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  • Final Report Summary - DESISTANCE IN PRISON (Desistance from crime by restorative justice practices in prisons. A qualitative comparative research between the UK and Belgium.)

Final Report Summary - DESISTANCE IN PRISON (Desistance from crime by restorative justice practices in prisons. A qualitative comparative research between the UK and Belgium.)

Over the last fifteen years, greater proactive interest in restorative justice can clearly be observed at policy level within several European countries and within international institutions such as the Council of Europe and the European Union. While the implementation of restorative justice practices in Europe has been essentially victim-oriented, it now increasingly also includes the moral and social rehabilitation of the offender. The capacity of restorative justice interventions to impact positively on offenders’ likelihood of stopping committing criminal offences (desistance from crime) opens new perspectives for these practices for prisons and resettlement regimes. However, this link between restorative justice practices and the prison has not been as deeply explored as one would assume and one cannot assume, given the power imbalances and security requirements in prison that findings from outside prison transfer automatically to restorative justice conducted within a prison.

The project’s aims were:
• To identify cultural and structural elements in prison relevant to restorative justice practices
• To explore the possible effects of psychological power and a focus on risk factors and public protection on the desistance-related elements in restorative justice practices
• To explore shifts in the responsibility for change, reform and rehabilitation in prison because of restorative justice practices
• To refine theoretical insights into desistance from crime and restorative justice practices in prison

The methods involved a comparative approach, looking at restorative justice in prisons in Belgium and England, because restorative justice has developed differently in the two countries. Fieldwork was done in HMP Leeds (a larger prison with a relatively high turnover) and in the prison of Oudenaarde (a smaller prison with more long-term inmates). In both, an observation period of four weeks was followed by semi-structured interviews with prisoners who had participated in victim-offender mediation (VOM) as well as those who had declined the invitation. Staff from the prisons, as well as mediators, were also interviewed. The field notes made during the observations and the interviews were coded and analysed using NVivo (a software programme for qualitative data) and thematic analysis.

The results from the work impinge on many aspects to do with prison and with restorative justice: on prison culture (both staff and inmate culture) and how it relates to (or works against) restorative justice; on the forms of restorative justice which may facilitate desistance; on how restorative justice processes provide an opportunity for ex-offenders to reflect on decisions to desist; and on the role of victims and those around the offender.

The ‘unwritten rules’ which form the inmate culture govern behaviour and expectations of prisoners and staff. These shared values, norms and practices emphasise being strong, not showing vulnerability and showing masculinity. It tends to reinforce ties between inmates and put distance between them and staff. However, elements of trust can unlock new possibilities for social relations. Participation in VOM was seen as different from normal inmate relations and would be discussed only in more trustworthy relationships between ex-offenders, not in normal interactions on the wings – but it did allow ex-offenders to talk about the potential for desistance (stopping offending) and their desires to repair the harm caused by their actions.

Restorative justice values stress inclusion and active, ‘democratic’ participation from those undertaking VOM. This is in contrast to the growing emphasis in criminal justice (including in prisons) on public protection, risk and rehabilitation, all of which emphasise a more ‘top-down’ approach. Yet desistance research shows the importance of ex-offenders’ agency and support from others in taking that path, as well as the context of the social situation of the ex-offenders. These desistance elements could be discussed by the psychology staff responsible for risk assessments and developing programmes to address criminogenic needs. However, it was found that desistance-related elements were only seen to be important by staff when they could be linked to their existing risk assessment tools and procedures, and otherwise were merely additional information.

Desistance research has described desistance as a journey, involving cognitive, motivational, identity and behavioural change. Ex-offenders interviewed in the prisons associated VOM with the opportunity to proceed further along their desistance path – that agreeing to participate in VOM required the ex-offender to have already travelled a certain distance mentally towards desistance, but that the mediation itself then further reinforced change. It did that through the input from victims, through the opportunity to apologise, and through facilitating closure – as well as allowing ex-offenders the opportunity to tell their own story in a safe and trusting environment (an environment which is rare in normal prison life). VOM itself was found to be future-facing and a part of breaking with the past and creating thinking space about a non-criminal life. Whether the VOM was taking place in the context of a short sentence (in England) or a long sentence (in Belgium), it seemed to have a powerful effect in terms of agency and desistance decisions. In contrast, the prison system was focusing on the negative characteristics of the ex-offenders (previous crimes, likely risk). Ex-offenders also explained that VOM did not itself make ex-offenders give up drugs, or take programmes, but it did provide extra motivation to continue on those paths and maintain desistance, as well as providing potential new social capital, in reconnecting with family members or realising the need for counselling.

Mediators and supporters of victims or ex-offenders present at the mediation also sometimes provided feedback concerning the structural barriers ex-offenders might face (in employment, etc.) and so made ex-offenders’ expectations more realistic. However, the form of VOM taking place in these two prisons was focused strongly on communication between participants, rather than on arriving at agreed outcomes or looking at how practical obstacles to desistance might be overcome. Hence, less than one fifth of mediations resulted in an outcome agreement and agreements tended to be focused on reparation to the victim rather than rehabilitative activities for the ex-offender (which only seemed to occur when the victim suggested they be included). This is very different from other forms of restorative justice which have been used in prison in England & Wales. Moreover, mediators did not encourage other offender supporters (the ‘micro-community’ around ex-offenders) to attend, which means their input to both the mediation and desistance could not occur. The particular VOM process that was being used may therefore not be maximally effective in promoting desistance, though it is difficult to address structural obstacles to desistance unless the ex-offender is due to be released shortly.

The results from the fieldwork have provided the opportunity to explore further the connections between restorative justice and desistance, and how this can be explained theoretically, as well as highlighting the elements within restorative justice which can encourage desistance. The VOM practices in the prisons in Belgium and England did have the potential to promote desistance, though it is not possible to generalise to all restorative justice or restorative practices. Restorative justice can play a larger role in maintaining desistance, particularly in the difficult prison environment, which does not encourage positive future-oriented thinking. But they are more likely to do so where ex-offenders have already taken an initial decision to try to desist.

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United Kingdom
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