Creative restorative practice offers victims a voice

Published: Friday, April 22nd, 2016


Restorative Justice takes courage: courage on the part of the victim of crime to face the offender and courage too on the part of the offender. Anyone who has been through it will say it is not an easy option.

How much more courage therefore, would a victim need to face not one offender, but a group of twenty? And in prison. Granted it would not be the offender who committed the crime against them, but twenty offenders guilty of a range of crimes. That is the essence of the unique form of restorative justice offered by the Sycamore Tree course.

Sycamore Tree is a six-session course and is currently running in a range of custodial settings working with groups of up to 20 prisoners. Sycamore Tree adopts a restorative ethos and practices: working with prisoners, the course explores how restorative justice works, and models a restorative justice encounter by inviting a victim of crime to share their story with a group of prisoners. This meeting is at the heart of the course. Like a restorative justice conference, it is based on the power of personal story-telling. A victim of crime is invited to share a personal account of how crime has affected them. Prisoners often say that hearing from a victim on the course is the first time they have really understood the personal impact of a crime.

In abstract it is difficult to see how this could possibly meet the needs of the victim without creating more trauma. And how could hearing from a victim of an unrelated and possibly very different crime, have any consequence for an offender?

But experience in over 2000 Sycamore Tree courses over 18 years shows this has a powerful positive effect on all involved.

Suzanne (not her real name) had wanted to meet the offender in her case: she was the victim of a brutal assault and attempted robbery and having heard about RJ she was sure it could help her. To Suzanne’s frustration, the offender was deported before the RJ conference could happen. Suzanne was angry about the crime, fearful, and now also frustrated by a system that had not listened to her needs. Coming in to talk to a group of prisoners in a Sycamore Tree session was not the obvious solution but Suzanne was prepared to think about it.

As a Sycamore Tree tutor, I am used to explaining the apparently inverted logic of the course. Suzanne was open to exploring the possibility of coming to Sycamore Tree and, working with Why Me?, we identified a London prison. I explained to Suzanne that on Sycamore Tree we explore the impact of crime and also issues of offender responsibility and that prior to her visit, the group would look at the “ripple effect” of crime and talk about victim experiences with a group of trained facilitators. They would also be encouraged to explore their own offending stories.

Sycamore Tree is a unique way of giving a victim a voice and it has a surprising impact. In much the same way as can happen on a conference, victims report that is makes them feel that they have some control back over the situation; that it feels good to have had the opportunity to talk about an event that may have caused great upset and trauma, and to have people listen. Victims of crime who contribute to a session of Sycamore Tree are able to see that offenders are not the monsters they imagine, but a group of individuals whose lives are often impacted by damaged backgrounds and who respond to the very human experience of being given time and space to talk and a unique opportunity to hear first-hand how a crime may have devastated someone.

The conversation is initially one-sided, but often after speaking to the whole group, victims will agree to join in conversations in small discussion groups where there are often poignant and heartfelt responses from prisoners and a refreshing and unusual honesty as many start to think for the first time about what they have put their own victims through.

As a tutor I couldn’t count the number of times I have heard men say, “I never thought about my victims” or “I had no idea what I did could cause hurt like that”. The power of these encounters is very real. It is different of course from a restorative justice conference between related parties, but because of the follow up work in the three subsequent sessions, Sycamore Tree often achieves a very real change in attitude and a marked determination to make amends and to get life back on track. It contributes to vital desistance building blocks, building self-esteem and social capital and is a powerful motivator. Increasingly, tutors are able to signpost direct restorative justice for those for whom it is an appropriate next step.

But what about a victim of crime like Suzanne? All victims who volunteer to come in to session 3 are invited back to see the final session of the course. On session 6 prisoners are offered an opportunity to respond to what they have seen and heard and to offer a symbolic act as a way of indicating an intention to make amends or put something back. These sessions are always surprising as prisoners pluck up courage to talk openly about personal relationships, their offending and their intention to put things right. Sadly for Suzanne, she was not able to attend the final session of the course, but this has not lessened the power of the experience for her.

After her visit she said, “ It was truly a good experience for me to be involved and I am sure it has helped heal my wounds a lot quicker.”

If you would be interested in visiting a Sycamore Tree course as a victim of crime please contact Louise Raven-Tiemele at louise.raven-tiemele@why-me.org.

More information on Sycamore Tree

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