A scary, but exciting prospect
May 24, 2011
Recently, I was in the Bahamas to conduct a training seminar on the Sycamore Tree Project® for Prison Fellowship Bahamas. A diverse group of people including prison officers, volunteers, and police officers gathered to learn about this in-prison restorative justice programme. Through the day and half of training two emotions stood out: fear and excitement.
For many, especially the prison officers, the idea of bringing victims into prison to meet face-to-face with prisoners (but not their own offenders) was novel and a bit overwhelming. Although the programme has a positive track record in close to twenty countries, the training participants still had serious concerns about how this would work. For one thing, how do you handle victim anger? Why would victims want to go into prison? Isn’t this just setting up an explosive situation?
At the same time, the participants were concerned about prisoner participation. Again, why would they participate? How will they treat the victims? What will they say? Will they really take ownership of their actions and the need to make things right? When talking about their crimes, won’t they implicate other prisoners and create a dangerous situation? How do you get them talking in a positive way?
Yet, as we explored the programme, its processes, and experiences from around the world, the fear gave way [at least partly] to excitement. Prison officers tasked with delivery of rehabilitation programmes saw the connection with their work. They talked about partnering with Prison Fellowship Bahamas so that the programme is delivered along with the rehabilitation programmes in a way that helps the prisoners benefit more fully from the offerings. For the police officers working in prevention, the idea of changing offender attitudes was appealing. They could see the potential not only in prison but in communities as well. Prison Fellowship Bahamas volunteers liked the prospect of extending their ministry to serve victims as well as prisoners.
I like thinking about restorative justice as a “scary, but exciting prospect.” First, the idea of bringing victims and offenders together is so contrary to the way the criminal justice system works that it gives people pause. This is good because they can begin thinking about the issues involved and the importance of preparing not only the participants but also facilitators. Hopefully, this “fear” can help us keep our perspective in caring for the people we are serving – both prisoners and victims. It is a caution to not be too arrogant or to take things for granted in delivering restorative justice programmes or processes.
At the same time, the excitement is needed to push us into actual implementation. While a healthy dose of “fear” can help develop the quality of the programme, the excitement is needed to overcome barriers. As I interacted with the training participants in the Bahamas, I could see the vision developing. They could see the possibilities not only in the programme but also in developing even more services for victims and offenders. As fear gave way to excitement, they began discussing implementation issues and setting plans for development. I look forward to tracking the progress of Prison Fellowship Bahamas.