No Word for Prison
What does a woman do after coming-of-age in Birmingham in the 1950s, after losing two friends in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls in the 1960s, after helping free her very high-profile sister from the clutches of the FBI’s Most Wanted List during the height of Black Power in the 1970s? What does she do after advocating for the end to Apartheid in the 1980s, after working as a Civil Rights trial lawyer through the 1990s?
For Fania Davis, the answer is simple: Continue the fight by helping to increase the peace.
An Oakland, California-based lawyer and professor with a Ph.D. in indigenous studies, Davis is co-founder and Executive Director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY). RJOY’s mission is to “to fundamentally shift the way we respond to wrongdoing” by giving young people the tools they need to resolve conflict in holistic ways.
Davis’ sister is Civil Rights icon Angela Y. Davis, and her daughter, Eisa Davis, is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright and Obie Award-winning actress. Fania Davis helped establish RJOY in 2004 after apprenticing with traditional healers around the world, particularly in Africa.
By bringing young people who are in conflict into a circle that implements restorative justice, RJOY has reduced suspension rates by 75 percent and helped eliminate violent fighting and expulsions at one low-income Oakland middle school,.
According to Davis, in most traditional languages there is no word for prison. Meanwhile, our land of the free has the highest incarceration rates in the world. If current trends do not change, one out of every three black men born today can expect to spend some time in prison. RJOY’s mission can help free our young people. Davis and I discussed old and new ways of thinking about conflict, retribution, and personal liberation.
Q: WHAT IS RESTORATIVE JUSTICE FOR OAKLAND YOUTH (RJOY) AND WHAT DOES IT AIM TO DO?
A: Punitive school discipline and juvenile justice policies in the nation have the unintended consequence of setting into motion tragic and persistent cycles of increased incarceration and violence, increasingly unsafe communities, and wasted lives. Ours is a system that tends to harm people who harm people to show that harming people is wrong.
RJOY is an Oakland, California-based non-profit group which works to interrupt these devastating cycles by promoting systems-based shifts toward restorative, data-driven approaches which will repair harm instead of replicating it and which will create a more effective and fair justice system. Combining its expertise in research, training, technical assistance, and launching demonstration projects, RJOY helps a consortium of more than 42 government and community leaders in the San Francisco East Bay move from a juvenile justice system that causes more harm to one that repairs it.
Rather than focus on who broke the law and what punishment is deserved, restorative approaches create opportunities for active community engagement to repair harm, address root causes, and meet victims’ needs, while promoting youth accountability and growth.
RJOY works in a metropolitan area that is predominantly African American, Latino, and Asian. Restorative juvenile justice holds great promise not only in lowering overall rates of incarceration and recidivism but also in helping to eliminate unequal treatment of African Americans and Latinos…
…The process of bringing people together in face-to-face encounters also inherently reduces the “otherizing/demonizing” of young people of color that our adversarial criminal justice system tends to foster.
Q: WHAT LED YOU TO THIS PROGRAM? WHY ARE CRIMINAL AND SOCIAL JUSTICE SO IMPORTANT TO YOU?
A: Looking back, I see my life as sort of a quest for social transformation. [This was said in the introduction] I come from a lineage of activism. My mother was involved in the Scottsboro Brothers case, the unemployed councils of the 1930’s, the Southern Negro Youth Congress and other progressive movements of her time. The Ku Klux Klan murdered two of my close childhood friends in the Sunday School bombing in 1963. This horrific event crystallized within me a passionate commitment to social justice, and for the next decades, I was active in the civil rights, black students’, women’s, prisoners’, peace and anti-hate violence and anti-apartheid movements.
I also helped lead the international movement to free my sister Angela who, based upon her radical activism, was falsely accused of murder and conspiracy to murder in 1970. Witnessing the remarkable lawyers on her defense team led me to the decision to pursue a legal career. After receiving my law degree from UC Berkeley, I practiced in the Bay Area as a civil rights trial lawyer specializing in employment discrimination.
However, by the mid-1990’s, after a lifetime of following the way of the warrior, I began to feel out of balance. I yearned for more healing, spiritual, and feminine energies to counterbalance the hyperrational, hypermasculinist and bellicose qualities I’d been compelled to cultivate as trial lawyer and activist. Serendipitously, I entered a Ph.D. program in Recovery of Indigenous Mind at the California Institute of Integral Studies and apprenticed with traditional healers around the globe, particularly in Africa. Not long after returning, I learned about the field of restorative justice. This was an epiphany. This new approach to justice—rooted in ancient indigenous processes—allowed integration of the healer and warrior and the spiritualist and activist within me.
