To me, it is important to acknowledge that, as individuals, we can embody restorative values as a means to prevent harm and to address it, if it occurs. While we can formalise approaches to restorative justice, we can also ‘become more restorative’ in the way we engage with others, both personally and professionally. In addition to making us more effective restorative justice facilitators, this also has valuable benefits for people within our sector. During my work in Northern Ireland over the last eighteen months, I have been introduced to two examples of this in action. Both examples have helped me to identify the necessary values and principles needed to make this a reality.
In HMP Maghaberry in Northern Ireland, staff have been supported by restorative justice professionals to develop restorative practices. This is in response to violence and antisocial behaviour which have since reduced by 29% (April 2018). In addition to the use of conferences between people identified as ‘enemies’, restorative circles have been introduced within a wing of the prison. Prisoners and staff are encouraged to sit down together and discuss issues which they face personally, or which affect them within the prison. The circles remove any perceived hierarchy and everyone is afforded the opportunity to talk honestly, including staff. Prison Officer’s explained this had improved relationships with prisoners because they feel more able to appreciate others points of view. Prisoners were able to see staff as human beings, finding more common ground.
In Hazelwood Integrated College in North Belfast, a restorative culture is being used to bring communities together internally and from outside the school grounds. Circles are used to give students, parents and communities a voice in school decision-making, and restorative approaches are used to addressing conflicts as they arise. ‘Integration’ is no longer viewed as an attempt to blend the two sides of a conflict by Head Teacher Maire Thompson, but about achieving real equality, however this looks.
Children don’t learn from teachers they don’t like
And, Ms Thompson is clear that staff should embody restorative values as a way to draw out and encourage the talent she strongly believes every student holds. Her inspirational, restorative practice has resulted in improved attainment, attendance and opportunity.
I know there are many examples of such approaches, including within Scotland, but the most effective will be founded in the same values and principles as these. Promoting rights through equal participation; active listening with meaningful feedback; acting in the best interests of those harmed; taking a solution-focus; and truly valuing relationships. We are human beings, so we won’t always get this right, and ‘owning our mistakes’ also forms a key part of any restorative culture. This is really just treating people as we wish to be treated ourselves, to break down barriers (both real and metaphorical), and prevent conflict from taking root in our communities.