Facing up to their victims’ pain

by
07 December 2006

BESIDE a simple altar, on which candle flames flicker and dance, a short, middle-aged man in a grey sweatshirt, with grey, slicked-back hair, and glasses, fights back tears. He fights for words. He fights for breath.

A prison officer puts his arm around him. Finally, with a deep breath, he breaks the silence. “This is a nightmare for me,” he says. “But for my victim, it must be worse. Every day I think of him, his wife, and family.”

Around 40 of us in the chapel of HM Prison Cardiff look on, or else don’t know where to look. Some are in tears, too. They include victims of crime, police officers, business representatives, the High Sheriff of South Glamorgan, and a dozen prisoners who are nervously awaiting their own turn to speak. One of them can’t stop sigh-ing as he buries his head in his hands.

It’s an intensely emotional climax to a week of “restorative justice” run by one of the prison’s dozen chaplains, Julia Houlston-Clark, a Roman Catholic. The programme she has designed, Supporting Offenders through Restoration Inside (SORI), brings offenders and victims of crime together to increase understanding between the two.

On a victim-awareness week such as this, prisoners receive training through role-playing and exercises in empathy, before making a public statement to victims and other witnesses. Further down the road, victim-and-offender groups bring closer contact still.

Before they make their public statements, however, the prisoners must meet and converse with two or three visitors, to answer questions about what they’ve been doing this week. My group meets a lifer, in for murder, who talks frankly and eloquently about the lessons he has learned.

The process is clearly daunting to most of these men, most of them young. So, once we have reassembled, Mrs Houlston-Clark asks those of us looking on to engage in our own process of empathy.

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The process is clearly daunting to most of these men, most of them young. So, once we have reassembled, Mrs Houlston-Clark asks those of us looking on to engage in our own process of empathy.

“Think about a time when you hurt someone close to you,” she says. “How did you feel? How did that person feel? Now, imagine I say to you, ‘Turn to the person next to you and tell them what you did.’ How would you feel? And imagine you have to stand up and tell everyone in this room. How do you feel now? This is what we’re asking these men to do today.”

“Think about a time when you hurt someone close to you,” she says. “How did you feel? How did that person feel? Now, imagine I say to you, ‘Turn to the person next to you and tell them what you did.’ How would you feel? And imagine you have to stand up and tell everyone in this room. How do you feel now? This is what we’re asking these men to do today.”

And then she invites my lifer to stand and start the ball rolling. “I could fill this room with people who have been affected by my crime,” he declares, reading from a hand-written page to the assembled throng, “and it makes me feel sick. To all the people affected by my crime, I am truly sorry.” So far, he has served eight years. He lights a tea-light, places it on the altar, and sits back down.

Sometimes, the process of restorative justice brings together a prisoner and his actual victim. Often, as happens at Cardiff, indirect victims — those who have suffered similar crimes — are instead invited from the neighbourhood to witness the public apologies. Staff from a local bank are at this gathering, to acknowledge the fact that there is no such thing as victimless crime. As it turns out, one offender today is serving time for fraud.

“I had preconceived ideas about prison and prisoners,” reflects one woman, a victim of domestic violence, who speaks to me afterwards. She has attended previous sessions, and has returned because “I just can’t resist it. . . I don’t know what I expected at first, but what I saw and experienced was a group of extremely honest men who were deeply sorry for the crimes they’d committed.”

The process helped her to understand more about the harm she’d suffered. “One of them had killed his partner,” she recalls. “I was able to speak to him in some depth, and we’ve formed a very, very strong friendship since that day. I’ve moved on further through the process.”

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Another woman is there to represent a male friend who was attacked on the street so violently that he remained in a coma for four years. “Initially, I was reluctant to come, but I wanted everyone to know what happened to him, and the effect it had on not just him, but everyone who loves him.”

The vulnerability of both parties contributes to what she describes as a “very intense experience”. She was able to talk to one man who was serving time for street robbery. “When I told the story, he went white. He told me he would never do anything like that again.” Her friend was disabled after he came out of his coma. “If his story can help to change someone else’s life, that can only be a good thing, can’t it?”

The vulnerability of both parties contributes to what she describes as a “very intense experience”. She was able to talk to one man who was serving time for street robbery. “When I told the story, he went white. He told me he would never do anything like that again.” Her friend was disabled after he came out of his coma. “If his story can help to change someone else’s life, that can only be a good thing, can’t it?”

John Trew, the national director of Victim Support in Wales, is also present. He, too, admits to initial reservations, but now happily recommends SORI to victims. “I can honestly do so with my hand on my heart, because there is a balance here between victims and the interests of prisoners.” It’s right, he suggests, that inmates don’t get brownie points for attending; this course does not affect parole hearings, and is entirely voluntary.

While the aim of the course is not “forgiveness” but “understanding”, Mr Trew recognises that a values-based approach has strong benefits. “I’ve seen people’s lives destroyed because of their longing for vengeance,” he says. “I know a woman whose father was murdered, and her life has been destroyed. She’s developed drink and drugs problems, is permanently angry, and it’s destroyed her relationship with her husband. She doesn’t deserve any of those things, but there is a time when, as a victim, you need to try to come to terms with that.”

Every prisoner seems genuine as he stands to speak. One man in his 20s explains that he was beaten violently by his father throughout his childhood. “I’m not using this as an excuse for my crime,” he tells the gathering, “but I hope it helps you understand why I have ended up in here.” Another has attended his brother’s funeral earlier that day — the brother had died of an overdose — but was determined to participate.

