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The application of the restorative approach in the reintegration of ex-prisoners

Uploaded at: 2011. 02. 07.


In the following we wish to demonstrate the potential role of restorative meetings in reintegration through the case of an ex-prisoner.

As the Hungarian representative of restorative practices developed by the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), The Community Service Hungary Foundation has participated in the reintegration efforts in prisons several times through training probation officers and providing support to newly-released prisoners. I came into contact with Balassagyarmat prison and its governor when I participated as a guest at a group session of the Hungarian Crime Prevention and Prison Mission Foundation (the Sycamore Tree Programme, or in Hungarian, the so-called ‘Zaccheus Programme’). The governor and I started to think about how restorative practices could be applied to prisoners who had spent a long time in prison before their release.

The Community Service Hungary Foundation (KÖSZ Foundation) offers training programmes on this restorative model; more information on conferencing is available at their website.

A lucky coincidence

The start of our cooperation and the selection of the ex-prisoner to be involved in the programme were affected by the following factors. First, in the framework of the Zaccheus programme, prisoners worked, in groups, on issues related to their crimes and explored ways to repair the relationships they damaged. Among other things, it resulted in a change in their attitudes: Some of the participants became aware of their responsibility for what they had done, which motivated them to make it right in one way or another and earn the forgiveness of their victims.

Based on the feedback provided by the participants, the programme established a bottom-up approach by making the prisoners want to reintegrate and repair the damage they had done.

Second, even though community work in the facility was available for the prisoners as a symbolic way of compensation, there was still a lot to do in terms of the opportunities to make contact with the victims, and to get rid of their stigma by making direct reparation.

Third, the management of the facility found it important to support processes that help prisoners regain control over their lives in a way that allows them to avoid reoffending and that is acceptable for the family or community they damaged.

When we met, the prison governor suggested that we should work with a particular prisoner who demonstrated spectacular improvement and who, unlike most of the other long-term prisoners, had been able to maintain contact with his family members, who wrote him letters and visited him on a regular basis.

Both the governor and the department manager found it important to reward the prisoner, who had been convicted for murder, for his improvement by supporting him, and they were willing to identify the conditions and factors that might jeopardise his reintegration after his release. They believed that it would be beneficial for both the prisoner and his family to have an opportunity before his release to plan their future together, to discuss the upcoming issues, or simply experience what it feels like being together again, which might increase the prisoner’s chance of successfully re-integrating after spending 12–13 years in prison.

Based on the collected information, it seemed obvious that, even though the intervention would require more time, effort and human resources than any previous programme, due to the nature of the crime it might effectively include restitution and the reparation of relationships, as well as identifying needs and resources. The cooperative attitude of the prison management and the favourable conditions (including my positive experience with family group conferencing) encouraged me to launch the pilot programme and try out a combination of restorative practices and activities facilitating re-integration. A wide range of interventions were apparently needed in the given case to align probation work done in the prison, follow-up, family support, victim support, and community service.


I first met János, who had been convicted for murder, at the above-mentioned group session, where he articulated his ideas and worries regarding his release, and asked for help to repair his relationship with his family and to earn the forgiveness of those he hurt.

His request was welcomed by the prison governor, who was willing to release him for a couple of days in half a year to allow him to strengthen his family ties, to prepare for his final release due in 1–1.5 years, and to assess the family’s feelings towards him. The temporary release was planned to take place around Christmas, but the governor wanted to make sure first that the short leave would not pose a risk to anybody.

With a view to preparing the intervention, we discussed the details of the cooperation with the prison governor, the department manager and the leader of the Zaccheus programme. We agreed that the activities involved would be based on the restorative approach, and therefore decisions would be made and the nature and frequency of interventions would be determined with the needs and resources of the people concerned in mind.

We basically sought to find answers to the following questions: Is the family prepared to re-establish ties with the offender? If not, is there a place for him to go after his release? If they are, what is required to allow the family and the offender to be together during the temporary release and after the final release? How will they deal with the potential conflicts with other family members and the local community during and after the temporary release? How will the local community receive the offender? What can the offender do to repair the harm he has done? What is required to reduce the risk of re-offending and to support the released offender in becoming a valuable member of the community?

