California College Programs for Current, Ex-inmates Win Grants Totaling $5.9 Million


College changed my life, but I didn’t think it would. I enrolled in Truett-McConnell College in Georgia in 1985 because I thought it would make my record look better when I came up for parole. I had been locked up in May, and sent to prison in October with a fresh life sentence. I hated high school, and I thought college would be more of the same.

It only took a few quarters to change my mind. I was still a teenager, but the instructors treated me as an adult. They valued what I said, but they also challenged my opinions and ideas. Because of the mutual respect we established, I was able to hear them in a way I had never heard adults. I became less certain of my own understanding, which was a good thing, since it had led me to commit a terrible crime.

The ground for the changes that I would make over the next 24 years of my incarceration, and for the work I do today. Sadly, lack of support for prison college programs led to the program ending in Georgia in the early ‘90s.

hub_arrow_2-01The mood of the country has shifted in the last few years though, and a college education is again being recognized as a powerful strategy to help prisoners reach their potential. The recently announced Renewing Communities project in California is an ambitious part of this resurgence.

The Opportunity Institute and the Stanford Criminal Justice Center announced this week that “an unprecedented collaboration among nine state and national foundations” has awarded seven grants, totaling $5.9 million over three years, to support college education programs for current and former prisoners.

The nine foundations funding Renewing Communities are The California Endowment, The California Wellness Foundation, Roy & Patricia Disney Family Foundation, ECMC Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Rosenberg Foundation.

Each grant will fund a pilot project. To support sustainability each project will be required to get 25 percent of their funding from public sources. Also, The Opportunity Institute will combine the funding with a larger effort to “remove barriers and assist all California’s public higher education institutes in making high-quality college educations available to currently and formerly incarcerated students.”

The seven programs include:

  • A partnership between Bakersfield College and several nearby prisons and other correctional settings along with community-based reentry organizations that will provide transferable credits to incarcerated students and support justice-involved students on campus.
  • An in-person bachelor’s degree program from California State University, Los Angeles.
  • A replication of an existing in-person associate's degree program that has been successful at the California Institute for Women and the California Institute for Men, near Chaffey College. The program will potentially serve as a model for other California community colleges.
  • The Five Keys Charter School, which already runs a successful high school and GED program in several California jails, will partner with City College of San Francisco to offer college courses that can be continued upon a prisoner’s release. The program is designed to then be replicated in other areas where Five Keys has programs.
  • San Francisco State University will replicate its successful Project Rebound, in operation for 40 years, in seven other colleges and universities. The project is being supported with $200,000 from the Office of the California State University Chancellor and is planned to expand to 23 campuses within three years.
  • Shasta College and Shasta County Jail will partner to offer an expansion of their program that releases convicted nonviolent offenders into the community to attend the college for career certificates and degrees.
  • Street Scholars, a nonprofit housed at Merritt College in Alameda County, will expand to four other area colleges. They will replicate their successful peer mentoring program for students on parole working toward an AA degree, with the goal of transferring to a four-year college.

Research has shown that prison college programs can lower recidivism rates. At least part of their success is an increase in a prisoner’s ability to get a job once released. The success of these programs goes much deeper though.

In my experience these programs not only give students skills and certifications, they can restore the prisoners dignity and unleash their creativity. Supporting these and other programs isn’t only the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing too.

Illinois Criminal Justice Watchdog Wins MacArthur Award

The John Howard Association of Illinois is one of nine nonprofit recipients of the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. The $500,000 award acknowledges not only the organizations’ “past leadership and successes but also an investment in the future.”

The 113-year-old organization (JHA) has since its inception worked as an independent watchdog over Illinois’ criminal justice and prison systems. Its work in prisons and juvenile facilities has proved a resource for policymakers. By speaking directly to those inside the systems it uncovers not only conditions that need to be addressed but also give voice to prisoners’ interests.

“We work to maintain a balance between recognizing prison realities and criticism of the prisons,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, interim director of JHA.

She stressed that running a detention facility is not an easy job, with harsh environments and chronic understaffing, but that that does not excuse bad treatment of those behind bars. She also pointed to the need for ongoing programs and educational opportunities for those incarcerated, as well as support for them once released.

“Humanity demands that we care about even those we lock up,” Vollen-Katz said. “These people are coming back to our communities; what do we want to happen?”

