The Belgian prison system
For the moment, Belgium has around 10.348 inmates. 9.944 of them are men and 404 are women, for a total Belgian population of over 10 million and a half. These inmates are divided over 31 prisons. Some prisons only have very few inmates (the smallest prison only has 60), while others have over 700 inmates.
The origin of restorative justice in Belgian prisons
In 1996, the Minister of Justice emphasized, for the first time, the importance of introducing the victim in the stage of detention. This led to the set up of an action research. This research, which ran in 6 Belgian prisons from 1998 till 2000, was carried out in cooperation between the Catholic University of Leuven and the University of Liége. Its purpose was to examine the different possibilities, difficulties, chances and risks of a restorative justice orientated detention-system and to experiment with different kinds of activities and programmes.
In 2000 the positive evaluation of this research led to the decision of the federal government that all Belgian prisons should evolve towards a restorative justice-oriented detention system. In order to guide this process of change one restorative justice adviser was appointed in each prison. An important remark here is that the size of the prison was not taken into account. Small prisons (with for example only 60 or 100 inmates) as well as bigger ones (with a few hundreds of inmates) all got one adviser. The reason for this was that the advisers were hired to work at the management level of the prison. They were supposed to work at the policy level of the prison, their task not being to work individually with the inmates. The restorative justice advisers started working at the end of 2000. A circutar letter of 4 October 2000 set up the framework within which the task had to be developed and which described, amongst others, the role of the restorative justice advisers.
Tasks and activities of the restorative justice advisers
Although the circular letter should have served as a basis for the advisers, it did not give them very concrete information on how to guide the process of change towards a restorative justice-oriented prison within their prisons. The document only stated the importance of making the structure and culture within the prison more restorative justice-oriented. But what was meant exactly by a restorative culture and restorative structures was not at all explained, nor were the means to obtain these goals made clear.
So the only basis for the advisers was the experience accrued in the action research.
It is important to get a clear picture on the context in which the advisers had to work at the time. The culture within the prison system focused on the offender. The victim hardly got any attention, the damage caused by the crime was almost totally neglected and most ofthe people within the prison had never heard of restorative justice before. Thus, it very soon became clear to the advisers that the first thing that needed to be done was to inform people and to make them receptive to the new approach of restorative justice. Two important questions arose here: which people had to be informed and how were they to be informed? The first question was easy to answer: it was necessary to inform all the people who were involved in the phase of detention, namely all the prison personnel and of course the inmates themselves. The second question, how this should be done, was answered differently in each prison. A lot depended on the specific context of each prison: large prisons with a lot of inmates and personnel, a small prison, an open regime, a closed regime etc. The means by which people were informed ranged from spreading flyers to organizing information sessions and setting up working groups within prison-personnel. In the beginning there was considerable resistance and scepticism against this "new method" and this "new model". This attitude is not so difficult to understand. The prison system has always had a culture of its own, a culture that has existed for a long time and that can even be considered necessary for the safe and clear daily management of everyday life within prison. Thus new ideas and efforts to renew the system are easily seen as a threat. Informing people took a lot of time and patience, but it was a necessary step to take.
A very important remark to make here is that informing people and making them open to the idea of restorative justice was not only necessary in the beginning. It is something that had to be done through out the whole process. Changing the culture within a prison is not something that can be done by one person. Restorative justice advisers needed the support of all the different groups within the prison. Therefore, informing these groups was of crucial importance.
After this first necessary step of informing was done, the first activities could be launched. A range of different activities were set up: activities for personnel or for inmates, or activities that involved people from outside the prison etc.
Among others, the following activities were developed.
• Information sessions for inmates on the topic of the civil party.
• Sessions with inmates on the consequences of crimes to victims
• Setting up a so called "compensation fund". This fund allows inmates, in some prisons, to do voluntary work for a charity organisation. The money they earn with this work goes directly to the victim in order to pay the sum due to the civil party. Only half of the sum due to the civil party car be paid in this way, the other half has to be paid by the inmates themselves. This program is a nice example of how the three parties of a crime (the victim, the offender and the community) can be involved in one project. Practice has shown that this project is satisfying for all three parties. Offenders can take responsibility and pay a part of the sum due to the civil party, and victims get money to pay for part of their loss and also get to see that the offender is willing to take responsibility. The charity organisations not only get someone who works for them, but they often also realize that inmates are not so different from other people, that they are also „human".
