WHEN GREGORY WINSHIP MA ‘17 begins teaching a new course of conflict transformation training at United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, he waits until the second session to share his past.
In that session, he shares an optical illusion. Some participants see a frog, others a horse.
Winship then tells them that he was once sitting where they are sitting, “and even though I am now the one facilitating the class, I understand where they’re coming from.”
The atmosphere changes, he says. The space is suddenly shared. He is not only a teacher but a companion. Those who see a frog now see a horse, and those who see a horse now see a frog. His lesson goal of “helping them to see and perceive differently” is fulfilled in a heartbeat.
Winship is the most credible of “credible messengers” – someone who has done wrong, harmed others, learned, grown, changed and determined that his life, and his unexpected freedom, is only worth something if he devotes it to helping others. He works to help those on the inside and the outside transform their own perceptions of justice and form right relationships.
To that indelible credibility, add this: Winship is the first graduate of Eastern Mennonite University’s MA in restorative justice program. In Winship’s work and his research, he has begun to propose an incremental but ground-breaking integration of restorative, rather than retributive, principles into the prison culture.
“I have come to have great respect for his reflective, inquiring mind, his integrity and his commitment to using his experience and gifts to make the world better,” said Howard Zehr, distinguished professor of restorative justice at EMU. “He is uniquely equipped and highly motivated to do so.”
Finding a purpose began almost immediately after Winship entered a maximum-security prison at age 29, with five consecutive life sentences ahead of him. Winship, who previously earned his degree in business administration from Graceland University in Iowa, became the program clerk and curriculum developer of an on-site branch campus of Wilmington University, as well as a literacy and GED tutor.
He read about Zehr’s principles of restorative justice about 14 years into his prison sentence. The principles resonated immediately, he said.
Since joining the Center for Conflict Resolution in Kansas City and beginning studies at EMU, Winship has engaged in training residents about conflict resolution, restorative justice and trauma resilience. All of these skills he sees as essential to personal growth inside the prison and in the transition back into society. (Approximately 95 percent of inmates return to society, according to the Department of Justice.)
After one conflict resolution training, an administrator saw residents “practicing the skills they learned in class,” something she had not seen before with other programs. She has invited Winship to train staff. Winship’s response: “Let me train staff and residents together.”
Bringing residents and staff into a room where they learn and explore skills of conflict resolution is potentially groundbreaking, culture-changing work. What greater benefits are there, to both parties, to the prison itself, and the wider community if residents and staff learn and practice conflict resolution skills together? Would prisons be more rehabilitative environments if the relationships were collaborative instead of combative? If residents were treated as vessels of hope and healing instead of “an object or something we don’t want to know anymore”?
He presented this theory of change to CJP professors and classmates in the spring. When he finished, Zehr proposed a retreat of formerly incarcerated individuals.
For Winship, this convergence had real possibilities: for years, he had thought about starting a national organization of formerly incarcerated individuals to be mentors of the restorative process to those impacted and harmed through the criminal justice system. This organization would also work to change the public image of returning citizens and to influence policy-makers.
“We need to start looking at our past as something that is a benefit and not a detriment, and we need to be responsible and accountable for our actions,” he says. “All the restorative justice processes speak to that.”
He is not proud of why he spent 20 years in prison or the hurt he caused so many people. He’d like to change that part of his past. But he can’t and so he’s working at making that right, slowly, one day and one relationship at a time. He owns his choices, then and now.
“Without those 20 years, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now,” Winship says. “That combination and the culmination of events in my life so far makes me think I’m in the right place at the right time. I know that there is a bigger purpose than just me, but where that leads, I don’t know. I feel like I’m on the right path.”