Cameron on prisons

It’s welcome up to a point that the prime minister is turning his attention to prisons; but fewer prisoners means better prisons.  Punishment makes people think of themselves; restorative justice encourages them to think of their victims. Education is important, but is easier and less expensive to provide in the community than in prison. Remember not only victims of mugging and burglary, but of frauds, mis-selling, pollution etc. by big companies – their directors should also be put on probation and re-educated.

Humanity and war

The statue of the World War I heroine Edith Cavell bears what were said to be her last words:  ‘Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.’  But the Anglican chaplain in Brussels made a handwritten note which records her as saying: ‘Patriotism is not enough.  It is not enough to love one’s own people, one must love all men and hate none.’  It is speculated that these words were too pacifist for the British government to accept.

Richard Norton-Taylor, in The Guardian, 12 October 2015.

Prison ideals

Outside one prison in England (perhaps all?) is this sign:

Ministry of Justice  National Offender Management Service

NOMS is committed to fairness for all. We insist on respectful and decent behaviour from staff, offenders and others with whom we work. We recognise that discrimination, harassment and bullying can nevertheless occur and we take prompt and appropriate action whenever we discover them.

A good aspiration.  We hope that with increasing use of restorative practices, such behaviour will occur less often and be dealt with more effectively.


Blueprint for restorative justice

Martin Wright: A restorative blueprint for justice

Former Howard League director, calls on new government to transform criminal justice system

Martin Wright, former director of Howard League for Penal Reform

Martin Wright was once a prison visitor, and later became director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, and then a policy officer for Victim Support. An expert in victim-offender mediation, he has written extensively about restorative justice and practised as a facilitator. In this guest post for Prison Watch UK, he calls not just for reform of the criminal justice system, but for a transformation of its basic philosophy.

The beginnings of restorative justice

In the 1970s some probation officers and others in the criminal justice system became aware that victims of crime were ignored, except as witnesses, and formed a group of volunteers to offer victim support. The idea spread, until local victim support schemes covered the country.

About the same time, a Canadian probation officer had the idea that it would be more effective if victims actually met their offenders, and were able to ask them questions, leading to an apology or reparation if required. He tried it, and it worked. The practice has developed in other parts of the world, under the name ‘restorative justice’.

It is not suitable for all cases, but when it is, both victims and offenders are overwhelmingly satisfied. Offenders are more likely to recognise the harm they have caused others, rather than think of their own punishment and how to avoid it.

Re-thinking penal philosophy

Despite humane efforts by many staff, and a few progressive programmes for prisoners, government policies have pushed the prison system into crisis, through punitive measures, overcrowding, understaffing and lack of purposeful activity.

The high reconviction rate is not surprising, not to mention the undeserved pain caused to prisoners’ families.

It is vital for the new government to re-think the penal philosophy and practice which have led us into this situation. Here’s a suggestion of how.

A blueprint for justice based on restorative principles

1. Accept joint responsibility for crime

As a starting point we must acknowledge that responsibility for preventing and responding to crime and conflict lies with every individual and with the community. This includes providing support for victims of crime.

2. Community must engage in support

Whenever appropriate, the response to a crime should include a facilitated meeting between those harmed and those responsible, subject to the consent of both. Many cases could be kept out of the ciminal justice system altogether. Such programmes are being practised, in a patchy way, in some parts of the country.

But to make it available everywhere a network of local organisations should be established, in a similar way to the early Victim Support schemes, to recruit, train, support and supervise facilitators, who would work on a voluntary basis. They would also educate the public in restorative, or ‘participatory’, decision-making and conflict resolution.

Feedback would be incorporated into the system; when recurrent pressures towards conflict and crime were observed, policy-makers should be informed so that they could take action.

3. Serving the purposes of prison, outside prison

It is vital to consider what we expect sentencing to achieve. Currently its purposes are mixed: reducing the likelihood that the person will offend again; making reparation to the victim or the community; declaring the seriousness of the crime, and protecting the public.

Under the new blueprint, these objectives would be dealt with separately:

a. Reducing reoffending

Offenders would be required to undergo a programme to make them aware of why their action was wrong, and make them less likely to repeat it.

Examples would be: for road traffic offences, a course on driving and road safety; for addiction, therapy; for violence, anger management; for lack of work skills, education and training; for financial misconduct, a course of business ethics.

b. Reparation to victim and community

Offenders should make reparation to the victim and/or the community, including co-operation with a programme such as the above.

c. Acknowledging the gravity of the crime

The seriousness of the offence would be marked by the period of time for which the offender must be kept under supervision. For less serious offences, the offender would have to report regularly, by means of a community order. For the more serious, a suspended prison sentence would be ordered.

The period would be roughly proportionate to the seriousness, but could be longer than the time required to fulfil the requirements.

d. Protecting the public

The prison sentence would only be enforced where there was a substantial risk that the person would commit further serious offences or abscond. Otherwise the above requirements would be met in community facilities or special day centres. In prison, the regime would enable the primary and secondary purposes (above) to be carried out and provide, for those who need it, a place of hope and transformation, preparing them for acceptance into society.

For serious offenders, when a prison sentence was unavoidable, one way of making reparation would be to co-operate with research into the origins of their behaviour – be it sexual abuse, violent extremism, or financial misconduct – with a view to feedback into preventive policies listed above.