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The last to speak admits that he is still struggling to feel empathy for his victim, who had beaten his girlfriend up, but says that he is working on it. As he sits down, to applause, Mrs Houlston-Clark then asks the victims, after a time of quiet, to come forward and light a candle. This act, she explains, is not religious, but symbolic.

She then invites them to respond publicly. “Good on you, boys,” says one victim after a short speech. A probation officer, who took his first job in Cardiff Prison 40 years ago, apologises to the prisoners for failings in the system. A police officer from Bridgend thanks the prisoners for their testimonies. The High Sheriff applauds their honesty. The governor, who is present throughout, quietly acknowledges how moving the afternoon has been for everyone. When Mrs Houlston-Clark announces a buffet, it takes a while for anyone to move.

“I’m feeling very happy that I’ve let all of my emotions out and have been able to tell everybody how I’m feeling,” one prisoner tells me, after first making the most of the finger food. “I am gutted for what I’ve done to the victim and my family. It’s devastating.” He is serving two years eight months for robbing a man while high on crack cocaine. “My victim suffered; his family suffered; the neighbours in the street suffered; my family suffered. And now I’m paying for it, too.”

The prospect of meeting people who had suffered street crime had been daunting, he said. “I felt very scared, knowing there were victims there today. I spoke to two who’d been robbed.” Nevertheless, he felt things had gone well. “My conversation was excellent. They asked me questions and told me I’d done well.”

For him, he says, the process also involves a journey of faith. “I never went to church, but here, I go every Sunday. I read the Bible in my cell. My parents and sister laugh at me. They say, ‘You’ve changed, haven’t you?’” The programme leaders never push religion. “Anyway, I don’t want to be forgiven,” he says. “I was scum.”

Another prisoner I speak to has been in and out of this establishment more than most. “They call me ‘Mr Cardiff’ because I’ve been in here since 15. I’m 43 now.” He has cerebral palsy and needs a wheelchair. “The restorative-justice programme I took part in, in September 2005, has got to be the most powerful thing I’ve ever done. And I’ve done hundreds of courses. . .”

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He is coming to the end of a 12-year sentence. “Restorative justice is the way forward. I’ve met two lots of indirect victims, and I can assure you that you’re not prepared for it. It’s too powerful to put into words.” He was paired with victims of domestic violence. “This is unique. I never once thought during my time in prison that I would ever sit down with the victim of a crime. Never. Ever.”

Restorative justice remains an embryonic process. The Government has monitored its progress through pilot courses run mainly with young offenders; it now awaits the results from three-year pilot schemes in adult prisons before deciding whether to extend the programme.

When she finally sinks into her chair, having debriefed the prisoners after their buffet, Mrs Houlston-Clark is clearly exhausted. “It’s so emotional, so intense; but it has to be, because you are talking about devastating harm. If you’re going to feel empathy, you’ve got to feel those feelings. And as much as you are professional, you get sucked in.”

She is convinced that today’s prisoners meant what they said. “I can guarantee it. Prisoners who have completed this course two years ago still say that this particular part of the process was the hardest in their entire prison career — they’ll never forget it.”

She will also have to follow up the victims. The ecumenical chaplaincy puts each in touch with specialist groups and monitors how “RJ” has helped them. “We’re very interested in how they experienced it,” she says. “Were they satisfied? Have they had resolution? Do they feel better?”

And do they? “Absolutely,” she beams. The only downside is that conversations in full flow often have to be cut short because the prisoners’ time is strictly limited.

Many victims, she suggests, want to meet their own offender once they realise how effectively the process works. But at present the chaplaincy does not have the resources to arrange this. “We desperately need all the agencies to be on board, and the Home Office to back us. We know it works because we’ve seen it work.”

She is frustrated that the Government will measure success on reoffending rates alone, “because the whole point of restorative justice is whether harm has been repaired. It’s about victim satisfaction first, then community satisfaction, and lastly reoffending rates.”

On the day we meet, the prison is 11 shy of its 754-capacity. “Everyone is overstretched at the moment,” reflects the chaplain, before realising she’s late to pick up her children from school. It’s a long process for even the staff to escape through the labyrinth of corridors and double-locked doors.

“My fear is that, unless we stop to reflect, we’re replicating a system that doesn’t work; we’ll be putting people in prison when it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. The victim’s voice is unheard, and the community thinks everything is sorted when someone goes into prison. It’s not.”

It’s been a deeply moving experience, and surely a genuinely Christian one. “We don’t want to exclude any offender; so we don’t push anyone in that direction,” the chaplain reminds me. “But”, she says, “that’s where my inspiration comes from.” Chaplains of all faiths should be good at restorative justice, she believes, because of the values they hold dear. “It’s what we do normally, anyway. That’s what religion is about, isn’t it? Transformation.”

It’s been a deeply moving experience, and surely a genuinely Christian one. “We don’t want to exclude any offender; so we don’t push anyone in that direction,” the chaplain reminds me. “But”, she says, “that’s where my inspiration comes from.” Chaplains of all faiths should be good at restorative justice, she believes, because of the values they hold dear. “It’s what we do normally, anyway. That’s what religion is about, isn’t it? Transformation.”

Photos: Ric Bower

Photos: Ric Bower

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