mennonite Central Committee program that matches prisoners in Manitoba jails with visitors from the outside. More than 80 volunteers are involved with the program.

While many people today seem to think offenders are getting off too easy, or that sentences should be longer and harsher, Barkman feels that the way society deals with offenders is broken.

"We need prisons," he acknowledges. "Even some of the offenders say that they needed to be locked up because of the state they were in. But right now, the whole attitude seems to be about punishment... many people seem to want to put them (criminals) away and make them suffer."

The problem with this approach, he says, is that it doesn't make society safer. If offenders come out of prison angry and unprepared for life back in what they call "the real world," there's a good chance they will reoffend, he says.

"Prisoners tell me, 'If you put a dog in a cage and poke it with a stick, what do you expect?'" Barkman states. "You only make it mean and vicious... we don't want them to come back meaner and angrier than when they went in."

Plus, he adds, prison doesn't teach them to be responsible citizens when they are released.

"You can't teach people to be responsible by putting them in prison and taking away all decision-making ability," he says, noting that while most people make hundreds of decisions every day, prisoners get to make very few.

"We can't teach responsibility by sending people to prison -- the opposite happens," he says. "When they come out, they're ill equipped to live in society."

He laughs when he recalls one ex-offender who talked about being overwhelmed by having four appointments in one week. "That might be my life in one morning," Barkman says.

It's not that people who commit crimes don't need to experience consequences, he says -- they do. But offenders need to be given hope that they can "turn their lives around if they want to," he says.

Open Circle's goal is to supply hope and understanding by providing prisoners with volunteer visitors who can connect them to the outside world. The 37-year-old organization takes its inspiration from Matthew 25:35-36, where Jesus says "I was a stranger and you welcomed me," and "I was in prison and you visited me."

"The prison environment is a very negative one," Barkman says. "Having a friend outside of prison humanizes their world a little. Meeting someone from the outside is a way to feel a little human again."

Most of the prisoners who request a visitor are over 30, he notes, adding that the organization has more requests from prisoners for visitors than volunteers to do the visiting. "They're at a point in their lives when they are examining themselves, taking stock and concluding there has to be a better way to live. They see having a visitor as a way of moving in a positive direction."

Not every volunteer-visitor relationship works out, he admits, noting that "some ex-offenders don't make it. Not everything turns out the way we hope."

For Barkman, the bottom line is whether people feel cared for.

"Ex-offenders who make it on the outside tell me they did so because people cared for them. They couldn't give up -- they couldn't let them down."

In their book "And the Criminals with Him..." Luke 23:33: A First-Person Book About Prisons, Will D. Campbell and James Holloway write the following:

"We constantly discover men and women who have been in various types of prisons for decades without one single visitor having signed their record card. We have suggested on other occasions that each institutional church adopt three prisoners purely and simply for purposes of visitation -- so that at least once a week every man and woman and child behind bars could have one human being with whom he could have community, to whom the prisoner could tell his story.

"We have advocated that because we are convinced that this elementary act of charity alone would provide all the prison reform that society could tolerate."

People interested in being a volunteer visitor can contact Open Circle at 925-1912.

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 29, 2010 h13

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