Restorative justice in prisons - where there’s a will, but no way

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited by Prison Fellowship to attend a session of their Sycamore Tree programme. It was a fascinating insight into the work that they do with prisoners and a great opportunity to discuss with prisoners what they thought that they had got from the course.

Sycamore Tree is a programme for prisoners that teaches the principles of restorative justice. While offenders don’t actually get to communicate with their victim, a surrogate victim attends a session to explain the impact that a crime had on them. Prisoners explore the effects that crime has on their families and on the wider community and discuss how they can take responsibility for their actions and make amends. In short, it’s an excellent first step towards participating in restorative justice.

The session that I attended was the last in the six session programme and the 15 men there reflected on what they had learned and then took it in turns to conduct a symbolic act of restitution. It wouldn’t be right to describe their contributions in detail, but many were obviously heartfelt and the product of a lot of thought and preparation.

Speaking to the men who had participated in the course afterwards it was clear that they felt that they had really benefited, developing a much greater understanding of the impact of their offending. It was also clear that, having had an opportunity to discuss restorative justice, many were keen to meet their victim.

The Prison Fellowship do everything they can to facilitate this. A form was available for prisoners to fill in and the completed forms are then passed on to HMP Wandsworth’s restorative justice co-ordinator. But at the moment few of them actually turn into restorative justice conferences.

This may be because the victim does not want to take part, of course, which is and should be entirely their choice. That is, however, not the only reason. The reality is that too many prisons don't have the resources to make it happen or even the links in place to enable them to get hold of a victim's contact details.

This is a missed opportunity. We know the benefits of restorative justice for both victims and offenders. Getting offenders to the point where they'd like to participate but then not enabling them to do so denies both sides these benefits. Prisons, Community Rehabilitation Companies and other service providers from outside the prison walls need to find ways to collaborate effectively, while the well-known barriers to information sharing must be tackled.

Otherwise we're failing not only those prisoners, but their victims too.