Criminal Justice 2008

What is restorative justice?

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Uploaded at: 2010. 10. 11.


Ben, 19, a methamphetamine and heroin addict covered with swastika tattoos, imprisoned for badly beating a homosexual, insisted he wasn’t violent and didn’t belong in RSVP “with the niggers, homos and kikes” (Schwartz, 2009, p. 156). The staff asked Ben to agree to try out the dorm for three weeks (the typical RSVP initiation period) and to control his language. Ben grudgingly agreed.

At three weeks, Ben was still so intractable that the staff almost expelled him. Schwartz suggested a meeting between Ben and Damon, an African-American counselor, and a white inmate peer advisor. Just being in the same room with Damon sent Ben into a screaming fit.

Finally, exhausted by the energy it took to maintain his hatred, and because there weren’t any other Aryan Brotherhood members around to link up with (which he would have found in any other prison dorm), Ben finally “got it.”
In a group meeting, when confronted by a new Latino inmate over something trivial, Ben, instead of fighting, asked the new inmate if he could give him some feedback. Then he told him how his outburst made him feel. Despite himself, Ben had learned to do this by watching the other inmates. The group congratulated Ben for his good work.

Ben did a lot more hard work, with help from fellow inmates and staff, “deconstructing” the violent act that had put him in prison. Ultimately, he became a different person — a leader and a group facilitator in the dorm, his best friend an African-American inmate.

Eager to give back to the community, Ben addressed a group of Jews, including elderly Holocaust survivors, at a Passover Seder in a synagogue. He spoke of his journey — from racist skinhead who beat up blacks, Jews and homosexuals and trashed synagogues — to senior inmate advocate in the RSVP dorm. He ended his talk with a tearful apology. At that, an elderly gentleman with a concentration camp tattoo on his arm took Ben’s hand and said, “I never thought I’d ever see the day when someone who identified with Nazis would say I’m sorry”


The RSVP program, a partnership of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and nonprofit Community Works West, involves group discussion, academic classes (plus art and creative writing) through the Five Keys Charter Schools, theatrical enactments, role-playing, counseling sessions and discussions with victims/survivors of violence.


Laura Mirsky, International Institute for Restorative Practices, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania


Gilligan, J. & Bandy, L. (2000). The Resolve to Stop the Violence Project: Reducing Violence through a Jail-Based Initiative. Commissioned report. Retrieved October 1, 2010

Schwartz, S. (2009). Dreams from the Monster Factory. New York, N.Y.: Scribner.

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