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AUSTIN SMITH (HMP Swansea)

AUSTIN SMITH (HMP Swansea)

COMMENDEE 2011-12: Officer Smith is commended for his professionalism and dedication, first as Safer Custody administrator and now as Restorative Justice Co-ordinator at HMP Swansea.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

[Austin Smith gives his account of the work for which he was awarded a Commendation]

I developed an innovative Restorative Justice programme in HMP Swansea which serves the local community by helping to reduce reoffending and addressing the needs of victims through a process of education and by bringing offenders and victims together in restorative meetings.

The programme was developed with 3 key areas in mind,

  • An awareness programme for staff and prisoners alike,
  • Dealing with conflict resolution within the establishment in a restorative manner,
  • Facilitating restorative conferences between prisoners in our custody and their victims in the community.

At the time of the conception of the programme, autumn of 2010, there was very little known or understood of RJ within the prison although there were a few individuals with some knowledge, based largely within the Chaplaincy Department. Consequently the first hurdle to be overcome was how to bring the philosophy of restorative practice to staff and prisoners at HMP Swansea. This also involved making sure that members of the Senior Management Team ‘bought into’ restorative practice, as, obviously without their support it would be impossible to implement such a programme.

Thus I initially targeted the SMT offering presentations and one to one discussions in order to ensure that they fully understood what I was trying to achieve; fortunately sufficient members of the SMT (including the governing governor) did buy into the project and effectively gave me the green light to forge on with the project. However there were limits to their support! I effectively had no budget and would be the only member of staff working on the programme. My own training as a facilitator for RJ had made me aware of how labour intensive facilitating RJ conferences would be, so the decision was made to recruit a team of volunteers from the community to train as facilitators. I had no previous experience of working with volunteers let alone recruiting or training them so I had to undertake further training of my own, organised by a local volunteer agency, Swansea Council for Voluntary Services (SCVS). This training gave me the knowledge and confidence to work with volunteers and also fulfilled the needs of the SCVS with whom I was to work closely with in the recruitment of volunteers.

Despite this training the process of identifying and preparing a team of volunteers was a lengthy one, so while this was ongoing I was also working on RJ awareness for staff and prisoners. Posters and leaflets were distributed throughout the establishment bringing the subject of RJ to all grades of staff and to all prisoners. Staff were invited to take part in awareness training alongside our newly assembled team of volunteers and I developed a one day RJ awareness training package for prisoners which I called the Primed Scheme. Slowly but surely, the profile of RJ within the establishment was rising and this gave me the opportunity to launch the second phase of the project which was to introduce restorative practice to deal with conflict resolution within the prison.

The main focus of this was to be dealing with matters that had been brought to the attention of the governor in the way of adjudication, however our most significant single success was whilst dealing with conflict between 2 prisoners which had originated outside of the prison some years before. A successful restorative intervention resulted in peace between two men who had previously been involved in serious violence between each other; this one event probably did more to promote the credibility of RJ in Swansea than any other one thing. However, procedures and processes were developed to offer a restorative approach to all forms of conflict within the prison, even if necessary between staff members, although most prominently with adjudications, and staff that had received training were given responsibility for taking this area of work forward.

The project was given a boost in terms of raising awareness amongst the prisoner population by the delivery of 4 ‘Sycamore Tree’ courses in 2011. This course, facilitated by The Prison Fellowship, teaches prisoners the basics of victim awareness and RJ and in conjunction with the Primed Scheme a certain degree of momentum was established with prisoners actively seeking places on both courses.

It was late summer of 2011 by the time that we had our team of volunteers trained, vetted and ready to start working in their roles as facilitators and we were all eager to commence the third and most significant phase of the project, organising meetings (conferences) between offenders and victims. Despite huge levels of enthusiasm from all involved the project still faced some technical difficulties, most notably in reaching agreement with local police in relation to them sharing contact details of victims with us – without such agreement it was proving virtually impossible to make contact with identified victims. I did not expect to have difficulty in this area as we, HMP Swansea, were signed up to a local information sharing agreement with local agencies and I also had knowledge that a similar RJ project in Gloucester has reached agreement with their local police force to share this information. Nonetheless this was a stumbling block for the project and it was not until January 2012 when we finally reached agreement with local police in this respect and were able to call the project fully operational.

We are now working as we hoped to do from the outset, engaging with prisoners every week, assessing and preparing them for potential meetings with their victims and where appropriate making contact and working with the victims also.

RJ is a voluntary process, so we can only educate as to the benefits the process can bring and encourage people on both sides to participate. We do engage with far more offenders than victims as we have to start the process with offenders; one of the main principles of our work is to ensure that we meet the needs of victims and so we ensure that offenders are sufficiently motivated and prepared for an intervention before we try and engage with the victim. This helps to ensure that victims are less likely to begin the process with us and not have a satisfactory outcome.

The actual process of a RJ conference has been shown to have considerable benefits for both victim and offender. For the victims it is often the first and only opportunity that they have to ask questions about the offence they have been subject to, find out about the perpetrator and to have their voices heard – a failing which the normal process of justice as applied by the courts, is guilty of. Statistics show that where RJ has been applied c.95% of victims express satisfaction with the process – this has been backed up by our own findings.

As for the offenders, meeting their victims is often a hugely sobering experience through which the full impact of their actions can be clearly seen. Government backed research shows that the application of RJ can reduce reoffending by up to 15%.

Bringing offenders and their victims together can be an extraordinarily powerful process but it can also be fraught with difficulty and there are many obstacles which can prevent it happening. Within our project we do not offer RJ to offences of a sexual nature, domestic violence or the supply of drugs – not because RJ can not work with these offences, but purely that none of us associated with the project yet have sufficient experience to deal with such complex and sensitive cases.

NOMS have plans to introduce RJ across the estate over the next few years and at HMP Swansea we hope that we will be in a strong position to meet the requirements as and when put to us. We have completed 4 successful conferences so far with 2 more close to completion – we have dealt with offences including armed robbery, GBH and burglary.

INSPIRE ARTICLE

[The following article appeared in issue 4 of the Butler Trust’s magazine, Inspire]

Austin Smith has received a commendation for his proactive work at HMP Swansea, initially on suicide prevention and violence reduction, and then on developing the prison’s restorative justice system. Starting from scratch, he has produced an RJ volunteering policy and trained staff and prisoners to participate in the system. His team of 18 volunteers now facilitates conferences between offenders and their victims.

His work has involved extensive liaison with agencies outside the Prison Service, including police, victim liaison officers, court, youth offending services and voluntary organisations. ‘I would like to see restorative practice adopted across the whole of the prison estate,’ he says. ‘It’s my belief that our community would be best served by coordinating the work that is being done and sharing experiences and, where appropriate, resources.’

For more information: contact HMP Swansea

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