I spent an unforgettable day with a group of men at the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center in Kewanee, Illinois this week. They were part of a book club, one of a dazzling array of activities offered at Kewanee, which I got to see on a tour of the facilities led by Eric Anderson, son of our own Julie Anderson. Classrooms, art, a huge garden, two gyms, a library–all designed to help prepare these fellow citizens to re-enter life outside of the corrections system.
The book club had graciously invited me to speak with them about a book they had read: my first book, Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer. The book tells the story of the murder by a juvenile of my sister Nancy and her husband and their unborn child and my change of heart over time about the sentence he received for killing them: life in prison without the possibility of parole. As of this writing, he is still serving that sentence.
When that sentence was first handed down, I was glad of it; I wanted the person who took the lives of my loved ones to never be released. But over time, thanks to my saints (like Julie and RIck Anderson), I learned how wrong I was. That every human being is capable of growth and change, and deserving of an opportunity to demonstrate that they can be safely released from custody and come back to their communities and their loved ones. My book traces the journey of that change, starting with some stark chapters about the murders, the arrest, and the trial. It is challenging.
But the men of the book club who invited me to sit down and talk with them about the story I tell in the book were brave. They read it, even the hard parts; they took in its message of forgiveness and mercy and redemption, and what we owe to one another. There were some tears during our talk, from them and from me. There was laughter and insight and connection. I left feeling joyful and grateful. For the men in the book club. For the re-entry center and its staff, who could not have been kinder or more gracious to me from the moment I got there. Special thanks to them: James Carothers, Chance Jones, Matthew Warnsing, and Christy Coulter.
After the book club meeting ended, we said our goodbyes, and I drove away through golden cornfields, lit by a sun that had just come out. This is what it looked like:
My heart felt just like that.
Jeanne Bishop is a member of Restore Justice’s Board of Directors and the president of the Restore Justice Illinois Board. Her sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, Nancy’s husband Richard, and their unborn baby, were murdered by a teenager in 1990. Jeanne Bishop is a felony attorney with the Office of the Cook County Public Defender, an adjunct professor in the Trial Advocacy Program at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, and the author of two books on mercy and forgiveness. She serves on several other boards supporting reform in the criminal legal system, including the Illinois Prison Project and the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy.