Locked Down, Locked Out: Exclusive Excerpt from Maya Schenwar’s New Book

Maya Schenwar November 21, 2014

"Locked Down, Locked Out," by Maya Schenwar. Chapter seven, "Storytelling," is re-printed on The Prison Complex with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Sto­ry­telling” is chap­ter sev­en of Maya Schen­war’s book Locked Down, Locked Out.” Kay­la is Maya Schen­war’s sis­ter and Angel­i­ca is Kay­la’s daughter. 

We need to trust peo­ple to be the experts on their own lives.”

—Domes­tic vio­lence sur­vivor inter­viewed by the Sto­ry­Telling & Orga­niz­ing Project

Although Angelica’s entrance into the world undoubt­ed­ly ranks as my family’s most sig­nif­i­cant event of 2013, fol­lowed by Kayla’s rein­car­cer­a­tion, the loss of a dear­ly loved inan­i­mate object nears the top of my Big Deal list. On a sleepy late sum­mer evening short­ly before my sis­ter gives birth, I’m ambling across the park­ing lot of a Seat­tle restau­rant late in the evening with two old friends. We’re rel­ish­ing the warm breeze and chat­ting about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of ice cream.

But one of my com­pan­ions stops short, two feet from my car.

Oh my God,” she says, low. The win­dow.” The back win­dow has been shat­tered through the mid­dle, as if by a bowl­ing ball. Glis­ten­ing shards are still drop­ping light­ly onto the back seat.

My heart thuds, push­es me for­ward. I plunge my hand through the hole. Where is my lap­top?” I say, pat­ting the shard-cov­ered seat, then pound­ing it. The sharp bits stick to my palm, which emerges wet and red-slit­ted. The lap­top — along with the uncom fort­able shoul­der bag in which it was kept, which also con­tained my only pair of glass­es, an assort­ment of tam­pons, and a notepad filled with embar­rass­ing­ly moon­like self-por­traits sketched dur­ing a Pow­er­Point pre­sen­ta­tion at a recent con­fer­ence — is nowhere. The back seat is empty.

One hun­dred thou­sand words of the book I’ve been research­ing and writ­ing for the last eleven months, about prison and pris­on­ers and, well, crime,” are stored inside that com­put­er. It also con­tains mil­lions more cher­ished words — sto­ries, arti­cles, notes, humil­i­at­ing diary entries from my ear­ly twen­ties, pass­words hid­den” in the guise of oth­er files — and all the music I’ve acquired since 2004. My many un-Face­booked pho­tos. My book, my book.

Do you have it backed up?” my friend’s voice floats into my ear, as if trav­el­ing down from the tree. No. I have an exter­nal hard dri­ve — I’ve had it for sev­en months. I just haven’t yet removed it from its packaging.

You aren’t sup­posed to leave your lap­top on the car seat. I have nev­er left my lap­top on the car seat, always stow­ing it away secure­ly in a cor­ner of the trunk. But tonight, I did.

I think fleet­ing­ly of the per­son who bashed in the win­dow. I won­der what they must have been think­ing in the act of bash­ing, whether they need­ed mon­ey, whether they were just teenagers try­ing to be badass, whether they had thought of me, whether they were think­ing about me now. In the back­ground, some­one mur­murs some­thing about a police report. Calls are made on a cell phone, the name of the restau­rant giv­en, the make and mod­el of the car.

They’ve got your phone num­ber,” I’m told. We gave them the info about your case, so they’re on it.” In my head, a page from the book I’ve lost reads itself to me, slow­ly. One sen­tence asks, Before you call the police, think, are they real­ly going to help — and who are they going to hurt?” Anoth­er rea­son­ably points out, The prison-indus­tri­al com­plex deals with cas­es,’ instead of prob­lems’ and human beings.’”

I grab for my phone. My palms are still wet, dot­ted with small red cuts. I stare at my phone, will­ing the police to call.

But over the next week, I wait and wait for the announce­ment of the tri­umphant return of my lap­top. The police nev­er locate it. My case” is tucked into a bulging file with hun­dreds of oth­er sor­row­ful, iden­ti­cal tales — dozens of stolen-lap­top reports have already been filed in Seat­tle that sum­mer. (“It’s kind of an epi­dem­ic!” one offi­cer explains to me excit­ed­ly over the phone.) Arrests — prob­a­bly of poor peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or — are undoubt­ed­ly made as a result of some of those sto­ries. Some of those arrest­ed are prob­a­bly sent to prison, and some of them may not be guilty. When they get out of prison, it remains to be seen whether they’ll steal more lap­tops. Or rather, it remains to not be seen. I’ll cer­tain­ly nev­er know.

In fact, the process I bought into pro­vid­ed no sup­port for me, beyond the false, momen­tary sense of secu­ri­ty that came from fil­ing a report. It was geared toward catch­ing and pun­ish­ing a per­son — or a bunch of peo­ple — rather than address­ing the impact of my loss, or the caus­es of the epi­dem­ic” in the first place. It’s just one com­po­nent of a sys­tem obsessed not with solv­ing prob­lems or aid­ing vic­tims, but with crime.”

What’s Crime?

Under a frame­work based on crime,” a person’s rela­tion­ship to the law—not to oth­er peo­ple — deter­mines whether they have done some­thing wrong. As soon as I pull out my notepad to inter­view Mari­ame Kaba of Project NIA, she tells me she’s not going to use the word crime.” She clar­i­fies, We use the word harm.’ The ques­tion is, What have you done to some­one else? How have you harmed anoth­er person?’”

The steal­ing of a lap­top may vio­late a law, but the real rea­son it’s bad is because it hurt me. Harm” is not always equiv­a­lent to the things the state con­sid­ers crime.

It gets trick­i­er. Many things cre­ate harm that aren’t legal­ly crimes,” Mari­ame says, and points to the kinds of busi­ness trans­ac­tions that wreak hav­oc on the poor. From the geno­cide of Native peo­ples in the US and Cana­da to the ram­pant prac­tice of wage theft against low-income work­ers to the con­struc­tion of car­cino­genic fac­to­ries in poor people’s back­yards to the prof­its reaped by the pri­vate prison indus­try at the expense of mil­lions of lives, account­abil­i­ty-free forms of rob­bery and mur­der abound. Indeed, non­vi­o­lence activist Kathy Kel­ly writes in her post-incar­cer­a­tion mem­oir Oth­er Lands Have Dreams: What actions pose the great­est threats to US peo­ple and to the sur­vival of our plan­et? Top­ping any ratio­nal list would be the devel­op­ment, stor­age, sale and threat­ened use of nuclear weapons, along with the stock­pil­ing and use of chem­i­cal, bio­log­i­cal and con­ven­tion­al weapons.” These are not clas­si­fied as crimes under law, but they cause mas­sive harm — the most mas­sive harm.

Lacino Hamil­ton, who’s serv­ing a life sen­tence in Michi­gan, writes to me about the hazy def­i­n­i­tion of crime. He ques­tions why accept­ed mod­els for mea­sur­ing crime, such as the Depart­ment of Justice’s Uni­form Crime Report, don’t include colo­nial, eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, inter­na­tion­al, and envi­ron­men­tal vio­lence, even when that vio­lence kills vast num­bers of peo­ple. To pass these sta­tis­tics off as any­thing oth­er than a very nar­row inves­ti­ga­tion of poor and oppressed peo­ple is a crime of sorts,” Lacino writes. Con­verse­ly, plen­ty of things that it would be tough to frame as harm are clas­si­fied as crimes, pun­ish­able by law, espe­cial ly if you’re a per­son of col­or: undoc­u­ment­ed immi­gra­tion, drug pos­ses­sion, sex work, debt.

This issue of defin­ing and assess­ing the val­ue of the crime” label is crit­i­cal in the quest for solu­tions.” If con­tin­u­ing to be black or brown or poor or gen­der-non­con­form­ing results in future prison time, then no amount of reha­bil­i­ta­tion” is going to do the trick. As Angela Davis has writ­ten, One has a greater chance of going to jail or prison if one is a young black man than if one is an actu­al law-breaker.”1 And as Glenn E. Mar­tin tells me of the pri­mar­i­ly black and brown pop­u­la­tion with which his orga­ni­za­tion works, Some of our clients could get arrest­ed for drop­ping their Metro­Card in the sub­way, for look­ing at some­one the wrong way.” In fact, a 2011 study by the Illi­nois Dis­pro­por­tion­ate Jus­tice Impact Study Com­mis­sion found that, for low-lev­el drug pos­ses­sion charges, black peo­ple were almost five times more like­ly to be sen­tenced to prison as white peo­ple con­vict­ed of the same crime. For all crimes, black peo­ple were almost twice as like­ly to be pros­e­cut­ed than white peo­ple, with Lati­nos 1.4 times as like­ly as white peo­ple to be prosecuted.2 When we look at how the word crime” is used to crush lives and hurt com­mu­ni­ties and wors­en already painful sit­u­a­tions, it ceas­es to be use­ful for talk­ing about transformation.

Mov­ing in a direc­tion that drops prison as the go-to solu­tion to pain or vio­lence, I’ll use the word harm” to refer to that pain or vio­lence, unless I’m talk­ing about a law-based sit­u­a­tion that requires the use of crime.” This is for accuracy’s sake, but it will also serve to put the focus on what’s hap­pen­ing to the peo­ple involved — and the vic­tim or survivor’s right to heal — as opposed to the break­ing” of a law. A law can’t real­ly get hurt, and it doesn’t feel pain when it breaks.

Hurt Peo­ple Hurt People”

Crime” seems straight­for­ward: It’s a vio­la­tion of a law, which is spelled out on paper. Harm” is more messy, more tan­gled because it is human­ly, instead of legal­ly, deter­mined. Peo­ple can’t be clear­ly split and cat­e­go­rized by guilt” and inno­cence,” by bad” and good,” or even, some­times, by per­pe­tra­tor” and vic­tim.” Peo­ple who do great dam­age have, usu­al­ly, been pro­found­ly injured them­selves. The roots of harm-doing are knot­ted and deep. Mari­ame tells me, Hurt peo­ple hurt people.”

My pen pal Lacino has been incar­cer­at­ed for two decades, since the age of nine­teen. Locked up for homi­cide, he has always con­test­ed his con­vic­tion (which is based on the tes­ti­mo­ny of one infor­mant who was grant­ed a reduced sen­tence after tes­ti­fy­ing against Lacino and oth­ers). Lacino reached out to me through a promi­nent activist who is push­ing for a retri­al of his case. He con­sid­ers his incar­cer­a­tion a crime,” but says it is not out of place in the pro­gres­sion of his life: a snarled sequence of received and inflict­ed harms.

Lacino’s moth­er gave birth to him at the age of four­teen while she was a ward of the state. Lacino was placed in fos­ter care him­self for three and a half years and then returned to his moth­er — but she aban­doned him after a few days, leav­ing him strand­ed at a bake sale. She was poor, suf­fer­ing from crack depen­den­cy, and, Lacino says, bare­ly sur­viv­ing.” Lacino spent the next cou­ple of years jump­ing from fos­ter home to fos­ter home. Soon after he turned five, he was placed with a long-term fos­ter fam­i­ly — the peo­ple he’d live with for the next six years. While the Michi­gan Depart­ment of Human Ser­vices approved of the situation’s per­ma­nence and the family’s rel­a­tive finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty, Lacino describes those years as slav­ery.” His fos­ter par­ents put him to work on a near-con­stant reg­i­men of house­hold labor. They rou­tine­ly with­held meals and denied him new cloth­ing as he grew, though they reg­u­lar­ly bought new clothes for them­selves. He tells of how, sev­er­al times a week, they whipped him with a belt as he lay face­down on his bed, naked.

At the age of eleven, Lacino put his foot down. He left home and began liv­ing on the street, where he stole in order to eat and slept in stolen cars. There, theft and vio­lence were not only nor­mal, they were the pre­scrip­tion for stay­ing alive. My de fac­to fam­i­ly became the peo­ple I met in the streets — oth­er black youth close to me in age, who, like myself, were flee­ing dys­func­tion­al liv­ing arrange­ments,” Lacino writes to me, going on to say that these rela­tion­ships, adrift on con­stant­ly chang­ing cur­rents of cir­cum­stance, were not last­ing ones. From the famil­ial lev­el to the com­mu­ni­ty lev­el to their rela­tions with the larg­er world, Our entire lives were mod­eled and based on alien­ation.” For these kids, steal­ing and fight­ing were jus­ti­fi­able not only because they were means of sur­vival, but also because they were the ways of life they’d always known.

A Queens­land, Aus­tralia, study showed that peo­ple who were phys­i­cal­ly abused as chil­dren were much more like­ly to offend lat­er on.3 (The study didn’t account for ver­bal and psy­cho­log­i­cal harm, or the con­stant, sus­tained abuse of pover­ty, insti­tu­tion­al racism, het­ero­sex­ism, ableism, and oth­er fac­tors.) And accord­ing to the Nation­al Coun­cil on Crime and Delin­quen­cy, the num­ber one indi­ca­tor for whether teenagers engage in crim­i­nal behav­ior” is whether or not they’ve been vic­tims of crime themselves.4 Glenn E. Mar­tin tells me, Most peo­ple who appear in court were them­selves vic­tims at some point. But no one in court would know it.”

Com­mu­ni­ty Justice 

One frame­work that aims to cen­ter human beings — to look at harms not as legal vio­la­tions, but as prob­lems that occur between peo­ple — is called restora­tive jus­tice (RJ). Many of the restora­tive jus­tice model’s prin­ci­ples have emerged from wide­spread indige­nous prac­tices that have been over­whelm­ing­ly dis­missed by mod­ern West­ern sys­tems of pow­er. Instead of exact­ing revenge, restora­tive justice’s goals are to build rela­tion­ships, empow­er vic­tims, sup­port them in their heal­ing process­es, help them call out the behav­iors of those who have harmed them, and bol­ster them in ask­ing for the things they need to move on. Restora­tive jus­tice strate­gies ide­al­ly also aim to guide peo­ple who have done harm in mak­ing repa­ra­tions to vic­tims (depend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion), mak­ing sub­stan­tive changes that help pre­vent future harm, and stay­ing account­able for keep­ing up those new behaviors.5

A stan­dard restora­tive jus­tice response to harm is a peace cir­cle,” which brings togeth­er vic­tims, the peo­ple who’ve done harm, fam­i­lies of each, and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers (or some com­bi­na­tion of these), with the goal of work­ing toward under­stand­ing, heal­ing, and, in many cas­es, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and repa­ra­tions. The cir­cle — or the series of cir­cles it may take to reach a res­o­lu­tion — may con­clude with an account­abil­i­ty agree­ment,” a con­sen­sus state­ment for mov­ing for­ward. Often, these cir­cles also help to forge new rela­tion­ships and new under­stand­ings. In a peace cir­cle, I could, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly, meet the per­son who stole my lap­top and con­vey the long-last­ing ways in which the theft hurt me.

Anoth­er frame­work that steps out­side the PIC men­tal­i­ty is trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice, which over­laps with restora­tive jus­tice in some ways. It focus­es on pro­mot­ing heal­ing for sur­vivors, account­abil­i­ty for peo­ple who harm, and a col­lec­tive­ly safer and more con­nect­ed com­mu­ni­ty. But — espe­cial­ly when it comes to sex­u­al and domes­tic vio­lence — it also calls into ques­tion the con­cept of restora­tion,” which can assume that there’s a good place in the past to return to. Trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice strong­ly empha­sizes trans­for­ma­tion of the social con­di­tions that per­pet­u­ate vio­lence — sys­tems of oppres­sion and exploita­tion, dom­i­na­tion, and state vio­lence,” accord­ing to Gen­er­a­tion FIVE, an advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cat­ed to end­ing the sex­u­al abuse of chil­dren through trans­for­ma­tive means.6

When applied to a spe­cif­ic harm or con­flict, the empha­sis of trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice is often on long-term change-mak­ing, address­ing behav­iors and ways of occu­py­ing the world, as opposed to exact­ing a res­o­lu­tion to one inci­dent. Trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice gen­er­al­ly oper­ates whol­ly sep­a­rate from the state, while restora­tive jus­tice some­times works in tan­dem with police depart­ments, serv­ing as an alter­na­tive to incar­cer­a­tion.” Ground­ed in prin­ci­ples of con­nec­tion, both of these com­mu­ni­ty-based prac­tices are very dif­fer­ent from the stan­dard prac­tices of a courtroom.

Jus­tice for Vic­tims and Families 

Ricky Joseph Lan­g­ley was charged with the cap­i­tal mur­der of a six-year-old boy in Louisiana in 1994. Nine years lat­er, in a retri­al, the pros­e­cu­tor work­ing on the case was intent on seek­ing the death penal­ty. The victim’s moth­er, how­ev­er, vehe­ment­ly opposed the exe­cu­tion of the man who had killed her son. The death of this man would do noth­ing to allay her grief, she said, espe­cial­ly since it would be pre­ced­ed by the anguish of anoth­er long mur­der tri­al — an imped­i­ment to heal­ing. She plead­ed with the lawyer, ask­ing him not to pur­sue a sen­tence of death.

The pros­e­cu­tor grew furi­ous with her non­com­pli­ance. He even blamed [the moth­er], in part, for the jury’s ver­dict of sec­ond-degree mur­der — a ver­dict that does not per­mit the death penal­ty,” accord­ing to legal schol­ar and pros­e­cu­tor Angela J. Davis (not to be con­fused with Angela Y. Davis, activist and author of Are Pris­ons Obso­lete?), recount­ing the case in Arbi­trary Jus­tice. As the pur­suit of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment pushed for­ward, the boy’s moth­er expressed that the pros­e­cu­tor had made her life even more painful in the wake of her son’s death.7

In court, ques­tions are focused on the peo­ple accused of doing harm: whether to pun­ish them, and then how much to pun­ish them. Vic­tims and sur­vivors — espe­cial­ly, Davis notes, poor peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or — are tossed to the side­lines, ren­dered pow­er­less. Their wish­es are rarely spot­light­ed in the court­room except when they make juicy TV fod­der — for instance, a high-pro­file mur­der case in which a victim’s fam­i­ly mem­ber announces that the defen­dant should rot in jail” or die, in order to see jus­tice served.” It’s not just peo­ple who’ve done harm who are iso­lat­ed by the prison-indus­tri­al com­plex. It’s vic­tims, com­mu­ni­ties, and fam­i­lies, too.

In a jour­nal entry she shares with me from 2005, when Kay­la was head­ing to juve­nile deten­tion, Mom writes: Now the courts are involved, and I stand before the judge and watch him not even glance at me let alone con­sult me. It is out of my hands. You can’t say a word, and if you do, you’re con­sid­ered to be dis­rupt­ing the court.”

A com­mu­ni­ty-based jus­tice approach ide­al­ly acknowl­edges the com­plex ways in which con­flicts affect fam­i­lies, and engages them in the process­es of jus­tice and heal­ing. Includ­ing the com­mu­ni­ty also helps place an inci­dent in the con­text of what else is going on — how the par­tic­u­lar act in ques­tion fits with larg­er trends in the neigh­bor­hood, the town, the coun­ty, the world.

A Shift­ed Approach to Life 

For Flat­head Coun­ty, Mon­tana, a work­ing-class, major­i­ty-Repub­li­can locale at the edge of Glac­i­er Nation­al Park, it was num­bers that prompt­ed a turn toward restora­tive justice.8 The county’s wake­up call was a 2009 Uni­ver­si­ty of Mon­tana study of juve­nile offend­er sta­tus,” which award­ed it the dubi­ous hon­or of hold­ing the high­est youth recidi­vism rate in the state.9

At the time, Flathead’s approach to juve­nile jus­tice involved spend­ing loads of mon­ey remov­ing kids from their homes and plac­ing them in deten­tion cen­ters. This pro­gram of cut­ting kids off from their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties wasn’t doing the trick. At-risk teens are in a real­ly unique place in that they already feel dis­con­nect­ed from soci­ety because of their age/​development sta­tus,” Kate Berry, who works with Flathead’s cur­rent restora­tive jus­tice pro­gram, tells me. This is only exac­er­bat­ed by the fact that they have com­mit­ted an offense that fur­ther alien­ates them from their com­mu­ni­ties.” If they’re incar­cer­at­ed, they’re iso­lat­ed even further.

Nowa­days, in Flat­head Coun­ty, all vic­tims of youth crime are engaged in a process that moves toward a vic­tim-offend­er” cir­cle, if they so choose.* The town didn’t attempt to build a restora­tive jus­tice pro­gram inside the police depart­ment (a not-uncom­mon move in line with the right on crime” approach, which can actu­al­ly serve to bol­ster the prison-indus­tri­al com­plex by expand­ing the range of what con­sti­tutes polic­ing). Instead, the pro­ba­tion depart­ment hand­ed the reins to the Cen­ter for Restora­tive Youth Jus­tice (CRYJ), a sep­a­rate orga­ni­za­tion that holds cir­cles, runs a com­mu­ni­ty account­abil­i­ty board” that meets with youth to dis­cuss the impact of their behav­ior on their com­mu­ni­ty, orga­nizes a com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice pro­gram, and pro­vides spaces for account­abil­i­ty-ori­ent­ed dia­logue around drugs and alcohol.

It’s impor­tant to note that CRYJ can’t con­trol who gets arrest­ed and why. Police still exist in Flat­head Coun­ty, along with the pro­found prob­lems embed­ded in that insti­tu­tion. It’s the juve­nile pro­ba­tion depart­ment that calls CRYJ when a kid gets in trou­ble. Despite this inher­ent dis­so­nance, the cen­ter strives to main­tain a com­mit­ment to prin­ci­ples of trans­for­ma­tion: It empha­sizes forg­ing new com­mu­ni­ty bonds (it doesn’t keep to the mold of restor­ing” old ones) and rec­og­niz­ing the larg­er issues of social injus­tice that shape kids’ motivations.

Once the pro­gram took hold, it took off. The coun­ty docked a 13 per­cent recidi­vism rate in 2011, in con­trast with the state’s youth recidi­vism rate of 46 percent.10 The numer­i­cal improve­ment is encour­ag­ing, but the folks I speak with in Flat­head Coun­ty agree that the most impor­tant mea­sure­ments” are the new rela­tion­ships that are cre­at­ed: the strength­ened com­mu­ni­ty and the pre­vi­ous­ly nonex­is­tent bonds that were formed. Vic­tims have respond­ed pos­i­tive­ly as well. Bill Emer­son, the vic­tim of a res­i­den­tial break-in, says of the con­fer­ence he and his wife had with the youth (“Just a kid!” he com­ments) who did it: I can’t tell you how much going through the con­fer­ence meant to us. Had we not, I fear we may have nev­er real­ly put that inci­dent to rest.”

One CRYJ social work­er shares with me a small sto­ry that illus­trates that com­mu­ni­ty strength­en­ing: Recent­ly, a youth stole and destroyed a com­mer­cial painter’s vehi­cle, which con­tained most of the equip­ment and sup­plies that were vital to the man’s busi­ness. The painter spoke to the youth, recount­ing the impact of the theft and destruc­tion on his busi­ness, how his employ­ees were unable to work and lost pay until he could buy a new vehi­cle. The painter’s wife then told how the inci­dent occurred in late Novem­ber, cre­at­ing an instant host of finan­cial woes and leav­ing them unable to buy Christ­mas gifts for their kids. The youth expressed deep remorse and agreed to pay resti­tu­tion mon­ey, which he would earn. The painter and his wife then reached out fur­ther, telling the youth that he was a val­ued mem­ber of the com­mu­ni­ty, and that if he stayed on track they would give him a job. In addi­tion, they asked that the youth write them a month­ly let­ter detail­ing his progress.

Diane Dwyer, CRYJ’s vic­tim impact coor­di­na­tor who leads the cir­cle-based aspect of the pro­gram, said of the youth in this case: He was so tak­en with their benev­o­lence…. This ado­les­cent had sev­er­al oth­er offens­es before he did this. He had very lit­tle super­vi­sion at home and took pride in being an offend­er’ till this hap­pened.” So far, she says, the youth has moved for­ward with his month­ly let­ters, devel­op­ing a strong rela­tion­ship with the vic­tims, his future employers.

He took pride in being an offend­er” until this hap­pened. This change in course, not only in action but also in mind­set, is not deter­rence. It’s not I‑really-want-to-do-this-bad-thing-but-I-won’t‑because‑I’ll-get-arrested (which, of course, in a ret­ri­bu­tion-ori­ent­ed sys­tem, is a less like­ly sen­ti­ment than I’m‑going-to-do-this-bad-thing-and-try-not-to-get-caught). This is a shift­ed approach to life.

Sev­er­al years ago in Flat­head Coun­ty, a fif­teen-year-old kid crashed a car and killed a young woman in her twen­ties. The woman’s par­ents, although — or per­haps because — they were awash in grief, very much want­ed to engage in a restora­tive process. This tragedy could have result­ed in a stint in juvie, a grad­u­a­tion” to adult prison, and, quite pos­si­bly, future harm. Instead, a cir­cle was orga­nized, includ­ing the dri­ver and his friends, the deceased woman’s par­ents, the high­way patrol offi­cer at the scene, and passers­by who stopped to assist after the accident.

No one went to jail. After an inten­sive series of cir­cles in which the deceased woman’s par­ents described what they would need to begin heal­ing, an account­abil­i­ty agree­ment was reached. As part of that agree­ment, the youth devel­oped an infor­ma­tion­al pam­phlet regard­ing the risks of teen dri­ving and the con­se­quences of care­less­ness on the road and pre­sent­ed it at area schools, along with the sto­ry of what he did. Instead of being siphoned off from his com­mu­ni­ty and sent to prison and for­got­ten, the dri­ver of that car became a spokesper­son for road aware­ness and cau­tion, striv­ing to pre­vent oth­ers from mak­ing the dan­ger­ous choic­es he had made, inflict­ing the immense harm he had inflict­ed. Real jus­tice isn’t only about pre­vent­ing peo­ple from doing wrong. It’s about sup­port­ing them in doing right.

Decrim­i­nal­iz­ing Remorse

There’s an essen­tial ingre­di­ent that sits at the heart of this dif­fer­ent approach to jus­tice: remorse. The role of remorse in court is often sim­ply just that — a role” that’s played by defen­dants, coached by their lawyers once they’re enter­ing a guilty plea, in order to appeal to the judge or jury for a mit­i­gat­ed sen­tence, or to appeal to parole boards who may cru­el­ly deny release based on a per­ceived lack of remorse.” In crim­i­nal court, an apol­o­gy isn’t addressed to the vic­tim, since the vic­tim usu­al­ly isn’t even present; it’s an offer­ing to the judge, a form of self-defense.11 If a defen­dant were to reach across the aisle and ask the vic­tim for an hon­est, repen­tance-ori­ent­ed con­ver­sa­tion, sans judge, chances are the court­room would fly into chaos.

When I raise this top­ic with Father David Kel­ly, a long­time Chica­go youth restora­tive jus­tice leader who works with peo­ple trapped in the sys­tem, he speaks of the way the court sys­tem explic­it­ly dis­cour­ages and even pun­ish­es such emo­tion. As far as express­ing remorse, the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem says dont do it,” he tells me. The whole sys­tem is designed to say, Don’t admit any­thing. You have the right to remain silent. Plead the Fifth.’ Father Kel­ly describes the case of a kid he’s work­ing with who’s cur­rent­ly in juve­nile deten­tion. In court, the kid was des­per­ate to apol­o­gize to his vic­tim, but his lawyer told him, Don’t you dare!” Lo and behold, when the sen­tence came down, the judge scold­ed the kid for not being remorse­ful. He was remorse­ful,” Father Kel­ly says, but there was no mech­a­nism for him to show that. He was sup­posed to be think­ing, I’m fight­ing this case they’ve got against me. Because true remorse” can’t be expressed, because the legal process is about peo­ple defend­ing them­selves against the state, there’s not much room for account­abil­i­ty to oth­er people.

