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Patrick Seroogy | Punishment and Restoration

Patrick Seroogy | Punishment and Restoration

Photograph of Patrick Seroogy

About the Author
Patrick Seroogy (he/him/his) 

Patrick Seroogy is an undergraduate fellow in the Global Arts and Humanities' 2020-21 Society of Fellows cohort. He is pursuing dual majors in political science and economics and a minor in public policy. His primary research interests focus on civil and political rights in the contexts of conflict and oppression examined from sociopolitical and economic frameworks. Seroogy plans to pursue a J.D. at the Moritz College of Law and an M.A. in Public Policy at The John Glenn College of Public Affairs following graduation.    

Project Overview

This project is a comparative study of outcomes between two incarceration systems, one in the United States and the other in Rwanda. American mass incarceration, based in retributive justice, entails poor outcomes of human dignity for individuals leaving prison. Rwandan “mass incarceration,” specifically involving perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, entails comparatively better outcomes of dignity post-prison. There are ironic lessons to glean from the Rwandan restorative justice model for the American retributive justice model.

Rwandan genocide memorial statue
Rwandan genocide memorial statue in Kigali, Rwanda


The countries of The United States of America and Rwanda each have a unique case of “mass incarceration.” For America, this is a common phrase referring to the effect of the country’s punitive criminal justice system, which has the world’s largest prison population and incarceration rate (Sawyer and Wagner, 2020). The system is informed by a model of retributive justice prioritizing punishment, often disproportionately harsh and racist, over rehabilitation. American mass incarceration stems from the growth of the U.S. prison population during the 1970s-80s. “Tough on crime” policies that prioritized punitive policies in place of rehabilitation were initiated by Richard Nixon’s presidential administration (such as the “war on drugs”) and cemented during Ronald Reagan’s, during which time the U.S. prison population skyrocketed. The resulting dramatic increase in incarceration, or hyperincarceration, has held the worst impact for minority groups, particularly Black people (Cullen, 2018).

For Rwanda, the phrase refers to an occurrence which I originally describe as “mass incarceration”: the arrest and prosecution of tens of thousands of individuals alleged to perpetrate genocide crimes during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. This process was, ironically, informed by a model of restorative justice as part of a reconciliation process meant to rebuild the country following the destruction reigned by the genocide. Aggressors of the majority ethnic group Hutu perpetrated a genocide planned by the concurrent majority-Hutu government against the ethnic minority Tutsi, massacring some 800,000-1,000,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu (Barnes-Ceeney et al., 2019). Around 300,000 people overall have served or are serving prison sentences for genocide crimes in Rwanda (Nyseth Brehm et al., 2014, p. 343).

The historical factors which gave rise to the specified mass incarceration systems are markedly different and by themselves are not inherently comparable. Their outcomes, however, are a reverse of what you might expect. Structural differences in these systems, such as a model of retributive justice (America) versus one of restorative justice (Rwanda regarding genocide perpetrators) consequently produce generally better retention of dignity among genocide perpetrators following incarceration than individuals leaving American prisons. I examine and argue this through categorical lenses: societal perspectives on criminal action, the structure of carceral systems, and race and ethnicity. Note that I am not comparing the whole Rwandan criminal justice system, but rather the specific justice process through which genocide perpetrators went, to the American justice system. I conclude by discussing the lessons that the American justice system can learn from Rwandan “mass incarceration” regarding preserving dignity among formerly incarcerated individuals and furthermore improving their reintegration into society.

Defining Justice Models

The U.S. operates a retributive criminal justice system, described by Daly (2000, p. 35-36), with an aim to punish a past criminal offense. In this model, the criminal offender is blamed directly and punished for their past behavior on the sole principle of individual culpability, such as with a prison sentence, with little regard for their future behavior. The offender may be punished or treated in a rehabilitative manner, but punishment remains the focus and the victims of crimes are “peripheral to the process.” The state takes the matter out of victims’ hands and removes them from the process such that America’s retributive justice system makes adversaries out of the parties of victim and offender, with little negotiation or dialogue.

