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Prisons, rehabilitation and justice

October 10, 2010

I was completely stunned by what was almost a throw-away comment in the article. I found it to be a sad commentary not only on the prison system but our very understanding of justice.  Punishment as justice is well-ingrained in many cultures and countries. The judge’s comments remind me of conversations that I’ve had with good friends. More than once I’ve heard the refrain of “they made their decisions, now they have to live with the consequences.”

I agree that each decision – good or bad – carries a consequence. However, justice doesn’t have to mean simple punishment. Neither does it have to mean losing all hope for the future of offenders or victims. Those consequences can help individuals grow and develop to become contributing members of families and communities. A restorative understanding of justice opens new pathways for both the response to crime and treatment of offenders. While most restorative processes take place in community settings, the underlying theory provides an alternative vision for creating prison environments that contribute to rehabilitation and change.

Such an environment can be found in the APAC prisons of Brazil. These prisons – operated by a local NGO also known as Prison Fellowship Brazil – operate on the assumption that crime is the refusal to love. Love is an innate ability that is developed through family relationships. When this doesn’t happen, and when the result is criminal behaviour, the prisoner needs to be taught how to love. APAC creates a community in which that can happen. The basis for working with prisoners is called human valorisation or helping the prisoners understand their innate value as human beings and that of others. This idea is built into all interactions between the prisoners and the people working with them, in the physical environment, and even in the terminology used. For example, prisoners are called recuperandos, or the one being rehabilitated.

Each APAC prison is clean, with sufficient space for the recuperandos, and a sufficient food supply. Other aspects of the APAC methodology include:

In essence, the APAC methodology grows out of the idea that those who commit crimes – even horrendous crimes such as murder and rape – do not have to be defined by their crimes and can develop the ability to reintegrate into and contribute to society.

Restorative justice theory seeks the same goals. There are many efforts to incorporate restorative processes and concepts to the prison setting* including:

While the current negative prison environment can limit the impact of the first five of these restorative justice programmes, the APAC methodology offers a vision for how prisons can become places of transformation. Similar efforts are taking place around the world. Each operates from an understanding of justice that offers hope instead of simple punishment. They see the potential of prison to be a place of rehabilitation instead of a warehouse for humanity. 


* For a full discussion of the use of restorative justice in prisons see Van Ness, Daniel W. (2007). “Prisons and Restorative Justice.” In, Gerry Johnstone and Daniel W. Van Ness, eds,. Handbook of Restorative Justice. Cullumpton, Devon: Willan Publishing. PP. 312-324.


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