This is only a small sample of the programmes that were set up by restorative justice advisers.
As it is very determinant for the work of restorative justice advisers, emphasis should be put on the fact that the work of the advisers must be situated on the policy or management level of the prison
The "manager profile" of RJ advisers can be made clear by the following examples:
- The restorative justice advisers cooperate with organisations or persons from outside the prison. One of these important partner organisations is the mediation service (in Belgium this organisation is called Suggnomé], This cooperation makes it possible to organise mediation at the stage of detention. Another important partner organisation is victim support. Since restorative justice advisers work in a context where the focus is mainly on the offenders, it is important that they work together with these organisations to keep a broad view.
- Inmates in Belgian prisons hardly have any information about their civil parties: who they have to pay and what amount, that is why each adviser set up, in his/her prison, a procedure that defines how inmates should be informed about these facts. This procedure defines who the inmates can go to for more information concerning the civil party; and it outlines the procedure on how payments are made.
Difficulties and things to keep in mind concerning the implementation of restorative justice in prisons
One of the most crucial things in order to give the implementation of restorative justice a good chance of working is to inform all the people involved. People want to know what restorative justice is about, what it will mean in practice, what will change etc. This really is a first necessary step in implementing restorative justice and should not be underestimated.
Another problem was the fact that, in the beginning, restorative justice advisers really had to emphasize the additional benefits of implementing restorative justice in prisons. This is due to the fact that the prison system has an "all hands on deck" approach. There was resistance to the appearance of a restorative justice adviser whose only task was to focus on restorative justice in prison when at the same time there were so many other important tasks to be done. Therefore it is very important to inform people about what restorative justice means and what its additional benefits are.
The next point has also been mentioned earlier. The context of each prison took a great part in defining the framework in which the restorative adviser could work. In comparison with a large and closed prison, it is a lot easier for the adviser to communicate in a direct way in a small and open prison, where he/she knows all the personnel and inmates by name. It is important to be aware of this and to give the adviser the space to create his/her own way of working according to the specific context.
Also something to be aware of is that a prison is a place where the focus lies on the offender. This is a possible risk for the advisers as they can get too caught up in the offender's story. They have to be aware of this risk and make sure that they keep a healthy balance between the offender's side and the victim's side.
As a prison is avery enclosed place with a culture of its own, separated from the outside world one of the problems faced was the difficulty to involve people from the "outside world". There are no clear contact persons or people to turn to. In the beginning, and also later on, it kept on being a challenge to find the right people for the right project or activity.
Finally, the willingness of inmates to participate in activities was also causing difficulties. It is very difficult to find inmates that are willing to participate in restorative justice oriented activities. Why would he/she, voluntarily, spend his/her time on reflecting on the consequences of his/her offence?
Can inmates be forced to participate in restorative justice activities? In some cases, like for example in the case of mediation, it is clear that voluntary participation is indeed needed. In other cases, like for example attending an information session, arguments can be raised to, to some extent, obiiging the person to participate. It is not an easy balance to find and in Belgium this was handled differently in the different prisons, but it is an important issue to be aware of and to give some thought to.
Current developments in Belgium and future expectations
In mid-2008, changes were made, and restorative justice advisers no longer exist. There is still, in each prison, one person responsible for implementing restorative justice, but the main difference is that these persons are now members of the management staff and also have other tasks beside those related to restorative justice Ilike personnel management, logistics, finances etc.).
Making a member of the management responsible for restorative justice must be seen as ensuring the future of restorative justice in prisons. Of course, only time can tell if this will really be the case or if the persons responsible for restorative justice will get caught up by other, more urgent things to do in everyday prison life.
Source: "European Best Practices of Restorative Justice in the Criminal Procedure" Conference Publication, based on the conference named "European Best Practices of Restorative Justice in the Criminal Procedure".