Transforming a punishment-based justice system to one based on healing

Fifty Quakers and a few friends of the Friends spent most of a Saturday discussing prison conditions, prison ministry, prison policies, and other matters at the All New Hampshire Gathering of Friends, held at Wesley United Methodist Church in Concord on January 19, 2013.  

After a period of silent worship, the program began with remarks from Jamie Bissonnette-Lewy, coordinator of AFSC’s New England Healing Justice Program, and Margaret Hawthorn, a member of Monadnock Quaker Meeting.   Jamie opened with a prayer for peace and help in healing, spoken in the Abenaki language.

Jamie reminded attenders of something they already knew or suspected: that the USA has the largest prison population in the world and that most of the prisoners are people of color.   From a series of conversations she convened with representatives of African American and Aboriginal communities which have survived centuries of inter-generational trauma, and with Quaker groups that had wrestled for years with how to transform a punishment and torture-based system to one which would promote healing, she said she has learned that we can heal or we can punish but we cannot do both.  

“In order to do make this change,” she said, “we had to think a little differently. First we understood that crime was essentially harm, and, in addressing harm first we needed to heal and secondly—a very hard truth given the structure of our society—punishment did not advance healing, but accountability and responsibility did.”

She outlined six principles or “indicators” that approaches could be labeled “healing justice:”

  1. Implementing the principles of responsibility, mutuality and love.
  2. Repairing harm at all levels: personal, communal, governmental and international.
  3. Creating ability to care for yourself, your family and all your relations by providing protection from immediate danger, and by providing sustained emotional, physical and economic support.
  4. Supportive of being able to lead our lives “in a good way.”
  5. Building the right and mechanisms of self-determination to transform pain and anger into empowerment and action.
  6. Building the access to the mechanisms to hold community and governmental entities to these same principles and actions when they cause harm.

These concepts may seem rather straightforward on paper, but Friends realized they are challenging to actually put into practice.

Jamie also spoke about the difference between “forgiveness of the person who did the harm” and “forgiveness that the harm happened at all,” and suggested that the latter is more important. 

Margaret’s remarks centered on her “permanent relationship” with Roody Fleuraguste, the man who killed her daughter, Molly Hawthorn-MacDougall, nearly three years ago.  “From the outset I have known hatred would destroy me, and the best way I can avoid it is by experiencing humanity in the one I would choose to hate,” Margaret said, as she described her feelings observing her daughter’s killer in the courtroom on the day he was sentenced to 40 years in prison after a plea bargain deal that called off a public trial in which he would have been confronted with the evidence of his crime.   This was challenging on a different level.  

“I’m not saying I want him in my everyday life,” Margaret said.  “But I have a need to know him, to work through in my own heart and mind his humanness.” 

Margaret hopes for a miracle of transformation that can come from love.  “The act of loving can be overwhelming,” she said.  “Can I love the oppressed - truly care about them - and go on living a life in which my needs are abundantly met? Can I love one who emerged from that oppressed world to take my daughter’s life?”

With that question hanging in the air, Friends reflected silently before exchanging questions and ideas with Jamie and Margaret, then proceeding with several short break-out sessions.   The largest group shared experiences in jails and prisons as volunteers, teachers, visitors, and chaplains.  Another group met with Jamie for a “Building a Community of Learning on Healing Justice” workshop.  A third met with Rep. Patricia Higgins and Arnie Alpert to review current policy issues, including death penalty repeal, prison privatization, and sentencing reform.  Children met with Marian Baker for an encounter with the legacy of Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker who led prison reform efforts in 19th century England.   

The day concluded with remarks from the Rev. Beth Richeson, chaplain at the NH State Prison for Women; Nancy Shippen, New England coordinator for the Alternatives to Violence Program; and Chris Dornin, founder of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform.    Beth said her ministry is about healing “in a place that’s not.”  Nancy spoke of the importance of visiting and volunteering in prisons, and suggested a list of books to help prepare oneself, starting with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness.  Chris described the importance of getting involved in public policy.  

“Whatever justice is,” said Beth, “it has to include the healing of victims, offenders, and their community.”  That summed up the day pretty well.