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New Internationalist Issue 282

United States

A way out

Voices of dissent are beginning to be heard, even in the Republican heartland.
Richard Swift
pays a visit.

'No pictures!'

The hulk on the top of Attica prison main-gate tower wasn't kidding. He glared down at us threateningly, arms braced against the high wall, weapon plainly visible. Punishment - like crime, it appears - needs to be carried out as much as possible in secret.

Attica is a sleepy, up-state village that holds the largest maximum-security prison in New York State. The massive stone prison with its fantasy-land guard towers undulates across the foothills with walls extending 25 feet underground, just in case. No-one has ever broken out of Attica. It did, however, witness the most brutal prison uprising in US history, back in 1971, when 43 human beings perished - most of them after Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered a military-style assault. There is a memorial to nine of those who perished - the guards. There is none for the prisoners.

You can find hope in some very odd places, and in the shadow of the walls of Attica is amongst the strangest. Ten minutes down the road in the small city of Batavia, NY, a group of criminal-justice innovators is developing an alternative to the system of mass incarceration symbolized by Attica. They call it simply 'Genesee Justice' because it is located in Genesee County.

Dennis Whitmann. Photo by RICHARD SWIFT A slight, easy-going but highly persuasive Catholic named Dennis Whitmann (right) runs the victim-offender reconciliation and community-corrections program out of the Genesee sheriff's office. His phone never stops ringing and, as he talks, you realize that Genesee Justice has become a ray of light for those seeking some way out of the gathering gloom of a US trapped by crime panic and vengeance-based incarceration.

Whitmann pauses in reeling off stories of murderous felony and sexual assault for a moment's prayer before tucking into his club sandwich. He has a boundless optimism that is contagious. 'More can be done for the victims of crime... We can do better than just shoving people in jail... We have placed offenders with over 120 different community agencies... In some cases real victim-offender reconciliation is possible.'

Whitmann is an expert at working the system, equally at home with judges, prosecutors, offenders and victims - a consensus-builder in the best sense of the word. For him the link with Attica is very tangible. Many employed at Attica (the New York Department of Corrections is now the biggest employer in the State) live right in Batavia. He relates the story of Paul Lewis, whose father was a guard who had been killed in the Attica uprising. Paul was injured during an attempted hold-up of the gas station in which he worked. When the robbers were caught, Paul intervened with the court to plead that they not be sent to Attica because he felt that no good could ever come from putting people behind those grim grey walls.

We drive around Batavia and Dennis points out the School for the Blind where an offender helped disabled kids start a riding program; an old town hall preserved by the labour of offenders on rehabilitation; an old-folks home where an offender ran the outreach program; a county wilderness area where an offender, caught diverting electricity from the local utility, has built two magnificent flagstone barbecue ovens.

These are not all minor charges, either. The stories behind numerous felonies trip off his lips: the program brought together the mother of a boy who was shot with the mother of a boy who did the shooting; community meetings where sexual offenders have had to face the music from angry members of the community they betrayed; the case of a sniper and his victim chatting amicably before both appeared on an episode of NBC's Geraldo Show exploring the possibilities of restorative justice.

I meet the present sheriff, craggy-faced Gary Maha (a Clint Eastwood look-alike) who has worked his way up through the ranks, and Glenn R Morton, the thoughtful chief judge of the county. Both support community alternatives to incarceration for many cases. Morton believes that it has application not only to relatively rural jurisdictions like Genesee County but also in the urban communities and neighbourhoods of Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Dennis Whitmann goes even further: 'If we can make restorative justice work here, in this conservative Republican community, people can make it work anywhere.'

The political battle hasn't been easy. When Doug Call, a lawyer and former military prosecutor, took on the redneck former sheriff who wanted to build a new monster jail, even his own father 'flipped'. Call is a tall, friendly man with a clarity of purpose and a knack for adapting the restorative-justice message for conservative ears. He paints the incarceration approach in lazy, passive colours ('Three square meals a day and colour TV') and asks: 'Who's really soft on crime?'

Call won his election as Genesee sheriff three times. He ran as a Democrat - 'Yea, I bucked the big R,' - on a program of making the offenders work, making them responsible to their victims, to the community and to themselves, using jail only as a last, reluctant and expensive resort. He believes that the pervasive law-and-order politics that grips America can be beaten. Call has an interesting vision of the possibilities of criminal justice. He regards jail as a lost opportunity for intervening in a troubled life to try and put things on a more even keel. He is quick to juxtapose alternative notions of justice, from Africa to contemporary Germany, where civil and criminal remedies are combined.
Robert Williams and his wife. Photo by RICHARD SWIFT
You can find unorthodox remedies right down the street in Batavia. Robert Williams (right) is an intense and straight-forward man who was arrested for second-degree murder when he came to the aid of his brother who was being stabbed. If he didn't live in Genesee County it is likely Williams would be doing some very heavy time. But this single father of three sat with me over coffee and doughnuts in his living room and talked of his nightmares about the event and his hopes for the future. He is on 'community diversion' (17 quite rigorous conditions) pending sentencing, which will likely be probation plus community service. For Williams the Batavia victim-offender program has provided what is crucial - people who give a damn: 'Dennis is always getting in touch to see how I'm doing.'

One of the conditions of Robert Williams' diversion is meeting with the mother of the person he killed, if she so desires. Attending to the victim will become the centrepiece of penal politics in the future. Either the victim's pain at the crime, and then at being ignored - or further abused - in the criminal-justice process, will be used by cynical politicians and prosecutors as a vengeful tool for ratcheting up sentences, or the victim will be given standing and dignity in the process. This could mean anything from compensation and counselling to actual meetings with the offender to discuss the crime. Simply being kept in touch with the proceedings would be a positive development. Healing is the priority, rather than vengeance.

Crimes are committed against individuals, not against the state. By tradition this is also how justice has been sought. Restorative justice - restoring the rights and dignity of the victim - has its roots in a myriad of indigenous traditions, from the South Pacific to native America. Only Roman and later British law put the integrity of the system before the interests of the victim. The stamp of state justice possesses a blunt uniformity and a severity that has little to do with the particularities of the individual crime, the circumstances of the wrong-doer or the needs of the victim.

These days the retributive model of justice is beginning to crack under the weight of its own consequences. Prisons are increasingly over-crowded and violent. In Brazil overcrowding has forced a mass amnesty for less serious offenders. Costs are sky-rocketing. Crime rates are either unaffected or worsened. Recidivism is the norm.

Through the cracks alternatives are beginning to appear. Genesee justice is one. The new juvenile-justice system in Aoetearoa/New Zealand is another. Zimbabwe's large community-service program for offenders provides a model for the Third World. Some countries like Finland have managed to resist the pressure to put more and more offenders behind bars. Norway has set up an alternative mechanism to the criminal courts to settle disputes. Mostly, alternatives are small and local - geared to the needs of particular communities. They all share an underlying sensibility - that where it is necessary to judge our fellow human being we should take care to judge modestly.

Replacing a system of retribution with one of restorative justice is, however, an uphill battle. Many have a stake in the present system. Politicians enjoy an easy ride by provoking crime fear and talking tough about punishment. Resources to run community corrections and deal sensitively with the needs of victims are hard to come by. It is possible to draw on indigenous traditions and other experiences in creating an alternative. But mostly it must be cut from whole cloth, by simply finding out what works and what doesn't.

In Genesee County they like to quote the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: 'Traveller, there is no road; one makes the road by walking'.

Photos: © Richard Swift ©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996 [image, unknown] NI Home Page[image, unknown] Issue 282 Contents

New Internationalist issue 282 magazine cover This article is from the August 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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