The criminal punishment system is killing my community and taking my son with it. Recent Fox News headlines assert that liberation work is harmful to Black people. The coverage feeds into an old racist trope that Black people are incapable of knowing how to care for themselves and that we need white people to tell us what works best for us.
Lost in those headlines are voices like mine, voices of survivors calling for a new approach to public safety that heals people instead of punishing them.
Over the last several months, I’ve had trouble sleeping, considering the violence I experienced from someone I raised. My son had a mental breakdown and attacked me in ways I’d never imagined. He was angry, confused, and full of rage. This was a version of my son that incarceration created. The “justice system” didn’t heal my son. It harmed him and my family.
The Freedom Community Center, one of the 150 Black-led organizations that make up the Movement for Black Lives, supported me and my son in healing and reconciliation. They also taught me a new term I’d never heard before—transformative justice.
Transformative justice is a framework that addresses harm, violence, and abuse without the legal system, which has a history of being harmful, violent, and abusive. Through this framework, my son demonstrated that he was sorry by committing to repair the harm he’d done to me that night. As a survivor of his violence, seeing him change his life is justice to me.
Black women are often assigned the collective task of loving those who harm us, and we understand that the people responsible for harming us need more than what incarceration could ever provide.
As a culture, we’ve been taught by politicians, cops and status quo prosecutors that justice for survivors means punishment, revenge, and cages. This so-called “justice” has taken shape in the form of mass incarceration that perpetuates a cycle of harm and violence that repeats itself and spreads throughout our communities for generations. Based on this lie, these officials claim that policing is the solution to keep us safe in America. I challenge that notion, given that less than half of survivors of violence call the police in the first place.
I’ve struggled with my son’s mental health nearly his whole life, and schools functioned almost identical to the legal system. Schools punished and isolated him instead of asking and answering the appropriate questions to ensure my son was safe and healthy. I just wanted them to provide the proper education my son deserves and for them to diagnose his mental struggles properly. They had evaluated him, so they knew he had strengths, but they never fully recognized these.
Instead, they wrote him off. Things worsened in high school, where this trend continued. After years of treating my son’s mental illness as a child, I discovered that he’d been misdiagnosed. His symptoms only intensified as he went from juvenile detention centers to jail and finally to prison. The school-to-prison pipeline is real.
Different researchers have noted that incarceration can trigger and worsen symptoms of mental illness—and those effects can last long after someone leaves the prison gates. I felt this deep in my bones every single time my son emerged from an encounter with the prison system.
Incarceration pushed my son further down a path that I wouldn’t wish on anyone: escalating violence against the people he loves most. My son used to talk about going to college to be a psychiatrist so he could find other ways to help people with challenges like his to heal outside of medications and learn how to naturally deal with their frustrations. He doesn’t talk like that anymore. I feel like he’s lost a passion for life. It makes me angry, and I’m not hiding anymore.
The Freedom Community Center showed me that there are strategies we can explore and dream of outside of caging the ones we love—strategies that are rooted in healing, reconciliation, and community power. FCC stood beside me and advocated for my son’s release.
They had a job and housing already set up for him. They offered counseling to my entire family, including my son. They meet with my son weekly and discuss hope. They provided home improvement so I could feel safe in my home.
My son told me, “I don’t just wanna say I’m sorry. I wanna show you.” This is justice: healing, transformation, and power. I want that for all Black people.
Black people need jobs. We need education that’s going to develop our children. We don’t need white teachers to tell our children that they’re dumb or stupid. We need good housing that’s not gonna make us sick. We need good food in our stores. There’s so much we need for babies and our families to sustain full lives in these broken communities where we are expected to thrive. How can we thrive when we’re given crumbs?
Transformative justice shows us a world outside of policing and the criminal legal system, and it presents a new mechanism to invest into our communities meaningfully. It’s a world full of healing, community, connection, and power. It’s a strategy to address violence, abuse, and harm without using violent, abusive, and harmful systems.
I know another world is possible for survivors, for our community. Networks like the Movement for Black Lives and organizations like the Freedom Community Center taught me that. Survivors can speak for themselves if we choose to listen without the filter of white supremacy. We need more healing for our communities, and that means more models like the Freedom Community Center.
My momma always taught me that when you stop learning, you’re dead. I have to share what I learned. I won’t let my community die.
Myisha Johnson is the housing equity organizer with Metropolitan Congregations United, focused on local and statewide environmental justice and housing justice issues. She is originally from Evansville, Indiana, and has lived in St. Louis, Missouri, for the last 11 years.