Restorative approaches in prison 

Published: Friday, September 16th, 2022

This blog was written by Communications Officer Keeva Baxter.

Last week, Why me? visited HMP Bronzefield for an introduction to their Restorative Approaches (RA) programme which has embedded restorative approaches in day-to-day interactions between women and staff, empowered some of the women to become restorative facilitators, and included restorative approaches in the training of all prison officers.

In prisons, restorative approaches are often seen as a “nice to do”, explains Head of Residence Kemi Oyemade. But in HMP Bronzefield they are committed to reducing and preventing violence. As a result, RA is being used to address conflict over loud music, dinner queues, access to phones or differences of opinion, as well as to resolve fights, assaults, and prison officer relations.

Embracing a restorative approach has been particularly powerful in the prison, where conflicts can continue to grow as smaller spaces are shared and the women cannot just be moved away from each other whenever a problem arises – it is not an effective means of resolving the issue, meaning relationships and the atmosphere suffer.

Both the staff and women are embracing the restorative approach. During our visit, one woman told us how there was a lot of anger amongst the women in Bronzefield and that this can lead to conflict, but she is championing the use of RA to tackle this issue. As a prisoner herself, she is able to understand the prison dynamics and is trusted by the other women, enabling her to persuade them that the RA process was not “a form of grassing”.

A Senior Prison Custody Officer told us that learning about RA in his initial 9-week training course helped shape his career, and he embraces RA in his everyday work. Whilst it can be difficult to get prisoners on board with RA, it can also be difficult to persuade staff to support and implement it, the officer explained. 

One woman who took part in the Sycamore Tree programme explained how the course helped her to see the consequences of their actions and give a symbolic form of restitution at the end. Now, she hopes to meet with her family in a restorative setting. 

In addition to the programme, Bronzefield has screens in each wing that enabled the women to request Restorative Justice from their own landing, with translation facilities making it accessible to all of the women, regardless of their first language.

HMP Bronzefield are demonstrating both the challenges and the enormous benefits of implementing restorative approaches into prisons. It was encouraging to see the enthusiasm amongst both staff and prisoners and the initiative they are taking to ensure that Restorative Justice is more widely used. 

All of the Sodexo prisons have a Restorative Justice lead, however, they are not contracted to deliver Restorative Justice, meaning that the RA programme could become vulnerable. While Restorative Justice is being championed in Sodexo-managed prisons, those in state-run prisons do not have the same access to RJ.

Restorative Justice is not a right for harmers, as it is for harmed people under the Victims’ Code of Practice. This means that there is frequently no opportunity for harmers to begin the process of RJ. We know that there is a clear desire by people who have harmed someone to engage in the restorative process. We’ve seen that not only in Bronzefield, but during our work in HMP YOI Aylesbury and ISIS too. 

We know that there is an inconsistency in access to Restorative Justice in England and Wales both for victims, and for people who have caused harm. A national action plan on Restorative Justice could help to begin resolving the postcode lottery.

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