Elspeth Revere, the MacArthur vice president who heads the award program, said, “The John Howard Association’s independent voice plays an indispensable role in helping to ensure that Illinois’ justice systems are fair effective and humane.”

MacArthur does not solicit candidates nor accept applications for the award. Organizations “must demonstrate exceptional creativity and effectiveness” as well as show financial strength and good leadership.

Vollen-Katz called the grant “transformative,” saying it would allow JHA to focus on its mission while taking off some of the pressure of sustainability. JHA will establish an innovation fund and focus on “increasing communications, volunteer coordination and capacity, and public outreach and education.”

Regarding the juvenile justice system, she said JHA is working to see a change in automatic transfer laws, an increased reliance on smaller facilities closer to the homes of kids and community-based alternatives to detention. She pointed out that in smaller settings kids have a greater chance of receiving mental health and other support.

Asked how the large award will impact JHA’s vision, Vollen-Katz said it “will allow us to continue and expand the important work of prison reform and is a validation of the importance of having a safe, humane and effective criminal justice and prison system.”

OP-ED: Reforming Juvenile Justice Requires Restructuring our Mindset

Antonia Cartwright PhotoWith youth crime rates and numbers of incarcerated youths declining, now is the ideal time to review how juvenile incarceration meets the needs of youths, their families and society.

California is in the process of allocating $80 million in funding for counties to build juvenile facilities. To ensure these facilities are rehabilitative, they need to originate from a belief in the capacity for people to change. Psychologists refer to this belief as mindset; it is a well-established phenomenon in education, and is equally applicable to our juvenile justice system.

Mindset applies to everyone. Despite the adverse economic and social backgrounds many incarcerated youth come from, do policymakers believe that, given the right guidance, youths can learn to make better decisions? Do youths believe that, given the right tools, they can develop new skills to help them succeed?

Psychologists have been investigating whether both students and their teachers can develop this positive mindset. The outcomes of interventions designed to achieve this are encouraging.

Parental mindset has been shown to be influential in motivational frameworks for even very young children; parents who praise the effort required to learn and succeed beget those values. Researchers have shown that increasing a belief in the ability to change reduces aggression as retaliation in adolescents by 40 percent; believing that negative traits are not fixed results in less punitive views towards assailants.

Examples of successful educational programs are underpinned by a theory of change that target not just students and teachers, but also families and communities. Furthermore, it is well documented that expectations affect educational outcomes and that assumptions based on stereotypes or cultural misunderstanding may contribute to racial disparity in academic achievement. Looking at consequences of previous juvenile justice practices highlights why fostering a positive mindset is crucial in our treatment of juveniles.

A recent study by the Justice Policy Institute reports that incarcerating a youth can cost $148,767 per year. The most recent publication of the Juvenile Residential Facility Census found that 66,322 people under the age of 21 resided in 2,111 facilities in the U.S., ranging from 26 juveniles in Vermont, to 10,908 juveniles in California. That is a lot of money to pay for incarceration practices that likely increase the risk of recidivism.

In California’s last round of funding for juvenile facilities, all 14 counties that applied for funding received it — hardly a competitive process. Most counties added beds to their existing juvenile halls or camps, or simply replaced existing facilities, thereby perpetuating existing flaws in our juvenile justice system. Addressing previous weaknesses, the revised funding application now requires stronger justification of how facilities will be rehabilitative and includes an appendix on best rehabilitative practices.

I have visited a facility built with 2009 funding and attended several meetings of the working group formed to oversee the funding, the lack of accountability is concerning. Applications receive points for the rehabilitative programing proposed. Yet while new facilities may be funded based on these prospective accounts, state officials do not ensure these promises are fulfilled.

While facilities such as day reporting or education centers are eligible for this funding, and perhaps better reflect the rehabilitative aims of our juvenile justice system, residential facilities still dominate. It is therefore imperative that they are held to high rehabilitative standards.

A vast body of research details the components of rehabilitative practices, not limited to non-institutional furnishings, bathroom privacy, small-group living arrangements and opportunities for therapeutic physical and leisure recreation. Programming should meet specific needs of different populations, for example girls, and include treatment, education and skill building that acknowledge difficult backgrounds.

Looking to fields outside criminal justice for innovative strategies can build new pathways to success. That is why it is important that policymakers come from diverse backgrounds and foster relationships with practitioners, researchers and advocates.

It is not enough to simply roll out new facilities and programs, nor to expect youths to engage in prosocial behavior because they have been told to; they must believe they can. Criminal justice leaders must not only provide the tools to facilitate change; they must believe youths can succeed. A reform of thinking may be required before meaningful juvenile justice reform can be achieved.

Antonia Cartwright is a postgraduate fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, based in San Francisco. She is experienced in college lecturing and British law enforcement. Antonia has an M.S. in criminology and criminal psychology, and post-graduate certificate in education.

Protesters Seek NYPD Policy Change in Spirit of Dr. King

Head of the March
At the head of the march, protesters stretch for blocks along Lexington Avenue.

NEW YORK — The image and words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could be seen and heard everywhere the Dream4Justice march went, from Harlem to Midtown, Monday afternoon.

But as the marchers walked a slow and peaceful four miles over as many hours, King’s voice mixed with the protesters’ now familiar chants: “I have a dream” alongside “I can’t breathe” and “No justice, no peace.”

King’s memory brought organizers and protesters together but the marchers’ demands came from more recent deaths. In memory of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others who had been killed by police, the march ended near the United Nations to bring attention to police brutality as a human rights issue. Marchers called for immediate policy change at the city and state levels in keeping with King’s philosophy.

“We are non-violent but we are not peaceful,” said Tamika Mallory, an organizer and board member of The Gathering for Justice. “We are upset, we are angry and we are fighting back.”

Elsewhere in the city and across the country, dozens of events commemorated Martin Luther King Jr. Day with celebrations, protests and die-ins. In New York, a separate march headed farther downtown toward the city’s civic center.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logoFor many young protesters at the Dream4Justice march, King provided a model of action and philosophy but also reminded them of how much work still needed to be done.

Ruben Mendez, 24, of Perth Amboy, N.J., carried a poster-sized image of King, a photocopy of a painting his mother had finished just days before the march. In the painting King is surrounded by protesters with signs like “Jobs Now” and “Human Rights,” demands that remain just as relevant today as they were 50 years ago, he said.

Asked why he marched, Mendez pointed to the quote at the bottom of his poster. The excerpt, from King’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, warned of the dangers of valuing things over people.

“We’re still marching against the triple evils of racism, against economic inequality and against the horrible issue that is war,” he said, echoing King’s words. “Dr. King’s dream is not over yet and that’s why we’re still marching.”

Azra Tahirovic
Azra Tahirovic holds a hand-drawn portrait of King.

Dalila Tahirovic, 23, came to the march with her sister Azra, 20, from Queens to honor King’s support for the oppressed.

“We are here today as veiled white Muslim women of Caucasian background but also of a culture that has experienced genocide of its own,” she said, referring to her Bosnian heritage. King’s work has shown her the need to protest and support justice for all, she said, “especially if you have white privilege, especially if you benefit from white supremacy.”

Jarrett Lamar Hannah, 22, of Brooklyn, said he looked to King’s work for a way forward, beyond what he called an endless cycle of stigma against people of color.

“The same thing that’s happening now is the same thing that King used to talk about, it’s the same thing that Tupac [Shakur] rapped about, it’s the same thing that J. Cole and Kendrick [Lamar] now talk about,” he said. “We’re born without blank slates, we’re born tainted, not by our skin tone but by how people perceive us.”

Hannah said he also looks to the spirit of Malcolm X, whose angrier form of protest could help propel social justice movements if weariness sets in.

“We’re tired. We’re following in King’s footsteps by being patient and having peaceful protests and doing walk-ins and die-ins,” he said. “But we have the anger that Malcolm X had. We’re still upset with the system. We still want vengeance. But we don’t seek vengeance — we seek justice.”

Near the end, organizer Mallory came back to the podium to thank the crowd.

“It is great that we are here celebrating Dr. King,” she said. “But we have our own work to do. Dr. King is gone. You and I are the Kings of today.”

‘Frontline’ Tells Story of One Juvenile Sentenced As an Adult

Alonza Thomas
Alonza Thomas was bullied into sticking up a gas station as a 15-year-old runaway.

Stickup Kid” tells an ugly story. The PBS “Frontline” episode explores the world of juvenile crime, zero tolerance laws, kids in adult prisons, the psychological consequences of isolating prisoners and the ongoing challenges they face when released. Every angle of the story is told plainly, without pity, and the result is a story that should serve to remind us all that there are no winners when young people are sent away to do adult time.

