Tag Archives: parents and children

Nurturant parent politics: reframing to promote transformative justice

I recently gave a brief presentation in transformative justice to four people I didn’t know. Since TJ is so incredibly unlike the traditional criminal justice system and because I didn’t want to leave these four people thinking I was a nutcase, I framed the discussion around two hypothetical situations:

A stranger breaks into your car and steals your car radio –  what would you do?

Your brother, sister, child, or parent breaks into your car and steals your car radio – what would you do?

This seemed like a good way to get people rethinking responses to crime. I figured that people would be more interested in thinking creatively and addressing individual situations if they had an investment in what happened to the offender. I also figured that more people would want to know (and deal with) why the crime was committed in the second scenario. That’s transformative justice, baby.

Ironically, three days later by complete chance I happened upon Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff. Surprise! There’s an actual foundation of knowledge for what I was doing.

Have you ever heard of the “strict father” and “nurturant parent” models? I sure hadn’t. But I was inadvertently doing exactly what Lakoff argues we (progressives) have to do – among other things – if we’re going to appeal to the masses: Take a strict father viewpoint and reframe it around a nurturant parent viewpoint.

In a nutshell, the strict father model works like this: a strong male figure makes the rules, punishes anyone who disobeys, and doesn’t engage in dialogue or ask permission for jack. Individual success and competition is viewed as the hallmark of national progress. Anyone who threatens that model, tries to help the “bad” children who deserve their lot in life for failing to make a lot of money and achieve traditional success, is actually hurting themselves and everyone else by getting in the way of discipline, order, and morality. Within this framework, things like free drug treatment programs, welfare, affirmative action, etc. are detrimental to the natural development and success of the nation’s “children” (literal and figurative), who will actually learn and thrive through punishment, not support.

In contrast, the nurturant parent framework looks like this: gender neutral parent figures support their “children” by empathizing, understanding their needs, and providing resources to meet those needs. They believe children need safety and support to thrive, as well as freedom to learn on their own and actualize their own potential. Basic tenets are empathy and responsibility.

I think that analysis is pretty boss, frankly, because all of a sudden I get why abortion and gay marriage matter so much to conservatives. I get why our foreign policy seems to center around doing whatever the hell we want, and even when our interests are in agreement with an agreement, not signing anything anyway. Y’all should probably read that book.

It really, really is not rocket science to figure out what this has to do with the prison system. What I accidentally hit on for my little presentation was that our current system runs within the strict father model; transformative justice aligns with the nurturant parent model: What went wrong? What can we do to prevent this in the future? What is my (or my community’s/state’s/country’s) responsibility to aid in that prevention?

The truth is, everyone can understand both structures. Most people utilize both structures at different times, but even if you only use one you certainly encounter both in books and movies and your neighbors’ lives and your children’s schools and on and on. Which is dope for two reasons: because conservative viewpoints now seem more like differences of opinion to me than outright craziness, and because now I know that everyone can understand transformative justice when it’s presented in the right framework.

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Chicken soup for the prison abolitionist’s soul

Transformative justice sees crime as an opportunity to build a more caring, more inclusive, more just community. Safety doesn’t lie in bigger fences, harsher prisons, more police, or locking ourselves in till we ourselves are prisoners. Safety and security – real security – come from building a community where because we have cared for and included all, that community will be there for us, when trouble comes to us. For trouble comes to us all, but trouble itself is an opportunity.

- Ruth Morris, Stories of Transformative Justice, p 21

Ruth Morris was a Canadian activist, scholar, and Quaker. She was at the forefront of the early prison abolition movement, and a founding member of the International Conference on Prison Abolition (ICOPA) which is one of the most prominent abolitionist groups working today.

All of that would be reason enough for me to read what she wrote, but the reason that I really get all hot and bothered for Ruth Morris is that she worked in non-profits her whole life, regularly spending time with the people she was advocating for. We live in a world where that’s easy to avoid, and she didn’t. Boss.

