Advocates for restorative justice say the concept is often misunderstood as being “soft” on crime. But in a prison setting that does not usually challenge offenders to take personal responsibility — and where some even convince themselves they did nothing wrong — the approach offers a marked contrast. In interviews with the incarcerated men and in the dialogue circles, a common theme was how their focus when they entered prison was on survival, not reflecting on the actions that had brought them here.

Norfolk’s restorative-justice group formed three years ago. After some tension among inmates in 2010, several “lifers” asked for assistance in forming the group in the hope of promoting a peaceful prison culture.

At the retreat, members of the group greeted visitors, introduced speakers, took part in public apologies and helped facilitate the circles. They spoke of signs of transformation inside the prison. Where four years ago no one knew what restorative justice was, now it is heard in conversations in the cellblocks and in the yard. Participants spoke of the importance of getting their message to reverberate, too, in their home neighborhoods, many of which are marred by violence and drugs.