Healing, restorative justice ultimately builds a safer society

Published November 1, 1999

SOFTLY AND hesitatingly, Jonathon searched for words with which to recount his life story. As chaplain at one of the prisons in the Correctional Service of Canada, I hear many stories similar to that of Jonathon, who is both offender and victim. At age 16, Jonathon murdered a woman, was tried, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

“My anger had built up inside me and I had stuffed it,” he said. “Like a volcano, it erupted in violence and abuse upon others.” In time, Jonathon shared the fact that he, himself, had been abused and neglected at a young age and he described himself as “a quiet, angry boy.”

Seventeen years have passed since Jonathon’s sentencing and he is concerned that having grown up in prison, he has become institutionalized. Many questions and fears find their home in his heart. Presently, Jonathon is in the process of preparing for his judicial review and is apprehensive about what life on the “outside” may be like for him. “How can I get a job? What job will I get?”

Even the transition into a Canadian federal minimum-security institution, in which the residents live in small houses and are expected to develop personal responsibility and independent living skills, was traumatic for Jonathon.

Several years ago while Jonathon was in a maximum-security prison, his victim’s family wrote and asked to meet with him. Through the assistance of the chaplain, this visit occurred. “I could not look at them. I felt shame,” said Jonathon.

Nevertheless, he treasures that encounter through which he continues to recognize the consequences of his actions ever more clearly. Further letters have been exchanged between Jonathon and this hurting, reconciling family. Jonathon acknowledges that he can never give back a life, but he is making efforts at rebuilding trust, hope, dignity and at finding a real place when he returns to the community. One of Jonathon’s hopes is to “talk to kids ? to the quiet ones.”

Jonathon’s story is one of healing, restorative justice in the making. This healing justice is grounded in the belief that God’s spirit groans in every human being and aims at “fanning into flame the gift of God” (1 Timothy 1:6). It focuses on healing rather than on punishment, on healing the relationships of all those involved in conflict and crime: the victim, the community, the environment and the offender. Healing, restorative justice aims to build communities of reconciliation and to break the cycle of violence. It moves beyond the boundaries and dichotomies of victim/offender, not guilty/ guilty to a compassionate embrace of the core principles: inclusiveness, accountability, community involvement, accessibility, choice, fairness, reparation, equality, and a holistic approach (from the Framework Paper on Restorative Justice).

Rather than promoting a punitive approach, that is, focusing on the laws that have been broken and the punishment that is to be administered, healing justice places people at the heart of its process and thus works towards building a safer society. Jonathon, like others in our prison system, walks this journey. It is a difficult path, for offenders often encounter what appear to be “fire walls” within the prison system, itself. Paper work and files abound, accumulate and are a frequent reference point. As Sister Helen Prejean notes, an offender’s life may be frozen at one moment in time!

At times, the prison seems a harsh environment and at other times, the sacredness of the people and their struggles, their despair and their hope speak deeply of God’s groaning and of God’s desire to “fan into flame” what may even be a tiny spark.

Healing, restorative justice calls upon the collaboration of every person so that the sparks may dance into flame. “Act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly with God,” speaks Micah (6:8) ? even to the quiet ones. Josephine Badali, CND, is chaplain at Ferndale Institution, Mission B.C.


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