In order to answer these questions we decided to implement a three-phase intervention programme:
The first phase included a meeting at the prison and was aimed at making preparations for the temporary release by strengthening the relationship between the offender and his family.
In the second phase a family group conference was to take place shortly before the release of the offender into his neighbourhood with the involvement of the family and members of the community.
The third phase includes a restorative conference aimed at mitigating the damage caused by the crime and making reparation in the affected community, in accordance with the preparedness and feelings of the victims. The present writing is concerned with the first and the second phases, with the third one being in progress.

Strengthening family ties

Exploring the offender’s motivation

We discussed the underlying factors behind the request János had made at the group session in the framework of a personal interview. The meeting took place in a relaxed environment, in a room dedicated to this purpose. A young man came in with a smile on his face and his hair fixed in a ponytail. He was polite, and gave the impression of a well-mannered, self-confident and self-assured person. János, 35 at the time, had been sentenced to over 10 years’ imprisonment for murder. He was reluctant to talk about his past and the crime he committed, trying to avoid this line of conversation by focusing on his current situation and plans for the future.

He told me that his elderly parents had been unable to control him when he was a child, so he had dropped out of school, run away from home, and done bad things, of which he was ashamed and remorseful. Living a reckless life, he had not cared much about either his family relations or his children, born from different mothers. He said that his violent behaviour had caused him much trouble both before he was convicted and during the first years of his prison time, but the loyalty of his partner and their two children, as well the Christian values he learned during his prison time, changed him completely and gave purpose to his life. Several times during our conversation he mentioned that he was willing to strengthen his family relationships, to take care of his family, and repair the damage he had caused to other people. Although he had been given various benefits and opportunities due to his good behaviour, which made his prison days easier, he was increasingly worried about his release and return to the outside world. He told me that his biggest concern was that his partner rarely sent him letters and wrote only about general things, preventing him from getting to know the life of his family and strengthening their relationship. He said that he was willing to prepare to be a good father before leaving prison, but it obviously required good communication with his family. He was happy to hear that he could meet and talk to his family and could even leave the prison for a short period. He readily provided all information necessary for making contact with the woman and the children, and was also prepared to write a letter to his partner to let her know that he had asked for help in repairing their relationship.

The prison governor approved a meeting to be held following the next visit of the family, providing that they were willing to participate. Other family members who might help to prepare János for his release were also allowed to take part.

Preparation of the family

Following a phone conversation, I visited János’ partner and family at the partner’s parents’ home in August 2009. The house was located on the outskirts of a beautiful town with a population of 4,000, located in the outskirts. The dirt road leading up to the house, as well as other buildings in the street, seemed neglected. Mária, János’ partner welcomed us. She was a bit embarrassed and apologised for the condition of the house. Struggling with tears, the young, fragile woman ushered me in and introduced me to her family. Her parents and children were present, and later another relative with a small child also appeared. The house was remarkably clean and tidy, and the atmosphere was surprisingly friendly, considering the circumstances. During our conversation it turned out that the family relied on seasonal work to cover the needs of the 12-year-old boy and the 14-year-old girl, and to offset the consequences of their father’s crime and absence. However, this task often required them to go beyond their limits, which made most of the locals respect and willing to help them. In response to János’ concern about their rare correspondence, Mária said that she had no energy left for writing letters after her daily struggles. She told me that her being alone made her sad and angry, and also told me about her love towards János. The conversation became emotional when the children talked about how their father’s behaviour and absence affected them. János’ son was struggling with tears while talking about how he had been stigmatised as a small child for what his father had done, and how hard it was for him not to respond to it with violence. As, despite all efforts, he was sometimes unable to control himself, the family had to turn to a psychologist. By contrast, the girl responded to the situation by becoming ambitious, and finished her elementary studies with excellent grades. The words of Mária’s mother provide a concise summary of how the family related to János: “…I condemn what he did, he committed a crime. But János is a kind man, and we would be happy to have him with us again, as long as his intentions are good. The children need him, and so does Mária, who still loves him.” They were happy to hear about the meeting, which all five of them were willing to attend.

After informing János and the prison officers, we scheduled the meeting and I presented its structure. Then I informed the family about the details.

Restorative meeting with the involvement of the family

The meeting, which was aimed at preparing János for his temporary release, took place in the prison in September. The family members, who all showed up as promised, were transported to the facility by a relative. The prison governor, the department manager, and the probation officer who led the group sessions mentioned were also present.

Being the first time for a long while that all six members of the family were together, the meeting was very emotional in the beginning. First the governor presented his ideas about the process, then I started to facilitate between the parties. The conversation went on focusing on restorative questions the attendants were already familiar with (What happened? How did it affect people? What is required? What should be done?). Every participant was allowed to talk about what they thought about the issues. The participants shared their major achievements and difficulties in recent years related to what János had done. The whole family was moved by the governor’s report on János’ behavioural change. Maria listened to the man with tears in her eyes and full of gratitude. Then brainstorming took place as to how the family ties could be strengthened, how communication could be enhanced, and how it could be ensured that they spend the holiday happily together. The fact that the participants knew the meeting structure and had been prepared for the questions contributed to the establishment of an open atmosphere, in which the participants were able to freely come up with their ideas.

However, during the discussion of expectations and specific plans, János brought up a topic the family had never before talked about in the presence of the children and strangers. He said that while he was at home, he would like to treat all the four kids as his children. The statement was like a bomb going off in the room, tearing into pieces the idyllic atmosphere of the meeting. The children, who knew about only one half-sibling, were shocked, and others in the room also gave strong emotional responses, from becoming speechless to angrily starting to blame each other.

The crisis was solved by a restorative technique: all participants, one after the other, were encouraged to speak about how they felt about the new development, which gave them an opportunity to freely express their emotions. The honest reaction and emotional feedback of the participants helped Maria to express her, so far hidden, disappointment, anger and shame about what János had done.

Her emotional outburst clearly revealed the sources of conflicts that had been buried deep so far. Although it was a very difficult situation for all participants, the fact that they finally revealed their secret resulted in a positive turn in the conversation, making communication more open. The real needs and expectations finally surfaced with respect to their common future, allowing the family to deal with and prioritise the issues effectively. The presence of the children, comments from the grandparents, and the thoughts of the department manager helped János understand the impacts of his announcement and behaviour, and highlighted the tasks he should accomplish in order to live happily with his family again as a responsible father.

Among other things, János had to learn how to be a parent. They agreed that, for a time, János would only observe the interactions between the children and other family members, and only later, having discussed what he had seen as an observer and always consulting with his partner, would he actively deal with the kids. It was a request from the children that really moved János. He said that he had no idea that his behaviour had such a great impact, even on his smallest son. The children indicated that they would like to show up with him on the streets of the city “so that everyone can see that we have a father, who is kind, strong and handsome, and who we can introduce to our friends.”

In the final phase of the two-hour meeting, the participants specified the precise tasks to be done in order to restore their relationship, which they undertook to accomplish by December, and those planned for János’ 5-day temporary release. In short, the family’s primary objective for the short leave was to restore the relationships between the family and János, and to spend Christmas happily together.

The meeting closed in a relaxed and peaceful mood. To the family’s pleasure, they were allowed to spend another hour together without the presence of strangers.

The way the tension that developed during the meeting was handled, as well as the family’s responsible and active attitude regarding the most critical issues, were considered promising by the governor, who approved János’ Christmas leave. The governor said that he had never had an easier decision, because he had never had a chance to get an insight into how the concerned family operated and get to know their strengths. Seeing the cohesion of János’ family, and being assured that they were able to provide both control and support to János, the governor was convinced that he had made the right decision.

According to the department manager, János continued to behave well until his leave. He participated in outside events where he sang religious songs, and he was looking forward to his temporary release, but remained dissatisfied with the number of letters coming from home. Apparently, during his long imprisonment, correspondence had become very important to him, and he had thought that following the meeting he would receive more words from home, at least from the kids. He was disappointed, and had difficulty accepting that the number of letters did not grow. The problem generated tension between him and Mária during their phone conversations.

After 12 years, János spent Christmas with his family again. Their schedule was pretty busy as many relatives were willing to visit the family. According to the family members and himself as well, János met all his undertakings. Minor conflicts emerged during his stay at home, but János and his partner regarded these incidents as a chance to improve their relationship. By their accounts, they often preferred discussing conflicts to sleeping, which János was especially proud of, because, by his account, previously he used to resolve conflicts with aggression. János said that they both had changed a lot, especially him, because he had always thought that his partner was a good person, but now he was also able to show that he cared for her and to accept his wife’s love.

Seeing how his partner and mother-in-law dealt with the children made him respect them, and he had also become proud of his children. Having met all his obligations related to strengthening family ties, János returned to the prison on time. The meeting’s purpose was fulfilled: the family accepted János, they were able to cope with the problems that arose, and János met the family members’ expectations.

Family group conferencing

Preparation of the meeting that took place before János’ release

The family meeting uncovered a series of issues that made János and his family feel disadvantaged and vulnerable. It seemed necessary to develop a community strategy in order to restore János’ and his family’s status and value in the community. The restorative team decided to hold a family group conference before János’ release.

The method is based on the active participation of family members at the meetings, which makes them feel they are really involved in the process. For this reason, family members play a bigger role in all stages of the process, from preparation to inviting the participants, and to the management of the meeting.

Together with János and the prison governor, we identified the people who could potentially help to answer the questions previously defined, and support János’s reintegration to the community through various activities. Following a series of telephone discussions, we determined the issues, the potential and required participants, and the venue and the time of the event. Mária contacted their relatives and other potential supporters, while I approached professionals and representatives of the community. As the procedure was new to the participants, all people involved were provided with a manual, and I, together with two professionals from the KÖSZ Foundation, informed everyone of the purpose and structure of the conference and about the roles of the participants by phone or in person.

Our discussions with the family members and key members of the community revealed that the conference should also aim to make the community more sensitive to the issue, and that it might help shape the local residents’ attitude, strengthen solidarity, and might also facilitate the interventions and the availability of resources required for a successful reintegration. The meeting, which was also attended by a few members of the community, made János think that his plans for his postrelease period, which did not seemed realistic at the time, could be achieved easily and rapidly. The main issues brought up and discussed at the preparatory meeting were related to how János could get a job and pay back his debts. János, who did not stand a good chance of getting a decent job, planned to make a living and pay back his debts, the amount of which he did not know, through cash in hand work and trading. For this reason the list of those to be invited also included people who could provide information and guidance in this regard.

All people contacted were willing to participate, hoping that János’ return would not result in prejudices, worries and fear spreading around the town.

The conference

The conference took place in a church hall on a Friday afternoon in June. Mária, her sister-in law and the chaplain’s wife took care of the catering, together with János, who had been granted a brief leave again for the conference.

The overall purpose of the conference was known to all participants: to identify the resources János could rely on after his release in his efforts to become a law-abiding citizen, and to work out a plan for János’ reintegration into his family and to the immediate and broader community, and for the reparation of the damage caused by his crime.

The group of participants consisted of three sub-groups: The family and relatives: 8 people (partner, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, cousins, and their spouses); professionals: 6 people (the current and the future probation officers, the probation officer who was in contact with the victim’s family, the prison department manager, the district notary, the family service officer); supporters: 3 people (the chaplain, his wife and a psychology student).

János undertook to introduce the issues to be discussed at the conference and to present his plans and major concerns. During this information-sharing phase the professionals present provided the family with valuable support regarding the decisions they had to make by demonstrating an open-minded, solution-oriented and supportive attitude. It took an hour for the family to develop a plan of their own, including the definition of specific activities with the related deadlines and responsibilities, grouped into the following areas:

• Accommodation – After János’ release, the family will live in Mária’s parents’ house, but in time they will rent an apartment of their own.
• Work – János will accept the opportunity offered by the notary to work in community service.
• Debt – János will ask the probation officer and local professionals to help him to settle his large debt consisting of the court expenses and the damages done.
• Christian life style – János will continue to live according to the Christian values he learned in prison, and he will attend chapel services, where he will contribute to the well-being of the community by playing music.
• Relationships – Relying on his brother-in-law’s and relatives’ support, he will prove his commitment by avoiding the company of criminals.
• Reparation – János would like to repair the harm he did to his family, the community, and the relatives of the victim. In this regard a further meeting will be required in the near future.

He undertook to engage in activities in order to repair the harm he did to his family and the community as of the day of the conference. The follow-up meeting was scheduled in three months time.

The professionals approved the plan and agreed that, should János breach the conditions of his release, he would have to face serious consequences, including going back to prison and losing his family’s support.

The 4-hour conference ended up in an intimate atmosphere filled with hope. Some participants expressed thanks for the opportunity, and the chaplain said a prayer.

The evaluation questionnaires completed by the family members reflected their complete satisfaction regarding the form and content of the conference, their role and involvement, and the output of the process. The feedback from professionals was also positive. They expressed thanks for the opportunity to participate in the resolution of an apparently difficult case and contribute to the meeting’s success. The officer from the family service, who said that he had been afraid of the offender before the conference, evaluated the meeting with the following words: “when you can be part of a process like this, and see such cooperation and commitment, you feel that you can really make a difference. This day gave me back my belief in my profession.”

Having seen the cohesion of the family, all participants congratulated Mária and János, and looked forward to their reintegration into the community.

During the three days János spent home after the conference he and his family started to work on the tasks defined in the agreement. On the following day they attended a service at the chapel, and on the next working day János visited the family service officer.

The judge approved that János should be released on parole earlier than expected, so he could go home in the month following the conference. Before his release a closing meeting was held, at which János told how he had thought a lot about his return to the outside world in the last year, hoping that, once he was out, all his problems would be resolved easily. However, in the course of the meetings he had realised that no one would provide him and his family with a place to live and money. It disappointed him. He had believed that, seeing the family’s situation, the representatives of the city council would provide financial or housing support to them. Nevertheless, he added that “I was surprised to see how many people were trying to help us”.

He also appreciated the opportunity to talk about the incident from his point of view, which allowed him to clarify the details and prevent conflicts and misunderstandings with his family members and friends about what he had actually done. After the conference, he finally received many letters from his relatives. He appreciated the opportunity to participate, together with his family and city officials, at a useful meeting, since when his partner had been less reluctant to deal with city authorities, and his children had become more prepared to face their problems. János was also happy to see that none of the participants at the conference had prejudices towards him. On the whole, as a result of the process his communication with both his relatives and officials became easier and more open, which he had not expected.

Two months on

The town clerk has happily reported on the phone that János is working for the city. He and his family decided to rent an apartment earlier than expected, but the family service provided them with furniture. The clerk has also reported that all the people concerned are very pleased to see the joint efforts that have already brought about spectacular results. According to the family service officer, the children are fine and happy, and the boy has gone through positive behavioural changes. However, he does not understand why the family had to move and rent a flat so hastily, risking getting into financial troubles. Yet, they are all fine; only Mária shows some signs of worry, so the officer makes efforts to talk to her and support her.

János and Mária are fine and happy together, and are able to handle their minor conflicts. They have been able to integrate into the community and regularly attend congregational events. However, they have difficulty trying to make ends meet, and have to rely on their relatives’ help.

Based on their accounts, they are trying to establish their life and develop their life strategy, with a view to maintaining balance in their family life.


Even though with the follow-up phase ahead of us we have only informal feedback to rely on, based on the satisfaction of the participants we may conclude that this type of meeting is suitable for helping prisoners before their release to deal with the problems related to their reintegration, while also taking all stakeholders’ interests into consideration. As we could see, relatives and members of the community have a lot to offer in order to help the ex-prisoner, including work, financial help, legal or life management consultancy. This case reinforces the idea that the family and members of the community should be involved in the reintegration efforts and the related decisions, because they have the means of turning the problems of ex-prisoners and their families into something solid.

The two meetings will be followed by a third restorative intervention that aims to help the victim’s relatives through the involvement of the family, the probation officer and the community.

Vidia Negrea, facilitator,
Community Service Foundation Hungary

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

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