At No Exceptions, several core values inform our work and conversation. We want to share them with you here and offer a short elaboration on each:
- Restorative Justice
The contemporary criminal justice system conceptualizes “crime” as the breaking of the state’s laws and thus views the offender as accountable to the state for due consequences. It assumes justice is synonymous with distributing punishment, which is categorized by pain; vengeance; and exile for an arbitrarily assigned, mandatory number of years. Restorative justice holds that the primary offense of the “crime” entails a violation of human relationships, harm caused to another person, not to a state. The “state” does not grieve or bleed or have to recover from burying children. Families do. People do. Individuals are not accountable to states but to other individuals and the communities directly harmed. When we divorce harm from individuals and communities and perpetuate the illusion that non-human, political constructs are the victims, then we do not hear the cries, do not see the blood, do not hold the families, and therefore cannot heal the real physical bodies and minds of a community. We become deaf to the complexity of narratives, and we take shortcuts to justice, which results in no justice, no healing, and no possibility for redemption for either victims or offenders. Restorative justice, therefore, entails addressing the harms done and the needs of all involved, naming the obligations of the offenders, providing a space to include the voices of all who have a stake in the offense (that is, victims/survivors, the offenders, and their communities), and putting forth an effort – to whatever extent possible – to make things right. Restorative justice embraces a holistic approach to dealing with the aftermath of crime, valuing collaboration, healing, safety, and social transformation. Restorative justice understands that crime itself is not as much a problem as a perceived solution to a problem. In other words, many who commit crimes do so because, at the time, the act may seem to remedy present problems. Thus, in recognizing that crime does not occur in a vacuum, restorative justice seeks to address the underlying issues of offenses, such as social inequalities, trauma, shame, mental illness, etc. Restorative justice posits that trauma which is not transformed is transferred: “Hurt people hurt people.” Essentially, restorative justice offers a new set of lenses for thinking about crime and punishment, ones that see the need for the transformation of individuals, relationships, and societies; ones that take into account people’s stories; and ones that believe justice should lead us closer to social healing and reconciliation, and not away from them.
When we say abolition, we do not mean that we should be without a structure or apparatus for social separation in the aftermath of harm-caused. Rather, we are challenging the nature and manifestation of such separation. Temporary social separation for the sake of accountability, community welfare, transformation, and healing can have merit. Mass incarceration runs contrary to each of these, and thus we advocate for its abolition. But abolition deals with more than just destroying what is; it seeks to build what can be. We think this quote from Captive Genders says it well:
“[Prison] abolition is not just about closing the doors to violent institutions, but also about building up and recovering institutions and practices and relationships that nurture wholeness, self-determination and transformation. Abolition is not some distant future but something we create in every moment when we say no to the traps of empire and yes to the nourishing possibilities dreamed of and practiced by our ancestors and friends. Every time we insist on accessible and affirming healthcare, safe and quality education, meaningful and secure employment, loving and healing relationships, and being our full and whole selves, we are doing abolition. Abolition is about breaking down things that oppress and building up things that nourish. Abolition is the practice of transformation in the here and now and the ever after… To claim our legacy of beautiful impossibility is to begin practicing ways of being with one another and making movement that sustain all life on this planet, without exception. It is to begin speaking what we have not yet had the words to wish for.” – Captive Genders, ed. Eric Stanley and Nat Smith, p 36-7 (emphasis added)
To transform is to create something new. When we say we look to transform the system of incarceration, we mean just that: destroy the old and build a new paradigm for justice, as articulated above. But we also know that to transform the prison system in this country requires transforming the system of justice, and therefore society; and with society, relationships; and with relationships, values and worldviews; and with those, language. We cannot talk about one without – at some point and to some degree – talking about all. Thus, we support any organization and movement dedicated to helping build a new world in the shell of the old, engaging social renewal by speaking truth to power and pursuing liberation through the ending of all forms of oppression. As we seek to transform our surroundings, we will find ourselves transformed, converted to new ways of thinking and speaking, living and loving, altered by the faces we’ve seen and the stories we’ve heard. For when one walks into the crisis of prison, one sees a reflection of the social crisis in which we all exist. Our liberation is bound together. As our friend Peter Rollins writes:
