A man in the front row of the congregation raised his hand to ask me a question. We were having a discussion about what interferes with our relationship with God. I signaled for him to speak.
"Have you ever been incarcerated?" he asked me.
"No, I haven't," I said. I paused. "Why do you ask?"
"If you had, you’d know," he said.
We were in jail, having a conversation as part of a Sunday service. The congregant was an inmate. I could tell from his body language that this was the end of our exchange. He had said what he wanted to say and would not elaborate.
I respected his message. Visiting a locked facility and being imprisoned are very different. No matter how many times I go in I can't know, really, what it's like to be locked up. But his words still frustrated me. They stopped the conversation.
We hear it often, in emotional conversations. "You can't know if you haven't been there. You can’t understand if you haven’t been through what I have been through." And of course it’s true. The rich insights of experience require – well, by definition they require personal experience. For victims of violence, for the incarcerated, and for many others who have suffered, personal experience creates a divide between them and others that cannot be entirely bridged. And yet if we let personal experience have the last word, we get stuck in our own experience. Our experience-based insights become both illuminating and blinding. We easily conclude that what we have seen and felt is the Truth, when it is only the truth that we have experienced. While I could not fully grasp the man's incarceration experience, I would have liked to try, assuming he was willing to elaborate. (Given the setting – a gathering of inmates who were strangers to each other – he may have had good reason not to elaborate.)
A fundamental challenge of criminal justice is to create a process that respects truths that no one person or group can grasp directly because they are beyond the individual experience of decision makers. I have seen the criminal justice system from a number of different perspectives. I have seen it as a journalist, a prosecutor, a law professor and a jail chaplain. Each time that I have shifted roles in my career I have been startled to realize how much I learned about what I thought I already knew. And yet there are even more roles I have not experienced, such as being accused of a crime, sitting as a judge, defending a client at trial, testifying as a witness, deliberating as a juror. I have not myself been the victim of a violent crime. Perhaps most important, all of my personal experience is shaped by my class and race. As a result, my personal experience is limited and always will be.
Yet this is universally true. No one person, no one group can have all of the experiences relevant to just decision making, including just punishment. This means we need to find ways of reaching beyond personal experience to grasp the truths of others.
We always start with our own stories. We have to know our own stories to tell them to others, and also to hear theirs. Then, in sharing our stories we can come to a form of collective knowing. This knowing will always be imperfect, but even in that imperfection we learn.
In my jail work, in hearing the stories of men whose lives could hardly be more different than mine, I still learn about my own. And maybe, sometimes, my listening and sharing sheds light on their lives.
Telling stories and hearing them is critical to doing justice. The most fundamental justice promise we can make is this: I will tell my story as honestly as I can and I will listen to yours as closely as I can.
Samuel H. Pillsbury is a volunteer chaplain in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility and Mens Central Jail in Los Angeles. He is a professor of law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.