New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Lessons from San Quentin

June 07, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Michael N. Nagler, Politics, Stephanie N. Van Hook

A Nonviolent Approach to ‘Criminal Justice’

by Michael N. Nagler, with Stephanie N. Van Hook

“San Quentin may you rot and burn in hell, may your walls fall and may I live to tell; May all the world forget you ever stood, may all the world regret you did no good.”Johnny Cash

In Camus’s The Stranger his main character, Meursault, has murdered another man in cold blood on the beach one hot summer day for no evident reason.  Days before his execution, gazing at the sky in his cell, Meursault suddenly realizes that freedom is still possible, still immanent, even with his body in chains. On the exact nature of this realization Camus makes no comment, but as the gates of San Quentin penitentiary closed behind me on May 27, 2011, the scene came to mind and gave me perhaps a similar notion of the absurd, and of truth not served, and the horrible secret of our “democracy”: that there is no such thing as criminal justice.

The criminal justice system is one of the most broken and corrupt of many systems that are failing us in the United States — particularly here, as comparable democracies in most parts of Europe, not to mention a few countries like New Zealand and Rwanda, have experimented with indigenous systems based on an entirely different principle that are far more effective.  If we can understand what, exactly, its great failure rests upon we will be in a position to chart a safer and saner course.

The problem has a political cause, to be sure, but one that, in turn, rests on a deep misconception of human nature that’s embedded in our present culture.

First, the politics.  As a recent documentary, Deadline, brings out very well, it is political suicide in this country to appear under the color of a mindless cliche called “weak on crime.”  But — now for the underlying reason — why is compassion “weak”?  Walk past the display of posters for a given set of films, almost anywhere.  What you will see is vivid, ‘realistic’ violence relieved (not really) by sappy goodness.  “Real Ain’t Pretty” vs. “Mr. Chicken.”  But what if we have it all wrong?  What if violence is shallow and reality very beautiful?

We are operating with a worldview that is out of date, if it ever was really helpful.  If it was unsatisfactory to begin with, by now it’s dangerous.  The ‘old story,’ as it’s now called, has it that all reality is based on matter; that the universe arose we know not how or — more to the point — why.  We are objects (how does that feel?) separate from one another and doomed to compete for increasingly scarce resources — in other words, to a life of insecurity, competition, and violence.  It all has no meaning, so people will believe in anything, including the very negation of meaning and reality that is violence.

At best, millions of people cling to the kind of mythology that gave us Pastor Camping and the endless raptures.  Better a fantasy of meaning than a meaningless version of reality.

But as others have been realizing in slowly increasing numbers, a far brighter picture is before our eyes: the convergence of science and religion, of ‘new’ positive sciences and a mature, spiritualized sense of the Real that has been a mainstay of human faith for thousands of years, confirms from their respective angles that in fact we are conscious beings, deeply interconnected — with one another and the rest of life — poised in a struggle that has the deepest possible meaning, should we wake up to it.  There is no space to go into detail here, but it’s noteworthy that some documentaries stretching from Fritjof Capra’s Turning Point to Tom Shadyac’s recent I Am have brought these liberating ideas tantalizingly close to the mainstream.

This is important to every one of us, because the 2.3 million who are encaged behind prison walls, are an outcry — could we only hear it — that we all, inside or out, live in fear and alienation from our fellow beings.

It is no coincidence that nonviolence also is spreading around the world and also poking almost into the radar of the mass media along with the scientific and spiritual changes just mentioned.  Nonviolence — love-in-action, if you will — is the way of being and acting that arises from the ‘new’ emerging image of the human being as spiritual, active, responsible, and free: a being with mind.

So, what is to be done in order to believe in nonviolence?

We do not have to rely upon phantoms, or reject strategy.  We have to rely on trust — of one another and of ourselves.  On uncompromising respect for persons even as we reject their behavior.  The new story, in other words, as a nurturing framework for nonviolence, brings with it the possibility of a nonviolent approach to ‘criminal justice’.  That term does not have to be an oxymoron any more; we can replace our failed, retributive system with something far more humane, safer, and constructive.

The Buddha said, “there is no greater friend than a well-trained mind.” He also said (this is the first line of a key text): “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.”  Thoughts are fluid.  Reform and rehabilitation are possible. All thirty men who were in my workshop there in San Quentin understood this.

Michael N. Nagler, Ph.D., is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program. He is the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, serves as co-Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. Among his many publications in the field of nonviolence, Dr. Nagler is the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future: A Promise of Peace for Ourselves, Our Families, and Our World (New World Library), winner of the 2002 American Book Award.

Stephanie N. Van Hook is co-Director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Petaluma, CA. She can be reached at: stephanie (at)

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