The Relationship between the Discourse of Restorative Justice and the Carceral State in the U.S.
Natalie P. Byfield, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Abstract: In sociology prisons are thought of as “integrating institutions,” according to Joel Charon (2010). They stand in contrast to socializing institutions in that they enforce conformity. Since the 1970s, the United States government with the support of the electorate developed into a society that relies more and more on prisons to implement the moral order (Pager 2007). However, local, state, and federal authorities find that the actual cost of prisons presents a challenge to societies dependent on a carceral system. Indeed, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder noted that “imprisonment is not a complete strategy to criminal law enforcement (2009).” Fiscal constraints have led some policy makers to argue in favor of alternatives to incarceration, including restorative justice. Restorative justice involves the offender and the community coming together to find ways to repair the harm done to the community and to make the offender whole again. Not surprisingly the traditional discourse inside the administrative entities of the criminal justice system focuses on punishment and runs counter to the goals and the discourse of restorative justice, whose focus is healing. New questions abound. For example, what impact is the restorative justice movement having on the public discourse about prisons and incarceration? And, what impact is it having on the discourse of the criminal justice system? A restorative justice project that provides the opportunity to investigate these questions is the memoir-writing workshops being conducted in the jails in Suffolk County on Long Island, New York by a women’s memoir-writing organization called Herstory. Over 600 women have gone through these workshops in the last four years. Using a critical realism approach (Fairclough 2005), this paper treats the workshops and narrative writings of these incarcerated women as discursive events and social processes respectively. It finds that as the women in the prison writing workshops are being self-transformed, some of their jailers are also being changed by the process of regularly hearing their stories. It theoretically examines whether or not their writings represent expressions of agency that have the opportunity to transform carceral institutions.