Exploring the Healing Paradigm:
An Interview with Robin Casarjian & Judith Thompson
Robin Casarjian is the Founder and Director of the Lionheart Foundation and its National Emotional Literacy Project for Prisoners. She is a public speaker, consultant, and author of Forgiveness: A Bold Choice for a Peaceful Heart (Bantam, 1992) and Houses of Healing: A Prisoner’s Guide to Inner Power and Freedom (Lionheart Press, 1995). Judith Thompson has been engaged in projects promoting social healing for over twenty years, working primarily with survivors of war and political violence. In 1984, she co-founded Children of War, Inc., an award-winning international youth leadership. Judith is currently working on doctoral research for Union Institute’s Peace Studies program, exploring the question, “How does compassion arise in the process of social healing?” Patti Marxsen interviewed Casarjian and Thompson as part of the Center’s Restorative Justice Seminar Series in spring 2003.
PM: I’d like to start by asking both Robin and Judith a very basic question: What is the healing paradigm?
RC: One way to view this is to realize that the word “healing” derives from the word “whole.” Healing means opening to the whole of who we are. In response to your question, the words of an incarcerated man I have worked with came to mind. He wrote, “When I take an honest look at myself, I see all the hurt, the denial, dishonesty, manipulation, numbing, fear, and all the feelings of inadequacy. I also see a love, an unconditional love, an awareness of my true self, of gentleness, kindness, and patience.” Healing is opening to this full spectrum and coming into balance, into harmony, so that the fear-based emotions — the numbing and fear — don’t dominate our experience.
The question also evoked the words of William Elliott, a young man who wrote a book called Tying Rocks to Clouds: Meetings and Conversations with Wise and Spiritual People (Doubleday 1995). William had gone around the world interviewing people whom he considered wise and spiritual. He said that as a direct result of being in the presence of such unconditionally loving people, “I could look at the worst in myself, knowing the best.” To me, healing, at a personal level, is opening up to all of our self. From a Jungian perspective, this means recognizing and acknowledging our dark side, as well as the light.
PM: But with an honest understanding of that dark side or, perhaps, of those not-so-perfect aspects of ourselves?
RC: That’s right. Because part of what makes it possible is an emotionally mature perspective — a perspective that includes gentleness and compassion — that allows us to look at ourselves in a deeply honest way. Once we have that perspective, we can be honest with ourselves about the full spectrum of who we are. I might add that I think this is a lifetime process for most of us… and, oftentimes, a more hard-won process for offenders because their histories are so trauma-based and the lack of safety they’ve experienced in their lives is so profound. But with skillful guidance and a personal willingness, they can begin that process of genuinely facing our self. Once they do that, they begin to feel a connection with other people. Then empathy develops, which is part of the wholeness, of feeling connected to other people, to one’s community, and to the larger world.
JT: What came to me as I was thinking about defining the healing paradigm is that it’s really a lense through which we might view the entire process of justice-making. We are sitting in a circle and the circle itself is a metaphor and a symbol for healing. By contrast, the retributive justice process as we are all familiar with is a vertical, top-down, authoritarian process that universalizes through laws. You are either guilty or not guilty. You cannot be “in between.” We have so much to learn about healing from the indigenous peoples of North American, and also those from the Australian and New Zealand, restorative justice movements, not to mention from the feminist framework for justice.
I came across a quote from someone whose work I admire alot, James Youngblood Henderson, who is the research director at the Native Law Center (www.usask.ca): “Most aboriginal people have never understood the exotic passion of Eurocentric society for labeling people criminals and making them suffer.” To indigenous people, our approach to justice is intolerant of human frailties and justifies a theory of social control by violence. Howard Zehr speaks of this when he says, “We are trying to justify something which is morally very problematic,” which is that we are a punishment-based society. I think that the healing paradigm is really about a whole other lens of viewing what the process of justice is about. It’s a lens that equalizes people, that recognizes that we are all human beings, that we all have human frailties. At the root of it, too, is our concept of good and evil. Do evil people exist? No. There are mistakes that are made. There are disharmonies in the system. There are deep wounds that people carry. These realities mean that we need to view social healing as a doctor would, as if this is a social body. Where are the imbalances? And how do we make those things which are out of balance harmonious?
PM: Robin, in your book Houses of Healing you explain the distinction between the Greater Self or the Core Self and the various sub-personalities that we all develop in order to survive. You write very passionately about how some people might develop a “tough guy” personality or a “know it all” personality but there is still a larger, Greater Self deep inside. You go on to say that the Greater Self is at the heart of emotional healing and change. What do you mean by that?
RC: I think of the Greater Self or Core Self as being an intrinsic part of human nature. We spend the first part of our lives developing a personality and ego system and then, if we are fortunate enough to have the question posed to us or come to it on our own, we can ask ourselves, “Who am I really?” Is there something more essential than the emotions I feel, the roles I play, the thoughts I think? I believe, as do many people who came before me, that we all possess an intrinsic wisdom, power, courage, peacefulness, and intelligence. The process of personal growth and maturation is one of coming to access experientially what’s already there for us.
PM: Does that require a process of nurturing and learning?
RC: I believe it does. We need some guidance from those who have gone before. Also, to really access the Greater Self in the most authentic way, it takes a real commitment and true desire. One of the most powerful ways to access the Greater Self is through experiential activity, such as meditation. But I think there are a thousand paths up the same mountain. Just sitting in circles is a way to nurture it. If you can sit in circle and truly learn to listen deeply and feel safe enough by virtue of the kind of quality that circle nurtures in the restorative process, you naturally access a kind of courage that one might not normally feel in day-to-day life.
PM: The Greater Self also needs to relate to others in the healing process. JT, you define compassion as the capacity to suffer with, coupled with the desire to relieve suffering. How does my desire to relieve your suffering contribute to your healing?
JT: I want to tie my response into the first question because the other piece about the healing paradigm is that it’s a systems paradigm. It sees all things in a web of relatedness. If the human community and all of creation operates as a social ecology, and we are all connected, then any input into that system is going to affect every other part of the system. That’s a very literal way of saying it, but healing is relational and so is the paradigm of life that I subscribe to.
So, one key aspect of your question must be emphasized, which is that having the desire to relieve suffering and acting on the desire to relieve suffering are two different things. If your desire translates into action, then clearly it’s going to have an impact on my healing and my changing because we live in a relational world. We know, empirically, that if someone exhibits caring for me or for anybody, if someone listens deeply, if someone shows compassion, offers support, exhibits or expresses compassion, then I will be able to become more open-hearted. This will help me to face my own fears and pains, or whatever might be in the way of healing, because I will know that there’s a support.
What’s deep about the word compassion, of course, is that it is saying that you also recognize my suffering in yourself and there’s a deeply equalizing aspect of that. Expressing compassion for my suffering means that you’re going to actually be on an equal or horizontal basis with me. That’s only going to help me to come forward. Whether it’s one-to-one or in an entire circle, that kind of expressed desire to help relieve suffering is automatically reciprocated through my coming forward to help myself, be I a victim, a perpetrator, or a bystander.
PM: Your comments make me wonder if healing can occur alone. Do we really need each other to heal?
JT: “Alone” is an interesting word. From a spiritual framework I would say that we’re never alone. But I think there is a lot that we can do to heal ourselves. Meditation is also a key thing for me, as one aspect of self-reflection, that allows me to deeply and honestly look at myself. It’s almost like being in a dialogue with oneself. You are not quite alone if you have a dialogue with your conscience and your own heart, but I would say that the relational aspect of healing really deeply enhance its potential.
PM (to Robin): Would you agree with that?
RC: I do indeed. There’s an expression, “When we heal we are never healed alone.” This is because we are in relationship with others. We need others. Cosmologist Brian Swimme says, “The enemy has a secret and that secret is ourselves. Our destiny is to work with this.” We need others to help us heal because it’s in our relationship with others that we really get to see the parts of ourselves that are unhealed. Otherwise we don’t get to see them. Also, when we do heal, we no longer engage at a fear-based level. Then, directly or indirectly, we are impacting our relationships in a positive way.
JT: What you just said is really beautiful and it reminded me of the September dialogue we held here at the Center on Compassion and Social Healing. Among the participants were a former member of Hitler Youth and the daughter of a former Holocaust survivor. Mary, whose mother had survived the Holocaust, turned to Gottfried and said how much she needed him for her healing and that the antidote was in the poison. In other words, that which was actually harmful for her was necessary to her healing and transformation.
PM: What conditions must be present for healing between two people, or within a group, to occur?
RC: There has to be some small measure of willingness.
RC: Well, it’s interesting because if you sit in circle, sometimes you don’t even have to have a willingness to begin with. It’s like the willingness comes out of the safety of the circle. I’ve often seen people come into circle feeling very resistant. But because the space is so safe — if the keeper sets that type of tone and people really honor what’s going on—people feel that safety. We all want to heal; if we are given a context of safety, we will naturally move toward it.
PM: So a safe environment would be one of those conditions?
RC: Out of that safe environment we can have that dialogue with ourselves. Courage blossoms within us to be able to do what it is that we need to do because, again, I think that we have this innate urge — our nature is moving us towards healing. It’s our inclination. You plant the seed of a tree and it germinates. It’s going to grow to be a full-grown tree. If we are just watered a little bit, we will naturally move just like that tree if our movement isn’t distorted by some kind of environmental barrier or, perhaps, by something that comes from within our nature that we have to overcome. For example, we have to overcome our own temperament sometimes.
JT: I would agree with everything that RC said. And I think that everyone has their own timing. Groups have their own timing for how they heal. But I think that if the space is set up appropriately, if the tone is there, if the facilitation or the process is safe enough, and if there’s the willingness to share the story… then the core ingredients for healing are present.
PM: How does fear — or the absence of fear — play into this optimum set of conditions?
JT: That’s a very big question. There’s the psychological dimension and the cultural dimension of fear. Psychologically, most of us are afraid of whatever is going to cause us a lot of pain. So if we look at the victim’s perspective, fear of feeling our loss is going to keep us from going through the process of mourning and grieving that we have to go through in order to move on. The fear of being engulfed, that fear of almost being annihilated makes us suppress our grief and from that we go into rage. In her work, Olga Botcharova speaks about the seven stages of revenge. She addresses the fear of shame and self-hatred, the fear of feeling that a person won’t be able to forgive himself or herself or be forgiven by others.
There are also social and cultural aspects of fear. Like all cultures of domination, we are a fear-based society. That level of fear keeps people separated from each other. In fact, the degree to which people separate into groups is the degree to which there is social control and domination by fear. We are seeing this happening in our post-9/11 society right now in such a huge way.
PM: It’s almost as if fear becomes a diversion, a way to avoid facing the real issues or the real pain that led to the issues.
JT: Yes. In the compassion seminar we held here last September, Gottfried and Mary, the people I mentioned earlier, had walked an incredibly courageous path towards each other. During our dialogue, they were walking through levels of their own fear. At one point, Hizkias Assefa, who directs the African Peace Builders Network and is involved in the field of reconciliation, made this statement:
We are all suffering from this pain and therefore we want to run away from it. We don’t want to face it. If we don’t face it and we don’t come to that pain again, we cannot escape it. So is it really the pain that hurts us or is it the fear of the pain that hurts us most? If we were to somehow deal with the fear, might we come to accept that we are not as weak as we think we are. Somehow, even if this pain has happened to us, it is possible to go on. It is possible to reconstruct life. Maybe that’s the message that we pass on. Not that this will never happen to our children, but that the pain is not as overwhelming and powerful as we might make it out to be, which is a horrible thing to say but I think that what this reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness is calling us to come back to the pain and to face it. The miracle that I have seen is that once you come face to face with it, the pain is not as overwhelming as we think it is. It gives us power to go beyond it. We want to run away from it but we are called back to it. So how do we come to a better understanding of what this thing that we are calling pain is and the kind of grip it has over us and our behavior in conflict as well as in reconciliation?
RC: I think of the victim and the perpetrator coming together. For most perpetrators, there is a process of readiness that must occur before they get to the point of being able to face their victim. So much of that readiness process involves learning to be with their own pain; they have to sit with it and, in a sense, befriend it. Until that happens, it’s too frightening to take that next step, to undefensively sit in the presence of their victim’s pain.
PM: How does a person befriend his or her pain?
RC: First it involves becoming aware of one's pain, perhaps experienced as tension, anxiety, anger, or fear and then giving oneself permission for the feelings to exist, at least for the moment. If one's pain is potentially overwhelming, it often involves giving oneself permission to seek out trustworthy people with whom to share one’s experience. In a sense it starts with having someone else befriend it, someone who isn’t afraid of our feelings, someone who can contain them, who can compassionately sit with them without being frightened away.
In our culture we have a notion that if there is pain, there is something wrong. We tend to anesthetize everything. It’s important to realize that pain is an inevitable part of the human condition—of having a human body and going through loss and disappointment. Ultimately it can’t be avoided. By not resisting it, by breathing, by being gentle with ourselves, having compassion for our humanness, and by seeking help when needed, we allow the pain to have its due and be transformed.
PM: I’m going to guess that conversation circles and healing circles help break through psychological fear? Of course, you just have to be willing to come to the circle. And in order to be willing, you have to be willing to face pain. It really is pretty complicated.
JT: The nice thing about circle work, though, is that you have the support to confront your fear and that makes a huge difference.
RC: Yes, and sometimes sitting with your pain amongst people that are in the same position as you are helps you to face that pain. One thing that is certainly true about most people who victimize is that they have been victimized. The abused become the abusers. The pain that one needs to look at is at many different levels. There is a lot of shame, not only from being a perpetrator, but shame from having been violated.
PM: You have both worked with children: Judith, through Children of War and Robin, through the intense inner child that you’ve done and do with prisoners that allows them to acknowledge the neglect and abuse they may have suffered from both the child’s vantage point and then again from the perspective of a mature adult. What special challenges does such harm early in life present to the healing process?
RC: With severe early harm, there can be an absence of any place of inner safety in the psyche. As a result, potential harm is anticipated around every turn. There is the concurrent situation of walling off from oneself, one’s feelings, and fellow humans so that when genuine comfort is offered from safe people, it is difficult to trust. You become encapsulated within that state of pain until something happens; perhaps the pain becomes so intolerable that you risk some openness — and it doesn’t kill you. You risk letting love in. Also, one experiences a perpetual state of unworthiness. There is repetition of self-abusive and self-destructive behavior. Until we have the experiences that allow us to feel and heal unresolved pain, grief, anger, rage, fear, and so one, our adult emotional lives are contaminated. In working with offenders, I’ve found that the “inner child work” opens up a whole new world that allows them to understand and forgive themselves. Forming trusting relationships and maintaining those relationships is often a critical need in the healing process. Equally critical are the willingness to be helped, the willingness to tell the truth, and moving forward toward a commitment to self-management tools (meditating, praying, going to AA, doing yoga, etc.).
PM: In your book, Houses of Healing, you quote from many letters prisoners have written to themselves as children that explore that all-important relationship with their younger selves.
RC: It’s a very important part of the work that they do. It’s enormously liberating for them to realize what it is that propelled their behavior and to realize that they aren’t “bad people.” It helps them to begin to heal some of the shame that they feel at such a fundamental level. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “If we could see the secret histories of our enemies, we would find there enough suffering to disarm all the hostility.” In my work, I’ve seen many incarcerated men begin to acknowledge that secret history in themselves and bring it out in a way that begins the liberation process. Also, I believe that this is a life-long process.
PM: Judith, your work with children has been more with victims of conflict and war. Are there any resonances here with what Robin has been saying?
JT: Yes. All of it. Sandra Bloom wrote a wonderful book called Creating a Sanctuary Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies (Routledge 1977). In it, she posits that we are a trauma-organized society and culture. Why is that? Because our society is built upon the wounds of abused children, meaning the unhealed wounding of childhood gets carried into adulthood. In family systems work we see how the wounding of children who become parents is passed on. If that gets replicated many times over, you see a society organized around unhealed wounding.
The earlier trauma occurs in childhood, the worse it’s going to be and the more difficult it’s going to be to go into the healing process. We can’t underestimate how profound this logic is. Just look at the people in prison. Aside from the lenses of economic and racial injustice, so many of the offenders in prison are people who were abused as children. We know this is true. Finding avenues for healing such as getting our children out of the abusive situation and having a secure attachment with a loving and caring adult are critical and can happen with positive impacts well into adolescence. The earlier we get these things going, the better off our society will be.
But even in adulthood, it’s not too late to begin the healing process. So it doesn’t matter if you didn’t do the healing in childhood, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. The basic thing that people need in any kind of healing work is to have the space to do it and people who care enough to support the process. This is a challenge as we grow older, but it can happen anytime.
