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Jackie Ho, October 27 2021

The Intersection Between Art and Restorative Justice

This blog post was written by Jackie Ho, a student in the LS 162 AC course in the spring of 2021. Students in this class are invited to address various aspects of restorative justice and current events and produce blog posts for publication here.

The Justice Arts Coalition interviewed featured artists Sandra Miller and Cherie Hacker to understand their past, their role in JAC’s mission, and how art serves as another medium for liberation, healing, and reconciliation.

Focused on issues of mass incarceration and racial justice, Sandra Miller plays with various textural materials (pulp, paper) to express emotions of hurt as a healing process from past trauma. Her work “Woman” utilizes embedded recycled materials from egg cartons to express her emotions as a survivor of sexual abuse.

On the other hand, Cherie Hacker, an art teacher in prison, incorporates various color schemes and media for his pieces depending on his spontaneous emotional state. His compositions are not specifically curated and fixed but rather subjected to flexibility. Additionally, Hacker uses art as a means to develop deep meaningful student-teacher relationships while creating expressive pieces. This is important in the restorative and transformative justice process.

 There are two primary ways that similar organizations form the bridge between art and RJ. First, a diversionary approach develops programs as alternatives to prison. Second, an integrated approach occurs within a prison setting where RJ goals are set and addressed through art (itsartlaw.org). JAC follows the latter.

Art is a powerful tool in the RJ process due to its therapeutic aspect. Art being a reflective and expressive task encourages emotional processes and the communal healing that RJ signifies. RJ through the lens of art provides a more holistic exploration of the components that produce community conflict while facilitating positive thinking about the ways individuals can be healed. These projects not only help eliminate future harms but also display deeper respect for these artists’ dignity and humanity. RJ’s core beliefs are centered around everybody’s potential for growth and collective empathy, which fosters humanity instead of “othering.” More broadly, art and RJ programs establish empathy, mutual understanding, and higher levels of communal humanity. The produced connection between all people of society would disrupt the cycles of harm, and instead, create a more positive vision for the future.

 Amidst the growing movements for RJ and prison abolition, artists play a significant unique role in imagining new ways of approaching conflict, building community, and enabling healing. The purpose of these programs is to provide vulnerable populations the chance to “rewrite their stories” that are overlooked by our current criminal institutions. Part of what I call the abolitionist and RJ imaginary is invested in producing and sustaining spaces for everyone to breathe in ways that are supportive and sustainable for one another. Part of what the carceral state and its various institutions are about his confinement, captivity, oppression, and alienating communities. Incarceration is a cruel, violent, and unnecessary practice that reinforces negative and damaging messages, and pulls individuals further into cycles of harm.

 Artist imagination is crucial in envisioning a world without punitive systems that perpetuate cycles of harm and trauma. This aligns with James Forman’s quote “you imagine a world without prisons and then you try to build that work.” Understanding the abolition project as a project of imagination will help us recognize that investment towards envisioning is the work of imagination. The artistic storying of abolition and RJ is about an ongoing process that transforms not only the society in which we live but our own subjective fabric, which transforms us internally and externally.    


Written by

Jackie Ho


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