A Conversation With Restorative Justice Initiative Director Efrain Marimon
Efrain Marimon spends countless hours as an educator, teaching students in Penn State’s College of Education, as well as teaching students in the four prisons that surround State College. As the director of the Restorative Justice Initiative, Marimon focuses on helping imprisoned students get a similar education to that of a traditional classroom.
The work isn’t easy, especially because people tend to have negative perceptions of those who are incarcerated. But Marimon believes that understanding the issues of mass incarceration and the people who are in the prisons can help people understand systemic racism better.
We sat down with him to discuss the initiative, what it’s like to interact with people who are in prisons, and how Penn State can create more programs to keep pushing for social justice.
Onward State: What is the Restorative Justice Initiative and what are its goals?
Efrain Marimon: The idea of the Restorative Justice Initiative stems from education. It is a group of faculty, staff, and graduate students that see education as a powerful tool towards rehabilitation, support, and advocacy. We use “restorative justice” in our name, but in reality, we use more of what’s called “transformative justice,” which looks at these issues through a systemic lens.
Those lenses include systemic racism, mass incarceration, and other systems that work against certain individuals. The people we work with who are incarcerated may have been affected by those systems.
Think of RJI as an umbrella, and within that umbrella are different aspects of restorative justice and restorative practices. One of the practices we are engaged in is prison education, and that right now is taking up the big piece of what we do. The other major piece is advocacy, which exists with our student organizations. Graduate and undergraduate students work together to advocate for people who are incarcerated and for people who are system-impacted.
Some other things we do include counselor education that works together with our recovery component, creating our intramural sports teams that go up against intramural sports teams inside of the prisons, and trying to get the classes that we teach in the prisons credited for those students who are on the inside taking them so they can get an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree.
OS: When teaching students who are imprisoned, what similarities have you noticed with their learning and motivation compared to those in a traditional classroom setting?
EM: When people think about our students, they typically judge them on the worst thing they’ve ever done. So, unfortunately, it comes as somewhat as a surprise when they find out our students are just as or even more motivated than students on the outside. And there are several reasons for that.
All of our students are on different parts of their journey. For students who are out here attending a university or some sort of college experience, they would typically say it was a formative experience. We are trying to give that same experience to people on the inside no matter what part of their journey they are on.
Our students respond really well to this. They’re not doing this for credit. There is no grade attached to these classes. They’re really there because they have an interest and want to engage in the topics, content, and opportunity for academic growth. More often than not, our students are more motivated. Students on the outside have a lot going through their heads with multiple classes and other activities. Students on the inside are fully present in these classes and tend to be more focused during them.
OS: How are instructors responding to these experiences inside of the prisons?
EM: Our instructors tend to find this as a very positive experience because it also allows them to be reciprocal learners in that space. It is something that they can take back to teaching on the outside.
Teaching inside a correctional facility is going to have them engage in some very important questions about their teaching, positioning, and privilege. It will also allow them to really own that with their students, which ultimately causes a paradigm shift in how they view teaching and learning as professors. That, in turn, impacts the students on the outside as well.
OS: Are there enough programs like the RJI that are fighting issues, such as systemic racism or mass incarceration, at Penn State?
EM: I think they are trying. I think there are efforts from Penn State to ask important questions like that question. I have hope for it because I think the university is starting to understand that it comes with a massive responsibility, and we are really committing to dismantling systemic racism, it’s going to require untangling a lot of elements that are present.
I say I am hopeful because the university has been taking important steps in the last few months and years to really attempt to tackle them. With that said, it’s hard! It’s embedded in everything, and it requires substantial investment in not just capital but ourselves.
Change is often met with resistance, but understanding that resistance is a part of the process. If we want to tackle racism, we have to understand that there are things that have benefited others in ways that have been unjust historically, and to undo that, we have to be willing to make tough decisions.
OS: What advice would you give to students who are trying to become more aware of mass incarceration and working to advocate for victims?
EM: When I say what we do takes work, ownership of that work on a personal level is necessary. It is important to own that the things we do on a day-to-day basis can help. So one way to help on that level is to support the work of the students’ group, Students Restorative Justice, which serves as a way to provide awareness and advocacy of issues for those who are system-impacted, incarcerated, or formerly incarcerated.
Another way is to engage with these issues while you’re here at Penn State. There are multiple organizations that get involved through extracurricular activities, and there are classes across colleges such as the College of Education, College of the Liberal Arts, and College of Ag Science.
There are opportunities to engage in civic engagement and social justice work in a way that is experiential so that you are working with the communities instead of talking about the communities, and you are learning with them.
If you’re interested in the RJI, then the SRJI might be a good bridge. Whatever that passion is, I encourage you to use this time to learn and grow and engage with those issues.
Marimon’s interview is part of an ongoing Onward State series of conversations with race relations, social justice, and diversity experts at Penn State. If you enjoyed this piece, consider reading interviews with social justice professor Ashley Patterson, race relations professor Sam Richards, or College of the Liberal Arts Dean Clarence Lang.
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