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Willette Benford - Restorative Justice

I first met Willette as a tutor, but her story fascinated me, and I quickly scheduled an interview with her.

Speaking about philosophy as the Love of Wisdom.

How do you understand wisdom?

I think about something acquired over time, but also something that is revealed by God. I know that we can have information and not revelation, we can move in that and make mistakes. I think wisdom can be acquired in time, through certain events. “A man will move on and will be punished, a wise man will receive instruction and will go forward.” You can get wisdom from others, but I really believe true wisdom, discernment, and the ability to make great decision comes strictly from God.

What do you mean by that?

I am a believer, a lot of people say Christian. A follower of Christ. I know that when I follow Christ’s teachings and biblical teachings from the word of God, I prospered, when I didn’t do that I didn’t prosper. I believe the word of God is an instruction manual, it has instructions, insight, wisdom, ways to point you to getting things you always wanted and went about the wrong way getting them.

When you say the word of God you mean the New Testament?

Both, the Bible.

Did you always have this approach to religion, or did this change throughout your life?

It changed throughout my life. I had an encounter with the criminal legal system and I was incarcerated for a while, and during my incarceration, many things spiraled out of control… you know that people say that many times where people are incarcerated they get “jailhouse religion”. That’s not true with me. I had a true encounter with the living God that radically changed my life. Just like Moses had an encounter with God at the burning bush, I had an encounter with God. My life changed, immediately I had a hunger for the word of God, I began to pursue God, and people I believed knew God, sometimes I was wrong, but using the Bible as a guidance, I was able to discern whether someone really spoke the word of God. This has changed my trajectory, to make better choices for my life.

I’m assuming you connect to God through the Christian religion. What is your view about other religions? Some people connect to God through the Koran, etc. Do you see the belief in God as exclusionary, as something that belongs to a certain group of people?

I do not, I believe the word of God says that God sent his son for the world, I know there are other religions that don’t believe that. I’m a result-oriented person, I got results from this. Any other person who gets results another way, that’s fine. But for me and my house, we will serve the lord and I believe that Jesus Christ is lord.

Did this conversion happen immediately as you started your sentence?

No, It was well into my sentence. There were many things I encountered, going the wrong way, getting caught up in all kinds of things. I was existing, but I was not living. A lot of people do that, they do all kinds of things to fill out that God space within us. If that is not filled with God, we will try to fill it out with other things, with things that don’t honor us, or who we are called to be. And that’s happened to me. And one day, it was actually on 9/11, 6am, I was sitting in bed, and I cried to God, I felt that I was going to die. I knew there has to be a purpose, there has to be more. God must have had more for me. And immediately when I cried out, I could feel the presence of God in the room, I knew from that moment that my life will be changed, and it was.

Apart from this, did you feel your experience in prison taught you something about our society, about life, that you didn’t know before?

It taught me that sometimes society is very unforgiving, very harsh and judgmental, and also relegates people to second class citizens state when they come home. Even after someone has served their time, shown remorse, rehabilitation. Even then, when someone speaks about being formally incarcerated, the judgment begins to turn, without knowing the circumstances or details, they begin to form a judgment. And I learned there are many barriers set up for people reentering society that were designed to keep you stuck – in low level jobs, unable to obtain housing, educational pursuits, and by that saying that if something happened in your past, you will never be forgiven, you can never move forward.

Not everybody knows God, and for those that don’t, there are advocates, I advocate for individuals coming home, I’m the board chair for the fully free campaign in Illinois, which is a campaign to end permanent punishment, those laws and barriers to reentry.

Black women make up 14% of the Illinois adult population and over a third of those incarcerated, not because they commit more crimes but because they are policed differently.

What is Justice for you?

Justice for me is not punishment. Justice is looking at a situation and saying “how best can I restore you?”, “how best can I support you in getting to where you were created to be.” Often we think of Justice as punishment, but even in God’s punishment there is mercy. If we think about Moses who killed a man and went on the run, we can accept that in the bible, but if this was someone today, we would do everything we could to prevent them from being a leader. But that shows you the mercy and justice of God, even there. He sent Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go”, because he knew that he already created him a leader, despite what he did as a young hothead.

Taking the devil’s advocate’s place, some people will hear you and say I can agree with restoring that person, but what about justice for the victim? It’s not justice if you only focus on restoring the perpetrator.

Even in the Word of God there are consequences to our actions. I think about David, he sent Uriah up to be killed, because he wanted to cover up the fact that he got his wife pregnant. And God told him, you did that in secret, but what I’m going to do to you will be made public. He told him the sword will not depart from his house, but within that there was mercy, and every time David repented he received mercy. The baby he had with Bat Sheva died. There are consequences to your actions. I’m not saying otherwise. I’m saying at what point your wrong ends and your right begins. At what point it’s no longer a debt to society and to the victim, but a punishment.

There is such a thing as restorative justice, where the perpetrator and the victim, if possible, can come into a room, and begin to heal, because at some point unforgiveness is like drinking poison hoping someone else will die, and forgiveness is not really for the other person. I release you from all acts of revenge, and I let God be God in that situation, because I never know when I will need mercy. If I continue to hold on to unforgiveness, it’s like a cancer, it’s like acid in a plastic container, eventually it’s going to eat me up from the inside. I believe it is the enemy’s way of destroying two lives instead of one.

What would be your general advice to a young person today?

To approach everyone with unconditional love. This doesn’t mean you don’t mix wisdom in that, but you approach people with the ability to be the best that they can be, even if you can’t see it right now. And approach them with the love you want someone to show you in your life. Always move with an angle of love.

Apart from the Bible, is there a book that has made an impact on your life?

That has changed your outlook on things?

I began to read the "Halfway Home" by Reuben Jonathan Miller. It talks about when you reenter society with an arrest or a conviction, and how the barriers and the hindrances are set up where the person is really set up for failure instead of success. My thing is that if you believe that the criminal legal system works, if you believe that someone should serve time with the intent of being restored to a rightful use as a citizen, then why continue to implement laws and barriers to make sure that when someone does reenter that they’re not set up for success, but failure.

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