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February 2, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Sneakers squeak and vending machines hum as an unassuming man ambles into the visiting room. He takes a seat. There isn’t much urgency to his actions, no reason to hurry. He’ll be here a while.
“My name is Patrick Starr. I’m serving three life sentences plus 15 years for murder, robbery, mostly gang-related activity,” he says in an emotionless monotone. No regret. No pride. Just matter-of-fact.Related Articles
The crimes that put him behind bars were committed two decades ago, but his violent behavior didn’t end in prison. Six years ago, he added an attempted homicide to his rap sheet when he stabbed another inmate. The man barely survived.
To Starr’s right sits Paul Baumgardner, who has been here for 18 years. To Starr’s left lounges Lee King, a laconic man from southern Missouri who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter three years ago.
This is no television prison. There is no guard or glass wall. There are no handcuffs
or restraints, just a couple of cameras and a conversation. A conversation about where they came from, why they’re here, but most importantly a conversation about where they’re going. It’s a path with few options.
“On the other side of that door, it’s either hell or redemption,” Baumgardner says. “You choose.”
“That door” leads to the bowels of Jefferson City Correctional Center, a maximum security prison. Starr, Baumgardner and King have all chosen the latter path. Hell is what got them here. Restorative Justice offers them a chance to change that.
Restorative Justice, a program that encourages reflection and restitution, has helped change the lives of countless offenders. It begins with a class, Impact of Crime on Victims, in which inmates learn about the magnitude of their actions. Inmates then have options — a sewing class, dog training, a garden — that offer them a chance to give something back to the communities they have hurt.
Determined to make the best of a bad situation, Baumgardner, 55, has taken advantage of the few opportunities he has left. He’s an inmate leader of the garden project, which donated 24,066 pounds of food to food banks across the state in 2011.
“I was always a taker, and now as far as I can, I try to give back,” Baumgardner says. “This is my community now. Even though we’re in prison, we’re still people. Some of these guys would be better neighbors than what people actually have out there.”
It was Baumgardner’s neighborly advice that got King, 38, involved in the garden, but it was the class that led him to take a look at himself.
“There are so many things that we take for granted that gets taken away when we get to prison; it’s unbelievable,” King says. “Apparently it was wrongdoings that brought me to prison. Now I’m trying to do the right things.”
Starr, 43, wouldn’t be where he is without his friends’ encouragement, either. After living what he calls a negative existence in prison, culminating in the attempted homicide six years ago, he was transferred to the Jefferson City prison and came across old acquaintances from the streets. They weren’t the same men anymore, though. They’d been through the program, and they urged Starr to give it a chance. He decided to attend, not expecting to get anything out of it. The change crept up on him.
“I gambled on buying into things I was hearing in the classroom,” Starr says. “It all turned out to be accurate and true if you gave it a chance. It has been a tremendous life change for me.”
The visible metamorphosis the program inspires in offenders is one of its strengths. Transformed inmates tend to recruit others, as Baumgardner did for King and Starr’s old friends did for him. The support other prisoners provide one another keeps them pointed in the right direction.
“It’s encouraging walking down the hall and seeing Lee going to work. It’s encouraging to see Pat behind his desk,” Baumgardner says. “You know that you’re not just going through a motion. You actually mean something. You’re providing blankets for people in Joplin who went through the tornado — hundreds and hundreds of blankets. The garden’s giving food to starving kids.”
More than just giving back, the program offers offenders a chance to be human again. Starr spent 26 years under the thumb of gang influence. His parents, his brother’s death, his conviction — nothing could change that. But Restorative Justice did it in a matter of years. “Out of the mouths of my own peers, I am unrecognizable today in the negative world,” Starr says. “That encompasses the full scope of a change that you can make as a man. You wake up, and you ain’t even known by your face no more. Before, you’re known by your negative activity. Killer. Drug dealer. Hustler. But today, I am recognized for who I am. I’m recognized for just Patrick Starr again, and that feels better than all those other things ever felt.”