According to the 2009 Global Peace Index, the United States ranks 83 out of 144 countries in the world.  Why is this alarming ranking talked about so little?  What sort of political, social and cultural factors contribute to this position, and how can they be changed?

For the U.S., the most significant contributing factor to this ranking is our high incarceration rates; with less than five percent of the world’s population, the United States holds almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.  Criminal justice policies and practices have only aggravated the problem, as the number of jail and prison inmates in the United States has risen 274 percent in the past quarter century.  This silent migration of our own citizens from our communities to locked and monitored institutions is causing substantial social, economic, and cultural strains.  As a key step of progressing towards peace, we must address the realities of issues within the prison system.

Although incarceration is often presented through a ‘restorative’ lens as a time for growth and reflection, restorative justice practices and rehabilitative education are greatly lacking in the U.S. Prison system.  Lacking, but not absent.  In the field of restorative justice, there are several inspiring projects happening in prisons around the country.  Prison garden projects from Washington, Chicago, New York, and many places in between are connecting incarcerated individuals with nature, teaching marketable trade skills, providing produce to local food banks and hospitals, and reducing recidivism rates.  The Insight Prison Project in California offers a variety of educational and rehabilitative classes focused on community building, public safety, and, again, reducing recidivism.  The restorative justice movement is gaining momentum across the country, but has yet to come anywhere near fulfilling its potential in healing individuals, families, and communities whose lives have been fractured by crime and incarceration.

To reach this potential, we, as a society, must continue the dialogue about restorative justice and prison reform.  We must look critically at our laws and social practices and consider their implications; as well as look at current professional practices within the system, their successes, and opportunities for constant improvement and increased compassion towards our fellow community members, incarcerated or not.

For more information about the programs mentioned in this post, see the links below.