I know a woman in Tennessee whose son was just sent to a youth detention center. He has had some problems with petty crime and drugs, and was sent to a treatment program for kids awhile back. He did not adapt very well to the program, and now he has been sent to this YDC for an indefinite period. He is 17 and the state can hold him until he is 21 if authorities decide he is not ready to be released.
She is trying to figure out how she can go see him for Thanksgiving. He is housed several hours away, and she doesn’t have a reliable vehicle to get her there. She is hoping the boy’s father, who lives in another town, will be willing to take her. Maybe he will.
This is her Thanksgiving.
There is something about the holiday season that makes these situations especially poignant for me. When I was on the inside, holidays weren’t so bad. Often the prisoners would come together and make meals, and guys would normally be a little nicer. We were all missing our families, and somehow that drew us together a little more than during the rest of the year. Somehow we were able to humanize one another a little more.
It’s only been since my release in December of 2009 that I have seen the other side of this story. For the families on the outside it is not a better time of year. When they gather around the table to eat a big meal and celebrate life there is a conspicuous absence. There is a gaping hole where their loved one should be.
Restorative justice tells us that we are all part of the web of connection. These are the strands that connect us to everyone in our lives, starting with our families and friends and stretching out to strangers thousands of miles away. Crime, and the consequences of how crime is dealt with, do damage to this web. Damage to the web is what my family felt every time they gathered and I wasn’t there. It is also felt by the family of the man I killed. I believe that it is felt by all of us when we read the newspaper or turn on the television. We can tell that something is broken. Restorative justice seeks to repair these broken strands; to restore the web to strength and wholeness. Practitioners seek to repair it for everyone affected by crime. This includes victims, families, community members, and even the ones who commit the harmful act.
Another player in this drama is the state. In most states in this country, crimes are not committed against individuals, but instead against the government. The original intentions of this system may have been benign, but the consequences today are often counterproductive, at least if our goal is a safer and saner world.
In this system, a kid who shoplifted is put in a housing unit with other kids who have raped and murdered. A 14-year-old is sentenced to do 30 years without the possibility of parole. A boy in pre trial confinement is sent to a “treatment facility” where he is raped. When he reports it, he is told by the staff, “What happens here stays here.” When the mother goes to the judge she is told that it is no longer the judge’s problem. Other juvenile judges in Pennsylvania take money from the private prison industry to hand out harsher sentences so that they can raise profits. The same prison industry crafts legislation that leads to harsher laws, then pays legislators to make it law.
And my friend tries to figure out a way to see her son, a boy who has committed no felony but is held in indefinite confinement hundreds of miles from his mom. It is clear that something is terribly broken in the system.
The answers to these problems are not easy to see, but there are people who believe that things can be made better. Many of these people are part of the system, judges and others who have a vision of making the system work more effectively. Others are working from the outside; mothers and fathers and other concerned people trying to create communities where these issues are addressed. Restorative justice is on the rise, and people of all political persuasions are starting to endorse its ideas. Nearly every day I speak with people who are passionate about how to make a safer world through this philosophy.
So I find myself feeling not just sadness, but also hope. When I became involved in restorative justice as a prisoner I saw its power to transform lives by bringing awareness and self responsibility without condemnation or self hatred. Now, after nearly two years of freedom, I see it growing on the outside all around me. It is taking root in schools and courtrooms, in families and community centers.
For this and many other things I am thankful. Today, I can be with my family for the holidays. I can do work to help make the world that I want to live in a reality. I can try to restore the damage that I have done, and to help others do the same. Even as I am filled with gratitude I want to leave a place in my heart for the sadness I feel when I think about my friend trying to reach her son. I want to say a prayer for her family and remember that the world is not yet as I want it to be. I invite you to do the same.
John Lash served nearly 25 years in Georgia prisons. He was released in December 2009. While in, he began to practice Zen meditation and other approaches to studying consciousness. He later became interested in interpersonal communication and group processes. He studied and taught nonviolent communication and restorative practices in prison where he also got his BS in human resources management from Mercer University. He is a participant in Compassionate Leadership, a non-violent communication training program, and is a student in the Master of Conflict Management program at Kennesaw State University.
Photo Credit: Tom Gill/Flickr
Updated: March 21 2018