Students in REL 3520, Faith and Justice, weren’t just challenged this semester to learn the theoretical principles behind the concept of restorative justice; rather, they experienced it being put into practice through a visit with prisoners on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution last month.
The class is required for Faith and Social Justice majors and is taught by Professor of Religion Dr. Andy Watts, who also serves as co-faculty for the SALT (Strategies for Alternative Learning and Teaching) Conflict Resolution class on death row. Since 2012, Dr. Watts and other faculty from local universities have taught Restorative Justice courses, as well as a Rule 31 mediation course, to men on death row. His students on the inside have asked Watts to bring college students to death row in order to teach their alternative strategies for conflict management at the prison.
“This class has been life-changing for [the men on the inside], and it has been life-changing for me,” Watts said. “It is a course that follows transformative and restorative justice practices and principles. These principles sit at the foundation of all we do. The injuries to individuals and community provide the reason why our work is so important, for victims and their families, and for those caged for their actions. The recent restart of executions following court approval of the drug protocol emphasizes the importance of Tennesseans understanding the consequences of killing people in our names. For this reason, and for Jesus’ vision of the beloved community, I decided to take Belmont students to death row each fall for the Faith and Justice course.”
While the course is required for Faith and Social Justice majors, the visit to death row was optional for all of the students in the class. For senior Elisabeth Bordulis, who is a Faith and Social justice major, the three hours spent inside the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution were a “transformative experience.”
“Having conversations about life with men facing death was unexpectedly grounding,” she said. “They spoke to us so openly about their stories. Reflecting on these conversations, these guys are some of the most honest people I have ever met—after all, they literally have nothing to lose. If I remember correctly, every single man we met on Death Row has been in prison longer than I have been alive, and that fact alone was extremely difficult for me to swallow. I think I could write a book on the three hours I spent on Death Row because it felt as if there was something impactful to glean from almost every moment.”
Senior psychology major Mariah Meads signed up for the class as an elective at the last minute, having no idea what the course would offer. “We were able to see mediation and the effects of it at Death Row. The men, who are part of our professor’s conflict resolution class, lead mediation groups for other inmates who have conflicts. We saw a skit that they prepared for us and had a couple of hours just to sit and talk with the men. My favorite part was at the very end. One of the men sang the chorus of ‘Amazing Grace,’ his favorite song. I can still hear his voice echoing through the walls of that room. I cried hearing it, cried the entire way home and still get emotional thinking about how raw and pure that moment was.”
Both Meads and Bordulis described the class and the death row visit as life-changing, opening their eyes to unexpected communities and injustices, as well as to opportunities for healing and hope.
Meads said, “Talking with some of the men I met on death row inspired me to continue down the road of not only providing opportunities to those who don’t have the access to the education that they deserve but instead bringing justice to those who have been mistreated by the education and prison systems at a young age. We had someone speak to our class about a very similar topic, and I’ve actually shifted my life goals and career path due to the time at the prison and her hour-long talk with us.”
Bordulis added, “I used to think there was a sense of hopelessness in investing time into the lives of prisoners who are on death row awaiting their execution, but after meeting the inmates, my perspective shifted. As I sat face-to-face talking with people who have been behind bars for over 35 years, I was struck with the recognition of their humanity. Our beloved professor, Dr. Andy Watts, invests in these people so greatly, and I credit it to the fact that he is in the business of bringing hope, healing and restoration to broken souls. His focus lies beyond the horizon and his kingdom-minded efforts are sowing seeds that have eternal impact.”