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Does Justice Require Punishment?

Imagine for a moment that someone has caused you harm—stolen from you, vandalized your property, assaulted you, lied to you, killed a loved one. Make a list--what would you need from others so you could process the harm you have experienced?

Now imagine that you have caused someone harm—you’ve lied to them, ignored them, maligned them, stolen, vandalized, assaulted, perhaps even murdered them. List what you would need from others so you could address the harm you had caused.

Look at each list. What do you notice?

When we do this activity with groups of old or young, people are surprised to discover that the lists are similar, and reveal common needs for being listened to, for being consoled, for compassion, for accountability, for time to reflect and respond, for opportunity to explain, for opportunity to apologize or hear an apology.

Rarely do people identify that they need to be punished or have their perpetrator punished in ways that are totally disconnected from the experience. What people who are harmed or cause harm crave is a need to be heard, a need for someone to come along side them so that they are not left alone, and a need for opportunity for things to be made right. This is what restorative justice looks like in action. And for this to occur justice needs to be understood by the broader society as honouring and working for the inherent worth of all. This is difficult for a society that has convinced its citizens that safety comes with removing people who cause harm from its inner circle.

To confront biases and prejudices towards those who cause or experience harm, a recent art collaboration was presented at the 2014 National Restorative Justice Symposium entitled Ripped Apart or Stitched Together. Two large pieces each displaying a compilation of images greeted viewers as they entered the exhibit.

The first was a 8 X 0.6 metre frieze of a one-year collection of images of people arrested and published in the St. John’s Telegram newspaper. In each, the names and eyes of those arrested are blacked out. Though visibly present, there are no voices. They are ripped away from their context and readers quickly dismiss their value.

The second was a 2.3 m X 1.4 m fabric quilt displaying 40 colourful individually designed squares surrounding an image of a tree. Each piece was created and sewn by people whose lives had become entwined with crime, either in being harmed or causing harm. Accompanying each quilt square was an audio recording of its creator telling their story and how an opportunity for meeting and sharing brought healing. Each speaks of moving forward, of hope through reconciliation. Stitched together the hope of reconciliation is multi-dimensional.

The two pieces juxtaposed challenge the viewer to consider personal and societal perspectives of justice. What is it? When is it accomplished?

The artists, Meghan O’Shea (quilt) and Gerald Vaandering (collage), along with Church Council of Justice and Corrections (the organization that commissioned the quilt) representative, Kathryn Bliss, and curator of the show, Dorothy Vaandering, collectively recognize that art reflects back to the people what they are living and communicates in a way that words cannot.

The black and white newspaper collage originated from the Vaandering’s experience of moving to a new province and being bombarded daily by images in the first section of the St. John’s Telegram of people who had been arrested (most not yet charged) and in handcuffs or shackles. We became conscious of how, as readers, we were being coerced to think that we were being kept safe because the justice system was doing its job. Collecting the images for one year and then compiling them into the 8 metre frieze exposed how media contributes to social distancing. Those arrested are presented without a context encouraging viewers to consider them as objects, less than real people. Without knowing their story, it is easier to punish. The images become a means for social control. When they are separated from ‘me’/’us’ it is easy to support and encourage ‘tough on crime’ policies as we need not feel responsible for who they are as people. When they are punished, I falsely believe they will stop doing what has caused harm, or they will be prevented from causing further harm (in jail) and I will be safe.

The quilt created to express the essence of healing possible through restorative justice in a way that words could not, provides no visual images of people. Instead scraps of materials--a swatch of a kilt worn by a murdered spouse on a wedding day, the lace of a christening dress, a feather that flits about on a breath--colours, textures, voices, and stories all come together to remind viewers that those harmed and those who cause harm are living, breathing human beings with a deep need to belong. Viewers are wrapped in the warmth of recognizing our common humanity and brokenness; we are challenged to be in relationship knowing that our lives are fragile and in a moment each of us could be entwined in harm.

Moving along the length of the collage viewers begin to notice how as consumers of media reporting we become complicit in the dehumanization of people arrested for causing harm. As the un-objecting readers we stand throwing rotten tomatoes and mud at those in pillory and stocks. Then suddenly I encounter and am embraced by the quilt. I am invited to join with the rest of broken humanity to make space in society for all.

For more information on the show and its components see: or

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