The United States: unbarring the way forward

(This article is posted by Cameron McPhedran)

The future of United States democracy can be found in a prison. But not in the way that we might anticipate.

San Quentin Prison, January 2016:

A murderer and the wife of a murdered police officer speak. They deliver a united message on building change ten months shy of the US general election.

Phillip Melendez advocated that change “means cultivating emotional intelligence, cultivating empathy and compassion. And all of that teaches us to look outwards to our communities.”  

 Dionne Wilson forecast, “the goal of public safety can be achieved without tearing each other apart but it’s going to take all of us working together… we can do better, and we must.”

In 2021 with Joe Biden as President, these comments strike as clarion calls of the need for both a more effective US justice system, and a more nuanced public debate. San Quentin has endured a mass outbreak of COVID-19, in 2020 the US bore witness to yet more racialised violence, and white nationalists began 2021 by storming the Capitol building. What is striking about the comments, however, is who delivered them and the circumstance of their relationship.

Restorative justice:

Melendez and Wilson were not transformed into allies by luck. They participated in a diverse range of rehabilitation strategies utilised at San Quentin. Restorative justice is at the heart of them.

Restorative justice is an intervention where affected parties come together to discuss how a criminal act impacts upon them, and how they can move forward collectively constructively. It views engagement as more effective than retribution, and may be used to replace or to augment criminal justice sanctions.

Dionne Wilson- healing through leadership:

Wilson’s husband Nels Neimi- a Californian policeman- was murdered in July 2005. After successfully campaigning that his killer Irving Ramirez be executed, Wilson remained broken. She reflected that “when the joy of ‘winning’ that verdict evaporated, the real misery set in.”

Wilson began caucusing with women in the Californian prison system as part of victim/offender education groups organised by the Insight Prison Project. This work included discussing how offenders could be accountable for their actions, express empathy for victims, and repair their own traumas.  

Dionne Wilson, restorative justice and criminal law reform advocate.

Whilst complex and challenging work for all involved, victim offender education groups often empower all parties: Wilson reflected that instead of “seeking my healing in the misery and death of another human being… [the] key to my healing was connecting with people who were learning to find their own humanity.” Since this time, she has since served as a co-facilitator for victim offender education groups at San Quentin and has advocated for criminal justice law reform, especially around repealing the death penalty.

Philip Melendez- renewing his purpose:

In 1998, Philip Melendez was nineteen when he killed two people, in response to his father being stabbed. His brother had previously been murdered and violence was commonplace in his community.

Restorative justice at San Quentin helped Melendez fully acknowledge and take responsibility for his wrongdoing. After he began his engagement with restorative justice, he mediated in intra-prison gang disputes and committed to victim awareness programs. Changes in Californian law saw Melendez released in 2017. Since that time, he has served as the Director of Organizing for the organisation Re:Store Justice, which works to empower prisoners and communities through restorative justice and policy advocacy.

The United States, a democracy in tatters?

It is easy to write off the relevance of restorative justice to wider society. It is a mechanism that relies on the voluntary commitment of people who have experienced hardship or trauma, revisiting these experiences. It requires listening, carefully and openly, to those who often have very different life backgrounds from one’s own. It is precisely these qualities that make restorative engagement, albeit challenging, exactly what the United States needs right now.

The polarities between Democrat and Republican, Southern and Northern, white and people of colour, undocumented and passport carrying, and other such divisions are seen as representing irreconcilable differences among Americans. These divisions, are, from the outside, ravaging the country.

Legislators and policy makers need to be able to reach consensus about evidence, to be responsive to the social good in their governance. The bipartisanship that aided Australia in the early stages of its Covid policy response has not been seen at any stage in the United States.

Covid- and racial injustice- has shown that delivering public safety is a community responsibility. This becomes impossible when social trust is broken.  An analysis of the decline befalling the United States over recent years found that nations high on the World Values Survey measure of interpersonal trust- China, Australia, most Nordic countries- delivered both better policy responses and public compliance with them than the United States.

Biden Era Washington DC:

The events of 2020 and the initial stages of 2021 suggest that it would be easy to resort to despair for the United States this year. However, a new president has been elected and statements of condemnation about the Capitol attack and its aftermath resounded among both Democrats and Republicans. Linking the United States to the Europe he emigrated from, Arnold Schwartznegger’s compared the Capitol riot with the 1938 Kristallnacht killings in Germany.

The impact of Covid and racial injustice show that the United States must fight for a renewed civil sphere, for accountability with compassion. Events at the US Capitol show that fighting for justice is both necessary, and a daily, task.

Marcus Henderson, chief editor of San Quentin News

The only way out of COVID-19 and civic breakdown for the United States is together, through the sustained and committed dialogue among groups who are different to each other.

Restorative justice proves that this changes lives. When empathy, forgiveness and hope endure, a brighter political culture is possible.

Cameron McPhedran participated in the Restorative Justice Roundtable at San Quentin Prison whilst on university exchange in 2013. He works in community mediation for the NSW Government. These views are his own.

Cameron aspires to specialise in DR for the LGBTIQA+ community.

This entry was posted in Dispute resolution by Dr John Woodward. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr John Woodward

Conjoint Lecturer at the University of Newcastle, PhD in lawyers' engagement with court-connected mediation. Practicing lawyer, mediator, and arbitrator for the Local Court of NSW. Member of the Law Society of NSW ADR Committee, Steering Committee Member of Asia Pacific Mediation Forum, Committee member of the Newcastle Chapter of Resolution Institute

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