Irene Morgan Restoring Justice
by Kathryn Fentress
Kathryn Fentress and her husband moved to Bellingham 20 years ago for the water, trees, fresh air and mountains. She is a psychologist in private practice and believes that spirit is everything. Living in harmony with nature reflects a reverence for life. She delights in finding and meeting those people whose stories so inspire all of us.
Irene Morgan will celebrate her 75th birthday this year. She has lived here with her family since the age of five. She and her husband live on a small farm in Lynden. She does some spiritual counseling work and volunteers her time and leadership for the Restorative Community Coalition.
Restorative justice is a theory that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders. It operates on three principles:
1. justice requires that we work to restore those who have been injured;
2. those most directly involved and affected by the crime should have opportunities to participate fully in the response if they wish;
3. the government’s role is to preserve a just public order, and the community’s is to build and maintain a just peace. www.restorativejustice.org
Kathryn Fentress: How did you first get interested in doing restorative justice work?
Irene Morgan: In 2006, my husband and I had closed our meat packing business. I was back from a six-week trip to New Zealand with no work for me. I have always been a champion for the underdog. One evening I went to a talk at Village Books by Don Kirchner, author of “A Matter of Time,” (High Ground Publications, 2003). He had been sentenced to 25 years in Federal prison and wrote a book about his experiences to help those coming out of prison to be more successful in staying out. I was inspired and met later with him and two officials from the Department of Corrections. I told him I wanted to start a coalition to help out. The Restorative Community Coalition began with 14 of us. Several became charter members. We have had hundreds of volunteers come through our program over the past several years.
How do you describe the work that you and your organization are focusing on?
We are in the business of reclaiming lives. We are action-oriented, advocating for restorative, economic, systemic and social change. We help those coming to us out of prison with bus passes, coaching, case management, educational and vocational support, counseling, referral to other local services, and help in finding affordable housing. Our prison system has become big business, a billion dollar business, and the recidivism rates are very high. We have more people in prison in this country per capita than any other country in the world. Our prison system is a failure in terms of rehabilitation. And our justice system is so badly compromised that it is now more profitable to sentence and house defendants than to try them.
We are actively networking with agencies and local political leaders, and with the Lummi Nation. We hosted a conference in 2011 to educate the community about the issues and our work. That same year, YES Magazine had a whole issue devoted to prisons in the U.S. (Issue 58, Summer 2011). They sent us 100 free copies to share with our audience. In that issue, the research indicated that in the previous 30 years, our population grew 35 percent and the prisons grew by 297 percent.
When you speak of social change, what vision do you have for your work?
We are interested in replacing the prison industrial complex with a different enterprising social structure that strengthens our economy, creates safer communities, and encourages economic vitality in our communities. These industries would nourish relationships, inspire ecological balance, and promote creative solutions to our social problems. In other words, instead of sending our citizens out of the community to a holding pen prison where they become harder and more criminalized, we would find creative ways to work with them in our communities with treatment programs that work, with training programs to equip them to be successful in the work force, and with amends programs to assist victims.
There is a plan to build a new jail to house 500 prisoners here in Bellingham. What can you tell us about that project?
We are very concerned about this proposal. As it stands now, the entire building would be built by nonlocal companies and for a larger population than we have ever needed. Our research indicates that jails and prisons tend to fill to capacity, whatever capacity is available. It suggests that it is now profitable to send people to jail, profitable for the prison management team, administrators, and the board of directors for these institutions. There is no longer any motivation to keep our citizens out of jail or in any kind of alternative program. Many people who are sent to prison are there because they have addiction issues or mental health issues, or were too poor to pay fines, or too poor to hire a competent attorney. All of this is very expensive for the taxpayers’ pockets, as citizens are now being advised to support a run-for-profit jail locally. Rather than investing hundreds of millions in a jail, why not invest tens of millions building community business models? This interrupts the cycle of self-destruction at its core leverage point, supports numerous community social service partners, and refunds a higher internal rate of return to the taxpayers over time.
Take a sample case of someone who has committed robberies for his drug habit and is sentenced to ten years in prison: that incarceration would cost about $45,000 a year, say for ten years or $450,000. Instead, we support that person in drug treatment and send him to college at $15,000 a year for 4 years or $60,000. In the first scenario, we the taxpayers pay these enormous bills and the community is weakened. In the college scenario, the student becomes independent and a taxpayer and the community is healthier. Even when we only look at the bottom line, we are better off finding alternatives for our community members than sending them to prison.
What kind of activities do you have for volunteers?
We need volunteers to mentor each of our clients coming out of prison, to help guide them to community resources, and to give them moral support. We need volunteers to do research online, to do film editing, and to do community educational presentations. We want to share our information in our classrooms with middle school, high school and college students, and other service agencies.
How do you keep your spirits up for this work?
Living on our little farm out in the country is heaven for me. It is how I take care of myself. It’s home and safe. It is my meditation: the trees and the birds and other wildlife that come through. It is my sanctuary.
What would you advise our readers on this topic?
Get involved in the discussion about the new jail proposal. Advise your local officials of your concerns. Educate yourself about our prison system and restorative justice programs that are successful in other places. Donate time, resources and money to help inmates returning to the community. Help with fundraising and outreach efforts. Research social change issues and write articles, talk with your neighbors, inspire change. You can find us at www.restorativecommunitycoalition.org.