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Prisons, rehabilitation and justice

Oct 15, 2010

by Lynette Parker

Recently, I read an article about the struggles faced by the state of Florida after the US Supreme Court banned sentences of life without parole for juveniles who do not kill anyone. In the discussion over the need to revisit cases and re-sentence the offenders, one retired judge was quoted:

“There are no resources in prisons for rehabilitation,'' the former judge said. ``You give him 30 years, and he'll get out when he's 45, what's he going to do? Re-offend. Some people, regardless of their age, need to be put away forever.” 

I was completely stunned by what was almost a throw-away comment in the article. I found it to be a sad commentary not only on the prison system but our very understanding of justice.  Punishment as justice is well-ingrained in many cultures and countries. The judge's comments remind me of conversations that I’ve had with good friends. More than once I’ve heard the refrain of “they made their decisions, now they have to live with the consequences.”

I agree that each decision – good or bad – carries a consequence. However, justice doesn’t have to mean simple punishment. Neither does it have to mean losing all hope for the future of offenders or victims. Those consequences can help individuals grow and develop to become contributing members of families and communities. A restorative understanding of justice opens new pathways for both the response to crime and treatment of offenders. While most restorative processes take place in community settings, the underlying theory provides an alternative vision for creating prison environments that contribute to rehabilitation and change.

Such an environment can be found in the APAC prisons of Brazil. These prisons – operated by a local NGO also known as Prison Fellowship Brazil – operate on the assumption that crime is the refusal to love. Love is an innate ability that is developed through family relationships. When this doesn’t happen, and when the result is criminal behaviour, the prisoner needs to be taught how to love. APAC creates a community in which that can happen. The basis for working with prisoners is called human valorisation or helping the prisoners understand their innate value as human beings and that of others. This idea is built into all interactions between the prisoners and the people working with them, in the physical environment, and even in the terminology used. For example, prisoners are called recuperandos, or the one being rehabilitated.

Each APAC prison is clean, with sufficient space for the recuperandos, and a sufficient food supply. Other aspects of the APAC methodology include:

  • Ministering to physical and other needs such as medical care, legal aid, social work, and employment assistance
  • Spiritual Transformation provides a participant every opportunity to take the journey from spiritual crisis to renewal.
  • Reintegration and restoration address the need to restore and strengthen family relationships, and to integrate prisoners positively into society with the help of godparents, mentors, and other Prison Fellowship volunteers.
  • Victim awareness and care helps the recuperandos understand the impact of crime on victims and take step to make amends, either to their direct victim or others in the community who have been victimised.

In essence, the APAC methodology grows out of the idea that those who commit crimes – even horrendous crimes such as murder and rape – do not have to be defined by their crimes and can develop the ability to reintegrate into and contribute to society.

Restorative justice theory seeks the same goals. There are many efforts to incorporate restorative processes and concepts to the prison setting* including:

While the current negative prison environment can limit the impact of the first five of these restorative justice programmes, the APAC methodology offers a vision for how prisons can become places of transformation. Similar efforts are taking place around the world. Each operates from an understanding of justice that offers hope instead of simple punishment. They see the potential of prison to be a place of rehabilitation instead of a warehouse for humanity. 


* For a full discussion of the use of restorative justice in prisons see Van Ness, Daniel W. (2007). “Prisons and Restorative Justice.” In, Gerry Johnstone and Daniel W. Van Ness, eds,. Handbook of Restorative Justice. Cullumpton, Devon: Willan Publishing. PP. 312-324.

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Gary Hill
Gary Hill says:
Oct 15, 2010 02:33 PM

Lynn is both articulate and accurate and I have nothing to add to her comments - I have the honor of knowing the PFI programs and their philosophy. One point, the judge and others initially referred to by Lynn often forget is that young children (and even middle teenagers) are still developing in terms of experience, knowledge, emotions and just about every other area of human development. Thus, what one may do at a young age is far from an indicator of their later philosophy and behavior. Behavior, even for the young, should carry consequences - but it should not define the person for the rest of his or her life. It is why they are not accepted into the military or bars or behind the driving wheel until a bit more maturity sets in. I commend Lynn and her PFI colleagues and volunteers - besides doing good, they are not afraid to speak truth to power (and to the rest of us).

Lynette says:
Oct 16, 2010 03:30 PM

Gary, thanks for your kind words about the article and the work of PFI. I agree with your statements on the need to remember that young offenders are still developing in many areas. There is also a need to look into the background of these individuals. This doesn't mean justifying behaviour or not having consequences. It does mean understanding the trajectory that the young person has been on and providing opportunities for them to address the underlying issues behind their offending. This might mean drug treatment or even trauma healing. <br /> <br />I remember a young man I met in a Texas prison. Although he was 21 years old, he was a third time convicted felon. As I learned more about his background -- being kicked out of his home at 15 to live on his own -- I couldn't wonder why he was a convicted felon. How many of us would have ended up in prison given the experiences he had. Our justice responses need to take these things in consideration -- both the background and the developmental stages. Again, that isn't to justify behaviour but to provide opportunities to develop different survival strategies and make better choice. Justice should offer hope and a vision for living differently. <br /> <br />Lynette

Billy Paul
Billy Paul says:
Oct 15, 2010 05:04 PM

A clear reasoned statement. It may be time to spell out the principles and to tell the stories of the various forms of restorative approaches around the world and of the individuals who have lived through the restorative process, victims, offenders and their societies.