PM: Robin, in Houses of Healing you suggest that you have to “honor your losses” in order to heal. You then go on to say that healing is impossible without grief. What do you mean by honoring your losses? And what is the power of grief?
RC: If you cut your finger, you will bleed. If you have a significant loss, and you are emotionally healthy, you will feel sadness. In our culture — certainly for men and for some women — the safety and the modeling does not exist to allow us to feel the sadness related to the significant losses that we all experience. When we don’t acknowledge and mourn those losses, then that unresolved grief is going to contaminate our life in some way. Unresolved grief will leave us feeling emotionally numb, depressed, apathetic towards life, or chronically angry and hostile. If all the men in prison were allowed to feel their sadness, they would need life rafts to stay afloat from the tears. The level of unresolved grief is so profound.
PM: It sounds like you’re saying that the grief would be so powerful that it would release them as well and open up possibilities.
PM: So grief really is key?
RC: I think it is a key aspect of the emotional healing process.
JT: I agree. If we can’t move through our grief it will be transformed into bitterness and rage and anger, which is what you see when you are in prison. I was also thinking of this in terms of my work with Children of War, recognizing that a lot of what we did there was to create the opportunity for people to be able to feel their losses. They had never done that before.
There’s also something else that happens with grief that I wanted to touch upon. This is particular to my own experience in a shared process, in a circle where people have been able to share their grief together. It is grace-filled because it is the time of unmasking, the time of disarming, the moment when you become more alive through touching who you really are. There’s that authenticity of saying, “Now I am going to drop into the actual truth about my life, which is all this pain and all this grief that I have never had the opportunity to express before.” That is kind of an aligning process. It brings you into a much deeper level of your personal power and you can experience a palpable sense of the burden lifting. People emerge from this with brighter eyes and smiles on their faces. There’s some kind of visceral, psycho-spiritual aspect to it. There’s also more freedom within to move on in life. If you experience this, you are no longer anchored to a past that you have not yet grieved and, therefore, remain attached to.
A number of the children who came to Children of War — and were already 16, 17, or 18 — had already been abused through violent conflict and were militant. Some of them were taking up arms. We didn’t know that because otherwise we probably wouldn’t have let them in the program since we were all about nonviolence. But, nonetheless, they went out the door in the other direction. This didn’t happen because of any cognitive change. We didn’t lecture on nonviolence. But because they had released themselves and had seen in the “other” the grief and story of that other, they began to recognize that all those others that they had demonized also were people with stories. Confronting grief allowed them to see that.
PM: What is forgiveness and what conditions must be present for it to occur?
RC: When I speak of forgiveness, I like to speak first of what it isn’t. Forgiveness is not condoning hurtful, insensitive, and abusive behavior; forgiveness is not repressing your anger or acting like everything is okay when it isn’t; forgiveness is not behaving in a particular way; forgiveness is not taking on an air of superiority or self-righteousness; and, very importantly, forgiveness is not forgetting. Sometimes people feel that if they forgive, they will forget. But you are not going to forget a hurtful experience unless it’s so traumatic that you have to repress it, or it’s so inconsequential that you just don’t want it in your memory bank; outside of that, you will remember it. It’s also important to understand that forgiveness is not about what you do. You can set clear, non-negotiable boundaries with somebody. You can litigate against them. You can do whatever you need to do and still forgive.
What forgiveness is about is a shift in perception and a change of heart that allow you to be freed in the process. I’d like to share a statement on forgiveness by Reverend Wayne Muller. It’s not really a definition but I think it captures the meaning of forgiveness quite beautifully. He said, “What we are forgiving is not the act. What we are forgiving are the people, the people who could not manage to honor and cherish their selves, their families, and other people. What we are forgiving is their confusion, their unskillfulness, their ignorance, and in some cases, their desperation.”
PM: That sort of perspective requires a lot of understanding.
RC: Yes, it requires understanding and maturity. Forgiveness is a decision. It is a choice to see beyond the act and beyond the reactive judgments of our ego to see that another person’s insensitive or hurtful behavior is an expression of their separation from themselves. I would go so far as to say that hurtful behavior is also a call for acknowledgment, respect, emotional safety, help, and love. Viewed in this light, forgiveness is an understanding of reality that extricates us. In forgiving, we see fear for what it is. We develop clarity. We set boundaries when necessary. We never condone hurtful behavior. We do what we have to do but we do it while keeping our heart open in the process.
