Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice



COMMENDEE 2013-14: Chaplain: for excellence in all aspects of his role, in particular in promoting offender management and rehabilitation through restorative principles. 


[Martin Earl gives his account of the work for which he won his Commendation]

Many prisoners feel they are worthless without hope of a productive future. I was given a Butler Trust Commendation for my Prison Chaplaincy work, which through ‘restorative practice I enable Prisoners to discover they have personal value, and that they can have hope of a positive future in their community. 

During several years of working in HMP Altcourse and engaging in many faith and non faith based conversations with prisoners, I repeatedly heard the same conversation; ‘prison is not enough punishment and does not help me feel good about myself or be good on release.’ It was very clear to me that a significant aspect of prisoner rehabilitation was missing. The restoration or indeed the discovery of ‘well being,’ the prisoner learning to like themselves and recognise they have something of value to offer was largely missing. My experience leads to me believe when a person feels good about themselves, they are far more likely to be good to others.

In 2008 as an attempt to partially fill this gap (as part of a national pilot) I introduced SORI (Supporting Offenders through Restoration Inside) into HMP Altcourse. SORI is a Restorative process that centres around a week long Victim Awareness (VA) / Restorative Justice (RJ) Awareness process that culminates in a public apology to parallel victims, members of the CJA’s and community members. From the outset it was hoped that this would lead offenders to want to explore an opportunity to apologise directly to their victim(s).

A team of six facilitators was trained to run the SORI VA process.  Each SORI week has twelve participants and currently runs four times a year. The team includes Chaplains, a Counsellor, Victim Support Manager and Community Volunteers including an ex offender.

The SORI Restorative meeting, annually enables approximately 120 members of the community to take part in an Offenders rehabilitation process. The public engagement remains a vital mutual benefit to all the participants.

From the beginning, all aspects of SORI have been led with the Restorative principles of honesty, respect, compassion, listening and being non judgemental at the heart of everything the SORI team does.

SORI, has always taken the facilitator team by surprise. The consistent depth, challenge and ability to encourage the transformation of closed, defensive and deflective prisoners to become men who embrace taking responsibility for the harm they have caused, and who actively want and engage in repairing and preventing harm is an amazing transformative process.

Men who start the week, have often forgotten what it is to be likeable, and to truly feel good about themselves again. Almost without exception they depart having discovered or rediscovered that inside themselves there is goodness, that it is safe to let others see and experience their goodness. That they do have something very positive to offer the outside community, who actually want to support them in a positive future.

As so many offenders have said to me;  ‘I feel like a human being again’ and ‘a great weight has been lifted from me.’.

Prison staff often comment on the change of the men’s behaviour after completing SORI. They report a softer, more caring and respectful attitude towards staff and other prisoners. In a local survey of men who have completed SORI between 2008 and 2012, the reconviction rates after 12 months showed a 15% reconviction rate, far less than the nationally reported expected reconviction rate for these type of offenders.

SORI is part of the developing Restorative approach which includes Mediation in HMP Altcourse. The key strength of SORI is that it is inclusive and creates a safe, non judgemental space where the prison mask is voluntarily removed. Offenders are then offered the gift of time, space, challenge, ability, listening ear and safety to honestly look at the consequences of their actions, to make positive steps to repair the harm they have caused and introduced to the community who offer healing acceptance, encouragement and hope.


[The following article appeared in issue 6 of the Butler Trust’s magazine, Inspire]

Ongoing impressive results from an intensive restorative justice programme at HMP Altcourse have led to a Commendation for Prison Chaplain Martin Earl.

Martin became involved in the initiative in 2008, when he was selected to introduce a pilot course called Supporting Offenders through Restoration Inside (SORI). The week-long course involved offenders looking in detail at the impact their actions had had on their victims, describing to their peers how and why they had committed their crimes. If they completed this process successfully, they would then take part in a restorative meeting with parallel victims, involving members of the victims’ communities, voluntary groups and members of the criminal justice system.

The process is not an easy one, made harder by the fact that the course is voluntary and provides no benefits towards parole or early release. It can be highly stressful for offenders, which is where Martin’s skills came to the fore. From the outset he created a safe, non-judgemental and very supportive environment and encouraged the prisoners to look at the course as a route to changing their outlook on life.

From seeing many of them as ‘broken men’, given up on by their families and society, he set about convincing them that they could reconnect and become worthy members of the community. As part of this process, and to give the men the best chance of success, he developed greater engagement with outside communities.

‘My vision is to encourage people outside to understand that prisoners are human beings, members of their communities, and that prison should be seen as part of the community, not a closed world full of monsters,’ he says. Beyond the SORI programme, he has begun developing mediation services and training for prisoners in non-violent communication – skills which have also been highly beneficial to their family life.

The programme is showing impressive results, with only 15 per cent of the men released after SORI having been reconvicted. Colleagues have noticed the positive effect on prison life, with Director Bob McColm calling Martin’s work ‘a shining example of what can be achieved with drive and passion’. One of the external facilitators emphasised the impact he has had: ‘The men arrive as prison numbers, dehumanised to a great extent. They leave with their heads held high, and looking forward to becoming worthy members of their communities. And this mood is created purely due to Martin.’


For more information: contact HMP Altcourse

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