Today I heard a man who spent 28 years behind bars speak. He spoke of his recognition of a second chance. He spoke of how his children “made him human.” He spoke of what it means to support those behind bars in becoming better men (and women) rather than better prisoners. Mostly, he spoke about how those who end up in prison end up being left behind. They end up being cast aside by our culture. By society.
I’ve been trying to remember if there was a time that I looked at prisoners and thought, “You had your chance.” Or, “Good. Feel the punishment.” Or some other such thing. I honestly can’t remember. There must have been, though. One thing that’s true for sure is that I haven’t been stung by crime the way many have been. No one in my family has been harmed in some of the heinous ways that some have. I don’t know anyone who went to prison. I don’t have a direct connection to that system. What I do have — and I honestly have no idea where it came from — is a strong belief that people are redeemable. I believe in the power of the heart, and the power of good. This, I think, is what is meant by justice.
The topic of the forum that I was at today was restorative justice. The man I’ve been speaking about said, “You can’t have restorative justice without justice. And we don’t have much justice in our system.” I believe what he was saying is that our system is built on punishment, not justice. Another way of saying this is that it’s built on retaliation or retribution. Not on healing. Not on finding a way to wholeness. This means wholeness for both perpetrator and victim. It means not turning away from the fact of crime and of the harm (and trauma) caused, but turning toward it. Turning toward it in a way that our criminal justice system actually doesn’t.
We don’t generally turn toward it in that we see the cause of the crime as being rather one-dimensional. A choice was made. You are the captain of your ship, so all choices are yours to make. This is true and it is a limited (and, in my opinion, deeply flawed) way of looking at things. To fully turn toward the fact of crime and trauma is to turn toward the larger picture of ongoing trauma in our society. It forces us to confront our history as a country; to confront our ideas of masculinity, and, thus, femininity. It forces us to look at what we say when we mean “criminal.” On the surface, these are easy things. But if we are going to be honest with ourselves, we are going to have to look at the part below the surface. The ugly part. The part that we don’t want to admit is there.
Today’s panel was a wonderful reminder for me. The biggest challenges that are before us are inviting us into something. They are inviting us into a deeper relationship. A relationship that will be uncomfortable. A relationship that will challenge our sense of self. The idealized version of ourselves — the version we often believe we are from day-to-day — will be put on display. Likely, will be knocked off its pedestal. But this is good. It’s what we need. It’s how we heal. In this way, restorative justice can become a practice that we all bring forward in our lives. We can confront the parts of our selves that has caused harm and be compassionate. We can be kind. And we can heal. Together.