By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
Prisoners might be paying for their crime - but do they recognise the damage done to their victims? A prison project brings them face-to-face with the consequences of their offending.
"How do you resolve the unresolved pain?" That was the question facing Marian Partington, whose sister had been one of the victims of the serial killers Fred and Rose West.
Lucy Partington, a 21-year-old student at Exeter University, had gone missing in 1973, and when the murders at the Wests' house in Gloucester were revealed in 1994, Lucy's was among the bodies uncovered.
After such an appalling experience Marian Partington wanted justice, but she wanted it to take a form that would draw something positive from the awfulness of what had happened to her sister.
She found this sense of healing in an unusual place - going into prisons where she began to meet prisoners, to talk about her experience and to encourage them to confront the consequences of their actions.
Speaking at a conference in London last week about such "restorative justice" projects, Ms Partington said she wanted to understand what perpetrators thought about their crimes.
"I wanted to know how murderers lived with what they had done. I asked them if they thought about it and they said 'all the time'. Then I asked them if they ever talked about it, they said 'never'."
And "seeing that people can change, giving them the opportunity to express remorse, has changed the way I think about what has happened to our family".
Although she says she experienced a profound sense of rage, she wanted justice that would deliver something that moved beyond the destructiveness of the crime.
"The justice I was interested in was about healing and transforming a cycle of brutality into a place where people can meet as human beings, without the labels of victims and offenders," she says.
And her own attempts to make sense of what happened to her sister has become a way of triggering a process of self-knowledge among prisoners.
"I learned that the process I was having to go through wasn't about the Wests, it was about me, it was about looking at my choices, looking deep inside myself," she says.
Lucy Partington was one of the Wests' victims
"It's about this unresolved pain - what you do with it, how you experience it. It changes from something that is isolating to something that connects you with the rest of humanity."
Among the institutions which Marian Partington has visited is Brixton prison. Another recent visitor to the south London prison was a rape victim who told prisoners about the reality of her experience.
"I've seen jaws drop when they hear these testimonies," says the prison's governor, John Podmore, who also spoke at the International Winchester Restorative Justice Group Conference.
"These are hard-nosed, south London prisoners, but it really throws down a challenge to them to think about who they are and why they're here - and it creates remarkably powerful debates."
The restorative justice scheme at Brixton prison is called the Forgiveness Project and includes an exhibition, called the F-Word and a Healing of Memories workshop run by Alistair Little, himself a former paramilitary inmate in Northern Ireland.
There might be a public perception that prisoners are "working their ticket" by appearing to be remorseful, says Mr Little, but it's not an easy option and that it can lead to prisoners changing their pleas from not guilty to guilty.
Criminals don't "take responsibility"
"They have to take a risk, to be ready to explore themselves. The criminal justice system makes them accountable, but it doesn't make them responsible," he says.
Prisoners take part in three-day projects in groups of 12 and he says initially there is anxiety, fear and excuses, with participants "throwing anything in the way" of facing up to their actions.
And it means cutting through the defensive attitudes that prisoners take to their crimes.
Burglars will say they've committed no violence, the insurance covers the costs, so where is the victim?
"You tell them when a home is broken into it can lead to marriages breaking up, people can become afraid to leave their home, they think they're being targeted and being watched," he says.
"Prison is a dehumanising place, a brutal, violent environment," he adds, and there is a need to "humanise" prisoners' understanding of what they've done.
Inmates are often drug abusers
The prisoner governor, Mr Podmore, says such schemes can be an important piece in the jigsaw of trying to re-settle inmates when they leave prison and to reduce the high rates of re-offending.
At present, most prisoners who leave prison are back again within two years, with an overwhelming majority of younger prisoners stuck in this revolving door.
And as well as considering practical pre-release questions, about accommodation and employment, he says it can be as important for prisoners to have faced up to what put them into prison in the first place.
"Unless we can bring that into the equation, the other resettlement plans might not have a substantial effect," he says.
But there are no instant answers and running such victim-awareness schemes depend on the vagaries of charitable support.
And Mr Podmore puts it into the context of the scale of the chronic problems within the prison population.
Apart from their offending and offensive behaviour, more than three-quarters will be drug abusers (typically crack taken with heroin, ketamine and alcohol) and three-quarters will have had a psychotic episode in the previous two years.
Awareness of victims needs unlocking
But the campaign group, the Restorative Justice Consortium, says that giving victims the opportunity to hold prisoners to account in this way delivers results in reducing re-offending.
According to an international study of 46 projects published by the consortium last week, re-offending rates can be cut by up to a third.
Margaret Carey, a member of the parole board and chair of the Restorative Justice Consortium, says prisoners have to "face up to the fact that someone is on the other end".
"They might say: 'I'm only drug dealing, they want the drug anyway, there aren't any victims'.
"But they see the mother of a girl who died of a drug overdose, they hear the human stories about how their behaviour has affected families and that has a really profound effect, not always, but it can provide the trigger for wanting to change."
I live by the philosophies outlined. My understanding of consequence came after an emotional event. It's true, you have to understand consequence to move on and successfully navigate your way in the world. Understanding consequence opens the windows on life. There is so much to gain if you decide to look. Consequence should be introduced to us all...
Neil Murphy, Byron Bay Australia
I work in a Prison and there is lots of help and support for offenders IF THEY CHOOSE TO ACCEPT IT. You can not force a person to change they have to do it for themselves. This is a brilliant idea as it will help those who DO want the help and support to change and try to put things right. Prisons are not all bad and some offenders are not really bad either just unfortunate to have had a 'bad' up bringing. We are all human anyway.
An admirable project. However with the government proposing to stop prison terms for such offenders as burglars, how will they be reached...
sascha , Amersham
It's a brilliant idea. In the same way that a soldier would probably not kill if they saw the 'enemy' as individuals - fathers, sons, husbands, so humanising crime can have the same effect.
Liz, London, UK
Marian has such courage, taking what is an horrific situation to deal with and bringing something good from it. Accountability and responsibility are indeed very different, and the latter is the one too often lacking. A scheme like this is just excellent as it helps both sides to come to terms with what has been done, rather than promoting hatred and denial.
Chris, Nazareth, ISrael
It is a very admirable idea, and would no doubt have some effect on people already detained. However isn't it a case of closing the gate after the horse has bolted?
Paul Begley, London
Good stuff. There have been gestures towards restorative schemes before, generally successful. What's needed is for the Government to turn these ideas from pilots into policy - and sell them to a sceptical public. The reduction in reoffending rates is a powerful practical argument against those who dismiss this as a 'soft touch'.
It is brilliant to see some Light coming in. The power of Care is so healing. It would be good for documentry programs about this to be shown in schools. Children learning how we have to take responsibility for our actions on such intimate personal levels, may actually impress on them that a life of crime is not worth it.
Andy Kemp, Guilliers France
Schemes like this will not work in prisons unless the prisoners are given private consorts with victims and counsellors because of the sheer amount of peer pressure within the prison walls; from other inmates and guards.
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