‘He had always been a monster to me.’ Restorative justice in North Carolina prisons

By: - October 28, 2023 6:32 am

Image: University of Wisconsin Law School

Holly Gilmore was petrified. She hadn’t seem Jimmy Jones in three decades, since she was a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. Now, she was less than a foot away from him, seated at a table in Orange Correctional Center.

“The last time I saw him, he was attacking me on the floor of my apartment,” Gilmore said. 

It was May 2023. Gilmore and Jones were at the prison as part of the Department of Adult Corrections’ “victim-offender dialogue program,” a form of restorative justice that allows victims to meet with the imprisoned people who harmed them.

Jones, a Black man who is now 55 years old, had been sentenced to life in prison for breaking into Gilmore’s home and sexually assaulting her in 1990. Before they started the conversation that day, the participants were asked what their goals for the meeting were. Jones said he wanted Gilmore to see his humanity.

“He had always been a monster to me,” Gilmore said. “I didn’t really think of him as human until that moment when he asked me to see his humanity, and I did.”

a screenshot of Holly Gilmore
Holly Gilmore discusses her experience participating in a restorative justice program at Orange Correctional Center earlier this year. “It’s a new beginning for me,” she said. “A new way to look at things.”

Gilmore recounted the seven-hour conversation between her and Jones — and the ways it transformed her life — to the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice last week. She described how the process made her feel empowered, and how victims of violent crimes often feel powerless. But the restorative justice program gave her some of that agency back. It allowed her plenty of time to prepare for the meeting, to walk into the room first and to make her feel safe while she visited the prison.

“As we went through this entire process, it became so empowering, and so life-changing for me,” Gilmore said. “I walked out of there feeling like a different person.”

‘No victim should be represented by an empty chair’

Gilmore’s decision to participate started with an empty chair. She’d heard that Jones had participated in the prison system’s S.O.A.R. Program, a rehabilitative course for people convicted of sexual offenses. During it, Jones had been presented with an empty chair with words like “shame,” embarrassment” and “pity” painted on it. Jones was told to speak to the chair as if Gilmore had been sitting there, given a space to tell his victim what he wanted to say.

That didn’t sit right with Gilmore.

“I felt like no victim should be represented by an empty chair,” she said. “Empty chairs are used for people who are deceased.”

Eventually, Gilmore said that if Jones had something to say, he could say it to her. This time, the chair wouldn’t be empty.

Jones had to agree to participate in the dialogue. Details of the daylong conversation were sparse, but Gilmore said she came with nine pages of questions for Jones. She wanted to know what he did on the day he attacked her, why he wasn’t in custody for four years before his trial. There were a lot of questions, a lot of tears. But also clarity.

“There’s never closure for a victim of a violent crime,” Gilmore said. “But the way I look at it is, it’s a new beginning for me.”

Parole on the horizon

Gilmore said the purpose of the conversation wasn’t for Jones to earn his release. It was for her to have her questions answered. To fill that empty chair.

But because of the nature of his sentence, Jones is eligible for parole every two years. Gilmore said it wasn’t her place to determine how much time behind bars is enough — “That should never fall on a victim’s responsibility to make that call,” she said — but she feels strongly that if Jones does ever get out of prison, he should be given support to ensure he doesn’t wind up back behind bars or hurt anyone else. 

He should have a probation officer who knows the details of his case and his “triggers,” Gilmore said, who can make sure he stays on the right path and supervise his behavior to make sure he does what he’s supposed to do.

“I can never agree to just open the door and let him be free,” Gilmore said.

Gilmore was at Jones’s sentencing hearing all those years ago. She saw the judge sentence him to life in prison in 1994, when Jones was 26.

“However things change over 30 years,” Gilmore said. “I’m now looking at the possibility of him being released on parole. And I know in my heart of hearts that that will be a very difficult day for me, however what is important to me, when or if he is released, [is] that he be given as many tools to be successful on the outside as he possibly can.”

Gilmore said she would tell that to the Post-Release Supervision & Parole Commission when she comes to Raleigh in January, when she weighs in on the prospect of Jones’s release.

Program could expand to entire prison system

Orange Correctional Center is a minimum-security prison, meaning the people who are incarcerated there are not deemed especially dangerous by the Department of Adult Correction. But Kim Banko, the agency’s director of victim services, told the task force the department was working on a policy that would expand the Victim-Offender Dialogue Program to the entire prison system.

“We don’t want to restrict it,” Banko said. “When we get it approved and ready to go, then I believe there is a resolution that’s being worked on to help us with the outreach portion to make sure every victim across the state will know and have access to this program.”

Before learning about the empty chair, Gilmore hadn’t planned to participate in restorative justice. She didn’t ever want to see Jones again. But she had years to prepare for that conversation, supported by her best friend; officials with the prison system; Jeff Neiman, the Orange and Chatham County District Attorney; and Jon Powell, the director of the Restorative Justice Clinic at Campbell Law School.

“I felt a tremendous amount of excitement, for lack of a better word, that this could be life changing,” Gilmore said, “not only for me, but also for other victims.”

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.