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Learning from Indigenous Restorative Justice

Learning from Indigenous Restorative Justice
Deanna VanBuren - Thu Feb 23, 2012 @ 12:51PM
Comments: 10

Restorative justice is often  perceived as something new age but its roots go much further back than our punitive model. The emergence of restorative practices in places such as the United States, New Zealand and Rwanda are coming from ancient ways of dealing with harm in tribal communities long before due process. Therefore it seems logical when developing a contemporary vision for restorative infrastructures to understand the characteristics of indigenous dwellings for restorative justice and how they differ from our punitive model. The next few blogs will explore some of these qualities and explore endeavors by other organizations to harness this knowledge and incorporate it into contemporary life.

To start, the most  poignant characteristic of indigenous restorative architecture can often be the high levels of transparency. In the African South African traditions restorative justice circles were held under sacred trees where all could see; shaded but open. In Liberia the space for greeting, resolutions and discussion occurs in Palaver Huts. These spaces  are composed of only four posts, a thatched roof and are open on all sides. In modern day Rwanda, Gacaca courts occur outside in fields, plazas and civic spaces that merely provide adequate space for the volume of people.


Liberian Palaver Hut

In our punitive justice system we are told that it too is intended to be a transparent process that requires civic engagement to function. However when we look at the opaque exterior of the courthouse and the secure barrier to entry there is an obvious visual and physical impenetrability that is misaligned with the desire to present it as such.  Architects have attempted to diminish the negative impact of the secure and private program requirements but they are often fighting an up-hill battle.


As we envision the processes and activities within a modern day restorative justice center there are no judges, juries or lawyers. There are no antagonistic proceedings related to guilt or innocence as the perpetrator takes responsibilities for his or her actions, thereby reducing security measures. Community engagement is not one of duty but of personal connectivity as they are all directly related to those taking part in the discussions. The processes themselves permeate multiple layers of society as many forms of conflict resolution are taking place. The potential is that more members of the community will be coming to the center more frequently. This depth of service along with the reduction in program and security means that the Restorative Justice Center can and must have a high level of visual and physical porosity in the building envelope. Even those spaces that require greater levels of privacy should be able to provide a connection to the outdoors and activity beyond at eye level.

I believe that the lack of accessibility in our punitive model (along with the last chat about bulk and size) is one of the strongest points of departure for the restorative justice center.  If we are open to learning from indigenous restorative spaces I believe we can help new justice architecture to align itself with the values it is based on in a way the punitive model has been unable to sustain. Every time I look at these architectural typologies I can see a clear example of how what we value is what manifests.


Deanna VanBuren is the principal and founder of FOURM design studio in Oakland California.

Her practice specializes in designing for alternatives to incarceration. She is currently on the national board of Architects Designers Planners for Social Responsibility. 


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