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Ex-Convict Brings Criminals, Victims Together, on the Internet - 2003-01-17


The Internet has been used to bring together businesses and customers, researchers and information, and now criminals and the victims of their crime. A new website, based in Lincoln, Nebraska, is run by an ex-con who met one of his victims by chance.

By his own admission, James Jones was a crack addict 14 years ago, spinning out of control.

"On October 2 of '89, I committed five robberies in one night, getting more money to feed that habit… and I didn't want to live, I didn't care anymore," he said.

Jones was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 3 to 5 years. Released in 1992, drug-free and determined to turn his life around, he began working with young people as a drug and alcohol counselor. One day, one of his co-workers, who'd become increasingly bothered by seeing his nameplate on the office door, confronted him. Mr. Jones suddenly realized this was one of the men he'd robbed that October night. He explained about his addiction and why he had committed the crime… and apologized. "It was tremendous relief to both of us, and a couple days later I asked myself, since I was doing restorative justice work in the first place with kids and victims, bringing them together… 'how can I replicate that door with my name on it so my other four victims can choose to walk through it too?' And that's when the idea of Oasis was born," he said.

The Oasis website is based on the concept of restorative justice, which seeks to give victims a voice in the judicial process, while holding offenders accountable for their actions.

At the Women's Correctional Center in York, Nebraska, seven women dressed in brown short-sleeved shirts and pants are sitting in a circle and talking about their victims. "He had a heart condition, he was an older guy, a good friend who helped me out over the years, and I set it up for him to be robbed," Sandra said. "When he found out that he had been robbed, again, he had a massive heart attack and passed away."

Sandra is serving 7 to 14 years for forgery and firearms possession. She's taking part in an Oasis workshop Mr. Jones runs to help inmates learn to take responsibility for their crimes.

To help the inmates feel empathy for those they've hurt, James Jones gives each one an index card, telling them to write down a description of someone they love. He reads the cards out loud, then methodically rips them up, and drops them on the floor. The inmates seem surprised, confused, and hurt. "Well, give me my card back. What's the point? I was really curious," several voices at once said.

"This is crucial, guys, you have to be able to know how you feel," Jones said. "I know how I felt. I was mad and I was hurt," the offender answered.

That, he tells them, is how their victims felt. To drive the point home, he has them read a letter from a woman whose house was broken into.

"We were so devastated, we had to move out in less than a week because my children were terrified they would come back there again," the victim said. "I had moving expenses, had to break my lease, and some how to cope with my family treasures never being returned."

Inmates who complete the 8-hour workshop write an apology letter, which is screened by Mr. Jones and posted on the website. Interest in Oasis is spreading. Officials in Virginia, Rhode Island, and South Carolina have contacted Mr. Jones. So has Tim Newell, a former prison governor in Britain.

"That process of being public and posting something, your own story, which was accessible somebody in particular circumstances seems to me to be a very, very healing way of using this technology," he said.

Mr. Newell thinks the Oasis project has tremendous potential and wants to import it to rye hill prison in central England. But back in Nebraska, James Jones is focused on more immediate concerns. His initial start up grant, which covers most of his costs, runs out in may. But he's determined to keep the project going.

"I will make sure the project stays alive," he said. "I will pick up the costs, with donations from people who think this is a worthwhile idea."

More than a 100 offenders have signed up to post apologies on the Oasis website, but only a handful of victims have logged on. While he'd like to see greater participation, James Jones understands their reluctance. Reliving a crime can be traumatic, he says, even when it leads to reconciliation.

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