Thursday, January 29, 2015

From retributive to rehabilitative to restorative to transformative: Arc of justice

Review: Schenwar, Maya (2014), Locked down, locked out: Why prison doesn't work and how we can do better. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Maya Schenwar is a writer and editor who made prisons and justice models her "beat" when her sister kept getting locked up, held for a period in a sort of social cryogenesis, spit out, and without any change in her coping abilities, cycled straight back in. It was all related to drugs, not to violence, and Maya began to question the entire justice system. This book is the culmination of years of researching and writing about the justice system in America.

Schenwar's exploration over time has included many friendships with inmates and former inmates, and family members of inmates. The first part of her book is an examination of the problems of the entire prison system, the rippling effects through families and communities, and the general failure of law enforcement to seriously address the overwhelming connection to what scholars in my field of Peace and Conflict Studies call structural violence. In other words, the drivers to incarceration that exist outside the inmate herself--poverty, racism, unemployment, drug laws, proliferation of weaponry, gentrification, failing schools, and a shredded social safety net.

For those (such as I) familiar with prisons and jails, her recounting of visits, of interviews, of her penpal relationships, all ring of pure authenticity. She sugarcoats nothing--not the inmates themselves, their families, their neighborhoods, and certainly not the penal institutions that warehouse vast numbers of Americans, especially people of color, and that tend to produce recidivists.

Just when we are beaten down by the enormity of the problems, in the final quarter of her book, Schenwar begins to produce evidence of pieces of transformative solutions, a few from within institutions but most of them are initiatives from the nongovernmental sector of our society.

She looks at a peace room in a dangerous school prone to outbreaks of violence and how that peace room has changed the school culture and draws students to the peace room before violence erupts, not just as a mop-up subsequent to violence.

She spends time in a cafe that works with young people to keep them out of trouble and learning conflict transformation skills.

She interviews many people who are at the innovative edge of alternatives to violent policing and caged incarceration. This is the part of the book I found most intriguing and directly valuable. It begins to help the reader get past the "OK, prisons are a problem but what do you do about all those who need to be kept from harming others?"

I finished her book with the mental fantasy image of a map of the US with little peace flags where these sorts of initiatives are working on a piece of this vast problem. I want to see those peace flags cover the country and connect in ways that obviate the need for most, if not all, prison walls. Perhaps there will always be a need to keep some people locked away from little girls or other vulnerable humans, but none of those places should be retributive; transformative justice is how we can truly generate hope for the freedom of all of us.

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