There is no debate that Alonza Thomas committed a crime. As a runaway he was bullied into it by an older man who had offered Alonza food and a place to stay. The man gave him a gun, and Alonza robbed a QT gas station in Bakersfield, Calif. He was a 15-year-old high school freshman.

It didn’t go well. The gun went off, he ran, a clerk caught him and beat him, then the employees held him at gunpoint until the police showed up.

It was 2000, and California’s recently passed Proposition 21 all but guaranteed that he would be tried as an adult. Proposition 21 was written in response to the predictions of a coming wave of superpredators, remorseless, psychotic children who took pleasure in perpetrating horrible crimes. The superpredators never materialized, but the laws continue to play out.

Alonza was the first in his county tried under the new rules, and the prosecutor remains convinced that it was the right thing to do: Alonza didn’t deserve to be tried as a kid because of an “ex post facto sob story.”

Alonza’s mother agrees that something had to be done, but not that her son should have been tried as an adult nor received such a harsh sentence. Alonza pleaded guilty to avoid a longer sentence and spent 13 years in adult prisons, most of the time in 23-hour-a-day lockdown.

Living like this as a teen has a cost. It is not clear that Alonza will overcome the damage of his time on the inside.

In less than a half-hour “Stickup Kid” explores what that was like for him and his family and how they are all working now to help him adjust to the outside world. Alonza takes medication to combat psychosis, depression and anxiety. He struggles to adapt, to become an adult.

In many ways his development stopped at 15 and is just now resuming. The film, which aired Dec. 17, is a short, sharp reminder of unintended consequences and how laws can actually take us further away from justice. Take the time to watch it.

OP-ED: Ferguson Latest Example That Courts Don’t Bring Justice

Jonh-Lash-4-cropped-2In this moment of high drama when the nation’s attention is focused on Ferguson, it is important to remember something:

The entire saga of Michael Brown’s killing is simultaneously an individual tragedy and a window into the much larger injustice of ongoing white oppression. For the latter concern the particular outcome of the jury’s deliberations are less relevant, though of course the failure of the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson brings tremendous pain to those who have fought to see a trial happen.

Do any of us imagine that convicting Darren Wilson of murder would begin to address the larger injustice? The very system that we have been asking to create justice in this instance is the agent of injustice across the nation, as schools, police, courts and prisons carry out the implementation of what writer Michelle Alexander so aptly calls The New Jim Crow.

Real justice on a societal level doesn’t come from courts, it comes from struggle against the system of injustice. Because cultural systems of oppression (like our own) often become part of the government, those struggles are often labeled as illegal..

Remember that slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were all perfectly legal. In their time they were all defended by the police and courts. Legal victories came after slave revolts, the Underground Railroad, boycotts, sit-ins, marches and other forms of protest and rebellion.

Like the protesters of the civil rights era, those in Ferguson today face fear and suspicion out of proportion with their demands. They would like to see the police kill fewer of their children. What was the response? Police snipers and tear gas greeted the first protesters. Now guns are flying off the shelves as whites arm themselves against the menace of “black mobs” gathering to protest, and the KKK promises the use of lethal force against them.

Fear of African Americans by the rest of society is an old tradition in the U.S., and with good reason. It is fear based on knowing that African Americans in this country have never received their due in any way. A country directly founded on slavery and its defense has never moved to make things right.

The protesters’ concerns are real. Black men are disproportionately affected by all levels of contact with police from traffic stops to being shot and killed. This is a real and incontrovertible fact. Efforts to shift the conversation to an individual level at best arise from misguided ignorance and at worst from direct efforts to maintain the status quo of racial domination in this nation.

Killing African Americans isn't anything new in the U.S. From the beginning the greatest threat to them has been white perceptions skewed by a system of racial domination.

The real hope of justice lies in the protesters, not the courts. Their efforts, if sustained long enough, have the potential to push reality into the faces of the rest of the nation. Right now they are demonized as dangerous radicals or dismissed as simply looking for an excuse to loot. If they can keep going though, just as in the civil rights era of the ‘50s and ‘60s, perceptions and public opinion can change.

Despite what authorities would have us believe, governments (including courts) follow in the footsteps of the people. Justice for Michael Brown is important.

Justice for all African Americans is vital, not only to them but to the entire nation. This is a talk that has been put off for far too long.

OP-ED: Can Reform Efforts Strengthen Justice System?

