Marian Liebmann opened the session with an overview of trends around the world. She outlined two broad categories for restorative justice expressions in prison. The first was “Prisoners Making amends.” This aspect includes things such as:

  • Community service
  • Victim awareness/empathy/ impact
  • Victim-Offender Mediation/Conferencing

Restorative justice is also used to impact the relationships within the prison community itself. Such work includes:

  • Anti-bullying procedures
  • Response to prison incidents
  • Conflict resolution
  • Prison Staff mediation services (for issues among the staff)
  • Restorative prison projects

Marian explained that many to these programmes had seen success around the world. However, they faced many problems with sustainability such as lack of resources once the original funding is used and/or lack of continuity in the staff people, vision, and/or policy change to help the programmes take root and flourish.

I followed Marian’s presentation with two examples from the Prison Fellowship International experience. The Sycamore Tree Project® brings together unrelated victims and offenders in the prison setting for a series of two-hour conversations where they discuss issues of crime and its impact, personal responsibility, confession, repentance, making amends, forgiveness and reconciliation. The programme has been used in over 20 countries with the majority using in on an on-going basis. Independent researchhas shown the programme to have a positive impact on offender attitudes that are known to lead to re-offending. Participant comments tend to be positive expressing a change in attitude and desire to take responsibility for personal actions.

The Communities of Restoration programme seeks to influence the prison environment with restorative principles. Operated in about 12 countries, Communities of Restoration programmes were inspired by the APAC methodology developed in Brazil by the Association for the Protection and Aid to the Convicted (also Prison Fellowship Brazil). Known as the APAC methodology, this system transforms the typical government/community relationship by including community members in the administration of the prison and working with offenders. This inclusion breaks down the barriers between offenders and the community generally created by incarceration and provides groundwork for the reintegration of the offender back into society. This reality helps to create a strong community environment among prisoners and volunteers that fosters spiritual, behavioral and lifestyle changes.

Kimmett Edgar followed my presentation on Sycamore Tree Project® and APAC with a discussion of racism in prison concentrating on English prisons. His main goal was to help develop an understanding of the role that racism plays in the prison settings and set out suggestions for how restorative justice principles and processes can be used to respond to racist incidents. Kimmett began by telling a story that had been related to him by a prisoner of mixed race. The prisoner had gone to exchange his old razor for another. The duty officer said that he was busy and the prisoner would have to wait for ten minutes. A white prisoner then approached the duty officer to exchange a razor. The officer immediately allowed this prisoner in to fill his request. The mixed race prisoner felt that this happened because of race. Using this illustration, Kimmett discussed the subtle forms of racism that can affect the prison environment and provided ten recommendations for further action.

Among his recommendations, Kimmett encouraged the inclusion (a restorative value) of prisoners in the discussions on prison management and improving the prison environment. He also finished his anecdote about the mixed race prisoner by telling us the outcome when the prisoner made a complaint. In that process, he was able to explain to the guard how he had felt he had been treated different because of his race. The guard actually had a very positive response in admitting that he didn’t realise that he was acting in a racist manner and apologised to the mixed race prisoner and promising to change behaviour. According to Kimmett, the prisoner reported seeing that guard as a friend from that time forward, going so far as to say that he saw him as someone he could trust.

The ancillary session ended with a very good interaction with the audience of about 30 people. There were some reports on experiences in other countries, especially Brazil. I found one statement interesting. A representative from Hong Kong was surprised to see his country in my list of places that had use the Sycamore Tree Project®. He said he couldn’t see victims coming forward to participate in such a programme since they tend to be retributive in his country and carry a lot of anger. I responded that we can be very retributive in the US and in other countries. The issue is really allowing victims to follow their own journeys in seeking healing and answers in the aftermath of crime. For some, the initial offer of a restorative process may be rejected with a later decision to pursue the option. Those of us working in restorative justice programmes need to respect the very real emotions of victims.

I found the session to be very useful and enjoyed the many conversations with people after it was over. There was a lot of enthusiasm and interest in restorative justice both as an alternative sentence and in the prison setting.

As I said in previous posts, the language of restorative justice is making its way into various topics at the UN Crime Congress. I attended one ancillary session organised by the Open Society Justice Initiative as a part of its “Global Campaign for Pre-Trial Justice.” The session concentrated on mechanisms such as paralegals and legal assistance that is being used to assist prisoners in pre-trial detention by either helping them process bail requests, taking their cases to court, or identifying illegal detention and gaining release.

However, in presenting a 12 point plan for action on prison overcrowding, Mary Murphy of Penal Reform International included the need for creating more diversion mechanisms to keep people out of the court and prison systems. In the listing of options she included restorative justice, mediation and traditional justice mechanisms (provided meet human rights standards on gender equality).

The language is definitely being used, but I wonder about actual implementation. What is the scale? How are justice systems incorporating restorative processes and principles? Another of the points that Mary Murphy made was the need for mechanisms to encourage judges to use such alternatives.

Read more about Crime Congress events at the 12th Crime Congress Blog.

Note: Ancillary sessions are meetings organised by non-governmental organisation around the various “official” sessions of the United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. They provide an opportunity to share ideas and concepts that might not be discussed in the main sessions.