Car­los Rodriguez, a Chica­go-based addic­tion coun­selor who works with kids and adults embroiled in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, spe­cial­izes in com­mu­ni­ty-based and non­ad­ver­sar­i­al jus­tice. Car­los runs wilder­ness trips that mesh with these tech­niques, aim­ing for 247 immer­sion in healthy, inter­de­pen­dence-based exis­tence. He works to guide peo­ple, he says, toward the Mayan prin­ci­ple of Lak’ech: I am the oth­er you, and you are the oth­er me.” When we meet for cof­fee, he tells me how, since these prac­tices are so dif­fer­ent from the dom­i­nant mod­el, it often takes a men­tal leap to get to a place where real, heart­felt apolo­gies are OK. He describes how in a cir­cle it’s nec­es­sary to get out of your head and into your heart,” where empa­thy is born.

That Is Jus­tice!”

Even the most gen­uine empa­thy can’t erase pover­ty, racism, and oth­er struc­tur­al fac­tors that often dri­ve harm. How­ev­er, Father Kel­ly points out that empow­er­ing peo­ple to speak to their dai­ly strug­gles holds poten­tial for begin­ning to con­front the oppres­sions that sat­u­rate and fuel those strug­gles. He tells of one cir­cle in which a vic­tim became a men­tor to the young man who had bur­glar­ized his house. The vic­tim talked pas­sion­ate­ly about how he’d lived in the house since child­hood, and how, in the wake of the break-in, that haven had turned into a space of fear, unsteadi­ness, and vio­la­tion for him, his wife, and his two small chil­dren. The young man respond­ed with vis­i­ble sym­pa­thy. Then, bol­stered by his moth­er sit­ting next to him, he told of his past — the trau­mas he’d endured, the dead weight of pover­ty that had dragged him back­ward at every turn.

When the guy who did the harm was telling his sto­ry, the vic­tim felt like, Wait a sec­ond, this is just like me,’” Father Kel­ly recalls. There was a real con­nect­ed­ness.” When the group, which includ­ed sev­er­al oth­er mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty, asked the vic­tim what he need­ed to help address the harm, he could bare­ly speak — he was so moved by the young man’s sto­ry. At first, he said he didn’t need any­thing. But then he paused. Hold on,” he said. There is some­thing I need. This kid has to go back to school.”

The return wasn’t a sim­ple prospect. The young man had long since dropped out, and the high school didn’t want him back. The cir­cle crept toward a stale­mate. Then one of the com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, a retired prin­ci­pal, spoke up: I can help you get back into school.” She ini­ti­at­ed the process, cre­at­ing the cir­cum­stances through which the young man could keep him­self account­able for what he’d done — and, in the process, trans­form his life.

The con­nec­tion-build­ing process spun for­ward, gain­ing momen­tum. The vic­tim was a bas­ket­ball coach, and through ongo­ing cir­cle con­ver­sa­tion he dis­cov­ered that the young man who’d bur­glar­ized his house loved bas­ket­ball and played often. He’d always want­ed to be on a team, but had fig­ured that he’d lost his chance when he left school. Father Kel­ly recounts how, after a few more con­ver­sa­tions, the vic­tim said, Look. You play bas­ket­ball, I coach bas­ket­ball. Would you be will­ing to come play bas­ket­ball for my team — and I’ll be your mentor?”

The boy agreed. He returned to high school and became an avid bas­ket­ball play­er. Years lat­er, his bond with his coach and men­tor remains tight.

Now, that!” exclaims Father Kel­ly. That is justice!”

Reknit­ting Stories 

Still, jus­tice doesn’t always look the same, and it may not involve rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Some­times, com­ing face-to-face with a per­pe­tra­tor (even to receive an apol­o­gy) may not be some­thing the vic­tim or sur­vivor wants; in fact, regard­less of prepa­ra­tion, it may be re-trau­ma­tiz­ing. As Philly Stands Up! — an orga­ni­za­tion that works specif­i­cal­ly with per­pe­tra­tors of sex­u­al assault — notes, It is not the work of a sur­vivor to hold a per­pe­tra­tor accountable.”12

Point­ing to the neces­si­ty of offer­ing sup­port to vic­tims with­out urg­ing the goal of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, Father Kel­ly speaks of a woman whose two sons were killed with­in two months of each oth­er. When she first engaged with the cir­cle process, she couldn’t speak at all. It took many months of coun­sel­ing, as well as cir­cles with oth­er moth­ers who had lost their chil­dren, for her to piece togeth­er the sto­ries that described her pain: who she was” before­hand, her per­son­al sto­ry, how the series of unspeak­able trau­mas she had borne had ripped her to the core. What she need­ed was the sup­port of those with shared expe­ri­ences. This is about sto­ry­telling,” Kel­ly says, describ­ing how trau­ma is processed in ways that break up our nar­ra­tives so they often don’t seem to make sense. Nar­ra­tive helps us to reknit our lives.”

These words apply to peo­ple who have done harm, as well: Kel­ly works to guide peo­ple who have hurt oth­ers toward address­ing the ways that they have been hurt — the root caus­es of their harm-doing — so they can be ful­ly account­able for what they’ve done. In a let­ter to me, Lacino notes that those who do harm aren’t only deal­ing with the trau­ma that led up to the act — they’re also like­ly deal­ing with the trau­ma of hav­ing done harm, which may pre­vent them from con­fronting what they’ve done head-on.

