Quakers in Criminal Justice

Making Connections

The 2009 conference took place at the Ammerdown Centre, Radstock, Somerset, from 20 to 22 February 2009.

The theme of the conference was “Making Connections”, taking forward the “From Faith Into Action” theme of 2008's conference at Woodbrooke. It focused on the networks and opportunities for taking responsibility in bringing about action for those in need and bringing change in our thinking about social justice.

Reflecting the concepts of transformative justice — the changes in all parties (victims, offenders and their communities) possible through restorative practice — the conference explored the many openings for creative work being developed at grass roots level and looked for connections between them. Learning about experience and being able to join, support, and disseminate it can increase our effective­ness in discerning the way.

We had three keynote speakers to help us with this learning. Kimmett Edgar, with a wide variety of justice roles as researcher, activist, author and promoter, helped us establish the basis of our approach to justice. Because of our belief in that of God in everyone, that we all have moral authority, our approach reflects the belief of equal moral status in all. All are loved, precious and unique. This represents a markedly different approach to many others and the approach of the justice system. He explored with us the values and ideas that we act upon:

Truth, Respect, Listening, Compassion, Everyone has good and is capable of growth, Equality, Trust, There but for the grace of God, Open Learning, Forgiving 70 x 7, Opportunity, Understanding, Pain and anger, Knowing we can all be mistaken, Repair, Community, We have something to offer, Common experience, Peace and Justice, Learning from each other.

Kimmett then described through key issues of violence and the “safer prisons” strategy, mental health issues and restorative justice concepts how we can apply these values. With only 1% of victims of adult crime having access to restorative opportunities, he called for a greater opportunity for a process that had provided great satisfaction for those who had been able to participate.

Erwin James had helped us to listen to the experiences of prisoners through his writings in The Guardian and during the conference he spoke with great intensity about the experience that brought him to prison. He had been good at English at school but had never had encouragement or support. He realised that throughout his life he had made choices about the direction he went but that those choices were limited by a poverty of information and skill. That was not an excuse for his behaviour but his choices are now more informed. Describing the life on landings as having the common currency of fear, he outlined the pressures faced through the physical and psychological violence prevalent on the landings, so that life became meaningless when faced with the need for survival. He realised through the encouragement of a prison psychologist that he was still valuable and rediscovered his secret good thing of English. Through this he took a degree in prison and began his writing for The Guardian. His identity began to change and he could say “I am a Writer” when faced with the frustrations of prison life, regulations and controlling attitudes. He encouraged members of the conference to continue to look for the good in those they met in prison and to provide some encouragement so that the person is encouraged to function more fully.

Belinda Hopkins, pioneering the application of restorative practice with young people and within the culture of schools, described the key restorative themes:

  1. Unique stories — each person is important, the sharing of human experience is important, although we have lost touch with our stories and this work could be referred to as “re-storying” justice.
  2. Thoughts influence feelings.
  3. Affect and effect — the need to be mindful of what is happening to self and to others.
  4. Needs — through non-violent communication there is a delight in meetings others' needs, the victim's needs, the offender's needs as victims and in meeting your own needs through this.
  5. Collaborative actions and the repair of harm.

From these themes it was possible to develop the key questions that underpin a restorative dialogue:

  1. What happened? Each person has a different perspective of what happened in any event and all have a place in its understanding.
  2. What were you thinking and feeling at the time? Everyone's experience is valid.
  3. Who has been affected and how? Understanding and hearing of the impact on others is crucial in learning about an event.
  4. What do you need? Learning about others' needs brings about a clearer understanding about the respective responses called for to put things right.
  5. What needs to happen? And what can you do? The actions following the discussion can be well focused through this final response from all involved.

With key speakers leading us through these ideas, we were further supported by workshops on lifers, mental health in prisons, and the culture of schools. Some sixteen members visited a nearby prison, where we held a Meeting for Worship with some lifers and had a discussion about restorative ideas and how they could be practised in the most demanding settings.

Expressing the pain and sadness of the justice system can help us focus our energies more clearly. We left the conference with renewed hope that what we do can be transforming.