So rewind for a second to me a year ago at my teeny tiny coffee shop table, reading Morris’ Stories of Transformative Justice. Pretty soon I was embarrassing the heck out of myself, because I was crying in public. Not eyes watering, dabbing at the corners crying, but tears-and-snot-everywhere crying. It was pretty gross, but it was totally justified because the stories were so moving. I’ll synopsize an example:

One of the stories that Morris tells is about a family with a six-year-old boy. This boy is charming, loving, adored by his parents and his teacher. Then, one day he leaves a little late from school. He is crossing the cross-walk by himself, and a car comes racing around the corner. Either the driver doesn’t see him there, or he can’t stop in time. He hits and kills the six-year-old, leaving his parents childless.

Obviously the parents are crushed. And angry. Angry at God, and fate, and the idiot 16-year-old kid who thoughtlessly drove well over the speed limit past an elementary school.

As Morris tells it, that night the father is absolutely beside himself with grief and anger, and doesn’t know what to do. And then something clicks. One life is over: his little boy will never come back. But now another life stands to be lost as well.

The man goes to his wife and tells her what he wants to do. There isn’t anything they can do for their son now, but maybe there is something they can do for the sixteen-year-old who killed him. And his wife agrees.

The couple petitions the court to drop the charges against the young man. He is grateful, and incredibly remorseful. But they don’t stop there. They also give him a part-time job at the man’s business, and eventually help pay his way through college. He becomes a regular fixture at holidays, a member of their family.

This is a story Morris read in a Canadian newspaper, though to my ears it sounds almost biblical. It is an incredible thing to imagine offering emotional and economic support to the person who killed your son, but it is also clear that what everyone gained from that situation far outstrips what anyone would’ve have gotten from a prison sentence.

Transformative justice takes a lot of forms, but whenever I think about it now my first thought is about two parents who are willing to not only forgive but to love the person who killed their only child, and who gain so much from that willingness.

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Harm minimization

In 1999, Portugal had a serious drug problem. One percent of the nation’s people were addicted to heroin. Folks were dying of overdoses, health complications, and H.I.V. due to sharing needles. The prisons were full, and the government was exasperated.

In a last ditch effort to do something, Portugal decriminalized personal drug use. They still prosecute drug dealers and traffickers, but people with less than a ten-day supply of pretty much any drug are generally sent to counseling, not prison. They call this “harm minimization” because it’s focused on reducing violence, disease, overdoses, and other threats to the health and safety of both addicts and the rest of the population.

I recently read Michael Specter’s “Getting a Fix,” a New Yorker article that compares Portugal’s approach to that taken in the U.S. He asks whether the “harm minimization” approach is working: Are incarceration rates down? Hospitalizations due to drugs? HIV and AIDS? The answer, for Portugal, is yes.

But he misses what I believe is the more important point when he fails to discuss the qualitative benefits of resisting the urge to incarcerate folks picked up once, or twice, or even ten times for simple possession. Above all, those people are allowed to continue living their lives. They can be productive employees, parents, partners. They won’t have to worry about re-entry stresses like finding a new job, getting a driver’s license back, or simply re-learning how to grocery shop. 

I like the phrase “harm minimization.” It’s an appropriate description of the way we approach loved ones with substance abuse issues. If you find out that your mother is an alcoholic, for example, you might be angry or frustrated, but my guess is that your ultimate goal will be to minimize harm – help her recover from her dependency while impeding as little as possible on the rest of her life. In fact, the vast majority of legal and illegal substance dependency problems are already treated this way, in America and elsewhere, through family intervention, private treatment, and emotional support.

No ones likes when someone they care about has an alcohol or drug problem, but we don’t typically advocate for our friends and family to be incarcerated, either. As a nation, Portugal has starting treating their citizens as though they care about them, and their families. Wouldn’t it be neat if we adopted a similar national stance?

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Troop 1500

Words alone cannot capture the experiences of parents and children who are separated by incarceration. This exploration of Troop 1500, a girl scout troop that brings together incarcerated women and their daughters, offers a valuable snapshot of some of the challenges and joys that incarcerated parents and their children face while in prison and after release. Check it out and let me know what you think.

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