In the fall of 2017, I initiated a series of exploratory conversations with present and former Vermont Corrections leaders about developing a fully restorative prison facility. With their consultation and insight, I slowly and steadily designed a fellowship proposal that would have allowed me to work full-time within a single prison facility. Over the course of the 18-month fellowship, I would partner with facility staff and inmates to re-imagine their prison as a place of support, accountability, learning, and healing.
Although the proposal was sidelined due to the proverbial circumstances beyond our control, I came away encouraged by the very fact that we held these conversations. I took particular heart in the openness of these Corrections staff to consider and embrace a different vision of prison. With this post, I want to share some of the promising ideas that emerged from these conversations.
Prison As Community
We began with a simple premise: prison is a community.
Then we delved a bit deeper. The prison community is actually shaped by two distinct but overlapping populations: staff and residents (‘inmates’). In spite of their different positions, these two populations share a common space and negotiate their relationships on a continuous basis. Although there are numerous rules or policies (‘directives’) to define these relationships, much of the daily interactions take place on an informal basis.
Prison community life, however, is more than a single culture. Residents have their own unique micro-culture, governed in part by shifting status, trust, and power, which informs their views and interactions with each other and staff. Staff also work within a cultural context of power and status (some of it institutionalized), which is visible both amongst themselves and in their perspectives, beliefs, and relationships with inmates.
Safety is Paramount
To build a restorative prison, people must feel safe. Safety, which is a core principle in the restorative approach, enables vulnerability, connection, learning, and empathy.
Prisons, however, are rarely described as ‘safe places’. Facilities have developed whole systems and protocols to classify and respond to different violations of emotional and physical safety. The violations range from the most minor infractions, such as ‘refusal to follow orders,’ up to violent assault and murder. These are just the incidents that are witnessed and recorded; prison is also defined by those events that take place when people look away.
In our proposal, we imagined employing circle processes with staff and residents at the outset to develop the agreements (rules) of the restorative project. The goal would be to develop guidelines that enable free-flowing dialogue grounded in respect, confidentiality, and honesty; and which enable all participants to share their experience and voice without fear of repercussion. This groundwork would necessarily have a profound impact on the quality and integrity of the subsequent conversations.
Engage the Communities
With the approval of clear ground-rules, we planned to turn our attention to explore the most basic relational dynamics of prison, including: assumptions and biases; power differentials; real and perceived status; and the underlying beliefs of the respective prison communities. In our design, these conversations would begin with separate groups of staff and residents; and then proceed to mixed community conversations.
Over the course of the conversations, participants would:
- Share ‘what prison is’ from their own personal lived experience;
- Explore their most deeply held values and principles;
- Reflect on the ways that the prison community upholds or denigrates these values and principles;
- Develop agreements on ‘what prison could be’ which is in alignment with the prison community’s commonly-held principles and values.
These agreements would form the basis of the community’s new social contract; the values-informed expectations that all community members will strive to uphold.
Establish High Expectations
All of these conversations will take place in an environment of high expectations.
That may seem startling: prison isn’t typically known as a place of high expectations. In fact, prison buildings, rules, and regulations (from intake to release), are designed to meet and reinforce the lowest expectations of the residents. This reality is understandable; traumatized, mentally-ill, caged, dehumanized, and frightened humans tend to act out in violent ways.
A restorative prison community must raise the bar of expectations, in spite of prison’s existing physical environment. The social contract is the first step in this direction. Another possible place to start is with an honest review of the Circle Process’ Seven Core Assumptions:
- The true self in everyone is good, wise, and powerful.
- The world is profoundly interconnected.
- All human beings have a deep desire to be in good relationship.
- All human beings have gifts and everyone is needed for what they bring.
- Everything we need to make positive change is already here.
- Human beings are holistic.
- We need practices to build habits of living from the core self.
At first blush, these assumptions may seem unrealistic, even naïve in the context of a prison. Viewed in a different light, however, these assumptions are also expectations; they define not only what we believe about ourselves but also how we approach and honor the worth of others. They also make for a very interesting series of circles conversations with groups of staff and residents.
Now, for a moment, imagine what prison might look and feel like if these assumptions were fully embraced and readily evident. Radical. Possible.
In my next post, I will continue this exploration with some thoughts on how a restorative prison might address violations of expectation and the social contract.