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Editor’s Note: Missioner Jeff Sved shares how his views of the penal system have drastically changed since he first arrived in Bolivia and during his time involved with prison ministry.

When I first entered a prison in the fall of 2011, I could not imagine the effect it would have on the next few (and likely many more) years of my life. I had no concept of the reality of the penal system, nor did I have any grasp of my own biases about prisoners, crime, and punitive justice.

Among many other things, these past few years have been a long process of Letting Go of my biases and assumptions.

This letting go has allowed me to be present to people experiencing incarceration and not be limited and blinded by the label of “inmate” or “criminal” and my own bias of the system.

The normal rhetoric surrounding incarceration is that any illegal actions should be punished and time in jail is the way to punish these crimes. This rhetoric often includes the thought that only ‘bad people’ do illegal things and that it is better to remove them from society anyway.

In Bolivia, all offenders do re-enter society at some point (the maximum sentence is 30 years… and the fact that in the US it is possible to receive a life sentence is laughed off as incredibly primitive). Simply locking people away doesn’t happen, so the reality of re-inserción social (social reintegration) is not ignored. Rehabilitation is acknowledged and respected as part of the prison system in Bolivia.

This whole process of letting go of my previous thoughts about a punitive justice system has only been furthered since I’ve begun working with Restorative Justice practices through the ES.PE.RE model – Escuelas de Perdón y Reconciliación (Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation). Before participating in an ES.PE.RE. workshop last April, I always assumed that a system of crime and punishment was the only way to go since that was the only model I knew.

For a quick look at the difference between the retributive model and restorative model of justice here is a simple comparison.

Through the ES.PE.RE workshops, people get a chance to work on their own self-forgiveness as part of their process of reintegrating into society. It has been amazing to see the growth in others and in myself as we go through this process together.

Reflection Question: How can you challenge some of your own biases and assumptions in order to remind yourself of the individuals involved in these social systems rather than the system itself?

Featured image: adaptation of photo by Pixabay user MarkoLovric – labeled for reuse