In the Fall of 2017, team #UbuntuPhilly had the opportunity to visit Graterford prison, a maximum security prison about 45 minutes from Saint Joe’s, in the hopes of getting a more personal and in-depth understanding of the people Ubuntu sets out to help. While there, we were able to talk to Maroon, Charles Boyd, Robert, and Ubuntu co-founder Kempis "Ghani" Songster. We discussed their ideas surrounding Ubuntu and their thoughts on restorative justice as a whole. This is the story of our journeys to Graterford.
We were fortunate enough to visit Graterford prison two times in order to meet with juvenile lifers and discuss their goals for Ubuntu’s event, as well as their ideas and thoughts concerning restorative justice. On the way to our first visit at Graterford, we listened to an audio documentary by Samantha Broun, who spoke at last year’s Ubuntu event and played a pivotal role in the 1990s by securing life without parole for juvenile lifers. However, she has since regretted her actions and advocated for the re-sentencing and release of these individuals.
As we got closer and closer to Graterford, our visit became increasingly real and tangible. Nerves were very high as we began to discuss our feelings of apprehension and nervousness before arriving at Graterford. Our minds began to imagine the conversations that we would soon encounter and those individuals we would engage with.
As a group, we felt slightly unfamiliar with the main concepts and themes behind Ubuntu, such as restorative justice, compassion for juvenile lifers, and injustice in the criminal justice system. As a result, much of our basic understanding of the criminal justice system and juvenile lifers was based off of content we absorbed through the media. This content, often broadcasted through social media, television news, and radio talk shows, generally creates an overwhelmingly negative depiction of perpetrators and offenders in the criminal justice system. However, we discussed many of these perspectives prior to our visit, as well as read and listened to several resources to learn more about the topics we would be discussing at Graterford. These resources included the audio documentary linked above, as well as a NY Times restorative justice article and TED Talk by Bryan Stevenson. With these informative resources, we felt a bit more confident in our abilities to engage in meaningful conversations at Graterford, as well as maintain an open mind to the issues at hand.
Once inside Graterford, we ran into a few bumps in the road. During the first visit, Abbey’s name somehow was not placed on the accepted visitor list, and, therefore, she was not able to come into the visiting room. As a result, she waited in the lobby of Graterford for the entire visit. Abbey was disappointed, but she was excited to have the opportunity to return to Graterford a few weeks later for Ubuntu’s second visit, and meet with some of those same individuals from the prior visit.
There are several obstacles to visiting prison that we had not yet realized until arriving at Graterford. Something that we did not fully consider before visiting was the process of going through such intense security and even getting an on-site drug test. When we walked in the doors to the lobby, our visiting number was called very quickly and we were directed into the screening room. Here, we were asked to empty our pockets of any belongings, walk through a metal detector, as well as undergo a drug test. It was conducted by having a small wand wiped across the palms of our hands.
There are also several strict clothing restrictions and guidelines that must be met in order to enter the visiting room of Graterford. For example, you cannot wear underwire bras or have holes in any of your clothing. During our first visit, Molly was sent back to find a new pair of pants due to a small rip in hers. Molly went above and beyond to make it and met us in the visiting room after going to Target and buying a new pair of pants on the spot. Molly was relieved that she was able to make it to Target and back to Graterford in time to talk to Maroon, Charles, and Ghani.
Once we got into the actual visiting room it was hard to focus on all that was happening.The room has chairs lined up, arm to arm, with guards watching from multiple different directions. There is not a lot of space and everyone is talking so it can be very loud and overwhelming. Due to the small space and vast amount of people, voices echo very easily throughout the visiting room. We met with Maroon, Charles and Ghani during the first visit, and for the second visit, Charles and Ghani were back, as well as Robert. All of these individuals are restorative justice experts and Ubuntu supporters.
This The opportunity to visit Graterford has been very eye opening and has enabled us to further understand some of the issues in the criminal justice system. We believe Ubuntu exemplifies how bringing people together to simply have conversations can bring about change and new perspectives on issues. Going into these visits, members of our group did not really know what to expect. We all worked very hard to go into these conversations with an open mind and push prior stereotypes to the side, which was crucial in our success. We were able to leave Graterford with not only a new understanding of Ubuntu, but a new perspective on juvenile lifers and second chances. Our trip to Graterford was a life-altering experience that our group will never forget. It is not everyday that one has the opportunity to go into a maximum security prison twice and sit down and talk with some extremely educated inmates. Being able to talk to these men gave us the opportunity to get a whole new perspective on juvenile lifers and gave us the ability from there to make our own opinions on the matter. We are extremely grateful for Ubuntu and Beautiful Social for making this experience a reality.