A young man I used to work with in the prison system once asked me if I liked helping offenders. My honest reaction was of disgust. Not that he had asked me the question, but because that is honestly what he thought my team and I were doing. I replied that we do not help offenders, because the phrase itself is off-balance. To have labelled him an 'offender' was to overlook the person he is, and on some level means we see a difference between him and me. A hierarchy. An 'us' and 'them' thought process, and this is not the work we do, or ever wish to do.
The same work we do in the prisons needs to be the same thing that happens in the community, in schools, in corporations and in parliament, and that is facilitating safe spaces to think innovatively, to seek understanding and have a platform to create change.
When a person commits a crime, who exactly are they offending? If it is society, then why are we so offended? Why do we hold ourselves is such high esteem that we wish to punish and shame those who do wrong? In fact, what is wrong or right?
I remember once reading that when circumstances become extreme, any behaviour expressed within those circumstances becomes normal. So I ask myself, what is normal behaviour? If a young man, who has experienced structural and cultural violence for the majority of his life, in the form of institutional racism, poverty and lack of opportunity, does the behaviour he expresses due to the circumstances surrounding him become normal? If so, then why do we punish him for surviving in an environment we are all responsible for?
The criminal justice system has been developed on biblical theory, an eye-for-an-eye, the punishment must match the crime, but do we not criminalise ourselves if we attempt to match the wrongdoing of another. Doesn’t an eye-for-an-eye leave the whole world blind? I fear we are already becoming blind to the hurt and the pain, the trauma and structural violence that is our criminal justice system. We have matched hate with indifference, and in doing so created a society within a society, that feels no love.
No matter what physical entities we build, or policies we change, the root to our problem will not have been reached - that is the root in the initial thought patterns and processes on which our society develops.
This is why, if I were able to build one thing it would be society’s capacity to think with love, compassion and understanding.
Whitney Iles has 13 years experience working with children and young people, she is founder and CEO of the social enterprise Project 507 and is currently a student at the Portman Clinic. Whitney is also the convenor of the online Violence Interrupted seminar series available to watch via YouTube.
As part of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies' Justice Matters initiative we are inviting submissions to the 'I would build...' series. We want people to tell us their ideas and thoughts on how to build alternatives and transform society so that criminal justice institutions as they currently exist are no longer necessary. Email us with your ideas.