by Nandini Sikand
The quality and concept of “regenerativity” is relevant to current debates in the fields of environmental studies and criminal justice,1 and central to understanding the concept of “sustainability” in both. The difference between “sustainability” and “regenerativity” is that sustainability focuses on the maintenance of an existing system, whereas regenerativity focuses on the system’s renewal. In terms of the criminal justice system, we need to refocus away from sustainability and onto regenerativity. What would happen if we worked to regenerate populations of the incarcerated and the formerly-incarcerated by focusing not on the maintenance of the criminal justice system, as is currently the case, but rather on the renewal of these populations in a way that newly and deeply invests in our communities?
Currently, the United States incarcerates more than 2.2 million citizens, more people than any other country in the world. The U.S. accounts for 5 % of the world’s population yet holds 25% of the world’s prisoners.2 If these currently incarcerated people made up a city, it would be the 5th largest city in the country (following NYC, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston).3 When considering the great contributions—be they economic, cultural, social, civic—of these great cities, it is debilitating to consider the 5th largest city in the nation as essentially taken offline, made irrelevant, blocked from the chance at meaningful participation. Imagine, instead, what the next great city could do.
National rates of recidivism are extremely high—two-thirds of people released are rearrested within three years, and within five years of release, three-quarters are rearrested.4 In my work as a documentary filmmaker and volunteer at Northampton County Jail in Easton, I found that parole violations are a primary reason for reincarceration. Under the current system, and even though no new crime has been committed, the individual is often unable to access public transport, find child care or afford the money needed for drug tests mandated by Northampton County, and are subsequently forced to violate parole. They are often reincarcerated driving up the rates of recidivism, and back in the revolving door of correctional facilities, setting them up for continued failure.
Some current approaches to criminal justice reform include addressing issues of reentry and access to jobs, healthcare, and reform around bail reform and mandatory sentencing on the outside. There is movement to address issues of job training, education, rehabilitation, and a move away from solitary confinement on the inside. These reforms help the incarcerated navigate an unforgiving system, but these approaches also keep the system in place. Poverty, access to education, redlining, structural racism, access to ongoing healthcare including mental health services for substance use disorder, and trauma-related addictions are some of the reasons this cycle continues. As a nation, we have outsourced basic social services to our prisons. The majority of women I met struggled with some form of substance-use disorder as a result of trauma as children, traumas which ranged from domestic violence, sexual assault and/or abuse and even witnessing homicide, caused them to turn to alcohol and/or drugs at young ages. Without access to long term counseling and support, these traumas morphed into other mental health issues, long term addictions, and associated behaviors.
If justice is to be truly regenerative we need to move from sustainable criminal justice reform towards regenerative justice, to engage more fully with prison abolition. What would a world without prisons look like? First, we need to acknowledge that the prison industrial complex is not a war on drugs but rather a war on its citizens, and the current system is built on the social liquidation of targeted populations achieved through domestic warfare. If retribution, rather than restoration and regeneration continues as the scaffolding of our justice system, this war will continue unchecked. Second, we cannot address criminal justice by focusing on low-level felonies but need to address the larger issue of violence in our communities, violence that existsbefore people are incarcerated. We cannot simply look at a crime in isolation but rather the circumstances that led up to that crime. Danielle Sered, in her book,Until We Reckon5 argues that perpetrators of violence are often victims of violence first and had no support to deal with the long-term trauma. And unless we acknowledge the relationship of state-enacted violence of anti-Black policing to the prison industrial complex, we will continue to end people’s lives.
Third, we need to address the individual who committed the crime, the victim of the crime, the families and the communities to which they belong and will eventually return. Restorative and regenerative inioppose new prison construction8, and develop alternatives that do not depend on policing and carceral solutions9,10 — they are proof of regenerative justice in action.