PM: This sounds very much connected to compassion, Judith.
JT: Forgiveness is a complex and personal matter. Last September at the Compassion and Social Healing Seminar I met a man named Richard who lost his eyesight in Northern Ireland at the age of 10 as a result of a British bullet. We also got to know Father Michael Lapsley, the former chaplain of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, who lost both of his hands in a letter bomb attack in South Africa. Each of them spoke of forgiveness and each of them spoke of it very differently. Father Lapsley doesn’t know who sent that letter bomb to him so he says that “forgiveness is not on the table” because he doesn’t know who he would be forgiving. Richard Moore didn’t know who shot him but he claims that he has forgiven completely.
There are many, many factors involved in these journeys. What is the loss involved? What kind of healing work has been done already? What kind of support do we have? There’s an idealized forgiveness in our minds. You saw in South Africa when Bishop Tutu urged people to forgive and many people felt that they were being mandated to forgive before they were ready. It’s very complex. What I see from tracking my own inner life and listening to other people who are on forgiveness journeys is that one thing they have in common is that people forgive as a desire to let go of the bitterness and hatred that is in their own life so that they can move on.
PM: Are you saying that forgiveness is not so much about the forgiven, as for the forgiver.
JT: Well, that’s right. It’s not necessarily a transaction or dynamic that is relational. I was very moved by the book A Human Being Died: A South African Tale of Forgiveness by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (Houghton Mifflin 2003). Hers was a journey with the perpetrator who was known as “Prime Evil” in South Africa, the prime executioner in the secret jailhouse called Vlakplass. Her interaction and her experience of his remorse was very relational. It both humanized him and moved into a story of forgiveness that I think was very deeply rooted in the actual relationship between them. It’s not that it wasn’t a way of freeing her, but she had not had any deliberate association with him as some of the bombing victims parents had. In her story I saw two kinds of forgiveness: One is the personal approach of liberating oneself from the bitterness and moving on. The other was going into a very deep humanizing process with the “other.”
RC: I’ve seen both of these dynamics at work. But it’s important to be aware that forgiveness only takes one person whereas reconciliation takes two.
PM: Many people believe that justice requires accountability in the form of punishment and that being concerned with a perpetrator’s feelings is a way of going “soft on crime.” Robin, in your view, does emotional healing make a person more or less accountable?
RC: First I want to say that I care about everybody in the process. I think that’s one reason I feel it’s so important to work with offenders. I don’t want to see more victims. If I am really concerned about potential victims, working with offenders is a critical part of that mix.
James Gilligan wrote an outstanding book on violence entitled Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic in which he says that punishment does not only not deter violence, it stimulates it. If we understand that, we aren’t going to support a criminal justice system that stimulates it unless our primary motivation is revenge. The emotional healing process is a process of emotional maturation. Who wouldn’t want a fellow traveler on this earth to become more emotionally mature and therefore more peaceful and loving? We have a criminal justice system that works against the greater good and is in profound need of healing.
JT: I agree. If you even look at the use of language — ”soft on crime” — it’s such a set-up for the divisive, macho perspective that purveys the whole system.
PM: At what points within our current system of justice do each of you see opportunities for healing to enter the process and contribute to a deeper sense of justice?
JT: On a case by case level, healing can happen for individuals in a number of ways. For people whose rights have been trampled, the law can offer rectification which is, in itself, healing. So, certainly, some “victims” may find a sense of relief from the legal process, no doubt about that. Furthermore, the whole process involves individuals who can choose, through their demeanor, compassion, sense of fairness, attentiveness to the needs of all parties, to be deeply human. This can be healing. So, certainly healing can occur as long as people of integrity and good will are involved Still, the mainstream system, as it stands, is imbued with a punishment philosophy and equipped with the machinery to enact it, which mostly contradicts the healing paradigm. On a structural level, all aspects of the system are geared toward punishment and that punishment is biased based on class, race and so on. Thus, the whole process favors more wounding, not healing.
PM: Robin, where do you see opportunities for the system to change?