Jonh-Lash-4-cropped-2Being an advocate and practitioner of restorative justice can be a daunting pursuit. We often find ourselves looking at the world through a radically different lens than many of the people we work with and pushing against deeply ingrained patterns of behavior and response.

Because we work from the desire to create more just and less alienating ways of interacting, we often find ourselves worrying about our overall impact in complex situations. Above all we wish to avoid doing further harm, but that isn’t always easy to determine.

Restorative processes are best suited to cases of serious harm, where the differences with the prevailing system stand out most starkly. Attempts to slot restorative processes into “programming” or limit them to lesser violations run the risk of dissipating the powerful potential they embody.

Since authorities are frequently unsure of how to use these approaches, they (understandably) act to limit the risk to the current system. An additional problem is that the current system is by default punitive, and meshing the contrasting values can be a problem.

The RJ advocate or practitioner has to be careful to avoid extending the reach of the punitive system. Rule infractions or parental complaints could lead to involvement with the system that would not have occurred before the restorative option was available.

Past reform efforts, including parole, probation and prison itself (in the form of penitentiaries) have historically increased the number of people involved with the system, says Dr. Dana Greene, an associate professor in the criminal justice department at New Mexico State University, during a recent webinar.

Each of these previous efforts began with the stated goal of fixing the problem of criminal behavior and lowering the number of people caught in punitive structures.

As Greene has written, “For the past 200-plus years, each US penal reform that proposed to reduce what had come to be thought of as inhumane, ineffective, overly punitive, too expensive, or unjust penal practice resulted in widening the reach and deepening the roots of the punishment system. Benevolent penal reforms in particular have produced greater governmental ingress into the lives and communities of those being punished while swallowing an increasing number of people into the crime and punishment system.”

These unintended consequences can manifest in many ways:

  • Expanding the number of players involved in the justice process.
  • Broadening the purview of “justice.”
  • Criminalizing extralegal conflict.
  • Heightening the power and influence of crime victims.
  • Raising the bar of “proper” behavior.
  • Extending the reach of the justice system.
  • Marginalizing classes of offenses and offenders.
  • Fetishizing juveniles.
  • Focusing on low-level crimes.
  • Making existing systems bigger.
  • Cultivating new avenues for abuses of power rooted in the existing system/s.

The threats here are frightening to contemplate. Are we actually acting to increase the very system we are critiquing? What can we do to avoid these pitfalls that so many “do-gooders” before us stumbled into? Greene has suggestions, some of which invite us outside our normal bounds of comfort.

It is her contention that for restorative justice to succeed in creating true change it must rise to the level of a social movement. This means organizing to join the disparate players across the United States and internationally.

Once organized, RJ must counter the prevailing punitive paradigm. RJ truly embodies values counter to the current system, and we have to state them. Similarly, we must contend by pushing for more involvement in serious crimes.

To do otherwise is to be shunted into the realm of programs and supporting the status quo.  Beyond criminality, RJ needs to claim its place in larger questions of morality and addressing harm. This means dealing with race, class and gender. As Greene writes, “Be a social justice movement, not a penal movement.”

Greene points out the strengths of the current movement, and the ways in which it differs from its predecessors, giving me hope that RJ has a greater chance of success.  First, it is moving forward slowly, giving us time to evaluate and correct course as needed. Next, unlike previous movements, it is not inherently focused on those committing crimes. This leads to “broader possibility to cultivate membership” among victims, everyday citizens and others.

Most importantly to me, those who have participated in restorative processes, no matter the role, express satisfaction and can become advocates for further use. This bolsters my own faith that this way of addressing harm and building community is part of our natural human response. As a civilization we have had to learn the punitive way, but underneath we long for restoration.

OP-ED: Even Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect — And That’s OK

Jonh-Lash-4-cropped-2“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” G.K. Chesterton

I’ve used that quote as a guide for some time now, and nowhere more frequently than in my work promoting and practicing restorative and transformational approaches to conflict and harm. This was especially apparent to me this week, a week that both began and ended with me accompanying others along a restorative path with few markers other than my own experiences in the work and their desire to do things differently.

My friend and mentor, Dominic Barter, has presented what I consider to be the clearest vision of what a restorative response to harm can look like. Over and over he has emphasized that the response in my sphere is going to be different than in his, and that the model of Restorative Circles and the accompanying support systems are a “skeleton” that each community will flesh out in its own way.