In comparison, Rwanda oversaw for genocide perpetrators a restorative justice system, also described by Daly (2000, p. 35-36). The restorative model aims to treat rather than simply punish the offender with an aim of changing future behavior. While incorporating different aims, this model is not oppositional to retributive justice. Restorative justice incorporates elements of both retribution and rehabilitation with further connections to communal relationships. Individual culpability is assumed, but that assumption includes a “wider notion of community (or, at times, familial) responsibility for those acts. Ideas of ‘reintegrating’ offenders… by members of relevant communities of care tap into a stronger vision of rehabilitation, in which broader networks of people associated with a lawbreaker not just state actors, get involved and have a role” (Ibid, p. 35). It is through this model that restorative justice makes victims central to a justice process that fosters dialogue and negotiation between victim and offender. The focus of punishment is on an offender taking responsibility for their actions through “repairing the harm between [them] and [their] victim, and perhaps also an offender and a wider community” (Ibid, p. 36). The model does not promote its processes and outcomes as escape from culpability or frame treatment as non-punishment, but rather as “alternative punishments, not alternatives to punishment” altogether (Ibid, p. 38).

Framework and Conclusions

The methodology in this paper used to examine retention of human dignity is a sociological and criminological framework of labeling, as a matter of humanizing language, and recovery capital, or the resources a person has to aid in their recovery. This framework is applied through specific lenses of (a) societal perspectives on criminal action, (b) carceral structures, and (c) race and ethnicity. This comparative study concludes with (d) sociopolitical consequences of mass incarceration, and strategies of the Rwandan restorative justice model's structural outcomes that can inform the American retributive justice model.

Labels play a key role in the health and wellbeing of people involved in criminal justice systems because of the effect of stigmatizing and dehumanizing language (Tran et al., 2018). Labels are also key to the shaming, or blame, of criminal offenders for their actions. I utilize for this project a theory of labeling put forth by Braithwaite (1989) putting shaming in two categories: stigmatizing and reintegrative. Reintegrative shaming directs shaming at the evil of an act rather than the evil of a person, which gives the person who committed a criminal act the opportunity to take responsibility for their action and make up for it. On the other hand, stigmatization directs shaming at the evil of the person rather than that of the act and assumes perpetrators or criminal offenders to be “deviants,” the dehumanizing connotations of which embody the role labels have in stigma.

Moore et al. (2016) find, among Americans leaving prison, that perceived and anticipated stigma can produce harmful psychological responses with negative consequences for health and behavior in formerly incarcerated individuals. “Solely being labeled does not lead to negative outcomes,” but it is how people process being stigmatized and “the degree to which they anticipate future discrimination” that spurs impaired function – distress, fear, isolation, etc. – and leads to poor reintegration into a community. Moore et al. (2016; paraphrasing Link et al., 1989) suggest that internalization of stigma stems from “ingrained social stereotypes [that] may be viewed as personally relevant” once “people become part of a stigmatized group (and hence formally labelled).” This suggests that location of blame and labels is a factor in successful reintegration (reintegrative shaming) in reintegration experiences. Dignity can help to be retained by humanizing use of labels, such as person-first language.

Recovery capital is drawn from addictions field literature and is defined as “the sum of resources that may facilitate the lived experience of recovery” (Barnes-Ceeney et al., 2019), i.e., the resources that a person has available to enable and maintain their recovery. Recovery capital comprises four primary components: social capital, which involves social and community relationships; cultural capital, or beneficial cultural values and beliefs; physical capital, or assets like material wealth and the ability to generate it further; and human capital, or physical and mental health, skills, and daily-use abilities.

I argue that individuals “resource rich” in each component of recovery capital have greater chances of better reintegration outcomes. In other words, those who are (more) resource rich retain greater dignity because they are or have been better equipped to reintegrate. Different justice models influence how much recovery capital a person has or will get post-prison. As part of treating the offender, restorative justice invests into reintegration to change (ensure the “right”) future behavior, whereas retributive justice usually leaves it at punishment. A focus is placed on formerly incarcerated individuals’ relationships with their communities, i.e., social capital. Per the restorative model, criminal culpability is communal as well as individual, which makes the community engaged in the individual’s reintegration and not simply the individual alone.

