Katia Faroun and Griffin Sendek | The Duquesne Duke
Standing on the Bluff facing west, students have a striking view of Pittsburgh’s historical South Side, Mount Washington and the majestic Ohio River, with the Allegheny County Jail prevailing in the foreground.
A mere stone’s throw away from Duquesne’s campus and close enough for students to catch glimpses of figures moving in the windows, the County Jail goes by unnoticed and unthought of, blending in with the backdrop of the city. Yet inside, it houses over 2,000 men and women whose stories and histories contrast greatly from those of the students right across the street.
Our proximity to those who are incarcerated could not be any closer, but the lives of those inside and those out rarely intersect. Once men and women are sent away to jails and prisons, they are oftentimes dehumanized and forgotten, negatively labeled by those on the outside as “criminals” and once they return, “ex-cons.” Prejudice and stereotypes act as barriers between those inside and those outside, preventing each group from understanding the other.
The Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice (EBTT) aims to break these barriers, working from right here on campus.
EBTT started in the now-closed State Correctional Institution (SCI) — Pittsburgh, created by six individuals inside the facility. The group started meeting in 2013 with the intentions for inmates to talk about their different experiences inside. Once SCI Pittsburgh closed in June 2017, the original six members disbanded and were moved to various facilities. However, they had dreams to keep the think tank alive, and outside members involved in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program that had been present in the early days of think tank discussions continued the think tank in various Pittsburgh locations. It now meets weekly in Canevin Hall on campus.
EBTT includes a diverse range of attendees, including formerly incarcerated individuals, or “returning citizens,” lawyers, professors, students, journalists and various professionals. Its core members also consist of currently incarcerated inmates that the outside members keep in contact with.
The think tank’s mission is to bring together victim, offender and community to promote understanding and awareness of social justice. The think tank seeks to educate anyone willing to learn, but also take the necessary steps to make difference.
Dr. Rick McCown is a member of the think tank and a professor of education at Duquesne. He is an active member of EBTT and regularly leads the meetings.
“It allows people whose experiences are extraordinarily diverse to learn together and to learn not just from each other, but with each other,” McCown said.
The think tank meetings usually begin with a synopsis of EBTT’s history, the day’s meeting schedule and goals, as well as short introductions from everyone in the room. Every meeting, EBTT leaders introduce to newcomers the idea of gracious space, the idea that the think tank is not only a space to learn, but a space to grow. Gracious space allows for first-timers to ask questions without hesitation or fear of judgment. It also allows for long-time members to hear the perspectives of individuals unacquainted or unfamiliar with restorative justice.
The meetings havea revolving four week schedule, with each consecutive meeting having a different objective or theme. The last meeting of every month is a time where members share updates on their work and progress on their restorative justice projects. Different projects range from overarching efforts such as development of an application designed to help returning citizens upon re-entry to smaller, more personal endeavors such as working to obtain housing for a newly returning citizen.
Other meetings discuss the relationship between law enforcement and offenders, resources and public support for returning citizens and publication or program updates.
On any meeting day, it is likely that individuals within the group have collectively served over 100 years inside. Some regular attendees have served short sentences for minor offenses; others have served decades. For some of the returning citizens, EBTT is almost like therapy.
“The Think Tank to me is a blessing, and it ain’t a disguise,” said Alexander “Big Lew” Lewis, who served 32 years in Harrisburg and is a regular member of EBTT.
The idea that these returning (or “returned”) citizens are experts on re-entry has been reiterated throughout each meeting. Within three years of release 67.8% of all prisoners reoffend, and that number increases to 76.6% after five years, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study.
A majority of the returned citizens that regularly attend the think tank meetings have not only beat those odds, but are working hard to assist others and to help eliminate the process that causes so many to reoffend.
For those who attend, EBTT can be an eye opening experience as it offers diverse perspectives not only on social justice, but life experiences. The exchange of information and personal knowledge encourages open mindedness and leaves attendees with new understandings.
“It becomes a space for learning, and learning in public,” McCown said. “It really is a way of providing pathways for learning and I think that’s its biggest impact.”
EBTT meets at 8:30 a.m. every Friday in Canevin 108. Anyone is welcome to attend these meetings to learn more about the work EBTT members are doing in the community and how to get involved.