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Making prison(er)s work better

Making prison(er)s work better

Restorative justice aims to help victims of crime, turn prisoners into contributors, make prisons better for everyone, and send convicted criminals back into the community to NOT re-offend. Why isn’t it in use everywhere? Brian Steels explains how it works.

Restorative justice and the challenge of prison reform

By Brian Steels*

 If each prison can be a problem solving prison, within a restorative and therapeutic justice environment, then we may just be on the road to successful rehabilitation.

 Prisons and performance

There is a popular belief flowing through the media in most countries that the increased use of prison brings about a safer community with less victimization. Running contrary to this, studies reveal a prison’s ineffectiveness to combat criminal behaviours whilst providing a brutalising environment in which to learn more about crime (Aungles 1994; Carlen 1994, 2002; Coyle 1994, Foucault 1977, Garland 1990, & Stern 1998, 2005).

Despite the facts, imprisonment rates continually rise as the penal system moves like a juggernaut over nation states. Rather than being the last option of sanction, locking people up is often the default position for criminal justice systems with zero tolerance and mandatory incarceration laws.

One should be very cautious of any suggestions that an increased use of imprisonment is an efficient form of crime control. There is little evidence from anywhere in the world that there is any relationship between high rates of imprisonment and low rates of crime. Indeed the contrary is often the case. High rates of imprisonment are frequently an indicator of the break down of society’s sense of community values.  Coyle (2001a:6) 

The effectiveness of imprisonment to prevent crime and rehabilitate prisoners remains questionable whilst the rising costs, in social and economic terms, is unquestionable. As Hall, Goulding and Steels (2009)1 point out:

‘Prisons by their nature, their hierarchical organisation and their architecture, are the embodiment of secrecy, invisibility, isolation, and lack of accountability’. According to Goulding: ‘These factors encourage, rather than discourage, coercion, brutality and violence amongst prisoners and prison staff ‘ (Goulding 2007:140).

Among the consequences of this is the failure to guide and transform prisoners into pro-social and productive citizens living valued lives upon release.  As Mace (2002:2) claims:

There is a real risk that people will emerge from prison feeling numb, dispirited and fatalistic rather than to any degree reformed or better equipped to lead a law abiding life when they return to the community. There is also a danger that when released they will lack a network of links with the community which might be helpful in bridging the distance between institutional life and the challenge of resuming a law abiding life outside prison walls.  

Prisons are renowned for destroying law-abiding and pro-social networks and for removing citizenship opportunities. Indeed they are known for replacing any valued social roles found within families and communities with marginalised labels that remain forever with the prisoner following release. When re-entering the family and community, the prisoner’s previous roles may have been displaced and the stigma associated with prison carried as a sign of rejection. The impact of the criminal justice upon the self is invasive and permeates the whole being, making rehabilitation a life-long tension against the nation state’s assumption that an ex-prisoner remains ‘forever guilty’ (Steels 2005)2 .

As Hall et al (2009)3 suggests: ‘It can then be argued that imprisoning more people for longer does not make communities safe. Indeed it is often argued that prisons are part of the problem of crime in communities.’

There is evidence in most countries that the public purse pays more each year for prisons with very few benefits apart from the huge number of people employed to sustain them. In reality these total institutions offer little to the government’s credibility apart from providing the community with a sense that something is being done. The problem begins as soon as victims of crime, prisoner’s families and more informed members of the community begin to ask questions of the prison’s ability to reduce crime and victimisation and demand the statistics to prove its effectiveness or otherwise.

Prisons, unlike many other institutions such as hospitals and mental health units, often fail to conform to international calls to meet stringent standards for human rights and the principles surrounding rehabilitation and normalisation. Overcrowding and warehousing have become the norm across many continents.

The time for prison reform is therefore well overdue, a fact recognised by a small number of nation states, including Britain and Belgium who have begun to look at ways in which prisons may fulfil some of the measures asked of them by the community. Here we seek to explore the notion of the whollyrestorative and therapeutic prison as an acceptable alternative to the current system.

The restorative path

We have defined restorative justice as:

An approach to justice that focuses on repairing the harm caused by crime while holding the offender responsible for his or her actions, by providing an opportunity for the parties directly affected by a crime – victims[s], offender and community – to identify and address their needs in the aftermath of a crime, and seek a resolution that affords healing, reparation and reintegration, and prevents future harm (Cormier 2002)4 .

