This is the fourth and final installment of The Reader’s series “The Downward Spiral,” which focuses on the fraught relationship between our criminal justice and mental health systems. Read parts one, two, and three.
For the past several months, The Reader has investigated how systems in Omaha and Nebraska have blurred the lines between mental instability and criminality. For our final story, we examine how Omahans are looking to their communities to find peace and healing. These solutions range from restorative justice to peer-to-peer counseling.
None of these are a panacea — someone struggling with a serious mental illness and multiple incarcerations doesn’t just need a support group. But we thought these small, hopeful stories show there are ways we can help each other and that as bad as things get, they can still get better.
Healing through Restorative Justice
When Tabatha Manning saw his face, emotion took over.
Confusion. Pain. Anger.
Memories flooded back. Breakfast on a cold Wednesday morning on Jan. 15, 2014. A loud pop. Manning’s five-year-old daughter standing up, her head tilted backwards, blood gushing from where the bullet tore through her neck.
The man sitting in the church pew in October 2018 didn’t kill Payton Benson, but he was part of the gang shooting that caught Benson in the crossfire. The shooter, 22 at the time, spent three years in prison for first-degree conspiracy to commit murder.
After losing her daughter, Manning, 41, couldn’t work, cook or hardly bathe. The shooting and screaming replayed in her head. Manning pushed herself and her four other kids to go to therapy.
But nothing resonated like the apology she got inside that church.
After a few minutes of sitting with him in the church, Manning’s anger cooled. She told her story. The man in the church pew, whose name Manning asked The Reader not to publish to protect his privacy, told his. The fight started over a pair of shoes and ended in 15 gunshots.
“Him telling me everything that happened unexpectedly relieved me of all of the guilt. I walked out feeling so much lighter,” she said. “Knowing that there was nothing that I could have done to stop it or change it at that point, knowing that he was taking accountability for killing her. His body language was huge. He was scared. He was terrified.”
Months later, when she woke up on the anniversary of Payton’s death, Manning took a deep breath, exhaled smoothly and started to weep.
“I started crying tears of joy,” Manning said through tears, “because I could breathe again.”
Gun violence generates a lot of attention at first — news stories, vigils, political grandstanding — but eventually it blows over and life moves on for victims like Manning, whether they’re ready to or not.
A 2018 report in the American Journal of Community Psychology found people in high-crime areas are more than twice as likely to meet the threshold for moderate depression or diagnoses of post traumatic stress disorder. Residents in crime “hot spots” are also more likely to be poor people of color.
“It changed my perspective in a way that I didn’t see the trauma that everyone else had on their faces when I went out in North Omaha,” said Manning, who at the time of Payton’s death lived on 45th and Bedford streets. “I could see the hurt caused by incidents like what I went through.”
It’s very hard for either side, or the community, to move forward, Manning said, unless people who’ve caused pain and the people they’ve hurt heal together.
The conversation Manning had with the shooter is called a victim offender dialogue — an old concept that can reduce victims’ depression and trauma triggers as well as offenders’ anger, shame and self-blame, according to a 2020 report that studied these dialogues in Colorado.
But they’re not for everyone. Research from Canada showed between 40% and 50% of victims, who must initiate and control the whole process, want to meet their offenders, and the number is lower for victims of violent crime.
It also takes a while. Manning has been working with the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to meet the man who actually killed her daughter and was told it can take months or years to get to a point where administration thinks they can take the next step.
But there are other ways.
In 2022, Manning started working with the Community Justice Center, which offers a simulated restorative justice program in Nebraska’s prisons. Instead of meeting their victims, offenders spend a day hearing other victims’ stories. Manning was the first direct victim to lead conversations.
“Sometimes I cry, sometimes I don’t,” she said. “And I tell them different stories about the ways that I’ve tried to comfort my children throughout this entire process … We’ve gotten letters since I’ve been helping with the classes, and it’s always thank you for sharing your story. It meant a lot to me. It’s always something positive.”
Sometimes it’s hard — like when the man who apologized to her in 2018, now 31, reoffended in 2019 months after he met with Manning, charged with shooting and killing an 18-year-old. He promised to make use of his second chance, Manning said, and his involvement in another death angered her.