This is espe­cial­ly true if they’ve already been sub­ject to state-inflict­ed vio­lence like incar­cer­a­tion. There is no way you can feel good about your­self and do crime,” Lacino says. Some­thing inside of us has to be comatose or dead to harm peo­ple and sleep good at night.” In order to fuel trans­for­ma­tion, he argues, peo­ple who have done harm must come to a point where they are revived from that comatose” state — where they can talk about what has hurt them in the past and what they have done to hurt others.

How­ev­er, Father Kel­ly empha­sizes, com­mu­ni­ty jus­tice should not be about excus­ing injus­tice or let­ting per­pe­tra­tors off the hook.” An effec­tive com­mu­ni­ty-based process is often a more chal­leng­ing under­tak­ing than the puni­tive, isola­tive one. And it may last a long, long while. This process is an invest­ment of time and ener­gy,” Mari­ame Kaba says, not­ing that receiv­ing pun­ish­ment doesn’t take much emo­tion­al exca­va­tion. It’s not just about The Peo­ple Vs. the Per­pe­tra­tor. It’s about forc­ing you to engage in ways that the cur­rent sys­tem doesn’t.” When it comes to reach­ing inside, yank­ing out your deep­est self and link­ing it with oth­er people’s deep­est selves, you can’t just go through the motions. Mari­ame also notes, regard­ing restora­tive jus­tice, that sit­ting in a cir­cle by itself won’t lead to long-term shifts in con­scious­ness. It depends on what spe­cif­ic actions are tak­en, what hap­pens after­ward, whether self-con­cep­tions and world­views are shift­ed to the point that last­ing change can emerge.

Restor­ing to What?

Mari­ame points out that, absent the buy-in of all par­ties involved — and an extreme­ly sup­port­ive com­mu­ni­ty and cul­ture — the con­cept of restora­tive jus­tice” can some­times fall flat. The word restore” may assume that there’s already a store,” a safe and healthy place to return to that can be repaired and peace­ful­ly rein-habit­ed. Depend­ing on the prac­tice, it may oper­ate on the premise that rela­tion­ships can be repaired,” that they were good” before they were bro­ken,” that a sup­port­ive com­mu­ni­ty once exist­ed and can now be fixed. And, by itself, the con­cept doesn’t encom­pass the huge struc­tur­al fac­tors (race‑, class‑, gen­der-and sex­u­al­i­ty-based oppres­sion, to name a few) that dri­ve the sys­tem and inhib­it repairs.”

Espe­cial­ly when it comes to sex­u­al and domes­tic vio­lence, the prospect of com­mu­ni­ty restora­tion” may well ring dis­cor­dant­ly. For sur­vivors of gen­der vio­lence, the key fac­tor in whether a restora­tive jus­tice process can be effec­tive is whether a com­mu­ni­ty unites with the vic­tim in hold­ing the per­pe­tra­tor account­able. Often, com­mu­ni­ties end up sid­ing with the per­pe­tra­tor, accord­ing to Andrea Smith, a fem­i­nist schol­ar, antiv­i­o­lence activist, and co-founder of INCITE!: Women of Col­or Against Vio­lence. Vic­tims and sur­vivors may be coerced into par­tic­i­pat­ing in a restora­tion” in order to main­tain some façade of com­mu­ni­ty equilibrium.

Restora­tive jus­tice tends to pro­mote a roman­ti­cized notion of com­mu­ni­ty,” Andrea tells me. What if the com­mu­ni­ty is sex­ist, and racist, and homo­pho­bic? Or what if there isn’t any com­mu­ni­ty to begin with?” And since prac­tices clas­si­fied as restora­tive jus­tice often work with or with­in the crim­i­nal pun­ish­ment sys­tem nowa­days, they’re con­trolled by that system’s pow­er struc­tures and are sub­ject to its rules.

Being Jazzy

Trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice, as dis­tin­guished from restora­tive jus­tice, was first con­ceived as a response to the inef­fec­tive­ness and bru­tal­i­ty of the crim­i­nal pun­ish­ment system’s meth­ods of deal­ing with sex­u­al and domes­tic vio­lence, as well as the way in which restora­tive jus­tice strate­gies can betray and fur­ther trau­ma­tize sur­vivors if the com­mu­ni­ty involved doesn’t stand with them. Trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice cen­tral­izes the safe­ty, heal­ing, and agency” of sur­vivors; the role of the com­mu­ni­ty is to sup­port them in those goals. Com­ing back to Gen­er­a­tion FIVE’s def­i­n­i­tion of trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice — trans­form­ing the social con­di­tions that per­pet­u­ate vio­lence,” includ­ing dom­i­na­tion, exploita­tion, and oppres­sion by the state — the ques­tion becomes this: How can we imag­ine our­selves beyond any sort of pre­scribed system?

Since it’s impos­si­ble for any ready­made mod­el for deal­ing with vio­lence to work effec­tive­ly in every sin­gle com­mu­ni­ty, Andrea Smith sug­gests, We need to be jazzy — to think, in every spe­cif­ic con­text, what is the per­pe­tra­tor moti­vat­ed by?” Like jazz music, trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice requires both impro­vi­sa­tion and struc­ture. It requires intu­ition, cre­ativ­i­ty, col­lab­o­ra­tion, and an under­stand­ing that no process is ever fin­ished.

How­ev­er, just because every sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent doesn’t mean strate­gies can’t be shared. Cir­cles aren’t the only places that sto­ry­telling can hap­pen, and com­mu­ni­ties engaged in trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice come togeth­er through meet­ings, con­fer­ences, online net­works, work­shops, social media, and spur-of-the-moment con­ver­sa­tions to speak about what has worked, what hasn’t, and all the stuff in between. The Oak­land-based group Cre­ative Inter­ven­tions runs a Sto­ry­telling and Orga­niz­ing Project (STOP), which col­lects nar­ra­tives like these — instances in which vio­lence was addressed or pre­vent­ed with­out state inter­ven­tion. These sto­ries illus­trate how peo­ple work every day, in their own ways, to change the cir­cum­stances and social struc­tures that make it pos­si­ble for vio­lence to occur.

