In recent years, scholars and social movements have brought the issue of mass incarceration into public consciousness in the United States. Many now know that the U.S. has the world’s largest prison population, or have heard alarming figures, like an incarceration rate for Black men that is 6 times that for white men. At the same time, although crime is down, disproportionately high rates of violence continue to impact the same communities hit hardest by mass incarceration. Restorative justice brings responsible parties and survivors together to repair the harms caused by crimes, and it may offer a way out of this vicious cycle.
Ayoola Mitchell and Troy Williams came to restorative justice by different paths, but a shared commitment to healing and accountability drives their work with Insight Prison Project, a California-based organization that works with men, women and youth in prisons and jails in California and two other states. Insight Prison Project’s approach to restorative justice is unique and effective, and researchers from the UW Center for Human Rights’ Rethinking Punishment project are currently exploring the possibilities for implementing its restorative justice curriculum in Washington State. Mitchell and Williams shared their stories during a September 30th panel at UW, at the invitation of Prof. Katherine Beckett, the Law, Societies & Justice Program, and the Law School.
Ayoola Mitchell has lived every mother’s worst nightmare—twice. In 2009, her eldest son was shot 17 times. He survived, but just over a year later her step-son, whose life she had been a part of since birth, was shot and killed. Neither of her sons’ shooters were ever identified. Despite a family background in law enforcement and a career in the justice system, Mitchell’s experiences with the police and medical systems left her unsatisfied. “I knew that something different had to happen,” she says. “I made the decision to work harder, and [find something] to get involved with so that another mom doesn’t have to bury her son, or another son doesn’t pull the trigger.”
At a friend’s urging, Mitchell became involved in a Survivor Speaker Panel facilitated by the Insight Prison Project in San Quentin prison. As a “victim surrogate,” she described how violence impacted her family in a group with incarcerated participants and facilitators. “The more I spoke the more I healed,” she says. Mitchell now works as IPP’s Community & Survivor Outreach Specialist.
Troy Williams joined Insight Prison Project’s Victim Offender Education Group program during the twenty-five years he spent in California prisons for an armed robbery. For six of those years he participated in, and later facilitated, VOEG curriculum. “Before VOEG, I couldn’t understand what victims of my crime had gone through. When people said, well you caused them to be in fear of their lives, I thought, well I’ve feared for my life my whole life.”
Hearing from a person who had been harmed by a similar crime led Williams to both understanding and empathy. “I saw how traumatized and paralyzed her life had been as a result of her being a victim of a robbery. That’s when I was able to see how my life had been paralyzed by fear.” Outside of prison, Williams continues to work with IPP as a Youth Development Specialist and Trainer/Facilitator.
Restorative Justice for Social Change in Washington State
UW researchers Prof. Katherine Beckett and 3rd-year law student Martina Kartman are studying the impacts of restorative justice practices and working to bring IPP programs to Washington State. The Center for Human Rights supported the research presented in their recent report, Violence, Mass Incarceration and Restorative Justice: Promising Possibilities, which offers a deep dive into the transformative work of the Insight Prison Project. They describe IPP’s holistic curriculum, which, uniquely among restorative justice programs, is available to prisoners who are not able to interact directly with those they have harmed, thanks to surrogates like Ayoola Mitchell. IPP also takes on cases involving violent crimes—often excluded from other programs, despite evidence that restorative justice may have the biggest impact in such cases.
Even restorative justice practices that are more limited than IPP’s can have a powerful impact. Studies suggest that the overwhelming majority of participants are satisfied with victim offender mediation, a staple of many programs. Researchers have also found significant reductions in both the frequency and seriousness of repeat offenses by participants. Despite these benefits, access to restorative justice remains limited—for example, few prison facilities in Washington State offer such programs.
How can communities and decision-makers in Washington State take action to advance restorative justice practices? “We need to build practical strategies to hold people accountable for harm, secure community safety, and support healing and justice for survivors,” says Kartman.“At the same time, we must collectively address the historical and structural violence that underpin the interpersonal harms we so quickly condemn.”
“Ultimately, we need to create programs in which restorative processes and reparations serve as a substitute for incarceration,” adds Professor Beckett. “These diversion programs can, and should, include cases in which violence occurred.”
While recognizing the track record of success presented in Prof. Beckett and Kartman’s report, Ayoola Mitchell and Troy Williams say that we shouldn’t focus only on statistics about restorative justice. What’s more important are the stories of lives that have been changed. “I believe in the redemption of people; I believe that nobody should be known by the worst thing that they’ve ever done,” says Mitchell.
For Williams, restorative justice implies not just individual transformation, but social change: “In the same sense that I had to be held accountable for the wrongs that I did…the system has to be held accountable for the wrongs that it’s doing.”