But her story isn’t going to change everyone’s lives. She just hopes it makes some kind of impact.
After Payton died, Manning had her clothes stitched into a blanket that she could wrap around her children when they wanted to feel close to her. Some days they still need to feel that. (https://nelsonjsalon.com) Other days she’s surprised at how far they’ve come on their healing journey. When Manning told her youngest son she was going to make telling their family’s story her job, his response let her know she made the right decision.
“He gave me a really big hug and just let me hug him back for a second,” she said. “And then he ran away smiling. This might be part of the healing process for him. Like he needs me to go out there and make everything safer for him.”
The walls are lined with artwork and Post-its. Linoleum floors reflect dull fluorescent lighting. The back room has enough crafts to occupy an army of kindergarteners.
The building near 72nd and Dodge streets seems like a place you’d host an after-school program. But a closer look reveals more.
“I just got goosebumps looking at that one,” Sandy Lemen said, holding a white plastic mask.
On the outside of the mask, kids wrote words that reflect how they think the world sees them. On the inside, they wrote how they really feel.
“That really strikes me,” said Lemen, director of programs at The Collective for Hope, a nonprofit that offers peer-to-peer grief support, “that they’re feeling those things and they’re keeping it inside.”
Whatever type of grief someone’s experiencing, The Collective for Hope has programs to help, including Ted. E Bear Hollow for children and families; Grief’s Journey for pre-teens, teens and adults; and HEALing Embrace for women who have miscarried and those who have lost infants.
What sets The Collective for Hope apart from therapy or counseling (though the organization doesn’t recommend its programs as a substitute) is that it connects people with similar issues who can talk, find solutions and heal together. It’s also free.
In 2021, Lemen said The Collective for Hope staff helped about 2,000 people in groups ranging from toddlers to adults of varying ages. The complexity of grief also varies. Little kids may bury Barbies in small sandboxes with gravestones while teenagers paint and adults sit around a room and talk.
A typical day is hard to capture, especially for kids. Sometimes they blurt out that dad died or mom killed herself. Sometimes they hold it in like one 8-year-old boy Lemen got to know.
On the first day he put his head against the wall and sobbed. Lemen took him to the hall and let him breathe.
“He just spilled his heart about his loss and how they died,” Lemen said. “He was able to say it in a safe space without having to worry about having to keep it in.”
Lemen came to The Collective for Hope in 2019. She’d worked in the wedding industry for more than a decade and made jewelry for people who’d recently lost loved ones. She heard about The Collective for Hope and decided to train to be a facilitator.
A month later, her nephew, who’d been more like her brother, died by suicide at 23. His funeral was the day before the training. Her 6-year-old daughter wondered why her “uncle” Dillon left without saying goodbye.
Suddenly Lemen was taking classes.
“Looking back I was like, ‘Well, where else would I have gotten that kind of support other than being in a room full of people who were here to learn how to help grieving people?’” Lemen said.
Suicide is especially hard to talk about. For Lemen, knowing this was a safe place to process her feelings among people with similar experiences had a profound effect on her healing journey. Today, The Collective for Hope has a program just for suicide loss.
Multi-colored beaded necklaces against one wall capture just how many types of grief the group sees. There’s blue, rainbow, black and many more that represent everything from grandparents dying to family separation due to immigration status.
While their group stays busy, Lemen knows there are always more people who could benefit — especially those affected by gun violence who rarely sign up for sessions.
“No one should have to grieve alone,” she said. “And our society is very much, ‘Don’t talk about it, move past it, sweep it under the rug, get back to work after three days.’ We compartmentalize it.”
There are also limitations to how many people the group can serve. It’s been hard since the pandemic to get volunteers, and it takes a special type of person to guide people through complex, varied forms of grief.
But Lemen said the results keep them coming back.
At the end of each meeting, every participant and facilitator gathers in the building’s main room. They join hands (or pretend to since the pandemic) and choose a positive word like “courage” to say together while squeezing each others’ hands.
At the beginning it usually feels hokie. Not many people are excited to be at a grief support group in the first place, Lemen said. But over time, something shifts. Walls come down, tears are shed, and people feel OK to laugh again.
“It’s magical, seeing them leave lighter than when they came in … we’re helping,” Lemen said. “You may not be able to put your finger on exactly what it is, but you can see that it’s helping them and that they’re doing better than they were before. And that’s [what] we care about.”
Finding Support, Inside And Out
Old floorboards creaked underfoot as people filed into the room. A cool December breeze moved through a cracked window to let out the old building’s stuffy, dry radiator heat.
Mel and Mary Beckman sat at one end of a table inside the Holy Family Community Center just north of downtown Omaha. They’ve been coming to these meetings since 1996 when they founded Family and Friends of the Incarcerated, a support and advocacy group for people whose loved ones are imprisoned.
It started when their own son, David, went to prison. At the time they didn’t feel like they had anyone to talk to. Those willing to listen didn’t understand. Mel Beckman thought the best idea was to gather people who could relate, so they could help one another.
“Every time you get home from Family and Friends [of the Incarcerated] you feel better,” Beckman said. “Because you’ve either heard something or helped somebody. The system remains hard to deal with, but it gives you a little hope that you can impact it.”
When Beckman founded the group he had an extensive history in organizing as a priest, founder of the Bemis Park Neighborhood Association and activist against poverty, racism and violence. His work even caught the eye of the FBI, which logged him in an ‘80s-era domestic spying operation that targeted mostly liberal activists.
With Family and Friends of the Incarcerated, the Beckmans wanted to let people speak without judgment. For Debbie Schulkey, who lives near Blair, it’s been empowering at a time when she feels so little control.
“My son has been in for three years, and I still have trouble,” she said, her voice cracking. “I still have trouble with it. You know, you walk up to that place and see wires and fences. It just about kills you.”
People like the Beckmans who’ve known the system for years can help people navigate health care and visitation and recommend classes their loved ones should take inside. They also help with nuanced problems, such as how to retrieve property confiscated by law enforcement, lawyers to avoid and how to work the parole system.
Conversations veer toward what could be fixed. Soon after starting Family and Friends of the Incarcerated, Mel Beckman started the Nebraska Criminal Justice Review, a newsletter covering current issues in Nebraska’s criminal justice system.
“We felt the need to know the people who run the criminal justice system, get them involved with us, and then we can poke our noses into their business and try to point out what’s best and what’s worse to the system,” he said.
One of the group’s biggest wins over the years was pushing to end mandatory life sentences for juveniles who commit murder. In 2013, Nebraska lawmakers set the new sentencing range at 40 years to life.
But wins can be few and far between.
“We can’t really deal with the apathy of the public,” Mel Beckman said. “Even if you have something good to point out, the public are just not interested in criminals.”
Things get even more challenging when a loved one is struggling, like in 2019 when the sewers backed up at the Lincoln Correctional Center where Shulkey’s son was staying.
“Excuse my language, but there were turds and everything else all over the floor,” Schulke said. “They made those guys sleep in that all night long. That’s not normal. That is sick.”
The Beckmans’ son went back to prison in 2020 after being released in 2002. He isn’t eligible for parole until 2034. They’re both in their 80s now and know there’s more than a strong possibility they won’t live to see their son walk free again.
“He’s worried about when we’re not here anymore, where he’ll go,” Mary Beckman said.
But even when things look bleak, Family and Friends of the Incarcerated offers some hope.
Jeanie Mezger, whose husband was incarcerated in 2015 for a sex crime, worried for years about her family falling apart, that she’d lose her job, that she couldn’t make it to tomorrow. But through groups like Family and Friends of the Incarcerated and Nebraskans Unafraid, an advocacy group for people on the sex offender registry, it helps her find some peace.
“You go to this meeting and you hear somebody else say ‘What do you do about such and such?’ and you’ve got the answer,” Mezger said. “It gives [you] a way to remember that they are valuable people and that their experience, no matter how crummy it was, unexpected and all of that, helps somebody else.”
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