“For if we look at the those within the prison system, get to know them and discover the context that contributed to their imprisonment, we can begin to glimpse how the system we participate in is corrupt, violent and full of darkness. This is, of course, a disturbing activity to engage in. For, in doing so, we are no longer able to maintain the fantasy that we are a type of hero helping poor, unfortunate people. Rather we realize that we need to do this work in order to discover how poor and unfortunate we are, and how violent the structure we participate in is for some people.” (See full article here)
Slavery in any form visited upon any group of people dehumanizes and enslaves the entire social order. Additionally, we recognize that an attitude of charity or moral superiority wherein freedom is brought down to the slaves from on high continues the objectification and denial of agency to those in confinement. We believe that there is no liberation without co-liberation, and we therefore seek to liberate both the “free” and the “captive.”As Lilla Watson famously said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” To that end, any work to abolish mass incarceration must be done in collaboration with prisoners. Leaders in the struggle must come from within. If we are to realize our goals, we must understand and practice mutual aid between and amongst insiders and outsiders, the loved ones of prisoners, and the diverse organizations who seek the common objective of ending mass incarceration. We recognize the strong opposition we face from those with a vested economic interest in the continuation of the PIC, and the crippling power of the rhetoric of fear. Accordingly, those engaged in the struggle for liberation must recognize that even as we may be focused on challenging, disrupting, and transforming different aspects of the PIC, our true strength lies in our unity and support of one another.
Stories are forces that give us meaning. They shape us and hold us. The stories we tell matter. The stories we listen to matter. Since we cannot hear and tell every story, the stories we choose reveal much about our prejudices and ideological leanings. For too long, the victors have told the stories. For too long, the powerful’s narratives have dominated. We believe we should listen to the stories of those we’ve too often ignored and let their counter-narratives challenge and convict us. We do not see ourselves as providing a voice to the voiceless; the poor, marginalized, and imprisoned have voices, and powerful ones at that. Rather, we are pausing to listen – and, to the extent we can, magnify insiders’ voices so they can echo farther. Stories move us, and we who have experience inside the prisons try to use our personal stories to compel, expose, inform, and inspire listeners to go and do. Rachel Naomi Remen said once that stories are the flesh we give to the bones of our lives’ facts. The stories we’ve heard and lived on the inside have breathed life into us, and with that animation we hope to incarnate a new reality.
An Irish proverb says, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” Reconciliation, from the Latin, means “to call together again.” It is the process of bringing together that which should not have been separated and should not remain separated. We want to reconcile the outside world of society and the invisible world of prison, a world society hopes will stay “out of sight, and out of mind.” We reject this reality and seek to break down the walls the Powers That Be use to separate us. Reconciliation is about learning to live together well. It is about empathy and grace, engaging division truthfully, building trust through encounter and collaboration, and embracing our interdependence. It’s the belief that social separations should not be permanent, that antagonism is far less preferable to cooperation, and that mercy should triumph over vengeance. In short, reconciliation is learning to live in each other’s shelter.
We come together as people of diverse backgrounds, faith traditions, and secular humanists, and we are a people of faith. By faith we do not mean a passive, wishful hope of a future yet realized, but instead the deep and abiding belief that transformation is possible and that an end to mass incarceration is inevitable. For faith is not passive; it is action on fire. We are convicted by a faith that leads us to the realization that justice and a revolution in human rights will become reality through a way of being in the world that requires belief and practice. The foundation of our faith is the central value and human emotion of love. We fight for change because we love. We believe in “impossible dreams” because we love. We believe that we have a moral obligation to challenge and disrupt the powers and principalities because we love. Our faith calls us not to simply visit the prisoner, but to set the captives free.