In-prison ministry staff and volunteers have unique opportunities to create spaces where prisoners can share about past hurt while facilitating prison programs. Prisoners open up when they feel that they are in a place where people can trust each other and speak at the same level with respect.
However, it’s important to understand dynamics that keep participants from sharing. When preparing for prison program sessions, consider:
When prison officials, probation officers and professionals, like psychologists and social workers, are involved in group sessions, participants are at risk of feeling less safe sharing. “We never have anyone participate in sessions who is related to prison,” says Claudia Christens, Founder and President of Swiss Restorative Justice Forum, an organization promoting restorative justice practices within Switzerland. “This very quickly creates problems with confidentiality. The risk is high that they breach it.”
There is a level of openness and transparency when participants can speak with no prison officers in the room. Alternatively, if an officer were to sit in the room during the course, participants stop sharing on a personal level. Information heard by officers or social workers would need to be reported back into the system, facing a conflict of interest.
Given the amount of work done to have prisoners attend in-prison courses, often by word of mouth by other prisoners, loss of trust and confidentiality would be catastrophic for course participation.
Prison officials have specific objectives that often conflict with a session’s nature. Restorative programs should not be a way for probation services or psychologists to get information, but a restorative dialogue that is different from conversations that prisoners have with officials.
There are cases when corrections officials have legitimate interests to know how prisoners are progressing and the issues they face. In some countries, Prison Fellowship International affiliates are required to allow prison officials to participate in prison programs.
In France, probation officers attend Sycamore Tree Project: Justice and Peace sessions and report information back to prisons. However, participants can still share more openly in small groups, as probation officers primarily to take attendance. Once the small groups start, the probation officers move back. Prison Fellowship France President Claudine Figueira says that this setup “works really well.”
There is also the need to balance competing priorities: compliance with prison requirements and protection of sensitive information that prisoners share. Accommodations in order to do so include submitting reports that give prison officials general updates, but protect sensitive information, creating space to have one-on-one conversations separate from group discussions and including professionals, such as psychologists and social workers, as volunteers.
One potential accommodation is to draft and submit reports for corrections officials that capture general information about participants and the session, but keep sensitive information confidential. In Germany, Prison Fellowship International’s affiliate Seehaus strikes this balance in their programs by writing a general report that judges use to decide whether somebody gets released or not, not about everything the participants are saying or doing. Seehaus Executive Chairman Tobias Merckle says:
“A difficulty within all our programs is that we have to maintain trust on the one side [with prison officials] and on the other side [with prisoners].”
Another option is to have one-on-one conversations with participants that are separate from group sessions. Seehaus also prepares prisoners individually before they participate in prison programs. “We employ social workers to have individual sessions with offenders before starting group meetings,” says Merckle. Volunteers can also be trained to have these one-on-one conversations. During the course, prisoners are faced with topics they never dreamt they’d talk about. They may not divulge information in a group setting, but being one-on-one allows more personal questions to be asked. Prison Fellowship Northern Ireland Executive Director Robin Scott explains the difference these conversations make:
“When somebody prisoners trust listens to their story without being judgmental and walks with them on their journey, there can be a profound impact.”
Sometimes facilitators might want psychologists or social workers to attend sessions to provide expertise and insight. In these cases, these professionals can participate as volunteers. It is important to carefully select a team, especially when the participants have committed serious crimes.
Ultimately, the extent people related to the corrections system participate in prison program sessions depends on context. Prison Fellowship Netherlands found that prisoners would not open up due to issues of confidentiality. They would be too aware that a person who is responsible for them was there, causing them to give socially expected answers. However, for Prison Fellowship Albania, confidentiality was not that large of an issue, as people freely walked in and out.
Regardless of the circumstances, facilitators must clearly explain the extent that communication is confidential or is reported to prison officials. Otherwise, trust, which is of utmost importance when facilitating effective sessions, is at risk of being broken.
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