The limitations of restorative justice

February 4, 2018

From the January-February 2018 issue of News & Letters

Huntingdon, Penn.—I want to make a point concerning Faruq’s statement, “We all have heard it said by presidents that amerika is a nation founded on laws.” (See “Voices from the inside out: Ferguson, Mo., at three,” Nov.-Dec. N&L.) As a prisoner, I’m sure you know what legal standing is. The truth is that we, Black folk, have no legal standing before the law. We never have. We are not a legal personality unless we are culpable before the law. Otherwise we are seen as property, something to be acted upon and used which has no legal standing for redress.

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This is a remnant of slavery. The slave had no legal personality before the law. He/she could not petition the courts for harms done. The only time the slave stood before the court was as an accused person. The slave wasn’t seen by the court as a personality unless he/she was being charged with a crime. Doesn’t this sound like 2017-18?

We have witnessed the murders of many Black and Brown unarmed people by law enforcement and vigilantes. Was there justice? In fact, in each case, the deceased was put on trial. They were given the job test: Was he a good and faithful servant who eschewed wickedness? Respectability politics was the play of the day. Their deaths, before the law, became ungrievable. They, like the slave before the law, had no legal personality. We have to get away from the “law.” We have to see how law is used to create and reproduce oppression and death.


The last comment regarding Faruq’s piece is that when we talk about restorative justice we have to understand that it does not address the structural inequalities that lead to injustice in the first place. It does not address the basic assumptions of the system, such as who gets to be defined as criminal and what gets to be defined as the community.

We should push for transformative justice whose end goal is not only to restore relationships but to transform society in the process. Its focus is not only on the specific harm done, but on the structures that create oppression and the inequality in the first place.

Randall James’s statement: “Because mental health treatment is more expensive than throwing people in jail,” is wrong. This is his understanding of why the mentally impaired are warehoused in prisons and jails. The reality is that incarceration is four times as expensive as treatment in the community. But neoliberalism destroys community. So poor people who need mental health treatment cannot receive it unless they are imprisoned where the money is funneled into the pockets of incompetent, ineffectual but politically connected people.

This is why people can get substance abuse treatment, mental healthcare and physical healthcare in prison but not while free. Moreover, prisons disappear the surplus of neoliberalism. It disappears the disposables.

—Stephen Wilson

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