Q: IN WHAT WAYS DO TRADITIONAL CONSTRUCTIONS OF CRIMINAL AND SOCIAL JUSTICE DIFFER FROM OUR WESTERN APPROACH TO LAW AND ORDER?
A: Traditional and modernist constructions of justice differ in a number of ways. First, a communal and participatory ethos pervades indigenous justice approaches. Indigenous justice proceedings tend to involve an expansive range of participants. All affected persons are actively engaged—each of the parties in conflict, their extended families, traditional elders, and community members at large. The process tends to be consensus-based and more egalitarian than hierarchical.
On the other hand, in modern justice proceedings, the range of participants is quite restricted, typically limited to the two sides in conflict, along with a group of justice professionals who dominate the proceedings. Crime is impersonally viewed as an offense against the state rather than as an injury to a person or to relationships. The victim is usually excluded, except as a witness to support the “state’s” case. Offender-focused, modern justice asks: What law was broken, who broke it, and what punishment is deserved?
Ancient justice—and this applies to restorative justice too—is inherently more democratic and inclusive, actively engaging everyone affected by the wrong doing. It shifts the locus of the justice project from courtroom to community. It is balanced and wholistic, giving equal attention to victims’ needs, community interests, and offender accountability and growth. It asks: Who was harmed, what are the needs and responsibilities arising from the harm, and how do all affected collaboratively figure out how to repair it and prevent recurrence?
A second major difference between modernist and indigenous constructions of justice is that, while the former is based upon interpretation and application of written rules, regulations, procedures, and statutory and common law, indigenous justice decision-making is grounded in values, history, proverbs, and other cultural teachings handed down through oral tradition.
Additionally, though modern justice forbids prayer and spirituality, based upon the doctrine of separation of church and state, indigenous justice intentionally relies upon prayer, ceremony and ritual. For instance, prayer may be offered and libations poured to open the process and to invoke the assistance of the ancestors or other supernatural beings, and to create an atmosphere of reconciliation, healing and unity. The process usually closes with a feast or other ceremony to celebrate reconciliation, to invoke the continued assistance of the supernatural and the community in keeping the peace and enforcing the decisions reached.
Also, indigenous justice’s solutions often involve taking spiritual action to restore balance within individuals and communities. For instance, traditional approaches were used in post-conflict Mozambique in the early nineties to heal trauma and reintegrate child soldiers back into the community. How does this apply to a contemporary U.S. urban context? We are successfully using Peacemaking or Healing Circles to address conflict and wrongdoing in Oakland’s schools, justice system and communities.
These are values-driven and consensus-based processes in which ceremony, truth-telling, and relationship-building exercises figure prominently. For example, depending on their expressed cultural preferences, Circle participants may choose to open and close a Circle with meditation, breathwork, a quote, or a prayer. We usually also use a talking piece. This allows us to move into a sort of respectful and sacred space which promotes a sense of closeness, interrelatedness, and of being together in a good way – a way of being together that is different from our ordinary daily interaction. It’s important to note here that any sort of spiritual activity utilized is not imposed upon participants – it would organically arise out of participants’ cultural preferences and choices.
A third major difference is in overarching aims. In indigenous justice, the focus is on repairing and rebuilding relationships with the intent of bringing reconciliation and social harmony. It seeks to strengthen relationships and bring about healing: Justice is a healing ground, not a battleground. Punishment as we know it today was the exception rather than rule. Reconciliation, not punishment, was the overarching concern. Indeed, in most indigenous languages, there is no word for prison.
If you stole something or hurt someone then, you would pay restitution—for instance, in Africa, maize, palm oil, chickens, goats, cows. Since your family has to pay, you are subjected to the sanction of your family, exerting a corrective influence. Your wrongdoing is shamed—the act, not you. You are urged to empathize with your victim, to acknowledge the wrong, apologize, make amends, and ask for forgiveness.
Of course, this contrasts sharply with our modern justice system whose approach is to isolate and eliminate alleged wrongdoers from the community by incarcerating them. The retributive essence of modern justice has spawned the highest absolute and per capita incarceration rates in the history of the world. We spend far more on incarcerating youth than on educating them. We sink endless resources into abysmally failing systems.
