From the time he turned 5, Darnell Lane has been enmeshed in the cycle of gun violence. Whether witness, recipient, or perpetrator, he said the acts of violence he experienced made him believe he didn’t have any options but to continue that pattern.

In 2006, Lane was convicted for shooting and killing Charles Young in Chicago. While he serves a 45-year sentence for murder, Lane is on a journey to heal from his past. “I allowed my adult self to go back and feel the pain of my youth and face the torment from a position of resiliency,” he said in an interview with The Trace conducted through the Stateville Correctional Center’s ConnectNetwork’s messaging service. Now he is helping others do the same.

This past summer, Lane and India Hilty, a medical student at the University of Chicago, taught a course called “Violence Prevention and Trauma Healing” at Stateville, a maximum security prison southwest of Chicago. The course was offered through the Prison + Neighborhood Arts & Education Project, an organization that teaches arts and humanities classes to men in Stateville and to women in the Logan Correctional Center. They are trying to offer the class again next year.

Lane said he offered this course to show incarcerated people that they can overcome their previous mistakes and be a resource to their communities. Often, he said, the violence prevention space does not include incarcerated voices.

“It’s important for those who have caused harm to be accountable to the community and to show themselves to be part of the solution,” Lane said. “Who knows more about violence than the incarcerated?”

Finding ways to overcome trauma

Lane, who received a bachelor’s degree through Northeastern Illinois University’s “University Without Walls” program last year, was inspired to create a course confronting gun violence as a public health crisis — and centering the perspectives of incarcerated people — while writing his final college paper on the subject. 

Once a week for seven weeks, Lane and Hilty instructed 17 students about structural violence and covered such topics as the role of masculinity and patriarchy in creating a culture of violence, adverse childhood experiences, and intergenerational trauma. They also explored different pathways of healing through peer support and restorative justice. They’re planning on publishing a booklet with the poetry and essays the students wrote. 

Lane said the course needed more time to unpack the multifaceted lessons. Still, he said, the teachers received positive feedback. A friend shared that the course made him realize that he had been coping with unresolved trauma — and that he felt empowered by the group to embark on a road toward healing. 

The class focused on creating a safe space for students to share their experiences; some sessions were led by participants. His favorite, Lane said, was discussing a path forward from past trauma. He said men get trapped in a cycle of violence where they internalize their trauma and feel they have to hurt someone first before they get hurt.

“These classes give men who have hidden behind false bravado a chance to look in the mirror and ask tough questions of themselves: Why am I hurting? Why do I hurt others? How can I change, or be the solution?”

Lane said that being able to acknowledge their own trauma and recognize it in others helps the participants respond to difficult situations in a healthy manner. 

“We confuse justice as punishment,” said Elena Quintana, executive director of the Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice at Adler University. “But what we really need to think about is justice as healing.” She said expending resources to programs that promote this approach can create long-lasting public safety and less victimization.

People who touch the legal system have more trauma than the average person, Quintana said, and prison often exacerbates that existing trauma. What people need, she added, are programs inside prison that help them heal and prepare for the future.

Lane used healing circles to prompt participants to talk about their experiences without being judged. “We are more than the worst thing that has happened to us, or that we have done,” he said.

There was a powerful moment during a lesson, Hilty said, when a student told the group that he recognized the harm he had done in the past — but that for the first time ever, because of the class’s community, he was able to forgive himself. Many of the students hugged him.

Bridging the outside world with those inside

Looking back, Lane said he wished he had known how his early adversities and trauma would affect the decisions he would make as an adult. The 2006 shooting that led to his conviction began with an argument between Lane and Young, witnesses said at the time. The reality was more complicated, Lane said, because the two knew each other well. Back then, he reflected, he didn’t have the tools to help him set his ego aside and control his temper.

Even while imprisoned, Lane said he has not stopped being a father to his three adult children. He has instilled lessons that teach them that violence is not necessary, and that they must know the triggers in their lives that might cause them to react suddenly — and understand that their actions always have consequences.

It’s not just his own family that he feels beholden to. “I will return to the outside and it’s my responsibility to the victim and his family to be a source of enrichment and hope,” Lane said. He wants to be part of the Black community’s growth and empower youth to embrace their resiliency and imagination.

While facilitating the course, Hilty said she was able to see how the carceral system deeply harms people and the communities they come from.

“We’re hopeful about ways that this class might expand opportunities for them to break down the barrier between people who are healers on the inside, in carceral facilities, and people on the outside who are also passionate about doing this work,” Hilty said. “People who have been deeply impacted by trauma and systemic violence are uniquely positioned to act as healers and to break intergenerational cycles of violence.”

Throughout the class, Lane and Hilty brought in guest lecturers from Chicago who work in violence interruption and trauma healing, including several who had experienced incarceration. Lane said these lectures enabled those inside to show solidarity with the work being done outside and demonstrate how they are working to change perceptions of who they are.

“We have been the poison of our communities,” Lane said, quoting his friend Manuel Metlock. “Now we are the antidote.”