Yesterday was a weird day. I was at the back of the room listening to a middle-aged woman trying to rap an apology to me. She hadn’t done anything wrong. She was rapping on behalf of an inmate at Lewes Prison.
I was part of the Sycamore Tree Project – a six-week victim awareness course which aims to create a dialogue between ‘victims’ and offenders. For the victim – I hate the word victim. The word ‘aggrieved’ is more appropriate – the project provides a voice and an opportunity to tell those who matter – the offenders – how they really feel. For the offender – it is a chance to say sorry and to hear how crime affects people firsthand.
I heard about restorative justice on Radio 4. The whole point of prisons is punishment, with the idea that the prisoners won’t re-offend. The reality is, prison doesn’t work and our prisons are full. According to the Prison Reform Trust, 49% of adults re-offend within one year of their release, and for those whose sentence is one year or less, that figure increases to 61%. For the criminals who have served 10 custodial sentences or more, the rate of re-offending is 79%. The National Audit Office estimates that it costs us between £9-£13bn a year.
If there was another, but proven way to tackle this issue of crime and re-offending, then I’m all for it – in theory. I never thought that it would turn into reality. After my nasty car accident last May, I asked Sussex Police if I could meet the Moron who drove into me and my friend. All I wanted to ask was why, and for Moron to take responsibility. I also wanted to show him that I wasn’t ‘29 year-old woman passenger in a black Mini’, which was how I was reported in the papers. Unfortunately for me, Moron wasn’t interested, and that’s when Sussex Police told me about the Sycamore Tree Project at Lewes Prison.
It was the first time I’d ever been in a prison. I waited nervously for the 20 or so men to file into the room. It was week three, when the aggrieved talks directly to the prisoners. It was the first time they had heard from someone who was directly affected by crime, and although my situation was unrelated to them, it had a profound affect on some. For the others – they didn’t care.
It was insightful. I had tried not to let the car accident affect me. After all, I walked away from the wreckage scot-free with all but a scar and a lot of bruising. I realised that I was angry. Very angry in fact. I didn’t realise until one of the offenders pointed it out to me. I swore, I cried, I didn’t hold back. I spoke for about 15 mins, after which, the prisoners asked questions.
The offenders had workbooks to complete, where they retold my story in their own words, write down who else was affected, then decide who was affected by their crime. I have to admit, that was a little strange.
In week six, I was invited to come back. This session was about making amends and moving on. I had no idea if anyone would listen to what I said. After all, some were there because they wanted too, while the others were on the course because it was part of their sentence.
I was surprised. I had a letter written to me, which was read out, another wrote a rap and someone else decided to carve sorry out of wood. The point here is that I didn’t ask them to do this. They were compelled to do this themselves. I spoke to the bloke who wrote the letter to me. He had also written to his partner, who he had punched after catching her in bed with his best friend. He had spent 20 years in and out of prison for various offences, but he told me that after hearing me speak, was the first time he had felt pain. He knew he wasted a lot of his life and decided that this wasn’t a life for him.
Another chap told me that once he was out, he won’t be dealing in drugs again. He didn’t realise the impact that he had. Moron was chased by the police because he was stopped at a KFC for going out the entrance, and for suspicion of drugs. I suspect it was pot – only because you can smell it. And as me and this chap were from the same area, he could have supplied the drugs, which led to the chase. We will never know.
The Restorative Justice Council says that if restorative justice was offered, it would save £185m over two years. But more importantly, it would reduce the re-offending rate by 27%, and although this doesn’t seem a lot, it does mean less crime and less victims.
In case you were wondering – Moron got 20 months community service, with a nine month suspension and a driving ban. Ironic really, seeing as he didn’t have a driving license in the first place.