Martin Wright, 25th anniversary Lambeth mediation service AGM

These measures do restrict liberty, but their purpose is not punishment for its own sake. They do not work by creating and exploiting fear, but by encouraging remorse at the harm caused, and the self-esteem that will enable the wrongdoer to make amends.

The cost would be met by reducing the number of prison places, and a mechanism should be in place to transfer the funding.

Insofar as criminal justice aims to deter people from offending, the deterrence lies in the probability of being caught. The focus of policies to reduce crime will not solely lie with criminal justice, but with targeted crime prevention measures, combined with creating a culture in which there are higher expectations of law-abiding behaviour and fewer pressures that lead to offending behaviour.

Martin Wright is joint editor of Civilizing criminal justice (Waterside Press, 2013)


A war veteran on war

George Evans served with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in World War Two. He regularly recited poetry at the annual Remembrance Day service in the shroopshire villge of Wellington.  in 2014 he recited one of his poems:


I remember my friends and my enemies too
We all did our duties for our countries
We all obeyed our orders
Then we murdered each other.
Isn’t war stupid.?

The i, 8 October 2015

Destroying heritage – in the name of what ideal?

The world is horrified by the destruction of the 1st-century Temple of Baalshamin at Palmyra in Syria by Islamic State militants. Their apparent justification is that is pre-dates Islam, and is therefore idolatrous.  It is a greater loss to the heritage of the world, and Syria in particular, than the statues in English churches destroyed by iconoclastic Puritans in the English civil war of the 17th century, although the religious motivation of both seems to be comparable.  What are we to make of the destruction of the habitat of villages in Zambia, by the Vedanta mining company?  This was not a work of art, but it was maintained by the local people to provide for themselves and their families.  The destruction was not deliberate, but through casual negligence;  it was not done in the name of religion, but in the pursuit of another powerful human motivation – wealth.  The services of this religion are called shareholders’ meetings, at which offerings are presented, called profits.  As in many religions, a portion of the offerings is accepted by the priests, the directors, but another portion is received by the congregation, the shareholders.  The poisoning of the aquifers and rivers of the Chingola region in the pursuit of wealth is not only vandalism, destruction of the habitat tended by local people since time immemorial, but barbarism, since it spreads illness and death.  Newspaper reports do not even mention the names of the people responsible;  surely the directors should meet the people affected by their activities, and agree how the land can be used for their benefit – even if that means leaving the copper and cobalt in the ground until a method can be found of extracting it without causing harm.

This is only one example;  similar spills of oil and other poisonous substances, or damage caused in other ways such as extracting too much water, are happening around the planet.  This ‘religion’ is as dangerous as so-called Islamic State, and should be checked before it kills and injures more men, women and children.

To prosecute or not to prosecute: the case of the unconscious bin lorry driver

Six people died when Mr Harry Clarke apparently blacked out when driving a bin lorry in Glasgow on 22 December 2014.  The Crown Office, which is responsible for prosecutions in Scotland, has decided not to prosecute, on the grounds that “It is clear on the evidence at the time that the driver lost control of the bin lorry, resulting in the tragic deaths, he was unconscious and therefore not in control of his actions. He did not therefore have the necessary criminal state of mind required for a criminal prosecution.”

Relatives of the victims are pressing for a private prosecution.  As a result, Mr Clarke has refused to answer several important questions at the Fatal Accident Inquiry, because of the risk of incriminating himself.  When a private prosecution is brought, it may be taken over by the prosecuting authorities, and if the accused is found guilty he could receive a criminal conviction and a punishment, including prison.  The accused has therefore a strong incentive to try to avoid conviction.  He has also refused to apologise, presumably on the grounds that that could amount to an admission of guilt.  The possibilities are therefore that either he is convicted, with or without answering the questions to which the relatives want answers, or that he is acquitted for the reasons advanced by the Crown Office, leaving the relatives still without answers, having endured the stress of the trial.

There is another possibility:  if the victims’ relatives wanted, a restorative meeting could be arranged with them and Mr Clarke, provided he was willing;  and he would have reason to do so since it would give him the opportunity to give his version of events and very likely to apologise since by doing so he would not be exposed to the risk of punishment.  Experience shows that meetings of this kind encourage both sides to feel empathy for each other, although of course this cannot be guaranteed.  It is possible that the offender will offer to make amends in a tangible way;  the pain of remorse may take the place of pain imposed by the criminal justice system.  The consequences could be much broader than punishment, including not only actions by the offender to make reparation, but actions by the authorities to safeguard against similar events in future.

It is also possible for him to be prosecuted, and a restorative meeting offered during or after his sentence;  this carries the risk that he would deny or excuse what he had done, to try to evade the punishment, and might succeed in doing so;  this would undermine the subsequent restorative process.

It is not for us observing from a distance to advise the victims about how to respond, and certainly not to place on them any expectation of forgiveness.  It is possible that without the threat of punishment the offender will feel able to express the empathy that he feels, and that this will be helpful to the victims.  The restorative process enables victims to express their pain and suffering to the offender face-to-face. The pain of remorse is of a different kind, and perhaps greater than what can be imposed by the criminal justice system.  The emergence of RJ shows that they should be offered another choice between prosecution followed by conviction and punishment, and acquittal followed by no further formal action.


MW 22.8.22015