In March, my partner, Sam Seiniger, and I had the opportunity to deliver two introductions to restorative justice workshops at Manawatu Prison to small groups of inmates. Both sessions produced really fascinating conversations and left us all with something to think about. One of the participants even asked if he could take an extra worksheet with the three restorative questions to hang on his wall to continue reflecting on what he had learned. Similarly, I was left with a lot to think about, which I hope to process in a series of posts here.
The first story I would like to share is about a spider web.
In restorative practices, we often use the image of a web to describe community. The community is a web of relationships, we are all connected to each other, and all that we do impacts the other people in our community. When an incident of harm (like a crime or also often the act of imprisoning someone) occurs, relationships are harmed and the web is damaged. When the web is damaged, it needs to be repaired, and that is what the restorative justice process seeks to accomplish. This metaphor can be illustrated in a number of different ways including arranging pieces of string in a web connecting training participants across a circle that can be cut and re-tied, photos of webs, and drawings. For this workshop, I had drawn a web on the whiteboard. When I mentioned the incident of harm, I erased one of the connecting strands of the web and pointed to how the strength of the entire web would be weakened by losing that connection. When I talked about repair, I re-drew that portion of the web, making it complete again.
During the course of the conversation about the web, one of the participants raised his hand. He said he liked the image, but that he has a pet spider in his cell that he watches a lot and his web doesn’t look anything like that. He described the complete mess of a web his spider lives in and said there is no way it could ever be repaired. He said that is how his community feels too; the web is broken in a million different places. There’s nothing you could really do to repair it.
The conversation continued and we talked a bit about how even in a terribly broken web, a response to harm (or “justice”) could still strive to repair and heal rather than further fracture. That is one thing that sets restorative justice apart from the conventional system: it strives to do no further harm to the victim, offender or the community. Still, this image of his spider’s irreversibly broken web, of the community full of holes and hurt, stuck with me. It is an important reminder for restorative practitioners that as we work with people to repair harm after a specific incident, we are always working within the context of pre-existing harms. These harms may be interpersonal, institutional, structural, or historical. Each person we work will has a lived experience in which they have both harmed and been harmed. So often, the root of the behaviors we seek to address are grounded in that larger broken web.
This is something I hope that I personally and the restorative justice movement as a whole will come to understand more deeply. Already, we see the expansion of focus in the movement from restorative justice as a response to crime to the use of restorative philosophy and practices towards creating more just communities. This means addressing institutional, structural and historical harms with an aim to create equal voice where it has been absent before and to fully explore and seek to repair the harms that have been caused. It also means re-imaging the structures of our societies in a way that encourages greater awareness of our innate connection, a way that breeds empathy. One place to start would be with reconsidering the way that prisons are run. That is the topic I will address in my next reflection post.