May 23, 2023

A restorative justice practitioner describes his journey from incarceration to practicing restorative justice. This week on “I Live This,” the criminal legal system, race, houselessness and more.

A note to the reader and trigger warning: George mentions drug use and physical abuse in this conversation. We’ve kept that generalized in this post, but there are more detailed descriptions in the podcast audio that accompanies this article.

George Halfkenny is co-founder of THRIVE Communities. He came to peer support, he says, as a way to find purpose in his life and living experience. Why peer support? It was an opportunity to escape labels.

“I didn’t want to just be the substance use guy or the re-entry guy. I wanted to be able to coexist in all of these spaces because there’s so much overlap in the work.”
George Halfkenny

George started in community engagement, making the community aware of restorative justice circles around 2011. The work was part of a four-pronged approach to dismantle the school to prison pipeline. The groups would discuss the history of mass incarceration, prompted by the film “The House I Lived In.” But there was no place for George, professionally speaking.

“I would volunteer all the time and I’d be at events,” he said. “People would come up – and this is probably the greatest compliment I could get – they would [say] ‘We need to create positions for people like Mr. Halfkenny who had everything to do with this.’ I’d get claps and pats on the back, but there was really no space.”

George’s first professional break came at STEPRox, the recovery support center in Roxbury. His career in activism has continued since.

“A house of horrors”

George didn’t grow up in a stable household. He describes the setting as a trap house.

“As a little kid, man, trying to navigate all of that was challenging to say the least. The environment was just so toxic and horrifying.”

There was drug use, police raids, prostitution, and George suffered physical abuse around the age of eight. He says he thought that a teacher would know something was wrong, approach him, and talk about the hardship she was encountering at home. That didn’t happen.

“I remember I threw a chair in class and when I did that I got some attention,” he said. The outburst got him sent to be disciplined and got his mother involved. She was told George needed professional help. Eventually, he ended up in boarding schools and foster homes.

Restorative justice

After being introduced to drugs, George was in and out of jail for around 20 years. He understands that he missed out on a lot and that he hurt people – people who trusted him – along the way.

George halfkenny picture

“That’s what addiction was for me. I struggled for many, many, many years. The struggle is real. The struggle is today. The struggle is tomorrow. The only thing I have is this moment right here. My job is just to manage this one moment the best I can.”

George made the jump to restorative justice via his connection with an old friend who started a mediation program in Cambridge.

He describes restorative justice circles as a simple alternative with a deep history and long success rate - one that’s able to hold communities, bolster understanding, and promote equity and consensus.

Hear more about George’s journey, the gaps he sees in support for the houselessness community, his work with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and more in our full conversation, available online and wherever you listen to podcasts.

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