Perspectives on criminal action

The American retributive justice system’s assumption of individual culpability echoes the American cultural or societal position of an individualist view of individual action, including criminal action, meaning an individual’s decision-making is understood to operate independent of outside influence. This reflects Braithwaite’s (1989) stigmatizing shaming, where blame of a crime is placed on evil of the person, with the abstract implication it is the evil of the person that resulted in the crime, and thus they should be imprisoned for it. As this type of shaming assumes people who have been incarcerated to be “deviant,” American mass incarceration perpetuates stigmatization and thus isolation of formerly incarcerated people upon reentry into society. Individuals who are not resource-rich in the components of recovery capital suffer for it financially and socially, and stigmatization further depletes individuals of social capital. Through this system, formerly incarcerated individuals’ reentry experiences become defined by the obstacles placed in the way of their reintegration.

In contrast, the restorative justice model at the foundation of Rwandan mass incarceration reflects a structural view of individual action, at least regarding the 1994 genocide. The actions of genocide perpetrators fit into a narrative of the genocide in Rwanda tying the genocide to three things: a genocidal government preceding the current regime, local leaders directing slaughters, and a colonial past (Barnes-Ceeney et al., 2019). State narratives can be problematic, but in this case, the byproduct is a view of individuals that puts their actions in broader contexts rather than pinpointing them on the perpetrator. This narrative characterizes a genocide perpetrator as redeemable: someone responsible for their actions but nonetheless influenced by social surroundings. Barnes-Ceeney et al. (2019) note that the “Rwandan government has made considerable efforts to facilitate a shared cultural narrative of unity and reconciliation since the genocide.” National programs like “I am Rwandan” promote the label of “Rwandan” as a common sense of identity, preventing stigmatic labels and building up social capital. In Rwanda’s case, genocide perpetrators’ reintegration is not built to fail, in relative opposition to that for American formerly incarcerated individuals.

“[Upon reintegration, many genocide perpetrators] did not fear retaliation from community members, as they reported that their apology and requests for forgiveness had been accepted by the victim's families.” 

Barnes-Ceeney et al. (2019)

Perpetuation of mass incarceration

 The American incarceration system perpetuates mass incarceration. There are two primary drivers (Sawyer and Wagner, 2020):

  1. Motive of profit: Actors in the system profit off of prisoners’ perpetual or continuous imprisonment. These actors include private prisons (little less than 9% of prison population); private companies and some public agencies negotiating private contracts that profit off prison labor; and carceral facilities that push the cost of maintaining onto prisoners with little to no pay for their labor.
  2. Poverty: This is as much a driver of mass incarceration as it is an outcome of it: “a criminal record and time spent in prison destroys wealth, creates debt, and decimates job opportunities.”

Given the stifling and stigmatizing effects of incarceration already demonstrated, including the degradation of physical recovery capital, American mass incarceration outcomes are poor at retaining the dignity of individuals exiting prison and, in many cases, contribute negatively to reintegration experiences.

 In comparison, the Rwandan mass incarceration system is de facto not structured to operate for profit. The prosecution of the genocide perpetrators is a now-past process, but reintegration is still occurring as they complete their prison sentences. I have thus far seen no evidence to suggest that an environment is created pushing genocide perpetrators, or even regular criminal offenders, to perform exploitative labor, or to recidivate, whether for reasons of poverty or otherwise. Following release from prison, there is some recovery capital, particularly social capital (e.g., the “I am Rwandan” program) dedicated toward preventing recidivism (regardless of the severity of the recidivism) and integrating formerly incarcerated individuals back into their communities, an effort broadly not seen in America.

A historical factor of American mass incarceration is its link with racial and ethnic prejudice, manifesting within the criminal justice system as the disproportionate incarceration and punishment of people of color, especially black people. The largest share of American mass incarceration is due to “tough on crimes” policies and the “War on Drugs” dating back to the 1970s with the Nixon and Reagan administrations. “Tough on crime” meant more severely punishing less serious offenses, such as (nonviolent) drug offenses, which by and large targeted poor people. Since the underprivileged are disproportionately people of color, they were the most severely impacted by this change in carceral attitudes and policies. This prejudice remains a factor upon leaving prison, with race playing a role in the relative ease of adjustment and reintegration (Cox, 2015). Criminal records relate to reduced employment opportunity to begin with, but this notion is conditioned by race and ethnicity: black and Hispanic people are likely to receive (perceive) more stigma than white people in the job market following release from prison. Prejudice and racial demographics (regarding wealth inequality among communities) may interact in their influence on recidivism, on which employment has a negative effect (Decker et al., 2015). Race and ethnicity, i.e., racial prejudice, can also negatively influence formerly incarcerated individuals’ interaction with their communities. In other words, race and ethnicity influence the American retributive justice model by being a factor in stigmatization of the person and not their actions - a further application of label theory - as well as by way of racial prejudice rendering worse punishment and post-prison outcomes. This is a further negative impact on human dignity among reintegration outcomes because of this perpetuation of mass incarceration based on race.