RC: At every point. It is a broken system. Abuse of power coupled with institutional racism is rampant. These fundamental issues are in profound need of healing. Prosecutors have enormous unchecked power that is far too often politically motivated and abominably misguided. In one’s movement through the criminal justice system, first there is law-enforcement. It is the point of entry into the current “injustice system." There would be great opportunity for healing to enter law enforcement by having responsible leadership, high conduct standards, just policing policies (i.e. high standards for investigations), and neighborhood policing. An enormous step toward healing would be the establishment of regularly scheduled circles in town meetings and community centers where concerns of the police and neighborhood residents could be expressed and heard.
Secondly there is the judicial system where a defendant faces judgment and receives a sentence. First, before taking the bench, every judge should have to anonymously spend at least one week in prison or jail to gain a greater understanding of what they are sentencing people to. Instead of going to trial, when victims and the accused are willing, the restorative justice model and sentencing circles would be potentially invaluable for healing the parties directly involved as well as the community. For cases that go to trial, to contribute to healing in the system, juries would be racially diverse with a majority being the same race as the accused. All mandatory sentences would be repealed and judges would be given greater latitude in sentencing. Alternatives to incarceration would be utilized much more creatively. There would be numerous changes to make the trial process less adversarial and more focused on the real facts. Lawyers and prosecutors would be legally liable for playing games — intentionally omitting and manipulating the facts.
The third part of the criminal justice system is the penal system; this is the one I am most familiar with. First, guards would be carefully screened before hiring. Abuse of power by security staff is currently beyond what most people would ever imagine. Staff would be held accountable for acting with maturity and dignity. The racial diversity of staff would reflect the racial diversity of the population served. Regular trainings to increase sensitivity regarding issues of racial diversity would be required. For prisons to truly serve the greater good and contribute to healing for everyone, the entire thrust would be treatment/ rehabilitation. Psychological evaluations and proper treatment would be given. There would be significant incentives for inmates to consciously and constructively utilize their time. The entire thrust would be prisons as “houses of healing” and a Social Recovery Model of intervention would be instituted. With a fifty-year track record, this model incorporates some of the most effective elements of therapeutic communities and recovery programs. It is geared to changing the entire culture of prison.
According to Morgan Moss, an exceptional person with extensive experience with this model in the penal setting, the underlying philosophy of the Social Recovery Model of intervention affirms that “the participant has critical expertise and that people learn behavior and attitude from the community they live in. It regards the concept of recovery as reducing or removing any block that hinders a person’s realization of their full potential and ability to contribute to their society.” As Moss states and as I have observed, “It is an alternative solution to the typical expensive, dehabilitative, American correctional culture that can collaterally damage both staff and inmates.”
From the first day of entry into the system, inmates would be preparing for successful reintegration back into the community. A GED program would be mandatory for anyone lacking a high school diploma. There would be a comprehensive curriculum and process-oriented groups in emotional literacy and parenting. Family involvement would be encouraged. Victim-awareness programs, with voluntary participation from victims in the community, would be mandatory. Job trainings opportunities would be offered. Citizen oversight, as well as volunteer programs and other positive community involvement would be encouraged. A transitional plan would be in place for every inmate before release. Furlough programs would be re-instituted. No person would receive a sentence of “life without parole” unless they entered at an old age with circumstances involving a serious violent crime. Everyone would be eligible to apply for parole. An inmate’s prison record would be evaluated and a comprehensive assessment would be conducted to determine a readiness/security risk for release.
Some of the most emotionally and spiritually mature individuals whom I have ever met are men doing life sentences (without the possibility of parole). Some participated in the horrible crime of killing a person as a teen or young adult. Long after they have aged out of crime, after years of using their time in a most constructive manner (some having earned college degrees and having matured into extraordinary adults, they look forward to more decades in prison where they will eventually die, having cost the taxpayers approximately $65,000 a year (after the age of 50 due to medical costs). We spend billions to incarcerate people who would be better served in the community while millions of children live with the devastation of poverty. We would create positive alternatives and seek every possible alternative to locking up our children in juvenile detention facilities and adult facilities. We would start with prevention.
That said, in order to deal with the core issues that result in 2 million men and women locked in cages in our country, 6 million in the criminal justice system (parole, probation, or incarceration) and with one in three black men in their twenties in the criminal justice system, we must face and heal the root causes of why so many people end up in the system in the first place: economic inequity, woefully inadequate educational opportunities in poor communities, and racism.
PM: Thank you both for giving us so much to think about.
Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue