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Family group conferencing in the case of an offender released after long-term imprisonment

Uploaded at: 2011. 02. 07.


At the beginning of the conference all participants introduced themselves. Elemér did not even remember many of the 40 or so people present, and was able to identify them only by their degree of kinship. Some were even born after he had been imprisoned. Everyone seemed to honestly care about Elemér. Surprisingly, despite the presence of so many people, including children, the conference went on smoothly. People listened carefully without interrupting each other, and did not talk to each other while someone was speaking.

The case

Elemér was last seen by his family members 13 years ago, handcuffed and sitting in a police car. They did not understand the situation, as he had never done anything more serious than occasional excessive drinking and quarrelling with his partner. It soon turned out that a man, probably the lover of his brother’s wife, had been killed in Elemér’s brother’s house. As the victim lived in the neighbouring village, hardly anybody knew him. The woman, her son and Elemér were in the house when the incident happened. Elemér was there because he had been quarrelling with his partner, who had left him and their 2-year-old child alone for a longer period to drink with her friends.

Elemér alternately blamed his brother’s son, claiming that he had killed the man and conspired with his mother to frame Elemér, and his partner for making him upset and leave that day.

While in prison, he made several attempts to contact his relatives, but his letters remained unanswered. In the beginning, he received a few letters from the wife of one of his nephews with photos of his growing son, but that was all. In the last period of his time in prison, encouraged by his cellmate, he even contacted the public guardianship authority, requesting to see his son, but the authority authorised only written correspondence. He therefore wrote to his son, but no reply came.

I also tried to contact his siblings via mail, suggesting that we should try to discuss Elemér’s future together before his release. Two of his brothers turned out to have died. Four must have been alive, as the letters were delivered. However, I received no reply. The son of one of his sisters who lived in another village contacted me, indicating that they were prepared to accommodate Elemér after his release, but they were not too enthusiastic about the idea of a meeting.

Responding to the news, Elemér said that he was not willing to go to his sister, because her husband was an alcoholic. The only option left for him was to stay in Budapest at a homeless shelter.

Elemér learned to write and completed the first four elementary grades in prison. One of his teachers started to support him, probably because she believed that Elemér was more respectful and more desperate than others. It seemed that the only person Elemér could turn to in the outside world after his release would be this retired teacher. He moved to a homeless shelter. He was suffering from vascular stenosis, so that for a time it seemed that he might lose his leg. Finally he did not, but he had not been able to work until he recovered from his operation. However, given the 13 years he had spent in prison, the four grades he had completed, his Roma origin and poor health, his chances of finding a job were not good anyway. He applied for a job in an assembly plant. He had been told that a test would take place at the selection interview, so we tried to complete IQ tests together. He was able to read the questions with some difficulty, but to understand their meaning was apparently beyond his capability. Yet, when I read out the questions, he gave perfect answers. However, at the selection interview he would not have anybody to read out the questions for him. After each failure (and there were plenty of them, nearly every day), he started to think about going back to his home village. Maybe his brothers would receive him back, even though they had not replied to his letters. But then he thought of the cons: There was his ex-partner, with whom he was so angry that there was a chance that he might hurt her. His brother’s son would also be released soon, representing another potential conflict. And his brothers would have certainly written to him if they wanted to see him back home. The retired teacher also encouraged him to stay in Budapest, and she is someone who helped him a lot and whom he really listens to.

We agreed that we would still try to organise a family group conference to discuss the problems together with family members and other stakeholders.


Elemér’s home village in Baranya County offered a depressing spectacle to the visitor: battered, neglected houses, dirt roads, weeds everywhere, scores of women and children on the streets, but no men. First we tried to find Elemér’s birth place. The building was in such a bad condition and overgrown by vegetation that it was hard to notice. Elemér’s sister, Anna, lived nearest to the house. She lived with her children and grandchildren in a house that was relatively large and in good condition, compared to other buildings in the village. We were welcomed into her home. She said that they had expected Elemér after his release, and had been worried ever since about where he could be. She indicated that unfortunately they could not accommodate Elemér in the already crowded house, but they would be happy to see him and talk to him. As it turned out later, Anna was afraid of Elemér because of what he had done, thinking that he might do it again (i.e. kill someone). She would not feel safe having him around in their home.

Afterwards we visited Elemér’s oldest sister, who also lived nearby. She lived in a small, battered building with a disabled girl. She was apparently in very poor physical condition. She was skinny and had difficulty standing and walking. Seeing her I understood why she had not replied to Elemér’s letter. She cheered up when I mentioned Elemér. She said she would be happy to see him, but she was not in a condition to help decide where Elemér should live.

A third sister, Mária, lived in the village too. She lived in a slightly messy house of moderate size. She lived with her children and grandchildren. Without hesitation she said that Elemér should live with them. She did not seem to share Anna’s concerns. Even when we talked about the crime and its consequences, her only concern seemed to be that Elemér was her brother and she was supposed to help him, irrespective of their being short of space and money.

We then went to see Elemér’s ex-partner and his son. On our way, we were stopped by a woman. It turned out that she was the one who had sent letters and photos to the prison. She could hardly wait to see Elemér. She said she had written a letter to Elemér on the week before his release to inform him that they were expecting him, but the letter came back, as the man had already been released. They had been worried about Elemér ever since.

We found Elemér’s ex-partner. She lived in a new relationship and had given birth to four children since then. She was frustrated and aggressive, and used foul language. She refused to allow the child to keep in touch with his father, “that criminal.” She complained that Elemér failed to pay maintenance in the last 13 years. “If he gives me the money, I will let him see his son.” She did not care at all about what might happen to Elemér. Neither did she want to attend the conference. She said she would report it to the police if she saw Elemér near their house. In time she calmed down a little and let us talk to the boy. Elemér’s son was a low voiced adolescent who seemed much younger than his age. In front of his mother he said he did not care about his father. We told him that all his father wanted was to have one and a half hours with him and present his version of the story.

We asked him to reconsider his views, and promised to inform him about the conference, so that he could come if he decided to.

After that we went to the village where Elemér’s other sister, Rozi, lived. Her son was the one who had called me earlier to indicate that they would be happy to accommodate Elemér. This village was completely different from the other one. The houses and gardens were tidy and well-maintained. In every direction we saw community service workers on the streets. Only on the outskirts of the village did we see a couple of houses suggesting a poorer background. Rozi and her family lived in one of these buildings. They said they did not understand why Elemér had decided not to move to their home when he was released. They said they certainly wanted to attendthe meeting, and that they could arrange their travel to Elemér’s home village.

A few days later we contacted the family service officer, who promised to make his office available for the conference. Besides, he could represent both the city council and the children’s service. He said he would talk about the available social support and community work options. Being the family’s supporting officer, he was familiar with Elemér’s son’s circumstances. He did not think that an officer from the public guardianship authority should be involved, not to mention that it was unlikely that the officer, based in a relatively distant small town, would travel to the village for the conference.

The retired teacher and her husband, who continued to support Elemér in Budapest, also indicated that they would join us. In the meantime, Elemér started work as a cleaner in the block where the teacher lived. He was paid 28,000 HUF per month for working 3x4 hours a week. The monthly rent at the shelter was 7,200 HUF. The money left in his pocket after paying his costs and the food received from the teacher were enough to cover Elemér’s basic needs, at least for the time being.

The conference

On the day before the conference we called all participants to remind them about the event. All of them indicated that they could attend the meeting. When we arrived, we went to Anna’s house where the relatives were gathering, then they came together to the venue of the conference. By the time the invitees started to show up, my colleague and I had already arranged the room. In the meantime we found out that Elemér’s brother and his family who lived in the nearby village could not come: because it was the end of the month, they had run out of money, and they could not borrow from anyone. To our great surprise, people we had never seen or talked to also showed up for the conference. We had to rearrange the benches and chairs in the room several times so that everyone could sit down. The room was already full of people when Elemér arrived. He was taken by surprise and deeply moved by the number of attendees.

At the beginning of the conference all participants introduced themselves. Elemér did not even remember many of the 40 or so people present, and was able to identify them only by their degree of kinship. Some were even born after he had been imprisoned. Everyone seemed to honestly care about Elemér. Surprisingly, despite the presence of so many people, including children, the conference went on smoothly. People listened carefully without interrupting each other, and did not talk to each other while someone was speaking.

As the coordinator of the case, I shared with the participants that Elemér had difficulty deciding where he should settle down: whether he should stay at the shelter in Budapest, or move to this village, or go to the village where his other sister lives. As there are many pros and cons to all solutions, we should think the question over together and help Elemér decide.

Everyone shared their opinion on the issue.
The comments brought up further questions:
1. Should he decide to stay in the village, who will share their homes with him?
2. How would he make a living, what job opportunities are available in the area?
3. What are the risk factors of his staying in the village, including:
• his relationship with his ex-partner,
• his relationship with his brother’s son
• other conflicts
• drinking.

It slowly became clear that there were more arguments for Budapest than for any of the alternative solutions, even though the relatives expressed a strong desire to strengthen family ties. The family requested that Elemér stay for a few days with them, so that he could get to know his relatives who had been born or grown up since his imprisonment, and talk about what had happened in the past 13 years.

For this reason, the second part of the conference focused on the details of Elemér’s stay in the village. Among other things, it had to be determined how long he would stay for, also taking into consideration that after eight days he would lose his place at the shelter. Another problem was that his stay meant one week off work for him, meaning a loss of about the 7,200 HUF monthly rent of his place at the shelter.

We also had to find out if his employer, the retired teacher’s husband, could make do without him for a week. A major question was whether his temporary stay would jeopardise his only source of income and the support he received from the elderly couple.

Another obstacle was that he had no money, so someone would have to pay for his ticket back to Budapest. Who could help him out and how?
Who would help him return to Budapest in time?
As I observed some rivalry, jealousy and minor conflicts between the relatives, I found it important to plan exactly where he would sleep and who would take care of him during his stay.
He also wanted to see his sibling who lived in the other village. Who could help him get there?
How could it be ensured that he would not get into conflict with his ex-partner during his one-week stay?
Would he have a chance to meet his son? If he did, how could the potential conflict with his ex-partner be avoided? Who could help him in this regard?

First of all, Elemér talked to the teacher on the phone. As soon as the teacher approved his one-week absence, we left the family so that they could discuss all the details on their own.

They prepared a schedule for Elemér’s accommodation. They agreed to share the expenses of his travel back and his monthly shelter fee. Based on their benefits and allowances, they calculated when the required sum would be available. One of Elemér’s nephews, Zoltán, prepared a detailed list of the contribution each relative offered for this purpose.

They agreed that, instead of contributing to the expenses, Anna would carry her brother by car to Szentlőrinc, from where he could continue his travel by train. Anna also undertook to drive him to the other village so that he could see his other sibling.

Regarding his meeting his son, it turned out that the child of one of his cousins went to the same school as Elemér’s son, and they had a good relationship. The kid promised that he would try to talk with Elemér’s son about his father, and would propose that he see his father at their place after school one day.

A relative was entrusted with the task of making sure that Elemér would not visit his ex-partner, and they agreed that everyone would try to prevent any verbal or physical conflict between them, should they meet accidentally.

All relatives signed the agreement, and we informed the teacher about the output of the conference by telephone.

We returned to Budapest, and were eager to see whether he would return on time, as agreed.

He did. He was given somewhat less money than agreed, but his relatives provided him with food and also contributed to his monthly shelter fee. We learned that he could not meet his son, as the boy went to school in Barcs and only spent the weekend at home, which did not give the family enough time to convince him to meet his father. Elemér accidentally met his ex-partner, but the encounter did not end up in a clash.

He visited all his relatives, and got to know all of them. He was assured that he had supporters, people who liked him, who he could rely on, who cared about him. Yet, he came to the conclusion that he would be better off in Budapest than at home. He therefore decided to stay in the capital and find a decent job that pays well enough to cover his travel to the village once in while.

Later I talked to Anna over the phone, and she told me that since the week that Elemér spent with his family she had not been afraid of him, and could trust him again.

Dr. Sarolta Horváth
facilitator, probation officer

Source: 'Resolution of conflicts involving prisoners' - Handbook on the applicability of mediation and restorative justice in prisons (MEREPS)

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