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We’re used to hearing from Justice Minister Michael Gove on prison reform, but in speaking at the Policy Exchange only a matter of days ago, David Cameron himself gave a speech focused on governors taking complete control over the way they run their prisons. 

Putting it into context, it’s been 20 years since a Prime Minister spoke solely about prisons. So why now? Well, by talking openly about the issues with the prison system, Cameron claims his intention is to “reverse the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude” towards the secure estate. 

His speech certainly grabbed the headlines when he revealed that current levels of prison violence, drug-taking and self-harm have reached epic proportions, stating that “in a typical week, there will be almost 600 incidents of self-harm; at least one suicide; and 350 assaults”. There has been recognition though, by Justice Minister Michael Gove, that the outdated prison infrastructure has exacerbated issues. 

Furthermore, 70% of prisoners have at least 7 previous offences, and the average prisoner has 16 previous convictions.

So does the solution lie in giving governors more control over their prisons, especially in regards to restorative justice? 

If we take a look at the Restorative Justice Council’s (RJC) guide to restorative justice (RJ) in prisons, which was published shortly after David Cameron’s address, Cameron’s plans to give prison governors more control, could create a real opportunity for the intervention to work. 

The RJC’s Restorative Justice in Custodial Settings report, endorsed by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and the Prison Reform Trust, provides practical advice to governors, which will be all the more important given the plans for devolved control. 

In recent years, the use of restorative justice has grown, but perhaps a renewed focus will see it gather momentum within the custodial estate. After all, NOMS has made it clear that prisons should invest in restorative justice to reduce reoffending. 

The supporting RJC research in favour of a wider adoption of restorative justice is evident. For every £1 spent on bringing victims and offenders face-to-face, £8 is saved in lowering the cost of reoffending. More to the point, 85% of victims of crime who have been through restorative justice were satisfied with the process and 78% would recommend it. 

In order to realise these outcomes though, various mechanisms must be in place to enable its effective delivery within the secure estate; not least of all involving external partner agencies. 

The RJC’s guidance provides a walk through how this could work with specific examples of where prisons have been successful, and where those specialising in offender welfare have played a pivotal role. It cites HMP Leeds as having successfully embraced restorative justice, with it being the first prison to achieve the Restorative Service Quality Mark (RSQM). 

What training do prison staff need to use restorative justice?

As is the case at HMP Leeds, all staff with responsibility for facilitating any form of communication between offenders and victims must participate in facilitator training (if the prison wants to receive a RSQM). The RJC has an online trainers register listing providers who have already signed up to the RJC’s Code of Practice for Trainers and Training Organisations. There’s also the option for experienced facilitators to become accredited by the RJC, which demonstrates through independent assessment, they meet national standards. 

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