One STOP sto­ry recounts a sit­u­a­tion in which a woman in Orange Coun­ty, Cal­i­for­nia, respond­ed to domes­tic vio­lence by seek­ing refuge at a friend’s house. The friends then helped her reach out to oth­er peo­ple to bring into her sup­port net­work. The group lis­tened close­ly to what the sur­vivor want­ed. Her mom assist­ed with get­ting her hus­band to leave her house (remain­ing calm despite his rag­ing”) and con­vinced him to stay away, so the sur­vivor could live there with her kids. Her net­work of fam­i­ly and friends then set up a sched­ule in which some­one would come over every day and bring food and sit with her, and talk, if she was up for it. She explained, It felt so good to have this full house, you know, this busy house of peo­ple com­ing by, and, you know, peo­ple were play­ing with the kids, and we were mak­ing art in the kitchen, and some­one was always mak­ing tea, and it felt not alone.” In the end, the sur­vivor stressed that the community’s response worked because she was able to say what she need­ed, and she was active­ly heard. She told STOP, We need to trust peo­ple to be the experts on their own lives.”13

In ear­ly Jan­u­ary 2014, INCITE!, along with CURB and sev­er­al oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, com­piled a long list of trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice strate­gies for deal­ing with police/​vigilante/​hate/​white suprema­cist violence.”14 They empha­size that since approach­es need to be com­mu­ni­ty spe­cif­ic, they do not endorse any par­tic­u­lar strat­e­gy. Instead, they’re open­ing up a con­ver­sa­tion about pos­si­bil­i­ties that will hope­ful­ly mul­ti­ply, change, grow, and spread. Ideas include devel­op­ing com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters that use trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice; gath­er­ing and cir­cu­lat­ing infor­ma­tion about trans­for­ma­tive prac­tices used in oth­er coun­tries; start­ing up neigh­bor­hood check-in” sys­tems to keep con­nect­ed with neigh­bors and ensure their safe­ty (as opposed to vig­i­lante-ish neigh­bor­hood watch groups); talk­ing to peo­ple from hate groups direct­ly (since they are, indeed, made up of indi­vid­ual peo­ple); using trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice strate­gies in work­places; and many, many, many more.

We Can’t Do A Plus B Equals C”

INCITE!’s shared ideas demon­strate that strate­gies” aren’t always neat­ly sewn up, begin­ning-to-end sto­ries that tidi­ly close with the per­pe­tra­tor held account­able and the sur­vivor suf­fi­cient­ly” healed. In fact, when I speak with Jen­na Peters-Gold­en, a mem­ber of the Philly Stands Up! (PSU) col­lec­tive that uses trans­for­ma­tive prac­tices to work with per­pe­tra­tors of sex­u­al assault, she tells me that she’s not a huge fan of either num­bers or anec­dotes as met­rics to mea­sure suc­cess. We can’t do A plus B equals C here,” Jen­na tells me. So we use small, spe­cif­ic tools.” For exam­ple, she says, peo­ple who’ve caused sex­u­al harm may tend toward nar­cis­sism; they’re often bet­ter at focus­ing on them­selves than notic­ing cues from oth­ers or engag­ing with oth­ers’ feel­ings. So, Philly Stands Up! mem­bers stress con­sid­er­ate prac­tices like show­ing up on time and ask­ing, How are you?” They’re look­ing for shifts in behav­ior, changes in how peo­ple who’ve caused harm inter­act with those around them.

Jen­na says, When I’m meet­ing some­one for a ses­sion, if they don’t show up after twen­ty min­utes, I’m not wait­ing — and if they call me lat­er, I say, No, I’m not com­ing back; I’ll see you next time. Show­ing up on time is a way of show­ing you respect me.’” Process­es for work­ing with per­pe­tra­tors are lengthy, and Jen­na tells me it may take a year before a per­son starts com­ing to meet­ings punc­tu­al­ly and inquir­ing after oth­er people’s thoughts and emo­tions. In the first twelve months, it’s com­mon for peo­ple to not remem­ber to ask how my day has been, so I have to be pushy and say, I real­ly want to tell you how I’m feel­ing,’” Jen­na says. Even­tu­al­ly, peo­ple start say­ing, How was your day?’ They start listening.”

In talk­ing with peo­ple about trans­for­ma­tive prac­tices, Philly Stands Up! mem­bers empha­size that even­tu­al­ly”; nur­tur­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of last­ing, evolv­ing jus­tice takes time. I ask schol­ar and activist Beth Richie, who’s also a cofounder of INCITE!, how we then might begin to con­cep­tu­al­ize a uni­verse in which the wide­spread response to imme­di­ate vio­lence — for exam­ple, the instant of an attack — is some­thing oth­er than Call the cops! I think it is still an exper­i­ment, a way of think­ing, and a call to devel­op some­thing new,” she says. We need to take a long view.” And that view isn’t con­fined to the realm of harm response. New ways of think­ing” inter­weave with dai­ly life, trans­form­ing our per­cep­tions, our def­i­n­i­tions, our expe­ri­ences of jus­tice, and our under­stand­ings of how to live togeth­er in the world.

Sto­ry­telling,” is re-print­ed with per­mis­sion from Berrett-Koehler Pub­lish­ers from the book, Locked Down, Locked Out, by Maya Schen­war, 2014.www​.bkcon​nec​tion​.com

Maya Schen­war is a senior edi­tor at Truthout​.org, and a for­mer In These Times intern.
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