Race and ethnicity simply do not play the same role in Rwandan mass incarceration as they do in America. De jure, the concept of ethnicity no longer exists in Rwanda following the genocide, i.e., ethnicity is no longer recognized by decree of government (Lacey, 2004). Any citizen of Rwanda is now simply referred to as “Rwandan,” not unrelated to the aforementioned “I am Rwandan” program, in a stated effort to promote unity and address long-standing colonial problems. The major ethnicities were quasi--arbitrarily marked to begin with by a colonial power, Belgium, and thus are socially constructed (Barnes-Ceeney et al., 2019). Their existence remains common knowledge in the country’s social fabric, but this knowledge is irrelevant to genocide perpetrators’ reintegration. The vast majority of people in Rwanda are the same race, including both genocide perpetrators and survivors, meaning race does not play a role in prejudice against those who are incarcerated. Genocide perpetrators are blamed not for their ethnicity (the great majority of which was Hutu) but for the severity of their crimes of genocide, as per reintegrative shaming. In American mass incarceration, race and ethnicity are notions, effectively tools, operated to dehumanize prisoners; in Rwandan mass incarceration, this racial phenomenon simply has no capacity to exist.

In the manner of restorative justice, Rwanda invests some recovery capital into genocide perpetrators to reintegrate them successfully, with the dual purpose of preventing recidivism among them while also retaining their dignity as human beings, despite the severity of their crimes, as a part of reconciliation with genocide survivors. This is as opposed to retributively depriving them of reintegrative recovery capital and labeling them as abstractly evil wrongdoers or deviants. This is what the “tough on crime” American justice system does to formerly incarcerated individuals (whose crimes are, ironically, on average much less severe than genocide) and leads to poor retention of human dignity. In this manner, the Rwandan restorative just model can inform the American retributive justice model in several strategic ways:

  1. Invest recovery capital into its reintegration outcomes and involving communities of care in greater roles in treating, rather than simply punishing, offenders. For example, this could be done through national programs that promote social capital and humanizing labels, preventing stigmatization.
  2. break apart the profit-driven nature of mass incarceration, including abolishing private prisons. This would remove institutional incentives for recidivism and some disproportionate carceral punishment.
  3. Break down the role of racial prejudice in mass incarceration so as to tackle prejudice as a structural factor in American criminal justice. This includes addressing the interaction of poverty and race as a part of prejudice in recidivism and hyperincarceration.

Furthermore, there are sociopolitical consequences for an unfair justice system. In America, negative interactions with the criminal justice system, e.g., incarceration, are antagonistic toward civic participation and produce negative orientations toward government (Weaver and Lerman, 2010). Criminal justice institutions play a role in political socialization, or how individuals learn and internalize a (political) power arrangements in the world around them. American mass incarceration is specifically marked as a political and civil rights issue by virtue of its multifaceted injustices, the deterioration of human dignity among them. This has a multitude of negative consequences, from lower popularity of politicians and legislation to decreases in voting. It is logically in American political, or at least governmental, actors’ strategic interest to take action to solve issues characterized by mass incarceration. These issues resulting from in part from the retributive justice model on which American criminal justice is largely based. Addressing those issues would improve retention of human dignity among formerly incarcerated individuals in their reentry and reintegration into society. The Rwandan restorative justice model provides inspiration through its efforts directed at humanizing labeling of and investment of recovery capital, particularly social capital, into people who perpetrated genocide. 

Photograph of the city Kigali, Rwanda
Rwandan city of Kigali