This isn’t always easy to explain or accept, since as a culture we want and expect solutions to come to us prepackaged as turnkey products that we can sell for a certain value and that the buyer can implement without much effort. It is often uncomfortable to be viewed as an “expert,” especially when you know more than anyone that you don’t have specific answers to their situation.

The first meeting took place in another state. The victim of a serious felony knew something about restorative justice, and she knew that nothing like that existed in her area. Through her research she was able to track down my phone number. She called and explained the situation, then visited me. We didn’t know exactly how things would go, but I said I was up for giving it a try.

On the long drive over I talked with another friend and mentor, Tod Kington, of the Shawnee Conflict Center in southern Illinois. Restorative Circles include a pre-circle for facilitators, one that asks what is blocking us from seeing the humanity of all involved, including the facilitator, and that invites the facilitator to seek support for carrying out her role.

I expressed my worry and uncertainty. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I didn’t know many of the people. The authorities might question my credibility. We had no “real” system in place. He listened to it all and offered suggestions on how to approach the situation. The takeaway that I carried through the day was his reminder to stay connected to my intention and simply do my best.

“John, you are going in there carrying an understanding of what a restorative response can look like. They are in another system and might not recognize it. You are listening to the voices of those without power, and you can speak up and ask questions in a way that can help bring their needs to everyone’s attention.”

I kept that in the front of my mind throughout the long day. While talking to the victim, family members, friends, prosecutors, attorneys, police officers, the man who committed the crime and others I would be overcome with fear and the realization that I didn’t have all the answers. The current system is very powerful and presumes a lot of inherent certainty about what should happen. I was bringing the total opposite of that.

And it worked, or rather we all worked it out together. Every party in the somewhat chaotic day was willing to listen to others, to consider alternatives and to pay attention to the needs of the human beings involved. No one trumpeted the requirements of the system, or said, “We just can’t do that.” At the end of the day there was more mutual understanding and a response to the harm that met at least some of the needs of all involved. Together we slid the response in a restorative direction and had a significant impact on what happens next.

The second circle was in a nearby county, and held at the request of a counselor who’d been working with the participants. It was a parent and child, and the child had been in trouble at school since the beginning of the year.

It wasn’t the kind of trouble that could land you in court or juvenile detention, but instead a lot of lower-level disruption of class. The teachers had begun to focus on this kid, who would often be sent to the office or suspension even if it wasn’t clear who had broken a rule. The situation was spiraling down, and the parent had no idea what to do next. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine that the kid might end up in more serious trouble.

It also became clear that the parent had a style of conflict that sometimes made it more difficult for the kid to hear. Stress and worry led the parent to yell, to impose harsh sanctions and sometimes to lose hope. The situations at home and school began to influence one another cyclically. Getting calls from school every day was making the parent’s work life difficult, leading to less tolerance at home and the kid going to school angry and disconnected.

This was a situation that had deep roots and a high level of complexity because of other family members and their own conflicts. Over an hour into the meeting it seemed that they had achieved some understanding about how to change things at school. The kid agreed to look for different ways to handle conflicts with other students, and to ask the teachers for help in finding other places to do schoolwork.

I was ready to end the meeting when one of them said something about how they got along at home, and we were off again, talking for another hour at least, with the pain and difficulty becoming more and more open. For a facilitator this can be distressing. When things seem close to “resolution” we get hopeful and begin to relax, and it is disconcerting and sometimes disheartening to see folks dive back into the conflict.

I remembered an observation I have heard Dominic Barter make repeatedly. When we withdraw from conflict the voices get louder, so moving closer, though painful, is a way to get at the heart of what is separating us. It gives us a chance to lower our voices. This doesn’t come easily to us, since we have been trained mostly to avoid conflict or to move into a winning and losing framework.

This parent and child were willing to move closer, and to acknowledge that even though their conversations haven’t been easy (and still weren’t easy) they did want things to be different. The meeting didn’t end with a shining agreement that solved everyone’s problems (and made me look like a hero). Instead it ended with cautious acknowledgement that they could keep talking and that things could be different. Perhaps.

John Lash is the executive director of Georgia Conflict Center in Athens, Ga., where he works to increase the use of restorative justice approaches in the juvenile court, schools and the community, and teaches conflict management skills in various settings. He is a graduate of the Master in Conflict Management program at Kennesaw State University. He is a regular op-ed contributor to JJIE, where he also assists in website management and content curation.

