What I Learned About Restorative Justice

Photo Sarah Whiting

Awareness and understanding sometimes come from the most unexpected places. In my case, it was from going to San Quentin State Prison, in northern California. No, I wasn’t incarcerated. I visited there for a few hours with my daughter Eliza. For four years she has gone each week to San Quentin toengage in restorative justice conversations with inmates.

I had heard the term “restorative justice” before, but I knew nearly nothing about it. “Criminal justice” is pretty simple: What happened? Who did it? What’s the punishment?

Restoration to a life of self-respect is rarely considered important. Many are released from prison with a few dollars and a suit of clothes, not much more. My assumption, prior to my visit, was that these are people who have committed a crime and probably deserve to be locked up.

After attending a restorative justice meeting with my daughter, and doing some reading on the subject, I’ve learned that restorative justice begins with the  understanding that all of us live in a web of relationships with one another. Sometimes the web is healthy and supportive. Sometimes it is sick.

Commonly, San Quentin’s residents have come from destructive social webs, from dysfunctional families and broken communities that failed to provide the kind of education that makes earning a decent living possible.

A healthy web of relationships, on the other hand, defines as one of its central values the commitment to respect and care for one another, no matter how great our differences may be. We must be able to trust one another, to have the humility to take responsibility for our actions, and to acknowledge our obligations to others, making amends to victims where possible. No surprise, it’s not easy to do all of these good things all of the time.

Restorative justice conversations at San Quentin take place with all participating inmates sitting in a circle — nine the day I sat in with them. One serves as the circle keeper, who starts the conversation. A talking-piece is passed from hand to hand as the men take turns speaking. Discussion may follow a brief reading of relevant material, or after they view a video with a title such as “From Murder to Forgiveness” or “Serving Life” or “Healing Mothers.”

As the conversation progressed, I began to see these men not simply as prisoners who had committed a crime, but as people in a place where they could begin to understand themselves, their offenses, the costs to the victims of their offenses, and their hopes for a return to being responsible members of a community.

In too many cases, the San Quentin community is to be theirs for the rest of their lives. What if they had learned ways to respond reflectively rather than reactively to the people and the world around them? Their lives would have been very different. Now, however, by participating in restorative justice conversations many are learning ways to restore dignity, self-respect, and meaning to their lives.

For me, the experience was profound. It brought me to an understanding of the meaning of our universal relationship, respect for our brothers and sisters, the importance of establishing trust, and learning the humility that allows us to look at our lives with openness and honesty.

Nancy B. Miller is a Minnesota writer and retired editor. She’s a watercolor painter, enthusiastic traveler, and of a humanist outlook. She considers herself fortunate in a great many ways.