Inside H Block 4.Credit: Flickr/Still Burning. Some rights reserved.
In 1995 my mother went into full blown psychosis as a result of a drastic change in the medication she was taking for schizo-affective disorder. She lured some of our friends and neighbors into our home and took the youngest, a toddler, into the basement bedroom. Once there, she slashed the child’s throat with a knife because of a voice telling her she had to. The toddler survived despite a massive loss of blood.
Mom had suffered from mental illness for most of her life in some form or another, and her new doctor at that time had reduced her antipsychotic medication without monitoring the effects. She had tried to take her own life after I was born, so afraid of being a bad mother that she thought it would be better if she exited, but I had no idea that she was managing life with depression that turned into bipolar disorder in my teens. She never harmed me. Quite the opposite—I was loved and supported by both my parents. But I do remember, and live with, the stigma that surrounds people with mental illness and everyone who loves them.
After the attack my mother was arrested, obliterated out of her mind. The media went wild, and she became the town monster. The magnitude of what she had done and the fear it elicited was everywhere. Others in the neighborhood began monitoring my family. They wanted to make sure the monster was put away for life. People I had known since I was a kid turned against us.
What followed was a textbook example of how not to deal with mental illness and its consequences—through ignorance, suspicion, incarceration and revenge instead of facing up to the shadow side of humanity with openness, love and understanding. It’s a story that I’ve never told before in public in such detail, but it needs to be told as another step towards redemption, and as the reason I believe that restorative justice is by far the best way forward. I’m also telling it as part of the process of owning who I am, and who my family are—good people who had something horrific and tragic visited on them, which devastated many lives.
Restorative justice values and strives to honor the needs of everyone involved in the most humane ways possible and in a safe environment—those who commit crimes, and those who suffer from them. In so doing, it brings humanity back into the justice system. It converts a limited worldview based around isolation and individualism into a much more positive vision that is rooted in honesty, accountability, and the visible connection of causes with effects. And it works in concrete terms by drastically reducing recidivism and costs. Most important of all, it nurtures new relationships and a strong sense of human unity. In that sense, the root power of restorative justice is love expressed in action.
This is not to shy away from the need for accountability or regret. I cannot overstate the utter sadness that I and my family have felt for what happened ever since, the desire to take away the pain from my mom’s victim and those who love her. The empathy and care we felt and still feel has never had a chance to be fully seen or expressed given the shambles of a criminal justice system that pits people against one another to further detriment and destruction—not to mention the total lack of opportunities for a mentally ill person to try to communicate their authentic feelings and reach for accountability under the harrowing conditions of imprisonment, where they are denied proper psychiatric treatment. This has been a hex for us all.
My mom was put on trial in the spring of 1996. I testified that she was not a criminal, but has a mental illness. I stand by that to this day. The court was cold and bifurcating: divided aisles, and a mix of fear, judgment and unspoken hatred mingling in the air. The judge ruled that my mother did not belong in prison due to her illness, and she was sentenced to house arrest and stringent rules for probation. If she violated them, she’d face 15 years in jail. And that’s when the neighborhood witch hunt resumed in earnest.
In 1996 and 1997, the Probation Officer received slews of calls about my mother’s case, falsely reporting violations. One group of neighbors followed my family around like bloodhounds, and one day at a water aerobics class at the local YMCA they found out that her caretaker had gone back to the locker room because she had a cold. Although my mom was in the pool with other responsible adults, this was one of the things cited by the group as a violation of her probation.
She was summoned to a hearing and from there to prison to begin her sentence (the judge who had issued a clear ruling against incarceration at the initial trial was now up for a possible spot on the state Supreme Court, and this may have influenced his decision). I remember the day she was taken away very clearly. My father and I sat with her. “Molly, you have to live your life—go on,” she told me. That was the last time I saw her outside of prison until 2014. It was 1999. I was 29 years old.
I visited my mother at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center in Eastern Idaho, a dank university town with a strange oppression in the air. The prison is located as far as possible from most of Idaho’s other major cities, which is a common pattern in American society—to make it as hard as possible to keep up any kind of contact or relationship with incarcerated family members. My mom became another number, 48985 to be exact.
In the western world prisons have become de facto asylums. Data are very difficult to gather, but it’s estimated that over half the prison population in the USA are mentally ill. At Pocatello, female prisoners shared a host of human rights violations with me: one belly-chained at her child’s birth with an officer watching the whole proceedings. Others forced to strip naked and be probed in their vagina or anus on suspicion of hiding items. Women with babies and small children who were not allowed extended or overnight visits. Mentally ill prisoners like my mother who were punished in the ‘hole’—placed in solitary confinement—for being honest about their symptoms. On and on, repeat ad nauseam.
In our failure to acknowledge everybody’s shadow side we act out our fears on the most vulnerable members of society. We scapegoat the mentally ill and treat them as though everything is their fault. We are unwilling to acknowledge the sickness that imprisons us in our own patterns of projection. Afraid to face the truth, we cannot enact true or lasting change. Transformation is only possible if we set ourselves free from these limitations and acknowledge the injustice that lies at the heart of the justice system.
My own work as an advocate for restorative justice emerged from these experiences. I saw needs go unmet for decades for everyone involved. I saw no chance of healing, or even of the slightest opening towards it in the prison system. I knew that what I’d experienced was the exact opposite of justice. Justice is respect and communication, and true accountability and reparation. It means distinguishing the individual as separate from their crime and the harm it has caused, and truthfully evaluating the unique conditions that inform a person’s actions. Justice is helping all people—including offenders—to be and feel accountable for what they have done, and to work together to make things right.
I can’t be anything but grateful for the opportunity to choose love over fear again and again throughout the last 25 years, and to live out that commitment in my work. I’ve done everything I can to respect and understand how my mother’s actions have affected others in the community, and to listen to the often ugly, revenge-based messages I’ve received from strangers. I know that housing 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners in American jails when only five per cent of the world’s population lives in the USA is both morally wrong and substantively ineffective as the basis for justice and reconciliation. I know that corporations with vested interests are passionate about filling every prison bed. I know that punishment only exacerbates the problem.
I know that stories like my mom’s must be held and heard safely to provide the raw material for healing. I know that people do not heal when they are pitted against each other and made to play a ruthless game of blame and shame. I know that by humanizing those stories we release the possibility of redemption, and come to understand our shared humanity. Without doubt, I know that restorative justice makes real the fact that conflict, pain, suffering and crime are part of all our existence. They constitute our shadow side.
Facing those shadows head on, naming them, and valuing people for who they are and not for the crimes they have committed, opens the way to offer a renewed sense of belonging to those we realize we have discarded. As Carl Jung once wrote, “if [we] only learn to deal with [our] own shadow [we] have done something real for the world. We have succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.”