Quakers in Criminal Justice

Restorative Justice & Restorative Practices

The 2017 conference of Quakers in Criminal Justice took place at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre from 24 to 26 February 2017.

Conference Report by Deborah Mitchell

In 2017 the QICJ Conference took place at Woodbrooke, timed as always for the last weekend in February. The event was by all accounts a great success with speakers and audiences interacting and a strong sense of the whole being more than the sum of the parts. Now is the time to reflect on the exchanges, the learning and how to make the most of the energy that were generated. This Conference confidently built on our 2016 event at Hinkley Hall in Leeds; that was the first to invite day visitors, a practice which looks set to stay and is a form of outreach. In 2016 our Conference title was “Poverty vs Power, Where does our Responsibility Lie?” recognising that the criminal justice system sits within a social context and that poverty is compounded through the education, health and the justice system whereas privilege frequently enables people to bypass the justice system.

This year, our Conference title attempted to answer the challenging questions we generated in 2016 by developing our understandings of current Restorative Justice and Restorative Practices. Four thematic workshops were held around: Restorative Housing, Schools, Roadsharing and one envisaging an approach to social problems without recourse to criminal justice. The Conference was introduced by two lecturers from Ulster University, who have contributed to the growth of Restorative Justice in Europe and who presented “An Alternative: Restorative Society” with profound personal commitment. This sense of dedication reverberated through the workshops, and the reflective groups and also characterised the work of our keynote speakers.

Derick Wilson, Emeritus Reader in Education (Restorative Practices) & Hugh Campbell, Senior Lecturer (Restorative Practices) have worked together at Ulster University for many years, their strong values and ethics underpinning a myriad of projects and initiatives from local to international. They spoke of the relevance for Restorative Practice for identity, the ways that we understand ourselves and others. They explored the potential of Restorative Practice principles for renewing and nurturing the culture of wider society and its uses in organisational, community and family settings as a practical way of creating inclusion. Above all, they spoke of people as assets, not problems, with the potential for generating relationships of trust, doing justice to diversity and recognising rivalrous scapegoating as a trap.

Will McMahon gave a challenging and mesmerising radical rethink of the premises on which our criminal justice system rests. Will is Deputy Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, and he addressed the Conference on the theme of “Justice Matters: Beyond Criminal Justice”. He gave a workshop about Doing Justice Differently, in the face of UK imprisonment having doubled since the 1990s. He spoke of the inherent self-defeat of our current system, particularly the net-widening of increasing police involvement, the intentional blurring of lines between civil and legal codes and the consequent widening of the gateway to the criminal justice system. This was real leadership for long-term systemic change rather than amendment of a fatally flawed system.

Workshops from Marian Liebmann about a Restorative Approach to Road Sharing and from Stuart Sillett (NFS Mediation) about a Restorative Approach to Housing offered compatible insights from practical experience. The capacity to handle the demands of a local authority was demonstrated in both projects and each skilfully demonstrated the delivery of restorative services to marginalised groups against the odds. Bristol City's Road Sharing project enabled communication and problem-solving in the face of conflict between different road users. Hampshire's use of NFS Mediation, where Nick McGeorge has long been Board Chair, effectively tackles ASB (anti-social behaviour) and makes a long-term contribution to education on conflict resolution alongside fulfilment of their Council contract.

Ellis Brooks, QPSW Peace Education & Engagement Coordinator, led a workshop modelling activities that echo the different dimensions of peace in the field of education. Participants explored inner peace through a guided meditation on a peaceful school, practised restorative skills such as reflecting back without blame, then applied these ideas in role play to wider world conflicts. The group reflected on Johan Galtung's distinction between “negative peace”, the absence of violence, and a “positive peace” in which we find the presence of justice. What does this mean for the way we build schools and empower young people?

Our Saturday showcasing of Friends' work included the film “Creating Restorative Cornwall – Making a Start” which features Lesley Moreland, Lionel Morrison and leadership from Ulster University. The “Balanced Model” of Restorative Justice seeks benefits for both parties in crime or in conflict. A film and song by Tracy Chapman about the destructive effects of racist oppression was also shown.

Dr Belinda Hopkins, Director of the Transforming Conflict National Centre for Restorative Approaches in Youth Settings, led the Conference on Sunday morning about restorative values, core beliefs and principles in the schools setting. This involved experiential learning in circles and taking the time to think about participant needs. We were treated to a vivid theatrical representation of the “school to prison pipeline,” demonstrating how simple misunderstandings can lead to labelling and how negative judgements and punishments combined with neglect can lead to Youth Offending with shocking ease.

A gifted Summing Up by Martin Wright has become an expected part of Sunday morning at QICJ Conference, and this year the threads that were drawn together felt stronger than ever. The Restorative Justice Movement is here to stay: it is ready and able to connect with many other forms of social justice and peace-making. Building this movement is one way to address injustice and to create a real alternative to the divisive, damaging criminal justice system.

The photographs that illustrate this article are more about relationships than individuals, and reflect the essence of restorative approaches.

