Helping the community, building connections
May 27, 2011
Recently, we shared the article “Give prisoners the chance to help the community” by Erwin James in which he describes prison as consisting of “enforced idleness” and working to “create model prisoners instead of model citizens.” Erwin describes the benefits of programmes allowing prisoners to do something for the community. Referring to his own participation in a Braille unit when incarcerated for murder, he says, “...it was the first time in our lives that we had experienced the satisfaction that can be gained from helping other people.”
I thought about Erwin’s article as I read about prisoners making trauma bears in the Australian state of Victoria. The programme – a partnership between Prison Fellowship Australia and the prisons – teaches prisoners how to sew and stuff the soft toys that are used by emergency service personnel to comfort children in trauma situations. The prisoners may also pay for the materials to make a soft toy for a loved one. Programme volunteers describe the paradox of watching the men who have caused harm work to create the soft toys. As described in the article, “Masculine hands clenched tight ready to harm or reaching out to thieve and finally bound for prison now develop something creative and productive that brings joy to traumatised children and their loved ones.”
Of course, I start thinking about how these programmes and sentiments relate to the values of restorative justice. While not directly addressing the needs of victims, programmes allowing prisoners to do something positive for the community reflect some restorative values.
First, such programmes show respect for prisoners as human beings. Erwin’s description of prisons also points to how the institution can be dehumanising as it trains prisoners to adapt to the prison environment instead of building pro-social relationships or skills for doing so. Programmes such as community gardens, repairing bicycles, or making toys for children in need show a respect for those in prison by acknowledging their potential to be productive, contributing members of the community.
Such programmes also allow prisoners to take active responsibility for their behaviour. In restorative justice we talk about the difference in “being held accountable” and “taking responsibility.” The former essentially means having something done to one. So, offenders serve prison sentences where they are punished. “Taking responsibility” or “active responsibility” comes from within the person. He or she takes steps to acknowledge the harm done by his/her behaviour and attempts to make things right. While this is ideally done in a restorative encounter with those directly affected by the crime, in-prison programmes serving the community offer prisoners an opportunity to actively do something for the community they harmed.
Of course, such programmes would increase their restorative nature by including elements of encounter between offenders and victim/community members. For example, Prison Fellowships running the victim-offender awareness programme the Sycamore Tree Project® offer prisoners the opportunity to make symbolic acts of restitution as they are not able to meet with their own prisoners. In Australia, this has grown into prisoners paying into a fund that provides assistance to victims of crime.
Finally, such programmes help prisoners build positive connections to their communities. Often offenders are on the fringes, lacking pro-social relationships. By connecting prisoners to the community – either through offering services or by allowing prisoners to work alongside community members – service activities allow prisoners an opportunity to build relationships and become more integrated into their communities. That is definitely one of the goals of restorative justice.