One of the greatest challenges facing justice-involved people is the stigma they encounter during and after their time spent incarcerated. Baked into every discussion we have about criminal justice and punishment in this country, this stigma can be crystallized into one central question: do people who commit crimes deserve sympathy and understanding? Unfortunately, the nuances required to interrogate this question are often lost in gut reactions to crime. One way to reduce the instant negative associations that many people have with justice-involved people is through personal contact.
Creative collaborations that bring justice-involved people into scenarios where they can meet other community members can be hugely advantageous to reducing that stigma. The benefits of such an approach are twofold: justice-involved people feel seen for the life they build external to their conviction, and non justice-involved people are able to interact with them on a person-to-person basis. By doing so, those on either side can be freed from the expectation of what a “criminal” should act and look like, an image largely built upon hyperbolic political speech, dramatized local crime reports, and inaccurate media portrayals of the justice-involved community.
A new project in Barcelona, Spain highlights the type of innovative thinking that can lead to such positive interactions. Quatre Camins prison has developed Gats La Roca, a program that allows those incarcerated there to take care of the local cat population. Serving as the guardians for local abandoned domestic cats and their stray counterparts has proved to be an empowering and calming experience for those involved— in part because their participation stresses that they are just like anyone else. One participant in the program said, “people approach us as if we were normal people, we are not seen as prisoners.”
This design is intentional, explains Sara Díaz, a social worker in the prison and the founder of the cat care program. “When we go to a market we all wear the same t-shirts, so people do not know who are the inmates and who are not.” This approach has boosted the participants’ self-esteem and serves as a positive convincing factor that reintegration into society after release is possible. Says one participant, the cats “give us the opportunity to collaborate in society, to offer a service [that] makes us feel useful.”
Cats aren’t the only means by which justice-involved people can become more involved with the community prior to their release and non justice-involved people can learn to destigmatize their interactions with them. Inspired by the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program in Philadelphia, Penn., several Canadian prisons have collaborated with local universities to facilitate cross-cultural learning amongst the populations of their institutions. Through the Walls to Bridges program, students at nine universities can enroll in courses that are also open to residents of a local prison. By taking these courses together in the correctional facility, both groups benefit from the wide variety of perspectives that are represented in class discussions. These courses are often facilitated through a “circle pedagogy,” which allows every student a non-interrupted time to reflect on a given topic, ensuring that everyone can feel heard and understand what they have in common with particular individuals in the room.
Promoting cross-cultural understanding within the community can be incredibly impactful as justice-involved people transition back into society and feel confident in their ability to build a successful life. Programs like Gats La Roca, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange, and Walls to Bridges demonstrate just how possible it is to creatively approach the sticky subject of stigma. Enough of these projects exist now to learn from what works and what doesn’t, empowering us to scale and implement unique programming across the criminal justice system for maximum positive impact and stigma reduction.
This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. For March, the fellows have decided to create content around the concept of collaboration. They might be in conversation with interesting folks or choose to explore the ways in which different entities could collaborate for the greater social good.