We must examine our complex past to find way forward
In 2016, African-Bermudians made up 98 per cent of our prison population. Yet African-Bermudians are approximately 52 per cent of the total population, and 62 per cent of the Bermudian population. This points to a collective failure to connect the traumatic experiences and intergenerational trauma from the past to present- day manifestations. Until we do so, it will be impossible to move forward together.
It is important to understand that there is a direct connection to enslavement, segregation and colonialism with the longstanding punitive nature of Bermuda’s criminal justice system. And we must see this inequality, which still plays out in our systems today, for what it really is and how it continues to severely impact black people. The recent 2020 Amendment Section 519(2) of the Criminal Code changing jury selection clearly demonstrates how structural racism had continued to be embedded in our laws and policies.
Many Bermudians and residents do not understand the depth of the complex and oppressive history that makes up our island home. It is interesting that what folks do not know — that lack of knowledge enforces a point of view in terms of how we see each other — leads us to focus on stereotypes and biases without understanding the context in which these arose. Yet at the same time, people want to see greater unity in order to build the community.
Our system incarcerated at an alarming rate and is only comparatively recently being mediated by the introduction of restorative justice into the courts. Bermuda’s punitive justice system historically responded to disciplinary infractions by removing offenders from their communities and imprisoning them. Restorative justice instead puts the individual at the centre of the community, whereby everyone who was harmed or affected by the crime/infraction can address it.
This restorative approach allows all stakeholders to have a richer conversation about what happened, the harms that occurred and actually allows us to seek a repair of the harm while maintaining individuals in the community so that they can get the support and help that they need.
It is critical that this support is in place because changes in behaviour do not occur by the simple act of imprisonment. By providing support, we allow humans and communities to grow and heal instead of being disrupted by the traditional punitive response.
Senior magistrate Juan Wolffe, who spoke as a panellist at Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda’s recent seminar, “Creating a Restorative Community”, stated that the introduction of the Drug Treatment Court, Mental Health Treatment Court and Drinking Under the Influence Treatment Court were restorative-justice responses and helped properly to manage persons with drug addiction and mental illness. It also reduced confinement for drug-addicted and mentally ill offenders while protecting their rights, improved the wellbeing of persons, reduced recidivism and improved public safety.
Mr Wolffe also noted that the number of admissions to the Westgate Correctional Facility had decreased by approximately 50 per cent between 2010 and 2019, and that the number of persons incarcerated at Westgate for simple possession of cannabis had decreased 92 per cent between 2011 and 2019. Further, more than 80 per cent of those treated in the Drug Treatment Court had not reoffended between 2001 and 2020.
We continue to have a polarising social climate in place, leading us to have “Two Bermudas”, yet many people do not even understand why or how this came about. It is to address this disconnect that Curb focuses on the use of restorative practices being introduced across our society while ensuring, through our community conversations, workshops and seminars, that we help people come to a greater understanding about how our past connects and manifests in legacies of inequality and inequity today.
It is to this end that Curb published the Black History in Bermuda Timeline in 2020, 404 years after the arrival of the first enslaved African and Native American, revealing how white supremacy and white affirmative-action laws were used to institute regulations and social values that reinforced inequality and segregation, which underpinned racism, income inequality and gender disparity.
We see the Black History in Bermuda Timeline as a powerful tool for collective healing and growing knowledge and truth about our path. It is at times a traumatic read, but it is also empowering, showing how, despite the oppression and barriers put in their way, black Bermudians organised, resisted, rebelled and raised themselves up. It also helps us to reflect and question much of what we have been taught, while gaining empathy in understanding why we have continuing inequality in our society and exploring what are the possibilities for restoration. It enables us to have meaningful and rich conversations about why our history was taught in a certain way, who we are as a people, and what we can do to build new institutions that reinforce equality and equity.
We realise the Timeline is not perfect, that it will need to be added to, amended and improved, but it offers an assemblage of facts from myriad historians, allowing us to explore and reflect on our history. Our lack of information and lack of grounding in other people’s narratives and other people’s truths inhibits empathy. It is crucial that we examine our complicated past in order for us to find a way forward.
• Lynne Winfield is the president of Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda