As part of the groundwork for an upcoming proposal, I am researching existing restorative justice practices in prison. So far, I’ve read about two broad ‘types’ of restorative prison initiatives: the first carves out certain areas of prison life–such as violations of prison rules–for the introduction of restorative values and processes; while the second ‘type’ focuses on repairing the offenders’ relationships with the affected community or victims. In my research, however, I have yet to come across a living example of a fully restorative prison.
These readings have also served as a reminder of the central place of stories in restorative exchanges. I have read numerous testimonials where the participants in a crime or wrongdoing had carved out both a narrative and resulting meaning. These ‘stories’ however, are not fixed; the meaning evolves as the participants encounter additional information and perspectives. I want to share three examples from one recent document that I read (a prison RJ resource guide). The first quote is from the sister of a victim who met with a group of sexual offenders:
“I am seized by the realization that by sharing something of my experience of Lucy’s death with men who have committed violent crimes maybe it helps them to experience ‘victim empathy’, which may help them not to re-offend and to integrate their own victim pathology. I wasn’t expecting this. Tom’s response moved me in a way that is impossible to define in words or logic. It felt healing. An openness, a shared suffering, a truth.”
The second quote is about the change inflection point for an offender who was incarcerated for armed robbery:
“John was in prison just doing his time and waiting to get out. He was into drugs and was content to sit out his time. He saw a program on the television about children who have no parents and then he suddenly realized that his children had no Dad. That he had hurt them, his parents and the victims of his crimes. It was a turning point for him to have this insight. It was only this crisis that led him to look into himself and realize what he had really done to others through his behavior. He began to accept responsibility for his crime.”
The third quote is from the parents of a young man who is serving a life sentence for murder:
“This is something you can never forget. It will be with you for the rest of your life. You couldn’t walk away and say that’s it because it’s always there. And you’re always being punished for it. If other people aren’t punishing you, you are punishing yourself. I often say to Peter, what did I do so wrong to have this? What have I done so wrong? I’ve loved him, I’ve cared for him. You know, so if no one else is punishing you, you are punishing yourself.”
Events, such as crime and wrongdoing have a way of binding people together–for better and for worse–in a web of interlocked stories. Restorative encounters, which are not necessarily always planned or pre-programmed, offer an opportunity for participants to share stories and–potentially–develop new meaning and understanding. These exchanges can also create the conditions for healing and, in the process, change the stories that we tell both others and ourselves. In the absence of such encounters (see third quote), however, participants of an event may be left to make meaning in self-incriminatory–or in the case of some inmates, self-justifying–vacuums.
What does this have to do with my opening inquiry: what would a fully-restorative prison look like? First, I start from the supposition that a prison is a community that includes both staff and inmates. Next, I wonder how these communities can become safe and supportive places to share stories; explore meaning; and broaden individuals narratives. Third, I would be interested to see whether and how such intentional exchanges would impact the life of the prison community (as well as the inmates’ decisions and actions upon release). Finally, I wonder if prisons can be transformed into places of restoration and healing, not just for the ‘inmates’, but also for families, victims, and communities? Given what I know of prison life, these seems like questions worth exploring.