OP-ED: No ‘Normal’ Response by Black People Possible to Continued White Supremacy

Jonh-Lash-4-cropped-2When you live in an abnormal situation, one that fundamentally is not suited to humans beings, there is no possibility of a normal response. You may fight, you may go along, you may go crazy or any number of other adaptations, but normalcy in the middle of the situation is out of reach.

My first four years as a prisoner were spent in an institution with segregated dorms. More accurately, black prisoners with a history of discipline issues were segregated into dorms 13 and 14 on the top floor of the worst building in the prison. Sending a prisoner to the third annex was the last step before isolation in the cell block. Dorm 12 was on the third annex as well, but it was smaller and housed guys who had trustee jobs, were in school and generally doing the “right” things.

I had lived in the “good” dorm (because of my job) for a few months when things changed. Segregating prisoners by race had actually been illegal for many years, but the authorities there had ignored the law until a new warden arrived. He was intent on changing the way things had been done, or at least appearing to do so, so he dismantled the “good” dorm and placed the white prisoners into the previously segregated housing units. To white guys like me this didn’t seem like a great idea. Our main objection was that some of the black prisoners in these dorms had stated that they would never allow a white to live there unless he paid protection or submitted to being a sex slave.

The day came to move, and as I walked into the new dorm with my stuff an old guard looked at me and whispered, “You know what to do, Lash.” The prison was in the mountains of north Georgia, the beginnings of Appalachia. Most of the guards, especially the older ones, had racist views of blacks and often saw the white prisoners as potential allies, at least in some ways. More than once I had been caught with a homemade knife, what we called a shank, only to be told to “move along.”

What he was saying to me as I walked past the bars was to stab one or more of the black guys, start a race riot in the dorm, then wait for the prison goon squad to come in and crack some skulls. In his mind it made perfect sense, and he reflected what was the basic strategy of the administration:

First they would get to keep us divided by race, making it easier to control all of us. Second, they would get to look like they were following the law while at the same time reinforcing the system they had in place. They could say they tried to integrate, but it just didn’t work out.

I remember the moment with utter clarity. He was probably in his 60s, short and stooped, with white hair, a wrinkled face and yellow fingers from chain smoking. He was utterly sincere when he spoke to me, assuming (rightly) that I would understand him.

I was young then, only in my early 20s, but I felt older than I do now. I had been in prison for four bloody and tense years. I was weary in the truest sense, weary of fear and hatred and constant violence. All that flashed through my mind as I looked into his eyes with equal sincerity and said, “Fuck you.” He seemed startled, but didn’t do anything as I kept walking.

That moment, though it took me a long time to realize it, epitomized the journey I would be on for decades to come. I saw in that instant that I lived in a system that was morally and practically dysfunctional, and one that I could never adapt to in a “normal” way. I saw that when you live in a dysfunctional system it is impossible to have a normal reaction.

The incident flashed through my mind while watching an interview on The Real News with Raymond A. Winbush, a writer, speaker, psychologist and leader of The Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University in Baltimore. During the interview Winbush is asked what the citizens of Baltimore can due to curb violence. HIs answer is well worth considering.

“I think what African people do … is … focus on how do we fix ourselves in a system that's corrupt. It's almost like saying, where do we want to build this house in the middle of a swamp? You know, you can build a house in a swamp, or you can say, look, we need to deal with this swamp or we need to get out of the swamp. So Africans … we need to be independent and have our own businesses, build our own schools, teach our own children. That's all well and good, but there's examples of that even when we did that, the system of white supremacy tries to destroy it. I think that any organization and any people, they have to say: How can we improve ourselves? But at the same time, those same people and that same organization has to say, what do we do about the system of racism that is causing us to do this?”

His answer goes straight to the heart of many criticisms leveled at the black community. When instances of systemic racism against blacks are pointed out it doesn’t take long before someone starts questioning what the black community is doing. Whether the accusations are true or trumped up doesn’t matter as much as grasping the dysfunction that underlies our whole society. Such charges belie the real cause and the real threat: white supremacy. This is not the crude white supremacy of the Ku Klux Klan, but the supremacy of an entire culture.

Black people can, and have, done a lot of work to improve the quality of their lives, to educate and ensure the safety of their children, to create stable and thriving communities and to live fully as human beings. A huge portion of our nation’s wealth, both economic and cultural, has been created by black people, yet they are still trapped in a system that ignores their fundamental humanity (and let me add that whether that system is led by Democrats or Republicans is irrelevant).

