My First Prison Trip: View from a new RJ Volunteer
Jenny, a new volunteer Restorative Justice facilitator at Why me? recently accompanied our Service Co-ordinator to a London prison to meet offenders who have expressed an interest in Restorative Justice. Here are her reflections.
I recently accompanied Jyoti Chauhan, Why me?’s Restorative Justice Service Coordinator, to a London prison. We were there to meet offenders who were interested in restorative justice (RJ). Our purpose was to determine whether their cases were appropriate for RJ, based on factors including their motivation and understanding of RJ. I was present as an observer and note taker.
This was the first time I had been inside a prison. Gaining access was, naturally, quite formal: presenting identification, waiting for security doors to open and for prison guards to accompany us. Finally, we arrived at the meeting rooms. There were about 10 windowed rooms along corridor. Each had just enough space for a small table and two chairs each side. As we passed rooms, we saw what we assumed were solicitors and officials meeting, or waiting for, clients; they didn’t look like family and friends. Occasionally, a guard or offender would pass our room. The offenders looked interested in us: some shouted to reception to ask who we were, some waved, and some greeted us; did we look out of the ordinary there?
For a victim embarking on an initial conference, this can be an intimidating environment that might add to any stress, fear or anxiety they are already feeling. It is important for case facilitators to prepare victims for this possible encounter and to support them throughout.
We met four offenders. Jyoti asked each what they knew about RJ and why they were interested. She explained more about it and how the process worked, and then she asked whether they wished to continue. I was impressed that Jyoti managed to convey the fundamental elements of RJ through a natural and relaxed conversation. These are: there is no guarantee the victim will participate; the process often takes a long time; two facilitators are allocated to each case; they will be neutral, and mindful of the welfare of both sides; the process can be halted by either side or by the facilitators if concern arises about a participant’s welfare.
Jyoti explained she would write to each person to advise how matters might proceed after this first meeting. She treated each person with respect and compassion. It was a master class in getting the most out of each meeting and conveying a consistent and clear message.
In explaining their interest in RJ, some offenders said they had done victim awareness courses; some were haunted by their offence and were seeking some sort of peace; some were concerned for their victim and wanted to offer an apology. All were interested in meeting their victim, despite, in some cases, being fearful of the encounter. One “lifer”, as he defined himself, talked of it as the ultimate fear, but said he was ready to face it. In accepting that a victim might not wish to participate, one said: “Just knowing I tried may help me feel better.”
I recall that each offender expressed deference and humility, often with lowered eyes, as if they were somehow less than us. This made me sad, but perhaps it was the nature of the meeting, their self-selection and desire for RJ, or simply because prison can be dehumanising. I felt that just listening had made a difference. Our meeting may be the limit of the RJ they experience. Why me? cannot predict which victims will be willing to participate, and with a self referral from the offender, it is possible that the timing may not be right for the victim or that any contact is simply unwelcome.
To learn more about victims’ experiences of Restorative Justice, have a look at some of our Victim Ambassadors’ stories here.