Restorative justice challenges prevailing adversarial criminal justice systems, organised under the notion that crimes are perpetrated against the state, rather than recognising that crimes are perpetrated, in the main, against victims and /or communities. Restorative justice is according to Consedine a philosophy that;

moves from punishment to reconciliation, from vengeance against offenders to healing for victims, from alienation and harshness to community and wholeness, from negativity and destructiveness to healing, forgiveness and mercy (Consedine 1995:11)5 .

Further, restorative justice is according to Goulding, Hall and Steels (2008)6 based on the concept of re-integrative shaming which put simply, ‘is a process that attempts to shame the action rather than the actor and encourage mutual understanding, healing and forgiveness amongst all parties involved’. Braithwaite (1989:55)7 describes the concept of re-integrative shaming this way:

Re-integrative shaming means that expressions of community disapproval, which may range from mild rebuke to degradation ceremonies, are followed by gestures of reacceptance into the community of law-abiding citizens. These gestures of reacceptance will vary from a simple smile expressing forgiveness and love to quite formal ceremonies to decertify the offender as deviant. Disintegrative shaming (stigmatization), in contrast, divides the community by creating a class of outcasts.

Restorative justice can be successfully practiced within the prison setting, transforming the brutalising and punitive characteristics of current prison regimes towards a more reparative and healing approach. This, we contend, benefits victims and communities as well as prisoners and the prison service. Restorative justice offers demonstrable benefits to victims of crime in such areas as satisfaction with the criminal justice system through to reduction of the impact of crime (Maxwell and Morris 1993; Beven et al 2005; Goulding & Steels 2006). Restorative justice also results in a reduction of offending behaviour of around 7% (Latimer, Dowden and Muise 2001), but more critically, if combined with effective therapeutic interventions, has been shown to have a combined 31% reduction in offending (Bonta, Jesseman, Rugge and Cormier 2006).

Within the Belgian community was a concern that victims of crime and concerned communities were effectively ignored within the criminal justice process. Specific crimes gave victim groups and communities there the necessary impetus to lobby parliamentarians and to push for radical change of the prison system. Newell (2001) describes it thus;

The decision was made to involve victims within the criminal justice system using the principles of restorative justice… This focus was partly in response to the repeatedly formulated requirements of an active self-help group of parents of murdered children and several groups of battered women and because there were trends within criminology that gave some direction towards the possibility of reform… From surveys of victims Belgian research showed there was great dissatisfaction with the way that public agencies like the police, public prosecutors and judges dealt with the aftermath of crime. Victims expected there to be a public reaction to delinquent behaviour, which includes listening to the needs of victims… repairing the harm done to individual victims and of the need to restore the confidence of the victim, his neighbourhood and the public belief in the functioning of the criminal justice system (2001:1)8 .

It was this awareness of the failure of prisons to challenge offending behaviour, noting the victim’s demands to be heard and insistence on more effective actions to implement greater community safety, that provoked the Belgian authorities to seek alternative options within the criminal justice system. It was also the courage and vision of perceptive politicians that directed the public outcry towards a restorative rather than a more retributive criminal justice system. Newell (2001:2) states that the Belgian experience ‘focused on the restoration of damage caused by crime and towards the resolution of conflict between people and communities’. Newell (ibid) sums up by saying that ‘it became clear to be really effective, the victim’s perspective must be integrated in all stages of the criminal justice procedure, including any period of custody’.

In Britain, Coyle (2001)9 argued that prisons could become more effective as places of rehabilitation if they were run within a restorative framework which actively encouraged ‘prisoners to take responsibility for the consequences of their behaviour by providing greater opportunities to make amends, and by establishing formal channels of mediation between prisoners to resolve conflict’ (Coyle 2001a:7). 

Within any restorative prison setting, prisoners have the opportunity to make some form of reparation to local communities through meaningful work. This is done by way of supplying goods manufactured in the prison to charitable organisations or through the sale of such goods with profits donated to the relevant organisation. According to Coyle (2001:9):

Non-governmental organizations and other voluntary groups report that, when offered the chance, prisoners will work with enthusiasm on projects they know will help people who are more disadvantaged than they are: the old, the ill, the poor… The high motivation, active commitment and on-going enthusiasm that people in prison can bring to work of this kind and what they can achieve should not be underestimated.     

Within Western Australia, the Sycamore Tree Project sees men and women victims of crime, known as visitors, participate with a group of prisoners over a 10-week course. The outcomes of this opportunity provide an insight into personal transformation that would have been unlikely without such a program. This example is the tip of the iceberg that all participants as well as prison superintendents and officers recognise as being a quality restorative practice that serves the whole community, not just the prison.

At Grendon Prison in Britain: ‘the program is based on therapeutic community principles, where a dedicated multidisciplinary team of staff works together with prisoners… This therapeutic dialogue leads to greater understanding of their usual behaviour’ (Liebmann 2007:247)10 .

Whilst we note that various restorative and reparative processes are currently in place in prisons in several other jurisdictions around the world, these have been described as ‘piecemeal, uncoordinated and largely dependent on the initiative or chance involvement of enthusiastic individuals’ (Liebmann and Braithwaite, cited in Mace, 2001:2)11 . Liebmann and Braithwaite (ibid) also found few prisons worldwide which had adopted restorative justice as a ‘total philosophy informing all their activities’.

Restorative justice within prisons
We have noted that current prison operations offer little to the community whilst victims of crime remain for the most part invisible. Meanwhile, prisoners’ families are seen as the problem rather than a part of the solution. The community is not experienced as a safer place and fear remains throughout. Prisons do not reduce crime but, conversely, are themselves criminogenic. And finally, the community gains little benefit because the continued high cost of incarceration eats into the public purse with ever-increasing imprisonment rates. As Goulding, Hall and Steels (2008)12 comment ‘The community is rightly justified in demanding a prison system which reduces future criminal activity rather than one which supports the further development of criminogenic attributes’…all of this at enormous social and economic costs.

Beven et al (2005)13 have also shown that restorative justice offers victims, offenders and the community better outcomes than traditional criminal justice sanctioning. Work among adult offenders in the West Australian Magistrates’ Courts resulted in significantly better outcomes for both victims and offenders (see Beven et al 2005; Goulding & Steels 2006 for a full discussion). It also illustrated how restorative justice works towards the reduction of offending through a decrease in levels of offender neutralisation (Beven et al 2005). As part of that discussion we have shown that restorative justice can be transposed to a penal philosophy and that it now operates throughout the Belgian prison system.

To be effective within the prison, restorative justice processes and practices should address these areas:

  1. Provide reparation to victims and communities through meaningful prisoner work that assists victims and/or local communities.
  2. Restructuring of all grievance procedures within prisons to include and promote restorative practices, including prisoner-to-prisoner disputes, prisoner-to-prison staff disputes and all prisoner and prison staff grievances.
  3. Encouraging prisoners to recognise that their criminal actions have caused harm to victims and their families, their own families and communities.
  4. Encouraging prisoners to engage in counselling and/or therapeutic programs within the prison with their supportive networks of family or peers in order to address the underlying issues which resulted in their offending behaviour patterns.
  5. Encouraging prisoners to engage in interaction with victims (not necessarily their own victims) where appropriate within the prison setting.
  6. Building positive relationships between prisoners and prison staff.
  7. Fostering new relationships between prisoners, the prison and the local community as a first step towards reconciliation and successful prisoner reintegration.
  8. Counteracting the negative stereotypical images of prisoners within local communities, thus effectively increasing the opportunity for successful reintegration
  9. Enabling prison management to identify and welcome victim, community and prisoner’s family concerns, and responding in a restorative manner.
  10. Encouraging union leadership, chaplains, professional support and health workers to fully participate in meaningful restorative practices.
  11. Enabling nation states to work cooperatively and share the local benefits and difficulties that restorative processes provide within the prison setting.
  12. Measuring the cost and benefits for all stakeholders, including management of the above practices.

According to Coyle (2001:10)14 , the truly restorative and therapeutic prison setting would;

present prisoners with a series of duties, challenges and learning opportunities. It would invest trust in the prisoners’ capacity to take responsibility for performing tasks, for meeting challenges and for using learning opportunities. The task for prison staff at every level and in all departments would be to work with prisoners to identify the skills, guidance and support they need to restore their lives, equipping themselves for renewed citizenship and a life away from crime.

A key factor in a restorative and therapeutic prison is an environment of safety and integrity for all, regardless of position, role or status. As Newell (2001:3) argues, ‘unless prisoners can avoid experiences of being victimised in prison they are unlikely to be able to focus their attention upon those they have damaged by their offending behaviour. Thus the need to create and sustain safe healthy prisons is vital for restorative justice to flourish’

It is crucial therefore to create an environment where people experience healthy relationships and fair treatment, along with opportunities to challenge and regulate their personal behaviour with support rather than punishment. Further to this, Tyler (2006:307)15 suggests that ‘there is another possible route to effective social regulation besides punitive punishment’ (Tyler, 1990; Tyler & Huo, 2002). This according to Tyler (ibid) involves treating people with procedural justice and respect; ‘When people are so treated, they view law and legal authorities as more legitimate and entitled to be obeyed. As a result, people become self-regulating, taking on the personal responsibility for following social rules’.

A restorative and therapeutic prison environment
Changing prevailing negative prison cultures that flourish among residents and staff is crucial for transforming the prison environment into one that is effective, humane and restorative. According to Newell (2003:3) the Belgian restorative prison experience began ‘with the cultivation of a prison culture which allows and stimulates restoration processes between victims and offenders’ (Newell 2001:3).

For any prison to transform, prison staff are required to learn the underpinning philosophy, principles and practices of restorative justice and how they may bring about positive change in the total environment.  Many obstacles have to be overcome with change and transformation, and Newell (2001b:4) suggests that the tension between the old and new regime often remains, adding that restorative justice:

requires respect, the assuming of responsibility and the freedom to solve problems by those involved in the conflict. These attitudes are opposed to the deprivation of freedom and limited personal responsibility that form the basis of current prison practice.

Within restorative prison settings, prison officers are equipped to provide generic therapeutic skills to facilitate restorative and therapeutic processes in many diverse situations. These restorative and therapeutic procedures, according to Goulding Hall and Steels (2008:14)16 ‘require a fundamental lack of prejudice on the part of members of staff who have to deal with offenders and their support networks (and victims and their support networks) regardless of the criminal act which led to the prisoner’s incarceration’.

To transform from a retributive to a restorative prison, educational and general awareness programs and restorative consultants are engaged in the prison to provide the essential awareness of restorative processes and practices and to establish meaningful dialogue between prisons and all other members of the community, including victims.

Crucially, as Goulding Hall and Steels (ibid) suggest, prisoners have to learn to accept responsibility for the harm their criminal activities have caused to individual victims, family and neighbourhood. This largely transformative component is implemented at the beginning of any given prison sentence and is maintained throughout the term of custody. Newell17 outlines the process thus:

Staff organized support to help them (prisoners) take up responsibility for the crime and the consequences for the victims… Prisoners are given awareness training so they are conscious of the psychological and emotional consequences for the victims. This program is called ‘Victim in Focus’ and is a confronting approach aimed at changing attitudes (2001a:3).

Wherever practical and possible, prisoners are made responsible for any financial compensation owed to victims. To this end, a restoration fund may be established and prisoners able to earn money in order to pay victim compensation. This encourages a degree of responsibility in prisoners whilst providing reparation for victims.

In the early stages of transforming towards a restorative prison, victims and community are provided with information about restorative justice practices and ‘the situation of imprisoned offenders and what is likely at the end of their sentences’ (Newell 2001a:3)18 . Victims of crime support groups are encouraged to participate throughout the introduction of restorative practices in prisons, beginning with an overview of the arrest of an offender, through the investigation process, the court process to incarceration in a restorative prison. For the restorative prison to operate effectively, all of the restorative practices should be utilised in a culturally appropriate way, one that reflects the philosophy of reducing harm, generating goodwill and reflecting integrity.

Any such transformation requires clear vision and political fortitude from relevant governments. Noting that the prison system does not serve either victims or the community effectively, especially during a ‘tough on crime’ or ‘zero tolerance’ debate, can be political suicide. Whilst the media and governments know that prisons are economically unaffordable, reproduce criminality and come with tremendous social costs, transforming them to become effective, transparent and displaying integrity requires courage.

The restorative and therapeutic prison model delivers a more effective and pro-social system, which satisfies most community concerns with regard to the workings of the complete criminal justice system. As Newell (2001b:1)19 points out:

Whilst we continue to regard restorative justice and prisons as opposite points of the spectrum the public will not recognize its validity as a realistic approach to resolving the conflicts involved in the decisions central to criminal justice. The debate about prisons must become more central in seeking to establish restorative justice as more than an interesting alternative for the less serious offenders and offences. The victims of serious crimes are being let down by the current exclusion of prisons as places of restoration for offenders, victims and their communities.

There is little doubt that we are all being let down by retributive prisons and criminal justice systems which do little to heal the effects of crime and nothing to create safer communities. Whilst restorative and therapeutic prison systems may seem a long way off, it is understood that the majority of prisoners come from local communities and, in time, all but a handful will return to these. Sadly, most of these men and women will have been harmed and made worse by their experience of imprisonment. As Goulding, Hall and Steels (2008)20 contend, prisoners who have served their time within restorative and therapeutic custodial settings ‘will return to the wider community with a vastly better chance of successful reintegration as law abiding, valued citizens’.

 * test  Dr Brian Steels is from the Asia Pacific Forum for Restorative Justice, Restorative Justice Research Unit, Centre for Social and Community Research, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia. His background includes prison reform and social justice activism He is a founding member of the Prison Reform Group of WA and the Institute for Restorative Justice and Penal Reform. He is also a consultant to several Aboriginal Corporations and was engaged as an Independent Prison Visitor for three years. He currently provide professional support to community groups and faith-based organisations.


1 Hall, G., Goulding, D., and Steels, B., (2009) Restorative Prisons: Towards radical prison reform

2 Steels, Brian (2005) Declared guilty, a never-ending story: an analysis of the impact of the criminal justice system upon the self. VDM. Germany

3 Hall, G., Goulding, D., and Steels, B., (2009) Restorative Prisons: Towards radical prison reform

4 Cormier, R., (2002) HEUNI Papers, United Nations Programme Network Institutes Technical Assistance Workshop, Rapporteur’s Report No 17, April 17th 2002, Vienna.

5 Consedine, J. (1995). Restorative Justice Healing the Effects of Crime. New Zealand: Ploughshares Publishing.

6 Goulding, D., Hall, G., & Steels, B., (2008) ‘Restorative Prisons: Towards Radical Prison Reform’, in Current Issues in Criminal Justice, Vol 20, No 2, November 2008.

7 Braithwaite, J. (1989) Crime, Shame and Reintegration, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

8 Newell, T. (2001a) Responding to the Crisis: Belgium establishes restorative prisons. Conference Paper. London.

9 Coyle, A. (2001a) The Myth of Prison Work. The Restorative Prison Project. London: International centre for Prison Studies.

10 Liebmann, M., (2007) Restorative Justice: How it Works, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.

11 Mace, A. (2000) Restorative Principles in the Prison Setting: A vision for the future. The Restorative Prison Project. London: International centre for Prison Studies.

12 Goulding, D., Hall, G., & Steels, B., (2008) ‘Restorative Prisons: Towards Radical Prison Reform’, in Current Issues in Criminal Justice, Vol 20, No 2, November 2008

13 Beven, J., Hall, G., Froyland, I., Steels, B., & Goulding, D., (2005) Restoration or Renovation? Evaluating Restorative Justice Outcomes, in Psychiatry, Psychology and the Law, Vol 12, Issue 1, pp194-206, June 2005.

14 Coyle, A. (2001b) Restorative Justice in the Prison Setting. Conference Paper. Driebergen, The Netherlands: International prison Chaplains Association Conference.

15 Tyler, T., (2006) Restorative Justice and Procedural Justice: Dealing with Rule Breaking Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 62, No. 2, 2006, pp. 307–326

16 Goulding, D., Hall, G., & Steels, B., (2008) ‘Restorative Prisons: Towards Radical Prison Reform’, in Current Issues in Criminal Justice, Vol 20, No 2, November 2008.

17 Newell, T. (2001a) Responding to the Crisis: Belgium establishes restorative prisons. Conference Paper. London.

18 Newell, T. (2001a) Responding to the Crisis: Belgium establishes restorative prisons. Conference Paper. London.

129 Newell, T. (2001b) Restorative Justice in Prisons. Conference Paper. London: Restorative Justice Consortium Conference.

20 Goulding, D., Hall, G., & Steels, B., (2008) ‘Restorative Prisons: Towards Radical Prison Reform’, in Current Issues in Criminal Justice, Vol 20, No 2, November 2008.

One comment

  1. Excellent. Economic social and spiritually sound especially when one sees a certain group victimised and needing support not punishment to find their way in todays society

    margaret barstow

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