Restorative Justice is clearly a movement whose time has arrived. Wherever you look, there are stories of new and creative applications of restorative principles, which are shaping and transforming the cultures of our schools, communities, and businesses. The sky is the limit.
Except for one notable exception: prisons. Here, the walls–literal and figurative–persist.
This isn’t to diminish the powerful work that is currently taking place on the ‘inside’. There are numerous examples of prison-based restorative programs, including: victim-offender dialogues; healing circles; inmate-led mediation; and restorative responses to rule violations. Each of these initiatives have created and nurtured a space for inmates to address harm, form connections of support and accountability, and heal shame. All this is good.
Processes and programs, however, are not the same as a fully restorative prison facility. With the exception of a Brazilian prison, most programs touch a relatively small cohort of inmates, typically within a much larger facility; they are essentially carve-outs or ‘exceptions to the rule’.
Which begs the question, what would a prison facility look and feel like if it actively adhered to restorative principles? I’ve done some thinking on this question.
Let me begin by recognizing that this is a deeply challenging proposition. Some restorative practitioners have come to the reasonable conclusion that prisons are inherently antithetical to restorative principles. In this view, the very definition of prison–‘A building in which people are legally held as a punishment for a crime they have committed’–is bound to corrupt the principles and practices of restorative justice. This is a real risk.
In fact, it’s readily evident that punishment is built into the very architecture of prisons: the buildings are intentionally designed to monitor, isolate, control, and diminish. From this most basic assessment, prisons are not spaces that lend themselves to fostering connection and restorative community.
I look forward to the day when we permanently shutter our last house of punishment and its expensive, ineffective, and dehumanizing environment. Prisons have become the blunt instrument of choice for every community problem: warehouses for society’s ills. They are, in essence, abdications of our collective responsibility.
Until we reach consensus on this fact, however, we should not allow prisons to be off bounds to the restorative approach. These institutions reflect the policy, financial, and judicial priorities of our representative government. We are, in fact, all responsible for what takes place in prison. From this perspective, we should expect much more of both ourselves and our prison institutions.
Creating a restorative prison–a place designed to teach, support, hold accountable, and heal–is a good place to start. More about that in my next post.