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So, what’s the punishment?

February 27, 2012

The brutal reality of many prisons around the world came into sharp focus with the prison fire in Comayagua, Honduras on 14 February. More than 350 people died in the severely overcrowded facility where 800 people were held in a space built for 500. This crowding, common throughout the country’s 24 prisons, results from the government’s policies of mano dura  or iron fist that relies on high levels of pre-trial detention and incarceration even for minor crimes. 

Another reality, that of how prisons and prisoners are often viewed by the public, recently appeared in my RSS feeds in a commentary titled, “What gives a murderer the right to protest prison conditions?” To be fair, the short article is an honest attempt to explore the very real and natural anger one feels over the loss of human life and the values and standards that define us as individuals and a society. But, my initial response to the headline was, “the punishment is deprivation of liberty and not torture or horrible prison conditions.” 

Unfortunately, this is a conversation I’ve had with people in my social circle and my faith community who question why I would choose to work with offenders. I’ve heard arguments such as ‘they are just users’ and ‘they are criminals.’ One that I find frightening is the claim that someone who decides to take a life has lost his/her humanity and therefore deserves to be treated as such. A push back arguing that going beyond the deprivation of liberty means that we lose a bit of our own humanity is just shaken off. The response is always about the personal choices that the “criminal” made. 

As I read about the Honduras prison fire and the protests in the California prison system — the impetus for the commentary I mentioned — I come back to the fact that restorative justice offers us something different. It goes beyond the human being as the sum of his decisions to seeing a human being in relationship with other people who has the potential for rehabilitation. A restorative view takes into consideration the needs of victims as well as the treatment of offenders with a vision of helping each of them move on to be positive, contributing members of their communities. It also offers possible transformation for communities as well as individuals. 

None of this is to say that there aren’t consequences for behaviour. Accountability and responsibility are big parts of a restorative response to crime. In my opinion, a restorative view doesn’t deny the necessity of prisons. It does mean that prison would be reserved for cases where it truly was needed to ensure the protection of society. At the same time, prison would serve the role of restoring human dignity and providing offenders the opportunity to deal with the underlying factors that led to their behaviour. As I’ve written before such prisons do exist and serve to help offenders make better choices when returning to their communities. 

Of course, one may question how this would work in a country like Honduras where the murder rate is the highest in the world. The natural fear and sense of helplessness that statistic invokes can make something like mano dura sound good. It can help fuel the arguments of people who take a life don’t deserve humane treatment. However, if we go beyond deprivation of liberty and condone inhumane conditions that lead to more violence, illness, and injustice then we are losing a part of ourselves as well. 

No, restorative justice isn’t a panacea, but it offers a framework for trying to respond to crime in a way to teach human dignity and not take it away. Restorative responses need to be integrated with holistic community strategies to deal with poverty, gang issues, and marginalisation of individuals. Yet, there are experiments in the region that show promise such as the Restorative Juvenile Justice projects in Peru, a project training young people involved in crime as peacemakers in Colombia, and a very recent project to provide community service as an alternative to incarceration in El Salvador (another country dealing with high levels of gang violence). 


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