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Restorative justice: bridging crime divide

The men and women who have suffered at the hands of criminals are perhaps the last kind of visitor you would expect to pass through the succession of bolted doors and corridors of Westgate.

But for eight weeks this summer five victims of crime travelled to the western end of the Island every Wednesday evening to meet with a small group of prisoners.

The “offenders” — some convicted murderers, some serial burglars — did not know what to expect from the restorative justice sessions they had voluntarily signed up to, while for the “victims” this also represented a step into the unknown and for some meant confronting their deepest fears.

But individuals on both sides of the prison walls emerged from the experience stronger and with a greater empathy and understanding — some even forged friendships.

I was sad when the programme finished,” said Laura Smith, a victim of a serious aggravated burglary some years ago.

“I developed friendships and by the end I felt we were more alike than different.”

She added: “The course made me realise how we can bury the impact of a crime and keep on living, and how that affects your choices and decisions in your life without really knowing it.

“Initially it was my interest in restorative justice rather than the need for personal healing that got me involved with this project. But what was so awesome was experiencing this with people I did not know and from different walks of life.

“I have always believed that most people in prison are good people who have done bad things. That was reinforced by meeting the prisoners I met.”

Steven O’Neill, 30, who has served two years of a 16-year sentence for breaking and entering, also took part in the most recent Sycamore Tree Project.

“I wanted to help someone else and for them to see me more as a human than someone who just broke into a house,” he said.

“Initially as a group we skirted around the issues but as the sessions progressed people opened up more. Hearing the victims talk right to me about what they had been through gave me perspective on what I had done and the impact my crime created.

“I began to understand the ripple effect my crimes had on others. There were some emotional moments of realisation and it has made me want to speak to the people I have affected.”

Another inmate to sign up for this summer’s restorative justice sessions was a 47-year-old convicted murderer.

He admits to initially being “nonplussed” by the idea, but maintains the sessions taught him empathy and made him feel connected to the outside world. He said: “When I heard what Laura had to say about what happened to her I just wanted to help her. I have never experienced that and have always been quite a guarded person.

“It is hard to open up, you don’t want to be judged by what other people think about your situation and your crime.

“I ended it feeling pretty good and hoping that I had helped someone.

“The most important thing for me was realising I had hurt someone. When I first got in this situation, I felt it was not my fault. I was not willing to take the blame. But I have come to realise I have to own up to what I have done and the effects it has had.”

The latest restorative justice course at Westgate is the third such programme to take place since the initiative was launched in September 2014.

One 39-year-old inmate, who is serving life for premeditated murder, was part of the first group to take part in the Sycamore Tree initiative that involved eight prisoners and eight victims.

He said: “It was scary walking into the room that first time. I had a good group and we just clicked. I remember after one session I went down to my cell and cried.

“The impact of our crimes is so huge and to realise that I did this and caused all these problems weighs heavy. But it spurred me to take a firm hold on my life and make something better.

“Two of the victims in our class had family members who were murdered and it gave me experience of the things my victim’s family went through.

“I’m still in touch with two ladies from our group. We exchange letters and we still speak.

“But I now remind them of the other side and sometimes it’s a tricky relationship because I represent the perpetrator.

“The programme helped us all. It keeps me cognisant of the things victims and their families go through. Prison protects us from all that and we don’t understand what society is feeling because we are removed from it.”

So far 16 inmates have completed the restorative justice programmes, while a further 12 have taken part in the Victim Empathy course. Both programmes are designed to provide inmates with a better understanding of how their actions affect victims and their families.

Kimlo Webb, 47, who is three years into a 13-year sentence for attempted murder, signed up to the Victim Empathy programme last year.

He said: “For me the big part was knowing the effect of what I had done on the victim, their family, people around me and people in society. I never thought about that at the time.

“I did not really have any idea at the beginning of the course, it was the second week when I started to understand things like minimising, denial and blame.

“This class is all about change, and it’s a good class for people like me as a repeat offender.

“I was surprised by just how much it did affect me. It really made me think about things for the first time. It’s made me want to apologise to the people I have affected.”

Triston Burgess, 22, who is three years into a 12-year sentence for armed robbery also recently took part in the Victim Empathy programme that consists of seven sessions over five weeks with trained professionals. He said: “It made me want to reach out to the victims of my offence and express my feelings to them, to explain why I did what I did and what I was going through at the time.

“I would ask them for forgiveness.

“I think that maybe if I could explain to them then maybe that would give them a little peace.

“I really did not know what I was doing back then, and I did not think about the impact my actions had.

“I have a better understanding of myself now, and what I did, and I want to try and help other young men in society that do not have the help they need.

“Everything in here is a change for me, but the class helped me open up more in the right way, in verbal ways, instead of showing it through negative actions.

•Editor’s note: On occasion The Royal Gazette may decide to not allow comments on what we consider to be a controversial or contentious story. As we are legally liable for any defamatory comments made on our website, this move is for our protection as well as that of our readers.

<p>Restorative justice: I’m just like you</p>

I’m just like you in so many ways,

I made some erroneous choices during some not so good days,

Even though I knew better I still made that wrong turn,

Had to ask myself the question “are you ever going to learn?”

I’m just like you in so many ways,

Don’t write me off too fast before you see the whole page,

You’ve only had a small glimpse of what I have to share,

But if you give me a chance I’ll show you I really do care.

I’m just like you in so many ways,

Experimented with drugs in my adolescent stage,

My social skills were dormant I thought it was just a phase,

But I soon need that sniff just to get me through the maze.

Physical dependence is not a joke on an expensive class A drug.

I apologise for my carnage, but I’m not your everyday thug.

I’m just like you in so many ways,

Reaching that point in my life, that oh so critical age,

It took me longer than most, but some don’t make it all,

It’s not too late for my chances, my vision, my call.

I view this time as a blessing, so God can show me the way to go,

I view this time as a gift, God willing in the end it will show.