Yet when events push the reality of black life in front of a larger audience, such as in Ferguson, Mo., whites begin to deploy well-developed defenses of criticism and blame shifting. This ability to change the conversation is one of the biggest advantages of white privilege, and one that we can’t ignore.

All our talk about policies, programs, mentors, parenting or whatever other topic we affix our attention to, let’s not forget that the real problem is the culture of supremacy. Let’s put at least some of our attention on that, because if we don’t we will be doomed to incremental and mediocre success. Let’s speak, however inarticulately, about this truth when we see it, and let’s be on the lookout for it within ourselves.

John Lash is the executive director of Georgia Conflict Center in Athens, Ga., where he works to increase the use of restorative justice approaches in the juvenile court, schools and the community, and teaches conflict management skills in various settings. He is a graduate of the Master in Conflict Management program at Kennesaw State University. He is a regular op-ed contributor to JJIE, where he also assists in website management and content curation.

OP-ED: Eric Holder Was Bold Advocate for Change

Jonh-Lash-4-cropped-2Eric Holder, the first African-American attorney general, resigned on Thursday, though he’ll remain at his post until his replacement is confirmed. Holder’s tenure has been a mixed bag in many ways, and many have criticized his stances on terrorism prosecution, civil rights and the war on drugs (especially the Fast and Furious debacle).

In the realm of juvenile justice though, he has shown himself to be a forward-thinking advocate for change. This stance is closely tied to his willingness to speak plainly about race and its intersection with the justice system in a way rarely seen by officials at such high levels. His examples in this area will be hard to follow.

From the beginning of his tenure he was freer than President Obama to speak more plainly about race. Holder gave his famous (or infamous in conservative eyes) “cowards speech” in 2009, shortly after his confirmation. Putting the lie to the “melting pot” myth (at least as far as African Americans are concerned), Holder declared that “in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”

He went on with optimism though, encouraging everyday Americans to begin to have conversations (and take actions) to heal the racial divide. “We must be comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations” about these issues, he said.

Holder made equally bold statements about juvenile justice reform, particularly the use of solitary confinement for children. Calling such isolation practices “dangerous” and a “serious impediment” to youths’ ability to reintegrate into society, he pointed out the links between isolation and self-harm, including suicide.

He called out the states’ over-reliance on such practices, especially for youth with disabilities, and backed it up with legal action and support of best practices. He reminded the nation and those who work with kids in trouble that the job of the juvenile justice system is “to rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and to forget.”

In 2011, in a speech to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference, Holder again spoke plainly. “The evidence of our nation’s juvenile justice system is in — and it demonstrates that change is needed. The current system does not spend resources as wisely as it should. And it does not improve as many lives as it could.”

Why, he asked, do black youth make up over half the population of juveniles arrested for violent crime? Why are kids who are abused and neglected “11 times more likely … to be arrested?”

Holder pointed out that homelessness, adult incarceration, increased violence and sexual victimization were all part of the current system. Again, he backed up his words with actions by appointing Robert Listenbee, a longtime juvenile justice advocate and reformer to head the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

He clearly discerned the connections between juvenile crime and larger conditions, and saw that solutions must “address not just the consequences of crime, but also the underlying causes. [Such approaches] will … replace broken social patterns with healthy ones, and dysfunctional systems and practices with effective, and proven, solutions,” he said in his 2011 speech.

Most importantly, he saw beyond policy to the moral implications of how we treat children who find themselves caught up in the juvenile justice system. Holder noted the link that Bobby Kennedy, whom Holder holds as a personal hero, drew between justice and how we treat our nation’s children.

“Kennedy believed that the link between justice and children could never be broken without compromising our founding ideals ...This is a moral issue. How we treat our children answers the question of who we are as a nation,” he said in his speech.

He couldn’t be more right, and I hope that whoever succeeds him brings the same moral understanding to the job. We need it.

John Lash is the executive director of Georgia Conflict Center in Athens, Ga., where he works to increase the use of restorative justice approaches in the juvenile court, schools and the community, and teaches conflict management skills in various settings. He is a graduate of the Master in Conflict Management program at Kennesaw State University. He is a regular op-ed contributor to JJIE, where he also assists in website management and content curation.