essays on suffering and awakening

Can we do justice differently?

Worth watching—footage of a federal jail in Brooklyn that has been without power for a week. The people locked inside were banging on the windows of their cells with flashlights, asking folks assembled outside for help. The vulnerability is palpable. Clearly, our community is not looking out for the prisoners under our care.

This begs the question: should they be there in the first place?

I grew up vaguely frightened of jails and prisons without really paying them much mind. Thoughts like: as long as I don’t break the law, I don’t have to worry about it, was about as far as I got. I didn’t know anyone in prison or who had been incarcerated—it just wasn’t really a part of my consciousness.

Addiction, though, drove me to break the law plenty. I got away with it, but I’ve met lots of folks in recovery who didn’t. Incarceration starts to feel more personal when you become rehab best friends with the guy who came in through a court diversion program after six months in Ventura County jail.

The whole thing starts to feel more like a crapshoot: why should he have gone to jail when I didn’t? Would society be better off if I had? I don’t think so. The voices of activists like those in the Black Lives Matter movement amplify those questions, pointedly asking: who is getting locked up and for what purpose?

Both fascinating and disturbing to consider: that which we have long called justice is largely an assembly line with the operators asleep at the controls. In perpetuating that, are we looking out for our community, or just trying to act like someone is in charge?

That people do horrible things to each other is not a matter of dispute. But: is putting people in cages really the best way to deal with it?

As a society, we’re starting to come around to the idea that people shouldn’t be imprisoned for using drugs. That’s a good thing, but also low-hanging fruit. Equally important and less comfortable: what about the folks that have killed, attacked, or sexually assaulted others? These are grave violations of personhood and community, but is incarceration the best remedy?

For me, at least, when I hurt someone, I want to be able to make it right. I would imagine most people in prison feel that way too.

Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to offer opportunities for reconciliation? One such method is found in twelve-step traditions, which teach that when you cause harm, you admit it and ask what you can do to make it right. Easy to understand, if scary to put into practice. Similar principles have been developed into an approach called restorative justice, which seeks to emphasize truth and mediation over punishment. Why? This helps everyone involved to heal and move on with their lives.

To consider as well: while it is genuinely empowering to remember that the buck does stop with each of us, an examination of our own behavior will reveal that much of what we do is reactionary. We can’t neatly separate the individual from the community as a whole. When we cast someone out as a criminal, we’re making them a scapegoat and missing the opportunity to examine our own shortcomings.

What did we contribute to the karmic chain that led to their actions?

If someone truly cannot behave safely as a member of the community, it is reasonable to remove them from that community for a period of time. But why can’t we do even that with an attitude of generosity? We all have the capacity for growth and change. Can we remember that some of us need more time and space to do so—and offer each other that?

Questions to ask of ourselves—and at the ballot box.

Ian Cooper