I am so excited to begin my time with Community Works’ Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) at San Francisco County Jail #5 (CJ 5). That said, these feelings of excitement have not come without apprehensiveness, uncertainty, and stress.
The RSVP program at CJ 5 is rooted in the values and practices of restorative justice. Restorative justice is an alternative to ‘traditional’ forms of justice, which take a punitive approach. This method of justice focuses on offender accountability (an individual must take responsibility for the harm they have caused), victim restoration (victims of harm must be provided resources and must be included in the justice process), and community involvement (the offender must be involved in the betterment of the community that he/she has wronged, and the community plays a role in the justice process).
I first learned of restorative justice practices like RSVP while I was in the first year at Scripps College. All first year students were required to take a core class, and during my first year the topic was “What Is Violence?”. We focused a lot on institutionalized violence, including colonialism, war, and the prison industrial complex. During my second semester, I took a class on punishment and the criminal justice system: this is where I was introduced to the philosophy of restorative justice.
As violence entered my classes and education, it entered my personal life as well. My best friend from high school was assaulted during the first three months of college, and chose to report the assault to her university. From that, she entered an adversarial justice system, where offenders often resist taking responsibility for the violence they have enacted, as it is against their interests. As I tried to support my friend from thousands of miles away, it became clear that no one was winning: my best friend’s experience was being repeatedly questioned, and she wasn’t getting any closure from the reporting process which seemed endless. The perpetrators were fighting to stay at the university, therefore refusing to take responsibility for their violent actions. Instead of restoring a sense of safety and holding perpetrators accountable for their violence, the system was enacting more violence on all parties.
Since then, I have become more interested in the use of restorative justice in instances of violence, and especially gendered violence. Since freshman year, the prevalence of gendered violence in my life has increased. Each experience and story has further intensified my belief in restorative and transformative justice practices that require perpetrator accountability, personal change, and victim/community restoration.
At CJ 5, restorative justice takes form through the RSVP program. The program utilizes a three pillar approach, including a curriculum called “manalive”, survivor impact discussions, and restorative justice circles. The curriculum, manalive, is at the core of RSVP. In classes, the men engage in peer to peer discussions about the Male Role Belief System, and how their violence takes origin in a socially learned desire for superiority and dominance. During survivor impact statements, survivors of violence come to share their stories with the men. This aspect of the program is meant to encourage the men to reflect on the impact of their own violence and develop a stronger sense of empathy with individuals harmed. During restorative circles, the men have time to consider and share the impacts of their own violence on the individuals around them and the community as a whole. During my 7 weeks with RSVP, I will be working with a group of men to create a program publication that includes writing and artwork by the men, as well as writing by survivors, program managers, facilitators, and others associated with RSVP. My preparations have included lots of reading, and designing a course curriculum. In addition to this, I also needed security clearance, and clearance for the course itself. There’s been plenty of work so far, and I am ready to get moving on the project!
I chose RSVP for this summer because I believe that restorative justice programs have power to change the futures of perpetrators, survivors, and the greater community- this why I am so excited and proud to work on this project. I am also very nervous. Although I have many experiences with survivors of violence and specifically gendered violence, I have never worked with the perpetrators of violence. I do not know how I will respond to the stories of the men, as they reflect the experiences of my friends and family. That considered, I think that personal investment in ending violence is an important part of this work.
I also don’t know how the men will respond to me. Many people have voiced their concerns about my summer, bringing up my gender and my age. Last month I read Dreams from the Monster Factory written by Sunny Schwartz, the woman who started the program. She wrote about her first experiences working in jail as a young legal intern, and the many misogynistic comments and interactions with both inmates and guards. In addition to being respected as an individual, I also hope that the men respect my schedule and what I expect from them through this process.
I am excited and honoured to have the opportunity to work with this program and learn from the experience. I know that the men are being afforded an opportunity themselves; they are being given a chance to change their lives and their perceptions of themselves and those around them. Additionally, my project will give them the opportunity to write and have their writing printed. That said, the impact of this program will go both ways. Just as the men are asked to be vulnerable and reflective, I will need to be vulnerable and reflective as well. I am sure that I will learn more from the men than they could ever learn from me. However, what I can do is provide an opportunity for them to share their experiences and the RSVP program, giving them a voice and an opportunity to be heard.
I do not know what to expect, or how the publication will turn out. I do not know how the men will respond to me, or how I will respond to the men. I do not know what it will be like to work in a jail, where doors open and close at the will of a guard watching through a camera. I don’t think I am ready, but I don’t think that this is something that one can be “ready” for. That said, I am excited to meet the men and the women in the survivor program, to hear their stories, and then act as a means through which they can share their stories and the impact of the RSVP program with each other and any others who are willing to listen.