RJ Week 2023: Restorative Justice as an alternative to solitary confinement in the United States

This Restorative Justice Week, we bring you something different to our blog. We welcome Belong’s Development Volunteer, who shares a summary of her research on Restorative Justice as an alternative to solitary confinement in the US. If you would like to get in touch with the author, please email us on enquiries@belonglondon.com, and we’ll put you in touch. 

Author Introduction:

In my role as a Development Volunteer at Belong, I contribute to the effective and creative communication of Belong’s mission while also supporting specialized campaigns. Before joining Belong, my strong dedication to criminal justice reform led me to engage with various non-profit organizations in the United States. Collaborating with local grassroots organizations, I facilitated the voting process for over 1,000 incarcerated individuals at Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois. Additionally, I initiated and led a volunteer book club that convened weekly within a local prison. Concurrently, my involvement in political advocacy and community organizing played a crucial role in the successful passage and enactment of Illinois SB 2090 into law. This legislation mandates that all eligible and incarcerated voters have access to the voting ballot.

The following post offers a summary of my thesis work completed during the pursuit of an MSc in Criminal Justice Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


An Alternative to Solitary Confinement: Restorative Justice Practices

 ‘I talk about my 29 years in solitary as if it was the past, but the truth is it never leaves you. In some ways I am still there.’ – Robert King

Some contemporary criminal justice systems may respond to crime punitively.  Over the past several decades, reformers have organized to pursue a viable and sustainable response to criminal behaviour that is less destructive and more effective. Achieving increasing support, restorative justice saw substantial process in the late twentieth century. Initially developed to transform the lens through which members of the public and policymakers view criminal justice, the collection of diverse practices of restorative justice exceeds the efforts of the contemporary justice system. For Johnston and Van Ness (2007:5), restorative justice ‘seeks to replace our existing and highly professionalized systems of punitive justice and control (and their analogues in other settings) with community-based reparative justice and moralizing social control’ (Johnston and Van Ness, 2007: 5).

Supporters of the advancement of restorative justice argue that the priority of dealing with criminal activity should not be to punish the offender. Rather, this theory finds that the needs of victims must be centralized, the understanding of damage must be acknowledged by the offender, and the recognition of individual responsibility in repairing these damages must be secured (Johnstone, 2014). Edgar and Newell (2006:10) add that ‘in restorative approaches, the power to decide how to respond to a crime rests with the people who have been most directly affected: the victim, the offender, and their supporters’. These processes thus address the complexities inherent in the nature of a crime, something that the conventional criminal justice system massively fails at.

According to Zehr and Mika (1998), the theory of restorative justice is based on three integral principles: crime is fundamentally a violation between individuals and interpersonal relationships, these violations create obligations and liabilities, and the starting point for justice is to heal and make right the wrongs through the validation and restitution of the victims. Contrasting to the modern criminal justice system, restorative justice attempts to create a meaningful resolution for the act of wrongdoing by involving both the offender and victim. It provides space for the victim to discuss how they have been affected by the crime and allows the offender to personally make amends. Braithwaite (2003: 8-9) argues that for restorative justice practices and programs to be successful, they must be grounded in the values of non-domination, empowerment, honouring limits, respective listening, equal concern for all stakeholders, accountability, appealability, and respect for the fundamental human rights specified in the Universal Declaration of Rights.

In modern-day prisons, the conditions of solitary confinement can be defined by social isolation in a single cell, typically spanning from 60 to 80 square feet, for 22-24 hours a day (Shalev, 2009). Varying across jurisdictions, isolated individuals may or may not have access to books, television, or radio inside their cells. The degree and quality of human contact that is allowed also widely ranges, ‘from no human contact other than with silent prison staff who deliver food and medication to the individual inside his cell, to regular contact with family, lawyers, or religious personnel’ (Shalev, 2014:28) What remains consistent and inherent in all solitary confinement regimes are the factors of ‘social isolation, reduced activity and environment input, and loss of autonomy and control over almost all aspects of daily life’ (Shalev, 2014:27). Through its various forms, prison administrators currently impose solitary confinement on hundreds of thousands of incarcerated individuals, with estimates suggesting that ‘roughly 20% spent time in some form of segregation’ (Meyers, Testa and Wright, 2021:2).

Contradictory to the punitive approach of solitary confinement, the alternative of a restorative justice approach, victim-offender mediation programs can shift the intention of justice toward accountability, restoration, and healing. The process of victim-offender mediation requires a safe and structured environment, as well as the presence of a trained mediator, to facilitate dialogue that results in a mutually agreeable resolution that seeks to repair the harm caused by the violation at hand (Umbreit, Coates, and Vos, 2004:279). Additionally, ‘the process involves preparation, which allows the victim and the offender to clarify how mediation works, what they want to happen during the meeting and any rules or conditions under which they decide to work’ (Edgar and Newell, 2006:11). These guided dialogues have the potential to respond to misconduct in a way that promotes emotional intelligence, encourages reconciliation, values the well-being of offenders. Critics of this philosophy argue that the organization of these mediations is often resource-intensive and may be off-putting and intimidating for the victims (Lovell, Helfgott, & Lawrence, 2002). However, if victim-offender mediation is introduced as an essential aspect of life within the prison, over time, the development of adaptive efforts can be implemented to address the shortcomings, ensuring the continued success and sustainability of these programs as an alternative to solitary confinement.


Braithwaite, J. (2003). Principles of Restorative Justice. In: A. von Hirsch, J. Roberts, A. Bottoms, K. Roach and M. Schiff, eds., Restorative Justice and Criminal Justice. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Edgar, K. and Newell, T. (2006). Restorative justice in prisons: a guide to making it happen. Winchester England: Waterside Press.

Johnstone, G. and Van Ness, D., 2007. Handbook of restorative justice. Cullompton, U.K.: Willan.

Johnstone, G. (2014). Restorative Justice in Prisons: Methods, Approaches and Effectiveness. Strasbourg: Council of Europe 

Lovell, M.L., Helfgott, J.B., & Lawrence, C. (2002). Citizens, victims, and offenders restoring justice: A prison-based groupwork program bridging the divide. In S. Henry, J.F. East & C. Schmitz (Eds.), Social work with groups: Mining the gold (pp. 75–89). New York: Haworth Press. 

Meyers, T.J., Testa, A. and Wright, K.A. (2021). Managing Violence: In-Prison Behavior Associated with Placement in an Alternative Disciplinary Segregation Program. American Journal of Criminal Justice. doi:10.1007/s12103-021-09634-9.

Shalev, S. (2008). A Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2177495.

Umbreit, M., Coates, R. and Vos, B. (2004). Victim-offender mediation: Three decades of practice and research. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 22(1), pp.279–304.

Zehr, H. and Mika, H. (1998). Fundamental Concepts in Restorative Justice. Contemporary Justice Review, 1, pp.47–55.