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Rethinking Punishment: Holding Space for Restorative Justice

IPP facilitators and community members participate in a restorative justice circle training in Seattle. Photo: Insight Prison Project
IPP facilitators and community members participate in a restorative justice circle training in Seattle. Photo: Insight Prison Project

October 6, 2017

During 2016-2017, UW faculty, students, and alumni worked with community members and Insight Prison Project to begin facilitating restorative justice circles at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, WA.

Many people have become aware of the challenges posed by mass incarceration. Many now know, for example, that the U.S. has the world’s largest prison population, and that the incarceration rate for black men is roughly six times that for white men. It is also clear that prison does not provide the safety and security it promises, even in the cases of violence. Instead, long prison sentences exacerbate the very conditions that lead to crime, including inequality, barriers to opportunity, and trauma. While the near exclusive reliance on incarceration to address violence in the United States has had devastating impacts on prisoners, their families, and their communities, it has also failed crime survivors. The same marginalized groups that are overrepresented in our justice system are also the most likely to experience violence and the least likely to access victim services.

UW faculty and students have studied community-based alternatives to mass incarceration such as restorative justice—and, with support from the UW Center for Human Rights (UWCHR), have been working to implement them in Washington State. Last year, Martina Kartman, an LSJ and UW School of Law alum, received support from UWCHR for a research fellowship with the Rethinking Punishment project. In June 2016, Kartman and UW Professor Katherine Beckett published the results of this research in a report, Violence, Mass Incarceration and Restorative Justice: Promising Possibilities. The report concludes that anti-violence strategies rooted in restorative justice principles are a constructive but under-utilized response to interpersonal harm, one that can avoid over-reliance on prisons and jails while taking accountability seriously and addressing the needs of harmed parties.

The report focused in particular on the Insight Prison Project (IPP), which works with men, women and youth in prisons and jails in California and two other states. IPP brings incarcerated individuals and crime survivors together to share their stories, learn from one another, and work toward accountability. The work involves a rigorous and challenging circle facilitation process inside prisons and is aimed at fostering healing and accountability. Notably, this work involves the training and leadership development of currently and formerly incarcerated facilitators and survivors to run the circles themselves.

Training “Circle Keepers” in Seattle

Kartman and Beckett have partnered with community-based advocates to offer restorative justice circles based on Insight Prison Project’s curriculum at the Washington State Reformatory at the Monroe Correctional Complex this fall. This work, designed and created by IPP and supervised by IPP Programs Director & Clinical Supervisor, Karena H. Montag MFT, will be delivered in Seattle by Kartman and Beckett to provide opportunities for people in Washington State prisons and in the community to address accountability, resolve conflict, and heal from trauma.

To make this possible, Beckett and Kartman arranged for Karena Montag and Malachi Scott of IPP to provide a five-day training for people interested in serving as circle keepers. The training took place in February of 2017, and included 15 people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system and/or who work with survivors as advocates and organizers. As part of the training, participants met with a group of men at the Washington State Reformatory for an in-depth discussion of the IPP philosophy and curriculum. Both the training and the time spent together was deeply transformative. As one trainee put it:

The facilitators… exemplified what it means to hold the space for those we are supporting in circle. We were able to experience circle with individuals who do this work every day and it was more powerful to me than the literature I have read. The stories shared by not only the facilitators, but the victim panel and other participants of the training reinforced how important this work is. I am excited for my continued learning of restorative justice and how to be a good facilitator for those we are serving. I look forward to being a part of this very important work.

Another participant had this to say:

Most trainings that I attend pack in so much that it’s hard to really soak in the bulk of the content. This has been by far the most intentional training that I’ve ever been to. The slowness allowed for building community and relationships with fellow facilitators through challenges and growth, and ample space and time to think about personal facilitation styles. I feel deeply transformed from the experience.

In September of 2017, several people who went through the IPP circle-process training will begin facilitating restorative justice circles at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, where interest in the circle process opportunity has run high.

In the future, Beckett and Kartman seek to design and implement a restorative justice diversion process for young adults aged 16-25 who are arrested for violent felonies and those they harmed. Local leaders have expressed interest in the idea, and discussions are underway. The timing of this project is ideal, as marginalized crime survivors are leading the call for community-based and restorative responses to harm that address the root causes of crime and violence as an alternative to long prison sentences. Kartman and Beckett have heard this call and are eager to continue supporting impacted communities to address the harms associated with interpersonal and state violence.