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For years, the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology has worked with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY) to change sentencing laws to end juvenile life without parole. Criminal justice reform is one of the advocacy focus areas for the Jesuits in the U.S.; our faith calls us to recognize the capacity for every individual to reconcile with God and one another. Due in part to CFSY’s efforts, there has been significant reform to the practice of sentencing children to life without parole. Hundreds of people told as children they would die in prison have recently been freed. To ensure their work was informed by people with direct experience in the justice system, CFSY formed the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), a group of individuals convicted of serious crimes as children who have turned their lives around. ICAN provides support to those now returning home. CFSY reached out to the Jesuits when they began thinking about developing a pilot retreat program for ICAN members to encourage self-care and build community among members. Thanks to the generosity of the University of Scranton, ICAN members were able to gather at the Lake Chapman retreat house. 

The pilot ICAN self-care and community building convening brought more than a dozen members of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN) together from July 1-3, 2018 at the University of Scranton’s Conference and Retreat Center at Chapman lake to rest and renew, while also developing and deepening personal and professional relationships, and learning strategies to better care for one’s own physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. The structure and programming of the convening illustrated that self-care is an important component of ICAN members’ full and healthy reintegration into society and their ability to be effective in their work.

All ICAN members were incarcerated for serious crimes as children, and many spent several decades in prison, told that they deserved nothing more than to die there. Because of reforms during the last decade – including those led by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth – many of these individuals are now home. They are demonstrating that we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done and that children have the capacity to grow and change. They are striving to make amends for the harm they have caused, seeking to change their communities and the world, and working to implement age-appropriate, trauma-informed accountability measures for other children – often without regard for their own needs.

At the self care convening, I had a wonderful time bonding with my fellow ICAN members. I also learned that self-forgiveness, apologizing, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable are so important to our work and growth, and that is also important to seek professional counsel. – Eddie Ellis

The ICAN self-care and community building convening included workshops and discussions about recognizing and healing from trauma, which many formerly incarcerated youth experienced before and during their imprisonment. Conversations, which were facilitated by a licensed clinical social worker, a priest who is also a leader in the restorative justice movement, and a CFSY staff member trained in pastoral and community care, also focused on creating personal wholeness, and engaged ICAN members about retaining their sense of personal accountability while overcoming the shame they bear for the harm they have caused.

Everything was awesome. The self-care sessions in particular helped me to identify some things I have been feeling and didn’t understand. And it also helped me reach a point of the beginning stages of healing. – Laura Berry

A major priority for the convening was to convey to ICAN members the importance of developing healthy self-care habits that will benefit themselves, those with whom they work, and their entire communities. Finally, the convening highlighted the importance of rest, relaxation and leisure. The convening was not envisioned to resolve all of the attendees’ self-care concerns; rather, it was a platform to highlight the issues, remind attendees that they deserve wholeness, and offer strategies and resources for continuing along this path. The CFSY believes that by embracing the full humanity of ICAN members and supporting their personal, professional, and leadership development, we provide them with the opportunity at success that they were not given as children.

Other reflections from participants:

Xavier McElrath-Bey:  On this trip, members of ICAN learned about the signs and impacts of trauma, as well various therapeutic and self-care approaches to treating.  Because of the safe space that we created, we were also able to hold each other tight and dive deep into the swampland of “shame,” sharing about the guilt and remorse we feel for the things we’ve done and the unhealed scars that resulted from harms done to us. In doing so, we discovered the holy grail of vulnerability, its healing and change making power, not just for ourselves but also for others who hear our stories. At times, there were tears and there was silence; and we came to recognize that healing itself is a journey; and that sources of hope, such as each other and our faiths, are what help us see to the other side. Ultimately, we embraced the strength in our shared humanity and our collective desire to make the world a better place for all children. No doubt, the openness we created, the shame we confronted, and the vulnerability that we embraced will have a lasting impact upon the movement for fair sentencing of kids. We are a stronger network of leaders now because of this retreat experience.

Abd’Allah Lateef:  As a Regional Connector and ICAN member, I had the special honor and privilege of participating in an amazing sabbatical hosted by the thoughtful and incredibly kind, Jody Kent Lavy.  The benevolence of CFSY/ICAN and its staffers was matched by the gracious hospitality exemplified by many members and volunteers within the Jesuit Community at and near Scranton University Retreat Center.  The self-care convening was in actuality a further demonstration of the strength, humility, empathy, selflessness, love, and genuine care and concern that we have for one another. In many ways, the bond that we share isn’t just a source of strength, it’s also a reservoir of healing which enables us to utilize our painful, trauma -filled lives in order to help others heal from trauma as well.  We should all be so lucky to have witnessed such an extraordinary event with such an inspiring group of change agents.

Marshan Allen:  I really had a great time at the first ICAN retreat. It was a pleasure to meet and spend quality time with fellow ICAN members as well as CFSY staff. I also really enjoyed the self-care sessions and took away some valuable tools to ensure that I am taking care of myself. I absolutely loved the downtime where we were able to fish, swim, play basketball, etc. I can’t wait until next time.

Special thanks to University of Scranton for donating its beautiful Chapman Lake retreat center for our gathering, Elizabeth Geeza, on their events staff, Matt Cuff of the Jesuit Conference, and Nick Napolitano, of the Maryland and USA Northeast Provinces of the Jesuits, Father David Kelly, executive director of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago, Lori James-Townes, a licensed clinical social worker with expertise in areas of trauma, juvenile justice and criminal justice, as well as all those in the Scranton community, including the Ignatian Volunteer Corps of Northeastern Pennsylvania and St. Francis of Assisi Kitchen.