Parker, Lynette. Encountering Restorativeness: Reflections from Colombia
While that is a cute story, it struck a chord as I listened to the events unfold. It followed a trip to Colombia where I met people who had grasped the essence of restorative justice without knowing about the theory. I was there to participate in a restorative justice seminar hosted by Prison Fellowship of Colombia. Yet, four different encounters introduced me to people already on the road to implementation without the theory or the terminology, only an understanding that punishment and revenge would not bring peace to their country.
The first was a prisoner in the very overcrowded Bellavista prison. This articulate young man had been one of many caught up in the cycle of violence between rival gangs in the country. Yet, he and some of his fellow "criminals" saw the need for change. They began peace tables to try to negotiate settlements to their conflicts. Arrest and confinement did not the process. These peace tables continue inside the prison walls. They negotiate settlements between prisoners and groups on the outside in an attempt to stop the bloodshed of those leaving the prison.
The second encounter was with a group of ten justices of the peace. My role in the meeting was to explain restorative justice to this group of men and women working with many different conflicts in their communities. As I launched into an explanation of restorative justice as a new vision for responding to crime and that it defines crime as a harm done to relationships and that both victim and offender should be involved in the process, I saw several heads nod in agreement. Then, I was interrupted, as they wanted to share. Several of them told me of their work in neighborhoods with a process they call conciliation. They bring together people in conflict, including some minor crimes, to talk about the issue and to develop their own solution. They explained that the work with community conflicts- including disagreements between neighbors, between employers and employees, between family members- acted as prevention. By helping people find their own solutions, they were stopping the cycle of conflict that often leads to violence. Restorative theory resonated with their everyday lives.
The third encounter was with a prison director that had a unique response to the behavior of one of his subordinates. He told the story of meeting a very angry inmate in one of the prison pavilions. This inmate wanted to file a complaint against a guard for slapping him. He wanted to know what would happen to the guard for this behavior. This prison director did not go through a general disciplinary process. He talked to his subordinate and asked,"May I slap you?" The guard, of course, responded in the negative. The director said, "A slap does not leave a scar on the face, but it does leave a scar on the heart." He went on to tell the guard that he owed the inmate an apology. This step was too much for a guard who saw it endangering his position of authority. At this point, the director took an unusual step. In his position as the guards superior, he went to the inmate and apologized. The result was a satisfied inmate and a much better employee.
The final encounter was with an amazing community coordinator. Jair lives in an area of Medellin, which once held a reputation for being one of the most dangerous barrios in the city. I was told that police officers had refused to enter the area because they would be shot on site. This young man had been caught in violence and crime at a very early age. He went to prison for the first time at the age of 17. He described leaving prison in a much worse state than he had entered. He didn't care about anything. His life continued in the same pattern of violence and crime and not caring. Yet, he saw one movie that made him think about that life. In this film, he saw the men with the guns as the most evil. The movie was Ghandi. From there he continued what he called a spiritual journey, from a life of violence to one of non-violence. He left the life of murder and revenge to work for peace in his community. Jair began talking to rival gangs and anyone who would listen to him about the need to break the cycle of violence. In 1995, he had even organized a group of two hundred young men who work is hired killers who were willing to confess and turn in their weapons. In return, they only asked for job skills training during the four years they would spend in prison. Unfortunately, the efforts were stalled when then President Samper was investigated for corruption. Although many lives were lost because of this set back, Jair and his associates continue to work for peace and non-violence. They use dialogue to resolve conflicts in their communities. Quite often when there is a problem such as a robbery, Jair is called to mediate for the victim and offender. Today, his community is much safer than in the past and his group continues to work toward peace and non-violence.
Of this group, only the inmate in Bellavista prison was not included in the lectures on restorative justice. For the others, restorative justice theory resonated on a personal level, offering a reference point for their work and the lives they were attempting to live. For me, a trip to teach others restorative justice became an encounter with the innate wisdom of people who see the value of relationships and constructing a more positive future from the conflicts of today. These experiences also taught at a more concrete level than all my reading and work the importance of living restoratively whether it is teaching a two year old not to bite, or confronting an employee about negative behavior, or helping a neighborhood find the road to peaceful coexistence.