Lynette says:
Oct 16, 2010 03:31 PM

Billy, thanks for your comments. I think you are right and there is a need to explain how approaching crime and wrong doing from a restorative perspective. I know that I have encountered many people who find it difficult to see how these approaches would work. But, clear examples and proven track records go a long way to addressing their scepticism. Perhaps at some points you could share your experiences working with Sycamore Tree. <br /> <br />Regards, <br />Lynette

Lorenn Walker
Lorenn Walker says:
Oct 16, 2010 12:40 PM

Thank you for this Lynn. It is a sad commentary to assume there is no hope for people, especially youth. And thank you for writing about APAC, which can teach other correctional institutions the basics of rehabilitation and the power of compassion to change lives. APAC's low recidivism levels and its practically zero escape attempts attest to its success in rehabilitation. A safe community must have effective rehabilitation. Mahalo again for your great work! aloha, Lorenn

Lynette says:
Oct 16, 2010 03:31 PM

Lorenn, <br />Thanks for the comment. You are right about APAC's successes in helping the recuperandos change their lives and reintegrate into society. It's amazing just how different the environment is. When I visited APAC Itauna in June, the judge who sentenced most of the men to the APAC prison talked about how he could freely walk around the prison without concern for his life. As we walked through APAC together, I was interested to see how he was able to interact with the men there. <br /> <br />Also, there are some experiences of similar programme run within prisons. These are usually separate units. In Costa Rica last year, I had a prison officer tell me about the difference of working in the APAC unit over working in the common prison areas. He described how his family no longer had to worry about his safety when he went to work. I've heard similar reports from programmes in Chile. A report written by prison officers described how the changed behaviour of the prisoners in the APAC wing improved the working conditions of the prison officers. There is a little more about the report at <a href="" rel="nofollow">[&hellip;]ing-lives-and-prison-units.</a> <br /> <br />So, yes, I think there is a lot to learn from the approaches taken by APAC. I'm really glad you were able to visit there this past summer. <br /> <br />Regards, <br />Lynette

Lorenn Walker
Lorenn Walker says:
Oct 17, 2010 12:15 AM

Thanks for this further information Lynn--it was amazing experiencing the APAC prisons...they are more like clean and sober group homes and communities than prisons. The incarcerated people are all busy working or studying and there isn't that thick and uncomfortable layer of &quot;control and domination&quot; over people. Instead the imprisoned people behave independently and with personal responsibility. Report by guards on their experiences with the APAC units sounds great. Can you check <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a>[…]ing-lives-and-prison-units cite, didn't work for me--mahalo again! aloha, Lorenn

lparker says:
Oct 18, 2010 08:46 PM

Hi, Lorenn, <br /> <br />I'm sorry that link didn't work. Try this one <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a> <br /> <br />Lynette

lisa rea
lisa rea says:
Oct 18, 2010 08:38 PM

Hello, Lynette. Thank you for your post about APAC in Brasil. I was drawn to the work being done in Brasil since I first I heard of it many any years ago. I have some questions and comments, however. <br /> <br />I agree we need more model prisons like APAC; however, I would like to see even more programming that reflects restorative justice. How much is currently in that prison model? Is Sycamore Tree a part of the model? Does it take it even further so that inmates can not only be exposed to the impact crime has on victims but have an opportunity to make things right with their own victims? <br /> <br />While I think the APAC model is very good, especially in comparison to the typical prison model we have in most countries, I think it could go even further especially if considering the impact crime has on crime victims. I hope that programmes like Sycamore Tree are never just an &quot;add on&quot; to prison models like APAC. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea

lparker says:
Oct 18, 2010 08:42 PM

Lisa, <br /> <br />Thanks for your comments. APAC does not use Sycamore Tree Project. However, it has an office of victim assistance. So, on one hand they have the activities that help the prisoners learn about the impact of crime on victims. Then, through the office of victim assistance, the prisoners are given opportunities to provide services to victims in the community. When appropriate -- and both parties are willing -- they will facilitate meetings between prisoners and their direct prisons. <br /> <br />Lynette

lisa rea
lisa rea says:
Oct 19, 2010 01:52 AM

Thank you, Lynette. Is there a direct link to APAC that you can provide? I am glad the project has some kind of victim assistance component but I would hope that the model prison project would include Sycamore Tree and other opportunities for the inmates to experience restorative justice more directly. It seems that it would be the logical next step to make the APAC program even better than it is already is. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />

lparker says:
Oct 19, 2010 02:01 AM

Lisa, <br /> <br />The best link for APAC is Of course, if you read portuguese you can visit <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a> <br /> <br />Don't underestimate the amount of victim involvement in the programme. It is an integral part of the programme, a subheading under one of the 12 essential elements. This is growing. No they aren't running Sycamore Tree, but they are doing some very good work that might make a programme like Sycamore not necessary. They are approaching the issues in a different way. But, victim involvement is important to the programme. <br /> <br />Interestingly, when I was in Costa Rica last year, PF Costa Rica volunteers talked about restorative encounters in their APAC programme. They told the story of one victim feeling very concerned about the pending release of one of the prisoners from APAC -- her offender. They responded to the situation with a conference with the offender and the victim with her family. They were able to talk through the issues and things that she needed to feel safe. <br /> <br />Because APAC is definitely holistic, it's hard to explain. It's hard to capture what is available. But, each person entering the programme does have the opportunity to experience restorative justice in a direct manner. <br /> <br />Lynette

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