An Alternative View by Anon

On exploring the 2017 brochure for Woodbrooke, I spotted the QICJ Annual Conference. Not being sure whether it was open to all, and more importantly, whether my restrictions would stop me from attending, I decided to make further enquiries. Yes, there understandably had to be discussions on safeguarding involving my Meeting, Woodbrooke themselves, my probation officer, and my police contact, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the concerns were slight and the management of my residential stay was perfectly acceptable to all. It further increased my belief that I must be doing OK: trust was indeed increasing and this is humbling.

I had further concerns such as my struggle with strangers and social situations – a long-term low level social anxiety disorder. Of course, my concerns were totally unfounded, I feel ashamed, I should have known better. From when I walked into Woodbrooke, until the moment I walked out, I was accepted with a smile, a word of reassurance and a willingness to listen. Finally, an open, palpable trust that I could disclose certain aspects of my past. I was, after all just a precious child of God – nothing more, nothing less.

Soon after a warm welcome, I was spotted by Simon, and in turn, Ann, both with reassuring smiles. Later, I was introduced to Andrew, who had kindly agreed to keep an eye on me, and periodically check I was OK. Although the whole atmosphere was leaving me less and less in need of such individualised care, it was appreciated. We chatted for a while until supper time – I hadn't known Woodbooke's reputation for food...

The first presentation took place after supper. The theme of Restorative Justice was a primary motivation for me to choose this Woodbrooke conference but it soon became apparent that I had had a very restricted idea of Restorative Justice. I had thought it was just a victim in a room with the offender, explaining the harm they had caused allowing the victim closure. Derek Wilson and Hugh Campbell from Ulster University spoke passionately about growing up and living in Ireland during the troubles, the peace initiative and recent times. It was their talk of community restorative processes that had me starting to question whether I had misunderstood the plot of what was about to play out over the weekend. My confusion was compounded by the choice of workshops on Peace Education, Road Sharing, Justice Matters and Housing.

I chose the Justice Matters and Housing workshops, as I live in a horse-shoe of flats, within which we have our moments, so maybe somewhere in there would be the “room” scenario I had envisaged.

Small Group Sessions provided the chance to discuss feelings and personal perspectives. It is a confidential environment but the tone was set beautifully by one of our members being so touchingly open about the difficult place they were in. This really helped me be open within my introduction, and describing through misty eyes my feelings of being so welcome and accepted. A word I could use to sum up the whole weekend.

Then the second presentation by Will McMahon, was on an alternative paradigm of justice – social justice. It was a perfect introduction to his inspiring workshop which uncovered a multiplicity of approaches to domestic violence without any recourse to a criminal justice system. With that, the focus of the weekend became clear. The workshop on “justice matters” was not about our justice system, but how to get rid of it, replace it with something better. This whole weekend was not about my narrow understanding of Restorative Justice, but a much wider, all-encompassing approach from cradle to grave on a global scale.

We had free time in the afternoon but I was so keen that I neglected to relax, and started writing instead. Soon I had company, and again found myself in such an aura of care, the writing was forgotten. Time passed seamlessly and the next workshop, by Stuart Sillet, was on a restorative approach to housing. Again, the need to take the police out of the equation and have independent people doing the restorative bit. My “Room” scenario did make a brief appearance, but took the form of a wall outside somebody's house. Remarkably, there was no victim or offender, just party one and party two, and everyone was heard.

I want to relay one more thing from that long Saturday. It is quite personal and sensitive in a way, but I think it is important to communicate how my emotional state was lifted through the weekend. It occurred after the group sessions, presentations, workshops, AGM, eulogy,…after everything was finished. I was focusing on QICJ literature when a conference attendee came and sat with me. We started chatting, and she explained her role in the system. Time passed and people left to get a nightcap or retire. Before I knew it, it was after eleven and there we were alone in the room. It struck me later how profound a moment it was for me as I constantly have to conform to so many issues regarding risk to others. I am reminded of this fact in many different ways, and of how others have to be informed. To have someone, alone in that space totally trusting me meant so much. Many people's thinking about my line of offending would have had them making excuses, but not her. The concept of trust and of acceptance resonated deep within me. Not seen as the dangerous anomaly, but purely a unique, precious child of God. Thank you for that.

On Sunday morning, Dr Belinda Hopkins soon achieved what caffeine couldn't, with an interactive presentation mixing small group interactions with role play. She demonstrated how critical that first exposure of restorative thinking is within our schools. It can sow the seed for generations to come. Our final Small Group Session was also uplifting, much of it reflecting Belinda's presentation.

Looking back, there are many high points. I finally met the Quaker Chaplain who introduced me to Quakerism, and led me through the first months of darkness within prison walls. Then, the realisation that Restorative Justice isn't what I thought at all. The love, peace, and silence that seem embedded within the walls of Woodbrooke. The weekend was a world where for a short time, I felt at home; accepted, loved and cared for without judgement. Just Quakers being Quakers. Bless you all.