So, what would a restorative approach to such a scheme look like? These are just a few of my thoughts:
First, a forum for discussion with the volunteers could provide the information needed to answer questions. Such information could include the process for choosing the prisoners for participation in the scheme and safety mechanisms that are being put into place. Also, a clear understanding of why the scheme is being implemented would be important for all those concerned. Respectful acknowledgment of concerns and hurts are an important aspect of helping individuals understand and make decisions about participation in the project.
Second, a facilitated meeting between the community members and prisoner volunteers could offer an opportunity for understanding. Such a meeting should allow each individual to express his/her concerns about the programme – prisoners may have just as many as the community members. Through this mechanism, a common understanding about the programme can be built. Also, it addresses the us/them mentality that pervades society with thinking about community and prison. It would allow community members to see human beings in place of the criminals that they are seeing.
As this scheme has been implemented in other locations – according to one article such placement of prisoners in community roles has been happening for 15 years – inviting individuals who have worked in such a scheme might be a way of easing the tension. They could simply tell the story about their experience working alongside prisoners and respond to questions about safety.
Finally, options should be available for those community members who are uncomfortable working with the prisoners. This simply shows the respect for the individual and an acknowledgement of the time and service he/she has given over the years. Plus, it leaves open the door for a change of mind on the part of the individuals.
As I said earlier, I see a lot of benefit in creating options for prisoners to work in the community, especially in a service setting alongside community members. It has great potential for building relationships and tearing down walls been “criminals” and society. Yet, as in all things, how it is approached can either bring harm or healing.