An inmate dressed in a prison jumpsuit holds a book that says Bridges to Life on the cover.

Administration of Justice: Building bridges

Bridges to Life, a program run by Penn State Beaver Administration of Justice students at the Beaver County Jail, is helping victims and offenders heal by encouraging them to come together and share their stories.

By: April Johnston

They sat in a loose circle in a high-security prison – victims, offenders, facilitators and students from Penn State Beaver – and waited for the one named Christopher to tell his story.

Finally, Christopher shook the memory loose. He was driving with his 2-year-old son in the back seat. He ran a stop sign. Another car T-boned him. He survived. His son did not. And because he had marijuana in his system, he ended up here.

A lot of tears followed the telling. A lot of supportive words. A lot of tissues.

Penn State Beaver student Dominic Rossi was floored.

“This works,” he thought. “This can actually work.”

Rossi was talking about the restorative justice program Bridges to Life. The program is designed to trigger acceptance by connecting community members and prisoners. Sometimes, that acceptance is a steep climb. Society has been conditioned to mark offenders as bad and to confuse justice with retribution. Bridges views justice as something much more fluid, a feeling that can be earned and changed with understanding.

Administration of Justice Instructor LaVarr McBride believes in the restorative mission of Bridges, which is why he brought the idea to Penn State, trained his students to become facilitators, and implemented the 14-week program in the Beaver County Jail.

His students summed up their experience working inside the jail in five simple words: “It was a game changer.”