In California, youth formerly incarcerated in state institutions have a 91 percent chance of re-offending within one year. The retributive approach has created a system where black Americans, 13 percent of the population, constitute 50% this country’s prisoners at more than eight times the white rate. This is a system, which, based on its” eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” mentality, is devastating our communities, leaving them blind and toothless, to paraphrase Mahatma Ghandi. And manless, if you will.
Q: WHAT MAIN PRINCIPLES SHOULD WE KNOW AND UNDERSTAND THAT ARE ROOTED IN THE ONTOLOGY (THE STUDY OF THE NATURE OF BEING)?
A: Traditional view of justice focuses is on a language of healing rather than a language of revenge. Many native cultures see wrongdoing as a misbehavior which requires a lesson.
There is also a focus on the interrelatedness of all people and actions. RJOY assumes that humans wish to be connected with other human beings. There is the assumption that all people value honesty, responsibility, respect, and hearing each other’s point of view.
I recommend picking up The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis and Returning to the Teachingsby Rupert Ross for more in depth looks at the ontology of native peoples as it relates to justice.
Q: IS IT POSSIBLE TO APPLY THESE IDEAS, WHICH COME FROM SMALLER, MORE HOMOGENOUS SOCIETIES, TO OUR OWN, VAST AND DIVERSE AMERICA?
A: I think we can extract underlying principles and apply them to local contexts, tailoring each program to respond to local needs.
In our first school pilot, we successfully used Peacemaking Circles and Family Group Conferences in the context of a middle school located in a low-income neighborhood and high stressor police beat of Oakland, comprised of approximately 75 percent African Americans and 23 percent other people of color. As stated above, we were able to reduce the suspension rate by more than 75 percent and eliminate violent fighting and expulsions.
Our pre-adjudication Restorative Group Conferences and post adjudication Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA’s) all involve youth and families of color. Circle and Conference participants meet in community centers, churches, and in the dining rooms and kitchens of the youth involved.
Q: PLEASE DESCRIBE THE WAY RJOY LOOKS WHEN IT IS IMPLEMENTED IN THE OAKLAND SCHOOLS.
A: RJOY’s objective is to help parents—particularly those with children at pilot schools and in the juvenile justice system—to use reconciliation processes to reduce conflict and violence in homes and communities. We work with parents and families in our Conference and Circles programs as well as in our school program.
RJOY has trained more than 125 Oakland public school teachers, parents, and administrators, and offers continued training and technical assistance to them. We’re also developing a similar project with Oakland’s Parks and Recreation Office.
Q: ARE THERE ANY CHANGES IN THE SCHOOLS THAT CAN BE MEASURED OR TRACKED SINCE RJOY BEGAN? HAS, SAY, THE VIOLENT ASSAULT RATE DIMINISHED IN OAKLAND SCHOOLS THAT USE RJOY?
During the 2007-2008 school year, RJOY’s school pilot at West Oakland’s Cole Middle School reduced suspension rates by more than 75 percent; the school experienced no violent fights and no student involved in peacemaking circles on an ongoing basis has been expelled.
Notoriously high in previous years, teacher attrition rates were reduced to virtually zero as well. Cole’s successes generated such enthusiasm that in May 2008, nearly 20 Oakland public schools expressed interest in launching restorative programs at their sites. We have started new pilots at two Oakland high schools and are training staff and students at additional sites.
Q: CAN YOU SHARE SOME STORIES OF RJOY’S IMPACT?
A: One story involves Dante Green, which did not go unnoticed by local media. Before Dante was released from a juvenile detention facility in mid-November 2008, RJOY formed a Circle of his great-grandmother, sister, two community members (including a retired African-American banker and mother of four successful boys), along with two RJOY members.
Dante had been in and out of lock-up facilities approximately ten times during the last few years for robbery and theft. Since his release the Circle around Dante has met more than 30 times, helping him stay on the path of becoming a positive, contributing member of his community. He’s completed his GED and last January enrolled full-time in a community college, completing that semester with a 3.75 GPA. For the first time in his life, Dante has begun to explore career directions and college and post-graduate options. He is working full-time as well. Another first is that we have seen him develop the capacity—and hopefully the life-long discipline—of making healthy and positive life choices.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is author of the novel Crystelle Mourning. She lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn.